Saturday, June 17, 2017

The Book of Mormon: The Freedom of Imagination

In this post, I intend to claim something very radical: the Book of Mormon is not historical but is instead a deliverance from history into imagination. But it will take a lot of preparatory explanation to even get to that point. So strap yourself in.

The Production of Time

Pause for a moment and look at the sun. Well, maybe not really, but at the very least, think about looking at the sun. You see its light, feel its warmth. But is what you see and feel really the sun? Well, in a way, no. It's the sun as it was eight minutes ago. Because light only travels at a finite speed, light from the sun only reaches us after a certain time. And, until eight minutes have passed, you have no idea what the state of the sun is at a given moment. For all you know, it may have fizzled out five minutes ago, but you'll still be able to get a tan for the next three.

This is true of anything, near or far. The table in front of you conceals something invisible beneath: it is the product of a process, not a reality in itself. Quantum physics (insofar as I understand) it teaches us this much: that every particle is nothing more than a propensity until it is observed, at which point it collapses into a given position. By extension, this works for any particle or any collection of particles: like the screen you're reading this on or, you know, your body. Like the sun, we only see the particle as it has manifested. The manifest-ing, the eight minutes before the light reaches us, the tangle of possibilities that particles (and anything made of particles) collapse from, is invisible. 


So what is it that lets the production of reality appear as a product? It is what lets you see the images in front of you, what lets you hear sounds, what lets you see the world: your imagination. I use imagination in the broadest sense possible as any faculty to assemble a concrete gestalt out of living potential. I also use it because Rudolf Steiner uses the term this way, and I'll be invoking his ideas later on. Imagination, therefore lets you see the present, the manifest-ed, the "ta-da!" of what the past "proudly presents." 

But how do we encounter the past? Not the past of memory, but the past wrapped up in the present as the production of what it "presents." It happens in a different way: through logical thought. When we scientifically investigate the composition of substances, we abstract away from the sensuous "present" of imagination into an abstract conception of what brought that present about. Instead of seeing the coolness of water, we see hydrogen and oxygen. Instead of a person's face, we see cellular tissue. All this is not without value.

And yet there is another way to investigate the "production" of things, the "past" that brings about the "present": again, by imagination. Only this time it doesn't just deliver the present as we think of it. It "presents" the past: we perceive the production of things instead of just reasoning about it. We see the production as production. This is, understandably, hard to believe. It takes a leap of faith, since this style of cognition is different from the accepted style of thinking and perceiving. Nevertheless, it is real, and it can be achieved. In fact, when people have visions of higher worlds, this is exactly what they experience: the production of the physical world from the spiritual world. The spiritual world is the production or manifest-ing of the physical world. To quote Adam S. Miller, it is the "supercharged fullness of time," lodged in the eight minutes that it takes for light from the sun to reach us.

Stuck in the Past

Therefore, insofar as we use logical concepts, the past is behind a veil. We see the composition of things abstractly, not concretely. We may "live in the present moment" and experience the life therein, but as soon as we start thinking conceptually, we have obscured that life by fleeing to a dead vision of what is past. Thus, insofar as we use concepts, we die and are held captive by death. To live, we must think imaginally (through imagination), not conceptually. 

This is Christ's purpose: to deliver us from captivity to the deadness of concepts into life. As per Mormon doctrine, death is separation (of matter from spirit; of God from the human being), and concepts do nothing better than separate. They distinguish, demarcate, and delimit. For the spiritual teacher Rudolf Steiner (whom I deeply respect) this conceptual, death-dealing factor is called Ahriman. In his cosmology, this spiritual being was tasked by higher beings to initiate humans into a consciousness of death, whereas before they cared as little about it as your cat does if another cat dies. Ahriman does this through concepts. The more we think in concepts, the more the spiritual world recedes from the physical world, and death becomes more and more of a looming terror. And while this conceptual descent was needed for our growth, Ahriman has a tendency to go too far. The world was hardening until Christ came, and people began to be trapped by the rigidity of the conceptual thought that is Ahriman's harbinger. Christ, then, had the unique distinction of being a god who experienced death, and as such could he could introduce life into the dead world of concepts. 

Christ is what brings life out of death: he vivifies our thinking, making it pliable and full of hidden implications. Receiving his grace, we can relax the Ahrimanic rigidity of our muscles and ease into the world not as something dead and mechanical but as something life-filled and safe. He imbues the world with life where before it was full of mechanical rigidity. Christ is what loosens, whether what is rigid is muscles or the falsity of conceptual thought. In other words, he's what helps the production of reality break the surface into the product; he's what makes the latter a correct image of the former.

The Book of Mormon as Imaginal Liberation

And now we can finally get to my main point. If 1) everything is only a present that manifests an ongoing "production," 2) if this ongoing production is the true meaning of the past, 3) if we are cut off from that ongoing production by conceptual thought, and 4) we are connected to it through imagination, and 5) Christ inspires this new perception of that living production of time, then what does that mean for the Book of Mormon? Well, the Book of Mormon is a revelation of the livingness of the past. It short-circuits conceptual thought and takes us directly to the composition of the present that we assumed could only be perceived abstractly. That is, the Book of Mormon is our composition, what composes us, what makes us up. Not in the sense of genes, molecules, or heredity, since these too are finished products. Instead, the Book of Mormon is that composition perceived imaginally, the headwaters of our lives on earth presented to us in images. 

Frankly, the Book of Mormon isn't historical. History is a system of concepts: a finished production, a catalog of artifacts and documents. It is dead, not alive. But the Book of Mormon is full of life. It comes to us with the visceral concreteness and pregnancy of meaning proper to a dream. It is imagination, or more accurately, it is the imaginal perception of actual history. For the events in the Book of Mormon did happen, albeit in a weird way. As far as I can tell, the Book of Mormon is the way that imaginal consciousness perceives remarkable events of ancient America's past. That is, it is the imaginal history of the continent. What does this look like concretely? Well, Rudolf Steiner once gave a lecture in which he writes that, if you clairvoyantly investigate, you discover remarkable events that occurred in ancient Central America:

Now at a certain time, a being was born in Central America who set himself a definite task within this culture. The old, original inhabitants of Mexico linked the existence of this being with a definite idea or picture. They said he had entered the world as the son of a virgin who had conceived him through super-earthly powers, inasmuch as it was a feathered being from the heavens who impregnated her. When one makes researches with the occult powers at one's disposal, one finds that the being to whom the ancient Mexicans ascribed a virgin birth was born in the year 1 A.D. and lived to be thirty-three years old. These facts emerge when, as stated, one examines the matter with occult means.

Here, a European clairvoyant with no apparent knowledge of Mormonism says that he discerned the existence of a Christ being in Central America who, it turns out, delivered them from evil organizations with gruesome Ahrimanic rituals. This is the essentials of what the Book of Mormon describes. I point this out not to claim that the Book of Mormon is wrong but quite the opposite: that clearly the Book of Mormon depicts actual events that can be corroborated by other spiritual investigators. However, the Book is unique because it has been freed from the conceptual history of these events into the freedom of imagination. It only depicts the historical events through a haze, much like a dream would depict the issues in your life. But that "haze" gets at something more essential: the production of those events as opposed to those events as products, depicted through dynamic, pregnant images. 

But this is more than an example of something outside history. It has concrete effects: it frees you from history too. As the words of Christ, whose mission is to deliver us from the death that characterizes history, you would expect this. But the Book of Mormon is also the words of man: through the Hebrew and Reformed Egyptian of Nephi, Mormon, and Moroni, and the English of Joseph Smith. Insofar as the Book of Mormon is the word of man, it is buried in the ground of Ahrimanic rigidity: the placement of its words is weak, as Moroni laments in Ether 12. But insofar as it is the words of Christ, the Book of Mormon is the deliverance from that Ahrimanic rigidity. If Christ delivers us from captivity, the Book of Mormon is a tool by which he does so. For the Book of Mormon is a path outward from conceptual thinking into imagination. Whereas concepts imprison us in a dead world of finished products, the Book of Mormon awakens us to the ever-living, ever-expanding world in which treasures are laid up for us from the foundation of the world and revelation is unveiled line by line, precept by precept, to eternity. For the Book of Mormon is never finished. The livingness of the past never is. By using stories, images, and precepts that one is invited and sometimes spontaneously compelled to liken to one's own life, the Book of Mormon shows us that our life is more than we thought it was. There are hidden treasures in our very flesh, revelations buried in our bones. This is imagination: an unbidden, heretofore impossible perception of the composition of our souls. We see within the eight minutes it takes for light to reach us from the sun. We catch a glimpse of the back of our head in a mirror. We see as we are seen.

This is deep stuff. If you would like a concrete image to remember this thought, I can think of no better example than that of gold plates being lifted out of the ground.The ground is the Ahrimanic specter of conceptual thought, rigidity, and the death that they are; the gold is the life within all things trapped by it. To lift it out means to deliver life from death: that is, to free the livingness of imagination from the rigidity of concepts, to make the world thus trapped infinitely pregnant with meaning, to make the finite endless.

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