The Church’s release of images of Joseph the Seer’s seerstone yesterday—together with essays explaining and analyzing his use of this stone—have caused a stir. Or at least, I hope they have. The much discussed “Mormon Moment” of the last decade has I think (and hope) been much more of a profound inward reflection by Mormons generally than it has been an external spotlight or recognition by others. And I’m convinced that this has been a serious benefit to us as a people. This is because I don’t think we can authentically embody and carry forth our tradition if we’re embarrassed or ignorant of what’s in our closet—whether that’s polygamy, theocracy, racism, or our past embrace of magic.
This leaves the question, however, of how we ought to think about the seerstone. And that’s what I want to talk about here. In addition to embarrassment, there are a range of healthy options. Not everyone will be as enthusiastic as I am—feeling an intense closeness to the founding of this dispensation and an era when the heavens were opened by an unabashed seer; a thrill at the ways in which magic stones set us apart; a thrill for the possibilities for a more direct communion than our contemporary world offers with its feelings of quiet inner assurance and community. In what follows, I want to say something more of why I feel this way. I recognize, however, that some aren’t likely to ever feel this way, and others feel only discomfort. I hope to offer a way to appreciate and respect our past and what it does for our present, regardless of one’s stance on supernatural paraphernalia today.
As is usually the case, I find Charles Taylor remarkably helpful on this end. A Secular Age remains the most comprehensive exploration of the fundamental changes in the nature of religious experience between the years 1500 and 2000. With regard to seerstones, I think his discussion of the changing role of magic is instructive. A few points that are important to keep in mind:
- Rejection of magic was gradual but went through a number of important stages. This rejection was ineliminably tied to the Protestant as well as the more general reformation movements, and (later on) the enlightenment.
- Magic became seen as an illegitimate means of trying to control God.
- It also became associated with priesthood and the sacraments and ritualistic forms of religion. Actions, objects, times, and places that had been seen and experienced as sacred came to be seen as illegitimate because extra-biblical and tainted by their association with hierarchy.
- The rejection of magic began by casting it as ungodly and then later cast it as mere superstition
Taylor also discusses two broader shifts in the way humans (in the “western” tradition) conceive of and experience the relation between themselves and the world around us.
- First, he describes a shift in the nature of our self-understanding, from that of a porous to a buffered self. A porous self makes no inner/outer mental distinction. Instead, we are fully open to what we might call today an external, mental influence for good or ill, protection or attack. The meanings of things are not merely in the human mind, but inhere in things themselves. Our understanding is open to being influenced or impressed by these meanings. Immaterial ghosts are thus physically threatening, as Horatio tries desperately to convince Hamlet atop the parapets of Elsinore.
- In contradistinction is the buffered self, for whom the inner/outer mental distinction is quite real. All non-physical aspects of human life (e.g., meanings, emotions, moral values, etc.) are reduced to the merely “mental.” Thus “sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” And consequently we scoff at the Horatios and tell our terrified children that a ghost can do no more than scare them.
- Paralleling this shift in self-understanding is a shift in our understanding of the way in which things potently interact, from multiple notions of interaction to our modern notion of a merely mechanistic universe of causal interaction. Medieval Europe maintained an understanding of potent interaction through what Taylor calls “influence.” Objects, places, or times can be charged with a positive force whose influence on their surrounding environment is equal to their meaning or value. Thus, holy relics, places, or times can influence, not through mechanistic interaction, but through the openness of our porous selves to their potency.
- Alongside influence, our familiar modern notion of causal interaction gradually developed and eventually came to dominate our general understanding. As opposed to influence, causal impingement is mechanistic interaction according to scientific laws that in no way depends on the meaning or value of the objects involved. Hence, any change in one’s well-being in the wake of contact with a relic is understood simply as placebo.
- These changes happened gradually, beginning with social elites and eventually making their way to common conceptions (i.e., they became “common sense”). As Bushman and others have long noted, magic—certainly the concept and experience of influence and to a lesser degree that of the porous self—was still very much a part of religious experience in the early 19th century.
One way to understand Joseph’s use of a seerstone then is from within our more general belief that (as Nephi puts it) God speaks to his children in their own tongue and according to their own understanding. That is, God used a tool that Joseph could recognize from within his culture in order to attune him to the spiritual gifts needed for translation. Once this tool had served its purpose, however, it was no longer needed, and so Joseph gave up the stone, claiming to no longer need such a device. I think this approach has a lot going for it, and it seems to be the approach that the church’s historians have taken.
Additionally, however, we can recognize that different understandings of self and causality lead to very different experiences. There are certainly religious experiences that are only available to those with a given understanding. Correlatively, there are certain religious goods that will only be available to those with that same understanding. And critically, willing ourselves to have a different understanding doesn’t work. For example, we can’t just decide to experience ourselves as a porous self. But a coherent community can and often does continue to pass on at least a familiarity with other ways of seeing and experiencing. Some of these might be important to God’s purposes for us as a people. For example, I think that our ability to experience the temple as a literally sacred place derives in part from understandings that adhered with and were then passed down by the founders of the Restoration.
Finally, by not merely acknowledging but also owning the richness of our past we can feel empowered in our present. One of the real dangers we face is a closing off of the possibilities of transcendence. It’s becoming more common to feel, even against our will, that communion with the Gods, and perhaps even belief in them, is no longer possible. This is in part because of the way we think, feel, value, and experience our world today. One thing afforded to us when we own up to and appreciate the world in which seerstones operate is a holding open of a different set of religious possibilities and their attendant goods than that which pervades the culture and society in which Zion is embedded today. Even if you’re not looking for a world with magic rocks, you might well be looking for (or even yearning for) a world with more or different accesses to God than those currently experienced. Which points to a related result of seerstones. They manifest God’s willingness to speak to us wherever we are; which means God can speak our secularese as well. God knows how to train and tune our spirits to receive light and truth even here in our oppressively immanent and worldly age.
But again, I’ll be honest. Seerstones spark a fire in my bones, a connection to an earlier, earthier, more tangible, and sacral-infused Mormonism. And that’s a Mormonism I need in my life right now. I gave my wife a blessing of healing tonight. I did not have a seerstone to guide my speech. But I did use a magic—sacred—oil, which I find to be directly analogous to Joseph’s stone. And I surely wouldn’t flinch should God grant me a white stone to use at such times—now or in a future heaven. I certainly hope that my whole soul can be attuned in the same manner, that I too can speak in the name of the Lord. Similarly, I feel a sense of holiness each time I dress in garments. I relish what the world can only sneer it—my magic underwear. Likewise, I cherish reading over and over the personal scripture of my Partriarchal Blessing. I’ll take Joseph’s “folk magic” right along with the enchanted world and goods it affords me over the stale, insipid world of constrained, condescending and self-congratulatory scientism—any day.
But even if you don’t feel as I do—if you’re one of the many who have tamed and rationalized your experience with such artifacts of the Restoration—I hope you can appreciate and stand in an authentic relationship with our history. One need not be embarrassed by the “scandal” of the seerstone—whatever one’s epistemology—even if one can’t imagine our leaders using such things today. Instead, I hope we’re all grateful for these and the other “folk” elements of our religious tradition, and the goods—especially our experience of the sacred— that they (hopefully) continue to make available to all of us trying to build Zion today.
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1. I’ve noticed two common forms of embarrassment when it comes to these topics. Some are embarrassed to discuss them in any setting. Others are fine to discuss them internally but find themselves embarrassed in outside company. Sometimes this stems from either a lack of conceptual understandng or an inability to articulate and discuss that understanding—whether with others or with oneself. That said, I do not mean to imply that one needs to be well versed and articulate about things like seerstones in order to be an authentic latter-day saint. Rather, that has everything to do with how one seeks and responds to revelation and the divine call to join the Restoration. Nevertheless, I do want to claim that in this Mormon Moment, most literate adults, at least those in the US, have no choice but to confront our history. And responding with embarrassment inevitably interferes with one’s ability to respond to the voice of the Spirit as it speaks from within the Restoration. More generally, the Restoration is not merely a billboard for promoting personal salvation through Jesus. Rather, it is in all of its operations an instantiation of relational salvation in community—a building of Zion, for here and the hereafter. Eventually, then, I think we need to take up the working of the divine in all dispensations, and how that work underwrites contemporary Zion.
2. I don’t at all mean to dismiss the power and importance of quiet inner assurance and community. I cling to these. But they are only one part of the modes of connection to the divine on display in the scriptural cannon, and on their own make Mormonism not merely one religion among many but likewise one of the many.
3. If you’re one of those still waiting to read it, there’s never been a better time. If you’re daunted by its size or your ability to wade through its sometimes dense text, I highly recommend James K. A. Smith’s thin and readable companion book How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor.
4. See especially Chapter 1 sections 6-9.
5. Some of the bullets are taken from an essay I wrote for a Faith and Knowledge conference. It was later published in Dialogue (44:3).