Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Was Joseph Smith a "religious genius"?


In his highly interesting book The American Religion (1993), Harold Bloom (himself perhaps the most famous US literary critic of the past several decades) famously described Joseph Smith (1805-1844; 'the Mormon Prophet') as an authentic religious genius.

But, although this comment showed that Bloom had understood the magnitude of Smith's achievement, this was something of a back-handed compliment!

Because Bloom did not, of course, believe that Joseph Smith was an authentically-inspired prophet - and therefore (given the scope of JS's achievement) Bloom was stating what must therefore be the case: that Joseph Smith was a genius in having himself created a remarkable new religion.


(In passing, it is worth noting that Bloom, a Jew, clearly found the earlier and more Hebraic, Old Testament, millennial, Zion-building style of theocratic Mormonism more remarkable - and, one senses, more congenial - than what Mormonism became after polygamy was abolished and Deseret/ Utah joined the United States and was fully subjected to Federal government and laws.)


So what was Joseph Smith's achievement such that Bloom (something of an expert on geniuses) called him an authentic genius?

1. Writing The Book of Mormon in a few months (plus associated scriptures and revelations).

2. Creating an entirely new Christian theology (what he termed the 'restored' Gospel).

3. Founding an extremely successful church - its distinctive priesthood, offices, rituals, and organization.


In fact Smith's achievement was made even more extraordinary by his further innovation -

4. An explicit acknowledgement of his own fallibility and limitations; such that the church incorporated the expectation of continuous revelation and revision of the scriptures, theology and church organization.

This meant, in effect, that JS trusted his created forms actually to improve on what he had done.

And such was a pretty unusual, perhaps unique, trait among the founders of major religions.


So, if Joseph Smith is not regarded as an inspired Prophet, then he must indeed have been a genius; someone combining scripture-writing abilities approximately equal to an author of one of the minor books of the Old Testament, with something close to the theological creativity and comprehensiveness of St Paul, and the church-organizing abilities of St Peter...

On the other hand, a close examination of the life and character of Joseph Smith does not seem to reveal the personality or abilities of that kind of genius...


Most people who are not themselves Mormons do not recognize the scope and magnitude of Joseph Smith achievement, simply because they do not know enough about the subject.

For them there is 'nothing to explain'; and (like most of JS's contemporaries - and Mormonism was born and grew under the intense skeptical, mocking and aggressive scrutiny from the mass media and existing churches) Smith can be written off as merely a 'lucky' fool (lucky, that is, apart from being tortured, imprisoned and murdered) and/ or a cunning fraud (perhaps covertly motivated by seeking a harem).

But, if one is knowledgeable and honest enough to admit the astonishing achievement of Mormonism, then the more that can be said against Joseph Smith, the less likely it is that he really was 'a genius'; and therefore the more likely it is that he was just what he said he was: an inspired, but fallible, prophet.



dearieme said...

A great deal is known about him, whereas only a little is known about Jesus and virtually nothing about Mohammed. As for Moses, there's no compelling reason to suppose he ever existed, is there?

Bruce Charlton said...

@d - I presume your point is that not much is known about the personality and ability of other founders of religions - aside from what is contained in the scriptures associated with them; and that therefore JS may not be exceptional in this regard.

But my point isn't really affected by this. We know what JS did; and that to do what he did (without supernatural inspiration) requires what we would call genius.

If, like Bloom, you are happy to acknowledge that JS was a genius (despite superficial appearances) then that does indeed explain what needs to be explained.

On this view JS was neither a prophet, nor inspired; but creatively manufactured Mormonism from whole cloth (either as a deliberate fraud or under the influence of delusions).

But most people apparently believe two incompatible things - that JS was not merely NOT a genius but was a ridiculous, crazed and talentless fool; and also that he did what he did.

That is what I am arguing against.

Adam G. said...

That's an interesting perspective on Joseph Smith. Its not one I'm very familiar with--I'm a Mormon, and for obvious reasons we tend to lionize the guy. But it reminds me of a common Mormon saying about Mormon missionaries. They are 19-year olds, typically, and like most 19-year olds are mostly yahoos. So we say "the Church must be true, because otherwise the missionaries would have destroyed it long ago." I've heard Catholics say the same thing about their hierarchy. What this suggests is that flawed people achieving outsize results is one of the hallmarks of the Holy Spirit. One of the best things about reading the Gospels and Acts is seeing the transformation of Peter from a comic-relief rube in the Gospels to the man in Acts whose power and majesty radiate off the page.

Bruce Charlton said...

@AG -

Yes, it is a paradox that some Mormons try to amplify Joseph Smith's natural talents and cover his weaknesses, yet if that strategy was to succeed it would (inadvertently) reduce the need to regard him as an inspired prophet!

One of the (many) things I found fascinating about Bushman's biography of JS was the descriptions of how he was regarded by the early Mormons. He was treated with friendly tolerance and respect, but not given especial deference in normal everyday interactions.

It was for his revelations that he was valued. When there was a problem they didn't ask Joseph the man to give advice (based on his wisdom and experience), but asked for a revelation from Joseph the prophet.

My point is that the early Mormons apparently did not treat Joseph as a genius, but as a prophet.

George Goerlich said...

Could he possess some sort of intuitive genius, that wouldn't be apparent in obvious realms of genius (rational reasoning, math, etc.) but could help him innately perceive or realize things?

I know it's unrelated, but Steve Jobs was very capable and achieved massive influence in a very materialistic sense, but those around him didn't perceive him as intelligent in a typical genius sense (as contrasted with Bill Gates' nerdy-type intelligence). Just a potential contrast because he also had a sort of intuitive drive/perception combined with a tack for finding highly capable people.

The results were completely different, but Joseph Smith also clearly had the ability to find the right, highly-capable people to continue his organization, combined with some sort of highly intuitive perception and grasp of religious matters.

josh said...

Why do you say he wrote the Book of Mormon i a few months? According to wikipedia he translated that golden plates for a few years.

Bruce Charlton said...

I get this from Bushman's biography of JS.

Agellius said...

Another possibility is that it was just a happy confluence of people and events. You know, like in Outliers [http://www.gladwell.com/outliers/index.html]:

1. What is an outlier?

"Outlier" is a scientific term to describe things or phenomena that lie outside normal experience. … In this book I'm interested in people who are outliers—in men and women who, for one reason or another, are so accomplished and so extraordinary and so outside of ordinary experience that they are as puzzling to the rest of us as a cold day in August.

2. Why did you write Outliers?

I write books when I find myself returning again and again, in my mind, to the same themes. ... In the case of Outliers, the book grew out a frustration I found myself having with the way we explain the careers of really successful people. You know how you hear someone say of Bill Gates or some rock star or some other outlier—"they're really smart," or "they're really ambitious?' Well, I know lots of people who are really smart and really ambitious, and they aren't worth 60 billion dollars. It struck me that our understanding of success was really crude—and there was an opportunity to dig down and come up with a better set of explanations.

3. In what way are our explanations of success "crude?"

... What I came to realize in writing Outliers, ... is that we've been far too focused on the individual—on describing the characteristics and habits and personality traits of those who get furthest ahead in the world. And that's the problem, because in order to understand the outlier I think you have to look around them—at their culture and community and family and generation. We've been looking at tall trees, and I think we should have been looking at the forest.

4. Can you give some examples?

Sure. For example, one of the chapters looks at the fact that a surprising number of the most powerful and successful corporate lawyers in New York City have almost the exact same biography: they are Jewish men, born in the Bronx or Brooklyn in the mid-1930's to immigrant parents who worked in the garment industry. Now, you can call that a coincidence. Or you can ask—as I do—what is about being Jewish and being part of the generation born in the Depression and having parents who worked in the garment business that might have something to do with turning someone into a really, really successful lawyer? And the answer is that you can learn a huge amount about why someone reaches the top of that profession by asking those questions.

5. Doesn't that make it sound like success is something outside of an individual's control?

I don't mean to go that far. But I do think that we vastly underestimate the extent to which success happens because of things the individual has nothing to do with. ...

6. What's the most surprising pattern you uncovered in the book?

It's probably the chapter nearly the end of Outliers where I talk about plane crashes. How good a pilot is, it turns out, has a lot to do with where that pilot is from—that is, the culture he or she was raised in. I was actually stunned by how strong the connection is between culture and crashes, and it's something that I would never have dreamed was true, in a million years.

Bruce Charlton said...

@A - Malcolm Gladwell? Oh, for goodness sake! He is such a mixture of wrongheadedness and incompetence that he is only ever right once in a blue moon and by accident!

Agellius said...

"Malcolm Gladwell? Oh, for goodness sake! He is such a mixture of wrongheadedness and incompetence that he is only ever right once in a blue moon and by accident!"

You may be right. However I'm not citing him as an authority, but because I think he makes a good point. Do you have anything to say against his point in this particular instance?

All I'm saying is that "the success of the LDS Church is due entirely to the genius of JS" and "the success of the LDS Church is due to JS's being a genuine prophet", are not the only options.