By Stephen H. Webb
Defenders admit to Joseph’s youthful indiscretions but point out that once he translated the plates into the Book of Mormon, he never dabbled in magic again. Devout Mormons also argue that if God really did give someone the task of finding the golden plates, what better person than a humble and pious young man with experience in digging for buried treasure? There is also, significantly, little evidence that Joseph was knowledgeable about the hermetic literature. Nonetheless, skeptics, undeterred, continue to search for the missing link that would demonstrate once and for all that Joseph was a fraud.
Mormon critics have long tried to discredit Joseph Smith by identifying him with a host of contested religious movements from the ancient world. These include Gnosticism, hermeticism, alchemy, and the Jewish Kabbalah. What these movements share is a more robust connection between the material and supernatural worlds as well as a more optimistic understanding of humanity’s striving for God than traditional Christianity permits. By associating Smith with what came to be known as the occult, critics could portray his treasure seeking, aided by seer stones, as evidence of his untrustworthiness. Joseph’s magical worldview, they could argue, culminated with the fantastical story of the golden plates.
I am with Joseph’s defenders in this argument, mainly because I think Joseph’s world had not yet differentiated between magic and religion as separate and opposed social spheres, but also because I think the Bible does not display a clear demarcation between the two. There is little need to trace any of Joseph’s activities, pre- or post- the golden plates, to any other source than the Bible, which treats seer stones, for example, in a matter-of-fact manner (Numbers 27:21 and 1 Samuel 28:6).
The debates about Joseph and his social context will continue, of course, but I am interested in taking a big step back in order to look at the broader picture. Reactions to Mormonism’s relationship to a magical worldview can serve as a template to the more general relationship of Christianity to the so-called occult. The occult is a loaded word, weighed down with sinister associations of black magic and demonology. Esotericism is a better term, but the occult has a stronger hold in general usage. It literally means hidden or secret religious knowledge and has the connotation of a methodical and even scientific approach to the spiritual realm. If Christianity is defined as faith in revealed truth, then the occult is the exact opposite: rational inquiry into paranormal experiences (experiences that lie beyond the quantifiable measurements of science but are, nonetheless, empirically grounded). But what if Christianity is not defined as blind faith, and what if the occult is not simply a pseudo-scientific examination of the supernatural?
Many people today are spiritual seekers, and that goes for more than the “spiritual but not religious” crowd. Even regular church-goers are unlikely to draw the same theological lines between Christianity and its competitors as generations in the past. The various branches of Christianity are learning to appreciate each other’s traditions, and for decades many Christians have been struggling to learn from Eastern religions. Arguably, there is a rift within Christianity that goes back much further than these ecclesial and global divisions. The antagonism I am talking about is the one between Christianity and the occult. Since the occult can be said to have pagan roots, and Christianity made its first missions, after the Jewish community, to pagan society, rethinking the relationship between Christianity and the occult can open up new avenues to getting at the very essence of the Christian faith.
The occult is more than just paganism, of course. It is as much an heir to Christianity as it is to ancient Greek and Roman rites and beliefs. Although the classical theism of Catholicism’s best theologians placed all things divine in an immaterial realm completely apart from the physical world, Catholic spiritual practices remained dependent on the conviction that material objects can be imbued with divine power. In fact, the division between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, which has done so much to trouble the heart of Christendom, can be seen as a byproduct of unresolved issues in the relationship of Christianity to the occult. The Protestant reformers rejected transubstantiation, the central rite of Roman Catholicism, because they thought it was little more than a species of magic intent on transferring divine properties to mere matter. It is one of the great ironies of history that the birth of Protestantism coincided with the rebirth of the occult in the Renaissance. Alchemists tried to transform base metals into silver and gold. If transubstantiation is your starting point, then it is not hard to imagine that the lowest forms of matter can be raised to the highest. When Protestants sharply separated divine grace from anything pertaining to material change, they laid the foundation for modern science and thus the eclipse of the occult.
Many of the modern philosophers associated with the occult, most prominently Emanuel Swedenborg and Rudolf Steiner, were explicit about their dedication to Jesus Christ, even if their interpretations of his cosmic significance were speculative and from an orthodox vantage point heretical. Their work is marked by a longing for a more physical depiction of the divine and a more concrete, less abstract approach to the supernatural. Today, in even the most orthodox theological circles, one hears incessant calls for a new approach to the body, the cosmos, and the natural sciences. Christians are eager to rediscover spiritual practices that appeal to the eye and ear as well as the mind. Many young people follow the cross but also find healing in Tibetan singing bowls. It is time then for a renewed Christian encounter with the occult.
What would an occult-friendly form of Christianity look like? Mormonism is not rooted in or dependent on the occult in a direct way, but it does imbue Christianity with the spirit of the occult. A first step toward healing the divide between Christianity and the occult, then, should be a careful evaluation of what Mormon theology can contribute to conventional Christian attitudes toward the relationship of spirit to matter and the human potential to transform the physical world into the kingdom of God. Joseph’s golden plates look like alchemy to his critics, but they can also help all Christians to begin discovering their faith’s own ancient roots.
Stephen H. Webb has taught philosophy and religion for twenty-five years. He is the author of eleven books on such varied topics as the musical philosophy of Bob Dylan, theological critiques of the theory of evolution, the importance of the doctrine of providence in American history, the role of religion in public education, and the history of vegetarianism. He has been published in First Things, Books & Culture, and Touchstone. He is the author of Mormon Christianity: What Other Christians Can Learn From the Latter-day Saints.