Articles by

Steve Fleming

Plato’s Unwritten Doctrine and Christianity, pt. 3: The Secret Tradition

By December 4, 2016


Since I’m going to be referencing the Christian secret tradition a lot in these posts, I wanted to list out the post I did on this topic a couple of summer’s ago.  I’d wanted to put these together anyway.

Clement of Alexandria declared, “The Lord after his resurrection imparted knowledge to James the Just and to John and Peter, and they imparted it to the rest of the apostles, and the rest of the apostles to the seventy, of whom Barnabas was one.”

Introduction

Clement’s letter to Theodore

The debate of the the letter to Theodore

Evidence of a ritual

Judeo-Christian Apocalypses

The Greek Mysteries

Plato

The Disciplina Arcani

Theurgy

Joseph Smith

 

 

 

 

 


Plato’s Unwritten Doctrine and Christianity, pt. 2: Debates

By December 4, 2016


Friedrich Schleiermacher, who played a major role in the modern study of Plato, rejected the notion of a Platonic oral tradition, arguing that Plato’s central purposes were expressed in his dialogues. Though Friedrich Nietzsche was heavily critical of Schleiermacher’s interpretation, Schleiermacher’s became the dominant view especially in the Anglo-American academy.[1]  American Harold Cherniss went so far as to say that Aristotle was simply mistaken when he referenced Plato’s “so-called unwritten doctrine.”[2]

The Tübingen school, or a group of scholars at Tübingen University who study the issue, pushed back against Schleiermacher, by not only pointing out Plato’s over references in the Phaedrus and in letter 7 but also noting the numerous times that Socrates refers to things he cannot talk about throughout Plato’s dialogues.[3] As Dmitri Nikulin puts it, “The Tübingen interpretation to a large extent suspends the fundamental principle of modern hermeneutical interpretation: the sola scriptura. This hermeneutical principle stresses the importance of going back to the ‘original’ text as the only source of dependable interpretation, and hence implies the rejection of any oral tradition of transmission that is construed as only secondary and therefore untrustworthy.”[4]

The Tübingen scholars have set about trying to recover what the unwritten doctrine might have been by looking at clues in Plato’s dialogues and statements by his pupils, to argue that the unwritten doctrines seem to relate to mathematical relations of ultimate reality, and dualism and monism.[5]  Many argue that the Neoplatonist’s “One” may have been what Plato had in mind, and that Plotinus had it right.

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Plato’s Unwritten Doctrines and Christianity, Part 1: Introduction

By November 29, 2016


Early modern Christian Platonists argued that Plato essentially was a precursor to Christianity and such individuals pointed to a few particular passages to make their case.  Many of these passages relate to what is call “Plato’s unwritten doctrines” or ideas that Plato did not write down but only taught orally.

Plato’s pupil, Aristotle, refers to Plato’s “so called unwritten doctrines” in his Physics. In Plato’s seventh letter, Plato says, “There is a true doctrine that confutes anyone who presumes to write anything whatever on such subjects” and that “anyone who is seriously studying high matters will be the last to write about them. Whenever we see a book … we can be sure that if the author is really serious, this book does not contain his best thoughts; they are stored away with his fairest possessions.  And if he has committed these serious thoughts to writing, it is because men, not the gods, ‘have taken his wits away’” (Letter 7, 342a, 344c-d, quotes from the 1997 Hackett edition).

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Plato’s Good and the Olive Leaf Revelation

By October 25, 2016


Scholars have noted the Neoplatonic nature of some of Joseph Smith’s revelations.  The beginning of D&C 88 (The Olive Leaf) sounds particularly so.  In fact, it has numerous striking similarities to Plato’s description of the Good from his allegory of the cave.  The following is Thomas Taylor’s 1804 translation of the Republic 571b-c.[1] Like DC 88:6-13, it mentions ascent and says that the Good (like Christ) is the source of light, the light of the sun, and of human understanding.

If you compare this region … to the soul’s ascent into the intelligible place; you will apprehend my meaning…. In the intelligible place, the idea of the good is the last object of vision, and is scarcely to be seen; but if it be seen, we must collect by reasoning that it is the cause to all of everything right and beautiful, generating in the visible place, light, and its lord the sun; and in the intelligible place, it is itself the lord, producing truth and intellect.

In my dissertation, I argue that Smith seemed aware of Plato and may have used his Timaeus.[2] The above quote suggests Smith may have been aware of Plato even earlier.[3]

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[1] The Works of Plato, viz. His Fifty –Five Dialogues, trans. Thomas Taylor, 5 vols (1804, reprint; AMS, 1979), 1:360-61.

[2] Stephen J. Fleming, “The Fulness of the Gospel: Christian Platonism and the Origins of Mormonism,” chapter 6. See here and the comments.

[3] Since I see Plato as rather Mormon, I quite like the idea. “Study it out” (DC 9:8) suggests such a process.


Jane Lead in the Millennial Star

By June 15, 2016


In my first post on Jane Lead, I noted an 1858 article that the editor of the Millennial Star, Samuel Richards, wrote about Jane Lead.[1]  He’d found an 1807 German translation of her works and posted two passages, translated back into English.[2]  Of those quotes, Richards declared, “We have seldom read anything more pointed or expressive of the Latter-day Work than the foregoing.  It is another evidence that those who are spiritually minded, according to the light and advantages they have, can seek after God and learn of His ways—that He giveth liberally to all who ask wisdom of Him, and upbraideth not.”  When I did that first post, I was unable to track down the quotes, but now that I’ve found them, I’m posting what Richards cited along with the English originals.  

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Review: Kyle Walker, William B. Smith, In the Shadow of a Prophet

By June 1, 2016


41e28E-Qn7L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Kyle R. Walker, William B. Smith: In the Shadow of a Prophet. Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford, 2015. xiv, 639 pp. Photographs, two appendices, notes, sources, index; ISBN 978-58958-505-1.

Kyle Walker has further solidified his position as the leading expert on the Smith family with this extensive biography of Joseph Smith’s troubled younger brother, William. In meticulous detail, Walker describes William’s life as one full of conflict: with his brother Joseph and other church leaders during Joseph’s lifetime, with other claimants to leadership after Joseph death, with William’s own followers when William made his own claim, and with William’s numerous wives almost all of whom left him. As one-time follower Edmund Briggs declared, “Everybody that knew William Smith, and worked with him, rejected him” (409).

Walker begins the book with a description of uncle Jesse Smith, the cantankerous family member that threatened to get an ax if anyone said anything about the Book of Mormon. Walker wonders if there was an inherited family trait that would explain William short temper, his refusal to compromise or let things go, and his perpetual self-focus.

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Plato, Gender, and Eternal Marriage

By January 11, 2016


Jesus said, “For in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage” (Matt 22:30), while Plato said in his Symposium that lovers desired Hephestus to “weld” them together so that “when [they] died, [they] would be one and not two in Hades.”[1]

Such was part of Aristophanes’s myth of the androgyn, that humans had once been androgynous pairs that the gods split into male and female, who now longed for their other half. Such lovers, when they found each other, still yearned to become one again, especially in the next life. Aristophanes then adds the following caveat: “Women who are split from a woman, however, pay no attention at all to men; they are oriented more towards women, and lesbians come from this class. People who are split from a male are male-oriented.”[2]

That is, eternal marriage is a Platonic concept, and Plato had allowances for same gender relationships.

Plato didn’t discuss eternal procreation, but in the Republic he did describe a system radically different than monogamy: shared wives and children.[3] In the Republic, the children belong to everyone, or as Plato says in the Timaeus (which begins by summarizing the Republic), “Everyone of them would believe that they all make up a single family, and that all who fall within their own age bracket are their sisters and brothers, that those who are older, who fall in an earlier bracket are their parents or grandparents, while those who fall in a later one are their children or grandchildren.”[4] Or as Mormon said, “All children are alike unto me” (Moroni 8:17).

I argue here and here that Joseph Smith sought to implement shared marriages as well: or that originally both men and women could have multiple spouses. Such sharing would make allowances for procreation by the larger group that would transcend individuals’ procreative abilities.

[1] Plato, Symposium, 190-193.

[2] Plato, Symposium, 191e.

[3] Plato, Republic, 457c-d.

[4] Plato, Timaeus, 18d.


Plato, Tolkien, and Mormonism, Part 3: Inclusive Monotheism and Fabula

By December 22, 2015


This final post on Plato, Tolkien, and Mormonism explores the boundaries between theology, fantasy, and literature, particularly in the context of inclusive monotheism. Barbara Newman points out that many theologians who embraced Plato’s Timaeus and its inclusive monotheism in the 12th century were condemned while writers who embraced the Timaeus through fabula, or literature, were not. “Poets, through much of the Middle Ages, had license to proclaim with impunity ideas, however radical, that if voiced as formal theology could have provoked swift, hostile response. Because of it unofficial status, mere literature might well be denounced (as Ovid so often was), but it was hardly worth the trouble repressing.”[1]

Tolkien mixed Platonist and Christian themes in his creation narrative in The Silmarillion and W. W. Phelps began his “Paracletes,” which also mixed these themes, with “Once upon a time.” Yet for Phelps, “Paracletes” was a higher form a literature: “And let me say that I have began this story of the ‘Paracletes,’ or Holy Ones to counterbalance the foolish novel reading of the present generation. My story is not revelation, but the innuendoes relate to holy transactions, which may lead good people to search after truth and find it.”[2] Andrew Michael Ramsay had a similar intent in writing his Travels of Cyrus, which also mixed Christian and Platonic creation ideas: “We have here a fruitful source of luminous ideas, beautiful images and sublime expressions, such as we find in the holy scriptures, and in Milton, who has copied them.”[3]

What Tolkien meant by the Ainulindalë I’m not sure, but like many others he used fabula to give expression to inclusive monotheistic ideas held by some of the West’s most notable thinkers.

[1] Barbara Newman, God and the Goddess: Vision, Poetry, and Belief in the Middle Ages (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003), 65.

[2] [W.W. Phelps] “Paracletes,” Times and Seasons 6 (May 1, 1845): 892.

[3] Chevalier (Andrew Michael) Ramsay, Travels of Cyrus: To Which is Annexed, A Discourse upon the Theology and Mythology of the Pagans (1727, reprint; Albany: Pratt and Doubleday, 1814), xxi.  See also Ronan’s series at BCC, which discusses similar themes (1, 2, 3).

 


Plato, Tolkien, and Mormonism, Part 2: W. W. Phelps’s “Paracletes”

By December 14, 2015


In my previous post, I discussed how many of Tolkien’s creation and fall themes fit within various aspects of Christian Platonism.

Plato had two models. In the Phaedrus, pre-mortal souls fall: “By some accident [the soul] takes on a burden of forgetfulness and wrongdoing, then it is weighed down, sheds it wings and falls to earth” (248c-d). In the Timaeus, God (or the demiurge) “showed [souls] the nature of the universe. He described to them the laws that had been foreordained,” that they would be placed in bodies, “and if a person lived a good life throughout the due course of time, he would at the end return to his dwelling place in his companion star, to live a life of happiness” (41e, 42b-c). As Alan Scott explains,

There was therefore a good deal of disagreement among the later Platonists about the character of the cosmos and the soul’s incorporation. Was the world and our life part of a divine plan? Those who adopted this understanding of Plato interpreted the soul’s incorporation as providential and the heavenly bodies as assistants to a kindly design. Another interpretation of Plato stressed that this life has come about because of sin and error, and so took a very different view of the cosmos.[1]

Scott explains further, “Philo interprets the Genesis account in terms of both of these myths so that the creation of the world is good and the result of divine plan (as in the Timaeus), but the story of Adam symbolizes the soul’s fall because of sin (as in the Phaedrus),” which sounds pretty similar to Mormonism.[2]

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Authority, Revelation, and Dissent: Managing Personal Revelation in a Revelatory Church

By December 10, 2015


Medieval Catholicism believed both in continuing revelation and in personal revelation, but such beliefs could be problematic: what about false prophets? The late Middle Ages were awash with revelatory figures, often women (like Joan of Arc) and thus the church put in place a number of procedures for how to regulate such people. Revelation could not be legitimate unless it was approved by a confessor, who also looked into the character of the revelator. One of the most important trait was humility: if the revelator was willing to submit to the confessor and have all of her revelations regulated then she showed proper humility was a true revelator. If she balked at those restrictions, that was a sign that she had excessive pride, which proved that she was a false prophet.[1]

Obviously the legitimacy of such figures was highly debated (no one more so than Joan of Arc) and the Protestants came up with an even simpler way to deal with prophets: there weren’t any. The Bible was complete so true revelation would be redundant (simply say the same thing) and anything that was new was automatically false.

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Plato, Tolkien, and Mormonism: The Travels of Cyrus

By October 19, 2015


Ainulindale_by_Alassea_Earello

Ainulindale by Alassea Earello from http://lotr.wikia.com/wiki/Ainur

To finish my series on inclusive monotheism (see here here here here) and similarities with Plato’s Timaeus, I wanted to look at similarities between Mormon pre-existence narratives and Tolkein’s.

Many have noted the similarities between Mormonism and Tolkien’s creation stories and others have pointed out Platonic elements in Tolkien. A ring of invisibility is mentioned in the Republic and the first phrase of The Silmarillion, “There was Eru the One,” is especially Platonic since “The One” was the highest deity to the Neoplatonists. Tolkien’s Eru or Iluvatar, though aloof like the One, is rather more like Plato’s demiurge in the Timaeus: the God who plans and oversees the creation.

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Jane Lead’s Inclusive Monotheism

By October 13, 2015


I wanted to put up some quotes from Jane Lead on the issue of inclusive monotheism because her writings generally look so very Mormon and because she addresses issues related to another post I want to do.

In her Enochian Walks with God (1694), Lead talks about holy people becoming deified in the next life who then seek to aid holy people on earth. “For those Angelical Spirits that once liv’d in Flesh, do more nearly sympathise with us in all our Infirmities, and therefore all feelingly they tenderly consider our tempting-state, and give themselves out most readily for our help; they are Advocates, and to remind the Lord Jesus of their Prophecies, that they may have their fulfilling upon us. Of this sort and degree, they are the choicest and greatest in the Kingdom of our Lord, and have very stately Pavilions which are pitched round the Majesty of the Jehovah God” (25).

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Inclusive Monotheism and Joseph Smith’s Sermon at the Grove

By October 5, 2015


Franklin’s statement may provide a lens through which to view some of Smith’s final statements about God(s). In the Sermon at the Grove (June 16, 1844) Smith insisted that there were multiple Gods: “the word Eloiheam ought to be in the plural all the way thro—Gods—the heads of the Gods appointed one God for us.” Franklin said there was a high God over Gods and that our God was the one who created our solar system. Franklin was probably influenced by Isaac Newton who also said there were multiple God in the universe and cited 1 Corinthians 8:5-6: “But to us there is but one God.” Smith cited the same scripture in the Sermon at the Grove.[1]

Thus Smith taught similar ideas to what some of the West’s most important thinkers and scientists had. Franklin biographer James Parton noted that Kepler and Goethe taught the same thing.[2] Strict monotheism would win out in orthodox Christianity (it usually did) but these great thinkers had found inclusive monotheism a better for the new conception of the universe.

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Benjamin Franklin’s “First Principles”: More Inclusive Monotheism

By September 22, 2015


franklin

Benjamin Franklin Drawing Electricity from the Sky, c 1816, Benjamin West

Newton’s views likely influenced a remarkable statement from young Benjamin Franklin. Franklin had met with John Conduitt, the man who said that Newton had said that God had appointed “superior beings” over heavenly bodies.[1] Not long after, Franklin wrote the following which he entitled “First Principles.” Here I simply quote the whole thing and will offer further thoughts in a later post.

 

I BELIEVE there is one supreme, most perfect Being, author and father of the gods themselves.

For I believe that man is not the most perfect being but one, but rather as there are many degrees of beings superior to him.

Also when I stretch my imagination through and beyond our system of planets, beyond the visible fixed stars themselves, into that space that is every way infinite, and conceive it filled with suns like ours, each with a chorus of worlds for ever moving round him; this little ball on which we move, seems, even in my narrow imagination, to be almost nothing, and myself less than nothing, and of no sort of consequence.

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Isaac Newton’s Inclusive Monotheism

By September 16, 2015


 

Newton

Newton and Joseph Smith had a lot of similar ideas about God

In my previous post, I mentioned Barbara Newman’s discussion of “inclusive monotheism” where intermediaries and other divine beings all work in harmony under a supreme being, as opposed to the radical monotheism of the Reformation which sought to get rid of such beings. Wouter Hanegraaff argues that when Max Weber referred to “disenchantment,” “he was describing the attempt by new scientists and Enlightenment philosophers to finish the job of Protestant anti-pagan polemicists, and get rid of cosmotheism once and for all.”[1]

Yet a major figure in the Enlightenment speculated about intermediary beings as well. Isaac Newton’s editor, John Conduitt, reported that Newton wondered toward the end of his life “whether there were not intelligent beings superior to us who superintended these revolutions of heavenly bodies by the direction of the Superior Being.”[2]  

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What’s the Opposite of Strict Monotheism? A Question of Terminology

By September 8, 2015


Hanegraaff concludes Esotericism and the Academy by arguing that the two principal points that Enlightenment scholars of philosophy labeled as pagan heresy—the rejection of creation ex nihilo and the belief in the uncreated, divine part of the soul (or nous)—are in fact the chief traits of what we might term Western esotericism.

Hanegraaff calls the rejection of creation ex nihilo, cosmotheism, which he sees as a counterpart of strict monotheism. Quoting the Egyptologist Jan Assman, cosmotheism is one where “a divine world does not stand in opposition to the world of cosmos, man, and society; rather, it is a principle that permeates it and gives it structure, order and meaning … The divine cannot be excluded from the world.” Such, Hanegraaff argues, is “the logical alternative to classic monotheism, where the invisible and eternal Creator is strictly separate from this visible and temporal creation.”  Hanegraaff sees “a deep structural conflict between the dynamics of these two mutually exclusive systems and all that they imply” (371).

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Book Review: Wouter J. Hanegraaff, Esotericism and the Academy

By August 27, 2015


Wouter J. Hanegraaff, Esotericism and the Academy: Rejected Knowledge in Western Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

I’m planning on doing a series of posts on “cosmotheism,” or at least the way the Wouter Hanegraaff describes the concept in his book Esotericism and the Academy. But before I do so, I thought it best to review Hanegraaff’s book, which I had been meaning to do for a while now.

For anyone who attended MHA session on the reassessment of John Brooke’s Refiner’s Fire, both Brooke and I mentioned this book a number of times, and I would simply state here that there isn’t a book that I would recommend more highly for anyone interested in situating Mormonism both historically and intellectually within Christian history.

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Guest Post: A Survey on the Trek Experience

By August 17, 2015


trek

 

Sara M. Patterson (Hanover College) is conducting research on people’s trek experiences for a larger project on historical memory along the Mormon Trail. She invites people who have participated in trekking to fill out this short survey about their experiences: https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/KWVVKJR


If you have any questions, you can contact her at: patterson@hanover.edu


“If Any of You Lack Wisdom”: Seer Stones and John Dee’s and Joseph Smith’s Religious Quests

By August 9, 2015


A number of scholars have argued for a connection between Joseph Smith’s First Vision and the commencement of his treasure-digging activities, a trend nicely summarized by Mark Ashurst-McGee in his seminal work on Joseph Smith’s seer stones:

When Joseph went to the grove he was not just wavering between Presbyterianism and Methodism, but between organized religion and folk magic. Should he join one particular denomination or were they all wrong together? Should he convert to Evangelicalism or obtain his seer stone? “Go thy way,” the Lord told him, and rejected the churches of the day in part because, as he told Joseph, they taught “the commandments of men, having a form of Godliness but they deny the power thereof.” As historian Marvin Hill notes, the power and gifts of God were not denied by the treasure seers and diggers and other practitioners of folk magic. Richard Bushman explains that the First Vision would have driven Joseph away from the organized churches in his mother’s social orbit toward the treasuring-seeking culture of his father.

Ashusrt-McGee goes so far as to ask, “Did Jesus instruct Joseph to obtain a stone?”[1]

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JI Summer Book Club: Rough Stone Rolling, Part 2: Chapters Three and Four

By May 18, 2015


RSR Image

This is the second installment of the first annual JI Summer Book Club. This year we are reading Richard Bushman’s landmark biography of Mormonism founder, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005). JI bloggers will be covering several small chunks of the book (typically 2-3 chapters) in successive weeks through the summer. New posts will appear on Monday mornings.We invite anyone and everyone interested to join along. Please use the comment section on each post to post your own reflections and commentary on the chapters under consideration and ask questions. This week Steve Fleming takes a closer look at Chapters 3 (“Translation: 1827-30”) and 4 (“A New Bible: 1830”).

Previous installments in the series:

•Part I: Prologue, Chapters 1-2

__________________________

3 Translation, 4 A New Bible (See part 1 here).

Bushman ends Chapter Two and begins Chapter Three by discussing how to make sense of the possible connections between the Smiths’ “magical” treasure-digging activities and Mormonism’s foundational events: receiving and translating the golden plates. Such similarities include seer stones, special treasure in the ground, and treasure guardians.

Bushman concedes that “Magic and religion melded in Smith family culture,” (51) but he argues that by 1827, the year he married Emma and received the plates, “magic had served its purpose in his life. In a sense, it was a preparatory gospel. Treasure-seeking lore may have made it easier for his father to believe his son’s fabulous story about an angel and gold plates” (54). Thus treasure digging played a “preparatory” role in the beginnings of Mormons, argues Bushman, and the treasure-digging elements in the events related to the golden plates played the purposed of Smith gaining his treasure-digging father’s support.

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