Two readers posted comments recently on my article about Joseph Smith as tertön and the Book of Mormon as terma. They were both similar in questioning the idea that the Book of Mormon may not be a historical text. The comments read, in part:
The more I study it, the more I become convinced that it is *exactly* what it claims to be–even to the point of it being rather mundane. No doubt, the process of translation was miraculous–and there were heavenly beings involved and so forth. But the supernatural elements of the process never lessened the reality of the cold, hard, palpable aspects of the experience.
If Joseph envisioned within his mind the Book of Mormon text are you likewise suggesting that the text is not historical? Furthermore, what doesn’t make sense in this theory is your assumption / rationale behind Joseph’s mystic interpretations – if this is true than the Book of Mormon is nothing more than a fairy tale dreamed up by Joseph through a deep state of meditation and oneness.
I admit that for the longest time I too thought that the Book of Mormon was a historical text, for that is exactly what the LDS Church teaches, and what it taught me growing up. It was what Joseph Smith himself seemed to believe, that he was somehow channeling (or what he called “translating”) the written words of ancient Mesoamericans that lived long ago in the Americas (the predominant Mormon theory of where the history took place). He says he did this from what he called “the gold plates,” metal sheets of a gold alloy with the etchings and engraved writings of these former Pre-Columbian Christian prophets. This he says he did even though it seems, from the accounts of those who witnessed the translation, that he never once even looked at these plates while “translating,” but rather was looking intently at a brown “seer” stone deposited in the bottom of a white stove pipe hat. This alone should give us pause to reconsider the source of the text.
I perceive it is ok to believe in supernatural things as long as those things have a basis in actuality. Genuine supernaturalism is that which refers to things that we do not know, areas of our ignorance, outside our realm of current understanding. Consciousness, for example, may be properly considered a “miracle,” as atheist Sam Harris recently called it, because we do not understand how it arises. But a supernaturalism that refers to things that are contrary to nature, or that break natural law in any way, I think is not good and may be described as superstition. Any and all parts of the Joseph Smith story that seem to break natural law, or what we know about the nature of reality, I perceive, would be well for us to eradicate from our beliefs, to unlearn them, and we should seek to uncover the true reality of them, their true nature.
If God is not a God of Truth and of Natural Law, then I don’t know what God would be. If the truth of the story is something other than what we thought it was, then we should be open to it, surrender ourselves to it, and seek it out, as that may be where we can find God. We can only find God in Truth. And as Mark Twain once wrote, truth is stranger than fiction. In my view, God can never ever be found in error, inaccuracy, delusion, illusion, or misconception.
The more I study the Book of Mormon, the more I’m convinced that the book is not like what we thought it was. It does not seem to me to be the mundane translation of a work written by ancient Mesomerican Christians from 600 B.C. to 421 A.D. that Joseph Smith merely vocalized with his mouth so that scribes could write it down. This would essentially make Joseph into a puppet, an empty passive man, who was unable to reveal insights into the depths of spirituality himself, and so he must have channeled the words of others, even long dead prophets from another time and place. I think Joseph was doing much more than that.
(If you enjoy this writing and content, please consider giving a Gift as a token of your appreciation. If every reader gave just $1, it would give life to me and my family. I am deeply grateful to you for your kindness and generosity. —Bryce)
One of the primary reasons why I think that it is not a historical text is because no one outside of Mormonism has concurred with that analysis. It seems that no scholar, researcher, archaeologist, scientist, explorer, theologian, philosopher, historian, academic, or otherwise who is not a Mormon agrees that the text accurately reflects a source from ancient Pre-Columbian Mesomerica. There are many who will agree that the book contains a wealth of spiritual insights, and may even reflect many similar spiritual sentiments as expressed in ancient times, but I don’t think I’ve come across a single one who believes that it actually came out of ancient Mesoamerica.
This is a great stumbling block for Mormons, but they don’t often see it that way. One simply cannot create one’s own exclusive historical past, separate and apart from the rest of world history. The past doesn’t work that way, but this is what Mormons generally do with the Book of Mormon and the creation of a “Mormon” Mesoamerica. To write history legions of historians from all around the world look very closely at all the evidence from archaeology, known texts, other historical sources, genetics, present-day culture, and many other areas in order to establish what they think happened in the past. This process generally comes to a consensus, at least in the broadest terms of peoples, places, cultures, customs, events, beliefs, languages, migrations, etc. Such historians have studied Mesoamerica for a couple hundred years, most intently within the last half century, and have not found any substantive evidence of connection with the Book of Mormon. In other words, that does not seem to be its source. If we are disciples of Truth, then that should cause us to seek elsewhere instead of driving our shovels deeper in the Earth.
The mode of reception of the text alone should be enough to make us think twice about the true nature of this spiritual text. Joseph did not simply stumble onto something while he was out for a walk in the woods. He did not conduct an archaeological dig on a nearby hill, discovering an ancient artifact that had strange writing on it, and then call in expert scholars and archaeologists and linguists and academics to study that artifact, announce it to a world audience, and have it translated among the brightest minds in the world, publishing in the highest of academic journals and presses, where it may then enter the history books. This is how all ancient historical artifacts are discovered, analyzed, and brought into the light of the world’s knowledge and history, like the Dead Sea Scrolls.
No. It didn’t happen like that. It was much more mystical and visionary in nature. There is very little that was “cold, hard, and palpable” about it.
Joseph was told about the existence of gold plates in a vision of an angel during the night. In fact, he was told all about the people whose story was on these gold plates, in many such visions, over a period of several years. At times he wasn’t sure if it was a “dreem of Vision,” or what he may have considered a fantasy in his imaginative mind at night as many of us experience. But over time he seems to have become convinced that the dreams or visions expressed real realities, even actual historical realities, and that he would be the one to bring them to light.
Eventually, after many years of previous “attempts,” it came to the point where he thought he could retrieve the plates. But the retrieval of the plates was shrouded in secrecy, in the dead of night. No one saw him retrieve them, and there is a substantial amount of mystery, and folk magic, surrounding the circumstances of their retrieval. I perceive that he made an artifact like the “gold plates” he had seen in vision, that he thought through his faith he could alchemically transmute into the “real deal,” or materialize them, shifting them from vision to material reality (see Ann Taves’ theory). The artifact he made may have also acted as a kind of mystical talisman or amulet, to inspire him in his further visioning and channeling.
Once he had this artifact, he always kept it wrapped in a cloth so no one could ever see it directly, but only touch it through the cloth. Even he didn’t look at it while translating, as already noted, but it always stayed wrapped in the cloth. When he offered it to witnesses to see it, it was under the circumstances of mystical visions, spiritual eyes, and supernatural powers that it was seen, arguing that it was not the artifact he had in hand that he was showing them, but the one he saw in vision that he considered the “real deal.” And once the “translation” was finished, the artifact mysteriously vanished, never to be seen by anyone again.
Reasonable people cannot be criticized when they think this story is fantastic, and dismiss the superstitious idea that it comes from an actual historical text from ancient America. It came to light in a way that is nothing at all like any other historical artifact or text that has ever been discovered by humanity. And I think that points us towards a reality and a nature of it that is quite unlike any other historical artifact or text that has ever been discovered. We should not think it is just like the Dead Sea Scrolls, or Popol Vuh, or any other ancient text that we can go and view in a museum and analyze critically. Joseph didn’t frame it that way, and he didn’t offer us that chance. It was a highly spiritual text, and the nature of its generation was also highly spiritual, not historical, archaeological, academic, or commonplace. I think we should leave the book in the place Joseph found it, the mystical and spiritual mind, and not try to force it into a historical, archaeological, geographical or other such context.
But just because it does not seem to be a historical text does not mean that it is without merit, value, or worth, or even that it has no connection to the ancient world. Some seem to think that if the book is wholly without a typical historical source that it is therefore useless, untrue, false, fantasy, or a mere fairy tale dreamed up in Joseph’s mind. That, I think, is far from the truth. It is clear that the book is inspiring to millions of people, and I think that points to a deeper reality of its nature, one that we haven’t yet touched, let alone explored. No one for a moment thinks that C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia are historical, but that doesn’t keep many from being deeply inspired by them, being a kind of metamyth, or myth of myths, of the Christian gospel. J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is anything but historical, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t many deep themes of light and dark, good and evil, to learn from in it. And neither of these authors were considered mystics, or prophets. Or were they?
As noted in my previous article, the earth-terma texts that Tibetan Buddhist tertöns revealed and translated are not considered to be actual texts that were buried in the ground, hidden away for centuries, recovered, and then translated from one language to another, but were the result of a shift in consciousness of these spiritual adepts to a unitive state, a deep state of oneness with being, a mystical nondual experience deep inside their consciousness, an egoless pure spiritual trance, even a Divine state of unity in God consciousness, wherein the adepts were able to divine eternal truths about the nature of life, consciousness, humanity, reality, suffering, death, liberation, and nirvana (a kind of heaven). The Tibetan Book of the Dead, or Bardo Thodol, is a popular text of deeper consciousness, the best-known of Nyingma literature, and is considered a spiritual guide with themes of spiritual death, rebirth, and liberation, and it was revealed by the tertön Karma Lingpa in just this manner. I’m suggesting that the Book of Mormon was revealed and translated in much the same way as these texts were.
Why did the tertöns think that the wisdom was coming from an ancient source, just like Joseph? Rather than it coming from certain ancient people, I think it is perhaps because the wisdom is eternal, a perennial wisdom, or ancient wisdom, which has its source within humanity itself, within human consciousness, within human nature, within truth and the very fabric of reality. It may be found in any time, and in any place, by any person, without any outside influence, because it is a treasure buried deep within the consciousness of the human, underneath all ego or psychological self. Our ego hides it, obscures it, covers it, denies it, even rejects it. When the ego-self is surrendered, and one comes into oneness with reality and the truth of one’s life, without any egoic stories or delusions or illusions, then that reality is a revelation of the deepest Soul of humanity, the True Self, even what we know and call God.
Without ego to obscure perception, this Soul is universal, pure, undefiled, whole, complete, perfect, and perceived equally among all of humanity that experience it. It is exactly the same wherever it is found, and whenever it is experienced, in any person, at any time. When sages or adepts access this pure state of consciousness, they realize that it is the very same consciousness that adepts of the past accessed, and from which all their wisdom has sprung. In a way, they have “united” their minds with the sages of the past, the same state of consciousness which those ancient sages accessed from which they gave their teachings. That wisdom points to the truth of the human condition, its true nature, and how humans can access that same Wisdom, that same Truth, that same God consciousness, that same Purity of mind, because it liberates people from the suffering, delusions, diversions, and distractions of their ego. It is a return to innocence of mind, directly perceiving the purity of one’s Soul and Life in this cosmos.
All the spiritual wisdom of the world has come from this state of pure consciousness, or one near it. I think it is this state of consciousness that Joseph Smith accessed, and from which he divined the Book of Mormon text. I think he used the seer stone in order to change his consciousness, or “change his mind” (see the Greek metanoia), shift his perspective beyond his typical ego mind, or beyond the standard everyday Joseph that friends and family knew. He was going much deeper into his mind, subduing his egoic mind using the scrying exercises of staring at the seer stone until much deeper thoughts emerged. This is similar to the ancient and modern use of many types of meditation objects to engage a deeper state of mind where insights can emerge in consciousness, “aha” moments, epiphanies, revelations, etc.
I don’t think Joseph was seeing an actual ancient text written by ancient Americans in his mind, but rather he was experiencing wisdom in his mind, a stream of wisdom from that pure state of consciousness itself, and he was seeing his mind translate that wisdom into symbols, an undecipherable script, like the tertöns’ dakini script, which his mind then translated into the English text of allegories, stories, parables, characters, metaphors, similes, poetry, etc. Joseph read this text he saw within his mind. Wisdom cannot be written of directly, because it is of an experiential nature, but the mind translates this experience into words, into language, into a host of symbols to try and communicate it to others, even as I perceive Joseph’s mind did, just like the Tibetan tertöns.
The Bible is thought by most critical biblical scholars to not be literal history. Literalism is a surface reading that interprets the written events occurring just as they are written, as if there was someone there, at the scene, taking word-for-word notes like a court stenographer. This is obviously not what happened, even if there are many real historical aspects in it, but it has caused a host of deeply problematic interpretations of the Bible that do not accord with reality or the truth of the world as we know it, or as science has discovered. The Bible was not written as a historical text, but by prophet-mystics to be a spiritual guide to deeper or higher spiritual truth. This text points to real realities that may be experienced in the human being, but are not explicitly written. They cannot be directly addressed, which is the reason that the scriptures are filled with allegories, stories, mythology, and Jesus’ favorite teaching tool, parables. The deeper wisdom is hidden within the parables, within the allegories.
Just because the Bible is not a literal explicit history of past events does not mean that it is worthless, that is doesn’t contain truth, or that it is a kind of fairy tale or fantasy that has little to do with our reality, merely dreamed up by ancient novelists. The prophet-mystics who wrote the text were pointing us towards real experience, but experience that cannot be communicated except through direct experience. All other communication of it must be through the use of symbols.
Similarly, I don’t think the Book of Mormon is a literal history of past events. The only truly historical references in the text I think may be from Joseph Smith’s own personal and family life, and from the books and other sources that he came into contact with in his life, many of these expressed through symbol, story, and parable. The deeper wisdom that he was pointing towards was the same wisdom as the ancients accessed in similar states of unitive consciousness, a perennial or ancient wisdom in Divine consciousness, God consciousness. He testified of this same Wisdom through the use of his own allegories, parables, symbols, characters, stories, and symbolic history.
It is myth, it is mythology, just as the Bible, in the most serious and complex sense of those terms, as per scholars like Joseph Campbell and Mircea Eliade. We learn through story, through narrative, and so the prophet-mystics often use such to convey their deepest intuitions and experiences of life, of this deepest form of consciousness, and how people may reach the most ideal expression of human Life, revealed in a much grander, more universal, more comprehensive and encompassing Reality. It helps bring people to God, to Truth, to Life, to Light, to Love, to Oneness and Nonduality with Nature, and the eternity of the Cosmos, to the True Nature of their fundamental Being, which is God.
I believe Joseph united his consciousness with Divinity, just as many ancient prophets, mystics, sages, monks, nuns, theologians, shamans, and others. He achieved God consciousness, or theosis, the highest realization that humanity may have. And those realizations flowed from this deeper unitive Divine consciousness in Joseph, through Joseph, and onto the paper of his scribes as the text of the Book of Mormon. Joseph was not an empty puppet, a passive prophet, and there is nothing mundane about his revelation of this text. He was a prophet! He was as profoundly a mystic and prophet as any major mystic or prophet of the past. It was his inspiration in Divine consciousness. It was his revelation in union with God. He let go of his egoic consciousness, and dove deep into the abyss of his mind in order to commune with God directly, in union with God consciousness, the God that was in him, that was one with him, and which is one in all of us too (John 17).
As Joseph once exclaimed from the darkness of Liberty Jail:
The things of God are of deep import, and time and experience and careful and ponderous and solemn thoughts can only find them out. Thy Mind, O [Human]! if thou wilt lead a soul unto salvation, must stretch as high as the utmost Heavens, and sink and search into and contemplate the lowest considerations of the darkest abyss, and expand upon the broad considerations of Eternal Expanse. [You] must commune with God! How much more dignified and noble are the thoughts of God, than the vain imaginations of the human heart. None but fools will trifle with the souls of [humans].
I think Joseph was pointing to these deepest qualities of human consciousness itself that reveal the Divine in us, not any kind of academic intellectual book learning as many modern commentators have often thought. In many cases, too much intellectual learning and acquisition of knowledge can stunt our progress to these spiritual depths of consciousness, because they are superstructures that we build up in the ego and are often unable to let go of them to perceive the unadulterated, unfiltered, direct Truth. We become stiff-necked and hard-hearted, thinking we are so learned. Continued eating of the Tree of Knowledge does not lead back to the Tree of Life. When we point out the unlearned youth of farmer Joseph, it should make this clear to us, but we stumble nonetheless.
I’m suggesting that Joseph revealed one of the most exquisite and remarkable spiritual texts of 19th century America, which is paralleled by many other holy texts revealed in the same way. It is similar to the host of terma texts from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, and the Old and New Testaments from the Judeo-Christian tradition, the Quran from Muhammad in Islam, and other modern spiritual texts like The Seth Material of Jane Roberts and A Course in Miracles of Helen Schucman. And many more. It came from the same omnipresent source of Wisdom as those texts did, deep within human consciousness, within all human consciousness, as God may be found in each and every one of us. The texts point us to that same state of consciousness, in at-one-ment with the Divine, with God, the Ultimate, the Absolute, the Highest, the One.
I perceive we should view the Book of Mormon as an extraordinary and powerful outpouring of mystical insight and spiritual revelation from Joseph Smith’s consciousness in Oneness with God in him, which is inspiring to millions of people around the world, and is not derived from a superstitious historical past in Mesoamerica that does not seem to exist except in Mormon conversation.
I believe this reframing of the Book of Mormon will open it up to the wider world of spiritual conversation, and help it regain its stature and significance as one of the world’s great holy texts, another testament of God, even God as manifest in human, to be taken seriously alongside the rest.
It may even help point us towards realizing God in ourselves, which I perceive is actually the goal of them all.