Revelatory Events

Three Case Studies of the Emergence of New Spiritual Paths

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Ann Taves
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , October
     2016.
     384 pages.
     $29.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780691152899.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In her newest book, Revelatory Events, Ann Taves continues to march down the path laid out in her previous work: Religious Experience Reconsidered: A Building Block Approach to the Study of Religion and Other Special Thingsm (Princeton University Press, 2011). In this work she furthers her “building block approach” in the study of religion, making use of research in cognitive science to attempt to explain the emergence of three distinct new religious movements: Mormonism (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), Alcoholics Anonymous [AA], and A Course in Miracles. By exploring the history of the emergence of each of these three groups, Taves tests the limits of religious studies theory aided by cognitive sciences to explain how new spiritual paths are formed under the guidance of suprahuman entities. Using the cases of Mormonism, AA, and A Course in Miracles Taves argues that each disparate group had “a key figure whose unusual experience and/or abilities led to the emergence of a new spiritual path” and produced a scripture-like text “that was not attributed directly to them” (3-4). 

This book is split into two parts. The first reconstructs the events that led to the founding of each new group. In this section, Taves masterfully delves into the primary and secondary sources available for each of these groups, and reconstructs not only the historical events in which a “presence” or “revelation” was given, but also gives the history of how the narrative of this event changed over time and was adapted by those who were close to the founding figure to whom it purportedly happened. By following and reconstructing the lives of Joseph Smith, Bill Wilson, and Helen Schucman the author is able to provide a dynamic narrative of the events that led to the founding of the three groups. Historiographically, the sections on AA and A Course in Miracles are very insightful. Too little has been written on both of these 20th century spiritual phenomena—and much of what has been written has been by insiders to the movements.

The second part of the book is made up of three chapters in which the author makes her case for the emergence of these new paths using the latest research in cognitive science. In Chapter 10, “Groups,” Taves “compares the process of group formation and emergence of suprahuman entities and guidance processes, and extends the social identity approach to creativity to encompass suprahuman entities” (11). In Chapter 11, “Selves,” she compares the work of Schucman and Smith and attempts to explain how each could have produced such an expansive, complex, and consistent text. It is here that Taves calls Smith and Schucman “highly hypnotizable individuals”—defined as people who have the ability to “represent suggested events and states imaginatively and enactively in such a manner that they are experienced as real” (254). Chapter 12, “Motivation,” explores why some participated in the founding and expansion of each group and why others did not; why some were receptive to conversion, and why others were not.

While I applaud the author for the historical depth and analysis of the first part of the book, I am skeptical of the methods and theories proposed in the second. As other scholars have noted over the years, the attempted psychological diagnosis of historical actors proves problematic. In the same way that many historians balked at Erik Erickson’s, Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History (W.W. Norton & Company, 1993), many historians of the present may similarly balk at Taves for her interpretation of Smith, Wilson, and Schucman. However, as one who was once very interested in psychological and cognitive science methods of description and diagnosis, I am very sympathetic to the aims of the author. 

Recently, I have come to question whether such diagnoses are truly helpful to understanding historical figures, both in their own context as well as examining their legacies in the present. In seeking to understand controversial figures and their experiences, both historians and lay people are apt to fall into the false binary of the charlatan-versus-the-prophet. In seeking to find a third way between these two, some conclude that these figures were either mentally ill, or as the case is made in this book, mentally exceptional. Though, at first glance, these categories seem extremely helpful, they often do more harm than good. In fact, they may even place the historian at a greater disadvantage when trying to understand the individuals and groups that they study than did the paradigm of charlatan-versus-prophet—for in trying to explain these experiences, we still do not take them totally seriously. Mental Illness is, after all, exceptional; that is why it can be classified in the first place. It is a delicate balance, a tightrope, that Taves walks in this book. While she writes that “[m]y goal is not to debunk or explain away” (xii), I fear that there is no way to take a naturalistic approach to religion using cognitive science without doing exactly that.

This does not mean, as some have suggested, that this line of investigation—the theory, or the method—is without merits. The narrative that Taves crafts is of the finest quality and brings to light certain details that have not been previously discussed in depth. Historiographically, this book will prove useful to scholars with a wide range of interests. Moreover, this book will prove vital to young scholars and graduate students everywhere. Regardless of where one may plant their feet in regards to the theories and methods proposed in this book, it cannot be denied that the questions Taves forces us to ask are fascinating and impactful, and very much worthy of discussion. Given these attributes, Revelatory Events will prove foundational in helping young scholars discover and articulate their own critical point of view and theoretical lens.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Taylor Dean is a doctoral student in American Religious HIstory at Florida State University.

Date of Review: 
March 15, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ann Taves is Professor of religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her books include Religious Experience Reconsidered and Fits, Trances, and Visions: Experiencing Religion and Explaining Experience from Wesley to James (both Princeton).

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