Taves’s Revelatory Events, pt. 2: Translation

By May 14, 2018

See part one here. 

Again, Taves uses very little cognitive science until she turns to the question of the translation. To do so she compares the Book of Mormon translation to Helen Schucman’s writing of A Course in Miracles. Schucman’s case is particularly useful because in a private interview she described the process. Schucman said she, “didn’t hear anything,” the process was “strickly mental,” but still “it wasn’t my voice” (247). Schucman said the process wasn’t automatic writing and that she could “stop and start the flow at will” (247-50).

Taves then looks at research on “highly hypnotizable individuals” (HHs) for insight into how this process might have worked for Schucman and Smith. Such individuals can easily go in and out of such a state and may even learn to control the process. In such a state HHs can tell very vivid narratives as though they are experiencing a complete different place (254). Taves gives the example of a student of researcher Ernest Hilgard for how vivid these experiences can be. At a party, the student had been hypnotized, during which he described a setting in Victorian England so vividly that he believed he was recounting a past life. Despite this belief, the student went to Hilgard for analysis of the events to get a further perspective. Under hypnosis, Hilgard had the student enter other settings, including the Old West, where the student gave equally vivid descriptions and felt like he was there (250-51).  

Taves then wonders if something like this happened for Schucman and Smith. Were they HHs who had honed their abilities: Smith with his seer stone and Schucman with her note pad? Cues and objects help HHs to control the process, and Taves points to Smith’s treasure digging and Lucy’s statement about the narratives Smith would tell the family “as if he had spent his whole life with them” as the kind of practice Smith underwent in preparation for the translation (252). The implication of the experiments on Hildegard’s patient is that the experience is quite powerful and vivid, and feel different from composing a story (251).

At the same time, though Schucman’s experience did have some similarities to Smith’s, recorded conversations with God, angels, or the dead are much more common than claims to supernatural translation of ancient texts. In addition, Schucman was older, had a much better education, and composed her text over a much longer period. As the same time, combining Schucman’s experience with Hilgard’s patient’s does create some overlap with Smith’s experience. The patient felt like he was experiencing the past in such vivid detail to feel like he had really been there. The research on HHs also seems relevant in the ways they can learn to control these states. Can we apply this research to people like Smith and Schucman?

Having been Ann’s student and having some experience in the field of religious studies, I know that the objections to such methods are generally twofold: 1) that cognitive science is complex and nuanced and thus difficult to apply to past figures that we cannot get into the lab, and 2) cognitive science violates epoche. That is, it’s contentious and impolite to subject people’s religious experiences to these kinds of scientific and naturalistic methods.

As mentioned in the previous post, Taves seeks to transcend such objections through a thorough study of all topics involved as well as being thoroughly engaged with the advice and objections of scholars both inside and outside the faith. Again, Taves hopes “that this book models a way of playing fair with people’s deeply held beliefs, whether religious or not, without having to bracket one’s own” (9). Can one take the naturalistic view that Taves has to explore such revelatory events as the Book of Mormon translation and still “play fair”? Is Taves method a useful approach to Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon, or will her reception fall along the old battle lines?

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. I’m fascinated by Dr. Taves’ work.To be honest, I think that Taves’ work will be taken seriously by those that take religious studies seriously and not by those that don’t. The mechanics of religious experience aren’t as important in Mormon history (thus far). I could see many Mormon Studies folks dismissing it as part-and-parcel of Fawn Brodie’s well-meaning Charlatan description of Smith (though Taves’ work certainly isn’t that!).

    Comment by J Stuart — May 14, 2018 @ 4:36 pm

  2. Thanks, Steve, for getting this discussion going. One thing I would add or clarify is that I distinguish between descriptive analysis and explanation when it comes to “playing fair.” By playing fair, I mean coming up — in so far as possible — with analysis of the evidence for what happened and the claims people made about it at the time that LDS and non-LDS historians can agree on. That’s why I shared my first three chapters on Mormonism with LDS historians, worked with Steven Harper on the first vision, and shared the initial part of chapter 11 on Smith and Schucman with LDS scholars (the part where I discuss the historical evidence for what both did and what it was like). In the comparative and explanatory portions of the book (chapters 10, most of 11, and 12), I reserve the right to break with insiders (and outsiders) when it comes to explaining what happened based on premises persuasive to the audience I want to address, in this case social scientists and historians who rule out supernatural causation as an explanation.

    Comment by Ann Taves — May 15, 2018 @ 7:43 am

  3. J., you raise a very good point about Brodie and the applications of psychology to Smith. Taves specifically addresses Brodie and Vogel when she talks about the plates and her attempt to “expand the range of possibilities beyond either/or choices that scholars have typically advanced” (50).

    I know I’ve seen Vogel comment online that he didn’t think that Taves’s argument is fundamentally different from his, and I guess time will tell if Revelatory Events leads to new directions in scholarly analysis of Smith’s experiences.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — May 15, 2018 @ 11:27 am

  4. Ann, thanks for the clarification of the ways in which you intended to “play fair.” What I’m wondering is how your work will be received among Mormon scholars. Will they see you as “playing fair”?

    And good point about audience. The link in the previous post to the review at the Interpreter argued that you writing for a secular audience was inherently unfair since you weren’t taking Smith’s supernatural claims as possible. The Interpreter is outside of the mainstream of Mormon Studies, but perhaps they were saying something that many Mormon scholars might be thinking too.

    Ultimately, your book is now part of the larger conversation and, like I said, I’m curious what kinds of influences it will have in Mormon historiography.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — May 15, 2018 @ 11:35 am

  5. Steve, the Interpreter essay linked in the previous installment never argues that the writing for a secular audience is unfair. I expressly say that there is nothing wrong with writing for a secular audience. (And if I do have a name and style and body of work of my own, then that might be more revealing to readers than a than a generic label like “traditional apologist.”) My point was that the choice of audience has significance for what questions are asked, and not asked, with implications for what is seen, and not seen. Hence, my title, “Playing to an Audience.” I selected my title based on a talk that Professor Taves gave elsewhere, quoting her to start things off, and that quote agrees Professor Taves’s comment here, when she affirms that “I reserve the right to break with insiders (and outsiders) when it comes to explaining what happened based on premises persuasive to the audience I want to address, in this case social scientists and historians who rule out supernatural causation as an explanation.”

    Doing so is completely legitimate, not at all unfair. But when different audiences ask different questions and see different things, say a Fox News audience, and Rachel Maddow or a Washington Post audience, we then have the live issue of how to decide which audience has the best overall understanding of the issue under investigation. It strikes me that the question of how to best navigate the differences, and how to measure best in a way that is not just a matter of playing to an audience, is also a completely legitimate question, and Thomas Kuhn provides a useful compass.

    Comment by Kevin Christensen — May 16, 2018 @ 8:06 am

  6. Thanks for the clarification, Kevin. I’ll admit to not reading your entire piece and maybe I used the wrong wording, but to me you do seem to be critiquing the shared secular assumptions between Taves and her intended audience. “There is no need to debunk or explain away LDS claims to a secular audience that presupposes a naturalistic approach is sufficient and that Professor Taves can be relied upon to provide one that satisfies their requirements.”

    Taves is quite up front about this approach, and Mormons (and other religious people) questioning that assumption seems perfectly understandable.

    Still it brings up the larger question of scholarly conversations. Taves made great efforts to converse and interact with insiders. I’m curious what the results will be.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — May 16, 2018 @ 9:32 am

  7. Hi Steve, reading the entire piece might make a significant difference. If it’s all a matter of audience and tribe, “us” versus “them,” whoever “us” happen to be, and whoever “them” happen to be, then tribal labels are all we need, with all the broken communication and social fragmentation that such a state implies. However, the main issue for me is not tribe, whether secular or religious, or which religious, but the implications of different perspectives. As Professor Taves herself explains, “Either stance has its strengths and liabilities. Each allows us to see some things while obscuring others. The key is to figure out what we want to see under any given circumstances.” Taves, “Negotiating the Boundaries in Religious Studies” (lecture, Graduate Theological Union Convocation, Berkeley, CA, September 21, 2005).

    We ask different questions, explore different areas, play to different audiences. That is an inescapable given. (See Peter Novick on that). So, how about a non-tribal compass that lets us navigate and cross boundaries in a way that reveals the significance of the differences in tribal perspectives? That explores the significance of what is seen, and not seen from different perspectives?

    So I quoted Ian Barbour, who explains that “the possibility of assessing a religious paradigm must in practice be compared with the possibility of assessing alternative religious or naturalistic paradigms — regardless of what the possibility of assessment in science may be. The most one can expect of any set of beliefs is that it will make more sense of all of the available evidence than alternative beliefs. … [S]elf-criticism of one’s own basic beliefs is only possible if there are criteria which are not totally paradigm dependent.”

    See Myths, Models, and Paradigms: A Comparative Study of Science and Religion, 145, which happens to be one of my favorite books ever. I want to explore ways of getting beyond tribal boundaries and labels, on to a not-completely-tribal way of asking, which is better? Which problems are more significant to have solved? Which paradigm is better, and most promising? How do we measure better in a way that is not just tribal labeling?

    Comment by Kevin Christensen — May 16, 2018 @ 10:00 am

  8. Thanks, Kevin. Yes, the field of religious studies has been grappling with these issues for some time. One of the methods to get beyond tribalism was epoche like I said in my last post: simply not debating the reality of supernatural claims. Taves finds that approach limiting and thinks that it’s useful to apply cognitive science under naturalistic assumptions. So yes, all these things get debated strenuously and have been for decades.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — May 16, 2018 @ 10:46 am


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