A Jungian Interpretation of the First Vision

You may say I’m a dreamer.

The traditional LDS perspective of the First Vision is that it was a literal visit from two Heavenly beings to an awake and alert Joseph Smith.  Joseph consistently refers to it as a vision, not a visit, and his earlier accounts sound (at least to me) more dreamlike than the 1838 version we have recorded in the Pearl of Great Price.  Often, visions in scripture are vivid dreams with a meaning that is applied to a broader group than the individual who has the vision.

What if we take the First Vision in the opposite direction, and consider it as a dream with significance to the dreamer rather than a conscious and world-altering event?  If a dream, then it is likewise a foray into the subconscious mind of Joseph Smith. This approach is not to dismiss a divine source for the First Vision; just to explore a Jungian perspective on the elements of the vision without regard to its source, as Jung might have done had Joseph been on his couch.

Jungian dream analysis includes several underlying assumptions:

  • that dreams are subjectively meaningful for the individual
  • that people, objects, animals, and events in the dream are representative of the dreamer’s inner life (and not to be taken at face value or literally)
  • that a proper interpretation of dreams can lead the dreamer to great self-awareness and to understanding the psychological direction of his/her life at a given time
  • that some themes, events or characters in a dream are archetypal or representative of collective spirituality, not just reflective of personal meaning

Jung started life as a young man who held to Christian views but found more meaning in understanding religion as a metaphor for human psychological experience. [2]  In keeping with that thought process, I wanted to apply Jung’s views on dream interpretation to Joseph Smith’s First Vision.  In Jung’s dream interpretation, there are several elements:

People.  People in dreams are almost always a manifestation of a part of the person dreaming.  There are seven archetypes one may encounter in a dream:

  1. The Persona is the image you present to the world in your waking life. It is your public mask. In the dream world, the persona is represented by the Self. The Self may or may not resemble you physically or may or may not behave as your would. For example, the persona can appear as a scarecrow or a beggar in your dream. However, you still know that this “person” in your dream is you.
  2. The Shadow is the rejected and repressed aspects of yourself. It is the part of yourself that you do not want the world to see because it is ugly or unappealing. It symbolizes weakness, fear, or anger. In dreams, this figure is represented by a stalker, murderer, a bully, or pursuer. It can be a frightening figure or even a close friend or relative. Their appearance often makes you angry or leaves you scared. They force you to confront things that you don’t want to see or hear. You must learn to accept the shadow aspect of yourself for its messages are often for your own good, even though it may not be immediately apparent.
  3. The Anima / Animus is the female and male aspects of yourself. Everyone possess both feminine and masculine qualities. In dreams, the anima appears as a highly feminized figure, while the animus appears as a hyper masculine form. Or you may dream that you are dressed in women’s clothing if you are male or that you grow a beard if you are female. These dream imageries appear depending on how well you are able to integrate the feminine and masculine qualities within yourself. They serve as a reminder that you must learn to acknowledge or express your masculine (be more assertive) or feminine side (be more emotional).
  4. The Divine Child is your true self in its purest form. It not only symbolizes your innocence, your sense of vulnerability, and your helplessness, but it represents your aspirations and full potential. You are open to all possibilities. In the dreamscape, this figure is represented by a baby or young child.
  5. The Wise Old Man /Woman is the helper in your dreams. Represented by a teacher, father, doctor, priest or some other authority figure, they serve to offer guidance and words of wisdom. They appear in your dream to steer and guide you into the right direction.
  6. The Great Mother is the nurturer. The Great Mother appears in your dreams as your own mother, grandmother, or other nurturing figure. She provides you with positive reassurance. Negatively, this character may be depicted as a witch or old bag lady in which case they can be associated with seduction, dominance and death. This juxtaposition is rooted in the belief by some experts that the real mother who is the giver of life is also at the same time jealous of our growth away from her.
  7. The Trickster, as the name implies, plays jokes to keep you from taking yourself too seriously. The trickster may appear in your dream when you have overreached or misjudged a situation. Or he could find himself in your dream when you are uncertain about a decision or about where you want to go in life. The trickster often makes you feel uncomfortable or embarrassed, sometimes mocking you or exposing you to your vulnerabilities. He may take on subtle forms, sometimes even changing shape.

Setting.  This includes the mental state of the dreamer as well as the dream setting.  A grove of trees is an interesting archetypal setting. Within Christianity, trees are symbols associated with life and death, knowledge, the love of God, the fall, the crucifixion. In more general terms, trees universally represent the living connection between heaven and earth, the roots extending into the underworld and the branches and leaves reaching into the sky.

Action.  This refers to the events that occur in the dream, and the actions of the person the dreamer identifies as the self.

Objects or Symbols.  These could be archetypes (symbols common to all cultures) or symbols with unique personal significance to the dreamer.  A simple archetype is light (e.g. a pillar of light) dispelling darkness and creating safety.

Emotions.  These reveal information important to the interpretation of the dream.  In Joseph’s own words (1832 version): “I felt to mourn for my own sins and for the sins of the world.”

Animals.  These represent our basest human instincts.

Tell me more about your dream.

In considering the various accounts of the First Vision, the elements that have a Jungian significance are:  the Persona (with a possible link to the Divine Child given the age of the dreamer), the Shadow, the Wise Old Man, and consideration for setting, action, and emotions.  There are no versions in which the vision included female figures or animals, so those elements will be considered irrelevant for this analysis.

Setting.  JS was yearning for forgiveness of his sins (1832 version) and spiritual enlightenment (all versions).  He sought “wisdom” from God directly in a grove of trees.  He was also obsessed with his personal welfare and salvation.  This emotional setting (pre-vision) carried into the “dream” state.

Immediately in the 1838 account, Joseph is confronted by a Shadow type.  Based on Jungian analysis, this Shadow is Joseph’s repressed negative side, his weaknesses and subconscious flaws.  These flaws “bind” his dream self (the Persona), making it impossible for him to move (to progress) or speak (to represent his own interests).  In other words, in order to continue to seek enlightenment, Joseph must confront and overcome his own flaws that are holding him back and making progress impossible.  (Often, dreams make funny little puns like this.  You are “wrestling with your demons” figuratively in life, so in a dream state, you do so literally).

The dream includes archetypes that are larger than life.

When he is released from his Shadow side, he finds the enlightenment he seeks in the form of light and a visit from either the Lord (1832) an angelic messenger (1835) or God the Father & the Son (1838).  Regardless, these are familiar archetypes for the Wise Old Man:  an authority (what bigger religious authority could he envision than God or Jesus?) who gives direction or wisdom or advice.  He petitions for forgiveness of his sins (1832) and to know how to obtain salvation/which church to join (1838).  Of course, these archetypes also represent parts of our own personality.  In other phrasing, Jung might say that Joseph has tapped into his inner wisdom, his internal wellspring of creativity and enlightenment.

We all know the specifics of the answer he was given as recorded in the 1838 version.  Consider that advice from a Jungian perspective, and there is a subtle change.  Joseph asks which external source of truth is right for him to follow.  He is told to stop looking outside himself for enlightenment because those sources of wisdom are not correct and are corrupted by others’ perspectives.  He is left to wait for further inspiration (or to find wisdom from within as Jung would see the God figure as a manifestation of Joseph’s inner wisdom, his spiritual side, the Wise Old Man).

This approach shows the First Vision an example of a classic hero myth: the quest for spiritual wisdom.  The hero must first reconcile his double nature (the Shadow and Persona) in order to transcend and achieve enlightenment.  Interestingly, the endowment is another, more outward telling of this same story, personalized for attendees.

So, what do you think?  Personally, I find this perspective to create more consistency between the four recorded versions of the First Vision.

  • Is a Jungian view of the First Vision useful?  Does this add meaning for you?
  • Do you consider dreams and visions too dissimilar for this type of approach to be of value?  Is it troubling to consider a non-literal interpretation of the First Vision?
  • Do you think Jung is onto something in his views or is he off track in conflating the psyche with religion? [1]
  • Would Joseph Smith find our use of the First Vision as a missionary tool unsettling given its context and personal meaning to him?  After all, missionaries preached using the Book of Mormon in Joseph’s day, not the First Vision account.

Discuss.

[1] According to Murray Stein, a Jungian training analyst and author, Jung believed that theological constructs and the words associated with them referred to structures within the psyche and vice-versa.  Thus religion reveals our inner states, and our inner states reveal our religion.

[2] From a Catholic criticism of Jung:  “What was his attitude towards Christianity? In answering this, one must always remember that wholeness for him is only possible when we integrate the negative shadow and dark side with the more acceptable, conscious ego. In other words the pursuit of goodness cannot lead to wholeness. In his work Psychology and Alchemy Jung wrote: “Christian civilisation has proved hollow to a terrifying degree. The inner man has remained untouched. His soul is out of key with his external beliefs.” Wholeness and not holiness is what matters. . .  His ambivalence towards Christianity is seen when on the one hand he recommends his patients to return to the Church to which they belonged and on the other hand he writes: “there is no Deity, no submission or reconciliation to a Deity. The place of the Deity seems to be taken by the whole man.” . . . The whole man must achieve three things. Firstly, he must meet with his shadow and learn to live with the more terrifying aspect of himself. Secondly, he must meet with the archetypes of the collective unconscious especially through dream work. Thirdly, if he is fortunate enough, he will in the end find that pearl of great price, the archetype of wholeness, the self.”

Comments

  1. This is a very big step in the right direction! Jung was a Gnostic and coined the name synchronicity. Joseph was a shaman and synchronicity is a beginning shamanistic trait. The two would fit together almost seamlessly. A vision is more of a waking dream experienced in a deep meditative trance but to begin to bring this back to religion a trance can easily be a prayer state. The bible says; Be still and know that I am God. Pray without ceasing. these two verses can be accomplished in the meditative state of mindfulness. LDS members are often offended when Joseph is called a shaman but they shouldn’t be, it explains the otherwise unexplainable in the Joseph Smith story. The quaking found in D&C 85:6 and 3 Nephi 11:3 as the spirit speaks and seer stones are also beginning shamanic. The darkness experienced before the light in the first vision is also a typical shamanic entry into the spirit world.

  2. Fascinating.

    I’ve been thinking recently whether William Langland’s dream in Piers Plowman was akin to Joseph’s experience. At the very least, I think that had you been walking your dog through the grove on that day and seen Joseph, you probably wouldn’t have seen what he saw. That’s not to say that he didn’t “see” anything, but simply that not all are invited to Faerie.

  3. Jason K. says:

    Fascinating indeed. This is to go beyond Jung, I think (I don’t know his work well), but what if the feminine is present in the grove, construed as Yahweh’s asherah?

  4. Andrew C. says:

    This is fascinating. Dream interpretation is one of my hobbies and I had never considered studying the First Vision accounts through this lens. Great read!

  5. Tangentially related, I think Jung’s approach may connect better with LDS Christianity than with other more “traditional” forms, especially Roman Catholicism with its long tradition of asceticism and denial of self and bodily urges (as manifested in monasticism, clerical celibacy, and so on). We, at least, have made a theological effort to recognize, accept, and change ourselves through repentance and transformation our dark sides, (a “change of heart,” a synthesis,) rather than seeking change through denial or subjugation of the dark, the too-convenient leapfrogging of the dark indulged in by evangelicals who simply claim that grace negates it when one is “saved,” or the intellectual laziness of predestination as God’s arbitrary selection of a choice few to bypass total depravity.

  6. RJH wrote: …you probably wouldn’t have seen what he saw.

    I agree, apparently when Moroni “appeared” his siblings who were sleeping in the same room didn’t see him or even wake. This is sometimes used in an attempt to refute Joseph’s story but it may be evidence of a vision or dream rather than a “visitation” (what even that might be).

  7. Angela,
    Has anyone applied a Jungian interpretation to the resurrection accounts? To me, they don’t read like dreams/visions.

  8. I’m with New Iconoclast.

    In Ether 12:37, the Lord tells Moroni, “because thou hast seen thy weakness thou shalt be made strong.” This motif is threaded all through the Book of Mormon. Its accounts of salvation revolve around humility, considering oneself a fool before God, frankly beholding our own sinfulness and inadequacy, as the key that unlocks justifying and sanctifying grace. Its prophets envision the Last Judgement as a time where we must finally see every error or evil in ourselves that we would not face in the day of repentance, and knowing this, know also whether to remain with God or flee. The Book of Mormon approach to the Atonement is one of “the flesh becoming subject to the spirit, or the Son to the Father, being one God,” and “the will of the Son being swallowed up in the will of the Father,” not replacing the will of the Son with another will, but setting it perfectly in place within a larger unity. Third Nephi 27 characterizes the church and the name of Christ as the means whereby our works can be the saving works of the Father and of Christ, rather than the damning works of men. Our hymn “Sweet is the Work” invokes a hope that “every power [shall] find sweet employ in that eternal world of joy” — even the powers and capacities that, when misdirected, constitute our sins. Our tenaciously literal doctrine of bodily resurrection and bodily immortality is another testimony of the imperfect being ennobled and integrated, rather than suppressed or discarded. And seeing that our doctrine of sanctification calls for both grace and works (DC 20:31), reason affirms that we cannot work on failings that we are unwilling to confront.

    Therefore I find much of value in Jung’s notions of confronting and assimilating the Shadow, then confronting and being assimilated by the Anima or Animus, and I think the Catholic critique was wrong to construe this quest for wholeness as something other than the pursuit of goodness.

  9. John Harrison says:

    An observation and a nitpick…

    I wonder if the seven gods in GoT are loosely based on Jungian archetypes.

    and the nitpick: you need to change the 1938 in the first paragraph to 1838.

  10. anonymous says:

    What Howard said.

    And add all the other heavenly messenger visitations, BOM witnesses, and more, to this understanding of what transpired and how and much of the questions are immediately answered.

  11. Really fascinating, Angela.

    Thanks.

  12. Angela C says:

    RJH: I haven’t read anywhere where someone has applied Jung to the resurrection; the problem I would see is in the details. Who is the dreamer in that situation? Jesus? Those who came to the tomb? So without that, you’d have to discard the state of mind to some extent.

    There is an archetypal dream of being in enclosed in rock – entombed or perhaps enwombed – and the desire to get out (to be born). It’s another one with some dream pun potential: “stuck between a rock and a hard place” or literally “holed up” or “walled in.” But certainly overcoming that entrapment also symbolizes being in the earth (the physical) and transcending it. Stepping out of darkness into the light. And the wholeness implied in male and female union (because women were the first to greet the risen Lord), although they don’t touch, perhaps like magnets that repel each other. Anyway, interesting idea.

  13. Jason K. says:

    There is a fascinating Old English poem, “The Dream of the Rood,” that might be interesting under this lens. (“Rood” is an old word for “cross.”) Here’s a link to a translation: http://www.yorku.ca/inpar/Dream_Rood_Kennedy.pdf

  14. Rigel Hawthorne says:

    I was interested to see the recent depiction of Saul’s conversion as dramatized in the recently broadcast bible miniseries. The scriptural account says Saul saw a light from heaving flashing around him and heard a voice. The others who were with him did not see anything, but they did hear the voice. Later Saul told others that he had seen the Lord and that the Lord had spoken to him.

    The miniseries dramatization followed this precisely, although from my perspective, I could see that those accompanying Saul saw him distraught and talking seemingly to no one, but I did not perceive that they heard the voice. I thought that they were merely alarmed at how Saul was behaving. It was interesting to watch Saul having a vision that nobody else could see.

    So if Saul’s vision/visitation was something only he could see, that would set up the protocol where Moroni’s light/vision was not visible to the siblings of J.S. Also, the scriptural account describes Saul opening his eyes when he got up off the ground and discovered he was blind. He fell to the ground when he had the experience, but the opening of the eyes after the vision suggests that sleep/dream state would not be excluded from his visit either.

  15. I think the figures both of God the Father and Christ are much better understood as symbols of the Self, rather than as old man figures. Jung himself wrote a very interesting piece called “Christ, a Symbol of the Self.” “”The Christ symbol is perhaps of the greatest psychological importance in so far as it is perhaps the most highly developed and differentiated symbol of the self … The inclusion in a religion of a unique human personality … is consistent with the absolute individuality of the self, which combines uniqueness with eternity and the individual with the universal.” The imago dei – the God image, Christ as He appears to us – symbolizes an integration of all opposites, the full realization of the self. Although Jung qualifies this in so far as Christ appears as half the problem in Christianity. “The androgyny of Christ is the utmost concession the Church has made to the problem of opposites. The opposition between light and good on one hand and evil on the other is left in a state of open conflict.” Of course, we read that Christ is light, and in Him is no darkness, at all. But I think this can be taken to mean that what was darkness, or shadow, in Him, has been integrated so that His being is in no way in contradiction with itself; something that can hardly be said of us – the real meaning of repentance.

    Also, a tendency of Jung-likers is to multiply archetypes as an exercise. Joseph Campbell does this, someone like James Hillman more so. In Jung the most important archetypes are the Shadow, the Anima (in men) and the Animus (in women) and the Self. He talks about all these as unconscious representations coming from – since they are unconscious, meaning we can’t track them – who knows where. The real importance of dream work is that it forces us to confront what is beyond out conscious mind and yet is clearly part of the totality of what we are. The strong tendency is to consider the conscious mind both the source of and extent of the personality. Dreaming can break us out of this – but it is a habit that I think can also be entered into by humble reflection, on one’s own self, but also on whatever one encounters in the world.

  16. “The place of the Deity seems to be taken by the whole man”

    D&C 130:1 “When the Savior shall appear we shall see him as he is. We shall see that he is a man like ourselves.”

    Listen up you Mormon theologians with all your French philosophers.

  17. And one more thing regarding Jung, God and Mormonism

  18. This article THE BOOK OF MORMON AS A SYMBOLIC HISTORY by By C. Jess Groesbeck ties Jung, shaman Joseph and the BoM as a product of shamanism all together into a very interesting read!

  19. Where do you get “an angelic messenger” from the 1832 account who is not “the Son”? It says “Lord” who “was crucifyed (sic).”

  20. Angela C says:

    jpv: You are right; I’ve corrected (above) to 1835 version. I think I had condensed a longer sentence down and retained the wrong year on that, so thanks for the correction. I’ve restored it to a more full comparison.

  21. Steve Smith says:

    Interesting take on the first vision. The issue that I have with it is that Mormonism really doesn’t seem to work without some sort of literalism about it; i.e. that JS literally saw god and Jesus Christ, that JS was actually visited by Moroni and translated an actual ancient record of people who really lived. Mormonism as a symbol of some psychological state becomes meaningless.

  22. Mormonism really doesn’t seem to work without some sort of literalism about it Which would explain why literalism was added!

  23. I read Jung’s Man and His Symbols years ago and really enjoyed it. Even had a dream the day after finishing it that incorporated a richly integrated number of his archetypal symbols. But I side with Steve. Creative? Yes. Interesting? For sure. Intelligently crafted? You bet. True? Unlikely.Another foray into reducing Mormonism to complete subjectivity with a twist of affirming unversal but contingent human archetypes.

  24. Angela C says:

    Steve Smith: “The issue that I have with it is that Mormonism really doesn’t seem to work without some sort of literalism about it; i.e. that JS literally saw god and Jesus Christ, that JS was actually visited by Moroni and translated an actual ancient record of people who really lived. Mormonism as a symbol of some psychological state becomes meaningless.” Well, let’s not get too far afield with this line of thought. Mormonism did in fact do extremely well in its formative years without the First Vision being widely known! The Book of Mormon was the earliest missionary tool, not the First Vision. The First Vision wasn’t used in missionary work until much later. And nobody is arguing here for reducing Mormonism in its entirety to a symbol of psychological states, just exploring how Jung’s views on dreams would apply to Joseph’s First Vision account.

  25. Angela C says:

    Sorry to comment twice successively, but I wanted to add one more thought. Steve Smith said that Mormonism as a symbol of a psychological state becomes meaningless. I’ve already clarified that we are just talking about the First Vision here, not Mormonism at large. But talking just about the First Vision, subjective meaning is meaningful to the dreamer. Taking an individual’s subjective experience and applying it as a symbolic event for an entire religion is what gets thorny, trying to draw objective meaning from a single subjective experience. That creates an elasticity issue which is why the church has wisely, albeit a little belatedly, addressed the four different accounts of the First Vision. When Joseph talked about it, it was from his own subjective experience; this is precisely why the accounts differ. The Jungian view of the dream shows remarkable consistency when viewed from the dreamer’s subjective perspective. It’s only when applied to the world at large that inconsistencies create problems.

  26. No one knows what literal means when applied to a dream, a vision or a visitation if we believe that All spirit is matter, but it is more fine or pure, and can only be discerned by purer eyes The value of literal is simply to bootstrap skeptical mortal minds to a point that they can believe allegory based on literal spirituality.

  27. Yeah interesting blog but its is also confirmed that the dreams are related to our thoughts and daily basis activities so you just need to check out the dreams dictionary for the best and better means and reason behind this. Thanks for the post.

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