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New Light on Mormon Mysticism

By Kerry A. Shirts

(A Note: Tom Nibley, Hugh's son, wrote me and told me his father wrote this in the late 1950's and just hasn't had a chance to update his views on mysticism. He has changed his mind on some significant issues concerning this subject. In that sense, my approaching Nibley's stance as if it were written yesterday, has to be seen within this new light. I can only write on what I have available to me however.)

Don’t let the title scare you much. I am reminded of Lao Tzu’s rather famous little ditty, "those who justify themselves do not convince."1 He knew exactly what he was saying since to the great Taoists such as Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu obviously one could not always be right without also being wrong at the same time, because both the two were as inseparable as back and front.

I will try and practice, with this essay, what R. Buckminster Fuller says, "Dare to be naive."2 Allow me to explain for a moment. I have always been a fan of Hugh W. Nibley’s writings. His insights and knowledge are truly remarkable. A perennial favorite of his writings with most LDS is his book The World and the Prophets. I at first found myself pretty much in agreement with his chapter on mysticism. Through the years as I have continued my own studies into arcane and different, divergent, and for myself, amusingly entertaining paths, the need to update and fill in the areas which Nibley left out continually nagged at me. In this paper I will correct some of Nibley’s unintentional misperceptions, which, in turn, inevitably led me to another conclusion than Nibley came to.3 I have tried to present a more full range of analysis on mysticism and how it relates to prophets, and, something Nibley didn’t do, namely, analyze the realms of mysticism within Mormonism itself. Some new light has come to bear on this relationship since Nibley wrote his excellent study, and new conclusions are drawn based on new knowledge.

First off, the impressions one gets from reading this particular work of Nibley is an almost fanatic desire to separate totally and absolutely God’s prophets from anything else. It is as if we can’t show they don’t stand alone, prime and unique, that they cannot be considered prophets. Nibley makes some outstanding comparisons and contrasts of prophets to every other type of human, and they alone come out on top. I don’t think this distinction is so necessary however. I may be mistaken, so I am willing to be corrected if it can be shown.

When Nibley asks if mysticism is a form of revelation and then condemns it to the negative, I believe he is operating in a rather negative view, in order to try and keep anything other than a prophet’s communication with God in the field of revelation.4 I think this narrow definition is only used to serve his own particular purpose in this. At times Nibley can maximize the fullest and broadest possible range of meaning in order to fulfill a requirement he feels needs fulfilling. Consider his definition, understanding and use of the concept and idea of translation with the Joseph Smith Papyri as an illustration.5 I personally agree in this instance he is justified in showing ideas of translation are not so narrow as critics of the papyri try and force them. I also believe Nibley is forcing his definitions of mysticism into a narrowness that is misleading as well.

Nibley comments that the universality of mysticism and its experience means it is all the same thing. Yes, a tenth-century Persian and thirteenth-century French lady as well as a seventeenth-century Englishman and a modern Hindu all report similar unusual sensations, and use identical words to describe this experience.6 But it is precisely at this point that the new research into mysticism sheds remarkably strong light which Nibley was unaware of, and which changes the entire nature of this thing. I will get to this just shortly.

I think his remarks that he says specialists in mysticism all say that mystic practices of various religions – Hindu, Buddhist, Shamanistic, Taoistic, Sufistic, etc., "always refer to Neoplatonism as supplying the best illustration", are remarkable.7 He says all these came about because of the western influence of the schools. This is simply false. What Nibley does here is quite inaccurate according to everything I have ever read concerning mysticism in Buddhism or Hinduism, etc. Nibley mentions these Eastern mysticism traditions, and then drops the matter cold. Not once again does he ever refer to the East, and what they are doing. He never once uses any authorities on Buddhism mysticism or Hindu, Sufism Taoism, etc.He stays strictly in the West, which is all right, had he said that is what he is going to do. Mentioning Eastern Mystical traditions in with the West, and then just condemning the Western mysticism only, is just using guilt by association, which, especially in the case, is far from accurate.

The impression one gets is that all mysticism, whether in the East or in the West is simply a comedown from revelation, and thus quite unimportant and insignificant in the first place. It is almost as if Nibley assumes that any individual having this experience is simply deceived and not really receiving revelation. The word for this in the East is Enlightenment, and it is a false cry from the West to assume this is not revelation. Buddhists would be astonished about this assumption or presumption as it might really be. This is simply a false impression if one is including worldwide mystical traditions, including the East, which Nibley does not do. Now from the western viewpoint, I can understand the influence of Neoplatonism, but from the East? Not a bit of it.

I think Nibley is on very safe ground when he notes that "The fundamental metaphysics in which the doctrine of Christian mysticism is grounded is Greek rationalistic metaphysics, formulated by Socrates and his great successors, Plato, Aristotle, and Plotinus."8 But this is not the same thing whatever concerning the issues about Taoist mysticism or Hindu or Buddhist ideas. Nibley stays in the West, because Mormonism shows an apostasy in the West. But his mentioning the Eastern mysticisms opens a new door which I will explore here in fairly thorough detail, as it deals directly with Mormonism in a unique way, overlooked by all Mormon commentators to date.

Nibley brought up Shamanism yet what the world authority on the subject, Mercea Eliade

says is "…the shamanic experience proper could be evaluated as a mystical experience by virtue of the cosmological concept of the three communicating zones… it is a universally disseminated idea connected with the belief in the possibility of direct communication with the sky."9 In other words, revelation, which Nibley has denied to mysticism in his essay here. In fact, almost ironically as it were, Nibley used Eliade’s observations in his book I am using, many years later in 1990, to show that Shamanism ties in with Abraham and the Egyptian hypocephalus, and agrees that it is personal revelation.10

Nibley goes on to show that in Western mysticism there are vague feelings and somehow just shadowy impressions without anything really significant going on. With a prophet however, there is a message to deliver. There is physical contact of heaven and earth

and physical reality going on here, as if physical reality were the only reality there is. Yet in the newest study of Shamanism in print, we read in the direct context of Shamanism, "However, physical is not the only criterion of truth: there are psychic truths which can neither be explained nor proved nor contested in any physical way. These truths have to do with the reality of the psyche and are not addressed to the reality of the physical world."11 Eliade has also noted that the Shaman is an expert in ecstasy. He is able to go out of his body and take mystical journeys into the cosmos as well as the underworld, and be a psychopomp for the souls of men. "In a word, the shaman is the great specialist in spiritual questions… the shamanist complex represents… that which is usually known in the more highly developed religions as mysticism and mystical experience."12 Indeed, this is the precise experience, this mystical journey into the cosmos which Abraham himself, among others anciently, experienced, and as Nibley has also noted.13 I just honestly don’t find Nibley’s argument on mysticism in this regard to be convincing.

Rudolf Otto says "the essence of the mystica theologia in the distinction from the usual theologia lay in the fact that it claims to teach a deeper ‘mystery,’ and to impart secrets and reveal depths which were otherwise unknown."14 Now this is worth noting in light of Nibley contending that "There is nothing in the mystic experience that can be conveyed to others."15 Because his experience is incommunicable (sort of like receiving a testimony in Mormonism, it is also non-transferable as Nibley pointed out in another place) Nibley then goes on to compare the prophets. "The whole calling of a prophet is to communicate the will of God to men; he is a mouthpiece and a witness, and he tells what he has seen and heard; he is a man with a message. The mystic, on the other hand, has no such message."16

I believe Nibley is wrong on all counts here. The mystics experience is communicable, but the question is how? Is the spoken and written word the only allowed expressions to humanity? Nibley completely ignores the utterly tremendous and magnificent art Indian Civilization produced, unlike anything else on the planet. The message is in the symbolism, exactly as it is in the ancient symbolism of Egypt, Japan, and even Medieval Alchemy, Hermeticism, and the Tarot Cards. Joseph Campbell has demonstrated how the symbolism is the message in India quite impressively, and what’s more, the entire civilization of billions of people have understood it.17 Nibley completely overlooked Heinrich’s Zimmer’s magnificent work detailing the significance and message of Indian art and symbolism.18 It’s more than interesting when our eyes fall on the dancing Shiva, or the magnificent rock carving of Vishnu on Ananta at Deogarh, that this symbolism is so complex, so intricate and all encompassing. The Indians believed that "the greater the suggestive quality of the symbol used, the more answering emotion it evokes in those to whom it is addressed [in this case, the entire country], the more truth it will convey..Its appeal will not be to the clever brain, but to the desirous heart, the intuitive sense, of man."19 In fact, the Buddha after he attained this mystical enlightenment, came back to do what with it? Teach it, of course. He teaches using symbols, masks as it were. There are numerous recent examples of all this in Joseph Campbell’s intereview with Bill Moyers in Campbell’s wonderful book The Power of Myth. 20 Campbell specifically shows that both Indra and Brahma came to Buddha and asked him to return and teach what he had learned. He said it cannot be taught, and yet he came back to teach it! But he noted "What I will teach is not Buddhism, it is the way to Buddhism."21 Sort of like the prophets here. They don’t teach you heaven, they teach you the way to heaven.

The mystic most definitely has a message, which certainly is incommunicable…that is in words or writing. But it is taught and learned through art, every bit as worthy a means of teaching as anything on planet earth. In fact, symbols teach far better than words do. We hear it said a picture is worth a thousand words. Go to India, you’ll see mysticism being taught in grand splendor and artistic beauty. There are also plenty of books to show you. Huston Smith, the great authority on world religions, has shown that esoteric mysticism of the Tao leads to revelation for the individuals who practice it. They must be selfless, clean and emotionally calm before they receive their full knowledge. They also deeply meditate.22 And one more item before I move on to the main point of this essay. If mysticism can’t be taught, if it is not a revelation, then how could Joseph Campbell possibly have described it, to of all people, the Mormons ourselves! He gave a lively and wonderful demonstration of Kundalini Yoga at BYU, which is printed by the BYU Religious Studies Center.23 I believe the assumption that communication can only occur by word or writing, as Nibley has written is weak.

In fact, what about the first time, the very first time, for a Mormon going and taking his/her endowments out of the temple? Is that honestly communicable? Anyone can actually read the endowment on the Internet these days, but is that honestly the same as the actual experience of going through that magnificent experience? Is it truly communicable? Even if you could describe the actual building, the inside of the temple, the various people who help you out and through it, the learning of the information etc., would anyone honestly say that is its message? Wouldn’t it essentially by the same thing, i.e. incommunicable on your 5th time through, your 15th, or 100th or 1000th? Yet it surely has a message. I think, perhaps, at this point, I am beating a dead horse. I am reminded also of Huston Smith’s conversation with Bill Moyers in the video series The Wisdom of Faith: Confuscianism. Toward the end, they are discussing Yoga and what does it actually do for the person? Smith simply says telling about it won’t give you the knowledge of what it does for you. You have to experience it. It is a spiritual experience which language and words are just honestly not adapted to describing.

I would argue the same for mysticism as well as our own endowment experience.

And finally to the main point of my paper, namely that Mormonism is mystical in the truest sense and description of mystical experience and definition. I also believe this is picture perfectly presented to us in our own scriptures, namely that magnificent revelation of D&C 138, Joseph F. Smith’s vision of salvation for the dead. But first to Steven Katz and his concepts concerning Mysticism.

A main point in Katz’s argument, and perhaps why Mormonism shys away from anything to do with mysticism, is the common misperception about the mystic as a great rebel against the prevailing religious authority, who places his or her doctrine above that of the church which the mystic operates within. This is simply false, and has no evidence to back it up.24 Katz demonstrates at great length that the mystic has his experience, his revelation, insight, epiphany, whatever you want to call it, within the traditions in which the mystic has been brought up, whether culturally or religiously. This is crucial to understand my own point concerning mysticism within Mormonism as I shall show shortly.

Katz demonstrates that a Hindu mystic has his experience in his own familiar language with which to describe such, within the parameters of Hindu theology, namely a vision of Brahman, not that of Christ. A Christian mystic does not identify some reality out there which is conveniently labeled "God" but rather, has a prefigured Christian experience of God, or Jesus, and so forth with the other mysticisms.25 "The nature of the Christian mystic’s pre-mystical consciousness informs the mystical consciousness in such a way that he encounters Jesus, the Trinity, or a personal God rather than the non-personal, not this, not that, Buddhist doctrine of nirvana."26.

Robert M. Gimello also declares it a mistake to think that mysticism stands on its own, as an autonomous whole experience with its own independent rules, values and truths.27 Gimello goes on to demonstrate that for the Buddhist mystic, the supposedly correct mysticism is that which will attain to enlightenment of Buddha consciousness, because, naturally, this notion "actually determine the kinds of realizations they have."28 Annemarie Schimmel demonstrates the exact same thing with Sufism in the Islamic tradition where she notes "Islamic mysticism developed out of the meditation of the Koran and the faithful imitation of the actions of the Messenger of God." She further notes that "the words of the Holy Book [Koran] were the spiritual nourishment on which the pious lived so that Pere Nwyia rightly speaks of a ‘koranization of the memory,’ which enabled the Sufis to understand everything in the light of one or another Koranic sentence."29

Katz shows "there is an intimate even necessary connection between the mystical and religious texts studied and assimilated … in each mystical tradition… there is an inherited theological-mystical education which is built upon certain agreed sources."30 He shows for Jewish mystics this was the Song of Songs, with God as the beloved lover. And because of this, what the Kabbalistic mystic saw "was not independent of what he had studied in order to see… he sought what Solomon described, and he found what Solomon had said was there to find."31

Notice here that there is no mixing up of mystical visions, revelations, or enlightenments. The Jews do not see Buddha or Vishnu, but Yahweh. The Buddhists do not see Jesus or the Trinity, but Buddha Consciousness. The Christians do not see Buddha or Vishnu, or Yahweh, but Jesus and the Trinity. And the Mormon prophets do not see the trinity or Buddha either. But they do see their mystical visions within the parameters of their own educational backgrounds! Consider D&C 138.

Here we read of Joseph F. Smith pondering on Jesus and the atonement. He then opens the Bible, which he had read from childhood up. And then in verse 11 a vision comes to him, this magnificent vision of the work of the dead. He then notes in verses 38ff, that he also saw some of the great Biblical Patriarchs, again because this was within his upbringing traditional religious knowledge, namely, Adam, Eve, Abel, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, etc. In verse 49 he then notices the great prophets who were among the Nephites, again, because this was akin to his religious upbringing and understanding. He then also sees, in verse 53, Joseph Smith, Hyrum Smith, Brigham Young, John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff, etc., again conforming to his knowledge he had learned since childhood.

This beautifully conforms to the mystical revelation tradition. There are no wires crossed at all. Nothing is mentioned of Buddha, Vishnu, Yahweh the Trinity, Jesus as lover, etc. It is all within the Mormon tradition. Notice, no other tradition ever sees the Nephites as Joseph F. Smith did. None of them ever claim or have claimed to see Joseph Smith, etc. Each and every mystical tradition is operative within the bounds and confines of its own traditions and expectations of knowledge. The Sephiroth of the Zohar is never mentioned by Joseph F. Smith in this vision at all. There is no mixing whatever with other traditions, and this is as it should be. There is no sexual-anthropomorphic union imagery in this vision as there was with the rabbinic mystics. As Katz has noted with other mystical traditions, and which I include Joseph F. Smith’s vision here within the parameters of Mormon soteriology, "Rather they experienced what they had learned to experience, what their piety, training and education had prepared them to experience…"32 This is the reason why the medieval Christian mystics saw Jesus as their own lover, yet this is never seen in any other mystic traditional experience, of say Buddhists, Hindus or Mormons. The medieval mystics used the Song of Songs as their base text of understanding their relationship with Jesus, and hence that is precisely who and what they experienced.33

Katz demonstrates that western mystics do not experience God in neutral or monistic ways. In fact, Christians do not experience God the Father as their lover, but only Jesus as such. "The concrete meetings of mystic and beloved in Christian tradition, moreover, are almost always with the Christ whose physical body and wounds, etc., are seen and felt by the Christian initiate."34 There is nothing like this in any other mystical traditions, including the Mormon one.

But there is more to Katz study to help us understand why mysticism is not on the opposite pole of revelation, as the north end of a bar magnet is from the south end. Katz describes the mystic leader and his relation to the community, as well as his own mystical experience within the cultural context.

What all these traditions have in common, including our own Mormon tradition is what Katz has described as:

"they have directly experienced what scripture describes or prescribes (whichever text they hold to be scripture) – their experiential assertions and reports are both meant by them and understood by the larger faith community to which they belong and in the midst of which these proclamations are made as confirmations of the inherited, authoritative tradition of scriptural interpretation(s), and not as heretical assertions that threaten the pillars of the regnant orthodoxy."35

In other words, Joseph F. Smith had a vision of the redemption of the dead, because that was Mormon understanding of the scriptures. He saw Nephite prophets because that is what he had read about, not Krishna, since he probably had not bothered with the Bhagavad Gita and understood Krishan as being present with Arjuna on the battlefield of Kuruksetra. The Gita nowhere mentions anything concerning the Old Testament God as being present either, let alone the Markavah or throne of God as the Jews experience.

Yet Joseph F. Smith’s mystical vision cannot be said to be the displacement of scripture, in this case the Bible. It is rather, as Katz has noted, as in all mystical traditions, "a re-interpretation."36

Another most enlightening point, which Katz makes, is on the individuals themselves who have these mystical revelation/visions, such as Joseph F. Smith had. Their nature is such that they themselves become ideals. I could not help but have Mormon prophets in my mind throughout this part of Katz’s presentation. Follow with me and see if you do not see this also. Keeping our own Mormon prophets in mind, here is Katz’s elucidation of mystic individuals as models.

"By model here I do not mean a theoretical construct as in the physic sciences, but rather the nature of individuals who become norms for their tradition in a variety of ways. Such individuals become Ideals; their individuality becomes categorical; their biographies didactic. [note this! We have the Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball," The Life of Joseph F. Smith, etc.] The normative individual is the medium of the universal teaching; the instrument for the revelation of more general truths. Every religious community, and every mystical movement within each community, has a ‘model’ or ‘models’ of the ideal practitioner of the religious life."37 Here is Katz’s list:

The individual provides an instantiation of the proper attitude and practice to be imitated or approximated by the faithful.

The model is a representation of the tradition.

He demonstrates the lived reality of the doctrinal truth, both in showing that the doctrinal truths can be lived, and he points to the source of the revelation for those doctrinal truths

The model is proof of the continuing presence of the Reality of the tradition, whatever the reality is understood to be.

The model stands as a critique of existing attitudes and practices, setting a standard of perfection against which to measure the actions of the faithful.

The model may, though need not always, bring a new revelation or a new doctrine.

The model may be seen as revealing a new interpretation of an older doctrine.

The model is often a founder of a religious community. [in our case, Joseph Smith]

The model provides an authoritative picture of "reality"

The model is a bridge between ‘above’ and ‘below.’

The model brings together in a lived, and hence liveable, way the theory and the practice, the ideal and the real.

The model is a moral paradigm.38

There is not one single category of Katz’s that our Mormon Prophets do not fit in, they are included in every single item! But doesn’t this "relativistic mysticism" mean there is no "objective reality"? Not at all. Does this mean one of these traditions are lying and another telling the truth? Not at all. Truth is objective reality to all these cultures within their own cultural constructs, to them. Einstein demonstrated that two people can describe the same event in completely different fashions and both are seeing it objectively to themselves and describing it truthfully. Thus a man standing still on the ground sees a train going by at 100 mph. Another person in a car traveling at 60mph records the train going by at 30 mph, and they are both correct.

But don’t these traditions merely record what they already believe is reality? Isn’t this just subjective wishing? No. We now understand that an observer actually does create the reality for themselves. The world is either particles or waves, all depending on what magnification is used. The experimenter himself enters into the equation of whether the test produces particles or waves.39 The mystical observers are doing just that.

As Mormons we understand that God reveals to any of his children who seek after him. He also reveals what they are capable of understanding concerning truth and reality. Hence, these traditions make sense within their own parameters. The new studies also demonstrate quite conclusively, that mysticism is revelation, in the truest sense of the word, and that this revelation can be communicated, and certainly is. Far from being a troubling thing to find it within Mormonism, it actually reaffirms the religious heritage of our Restoration.


  1. Alan Watts, Beat Zen, Square Zen and Zen, City Lights Books, 1959:1.
  2. R. Buckminster Fuller, Synergetics: Explorations in the Geometry of Thinking, Collier MacMillan Publishers, 1975: xix.
  3. Hugh W. Nibley, The World and the Prophets, Deseret Book/F.A.R.M.S., 1987: Chapter 12.
  4. Ibid., p. 99.
  5. Hugh Nibley, The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri, Deseret Book, 1976: Chapter 3.
  6. World and the Prophets, p. 98.
  7. World and the Prophets, p. 99.
  8. World and the Prophets, p. 100.
  9. Mercea Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, Princeton University Press, 1964: 264.
  10. Hugh Nibley, One Eternal Round, Lectures given at FARMS, 1990: Tape # 9, lecture given on Sept. 5, 1990.
  11. Robert E. Dyan, The Strong Eye of Shamanism, Inner Traditions, 1999: 14-15.
  12. Mercea Eliade, Myths, Dreams, and Mysteries, Harper Torchbooks, 1960: 61.
  13. Hugh Nibley, Abraham in Egypt, Deseret Book, 1981: 9-40.
  14. Rudolf Otto, Mysticism East and West, MacMillan Publishing, 4th printing, 1976: 159.
  15. World and the Prophets, p. 102.
  16. World and the Prophets, p. 102.
  17. Joseph Campbell, Transformations of Myth Through Time, Harper and Row Publishers, 1990: Chapters 5-9. On the magnificent symbolic representations and art of Alchemy, as well as Hermeticism, see Alexander Roob, The Hermetic Museum: Alchemy & Mysticism, Taschen, 1997; on the Symbolic interpretations and meaning of the Tarot see Richard Roberts, Joseph Campbell, Tarot Revelations, Vernal Equinox Press, 3rd Printing, 1987.
  18. Heinrich Zimmer, Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization, Harper Torchbooks, 1946.
  19. Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism, E. P. Dutton & Co., 1961: 126.
  20. 20. Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth, Doubleday, 1988: Chapter 8, "Masks of Eternity."
  21. Joseph Campbell, Transformations of Myth Through Time, p. 117.
  22. Huston Smith, The Religions of Man, Harper and Row Publishers, 1965: 202.
  23. Joseph Campbell, "Masks of Oriental Gods: Symbolism of Kundalini Yoga," in Literature of Belief, BYU Religious Studies Center, Ed., Neal E. Lambert, 1981: Chapter 6. See also, Robert M. Gimello, "Mysticism in Their Contexts," in Steven T. Katz, ed., Mysticism and Religious Traditions, Oxford University Press, 1983: 71, where he notes that Buddhist monks acknowledge that some utterances may have at least conventional truth, even though they cannot express the ultimate truth.
  24. Steven Katz, "The Conservative Character of Mystical Experience," in Steven T. Katz, Ibid., 3.
  25. Katz, Ibid., p. 4-5.
  26. Katz, p. 5.
  27. Robert M. Gimello, "Mysticism in its Contexts," in Katz, Ibid., p. 61.
  28. Gimello, p. 66.
  29. Annemarie Schimmel, "Sufism and the Islamic Tradition," in Katz, Ibid., p.130-131.
  30. Katz, p. 6.
  31. Katz, p. 9.
  32. Katz, p. 10.
  33. Katz, p. 11.
  34. Katz, p. 14.
  35. Katz, p. 20.
  36. Katz, p. 30.
  37. Katz, p. 43.
  38. Katz, pp. 43-46.
  39. See Brian Greene’s analysis in The Elegant Universe, W. W. Norton & Co., 1999: 97-116.