Knowing

Mormonism began (and one’s Mormonism begins) with an awareness, a connection, an interaction of sorts, with deity.  Joseph Smith is (perhaps too) often set forth as an exemplar for knowing God.  Too simple an approach to his theophany, too easy a recitation of it, is hazardous to the developing understanding.  How many Sunday School and missionary lessons on modern revelation commence with a retelling of the First Vision followed up by that debasing disclaimer, “now, obviously, this isn’t how it happens for most of us, ha ha ha…”?  Is that not irony?  The defining moment of democratically available human/divine communication is actually an unattainable feat, a non-replicable occurrence, a barrier to knowing the deity oneself!  Potentially more fruitful an approach would consider what circumstances created Joseph’s experience.  He insisted throughout his life that his spiritual accomplishments were accessible to the willing.  This first point will evolve a discussion on the implications of just such a premise.

So, how does one know the deity?  A little explication first: I say deity because the nature of God in Mormonism is a topic pregnant with possibility.  We see “Heavenly Parents” in official print.  We know there is a Heavenly Mother.  I know it.  I love it.  And Her.  I will largely use the term God in this essay for no reason other than ease in writing; of course, She’s there too and involved.  Now, how does one know “God”?  It was stated above that Joseph’s First Vision is commonly bandied about in such a manner as to not be of any actual help.  Bearing in mind the intrinsic role of his theophany as the premise of Mormonism, it must be considered but carefully.  So, some reflections on knowing in light of the First Vision.

Agency

Agency is paramount to knowing.  Agency has been defined as the opportunity to choose; I define it here as the power to choose and suggest it as the beginning of knowledge.  Knowledge is cultivated belief, belief is borne of choice, and choice reflects primal desire; these are all phases of a single process.  Knowledge is the mature form of desire incessantly tended.  The Book of Mormon reinforces this.  In Alma 32 we are reminded that the primal element of a perfect knowledge is “…no more than desire…”[1]  Think back on the three-fold criteria advocated by Moroni in his parting promise: “…a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ…”[2]; all three of these requirements are manifestations of desire, are functions of agency.  Boiled down, Moroni teaches that knowing a truth is the result of triply wanting it!

An important and oft-overlooked implication of agency is the primacy it grants subjectivity.  Mormonism requires that everyone know for themselves which implies that everyone has a unique mode of knowing.  The Book of Mormon demonstrates the importance of subjective or individual knowing by its propensity to identify knowing with seeing.  Now, one might object that seeing a thing disqualifies it as a mode of subjective or individual knowing on the grounds that a thing can be seen by a group and is therefore objective.  One must understand that in such a case the group seeing a thing does not constitute objective knowing, merely simultaneous subjective knowing.  Not the group seeing but the group all agreeing on what each saw constitutes objectivity; it signals that a consensus has taken place.  All knowing, however, remains subjective or individual.  Now, back to the Book of Mormon.

Knowledge by sight is a common vehicle for describing epistemological attainment in the Book of Mormon.  There are instances in which it is stated generally, usually-but not always-not in connection with a specific event (1Ne.11:1; Enos1:17-19; Mosiah 27:22; Mormon 8:16; Ether 4:11, 13, 15; Ether 12:19).  In such instances, we encounter the synonymy of sight and knowing; “I had desired to know the things that my father had seen”[3] or “the eyes of the people might be opened to see and know”[4] or, more indirectly, “it shall shine forth out of darkness, and come unto the knowledge of the people”[5].  Knowledge by sight is also negatively affirmed (2Ne27:5; Enos1:8; Mosiah 1:5; 11:29; Alma 13:4; 30:15; 32:21; Hel.16:20; 3Ne.2:1).  Examples include figurative expressions involving blindness or the closing of the eyes[6] or observations on material circumstances like “I say unto you, my sons, were it not for these things… always before our eyes…we should have been like unto our brethren, the Lamanites, who know nothing concerning these things,”[7] or general principles like “faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things; therefore if ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true.”[8]  There are examples of knowledge of physical phenomena gained by physical, or non-spiritual, observation of said phenomena (1Ne.1:3; Alma 18:3; 19:7; Hel.9:15; 15:7; 3Ne.5:17-18; 11:15; 12:1-2; 17:25).  So, the servants of King Lamoni know that Ammon is a great warrior because they saw him fight,[9] “certain men” know that Nephi’s claim that the chief judge is dead is true because they went and saw the chief judge dead,[10] and the multitude know of Christ’s wounds after they went and saw those wounds.[11]  There are examples where the obtaining of spiritual knowledge by spiritual means is described using the language of knowing by seeing (2Ne. 2:4; Jacob 7:12; Alma 5:45-46; 10:10; 36:26; 3Ne.7:15).  That same language is employed in instances where spiritual knowledge follows observation of physical phenomena (1Ne.5:7-8; 2Ne.6:14-15; 9:12-14; Alma10:5; 19:17; 33:22) and knowledge of physical phenomena is obtained by spiritual means (1Ne.14:21-23; 2Ne.4:23; Mosiah27:15, 18).  The process of knowing by sight is demonstrated as a gradual evolution in the eleventh chapters of first and third Nephi, respectively (1Ne.11:9-36; 3Ne.11:3-8).  The pertinence of all these scriptural selections to knowing in Mormonism is twofold.  Firstly, the Book of Mormon is a pure expression of Mormonism, making it an abundantly rich resource for constructing one’s individual Mormonism.  Secondly, after all these examples, there is one that most approximates the First Vision: Ether chapter 3.

The brother of Jared’s theophany most resembles and best clarifies Joseph Smith’s First Vision.  There, unlike all other examples of epistemological attainment in the Book of Mormon where sight precedes knowledge, knowing precedes seeing: “…because of the knowledge of this man he could not be kept from beholding within the veil;”.[12]  The key to understanding how one knows before seeing is illustrated in the same verse: “he saw the finger of Jesus, which, when he saw, he fell with fear; for he knew that it was the finger of the Lord;”.  The brother of Jared did not merely know that it was a finger, he knew that he would see a finger.  His recognition implies that, precedent to this visitation, he conceived of the Lord as human shaped.  Now, the observant reader will note that the brother of Jared explicitly states he did not know: “I knew not that the Lord had flesh and blood.”[13]  So, how then can we surmise that he knew he would see a finger?  Because of his faith, his belief, which the premortal Lord called “exceeding faith”[14]; he believed he would see a human-shaped Lord.  As noted already, faith, when exceeded, becomes knowledge.  The brother of Jared, like the youthful Joseph Smith, willfully believed to the utmost that not only could he see God, but that He would be recognizable.  Joseph Smith’s own singular theophanic attainments are the result of his desire; at some point, he decided that God was the ultimate in familiarity thereby dissolving all barriers between himself and knowing the divine.  He permitted himself the audacity of knowing the divine in terms of himself.

Familiarity

To know is to possess familiarity.  The ultimate in familiarity results from the conferral of one’s self, the contours of one’s subjectivity, upon another; this is anthropomorphism.  The word anthropomorphism consists of two Greek components: ἄνθρωπος and μορφή, person/human and shape, respectively.  Contextually it represents the imputation of a human shape or human qualities (or both) to a variety of other than human entities: flora, fauna, meteorological phenomena, ideas, impersonal forces, deities, etc.  These entities are always animate and often sentient; this is to say that they are alive to some degree.  Anthropomorphism is discernible in most of human culture from antiquity to the present; no doubt it will continue.  Culturally it indicates the human desire for the familiarity of similarity.  The human creature, primitive or modern, creates understanding by likening.  The unfamiliar, by virtue of its dissimilarity, is cognitively distant and therefore incomprehensible.  The likening that occurs by the application of anthropomorphism collapses that cognitive distance by making a thing familiar and therefore comprehensible.

The human tendency to anthropomorphize sustains criticism.  Some are dissatisfied with what they perceive as an overly simplistic approach.  Others start at the potentially blasphemous ramifications of humanizing a deity.  Xenophanes of Colophon illustrated such concerns:

ἀλλ’ εἰ χειρας ἐχον βοες < ἱπποι τ’ > ἠε λεοντες

ἠ γραψαι χειρεσσι και ἐργα τελειν ἁπερ ἀνδρες,

ἱπποι μεν θ’ ἱπποισι βοες δε τε βουσιν ὁμοιας,

και < κε > θεων ιδεας ἐγραφον και σωματ’ ἐποιουν

τοιαυθ’ οἱον περ καὐτοι δεμας εἰχον < ἑκαστοι >[15]

 

(But if cows <horses> or lions had hands

And could draw with their hands and accomplish deeds like to men

Horse like horses and cows like cows

Would draw the shapes of gods and make their bodies

Just like the body <each of them > had)

 

πάντα θεοῖς ἀνέθηκαν Ὅμηρός θ᾽ Ἡσίοδός τε,

ὅσσα παρ᾽ ἀνθρώποισιν ὀνείδεα καὶ ψόγος ἐστίν,

κλέπτειν μοιχεύειν τε καὶ ἀλλήλους ἀπατεύειν.[16]

 

(Homer and Hesiod made the gods do everything

Whatsoever is reproachful and blamable among men,

Theft, adultery, and deceiving each other.)

 

Others of the ancient world, like Cicero, found that same reasoning intuitive:

Nam cum praestantissumam naturam, vel quia beata est vel quia sempiterna, convenire videatur eandem esse pulcherrimam, quae conpositio membrorum, quae conformatio liniamentorum, quae figura, quae species humana potest esse pulchrior?… quod si omnium animantium formam vincit hominis figura, deus autem animans est, ea figura profecto est, quae pulcherrimast omnium. Quoniamque deos beatissimos esse constat, beatus autem esse sine virtute nemo potest nec virtus sine ratione constare nec ratio usquam inesse nisi in hominis figura, hominis esse specie deos confitendum est.[17]

(Now since it appears meet that the most superior force, whether by its blessedness or its eternal duration is also most beautiful, what order of limbs, what style of contours, what shape, what aspect is more beautiful than the human?…  Because if the shape of man surpasses the form of all living things, and god is also living, it is this shape [god’s shape] in very deed which is most beautiful of all.  And since it stands that no one is able to be blessed without virtue, and virtue cannot consist without reason, and reason is not internally present except in the shape of man, it must be confessed that gods are in the shape of man.)

These two perspectives are ancient and reflect the human effort at conceptualizing the nature of deities.  They commence from a shared premise that the divine is greater than the human and part ways thence.  One view exalts the divine by diminishing the human; God is everything man is not.  Such ideas as the immateriality of God and the imperturbability of God reflect this perspective’s disdain for the travails associated with the fragility of human physicality and psychology.  An unavoidable and eventual consequence of such reasoning is an unknowable God; such a doctrine is present in numerous faiths.  The other view is characterized by its lack of hostility and regret concerning the vicissitudes of mortality, which allows for a qualified optimism regarding the human experience.  Such cosmic buoyancy enables human identification with God and facilitates less restricted interpretations of God’s identification with humankind; it accepts that God is knowable. The perspective that rejects anthropomorphism sees mortality as evil and plagues itself with such philosophical Gordian knots as the problem of evil.  The perspective that accepts anthropomorphism permits itself a full embrace of the scriptural observation that knowing good and evil is a divine characteristic.  Clearly, anthropomorphism animates much of the Mormon conception of knowing.

Truth be told: Mormonism does not (only/merely) anthropomorphize the divine, it theomorphizes humankind.  Recall from the third chapter of Ether: “Seest thou that ye are created after mine own image? Yea, even all men were created in the beginning after mine own image.”[18]  Epistemologically, theomorphism achieves much the same effect as anthropomorphism; it collapses cognitive distance between the human and the divine by establishing familiarity, its basis for knowing.

No preconceived notions

Joseph Smith maintained no externally based preconceived notions; his conceptions were wholly based on his own unqualified perceptions.  He divested himself of all contending definitions of deity, allowing for no difference or distance between himself (or humankind in general) and the divine.  In modernity inhibitions to fruitfully approaching God might include the burden of meeting some outward expectation.  It is pivotal to the process of comprehension to proceed with no externally-received ideas; anything that occludes oneself will occlude one’s perception of God. Consider: if God has comprehended all available knowledge and perspectives, it follows that He has thought how you think, which means that exploring the way you think is exploring one way He has thought.  Self-familiarity is the beginning of familiarity with God.  As God has comprehended the modes of thinking of all of us, it follows that in addition to self-familiarity, familiarity with the way that others think will increase one’s familiarity with God.[19]  How great the importance then, to not clutter one’s unique perspective; it is an avenue into the divine mind!  Now it must be made clear: this is no call to identify an activity contrary to the divine will as a perspective comprehended by God, thereby dubbing it worthy of expression in order to know God.  One must acknowledge the difference between a thing contemplated and a thing executed.  Recall the admonition of the Prophet:

“Thy mind, O man! if thou wilt lead a soul unto salvation, must stretch as high as the utmost heavens, and search into and contemplate the darkest abyss, and the broad expanse of eternity—thou must commune with God.”[20] (italics mine)

Within this contemplation of the heavens, the abyss, and eternity, communion with God is to be found.

In conclusion

This essay is a meditation on a statement of the Prophet:

“If men do not comprehend the character of God, they do not comprehend themselves.”[21]

I have endeavored to articulate that, in Mormonism, transcendent epistemological attainment (like the First Vision) is available to all.  Such an experience is the result of genuine desire coupled with the realization that knowing God is knowing oneself.

 

 

[1] Alma 32:27

[2] Moroni 10:4

[3] 1 Ne 11:1

[4] Mosiah 27:22

[5] Mormon 8:16

[6] 2 Ne 27:5, Mosiah 11:29, Alma 13:4

[7] Mosiah 1:5

[8] Alma 32:21

[9] Alma 18:3

[10] Hel. 9:1-15

[11] 3 Ne 17:25

[12] Ether 3:19

[13] Ether 3:8

[14] Ether 3:9

[15] Clement of Alexandria Miscellanies 5.110 (B15).  All translations are my own.

[16] Sextus Empiricus Against the Professors 9.193 (B11)

[17] Cic. N.D. 1.47-49

[18] Ether 3:15

[19] Think of all those scriptural injunctions mandating understanding of others’ circumstances and perspectives!  Also, this is not to suggest that we are all fragments of a great divine consciousness with which we are destined to reunite.  There is divinity within each of us with which we may interact to cultivate familiarity; in light of the eternal duration of our existence this familiarity is actually remembrance of a once familiar divine presence.

[20] Encyclopedia of Joseph Smith’s Teachings, pg.

[21] Encyclopedia of Joseph Smith’s Teachings, pg. 294