I suggest that Joseph Smith's earliest direct encounters with God happened in mystical experience, or what is also known as altered states of consciousness.
David Bentley Hart (b. 1965) is described as "an American polymath whose work encompasses a wide range of subjects and genres. A prolific essayist, he has written on topics as diverse as art, literature, religion, philosophy, film, baseball, and politics. He is also a writer of fiction." Religiously speaking, he is a "convert from high-church Anglicanism [...]
I've been reading about the post-resurrection appearances of Christ, and the description of the earliest written records and development of the early Christian resurrection narrative is quite intriguing. It seems to show that there was a significant change of the meaning of resurrection beginning in the very first few decades of Christianity, between the time of Paul and when the gospels were written.
Mormonism traces back its history in modern times to its founding prophet, Joseph Smith Jr., and his "First Vision." Joseph was a young farmer boy who lived in western New York, born in the early nineteenth century. This was the time of what's known as the Second Great Awakening, and where Joseph lived is known as the "burned-over district." It was a time of much Protestant religious excitement, revivals, reforms, and the formation of new religious movements and denominations (which eventually included Mormonism). A Restoration Movement grew in popularity in the area, which involved ideas of "restoring" a pure, primitive, uncorrupted, and original form of Christian faith.
The unitive mystical experience can be compared to falling into a black hole. When compared this way, it doesn't sound like a nice experience. Likewise, for many mystics throughout history, their divine experiences weren't always a merry venture, sometimes encountering hellish realms along the way (see, for example, St. Teresa of Ávila, or St. John of the Cross's Dark Night of the Soul).
A friend recently shared a video clip with me from an event on June 23, 2018, which was a public conversation and debate between psychologist and professor Jordan Peterson and philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris, moderated by biologist Bret Weinstein. It's an interesting discussion between a theist (Peterson) and an atheist (Harris) on the nature of God, which I think begins to get at the heart of the issue from both sides.
The word mystical is derived from the Greek mystikos meaning "secret," and muo meaning "concealed." Why all the mystery? Why is it concealed? Why do people keep it a secret? This seems like shady business. But is it?
Many mystical paths in the world's spiritual traditions claim to lead one to a conscious merging, union, and a direct identification with Deity, the Sacred, Reality, the Universe, the Transcendent, with a first-hand experience of being God.
The Methodist biblical scholar, Margaret Barker, wrote a book published in 1996 titled The Risen Lord in which she proposed that "the original understanding of resurrection may in fact be Jesus’ mystical experience at his baptism, when he was raised up and transformed into the divine Son."
This morning I listened to a podcast conversation between neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris and bestselling journalist and author Michael Pollan about Pollan's new book How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence.