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[Spiritual Languages] On Coyotes and White Stones

Thus far I have played it safe. I have kept to spiritual languages that make sense to me and that, at least to some extent, I understand. This week we are continuing on a theme begun last week, but off the beaten track, at least off the beaten track of WEIRD (Western Educated Industrial Rich Democratic) culture, to which I myself belong.

Last week we discussed how science can be a language of the spirit because creations not only testify of a creator, they teach the nature of their creator. In the case of the creator God, we discussed how through science the material creation can teach us about and connect us to our Heavenly Parents, thus creating a spiritual language. When it comes to the material world speaking through science I think most of us are generally ok with that. But there is another kind of spiritual language via the material world that crops up all throughout Judeo-Christian history, as well as in the modern restoration’s history, that, at least for WEIRDos, we tend to be extremely uncomfortable with, and can be very patronizing about. We are going to talk about how material objects themselves may be direct sources of spiritual communication.

Decades ago, right after my mother was born, my grandfather and a friend were making visits around the Navajo reservation where my mother’s family lived. It took several days to travel across the entire reservation, and they would spend the nights sleeping underneath their jeep. One night some coyotes began howling strangely, and my grandfather’s friend told him someone was dying. Soon after a rider found my grandfather and told him that his wife was dying[1]. My grandfather asked his friend how he knew; he said the coyotes told him.

This is not the only story my grandfather told me of the deep magic[2] among the Navajos and later Utes with whom he lived. He was as skeptical a man you could meet, and yet there were things he saw that changed the way he viewed the world. In time he himself was able to learn this language, too.

By this point we’ve all heard that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon by looking at a rock inside of a hat as it lit up. It’s one thing for the Brother of Jared or the Jewish High Priest or Mosiah to have stones that told them things. There are all kinds of things the ancients did that we don’t. But Joseph Smith wasn’t an ancient. We may be able to tolerate revelatory rocks in some ancient place and time, but in post-enlightenment New York they seem completely ridiculous. This story has made many church members—at least WEIRD ones—deeply uncomfortable. While it was talked about in a few Ensign articles over the years it’s something we’ve generally avoided discussing until recently. Many members (myself included) believed it was anti-mormon lies. Over the last few years we have begun to talk more openly about this phenomenon, but we still tend to not like it, and our inclination is to quickly explain it away. The explanation I have mostly heard was that people back then were uneducated and superstitious and so God was willing to condescend to speak to them in the language of ignorant superstition until they could learn a better one. We’re ok with miracles, but they need to stay within a certain bounds—(this isn’t necessarily unreasonable; God having bounds is a uniquely Latter-day Saint belief). The problem is we don’t always question whether or not some of the bounds we hold on to with white-knuckled determination are less universal laws and more our own cultural norms. And not questioning is at the heart of all ignorance, including spiritual ignorance.

The thing is, Joseph never did “outgrow” seer stones. They were an important part of his prophetic ministry, and still exist in our doctrine as one of the promised blessings to be given to the elect (Revelation 2:17, D&C 130:9-11). In fact, not only will all members of the Celestial kingdom have a seer stone, but the Celestial kingdom itself is a seer stone—it is material space acting as a conduit of direct revelation.

What if there is something real, literal, here? Certainly there are many cases of ignorance and superstition being at the heart of some beliefs in the supernatural material world (ignorance is at the heart of many cherished beliefs—even some of yours and mine, dear reader, we just don’t know it yet), but does that mean it always is? What if it is possible that the material creation may serve as a direct conduit to its creator? Is this really so unreasonable? Is the reason it makes us so uncomfortable really because we know better? Could it be we have learned to prize certain ideas simply because we have been told that in order to be intelligent we must, and we never questioned them again? Could it be that our discomfort is not always a spiritual warning, but may sometimes be the strain of ethnocentric elitism?

These are questions I am genuinely asking. This is not something I have ever experienced. I tend to be very skeptical. And yet…I sometimes wonder if I might be as guilty of ignorance as the people I have accused of ignorance. So many people in so many cultures take it for granted that the material of the earth can be a direct source of revelation of some kind. I wonder if, in all my wisdom, I am missing out on something. At any rate, perhaps we would do well to take a moment and listen to the world around us. To really see it. And if we can’t, perhaps we would do well not to dismiss out of hand those who do.

[1] She did live, but barely. There was not a doctor and she almost hemorrhaged to death from post-pregnancy complications and had to give herself a D and C. The women in my family are out of control.

[2] I know the use of the word magic is loaded, but that is how my grandfather always described it; that is how the indigenous people in the tribes with whom he lived described it. And, in spite of my own cynicism, I really want to believe there is magic in the world.

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