Saturday, August 18, 2012

My Vision of the First Vision

I just read Mormon Heretic's Wheat and Tares post about Joseph Smith's First Vision accounts.

I think it's important to examine a couple of points in the 1838 vision:
Joseph Smith History 15  ...immediately I was seized upon by some power which entirely overcame me, and had such an astonishing influence over me as to bind my tongue so that I could not speak. Thick darkness gathered around me, and it seemed to me for a time as if I were doomed to sudden destruction.
When I was on my mission, we napped often in the middle of the day (It was the mission policy in Chile Santiago mission under Elder Bradford). After a while, i kept having lucid dreams -- dreams where my conscious mind was aware of dreaming, and still within the dream state. I experienced in this state a type of sleep paralysis, which often was quite uncomfortable, and if the dream was very nightmarish, I was unable to speak or move and it was terrifying.

Note in Joseph's case, that he went into a state where his tongue was bound, he felt doomed, oppressive darkness fell about him, and he was unable to respond. This is extremely similar to the feelings I had in lucid dreams.

This is not to take away from the reality of the first vision. I believe, and Section 88 of the doctrine and covenants gives me support in this, that natural processes are always involved in all things in this world: even and especially visions and miracles. A recent prophet said that visions often happen in the boundary between sleeping and awaking: viz., "Lucid Dreams".

Then next step, Joseph sees a pillar of light. Very very important language: this is extremely common in mystical literature. Mystics have often talked about being enveloped with light; near death experiences talk of the 'tunnel of light', and eastern mysticism speaks of the 'third eye' -- a vision of light centered between the eyes.

My interpretation: Joseph had a mystical experience within a lucid dream.

Now let's look at the end of this experience: 
Joseph Smith History 20   When I came to myself again, I found myself lying on my back, looking up into heaven. When the light had departed, I had no strength; but soon recovering in some degree, I went home.
"When I came to myself again, I found myself lying on my back". Uhhh.... is there any doubt in reading this that "he was not himself" when this all was occurring? It was a "vision" -- he was NOT AWAKE, in the sense of normal consciousness; but he was AWARE during the dream: a perfect description of "Lucid Dream".

Speaking from my own experience, as I was experimenting with living spiritually about 15 years ago, I had a powerful lucid dream, including the pillar of light, completely being enveloped in light, and having a complete release of all worldly guilt, thought, and frustration. It was beyond my imagination, and to this day I cannot think of it but be swept up in the feeling I had at that moment. I cannot say I saw a person, two people, or anything at all -- it would be impossible to explain what I felt and saw, but it was as real to me then, and my memory of it as vivid as I'm typing. But I couldn't possible explain to anyone, and if I did, it might sound like one person, two people, all sorts of variation of my account from time to time -- because it's just the nature of a spiritual/mystical experience -- it defies explanation.

This was 15 years ago (actually, I'm not sure of the date), and while I can say my memory of it is vivid, it's not like even immediately after the fact I could recall all the details -- dreams fade in conscious memory quite quickly. Joseph's first vision was in his 15th year -- 1820, roughly. Or, according to the 1832 statement, it might have been in his 'sixteenth' year -- 1821 -- he doesn't know for sure (same as me). His first account of the vision was twelve years later when he is nearly double in age: while a lucid dream of such intensity would definitely remain in memory, it would be 'memory', which has an interesting property to it: memory needs to be refreshed if it is to stay current, so what happens, neurologically, is that the memory synapses fire, we remember, and then the memories are re-implanted in the neural network. When the memory gets re-implanted, often other aspects of the memory become implanted with it, perhaps interpretation and additional 'details' that weren't part of the original memory. The memory strengthens, and potentially morphs, each time it is told.

A mystical experience, as I noted, does not lend itself to words. So, in 1832, when Joseph is writing down the story, he puts down his verbal interpretation of a non-verbal event. His initial statements included the pillar of light and he 'saw the lord', who told him his sins were forgiven. This corresponds to a mystical vision perfectly. Let's look, as well, at another thing Joseph Smith wrote in December 1832:
(D&C 88:47-50) ...any man who hath seen any or the least of these [referring to the movements of the heavens] hath seen God moving in his majesty and power.
I say unto you, he hath seen him; nevertheless, he who came unto his own was not comprehended.
The light shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehendeth it not; nevertheless, the day shall come when you shall comprehend even God, being quickened in him and by him.
Then shall ye know that ye have seen me, that I am, and that I am the true light that is in you, and that you are in me; otherwise ye could not abound.
Joseph is describing the effect of observing the power of god as reflected in nature, then speaks of a very interesting concept: that to see this power, being aware of the "Light" within them, and when you are 'filled with light", then you have seen god: there is NOTHING here about seeing bodies. Then shall ye know that ye have seen me -- past tense -- once you come to realization of being 'quickened'. Joseph would have used the term 'quickened' to refer what happened to him in the first vision, because he said later about moses' vision:
Moses 1:11 - But now mine own eyes have beheld God; but not my natural, but my spiritual eyes, for my natural eyes could not have beheld; for I should have withered and died in his presence; but his glory was upon me; and I beheld his face, for I was transfigured before him.
The use of the past perfect tense "have seen" once we become quickened in D&C 88 indicates that event of seeing god was already completed before we have the point in time experience of being 'quickened'. sum up, I believe the events show the first vision to be characterized by the following:
  1. It was a lucid dream, not a physical event.
  2. In memory of the lucid dream, Joseph was trying to put into words that which defies language, hence verbal descriptions (a) do not accurately portray a lucid dream, and (b) morph over time.
  3. As time goes on, the added details of the dream progressively serve the agenda of establishing the validity of the 'one true church'. This does not have to be a conscious, deceptive process, but rather, a natural cognitive feature of the neurology of memory.
  4. Given the nature of memories of remote, past emotional events, relying upon the first vision account to create a doctrinal pronouncement of the nature of godhead is imprudent at best.
In short, it's a vision, a lucid dream, and should not be a source of doctrine, either of the "one true church" polemic, nor of the nature of Godhead. I would add that there is no intential deception in this.

No comments:

Post a Comment