In her very important new book, Revelatory Events: Three Case Studies of the Emergence of New Spiritual Paths, historian and religion scholar Ann Taves offers a naturalistic framing for revelation, in this case extending it to the complex issue of founding figures of a religion or spiritual communities and their close followers believing the sources of the revelations were outside of themselves. In the three case studies Taves examines, Joseph Smith, founder of Mormonism, claimed visitations from God and angels, and produced revelations that came in the voice of “the Lord”; Helen Schucman, producer of the Course in Miracles and several supporting works, claimed to be scribe for “the Voice” (believing it to be the voice of Jesus Christ); and Bill Wilson, co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous and his associates, though not claiming the words of the group’s Big Book resulted in direct revelation from a specific personality, felt under the inspiration of some Higher Power. Like Smith and Schucman, however, Wilson shared in some circles about an encounter with a Divine source in which he felt “called” to and in that experience also came to believe he would be empowered to “dry up all the drunks in the world.” Employing her considerable skills as an historian, with a special emphasis on religion in America, and drawing from research and findings from neuroscience and several cognitive science and social science fields, Taves puts forth a plausible hypothesis about the various mechanisms at play within the minds of the founders of these traditions/paths and their early collaborators that might explain their claims of revelations from suprahuman sources without positing the need for separate spiritual and material worlds, while at the same time not claiming that experiences such as these were/are delusions. It is a fascinating book that mines rich and varied fields and source materials, and introduces these to findings that are emerging in studies of psychology, social psychology, brain science, hypnotism, creativity, organizational emergence, and more.
In this four-part episode, neuroscientist and lifelong Mormon Michael Adam Ferguson joins Mormon Matters host Dan Wotherspoon in interviewing and interacting with Ann Taves about her book, its hypotheses, her sense of the promises and limits to the fields of study that she is working in, and her own way of making sense of and honoring revelatory events and the power of religion while she is working and positing explanations within naturalistic frameworks.
Part 1 (Ep. 403) primarily introduces the book and its scope, and particularly the stories of and key moments within the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous and the emergence of A Course in Miracles. It also draws a few early comparisons between Joseph Smith and the founders of those spiritual paths.
Part 2 (Ep. 404) explores Taves’ hypotheses about what is going on within the minds of these founding figures during the times they believe they are in direct communication with suprahuman personalities, as well as during the early periods of their groups’ establishment.
Part 3 (Ep. 405) features very active discussions of diverse questions and topic areas, ranging from why might a Divine source “reveal” quite different things about the nature of Reality, to the difference between practical and theoretical metaphysics, to the qualities that might lead one to be classified as a “spiritual genius,” to group genius, to delusional experiences, and more.
Part 4 (Ep. 406) reflects on the probative value of Taves work and the research she cites, as well as directions she hopes to take these things in order to ascertain the scope of their explanatory powers, and then moves into more “pastoral” areas as the panelists assess the value of religious symbolism, praxis, communities, and other gifts of religion and religious systems even if naturalistic arguments, with its claims of a non-dualistic reality, were to win the day.
Ann Taves, Revelatory Events: Three Case Studies of the Emergence of New Spiritual Paths (Princeton University Press, 2016)
Ann Taves and Steven C. Harper, Joseph Smith’s First Vision: New Methods for the Analysis of Experience-Related Texts, Mormon Studies Review 3, no.1 (2016)
“Joseph Smith’s Use of a Seer Stone in Bringing Forth the Book of Mormon,” Mormon Matters podcast 287–288, featuring Ann Taves, D. Michael Quinn, Ron Barney, 10 August 2015
Michael Adam Ferguson and Benjamin Knoll, “A Conversation with Michael Ferguson on the Neuroscience of Spiritual Experience,” Rational Faiths podcast 113, 2 November 2016
Charles Randall Paul, “Does God Always Reveal the Same Thing to Everyone?: On Sustaining Peaceful Conflicts Over Religion,” Sunstone, May 2003
Video of sessions in the “New Perspectives on Joseph Smith and Translation” conference, Utah State University, 17 March 2017, sponsored by the Faith Matters Foundation and the USU Religious Studies Program
Daniel Wright Wotherspoon, Awakening Joseph Smith: Mormon Resources for a Postmodern Worldview, Ph.D. dissertation, Claremont Graduate School (1996)
D&C 20:5–12 (early account—possibly 1829—of the First Vision that is often overlooked)