What does it mean to say that Joseph Smith or anyone else saw God, Jesus, angels, resurrected beings in visions? What can be claimed about deity from them? What kind of knowledge does the visionary possess and how is it acquired? Does it matter whether visions happen in the mind of the visionary while asleep, in a trance, unconscious? If not seen and heard with literal eyes and ears, must visions be discounted as non-factual, a-historical, un-true?
I have very little if any understanding of the several disciplines (e.g. psychology, neurology) that might be drawn upon in order to attempt to answer these questions, questions that have surely been asked before. What I will do is sketch what could be at stake, followed by a few passages from three different authors who have affirmed the truth of visions occurring in the mind alone.
Even in the standard account of the First Vision and of Moroni’s appearances it is suggested that Joseph Smith was not relying on regular sense perception. According to JS-H 1:20, it looks like he had fallen to the ground and suffered a lapse of consciousness: “When I came to myself again, I found myself lying on my back, looking up into heaven.” Indeed, 1:15 could taken as a description of some kind of seizure (there being a long history of associating something like epilepsy with divination). However, it is clearly stated in 1:16 that he was about to succumb “not to an imaginary ruin, but to the power of some actual being from the unseen world.”
The First Vision is then compared to Paul’s vision. And with Paul before a skeptical King Agrippa, the Prophet testifies in 1:25:
So it was with me. I had actually seen a light, and in the midst of that light I saw two Personages, and they did in reality speak to me; and though I was hated and persecuted for saying that I had seen a vision, yet it was true; and while they were persecuting me, reviling me, and speaking all manner of evil against me falsely for so saying, I was led to say in my heart: Why persecute me for telling the truth? I have actually seen a vision; and who am I that I can withstand God, or why does the world think to make me deny what I have actually seen? For I had seen a vision; I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it, neither dared I do it; at least I knew that by so doing I would offend God, and come under condemnation.
Here, on the one hand, are repeated seemingly unequivocal affirmations of actuality, reality, truth, and knowledge. Yet, nowhere is it claimed that the vision was experienced though physical eyes and ears or that others would have seen and heard the same things, had they been present.
In Paul’s case, witnesses are reported, but they did not see and/or hear what Paul did (even if they did see and/or hear something). Famously, in 2 Corinthians 12:2 Paul frankly admits that he cannot tell whether visionary experience happens “in the body” or “out of the body,” an admission that Joseph Smith also makes in D&C 137:1 (cf. 3 Nephi 28:15).
That the First Vision is compared to Paul’s vision in Luke-Acts is of further significance in that Paul more or less equates his experience with the post-resurrection appearances of the Savior witnessed by Peter et al., despite his vision having happened quite a bit later than theirs (1 Corinthians 15:1-11). It could be argued on theological grounds, then, that the same uncertainty and ambiguity that accompanies the visions of Joseph Smith and Paul also apply to what the original witnesses of the Resurrection saw and heard (and touched).
That ought to do it for what may be at stake. Now for the promised citations.
Having studied in Alexandria under Horapollo (a.k.a. the ‘Soul-destroyer’) and writing as head of the Platonic Academy in Athens, Damascius composed a history of philosophy in the sixth century CE. Of a certain Isidore he says (ed. Athanassiadi, p. 86-97):
When Isidore was awake the ineffable vision disappeared. For it was not bright and profound enough to remain alight and to shine when overshadowed by the rival brilliance of sensible things. But when, paralyzed by sleep, sense perception was no longer active, and the soul stood apart from these things, then, isolated in itself and liberated from all obstacles, the ever-present inner spark of the divine was re-kindled and poured out its light to its full extent until it finally outdazzled the very world of illusion itself.
He therefore talked of the dual nature of divine visions—that which is perceived by the senses when one is awake, and that which proceeds from the imagination when one is asleep—and declared them both truthful (alēthē).
Besides the affirmation in the second paragraph, of note in this passage is the devaluation of matter and sense perception in the first, where they are said to inhibit divine communication.
In his well-known Gifford Lectures of 1901-2, William James argues that “what makes the difference between a sudden convert and a gradual convert is not necessarily the presence of divine miracle in the case of one and something less divine in that of the other.” No, what accounts for the difference in the types of conversion is “rather a simple psychological peculiarity . . . [namely] that in the recipient of the more instantaneous grace we have one of those Subjects who are in possession of a large region in which mental work can go on subliminally, and from which invasive experiences,” like the visions seen by sudden converts, “abruptly upsetting the equilibrium of the primary consciousness, may come.” James thinks that this should cause no consternation to believing Christians, for example, since the origins of religious experiences are not important for judging their significance and value. It is the fruits of religious experiences that are the sole criterion for making that assessment. And “[i]f the fruits for life of that state of conversion are good, we ought to idealize and venerate it, even though it be a piece of natural psychology (Varieties of Religious Experience [New York: New American Library, 1964 reprint], p. 191).”
The operative word in James’ argument about the difference in the types of conversion is the word necessarily. What makes the difference is not necessarily the divine presence. But this does not mean the divine cannot be present. Psychological explanation of sudden conversion does not require God’s non-existence, in other words. James is careful to avoid any such misunderstanding of his argument. So much so that, while he considers sudden conversion impossible in a person of little or no subconscious activity, he makes the following suggestion as to the possible existence of God (p. 194-5):
But if you, being orthodox Christians, ask me as a psychologist whether the reference of a phenomenon to a subliminal self does not exclude the notion of the direct presence of the Deity altogether, I have to say frankly that as a psychologist I do not seen why it necessarily should. The lower manifestations of the Subliminal, indeed, fall within the resources of the personal subject: his ordinary sense-material, inattentively taken in and subconsciously remembered and combined will account for all his usual automatisms. But just as our primary wide-awake consciousness throws open our senses to the touch of things material, so it is logically conceivable that if there be higher spiritual agencies that can directly touch us, the psychological condition of their doing so might be our possession of a subconscious region which alone should yield access to them. The hubbub of the waking life might close a door which in the dreamy Subliminal might remain ajar or open.
So God could exist. But one may need to be irrational if not insane to establish contact with him. This goes hand in hand with James’ understanding that religious experiences are largely the domain of the pathological and neurotic. Though, to repeat, for James, whence religious experiences originate is not important. As he tells his readers in the opening lecture, “you must all be ready now to judge the religious life by its results exclusively, and I shall assume that the bugaboo of morbid origin will scandalize your piety no more (p.35).”
In the last of the lectures, James turns to creeds. He asks whether there is “a common nucleus to which they bear their testimony unanimously.” There is, he says, and it can be divided into two stages, “uneasiness” and the “solution” to that uneasiness. The former, in short, “is a sense that there is something wrong about us as we naturally stand.” While the latter “is a sense of that we are saved from the wrongness by making proper connection with the higher powers.” James explains in more detail that the individual in the second stage manages to identify “his real being with the germinal higher part of himself,” as opposed to the naturally wrong part. In James’ words, this is how it happens:
He becomes conscious that this higher part is conterminous and continuous with a MORE of the same quality, which is operative in the universe outside of him, and which he can keep in working touch with, and in a fashion get on board of and save himself when all his lower being has gone to pieces in the wreck.
According to James this is the thread running through all religious experiences. Without casting doubt on their “enormous biological worth” and the “spiritual strength” that they impart to individuals, he asks whether religious experiences are not “only psychological phenomena.” In other words, “ought we to consider the testimony [borne by the common nucleus of the creeds] true?” Does the ‘more’ really exist, and if it does, what does union with the ‘more’ actually mean (p. 383-5, 389)? James would like to appear to come to the aid of the theologians. He even expresses himself in terms as apparently straightforward as: “God is real since he produces real effects.” However, unless his audience is prepared to worship their own subconscious, his defense of religion may not be very helpful.
Coming to the end of the lectures, it is difficult to resist suspecting that for James an active subconscious is not merely the prerequisite for establishing contact with the possibly existent God or divine. It is the deity proper. That James is in fact saying as much as this is clear from the postscript to his lectures. Discussing the question of God’s existence along the lines of immortality, on the one hand James “leave[s] the matter open,” while at the same time he “feel[s] bound to say that religious experience, as we have studied it, cannot be cited as unequivocally supporting the infinitist belief.” Until God is shown to be infinite or not, in keeping with his emphasis on fruits or results, James offers the following polytheistic theology (p. 395-6):
Meanwhile the practical needs and experiences of religion seem to me sufficiently met by the belief that beyond each man and in a fashion continuous with him there exists a larger power which is friendly to him and to his ideals. All the facts require is that the power should be both other and larger than our conscious selves. Anything larger will do, if only it be large enough to trust for the next step. It need not be infinite, it need not be solitary. It might conceivably even be only a larger and more godlike self, of which the present self would then be but the mutilated expression, and the universe might conceivably be a collection of such selves, of different degrees of inclusiveness, with no absolute unity realized in it at all. Thus would a sort of polytheism return upon us.
The existence of God or the divine, then, as far as James is concerned may amount to the existence of the individual’s subconscious. If larger than the conscious self, this more godlike self might not even be immortal. As fascinating as James’ position is, it seems unlikely that belief in such a God could bring a Tolstoy or anyone else out of melancholy and depression to a more healthy-mindedness.
I have already shown my (schizophrenic) hand with that last sentence. And so I conclude with the authority of authorities, J.K. Rowling. I gather that in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, during an out-of-body experience, the young wizard is told something along these lines by a deceased and ever quoteable Dumbledore: of course it is inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?