While it seems like this blog might generally be a comparison and contrast between Orthodoxy and Mormonism, generally favoring Orthodoxy when the two are contrasted, I have also mentioned that not all my posts about Mormonism are unfavorable. This is a post (perhaps the beginning of a loose series of posts) that explain why a lot of anti-Mormon* arguments don’t seem to work with me.
See, I don’t really “click” with a lot of the disaffected Mormon crowd. I don’t hate Mormonism, I don’t think it’s evil or demonic, and I don’t think it is “so easily dismissed.” I generally approach Mormonism as a religion that I love, but think is for the most part incorrect. So I don’t particularly like reading anti-Mormon* stuff or dwelling on the historical problems of Mormonism, etc. because I just think it’s mostly a waste of my time – I think we can decide whether Mormonism is correct by examining its theology alone, especially contrasting it with other major theologies in the world.
One thing that a lot of critics of Mormonism seem to think is an obvious kill-shot to Mormonism is the fact that Joseph Smith’s ideas, visions, and interpretations shifted over time. Let’s examine one in particular: the differing accounts of the First Vision. Now I’m not going to do a side-by-side analysis of all the different accounts because other people have done this way better than I could, but I want to address the idea that a person’s interpretation of a mystical event can shift over time.
To put it frankly, I think it can. Take this very interesting account written at one of my favorite Thomistic philosophy blogs about Julian of Norwich. Julian was an early English mystic and theologian who was very insightful and brilliant. At the beginning of her theological career, so the post states, she asked for a year of mortification in order to gain insights into pain, sin, and suffering, and she was granted such. During a year of near-fatal illness she experienced a series of visions, and when she recovered from the illness she wrote an account of her visions known as the “Short Text.” However, as stated in the blog post:
After she had written the Short Text, she did not stop thinking about her experiences, but, in fact, continued to think them through all her life, improving her interpretation of them and working out their implications more thoroughly. As she did so, she began to revise her Short Text, eventually giving us a work almost six times as long.
A full understanding of my point probably requires you, the reader, to at least skim through that post, but the point is this. Mystical experiences, as reported by mystics themselves, are intense and overwhelming. And, much like our memories of more mundane things, it is impossible for the human mind to remember every detail about those experiences.
As a student of psychology, the research on memory seems to suggest that when we recall an event that has happened to us, it is not an accurate metaphor to say that we are “reaching back” or “retrieving” an exact memory duplicate of the event. Rather, we sort of reach into our memories with an agenda, and use the memory traces to build a narrative as we recall it. Our memories are easily distorted, changed, re-filed, and subjected to new interpretations and analyses. Retrieving a memory can actually change it. New memories can interfere with old memories.
As such, when Julian of Norwich reflected on her visions, her interpretation and analysis of those visions shifted and changed, especially when she approached her memories with new or deeper questions. Details that seemed less important suddenly took on new importance, and vice-versa.
Similarly, Joseph would “tweak” his own revelations and stories frequently over time. But for him, this process was just an extension of the original revelatory process. It could have been that Joseph’s cognitive power simply overloaded when he first experienced these things, and a full appreciation of his revelations only came through a long period of checking and rechecking them.
Therefore, in my opinion, the fact that through Joseph Smith’s life he seemed to tell the story of his First Vision differently, even with wildly different details and shifting purposes, is not immediately a sign that he was just making it up as he went along, or that he was a liar and charlatan. Maybe he was, but can we immediately conclude that just because he gave different accounts of his vision? It is not fair to expect anyone who has such an intense experience to be able to keep all the facts straight, especially if they are constantly challenging, changing, or re-interpreting their worldviews (as Smith frequently did to his own ideas). In other words, I wouldn’t expect a person who had a real, authentic vision to be able to keep a steady narrative and interpretation of it through their whole lives.
So I think that approaching the First Vision by challenging the differing accounts is the wrong approach. Some more interesting questions, to me, are: Can there be two Gods? Was it necessary to call a prophet to course-correct Christianity in the early 19th Century? Do the differing accounts of the First Vision paint a coherent picture that justifies its own existence (in other words, does the information we learn from the First Vision and subsequent revelations really seem worth all the trouble of God and Jesus coming down to give it)? Does the modern LDS church put too much weight on the First Vision by teaching its missionaries to memorize it and use it as emotional and intellectual leverage (i.e. if you feel good when I tell this account slowly and dramatically, then this vision really happened, therefore Joseph Smith is a prophet and the LDS church is true and you should get baptized, preferably before I get transferred out of this area).
Part of my approach to this subject comes from having had my own experiences that I felt were in a sense “mystical,” and it is certainly the case that my interpretation of them has changed considerably over the years.
*I hate the term “anti-Mormon” for the same reasons that almost everyone else does, too. But here I’m using it in the broader sense of something that is opposed to Mormonism – nothing more.