Prospectus Part 2

By November 28, 2010

Here’s some more of my prospectus that deals with the issues of pre-Reformation survivals. Some of this I’ve posted around here already but I contextualize it here a little differently.

The Smiths? folk practices?particularly Joseph Smith Jr.?s treasure digging with the use of a seer stone, but also a variety of practices deemed ?magical??have long drawn attention from scholars. Scholars are now in the process of rethinking how to best understand the religiosity of the folk masses that had been termed magical, occult, or even pagan. For instance, Michael Snape argues that rather than being pagan, the religiosity of the Lancashire country-side, of which the clergy continually complained, ?could easily be accommodated within a broadly Christian, albeit non-Anglican, framework, many being survivals and developments of pre-Reformation beliefs?. Hybrid, heterodox and mutable folk Christianity may have been, but evidence from the parish of Whalley should suggest that the primacy of its Christian component was both clear and emphatic.? [1]

Snape?s assertion that much of ?folk Christianity? were pre-Reformation survivals is key here. Historians need to remember that the Reformation and Enlightenment were innovations that most people, particularly the common sort, were slow to accept. Hebert Leventhal?s In the Shadow of the Enlightenment highlights this problem.

The tendency to ignore the continuation of the old in the development of the new is as much a problem for the history of eighteenth-century America as it is for the history of the Renaissance. We tend to concentrate on the adoption of Enlightenment thought and the idea of modern science, emphasizing only Newtonian physics, Linnaean natural history, and Lockian psychology. There is an almost total neglect of the continuation of ideas and concepts first articulated centuries earlier. Such neglect is sometimes apparently not so much the result of ignorance as of the exigencies of writing history. [2]

Furthermore, innovators often denigrated the old in the promotion of the new. Anthropologist Ion Lewis refers to the ?the well documented process by which today?s religion (or ideology) reduced yesterday?s religion to the status or magic, each successive religious vogue marginalizing its predecessor.? [3] Comparing the way Leventhal uses the term occult with Jon Butler?s use of the term in Awash in a Sea of Faith highlights this tendency. Butler refers to ?the occult? in early America he means a collection of practices that were dubious from a religious standpoint. When Leventhal speaks of the occult, he refers to what the term meant in the medieval and early modern period?forces and causes that were unknown. This idea that nature worked by occult causes came under attack in the scientific revolution and those who maintained the old worldview came to be seen as backward. In time the term came to be used as Butler uses it: ?magic, astrology, and divination?what detractors then (and moderns now also) called the occult.? [4] Such beliefs became denigrated as ?magic? until ?occult? became a catch-all term for all practices seen as backward, regardless of whether they drew on occult natural powers or not. Butler brings Joseph Smith?s treasuring digging activities and seer stone usage under this heading of occult and refers to Mormonism as a syncretism between ?the occult? and Christianity. [5]

These problems highlight the reason why ?magic? should be abandoned as a scholarly category, argues Wouter Hanegraaf. ?The core irrationality in most academic theories of magic? is that ?this distinction belongs to the domain of theological polemics internal to Christianity, and cannot claim any scholarly foundation. The lack of such a foundation has not sufficiently bothered scholars of religion. They uncritically adopted a purely theological notion, which eventually assumed the role of an unexamined guiding intuition in their discussions: an assumption too basic even to be perceived, and too self-evident to be in need of arguments.? The problem, argues Hanegraaf is that certain acts are uncritically designated magic because they ?appear to us pre-categorized in the terms of our cultural conditioning. We do not need any theory to explain to us that what we perceive is a magical practice: we know that it is magic, because we recognize it as such?.. No amount of deconstruction, no sophisticated theory, can possibly make us question what we observe with out own eyes.? Such conditioning, Hanegraaf argues, seriously calls into question scholars? ability to analyze things deemed magical. The answer, Hanegraaf proposes to never speak of magic as an etic category, but only as an emic one. ?Only if the usage of terms such as ?magic? or ?the occult? will be consistently restricted to their occurrences as emic terms used in the polemical interplay between believer/practitioner and their critics, while new academically-neutral terms and concepts are developed for etic discussion of the beliefs and practices concerned, will it become possible to envision an unbiased and sufficiently nuanced perspective on the historical dynamics of Western religion.? [6]

Such historical dynamics were highlighted in the Reformation. Reformers accused the Catholics or practicing magic?miracles, exorcism, the mass?and too often scholars have accepted these definitions. Eamon Duffy critiques Keith Thomas for implying that expecting physical effects from the sacraments was magic. Duffy asserts the rites of the medieval church were preformed for explicit material ends. ?The texts of the blessing ceremonies clearly presuppose that their effects would by no means be confined to the merely spiritual?holy water, salt, bread, candles, as well as the herbs blessed at Assumptiontide or the meat, cheese, and eggs at Easter, were for the healing of bodies as well as souls. The application of the sacramentals to this-worldly concerns, which some historians have seen as a mark of the superficiality of late medieval Christianity, was amply legitimated by the liturgy itself.? ?This is not to suggest,? says Duffy, ?that all such actions remained within the bounds of orthodoxy?. Instead, they represent the appropriation and adaptation to lay needs and anxieties of a range of sacred gestures and prayers, along lines essentially faithful to the pattern established within the liturgy itself. This is not paganism, but lay Christianity.? Duffy declares in the preface to his second edition, ?Even the most apparently heterodox or bizarre magical practices might employ ritual and symbolic strategies derived directly and, all things considered, remarkably faithfully, from the liturgical paradigms of blessing and exorcism: they thus represented not magic or superstition, but lay Christianity.? [7]

Yet in one instance, Duffy lists practices ?disapproved of by the clergy.? In Robert Reynes?s commonplace book, Duffy finds a number of charms ?most of which would probably past muster with the parish clergy.? Zodiacal material in the book ?were certainly widely disapproved of by the clergy? but the item that gets the most comment from Duffy is an ?elaborate formula for conjuring angels, for purposes of divination, into a child?s thumbnail.? Says Duffy, ?Reynes knew the Ten Commandments, but had evidently not internalized the standard comments on the First Commandment, which prohibited quasi-magical practices of this sort.? [8] Looking up the actual practice reveals the following. The diviner is to take a child between the ages of seven and fourteen, then tie a red silk thread around his thumb and ?scrape hys nayle wele and clene.? The child then says the Paternoster and then the following ?prayer? in Latin (I?m translating this, my Latin could use some touch ups). ?Lord Jesus Christ, king of glory, send to us three angels from you, that will speak the truth and not speak falsehoods of all that we ask them.? ?And sey this prayer iii with good hert and devoute.? Three angels will then appear, ?And then let the child aske what that he lyst, and thei schal schewe to hym.? [9]

Duffy doesn?t say what made this practice ?quasi-magical? but what is often called angel conjuring or ritual magic was condemned by the church because the leaders worried that demons might be conjured instead of angels. Demon conjuring, called necromancy in the Middle Ages, was a real practice, but too often scholars have conflated angelic and demonic rituals. Demonic rituals, Clair Fanger notes, are often shorter, involve animal sacrifice or suffumigation, and are ?of a rather spiteful and petty minded sort?causing disease, harm or deformity in another person.? Angel rituals, however, are much longer, involve fasting, prayer, and purification, and seek heavenly knowledge and abilities. [10] Though both types were condemned by church leaders, those involved in such angelic rituals were generally monks who asserted the holiness of the rituals. [11] As Clair Fanger notes, ?It is a question, in the end, of whether the scholar chooses to side with the theologian who condemns the work or the operator who upholds it.? [12] Again, as Hanegraaf asserts, this is a theological distinction that scholars should avoid in their etic categorizations.

Since Hanegraaf calls for more neutral terms for describing such rituals, I propose the use of ?theurgy? (a term that scholars do use for these rituals) rather than ?ritual magic.? Theurgy, meaning the work of god, was popularized by third century Neoplatoist Iamblichus. [13] As ?the ?assimilation of man to god as far a possible?? was the Neoplatonists goal, Iamblichus asserted that various rituals, theurgy, aided in the ?process for making man god.? [14] Here I define theurgy as rituals to come into the presence of divine beings for the purpose of becoming endowed with divine attributes.

I then talk about how theurgy relates to early Mormonism, but I submitted a paper to MHA on that topic so I hope to go over all that in St. George. Then I include the following paragraphs.

Smith in the early nineteenth century was a long way away from pre-Reformation England both in term of time and in terms of the fact that Smith?s New England puritan heritage sought to reject Catholicism as stridently as possible. Yet as Cedric Cowing asserts, New Englanders with a Northwestern [British] heritage (from among whom the early Mormons disproportionately came) maintained a distinct religiosity from the Southeastern majority for several generation, a religiosity that emphasized religious experience, visions, miracles, and folk religious survivals. [15] Ronald Hutton argues that Catholic liturgical elements survived in families, particularly among those in the North and West. [16] Again, much that survived was called magic, and those who continued such rites magicians. Says Keith Thomas, ?The rural magicians of Tudor England did not invent their own charms: they inherited them from the medieval Church, and their formulae and rituals were largely derivative products of centuries of Catholic teaching.? [17] After analyzing how Protestant writers lumped the cunning-folk with Catholic survivalism that they hoped to eradicate, Owen Davies notes,

Leaving aside such partisan criticisms and expressions of intolerance, there was an element of truth in the claimed association between cunning-folk and Catholicism. In their use of certain elements of prayer, exorcism and holy objects, cunning-folk borrowed from Catholic practices, not only at the time but also in subsequent centuries. Protestant suspicions were confirmed by the activities of people like Henry Clegate of Headcorn, brought before a Kent church court for curing bewitched people and cattle by repeating prayers and the creed. He confessed he had been taught to do so many years before by his mother and a neighbouring priest.? [18]

Smith himself played this role: using supernatural gifts to find lost objects and search for buried treasure prior to the founding of Mormonism and using priesthood to exorcise demons and heal the sick after.

Christian Platonism could be rather diffuse by the nineteenth century. The Neoplatonic mysticism of late medieval devotionalism was prominent in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Pietist movements. [19] Platonic and Neoplatonic writings themselves continued to inspire and were popular among the Transcendentalists of Joseph Smith?s era. Grimoires continued to publish theurgetic rituals?theurgy seems to be a point where the popular and intellectual converged. ?Theurgy,? argued Gregory Shaw, ?represented Iamblichus?s attempt to bring traditional pagan divinational practices in line with Platonic and Pythagorean teachings.? [20] Keith Thomas argues, ?Instead of the village sorcerer putting into practice the doctrines of Agrippa or Paracelsus, it was the intellectual magician who was stimulated by the activities of the cunning man? The period saw a serious attempt to study long-established folk procedures with a view to discovering the principles on which they rested.? [21] Influences could go both ways: Owen Davies points to the mid-seventeenth century when high magic became ?democratized,? when magical books became more widely available. This was also the time when Neoplatonism fell out of favor with the intellectual elites, increasing the likelihood that such would be labeled as ?magic.? [22] In Smith?s religiosity we see evidence of both folk and intellectual pre-Reformation survivals: the village seer with a pre-Reformation religious bent who also took interest in Christian Platonism.

Though restoring late medieval religiosity was not Smith?s intent, he nevertheless made a remarkable statement at the end of his life. As a New Englander, Smith?s knowledge of Catholicism would have been cursory and polemic, but after devoting time to study he came to the following conclusion. In his very last sermon, Smith declared, ?The old Catholic Church is worth more than all,? in comparison to Protestant churches. Smith drew upon crypto-Catholic practices in his environment in similar ways to how Neoplatonist Iamblichus drew on Egyptian rituals: all used to divinize the soul in the hopes of creating the heavenly city on earth or in heaven.

[1] Michael F. Snape, The Church of England in Industrialising Society: The Lancashire Parish of Whalley in the Eighteenth Century (Woodbridge, Eng.: Boydell, 2003), 71.
[2] Hebert Leventhal, In the Shadow of the Enlightenment: Occultism and Renaissance Science in Eighteenth-Century America (New York: New York University Press, 1976), 1.
[3] Ion Lewis, Religion in Context: Cults and Charisma, 2d ed. (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1996), 141.
[4] Jon Butler, Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1990), 9.
[5] Butler, Awash in a Sea of Faith, 242-47.
[6] Hanegraaff ?The Study of Western Esotericism,? 513-16.
[7] Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, c. 1400-c. 1580, 2d ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), 277, 282-83, xx.
[8] Duffy, Stripping of the Altars, 72.
[9] Robert Reynes, The Commonplace Book of Robert Reynes: An Edition of Tanner MS 407, ed. Cameron Louis (New York: Garland, 1980), 169-70.
[10] Clair Fanger, ?Medieval Ritual Magic: What It Is and Why We Need to Know More about It,? in Conjuring Spirits: Texts and Traditions of Medieval Magic, ed. Clair Fanger (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998), viii.
[11] Robert Mathiesen, ?A Thirteenth-Century Ritual to Attain the Beatific Vision from the Sworn Book of Honorius of Thebes? in Conjuring Spirits, 143-62.
[12] Fanger, ?Medieval Ritual Magic?, ix.
[13] Gregory Shaw, Theurgy and the Soul: The Neoplationism of Iamblichus (University Park: Pennsylvania State University, 1995).
[14] Dominic J. O?Meara, Platonopolis: Platonic Political Philosophy in Late Antiquity (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2003), 3, 129.
[15] Cedric Cowing, The Saving Remnant: Religion and the Settling of New England (Urbana: Illinois University Press, 1995); Stephen J. Fleming, ?The Religious Heritage of the British Northwest and the Rise of Mormonism,? Church History 77, no. 1 (2008): 73-104.
[16] Ronald Hutton, ?The English Reformation and the Evidence of Folklore,? Past and Present 148 (1995): 89-116.
[17] Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century England (1971; reprint, New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 42.
[18] Owen Davies, Cunning-Folk: Popular Magic in English History (London: Hambledon and London, 2003), 36.
[19] W. R. Ward, The Protestant Evangelical Awakening (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 48, 310.
[20] Shaw, Theurgy and the Soul, 17.
[21] Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, 229.
[22] Davies, Cunning-Folk, 119, 127.

Article filed under Christian History


  1. Steve, what is your reference point when you refer to New Englanders with “Northwestern” and “Southwestern” heritages? Northwestern New England, Europe, or somewhere else?


    Comment by Sam Bishop — November 28, 2010 @ 10:21 pm

  2. Sorry, the reference is Britain: those from the South and East v. those from the North and West. [fixed]

    Comment by Steve Fleming — November 28, 2010 @ 10:28 pm

  3. Great stuff, Steve. So do you see the manifestations of things like treasure seeking, and folk-christian practice in England/America as essentially sharing common ancestry with the same things in, for example, Germany?

    Comment by J. Stapley — November 28, 2010 @ 11:05 pm

  4. This reminds me of recent posts at “Heavenly Ascents” about Jewish Mysticism.

    Comment by DavidC — November 28, 2010 @ 11:57 pm

  5. Looks like great stuff, Steve.

    Comment by WVS — November 29, 2010 @ 12:11 am

  6. Thanks very much, Steve. Do you see the path of influence between pre-Reformation religious practices and Joseph Smith as largely orally transmitted, or can you point to any textual influence? Will the Book of Mormon play a role in your dissertation? Also, do you have a general timeline in mind for writing?

    Comment by Jonathan Green — November 29, 2010 @ 12:14 pm

  7. steve,

    about theurgy as a term, i seem to recall reading a piece by fanger in which she makes a similar move–maybe the intro to her forthcoming invoking angels, sequel to conjuring spirits. i can’t remember. you might email her.

    moshe idel and elliot wolfson, i believe, have also adapted the term to jewish mysticism.

    while i couldn’t be more thrilled by comparison between iamblichus and j.s., i am somewhat ambivalent when it comes to theurgy as a solution to the magic conundrum. it is more neutral, i think, if also (only because it is) less familiar. and as you define it, it could easily encompass both ‘magic’ and ‘religious’ practice, maybe seemlessly.

    but the term itself seems not to have been used that way historically. iamblichus claimed that he was doing something different from the vulgar magicians and astrologers (which may or may not be true), even as he thought of himself as superior to those poor philosophers like porphyry.

    i am not saying the situation is a as bad as with the term ‘magic,’ just that theurgy is also loaded. perhaps there is no better alternative.

    christian platonism and theurgy do seem to be more inclusive than hermeticism and magic/occult. and again, as a sometime (but failed) student of the classics i am already a fan of your approach. still, are these terms and categories broad enough to allow you to include something as biblical as jewish apocalyptic?

    i went back to albanese this morning … and for example, it seems off to me to explain plural marriage as swendenborg multiplied, without mentioning the o.t. component.

    Comment by g.wesley — November 29, 2010 @ 3:42 pm

  8. One problem with appeals to theurgy is that in a more platonic context angels, daemons and the like have a far more abstract nature than they appear to do for Joseph Smith. Typically what folks appealing to Platonic traditions do (consciously or not) is suggest a naive materialistic folk reading of Platonic traditions. Thus Joseph hears theurgical notions but interprets them overly literally. There are problems with this approach, although it has been a popular approach.

    One should add that in the Renaissance with the return of an interest in Platonism and related movements (Hermetic texts, gnostic texts and traditions, some Kabbalism) there also was an explicit move towards making some elements of the Platonic and Thomist views materialistic. You can see this in Telesio’s spirits for instance which were materialistic.

    Comment by Clark — November 29, 2010 @ 4:03 pm

  9. Jonathan, yes, orally. You get a sense of what is persisting in complaints from ministers, the work of folklorists, and in new religions like Mormonism.

    I’ll talk about the BoM, I’ll probably put up one last post.

    g. First, I’m not attempting to use theurgy in place of all uses of the term magic, just where I see it applying. I do see it applying to what scholars often call “ritual magic” or “angel conjuring.” These practices persisted throughout the medieval and early modern periods and look like theurgy to me. Not to say that they are exactly what Iamblichus was doing, but the intent seems similar.

    My understanding of Iamblichus, from Shaw, is that he argued that traditional rituals were good but that the theurgist needed to work toward elevated rituals with elevated purposes. They were all part of the same system, the masses were just lower down on the scale.

    I don’t intend on cutting out the Bible, but we shouldn’t see Christian Platonism (or Swedenborg for that matter) as somehow distinct from the Bible. All these traditions uses the Bible but came to different conclusions.

    Clark, my understanding is that the late Neoplatonists, whom I see as key, took more material views as well.
    Also, just because some pagans thought about supernatural beings a little differently than orthodox Christians doesn’t suggest to me that there still can’t be similarities of intent in the ritual practices. Iamblichus’s goal was to elevate the soul by means of elevated rituals to where one was ultimately in correspondence with the gods and not just daemons.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — November 29, 2010 @ 6:25 pm

  10. J. (sorry, got distracted by the other questions), that’s a good question, and something I need to be careful about. The bottom line is, different cultures/countries could have different folk practices but many things are similar. So I wouldn’t say they’re one and the same, but do have a number of similarities. I do think it’s useful to look all over Europe but one needs to be careful how one uses the information.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — November 29, 2010 @ 6:33 pm

  11. The later neoPlatonists (I’m not sure I’d call Telesio a Platonist although clearly it’s an influence) had quasi-material aspects. Primarily by taking Plotinus’ notion of matter as a place for soul and saying there was something equivalent for intellect. Quinn brings this up relative to Joseph’s notion of spirit as refined matter in Magic World View but it’s clear Quinn doesn’t really understand what’s being discussed. It’s two types of Khora and this gets played up in interesting ways.

    My point about theurgy (and not just by Iamblichus or the Renaissance platonists but also the Merkabah mystics) is just that we should be careful about reading more folk traditions of angels back into them. You can see this in some of the astrological musings in the hermetic tradition where the planets are daemons that must be passed. (A tradition going well back into Greek magic traditions as well as gnosticisms and related movements) To try and understand this in terms of a normal angelology just makes zero sense. Once you realize these aren’t objects in the universe in any normal sense it makes tons more sense.

    In a sense the real issue is less the question of material than it is the question of place in these different strands of platonism.

    Comment by Clark — November 29, 2010 @ 11:54 pm

  12. Oh, and Jonathan, I hope to get this done in a year or two, we’ll see.

    Thanks for the note, DavidC, I’ll take a look.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — November 30, 2010 @ 12:08 am

  13. Thanks, Clark, lots to pin down (sorry to be slow in responding, hectic week).

    Comment by Steve Fleming — December 1, 2010 @ 11:06 am

  14. On the term “occult”- I have always understood it to mean spiritual wisdom that was occluded, hidden, secret.

    Maybe someone already said this, but I think you need a little more up front reconciling or explaining how Mormonism can be understood as an extension of Platonism when it is so materialist.

    Comment by Mark Ashurst-McGee — December 1, 2010 @ 11:13 am

  15. Maybe someone already said this, but I think you need a little more up front reconciling or explaining how Mormonism can be understood as an extension of Platonism when it is so materialist.

    That was my thought, as well.

    Comment by Ben — December 1, 2010 @ 12:38 pm

  16. There is a fair bit of literature out there on what to an outsider would be materialistic conceptions of Platonism. Indeed folks like Iamblicus and the like are a great place to refer. I’d be somewhat cautious going too far down the philosophical pad though.

    To everyone else I’d just note that Platonism attempts to explain the same universe we all live in. So in a sense it always is and was materialistic. Remember the American transcendentalists were basically Platonists. What the Platonist complaint about materialism is that they only accept pieces of stuff as real rather than the structures we see in them. To make an obvious Platonic critique of materialism it would be like saying there are atoms but that the laws of physics are all fictions we impose on the atoms. (How then does gravity work?)

    Note I’m not a Platonist. But the position isn’t as silly nor as opposed to Mormonism as some think.

    Comment by Clark — December 1, 2010 @ 3:52 pm

  17. I agree that some version of Christian Platonism is readily apparent in Mormonism. I think the concern over materialism is probably a red herring. I tried in my Chain of Being paper (should be out this spring I think) to show how a neoplatonic idea like the chain could be textually and culturally within Smith’s grasp. I think most historians have not yet performed due diligence in terms of the textual sources circulating in the exchange papers, primers, poetry collections, and other sources as access points for versions of these textual traditions.

    Comment by smb — December 1, 2010 @ 11:23 pm

  18. Mark, occult can mean that but it has other connotations. If you want to focus on the meaning you provide, I think “esoteric” is a better term.

    On Plato and materialism, keep in mind that I’m talking about a broader tradition: Christian Platonism. Just to summarize, the late Neoplatonits took a more positive view of the body than earlier Platonists and these guys (particularly Proclus) were very influential on later Christians. Plus Christians had been drawing on Plato previously like Origen and Clement. Christians did so without rejecting the resurrection, generally. Again there is a long tradition of such thinkers who used Plato and Platonic writings to influence the way they thought about Christianity and these guys often looked rather Mormon.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — December 1, 2010 @ 11:28 pm

  19. I agree that there is a definite strain of Christian Platonism taking place in Mormonism, but I think classifying materialism as a “red herring” does justice to the fact that materialism was such a big aspect of early Mormon theology. I don’t think it’s an either/or thing–what is remarkable to me is how they were able to merge Platonism with materialism, and that is one of the things I tried to (briefly) engage in my embodiment article. I think Mark is right in pointing out that this will be an important thing for Steve to address in what promises to be a fascinating dissertation.

    I am excited to see your article in print, smb, as I’m sure it will be both excellent and important.

    And I’m glad to see you exploring these issues, Steve. My current research has me looking at the platonic strands in the formation of American democracy in the nineteenth century, so I am particularly interested in the topic.

    Comment by Ben — December 2, 2010 @ 6:38 am

  20. By red herring, I mean that materialism in JSJ is independent of other elements of platonism. The modes of textual transmission and the “discursive encounter” (just using words I imagine textual theorists would use) allow for the disarticulation of anti-materialism from the other elements of platonism. I think it’s wrong to treat this as a “great minds, careful scholars” tradition of late Christian platonism. I think it’s correct to see a visionary and powerful eclecticism.

    That’s what I mean by red herring. I agree materialism is very important to early Mormonism. It’s just not terribly relevant to the broader questions of Mormon neoplatonism.

    Comment by smb — December 2, 2010 @ 7:27 am

  21. about not rejecting resurrection, i think in the case of an origen it is debatable whether his ‘belief’ was at all recognizable. it’s a question not unrelated to tt’s post of the other day. i tend to think that when christian platonists (at least the early ones that i’m somewhat familiar with) are talking about resurrection, they are not talking about the physical body but the astral body or the (lower) soul (as opposed to spirit/mind) or it’s vehicle. maimonides is another, much later, example from the jewish platonism/aristotelianism side. they might affirm resurrection, even resurrection of the ‘body,’ but is it not necessarily what we think it is.

    (of course, even without turning to overt platonism, this is trouble already in paul … flesh and blood cannot ….)

    Comment by g.wesley — December 2, 2010 @ 10:57 am

  22. Well even what is meant by an astral body can be tricky. For some it is something pure psycical whereas for others it is quasi-material. It true that the neoplatonists had the notion of a soul vehicle (okhema) fairly early on. The soul vehicle seems partially influenced by the stoic fire-body. (Remember their 4 substances) Augustine initially thinks this soul vehicle is what Adam and Eve were before the fall. While he moves away from that somewhat I think this “astral body” does dominate a lot of thought in Christianity, moving away from the almost certain more materialistic earlier views. (Platonism wasn’t the dominant philosophy and most others were materialistic – especially the Stoics)

    It’s interesting comparing this to Mormon thought since the soul vehicle is roughly the LDS conception of spirit but we see material body as something more important. I’m also surprised more haven’t noted the parallels between LDS materialistic conceptions of spirit with the already quasi-materialistic soul body or astral body. Which were almost always phenomenologically described materialistically – they have place, extension and so forth. They are at best akin to a gaseous body rather than being really incorpreal – although not always. Some platonists were much more careful.

    Comment by Clark — December 2, 2010 @ 2:28 pm

  23. To add, when talking about Merkabah mysticism, which obviously also has strong LDS parallels, often the chariot is this okhema or soul-vehicle. Something to keep in mind when reading those texts.

    Folks also mention Swedenborg for parallels or outright influence. (See, for instance parallels to Alma 40) However Swedenborg’s spirits and angels were also more in this intermediary realm between mind and body. However this is where things get tricky, especially if theurgy is considered. Since there’s a big blurring between the “imaginary” and the real. This intermediary world might just be a kind of dream world of sorts and a lot of the mysticism just lucid dream states. For various reasons this makes tons of sense in neoplatonism. (Since one is ascending to pure intellectuation) For Mormons though I think that movement towards the One is highly problematic.

    Comment by Clark — December 2, 2010 @ 2:33 pm

  24. Thanks for clarifying, smb. I understand now, and am in agreement. I especially like your phrasing of a “visionary and powerful eclecticism” hits the right note, and is representative of the excellent reinterpretation of early Mormon thought your work embodies.

    Comment by Ben — December 2, 2010 @ 4:10 pm

  25. Oh, and sorry to smb and Clark for getting caught in the spam comments–I don’t know why it’s doing that.

    Comment by Ben — December 2, 2010 @ 4:11 pm

  26. Thanks all. Ran off the Disneyland yesterday to celebrate finishing my exams.

    I think Sam describes well the way such ideas influenced Smith’s environment. My advisor wants me to focus more on comparison than on transmission for the dissertation. So I see a lot of important similarities with Mormonism and Christian Platonism even if it’s not a wholesale reproduction.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — December 3, 2010 @ 11:24 am

  27. For some reason my comments almost anywhere are now flagged as spam. I think it’s because of some email problems at my server. I now can’t ever put links to my blog in lest they be flagged as spam. Stupid SpamAssassin.

    Comment by Clark — December 3, 2010 @ 12:41 pm

  28. So I just got back from my prospectus defense. They signed me off but really put me through the ringer. They balked at my Platonic argument but liked the pre-Reformation one. They didn’t think I could make the case for continuity of Platonic ideas. It is a very long tradition and something I need to learn a lot more about.

    Another things that’s tricky is that my committee consists of an expert on early Christianity, one of the Middle Ages, and one on the Reformation, all of whom know very little about Mormonism. That makes it tricky.

    All of them, Ann included, wanted me instead to argue that by throwing off the Protestant lens, Mormonism looks legitimately Christian. Sounds downright apologetic! I’m going to take another quarter to get this all figured out.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — December 6, 2010 @ 8:49 pm

  29. Congrats, Steve. I added a paragraph in my afterword talking about the difficulty intellectual historians have understanding early Mormon philosophy because they (the scholars) have an ingrained respect for the integrity of traditions like Christian Platonism, while early Mormons were indifferent at best to the integrity of figures like Plato or Proclus or More or their body of thought.

    On the question of pre-Reformation, Matt and I get at some of these in our Mormon “Buck” paper (which has since evolved out of Buck’s TheolDict per se but still inspects the process whereby early LDS extracted the “fragments” of a Mormon prisca theologia from ancient Christianities), which I hope to finish up in 2011.

    Comment by smb — December 7, 2010 @ 7:32 am

  30. Sam, I think that’s exactly right about intellectual historians and the integrity of traditions. Smith’s approach seemed to be to “discover truth” wherever he found it without worrying about attribution. He simply needed the spirit to confirm truth. A guy like Wesley will cite his sources but that wasn’t important for Smith. He was simply “gathering truth.” The question is, which your work is revealing, what was the truth that he was gathering?

    Comment by Steve Fleming — December 24, 2010 @ 3:50 pm

  31. The lack of attribution makes it harder for intellectual historians.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — December 24, 2010 @ 3:51 pm


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