Taves’s Revelatory Events, pt. 4: Personal Reflections

By June 3, 2018

Reading Revelatory Events was curious experience for me. Not only am I Taves’s former student who is researching and writing on Joseph Smith, but I’ve also been a believer in supernatural and revelatory events not only for Joseph Smith and Mormon history, but in my own life.

I’ve naturally engaged in plenty of reflection on these topics, but Revelatory Events brought my experiences into particular focus with discussion of certain traits like highly-hypnotizable individuals and benign schizotypy. Having been friends with some of Ann’s other students at UCSB that worked on cognitive science and religion, I had the chance to discuss these kinds of topics including various methods that scholars use to determine these traits. I do not know the names of these scales, but scholars will do surveys how “susceptible” one is based on their tendency toward being highly imaginative and having unusual/spiritual experiences. Simply put, I’d probably rank high on those charts.

In the spirit of applying these methods to one’s self I’ll mention two experiences I had that had to do with Ann.

Getting into UCSB was its own long and winding journey the length of which was likely disqualifying to any hopes of full-time academic work, but I pressed forward believing that doing was God’s will for me. When I finally got in, I eagerly went to meet with the person I believed I would be working with (not Ann) but had a palpable feeling of “no” before I even met with her. That feeling became overwhelming in the meeting, as though I would be committing some sort of cosmic wrong doing if I were to proceed, and I went home after feeling totally thwarted.

Not knowing what else to do, I scrolled through the faculty list once more and saw that Ann and recently come over from Claremont and having been aware of her work, sent her an email requesting to meet. That meeting was the total opposite of the prior one, leaving me with what felt like overwhelming confirmation that I needed to work with Ann.

And so I did, which felt highly congenial to me for the most part, though I always found her use of cognitive science bewildering. It was totally outside of my training and furthermore, I really liked epoche, or setting aside the question of the reality of supernatural events. I felt like epoche was a good way to proceed with studying things like Joseph Smith and Mormonism (as many scholars had done) and felt very uncomfortable with starting with the naturalistic assumptions that Taves would.

I felt even more uncomfortable when I took Taves’s seminar in which we were to review her Religious Experience Reconsidered (2011). Not only did I disagree with the approach, but once again that palpable feeling of doing something very wrong returned. I needed to drop that class, the feeling said, but dropping my adviser’s seminar would be a huge no no. Finally, the feeling became overwhelming to the point that I sort of felt like I heard the following: “Steve, it is very important that you work with Ann, but if you take this seminar, you’ll get into a big fight and ruin your relationship. Ann will forgive you if you drop the class, but you have to drop the class.”

And so I dropped the class (I had jury duty in the middle of it and used that as an excuse). Ann was mad but she forgave me.

The failure to land full-time academic work has been cause to reflect back on these and many other experiences (what was all this for? am I a little or a lot crazy?) so I read Revelatory Events in that light. To give away the ending, I’m still on the theist and Mormon side of things, but the direction that my research led me was just as perplexing for me as my professional failures. I’ve posted a lot about my research, and while I always felt okay as a believing Mormon with what I found, I felt pretty sure that a lot of other Mormons would not. I always felt spiritually prompted to proceed, but the dual confusion over both these issues has been a continual cause for uneasiness.

And that brings me back to Taves’s thesis. Taves gave her 2013 MHA paper as I was finishing up my dissertation and so we had a lot of discussion on these topics. She sent me her paper on the materialization of the plates a year or so before she gave the paper at MHA and I had doubts about her approach (and yes, it’s a little awkward having your dissertation adviser ask you to review her work when she’s the one who decides whether you get your PhD or not :)). Could Smith have really made plates that others found convincing and would the witnesses really see them as gold because Smith told them to? Her comparison to the Catholic Eucharist didn’t seem to quite fit since that was a long-held and widely believed tradition, whereas the witnesses, as far as I knew, didn’t have the same cultural expectation for viewing other metals as gold.

I also didn’t think that Taves’s comparison to the brother of Jared was sufficiently parallel either. However, as I’ve been working on these topics for my revision of my dissertation, I took a closer look at a passage in one of Jane Lead’s journals that had a lot of parallels to Ether 3 and 4. Taking that closer look, in my opinion, leant considerable weight to Taves’s materialization thesis.

I’ll post those passages in my next blog post(s), but I really want to stress that unlike Taves’s naturalistic approach, I always approach my topic as a believing Mormon.

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