Hugh Nibley, Prophet

That is, truth-teller. Far greater than his scholarship, in my opinion, was his unwavering determination to speak plainly about what he understood to be the plain teachings–the social, economic, political and cultural teachings–of the prophets. By so doing he changed lives, and even, I think, saved souls. Of course, the actual “value” of his interpretations can be disputed; certainly it is the case that his somewhat flaky, scripturally inspired socialism/environmentalism/pacifism/agrarianism/what-have-you-ism never amounted to a solid foundation upon which one could erect laws, establish policies, distribute goods, enforce treaties, and basically get things done. It was, in other words, strictly speaking, useless.

But still.

“The position of…Richard Nixon is supremely simple and straightforward: It is the Good Guys on one side and the Bad Guys on the other, and that explains everything….There are just two poles and we are all at one pole and [Soviet communism is] at the other. Their evil deeds repel us, yet, strange to say, we do everything they do–because they force us to!…We must fight them because they do all these bad things–and to fight them, we too must do all those same bad things. Thus, just like them, we must give up desirable social goals to attain military aims….[This recalls] President Spencer W. Kimball in his great bicentennial address: ‘We commit vast resources to the fabrication of…ships, plains, missles, fortifications–and depend upon them for deliverance. When threatened, we become anti-enemy rather than pro-Kingdom of God….What are we to fear when the Lord is with us? Can we not take the Lord at his word and exercise a particle of faith in him?…We must leave off the worship of modern-day idols and a reliance on the arm of the flesh.’ Mr. Nixon has an answer to that one: Faith without strength is futile. What a revealing statement! Faith is the source of strength, the very power by which the worlds were created. To say it is helpless without military backing recalls an ancient saw: ‘I trust God but I feel better with money in the bank’….In Mr. Nixon’s book, God is indeed on the side of the big battalions.” (“The Prophetic Book of Mormon,” The Prophetic Book of Mormon, 450, 452-453)

“Today the beautiful word Zion, with all its emotional and historical associations, is used as the name Christian was formerly used, to put the stamp of sanctity on what men choose to do. The Hebrew word for financial activity of any kind is mamonut, and the financier is a mamonai; that is, financing is, quite frankly, in that honest language, the business of Mammon. From the very first there were Latter-day Saints who thought to promote the cause of Zion by using the methods of Babylon….[But we] have the word of the Prophet Joseph that Zion is not to be built up using the methods of Babylon. He says, ‘Here are those who begin to spread out, buying up all the land they are able to, to the exclusion of the poorer ones who are not so much blessed with this world’s goods, thinking to lay foundations for themselves only, looking to their own individual families and those who are to follow them….Now I want to tell you that Zion cannot be built up in any such way.’ What do we find today? Zion’s Investement, Zion Used Cars, Zion Construction, Zion Development, Zion Bank, Zion Leasing, Zion Insurance, Zion Securities, Zion Trust, and so on. The institutions of Mammon are made respectable by the beautiful name of Zion. Zion and Babylon both have their appeal, but the voice of the latter-day revelation makes one thing perfectly clear as it tells us over and over again that we cannot have them both.” (“Our Glory or Our Condemnation,” Approaching Zion, 20-21)

“A favorite trick [of Satan] is to put the whole blame on sex. Sex can be a pernicious appetite, but it runs a poor second to the other. For example: We are wont to think of Sodom as the original sexpot, but according to all accounts ‘this was the iniquity of they sister Sodom’: that great wealth made her people cruel and self-righteous. The worst sinners, according to Jesus, are not the harlots and publicans, but the religious leaders with their insistence on proper dress and grooming, their careful observance of all the rules, their precious concern for status symbols, their strict legality, their pious patriotism. Longhairs, beards, necklaces, LSD and rock, Big Sur and Woodstock come and go, but Babylon is always there: rich, respectable, immovable, with its granite walls and steel vaults, its bronze gates, its onyx trimmings and marble floors (all borrowed from ancient temples, for these are our modern temples) and its bullet-proof glass–the awesome symbols of total security. Keeping her orgies decently private, she presents a front of unalterable propriety to all…. ‘When I see this people grow and spread and prosper,’ said Brigham Young, ‘I feel there is more danger than when they are in poverty. Being driven from city to city…is nothing compared to the danger of becoming rich and being hailed by outsiders as a first-class community.'” (“What is Zion? A Distant View,” Approaching Zion, 54-55)

“[The] most pernicious aspect of today’s state of things is that it permits us only a very limited choice of [career] ladders, nay, it forces us to choose between business and law, the alternative being starvation….Of course, the choice of ladders is actually as wide as ever, but our young people are thoroughly intimidated….What are we instructed to do, then, in our fallen state? One of the shortest and most concise sections of the Doctrine and Covenants tells us, ‘Let your time be devoted to the studying of the scriptures; and to preaching, and to confirming the church…and to perfoming your labors on the land.’ (D&C 26:1). The Great Triple Combination–farming, church, and study. Even so Adam was told to cultivate his garden, preach the gospel among his children (a most strenuous mission), and finally to seek ever greater light and knowledge. Let me remind you that this system has worked throughout the ages, whenever it has been given a try. What is the result of our industrial-military complex, which seems to be the inevitable trend of every greedy industrial society? It has never worked; not for one decade has it failed to fill the earth with blood and horror.” (“Deny Not the Gifts of God,” Approaching Zion, 145)

“The…issue is independence. Charged with a special emotional impact for Americans, the word has become a fetish for the Latter-day Saints and led them into endless speculations and plans. ‘They that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare,’ says Paul–all of which the Lord has strictly forbidden (1 Timothy 6:9). In the scriptures the word independent occurs only once, describing the church with no reference to any individual: ‘The church may stand independent above all other creatures’ because it is entirely dependent upon ‘my providence’ (D&C 78:14)….Let us refer back for the moment to Satan’s promise of independence. When, following Satan’s instructions, Cain murdered ‘his brother Abel, for the sake of getting gain’ (Moses 5:50), he declared his independence: ‘And Cain gloried in that which he had done, saying: I am free; surely the flocks of my brother falleth into my hands!’ (Moses 5:33). Recently this gospel was proclaimed by one of the richest Americans addressing the student body of Ohio State University: ‘There is nothing that gives freedom,’ he said, ‘like bucks in the bank.’ This seems to be the policy we are following today, and there is no doubt whose policy it is.” (“Work We Must, But the Lunch Is Free,” Approaching Zion, 229-230)

“Modern revelation has some interesting things to say about idlers: ‘Let every man be diligent in all things. And the idler shall not have place in the church’ (D&C 75:29). We are all to work in the kingdom and for the kingdom. ‘And the inhabitants of Zion also shall remember their labors, inasmuch as they are appointed to labor…for the idler shall be had in remembrance before the Lord’ (D&C 68:30). Note that it is not the withholding of lunch by the observant eye of the Lord that admonishes the idler. This refers to all of us as laborers in Zion, and ‘the laborer in Zion shall labor for Zion; for if they labor for money they shall perish’ (2 Nephi 26:31). That is the theme here: ‘Now, I, the Lord, am not well pleased with the inhabitants of Zion, for there are idlers among them…they also seek not earnestly the riches of eternity, but their eyes are full of greediness‘ (D&C 68:31). An idler in the Lord’s book is one who is not working for the building up of the kingdom of God on earth and the establishment of Zion, no matter how hard he may be working to satisfy his own greed. Latter-day Saints prefer to ignore that distinction as they repeate a favorite maxim of their own invention, that the idler shall not eat the bread or wear the clothing of the laborer. And what an ingenious argument they make of it! The director of a Latter-day Saint Institute was recently astounded when this writer pointed out to him that the ancient teaching that the idler shall not eat the bread of the laborer has always mean that the idle rich shall not eat the bread of the laboring poor, as they always have….[H]ow can the meager and insufficient lunch of a poor child possibly deprive a rich man’s dinner table of the vital protiens and calories he needs? It can only be the other way around. The extra food on the rich man’s table does not belong to him, says King Benjamin, but to God, and he wants the poor man to have it (Mosiah 4:22). The moral imperative of the work-ethic is by no means the eternal law we assume it to be, for it rests on a completely artificial and cunningly contrived theory of property….A common objection to [this] economic equality on which the scriptures insist is that it would produce a drab, monotonous sameness among us. But that sameness already exists–we all have about the same number of eyes, ears, arms, and legs….[F]ew of us need two lunches a day. We might as well face it, we are all very much alike in such things…It is in the endless reaches of the mind, expanding forever in all directions, that infinite variety invites us, with endless space for all so that none need be jealous of another. It is those who seek distinction in costly apparel, living quarters, diversions, meals, cars, and estates who become the slaves of fashion and the most stereotyped people on earth.” (“Work We Must, But the Lunch is Free,” 240-242)

“Work We Must” is Nibley’s greatest essay, his magnum opus; it stands beside the great prophetic critiques of modern society voiced by men like Martin Luther King and Alexander Solzhenitsyn (two people that he quoted with some frequency, though not as much as he did those earlier prophetic critics of today’s world: Jospeh Smith and Brigham Young). But “Work We Must” is also Nibley’s most dismissed essay. Reject wealth?! Reject merit?! Reject rewards?! Again, utterly useless. But of course, it would seem useless to those of us who–whether we like to admit it or not–have for all intents and purposes made peace with the struggle for power and profits and position which defines the Babylon in which we dwell, wouldn’t it?

And besides, perhaps Nibley wasn’t as demanding as his critics think:

“I certainly pray that we may fill our hearts with the desire to fulfill the Lord’s purposes on the earth. Some of us are good at administrating the things of the earth. ‘Some of us’–I use that very flatteringly, because there never was a worse one than myself for bungling with thinkgs like that, so I can very well talk sour grapes. But notice the spirit in which it’s to be done. Brigham Young, the greatest and certainly the most able economist and administrator and businessman this nation has ever seen, didn’t give a hoot for earthly things: ‘I have never walked across the streets to make a trade.’ He didn’t mean that literally. You always do have to handle things. But in what spirit do we do it? Not in the Krishna way, by renunciation….If you refuse to be concerned with these things at all, and say ‘I’m above all that,’ that’s a great fault. The things of the world have got to be administered; they must be taken care of, they are to be considered. We have to keep things clean, and in order. That’s required of us. This is a test by which we are being proven. This is the way by which we prepare, always showing that these things will never captivate our hearts, that they will never become our principal concern. That takes a bit of doing, and that is why we have the formula ‘with an eye single to his glory’ (Mormon 8:15). Keep first your eye on the star, then on all the other considerations of the ship. You will have all sorts of problems on the ship, but unless you steer by the star, forget the ship. Sink it. You won’t go anywhere.” (“Three Degrees of Righteousness,” Approaching Zion, 336)

Hugh Nibley, I think, got there. Wish I could get there too. RIP.

44 comments for “Hugh Nibley, Prophet

  1. Bryan Warnick
    February 24, 2005 at 6:29 pm

    Russell, you picked out some of the greatest Nibley quotes of all time. Fantastic post.

    For me, reading Nibley’s _Approaching Zion_ was a life changing moment. Thanks, Professor Nibley, wherever you are!

  2. February 24, 2005 at 6:32 pm

    Amen Russell — thanks. Approaching Zion is a masterwork.

  3. Nate Oman
    February 24, 2005 at 6:32 pm

    Good stuff Russell. Thanks for putting it up.

  4. Christian Cardall
    February 24, 2005 at 6:54 pm

    Approaching Zion had a huge effect on me, reading it as an undergraduate deciding what to do with my life. Pardon me for saying it like this, but I don’t think there’s a better way: It scared the living s**t out of me. (I had also been exposed to these ideals before my mission by Don Norton ceaselessly parroting Nibley in my honors freshman English class.) I had come to BYU expecting to go into law, medicine, or business, and majored in physics because my dad told me it would stand out to professional schools as an unusual and difficult degree. Nibley scared me so much about mammon and grinding on the faces of the poor that it played a significant role in my decision to get a Ph.D. in physics instead.

    Looking now at my brothers who will live more comfortably than me as “real” doctors (with their dual Tivos, etc., etc., etc.), I sometimes think I was duped, and that Approaching Zion should be banned for undergraduates (kind of like how Miracle of Forgiveness should be banned for missionaries). ;) But even if I can’t swallow the economic idealism hook, line, and sinker anymore, I still do get to enjoy days with a lot of intellectual play and excitement—which also inspired me about Nibley—instead of things like document review.

  5. Frank McIntyre
    February 24, 2005 at 7:11 pm

    Nibley takes some really fine ideas and then stretches them very very far. Even if I don’t agree with his hyperbole, I am still grateful for the really fine ideas.

  6. Matt Jacobsen
    February 24, 2005 at 8:46 pm

    Thank you, Russell. You hit on the topics that I find most compelling about Nibley, and not because his words are the words I want to hear — they really stick it to me. I agree about the difficulty of putting his ideas into practice. While they might seem useless when trying to formulate public policy (i.e. telling others how they should live), I have found it very useful when trying to determine how I should live.

    If nothing else, Nibley is a wonderful reminder of what I should be focusing on in life, and consequently what I waste so much of my time doing. I recently had another temple recommend interview where my frustrations about not devoting more of my time and energy and desire to the Lord were casually dismissed with a “We can all do better.” I don’t know what else to expect, but I believe that if I had as much difficuly with the law of chastity as I do with the laws of sacrifice and consecration…well, my bishop would be much more interested in the interview.

  7. Jack
    February 24, 2005 at 11:04 pm

    I too loved reading Approaching Zion way back when. But my views have changed a little over the last fifteen years. As a blue collar type with a large family who has yet to earn 30K annually, it sure seems to me that the lunch ain’t always free. (though, I would be ungrateful if I didn’t acknowledge the constant outpouring of gifts from above)

  8. February 24, 2005 at 11:43 pm

    “Nibley takes some really fine ideas and then stretches them very very far.”

    Years ago, my father started reading High Nibley–and being a smart man, he saw pretty quickly that Nibley’s worldview provided little if any justification for almost any kind of wealth, profit, and material consumption. My dad’s been a successful, workaholic businessman his whole life, so this really hit him hard. (As did his father’s death, which took place around the same time. Between these two influences emerged my dad’s determination to set up a family business and mini-“united order,” one which, despite its ups and downs, has at least partially defined the lives and relationships of all my siblings ever since–for the better, I think.)

    So anyway, the next time he was in Salt Lake, my dad visited his old mission president, Elder Marion D. Hanks. He asked Elder Hanks, what do you think of Nibley? According to my father, Elder Hanks leaned back and said, “Nibley is really out there. That’s not to say he’s in the wrong place. It’s just to say, he’s not where the rest of us are.” I’ve always thought that an interesting comment. Was it praise? Bewilderment? Both?

    We always say, “be in the world, but not of it.” Good advice, I suppose. But also kind of corrupting. And, well, not exactly in line with “Be ye therefore perfect” and “I have overcome the world” and all that. I’m in the world–I admit it, and most days it doesn’t bother me; I say I’m “not of it,” and that’s good enough. Except maybe it would be easier, and holier, to just get out of the world altogether. Nibley did–or, at least, came closer to getting out of here, and getting to a different place, than I ever have. Didn’t seem to do him any harm.

  9. Steve L
    February 25, 2005 at 8:13 am

    I read “Approaching Zion” on my mission (of course I always got a hard time for it and reading other things, but I read more scriptures than the rest of the missionaries, anyways). I was out of town on Thursday and did not find out until today (Fri.) that he had died. Strangely enough, yesterday morning I sat in a hotel room with friends talking about Nibley and his legacy. I wish there were room and eloquence to say what I feel.

    I think the greatest danger (especially now that he’s dead) in reacting to his didactic works is to say “yes, but. . .” Ultimately the issues Nibley raises are what sort of a world are you willing to live in. The direction he’s pointing is toward a celestial world whose seeming distance and unforgiving inward nature sometimes repels us, forcing us to recognize the nobility of the ideals with a “yes, but. . .” I don’t want to resurrect the controversies of threads past, but isn’t this honestly a lack of faith? Jesus said, “my grace will be suficcient for you,” and didn’t he mean it? What have we got to be afraid of? Nibley’s utter fearlessness and complete trust in God will be the reasons he’s remembered. What will each poster on this board be remembered for?

    In October 2000 Conference, Elder Maxwell taught, “Many individuals preoccupied by the cares of the world are not necessarily in transgression. But they certainly are in diversion and thus waste ‘the days of [their] probation’ (2 Ne. 9:27). Yet some proudly live ‘without God in the world’ (Alma 41:11), with gates and doors locked from the inside!” He continued, “Let us adopt the attitude recommended by President Brigham Young: ‘Say to the fields, . . . flocks, . . . herds, . . . gold, . . . silver, . . . goods, . . . chattels, . . . tenements, . . . possessions, and to all the world, stand aside; get away from my thoughts, for I am going up to worship the Lord’ (Deseret News, 5 Jan. 1854, 2). There are so many ways to say to the world, ‘stand aside.'” To those who bemoan the impracticality of implementing the teachings of Nibley I respond that it is the impracticality of being a true Christian, a celestial man in a telestial world. Difficult? You betcha. Impossible? I’m surprised any “saint” would consider it impossible. Jesus called us and it is those who refuse to leave everything behind who are “not chosen.” I suspect Elder Maxwell “got it” in the same way Dr. Nibley did. I think the complaints about “impracticality” are based in a misunderstanding. Nibley dishes out no particular advice in “Approaching Zion” other than saying the saints should live celestial laws. So what’s the big deal? I’ve missed it. Russell, I appreciate the “Nixon” qoute and it stabs right at the heart of Americans’ thinking about the current conflict. In case anybody here is too willing to brush it off, I remember when I met Nibley in March of 2003 he said, “I just don’t know what Bush is thinking.” I had suspected he would say something like that, but he didn’t say he disagreed or thought Bush’s focus was wrong, he just didn’t know what Bush was thinking. This is the Nibley way. A celestial man can only react to a less than celestial world with incomprehension. I suspect this is part of being like a child.
    My point? Nibley’s social/political commentary is more apt than ever. The greed, hypocrisy and shallowness of contemporary Western culture is an abomination to God. The saints belong to better things, and should show it and say it. Nibley’s call is to be a total Christian, a Christian in our families, our jobs, our political lives, etc. Nibley’s teachings are mistaken for something other than what they are. Many see them as new stuff, which couldn’t be less true. It is entirely reiteration. May God bless his family forever and may we never forget the many gifts and great clarity God has given us through Hugh Winder Nibley.

  10. Nate Oman
    February 25, 2005 at 9:31 am

    “I don’t want to resurrect the controversies of threads past, but isn’t tis honestly a lack of faith?”

    Whatever Steve. You can’t throw out this comment and not expect there to be controversy. The problem with this line of argument is not that it is false (it may well be correct), but that it shield’s Brother Nibley’s thoughts and ideas from any response other than “Amen.” Perhaps this is the correct response, but Nibley certainly enjoyed mixing it up, and I suspect that he would have been more appreciative of a thoughtful interlocutor than of a groupie or a disciple. No doubt some who criticize Nibley are simply faithless weaklings whose hearts are too set upon the things of the world. On the other hand, one can ask questions and offer criticisms of Nibley — even in his guise as social critic — that stem from meaningful and faithful disagreement or perplexity rather than simply greed or ignorance. Furthemore, this sort of crude demonization of criticism and conversation has the effect of shutting down discussion, foreclosing the possiblity of using even Nibley’s own thoght for working through issues about which he may have been mistaken, ignorant, or simply uninterested. It is one of the uglier, but rather common, characteristics of Nibleyophiles.

  11. Christian Cardall
    February 25, 2005 at 9:40 am

    Come on Nate, don’t hold back, tell us what you really think. ;)

    I agree with you, and am glad that you could come to this perspective at an earlier age than I was able to manage.

  12. Frank McIntyre
    February 25, 2005 at 9:44 am

    I agree with Nate. And would add that there are lots of fun discussions to be had about Nibley’s views and thinking, but I am hesitant to jump into that on a thread where Russell is expressing his appreciation for a man who just passed away. There will be plenty of time later to honor Nibley by carefully critiquing his ideas. The ideas will stick around, even if Nibley cannot.

  13. Nate Oman
    February 25, 2005 at 9:49 am

    Frank: I agree. My point is not to open up an argument about Nibley’s social criticism. I am simply pointing out what I see as an occasional trait found among his disciples that is unworthy of the treacher.

  14. February 25, 2005 at 10:30 am

    Nate and Frank: ditto. Though I don’t think Steve L. is wrong either; there’s just two sides to the coin here. In a sense, Nate is right that the only truly honest response to prophetic critique is “Amen”–and yet, by the same token, any prophet who is content to have a bunch of people always mouth “Amen” back at him or her isn’t much of a prophet at all. There is a tension in any prophetic encounter (a tension that Christian eloquently expressed in describing his first reading of Approaching Zion), and the burden of that tension doesn’t fall evenly upon all. But that’s no excuse for simply genuflecting before the mystery of it. Or rather, we do need to genuflect, I think, before the “useless” and “impossible” (and yet still celestial!) standard that I think (and that Nibley clearly thought) we are called to; but to use such genuflection as an excuse to avoid careful critique is exactly what Nibley himself condemned in that final passage: “[If you] say ‘I’m above all that,’ that’s a great fault.” We’ve got to try to work it out, and that means trying to think through the prophetic call itself to see if it “works.” Of course, it won’t: not really, not fully, because it’s not a worldly call. But that’s the task before us nonetheless. Sure it’s primarily a matter of faith; Steve’s right on that point. We should say “Amen” (unless, of course, you don’t actually agree that Nibley was a prophet regarding these matters–but that’s another argument all its own). But in any case, faith (saying “Amen”) without works (sometimes hard, critical, intellectual works, which have special fun all their own) is dead.

  15. Jack
    February 25, 2005 at 10:49 am

    As much as I love Nibley, and knowing that I will read and reread his works for the rest of my life, I’m glad that I’m not bound by any priesthood stewardship to accept his ideas as more than ideas. Though I do accept many of his ideas as the cold truth, there are a few of his doctrines that don’t sit well with me and I would be laboring under a tyranny if I had to say “Amen” in support of those doctrines in order to prove my faithfulness.

  16. maria
    February 25, 2005 at 10:53 am


    Thanks for including the feminine reference to prophets. :)

  17. Geoff B
    February 25, 2005 at 11:09 am

    Having read the collected works of Prof. Nibley over and over again, I am certain to criticize them in the future. But now is a time to honor this fine, fine man, whom I feel is right now being welcomed as a true and faithful servant. Russell, thanks for this collection of his thoughts.

  18. February 25, 2005 at 12:58 pm

    From how I read Nibley, the last thing he’d want is to have his writings treated like dogma. He wanted people to engage him and think about what he wrote. It’s been a very long time since I read it, but I seem to recall that Student Review interview making that point as well.

  19. Silus Grok
    February 25, 2005 at 1:20 pm

    Radio West is currently airing a live phone-in tribute to Brother Nibley.

  20. Mark N.
    February 25, 2005 at 2:17 pm

    Jack: As a blue collar type with a large family who has yet to earn 30K annually, it sure seems to me that the lunch ain’t always free.

    I think that was exactly Nibley’s point. The lunches are supposed to be free, but it’s the world (and Nibley is clear about who it is that has staked his claim to all of it) that has decided that the free lunches are only going to go to those who throw their lot in with the god of this world, and who extracts a heavy price, indeed. Of course, that’s standard operating procedure with the Father of Lies: he’ll be the one to provide you with all the free lunch you can stand, but he charges you for it, big time, nonetheless.

  21. February 25, 2005 at 2:17 pm

    That’s not live. That’s a rebroadcast of a show Nibley’s son-in-law and biographer did last year. It is a very good show though. It’ll be rebroadcast tonight at 7:00 as well.

  22. Jack
    February 25, 2005 at 2:35 pm

    Mark N., there’s a lot more I would like to say on that subject, but for now it’s probably better to stick with those things that I like about Nibley. I love his Temple and Cosmos and eagerly await the publication of his “Magnum Opus” which, as rumor has it, is a study of Facsimile No.2.

  23. annegb
    February 25, 2005 at 2:49 pm

    I went to the library today and checked out Approaching Zion and Sounding Brass. They had another one, but they were pretty big books. I think I will need to own them. I don’t retain if I don’t underline and highlight. I don’t retain all that good anyway.

    Looking forward to them after you guys’ rave reviews.

  24. Steve L
    February 25, 2005 at 3:12 pm

    As if I ever COULD stomp out critique. . . I was only addressing one critique, which wasn’t much of one at all: that Nibley’s ideas are impractical. “Holy fear of open and free dialogue, Batman! Steve’s trying to keep us from criticizing Nibley.” Nate, it’s hard for me to tell who’s trying to shut down the conversation. I disagree with he who posted and am thus derailing the discussion. Sorry, but being a “groupie or a disciple,” it’s really hard for me to see how I’m wrong.

    I guess what I should have said in the first post is that it doesn’t ultimately matter how much Nibley is right or wrong because I believe that when it comes to the subjects on which he spoke out (I’m talking the social criticism/gospel bent), he’s more right than anyone I’ve ever read. It’s not that Nibley can do or say no wrong, but his clarity overides his faults. Is that better?

    And what’s wrong with being a disciple, anyway?

  25. Nate Oman
    February 25, 2005 at 3:30 pm

    “it’s really hard for me to see how I’m wrong.”

    And therein lies the problem. Look Steve, I object to the idea that any criticism of Nibley on the grounds that he is impracticle rests on a lack of religious faith. Now it may be that the truths of the gospel are impractacle, but it does not follow from this that every impracticle idea represents gospel truth. That’s called the fallacy of affiming the consequence. There is nothing wrong with disagreeing with someone. My problem comes when the disagreement is taken as prima facie evidence of a lack of religious faith. Now it may be that the disagreement does result from a lack of faith, but the disagreement itself cannot be used as evidence of a lack of faith given the very real possiblity of good faith disagreements. Furthermore, my point about shutting down discussions was logical and rhetorical not practical or institutional. I don’t think that Nibley groupies are going to start censoring anyone. There is no evidence of either the inclination or the power to do so. Rather, my point was that the analysis that you offered of the disagreement of others was a conversation stopper.

    “And what’s wrong with being a disciple, anyway?”

    Nothing, but it depends entirely upon whose disciple one is, and how one goes about doing it.

  26. February 25, 2005 at 3:31 pm

    As far as I could tell, Hugh Nibley never wanted disciples of his own. He was himself a disciple of Christ and a student of his gospel, and he wanted others to be disciples of the same master. Nibley was the first to admit that he was not always right. He followed ideas where they led, spoke boldly, and then changed his mind whenever better information or better thinking came his way. He was rooted in something greater than his own ideas.

    At the same time, he was much farther along than a lot of us in his thinking about the gospel, and it’s no shame to learn from him as much as we’re ready to learn – while setting aside anything he said that doesn’t feel right to us. He was not prone to blind acceptance himself, and never expected anyone else to accept HIS ideas blindly. His business was opening eyes, not closing them.

    – osc

  27. February 25, 2005 at 3:49 pm

    Well put, OSC. And welcome to T&S. I posted a link to your excellent tribute to Nibley this morning on our other Nibley thread.

  28. Trent Jensen
    February 25, 2005 at 9:08 pm

    I was saddened to hear of Brother Nibley’s passing. Like many of you, I first read Approaching Zion on my mission and, excepting the Book of Mormon, no other book did as much to change the way I looked at the world and the Church. He was a man who found joy in thinking, and tirelessly sought to understand the Gospel. He saw, in the Church, vast potential and majesty, and sought to help others see it as well.

    Lastly, Hugh Nibley taught me one of the most important lessons I have learned: Never think you know so much about something that you stop thinking about it. Never be content with what you know or who you are. I will always be grateful to him for that.

  29. annegb
    February 26, 2005 at 11:02 am

    Just browsed through the two books and they look like very easy and interesting reading. I have no idea how I missed them all these years.

    You are (rightly) honoring the dead in this thread, and I won’t digress.

    But I’ll let you know later if I disagree with him. To disagree is not to dislike or disrespect. I disagree with God most of the time.

  30. Jack
    February 26, 2005 at 11:27 am

    “I disagree with God most of the time.”

    Is that why I agree with you most of the time? :)

  31. Steve L
    February 26, 2005 at 2:10 pm

    Well John had disciples and Paul did say “Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ.” I don’t know where this whole thing we always hear about being a follower of anybody but Jesus is wrong or misguided came from. (Those poor people Paul led astray into following HIM and not Jesus. . . tsk, tsk) Joseph Smith also said he gained so many FOLLOWERS because “I possess the principle of love. All I can offer the world is a good heart and a good hand.” (I think the same could certainly be said of Nibley.) And of course the Prophet isn’t above bragging about the fanatical loyalty of his followers: “I have more to boast of than ever any man had. I am the only man that has ever been able to keep a whole church together since the days of Adam. A large majority of the whole have stood by me.” All that said, while I greatly admire Nibley and his writings have touched me in a way few others have, I do not lead a Nibley-centered life and my Christianity doesn’t suffer for admiring Nibley. I don’t go about quoting Nibley in Sunday school or bearing testimony of him on fast Sunday, so please let me know what it is you’re so worried about, Nate.

    Once again o ye of hard hearing (or bad eyesight since you are reading this)– I am not claiming infallibility or immunity from criticism for Nibley (that would be really stupid, but I have done and said many a foolish thing in my short days), but I DO say that calling the ideas of “Approaching Zion” “impracticAL” (check your spelling) or “useless” is a KNEE-JERK RESPONSE. No one has addressed that, Nate. And Nate, I thought fallacies in my postings were relatively easy to find, yet you had to make one up. I never claimed that BECAUSE Nibley’s ideas are impractical they are gospel and never affirmed any consequenT. I think you’ve made the fallacy of assuming that because you’re a lawyer you’re a good logician. I think that’s called affirming the A from an elementary logic course you took ten years ago.

    And as for ending the conversation, Nibley did preemptively address the concerns about impracticality in his writings, and he did a far better job than I can. I don’t know WHETHER anybody here lacks faith, but calling a celestial standard impractical sounds alot to me like an unwillingness to take Jesus at his word, that’s all.

  32. Nate Oman
    February 26, 2005 at 2:56 pm

    Steve: I am not greatly worried about you or anyone else. It sounds as though you are doing just fine. I even agree with you that simply dismissing Nibley as impracticle is a knee jerk response. On the other hand, I disagree to the extent that labeling some reactions as knee jerk also means that impracticality of ideas is irrelevent. Perhaps it is irrelevent if we are certain that the ideas presented are God’s and that he is going to solve any practical difficulties. On the other hand, it may be that God has a practical solution to certain problems and the proposal of impracticle ideas simply represents a failure of understanding on our part. My point is really less about Nibley, than about those who assume that any and all criticism of Nibley’s ideas is simply evidence of moral failure on the part of the critics.

    Look, I think that Approaching Zion is a wonderful and powerful book. It is the best bit of social criticism ever written by a Mormon in my view. I think that it rightly calls attention to the primacy of properly understanding the moral and religious importance of economic life. I think that it quite rightly emphasizes doctrines and scriptures that we are, on the whole, too quick to dismiss. It is not, however, without its faults or shortcomings, among which is that — as Russell points out — on many of the pressing issues of institutional or practical action it is strictly speaking useless. That is fine. The book still does much, much more than most. There is still a great deal of intellectual work to be done, however, and some of it is going to require criticizing Nibley.

    BTW, I don’t think that I ever got an A in logic ;->

  33. Steve L
    February 26, 2005 at 3:04 pm

    Well said, Nate.

    I do believe that the revelations on consecration have done most of the institutional thinking on these issues for us (and I don’t mean that revelations exempt us from thinking). I think Nibley’s issue is that we take consecration and other celestial standards more seriously, which has enormous institutional implications. I agree Nibley did not contribute alot to an institutional approach to economic issues, but I think that’s because he (and I) believe that was already worked out in the early church (admittedly not to perfection, but better than most realize).

  34. Nate Oman
    February 26, 2005 at 3:07 pm

    “I do believe that the revelations on consecration have done most of the institutional thinking on these issues for us”

    This is where I simply disagree with you and Nibley (to the extent that this is what he thought). The institutional form of the law of consecration in the early church is very much a moving target, and I take the very fluid shape of those institutions as evidence of the fact that the revelations do not definitively answer the institutional questions.

  35. Nate Oman
    February 26, 2005 at 3:10 pm

    A final point: I suspect that the practical and institutional uselessness of Approaching Zion may tell us much more about Nibley’s areas of interest and expertise than about meaning of the Gospel. Nibley seems to have been a voracious polymath, but as near as I can tell he was quite uninterested in law or social science.

  36. Frank McIntyre
    February 26, 2005 at 3:45 pm

    The reason more people have not engaged your arguments, Steve, is because to do so would almost certainly lead this thread into less of a memorial and more of a brawl. Brawls are fine, certainly Nibley had no problem with academic brawling, but most of us agree that now is not the time.

    And don’t bother correcting Nate’s spelling. Spelling is a strictly telestial concern and Nate is aiming for the Celestial.

  37. Steve L
    February 26, 2005 at 4:13 pm

    good one.

  38. Rob
    February 26, 2005 at 11:35 pm

    Well, Brother Nibley’s death has been enough to bring me out of a four month estrangement from T&S. I first started reading Brother Nibley’s books in high school, and enjoyed his book on the Egyptian endowment (glad that is going to be reprinted soon). On my mission in Ecuador, we would take one of the 70s who was in the local area presidency out for lunch, and he would blow our minds with interesting doctrines. He told us that when General Authorities had questions about doctrine they would ask Hugh Nibley, just like we were asking him.

    When I got back to BYU, I caught one of his Hypocephalus talks–and spent a lot of time reading his other stuff. I managed to take his Pearl of Great Price class a couple years before he stopped teaching. The only class I ever got a “C” in–though probably not the only one I deserved. I always respected him for that.

    When I was in his class, a couple of us would wait for him as he climbed the steps up Maeser Hill so we could chat before class. Something he said in class and on those walks has always stayed with me, that this earth is a multipurpose world, created not just for people, but for the whole host of living beings, each here to experience joy in their sphere. I think back on that all the time…especially when caught up in the world of human technology and culture, that tends to drown out the cares and lives of other beings.

    One time, a friend invited me to join Brother Nibley and him in attending a play in the HFAC. Can’t remember anything about that play, except my amazement that Brother NIbley would take a couple hours to go to a play with a couple undergrads. He didn’t care much for the play, and was distracted by something Egyptian hanging on the wall as we walked out of the play.

    I was in the Varsity Theater teach in during the first Gulf War. Brother Nibley was there. He told some war stories. It helped change the way I see the world. As did his class. And walking to class with him. And reading and re-reading his works.

    A couple years ago I subscribed to the LDS news email distribution list. Usually I just delete it without opening it. For the last two years the only reason I’ve ever opened one was with the thought that maybe this would be the one that announced Brother Nibley’s passing.

    I was never more than a fleeting and forgetable presence in Brother Nibley’s class and morning walks to campus. However, those brief brushes with greatness have had a lasting impact. I only hope that someday I can have a few more of those walks with him…and He whose disciple he was.

  39. February 27, 2005 at 9:27 am


    Good to see you back at T&S. I missed the Gulf War teach-in; I can’t remember why. Did you happen to attend Nibley’s acceptance of the Exemplary Manhood award in 1991? I missed that too, but I think Matt Stannard was there. Reputedly, Nibley took a few pot-shots at “superpatriots” who think manhood consists of a willingness to make war in the name of supposedly superior ideals; I wish I’d heard that, and seen how it went over with the Wilkinson Center crowd. If that speech has been reprinted in the Collected Works I’m unaware of it.

  40. annegb
    February 27, 2005 at 10:38 am

    Jack, I exaggerate. I disagree with Him SOME of the time. Used to be most of the time, but we’re getting along better these days.

    I use God too much as illustration of the ultimate, I think He may not like that much. For instance, when I am telling people not to visit me, I say that I couldn’t live with God very long. But really, I hope I am living with God. That would help keep me out of trouble.

    Gotta work on that reverence.

  41. Nate Oman
    February 27, 2005 at 10:28 pm

    “And don’t bother correcting Nate’s spelling. Spelling is a strictly telestial concern and Nate is aiming for the Celestial.”

    Frank, I have actually always taken an undue concern with spelling as evidence of a lack of real faith and understanding of God’s plan.

  42. Frank McIntyre
    February 27, 2005 at 10:48 pm

    I figyoured as such and thinke it spekes well of you.

  43. Steve L
    February 28, 2005 at 1:28 am


  44. Terry Foraker
    March 6, 2005 at 4:15 am

    The “Exemplary Manhood” speech was published as one of the last chapters in Brother Brigham Challenges the Saints (volume 13, I think it is). If I’m not mistaken, that’s the speech where he takes a swipe at Colin Powell for his lack of concern toward the Iraquis killed in the 1991 Gulf War.

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