Some might think that sharing these many accounts of experiences that are more or less similar to the First Vision devalue or diminish Joseph’s experience.
I believe they corroborate it and strengthen it.
They show that it is highly unlikely that Joseph was simply making it all up, that it was all just one big fabricated or plagiarized story. These experiences add many additional voices, testimonies and witnesses of the same general feelings, sights, and sounds that Joseph experienced, from all around the world, throughout history, and from many different cultures (Matt. 18:16; 2 Cor. 13:1).
They show that many humans have had these kinds of mystical experiences of the Divine throughout time, even until the present day. Joseph’s experience wasn’t the exception, it was part of a much greater rule, and this rule is common throughout history. These experiences seem to be part of the human condition and human experience, and a common divine experience.
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However, these accounts also show that what Joseph says he experienced and what we traditionally think was perceived and learned in the First Vision, may not be what we thought it was. It may not have taken place just as we see it in the Church films, or maybe not even anything like it.
I think we too often easily mistake Joseph’s experience as the one “right” and “true” experience of God, that it was unique and singular in all the history of the world but especially in modern times, that it conveyed explicit objective reality, that the way God was revealed to Joseph was the one and only correct way that God actually is, that Joseph never struggled to adequately describe his experience or explain it in various contradictory ways, and that God was wholly external to Joseph, an outside apparition(s).
We then often discount the rest of these others’ experiences (if we are aware of them) as imitations, not “full” experiences of God, that they are lacking in some way, are erroneous, inspired by “the devil,” inspired by God but not direct experiences of God, or that they were merely groping for what Joseph actually experienced and taught.
I think that is not good.
These experiences, despite their remarkable similarities, are very wide-ranging in many details, but they often are cited as the most profound experiences of their lives, having life-transforming effects for those that experience them, and that should speak to us. It should touch our hearts. It should indicate that we might not have the First Vision exactly right, after all, and we might need to search more for greater understanding of this event, and how to make sense of it in light of all these other experiences.
It seems that if we are to better understand the First Vision in this greater context of divine mystical experiences, we should study these many accounts, and try to understand how it is that they occurred, what are the similarities, and why do they differ from Joseph’s experience. What do they reveal in their own right? What do they reveal as a whole?
One of the things that I believe they reveal is that we can seek these experiences too, and have first-hand primary personal experiences of God. For if they are truly ineffable, unspeakable, and indescribable, as most of these witnesses willingly attest, then the only way for us to truly know it is to experience it directly and personally, in our own selves, in our own lives, within our own minds and hearts. No second-hand description of them will be absolutely true, including Joseph’s. They are only symbolic words on a page, interpreted experience; they are not experience itself.
We too may have this experience of God in our own lives. We too may have this theophany, see this divine light, this direct vision of God. I believe it will be utterly ineffable for us too, for many reasons.
This is why it is said, as Lao Tzu wrote in the Tao Te Ching:
Those who know, do not speak.
Those who speak, do not know.
Close your mouth…
I perceive that trying to tell the “absolute truth” about God to others usually only gets us into trouble. It is a distraction, a symbol, a misunderstanding, and it almost always becomes an idol. We worship the idol, instead of worshiping God, which is what God was worried might happen since the very beginning. Even our “Gods” can ironically and unfortunately become our idols.
So what do we do?
Sometimes trying to tell the truth is unavoidable, we can’t keep our mouth closed. But I perceive that a better way is to help people come to know it for themselves. Know God yourself, and you will come to know the Truth. No one else will need to tell it to you if you can come to know it yourself, from the Source. The Tao Te Ching continues:
…Shut the gates.
Untangle your knots.
Soften your brilliance.
Become one with the dust.
This is the profound union.
No one can get close to you,
yet they cannot be distant either.
No one can help or harm you.
No one can honor or disgrace you.
Thus you achieve the highest state of humankind.
Another translation reads:
…block off your senses,
blunt your sharpness,
untie your knots,
soften your glare,
settle your dust.
This is the primal identity. Be like the Tao.
It can’t be approached or withdrawn from,
benefited or harmed,
honored or brought into disgrace.
It gives itself up continually. That is why it endures.
As Jesus taught, complete submission seems to be the way to know God, total surrender of our sense of ego, this idea of “I,” this “I” identity is swallowed up in God, and is no more. Jesus showed how it is done when he “made himself nothing,” he “emptied himself” (Philippians 2:7, NIV, NSRV; the Greek word is ἐκένωσεν, ekénōsen, or kenosis). We might translate it as: he “made a void of his self.” He gave his “self” up, continually. “Not my will, but thine be done” (Luke 22:42).
I perceive that this can be done through meditative contemplative practices. There are many other ways, but this seems to be one of the “safest” and preferred, and has been practiced for many thousands of years. Meditation or contemplation is a form of prayer. But this is a “thoughtless” prayer, or at least does not seek out thoughts to speak in the mind. It is silence. Through meditation we can simply observe things as they are, without having to think about them. We are just aware. When thoughts arise, as they inevitably and regularly do, we bring our attention and focus back to our breath or other meditation object. Gradually, thoughts subside, even the thoughts of time and space. Even all the thoughts of “I.” When “I” has gone, then God can come, and fill us with the knowledge of our true identity.
I believe that every person may enter into the Presence of God, the rest of the Lord, if they will. And this can be done in this life, while we’re still living. And I believe that this is a fundamentally life-changing experience, just as it was for Joseph and these many others.
We can come to know God.