First, some preliminary words about Mormonism. For those readers here who are not Mormon, my writings about Mormonism may not seem to mean much. But I think it may still be relevant in principle, and therefore insightful, even as a case study of the nature of mysticism and religion.
I am deconstructing and reconstructing my former religion which I consider to be a very recent example of a major religious movement that was begun by an authentic mystic-prophet and which has subsequently and quite rapidly devolved into a fundamentalist and dogmatic authoritarian institution which claims to have the “absolute truth.”
I think this pattern can be found in most of the religions of the world, and illustrates well the cycle of spirituality from an initial outpouring of spirit in direct mystical experience of Divine Reality to a totalitarian legalistic religion with rigid obedience structures largely empty of spirit, as described so well by Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast. He has noted:
The religions start from mysticism. There is no other way to start a religion. But, I compare this to a volcano that gushes forth…and then…the magma flows down the sides of the mountain and cools off. And when it reaches the bottom, it’s just rocks. You’d never guess that there was fire in it. So after a couple of hundred years…what was once alive is dead rock. Doctrine becomes doctrinaire. Morals become moralistic. Ritual becomes ritualistic. What do we do with it? We have to push through this crust and go to the fire that’s within it.-David Steindl-Rast, Link TV, Lunch With Bokara, The Monk and the Rabbi, 2005 episode.
I think this describes Mormonism to a tee, even down to the time period of a couple hundred years. Joseph Smith had his “First Vision” experience in the spring of 1820, which is coming up on its two hundred year anniversary this coming spring in 2020. And so in my writing about Mormonism one of my goals is to push through the hard crust that has formed on the surface of the religion, and go to the fire that’s deep within it, that mystical fire which exploded into Joseph’s consciousness two hundred years ago.
In this article I will discuss the issue of honesty, of truth telling, of visionary reification, of communal belief, of meaning-making, of lying, and related subjects in spirituality and mysticism.
The Gold Plates
Was Joseph Smith intentionally deceiving others by claiming he had “gold plates”? I think the short answer is, yes and no.
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As I’ve written elsewhere, I don’t think he ever actually had authentic gold plates in his physical possession. But in his mystical vision he clearly saw gold plates, and his highest desire was to bring that vision into material reality, to reify that vision, to make his visions real, to bring heaven down to Earth, to “translate” this heavenly vision into concrete forms and eventually words. As above, so below.
As Ann Taves has suggested, Joseph may have had “eyes to see things that could be and the audacity to give what he envisioned tangible form.” And so what might Joseph have done to reify his vision of the gold plates? He may have made an analog of them himself, with his own hands, perhaps made of tin. These tin plates he may have then taken with him to the Hill Cumorah so that the angel of his vision, Moroni, could alchemically transmute them into the real deal, making gold of that base metal. And I think Joseph really believed this happened, that Moroni really made his tin plates into the gold plates of his visions. Thereafter Joseph said that he received the “gold plates” from Moroni.
Some might say that this is all delusion, or it is deception, even self-delusion/deception if he really believed this happened, and if he was not fully forthcoming about the nature and history of the plates he had in his possession. Here is how one of my friends recently put it:
Joseph had PHYSICAL objects he used in his deception… the Urim and Thummim which he showed his mother… and some plates he kept under a pillow (to prevent too close inspection). They were likely made from Tin, and Joseph had to construct them himself… which means… he KNOWINGLY made something… a prop… to intentionally deceive others.
Some have claimed that Joseph thought that he had spiritually transmuted his physical prop… Brother of Jared like… ok… and perhaps he even believed this himself… but that’s not what he CLAIMED happened. Which again leaves us with Joseph intentionally lying to people by SAYING that he found the plates, and they were gold… and NOT saying that he transmuted plates of tin that he created himself.
As even Church historians seem to have now acknowledged, the “Urim and Thummim” was perhaps a name he gave to his seer stones, as he saw them as divinatory tools just like the Urim and Thummim used by the high priest in ancient Israel. He was tying his own divinatory tools back to the spiritual tools used in ancient tradition, perhaps because he saw them similarly, as having a similar function, and the antiquity of the name added an inspiring mystique to their use.
But what about the plates? If he made plates from tin, if he constructed them himself, then didn’t he deceive others by saying he found the plates in a box in the ground on the Hill Cumorah as shown to him by an angel? He did not claim to transmute an analog into the gold plates, so did he intentionally lie about where they came from?
What is Real?
One thing that I think we must keep in mind, as historian D. Michael Quinn has pointed out so well, is that Joseph was steeped in a a folk magic worldview, of hermeticism, of amulets, talismans, of magic, of divination, of mystery, of rituals, of dreams and visions, which was is also highly mystical in nature. What he perceived as the “angel Moroni” might be what we would call today our “higher self,” or our “guardian angel.” It was perhaps a personified form of visionary contemplative consciousness, projected into his awareness by a mind that believed deeply in divine magic, in angels, in angelic visions, in what philosopher Ken Wilber calls “personal deity-forms (yidam, ishtadeva, archangelic patterns, and so forth).” Wilber continues, “in the soul-realm, there is still some sort of subtle subject-object duality; the soul apprehends Being, or communes with God, but there still remains an irreducible boundary between them” (“Of Shadows and Symbols”). Joseph’s belief in these forms may have facilitated his contemplative vision of them, constructing them in his mind’s eye.
In his initial attempts to get the plates Joseph himself once considered that his perceptions of Moroni may have been a kind of dream or/of vision (or in other words, perhaps not “real”), but then he seems to have quickly changed his mind, reasserting his belief that it was real indeed:
…[Moroni] appeared unto me three times in one night and once on the next day and then I immediately went to the place and found where the plates was deposited as the angel of the Lord had commanded me and straightway made three attempts to get them and then being excedingly frightened I supposed it had been a dreem of Vision but when I considred I knew that it was not therefore I cried unto the Lord in the agony of my soul why can I not obtain them…-“History, circa Summer 1832,” p. 4, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed October 3, 2019, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/history-circa-summer-1832/4
But what is “real”? Are our perceptions real? Are all our experiences real? Some philosophers note that we do not perceive the Real at all, but only shadows on the cave wall, reflections of the Real. We do not seem to perceive the world as it is, but as we are. What we see “out there” is a reflection of what is going on “in here,” inside of consciousness. Our experiences may be considered very real and yet not be found in consensus reality, or communal experience of the world.
I love this exchange in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows between Harry and Dumbledore, where it seems that Harry doubts his experiences perhaps in a similar way as Joseph did, wondering if they are “real”:
“Tell me one last thing,” said Harry. “Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?”
“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”
If we consider carefully, all our experiences of the world are of the movements and construction of forms within consciousness, by consciousness. We don’t see reality directly (most of the time), but through the filters of the mind, in the way that our mind has chosen to shape those perceptions. Optical illusions are a clear example of this phenomenon, making us think we are seeing one thing when we are really seeing another.
One neuroscientist, Anil Seth, recently noted in a TED talk that our experience of reality is like a “controlled hallucination.” I discussed this somewhat at length in a paper a couple years ago. What we perceive is not reality-as-it-really-is, but the way our mind conceives of reality, how the mind “translates” or “interprets” what it believes is “out there,” and what is meaningful for us to know. And while the perceptions themselves may not be Ultimate Reality itself, it is a reflection of that reality, and it is “real” insofar as experience is truly experience. All experience is “real” in the sense that it is what we experience, and this experience is telling us something real about ourselves and the world we inhabit, but it may not be what we think it is.
So was Moroni a “real” angel? What does that mean? Does it mean that it was an external apparition of a ghost-like post-mortal person, wholly apart from Joseph and his mind? Or might it have been a construction of a “personal deity-form” in Joseph’s consciousness, in an altered state of visionary consciousness, revealing to him deeper aspects of his own being and his existence in the world? Would this latter description be less “real” than the former just because it was being constructed within consciousness apart from sensory perceptions of the external world? Must something be consensually experienced for it to be considered “real,” even though we know that even this is not reality-as-it-really-is either? Do personal dreams at night, which are only experienced by ourself, have no meaning, or do they communicate a real deeper meaning of what may be going on subconsciously or unconsciously in our mind and life, bringing these deeper shadows of self into the light of consciousness? If something is experienced only in our mind, “why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” Our primary means of experiencing the world is through our mind.
Reifying the Plates
So if Joseph said that he experienced an “angel Moroni,” he may have really experienced that in his perception. It was not merely a delusion, or a dream, or a vision in his mind, but something real in his experience which was communicating to him deeply, and he took it seriously. He followed where his vision took him, where his consciousness led him to go. And these visions led him to the Hill Cumorah to a place where he had a vision that there were gold plates buried that held the story of an ancient civilization.
I believe these visions were shaped and influenced by his history in treasure digging, in his continual pursuit in his youth of buried gold. But I think they were also revealing aspects about himself as well, deeper spiritual features of his consciousness, of human nature, of the human condition, of his true Self. And so the story became wrapped up in Joseph himself, and how he saw his deepest self, even his inner selves. In his reification of the visionary gold plates, he was uncovering buried treasure in himself, even perhaps the treasure of the Self.
Jesus once taught, “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Matthew 13:44). This treasure then is compared to the kingdom of God, which is hidden, and must be uncovered, unveiled, unburied. Truth must spring out of the “ground” of the self, of this “earth” of “Adam” (adamah) (Psalm 85:11). And so I perceive that Joseph eventually found himself digging for this “treasure,” and his reification of the visionary plates was bringing that treasure out of the “ground” of his being and into the light.
Joseph spent several years attempting to “get the plates,” perhaps to reify them, to make them more real, to handle them, to bring the visionary into reality, but he kept failing in this endeavor. Moroni simply wouldn’t give them to him. He was told he was not “ready.” Perhaps Joseph intuited that he was not doing enough, as he wrote later in a revelation about how the translation worked:
Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me.-D&C 9:7
Merely asking Moroni for the plates was perhaps not sufficient. He may have supposed that Moroni would simply give them to him, but then he realized he had to do more to make his visions a reality. He had to participate in this reification, in this alchemical transmutation of the spiritual into the physical, he had to do his part to manifest this mystical form in real life, to make it “on Earth as it is in heaven,” in bringing his contemplation into action, in making the unmanifest manifest. He may have thought he had to help bring it forth himself. And so he may have decided to make a representation of the plates himself, to take to the hill, so Moroni could perform his magic ritual and make the plates the real gold plates, plates he could put his hands on.
Who Made the Plates?
But this is not what Joseph said happened! Yes, and in that he seems to have omitted information. But did he never say he made the plates? I think he actually may have, even within the “translation” of the Book of Mormon itself. Remember, this whole story was wrapped up in Joseph himself, in his nature, in his experience, in his visions, in his life. A lot of biographical information seems to have come through in the “translation” of this hidden treasure, in the “translation” of his deepest Self. In the reification of the mythological characters such as Nephi and Lehi and Mormon, I think he may have been creating mythological personalities which were reflections of his own life. And it is through those visionary voices where Joseph may have “confessed” to making the plates.
In the beginning of the Book of Mormon, Nephi writes about a dream his father Lehi had of the “tree of life.” This parallels a dream that Joseph’s own father had, Joseph Smith Senior, which he related to his children, including Joseph. So as Joseph “translated” the Book of Mormon, he may have subconsciously been putting himself into the voice of Nephi, and these dream recollections from his father in the voice of Lehi. Nephi notes in the first chapter:
And I know that the record which I make is true; and I make it with mine own hand; and I make it according to my knowledge.-1 Nephi 1:3
He is more explicit later in the chapter:
But I shall make an account of my proceedings in my days. Behold, I make an abridgment of the record of my father, upon plates which I have made with mine own hands; wherefore, after I have abridged the record of my father then will I make an account of mine own life.-1 Nephi 1:17
Since Joseph dictated this text, he would have actually voiced those words, “I make it with mine own hand,” “upon plates which I have made with mine own hands.” In other words, Joseph (as Nephi) made the plates with his own hands.
Mormon, the character after which the Book of Mormon is named because he compiled all of the writings, later says the same thing:
And behold, I do make the record on plates which I have made with mine own hands.-3 Nephi 5:11
Again, Joseph (as Mormon) made the plates with his own hands. Joseph was making these plates, writing these words, creating these records, “translating” these visions. But as Joseph saw it, it was perhaps not outward egoic Joseph, his natural self in the world, but rather these deeper mystical and mythological characters in his visions that were doing it. They were writing it, not him. They were creating these records, these plates, these writings, not him. The words were coming through him, but not from him personally, something which I (or not I) recently wrote about.
As the Apostle Paul attested, “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me” (Gal. 2:20). Paul was perhaps familiar with this difficulty of not knowing what “I” was doing what (see also Romans 7:15-20). Was Paul writing, or was Christ writing? Who wrote Paul’s letters if Paul was “crucified” and “no longer living”? Perhaps there was a deeper I, a Christic “I”, that was doing it through the outward manifestation of Paul’s body-mind self which was in a state of “death.”
Therefore, Joseph himself might have thought that he really did not create the plates, the outward Joseph, his external personality, his surface body-mind self, his empirical ego, but rather that they were made by these visionary characters which he perceived to be real “ancient” persons. This seems to be quite like the Tibetan Buddhist tertöns who claimed to have recovered “ancient” terma texts from former Buddhist masters that were said to be sometimes hidden in the ground, and subsequently “translated” them, but who may have actually been reifying deeper aspects of their own mind and the essential and perennial nature of consciousness itself, beyond the ordinary sense of “self.” Were these tertöns delusional too, deceitful, lying in these descriptions of their activity?
From their perspective, they may have been telling the truth, insofar as they knew it, insofar as the mystical visions in their minds were the reality that they knew, what their mind constructed as the reality of their time and place, culture, and tradition. From our perspective today, we may see it as not telling the truth, that they were lying, that they were delusional and deceitful. If they made these texts with their own hands, then we think they did it, not some deeper mystical being in them, and if they did not claim to do it, then we think they are “lying,” are deceiving, or are misleading.
But Joseph may have still felt that the plates needed more confirmation of their reality, they needed communal reification to bring them fully down to Earth, to bring them into the community, and this may have led him to wanting witnesses, others who also attested to their reality. And so he gathered some close associates, even family members, who could confirm that the plates were real, who would also “see” them, who would also believe to such an extent that their minds could see this visionary truth in reality. It wouldn’t be a completely open consensual revelation of the plates, but particular people he selected who he thought would be able to alter their minds such that they too could see the mystical vision of the golden plates that he was reifying into reality. And in this he was largely successful, it seems. The witnesses saw that vision, they saw the plates, they believed, and confirmed that the plates were “real.”
In such communal situations, what is “real” is perhaps what the community thinks is real. It is that shared experience that then brings new realities into being, new understanding, new beliefs, new “truths.” As Ann Taves notes, “delusion” is not something that is communally believed to be true:
Technically, according to the DSM-4 (1994:765), a delusion is “a false belief based on [an] incorrect inference about external reality that is firmly sustained despite what almost everyone else believes and despite what constitutes incontrovertible and obvious proof or evidence to the contrary. The belief is not one ordinarily accepted by other members of the person’s culture or subculture (e.g. it is not an article of religious faith).”-Taves, Ann (2014). “History and the Claims of Revelation: Joseph Smith and the Materialization of the Golden Plates,” Numen, 61, 196.
When everyone believes something to be true, if it is accepted by a person’s culture or subculture, if it becomes something believed by “faith,” then it technically is not a “delusion.” Why would it be? Everyone believes it, at least in that culture.
What is Truth?
In this we begin to get into the nature of truth. What is truth? How can we know what is true? This is a large subject, which I cannot cover here, but I will say some words. We cannot know absolute Truth in an intellectual sense. That Absolute is unthinkable and unutterable. It is beyond language, and beyond concepts in the rational mind. So what we do then is we “translate” it into forms that we can communicate, concepts that we can think, but none of these forms is the Absolute itself. They are relative forms, simplified forms, translated forms, interpretations of the Absolute, relative truths. They point at the Absolute, but are not that Absolute itself.
As I noted earlier, what we think about reality is not the Ultimate Reality itself, but a kind of shadow on the cave wall. It is a symbol, a reference, a means to point us towards the Real, towards the Absolute, towards the true Light. These symbols will almost inevitably be found to be insufficient, fallible, lacking, imperfect, problematic, relative, even untruthful. The truths of today will become the falsehoods of tomorrow, because understanding grows, our ability to point to the Absolute increases, and takes on new symbols, new forms, new pointers, that we think are better at pointing at Ultimate Reality. It’s not that the prior forms were absolutely false, but rather they were the forms that our symbols took at the time, in the place and culture where they were formed. And the symbols that we use today will some day also be deemed insufficient, and will be replaced by better ones. And so it goes, indefinitely.
I think this is related to the Buddhist concept of upaya, also called “expedient” or “skillful” means. Wikipedia notes:
Upaya-kaushalya is a concept emphasizing that practitioners may use their own specific methods or techniques that fit the situation in order to gain enlightenment. The implication is that even if a technique, view, etc., is not ultimately “true” in the highest sense, it may still be an expedient practice to perform or view to hold; i.e., it may bring the practitioner closer to the true realization in a similar way. The exercise of skill to which it refers, the ability to adapt one’s message to the audience, is of enormous importance in the Pali Canon… they are teachings of a lower order as compared to the ultimate truth, and are far removed from reflecting reality, and are a kind of ‘stopgap’ measure (thus, expedient).
All of our specific methods or techniques that we use along the spiritual path may not be “ultimately true,” and yet may still be expedient means to bring us closer to realization. Joseph was perhaps using such a method or technique that was not “ultimately true” to adapt his message to his audience, and help them along the path to ultimate realization. I don’t know if he consciously realized this, or if it was simply a natural result of his mystical activity. He was using the means that he knew to bring his audience out of the darkness and into the Light that he had experienced himself.
What is a Lie?
What is a lie? If it is not telling the ultimate or absolute Truth, then we are all guilty. All of us. Because that Truth is ineffable, it is unspeakable, we cannot even think it in the rational mind. All we know and speak is relative truths at best, which is what we consider good, and right, and expedient for the circumstances as they are in the present moment. That is all we can do. It is impossible to speak the absolute Truth, and the assertion that we can is an illusion. Even the prophet Isaiah seems to have recognized this fundamental limitation of words, and lamented his inability to communicate the Truth about the Ultimate. After seeing a vision of the Lord:
And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”-Isaiah 6:5
Nothing that Isaiah said about the Lord was ultimately true, and so his lips were “unclean.” He was, in a sense, lying. He was unable to articulate that highest of Truths in language.
There are many kinds of lies, perhaps more than we realize, and not all are the horrible thing we often think they are. See the Wikipedia entry here. There are lies that are intentionally deceitful in order to perpetrate fraud, to mislead, to bring people under one’s control, to subjugate them, to steal their money, to gain fame, to obfuscate, to cover-up, to destroy, etc. And then there are other lies that are “honest,” meaning unintentionally inaccurate. These may not be considered a lie at all since there was no intention to deceive. There are lies-to-children, in which technical or complex situations are simplified in order to teach something to children or laypeople, but can create misconceptions. There is also what is called the “noble lie,” which is perhaps similar to upaya as was previously mentioned, which is a strategic untruth. It may offer a benefit to society, or to others, and Plato and Socrates justified the use of such lies, as in the case of myths and religions. Plato may have even considered religion itself a “noble lie.” And there are white lies, which are considered beneficial in the long term, and for the greater good.
I perceive that if Joseph “lied” it was one of these latter forms, not the former. Many of those people who knew him closely said he was quite sincere and genuine. If he lied, he perhaps did so unintentionally, honestly, unknowingly, without intent to deceive, but for a greater good, for the good of his community, to bring them into the mystical knowledge he had experienced himself, into that Light. His lips may have been technically “unclean,” but he “saw the Lord of hosts!” the Absolute, and he may have had no choice but to speak and do the best he could with the limited words and symbols he had or could make, speaking relative truths, via expedient means, and not Absolute Truth.
As I wrote in my paper on the alchemy of this translation, I think Joseph eventually discovered that he had reified the vision of the gold plates in the “translation” of the Book of Mormon itself, he had successfully manifested that vision and no longer needed the physical analog of what he may have perceived was the “gold plates.” The visionary gold plates had become the Book of Mormon. Heavenly vision had been brought down to Earth, truth had sprung up from the ground of his being. The magnum opus, or “great work,” was finished.
He found the true “gold” was in his Self, and he wanted all to receive it—their own Self-realization in the Presence of God.