The Approaching Zion Project: Our Glory or Our Condemnation

Garden_of_Eden,_Eden,_TX_IMG_1834For an explanation of the Approaching Zion Project, see here. You can read Chapter 1 of Approaching Zion here.

Nibley is serious about Zion; you can tell that Zion is central to his religious practice and identity. As such, his ideas demand and deserve serious engagement; I hope that I give them their due here. Now that I’ve read my first chapter of Approaching Zion, a couple more caveats before we get started. First, I’m not going to bother summarizing what Nibley said. Instead, I’m going to try to engage it, responding to ideas that engaged me, whether I agree or disagree. Second, I’m not going to try to engage with the full text; in Chapter 1, there were two things that really spoke to me, and one more that I’m going to mention and defer until a later installment. Feel free, in the comments, to engage with what I’ve engaged with, what I’ve said, or something else in the chapter that you feel needs to be responded to. With that, let’s go!

Beautiful Zion

Nibley emphasizes the importance of beauty. Beauty, he tells us, is one of the two words most commonly used to describe Zion; moreover, beauty leads to joy (the other most common descriptor). I love this idea of beauty first, of an aesthetic God, one who not only wants us to return to Him, but who wants us to revel in the process of returning. Beauty, in Nibley’s view, is an end in itself.

We talk about beauty at Church, at times. But I’m afraid, in my experience at least, we’re not good at creating beautiful sermons and lessons. Instead, we prioritize the conveying of information, without being too concerned about the vessel in which we convey the information. There are exceptions, of course: Elder Maxwell was known for his alliterative phrases and carefully-chosen words. But that’s not the rule: our lessons and talks are functional, not beautiful.[fn1] Maybe, though, if God privileges beauty, and if Zion is beautiful, we should put more effort into making our contributions to our Sunday meeting beautiful.

Literal Zion

In one of the houses I lived in on my mission, there was a collection of old Ensigns that I used to read through. One article I remember traced the history of the concept of Zion in the Church; I think it presented four definitions, ranging from the early Church, which was looking for a literal location for Zion, to contemporary Mormon thought, where Zion is the pure in heart/anywhere a Stake is organized.[fn2] And that corresponds pretty well to my upbringing in the Church.[fn3]

Nibley is definitely not of this school of thought. For him, Zion is a very real, very located place.

I don’t know if I’m convinced that Zion has (or, in any event, will have) a physical location (as opposed to current Mormon thought that Zion is the pure in heart, wherever they are); if it will, though, I think Nibley’s wrong about how it will look. In Nibley’s view, Zion is a primordial, paradisiacal place. Zion is a return to the Garden of Eden, a return he sees Adam attempting as soon as he leaves the Garden. Zion, in Nibley’s view, is “a return to a former state of excellence” (11), a state he illustrates by suggesting that his listeners go to the Utah canyons and look around (7).

I get this impulse. I love to hike in Torrey Pines, overlooking the ocean, or in the Smoky Mountains. Nature reserves, Central Park; there’s something amazing about going into nature (whether it’s natural nature or man-made). And I get why Nibley would focus on nature: like the rest of us, he was beholden, at least in part, to his experience. He grew up in Portland (which, though I haven’t been there, I’ve been told is beautiful), and lived in Provo starting in 1946 (at a time when it was a whole lot more natural than it is today—my parents, who were at BYU in the late 60s, tell me even then it was relatively rural, and that there was empty land dividing Provo from Orem). But that’s not Zion.

In Moses 7:18-19, we read that Enoch’s people were one in heart and mind, and Enoch built them a city which he called Zion. Note that he built a city; he didn’t try to reconstruct a pastoral Garden of Eden.

Moreover, the early Saints were not some kind of proto-Thoreauian transcendentalists, seeking spiritual enlightenment alone on the banks of Walden pond.[fn4] No, they gathered and built divine cities, hoping that one would be accepted as Zion.

And cities, it seems to me, are well-placed for creating a Zion community. You can’t retreat from your neighbors; you have to somehow get along. I often get along imperfectly, of course, but I’m not (yet) a Zion person and Chicago is not (yet, at least) Zion. Still, Chicago may be my last best hope to become better, to get my heart and mind in the right place.[fn5]

To some extent, Nibley’s need for a pastoral Zion comes from his concerns about environmental harms that seem to undergird human endeavors and progress. We use up—waste—what the Earth has to offer to get rich, but for every hundred years we use up, we give back one. Basically, he’s talking about negative externalities;[fn6] he seems to suggest that in Zion, negative externalities would no longer exist. I wonder, though, if they go away because every resident fully internalizes the costs of what he or she does, or if they just stop bother people because, in Zion, we willingly bear the additional costs imposed on us by our neighbors’ actions. That is, do negative externalities go away, or does a Zion society just not care about them?


A handful of other quick reactions/thoughts from this chapter:

  • Nibley tells us that the word for “finance” in Hebrew comes from “Mammon.” The thing is, though, that’s unrelated to our word “finance,” which, teh internets tell me, comes from French for what is due or to ransom. So I’m not entirely sure why the Hebrew etymology is important.
  • Query whether Zion must be separated from the outside world. That is, is the Zion Nibley envisions more like Enoch’s City of Zion, separate and separable, or does it coexist and interact with the non-Zion world?
  • I have serious issues with Nibley’s dissing various professions, but that’s an issue I’d like to just flag here; there are later essays that address the idea of professions as more of a central theme rather than a tossed-off sentence or two.[fn7]
  • I do think that Nibley seriously understates Joseph Smith’s and Brigham Young’s involvement in business in general, and in speculative investment in particular.

[fn1] To some extent, this focus on substance rather than form reminds me of a conversation I’ve had any number of times with my oldest daughter. She asks me what mosquitos are good for. That their existence is, itself, a good thing isn’t a concept she gets. So I try to come up with a purpose they serve. (The best I’ve got is they’re food for frogs, which she likes, but she points out there are plenty of gnats and flies and other bugs that don’t suck our blood to feed the frogs.)

Not, of course, that I’m suggesting that mosquitos are beautiful.

[fn2] I spent about fifteen minutes fighting the search and ended up not finding the article. I know it was in the Ensign, and I probably read it in mid-1996, so it’s probably from the first half of the 1990s, but that’s the best I can do. And doesn’t seem to let you narrow your search to a particular magazine, much less a date range.

[fn3] Well, except for my seminary years, where, for whatever reason, I seem to have gotten the idea that, in some sort of post-apocalyptic world where we didn’t have cars or electricity anymore, we’d have to walk from California to Jackson County, Missouri. I don’t know where I got electricity and cars not working, but oh well.

[fn4] Not, I suppose, that there’s anything wrong with that . . . .

[fn5] As a side note, Nibley also discusses Babylon, which he implicitly associates with cities. When I lived in New York, tourists bearing testimony or commenting in lessons always thought they were clever when they invoked Nephi’s Great and Spacious Building, as we who lived there  rolled our eyes. Because, as anyone who’s lived in a New York apartment knows, the buildings may be great, but they certainly aren’t spacious. Also, that’s huge misapprehension of Nephi’s dream.

[fn6] Negative externalities occur when somebody gets the benefit from something but doesn’t fully internalize the costs. Pollution is kind of the classic example: my factory builds something that I sell; I get the whole benefit from the sale of the product, but the environmental cost (that is, the smoke that goes into the atmosphere) is borne, not just by me, but by everybody.

[fn7] Seriously: he only spends a sentence or two on professions in this essay, while others address it much more head-on. I’ve already deleted a fairly extensive footnote addressing it, and I’m afraid my mention is going to threadjack my own post. I really do just want to flag this issue for discussion in some later post, when it’s more germane to Nibley’s thesis.

21 comments for “The Approaching Zion Project: Our Glory or Our Condemnation

  1. May 8, 2013 at 6:52 am


    This is a great start. Let me give you a few random responses to your thoughts, just to get the thread going.

    We talk about beauty at Church, at times. But I’m afraid, in my experience at least, we’re not good at creating beautiful sermons and lessons. Instead, we prioritize the conveying of information, without being too concerned about the vessel in which we convey the information.

    I don’t disagree with you here at all, and neither would Nibley, I’m sure; by the time you complete the book, you’ll be more than filled with Nibley’s basic contempt for the utilitarian ethos by which most managerial and procedural–that is, information-centered–professions and tasks are measured. However, I think I would want to suggest that for Nibley, it’s not so much that beauty is a good in itself, but rather than beauty is a sign, or a consequence, of fullness: of truly living in accordance with or taking into oneself and one’s life the spirit of God. The humdrum high priest slowly puttering around the chapel, doing his calling by taking attendance, in his wrinkled white shirt, has a beauty to him, I think, or at least the sort of beauty Nibley associates with Zion.

    I don’t know if I’m convinced that Zion has (or, in any event, will have) a physical location (as opposed to current Mormon thought that Zion is the pure in heart, wherever they are); if it will, though, I think Nibley’s wrong about how it will look. In Nibley’s view, Zion is a primordial, paradisiacal place.

    I think this actually captures a small but genuine tension in Nibley’s thought, one that comes up again and again. He really does believe that it’s pointless to talk about Zion as an abstract or internal principle; it has to have a communitarian expression, which means it has to be about building actual Zion communities, places where there are no poor, which means you’ve got to think about putting people into those places. And that runs up against his appreciation of unspoiled nature. He usually elides this by pointing substantively towards what you call in this post his “pastoral” attitude; that is, he calls for what is, in essence, a kind of agrarian/egaliatarian/distributist economy. But of course–as you can no doubt predict–he never really talks much about how such should operate. Still, that’s the framework within which he can see cities operating: small cities, little “Plats of Zion,” surrounded by farms. Where Provo Canyon would necessarily fit into all that remains unclear, but at least it gives us a basis for building a political and economic critique on the basis of his reading of scripture.

    Nibley tells us that the word for “finance” in Hebrew comes from “Mammon.” The thing is, though, that’s unrelated to our word “finance,” which, teh internets tell me, comes from French for what is due or to ransom. So I’m not entirely sure why the Hebrew etymology is important.

    As those who have a read a lot of Nibley will tell you, the man was, shall we say, rather, er, creative in the way he played around with linguistic roots and comparisons, particularly when he was doing something other than talk about the Middle Eastern roots of the Book of Mormon.

  2. May 8, 2013 at 7:13 am

    Maybe a way to approach the issue is this query: Is Zion a small town or a big city? Nibley seems to lean toward small town, linking pastoral images with just a bit of development. But small towns lack things we want in our paradise, like universities and museums and real libraries and quality retailing (probably not a concern for Nibley). The trick is to incorporate these things into the small town vision of Zion without also making it a big city full of big city problems. A big city that’s not a big city, which means a big city that’s not a real-world city.

    But at least we are thinking in terms of a town or city, not some idyllic image of tromping through Edenic wilderness while angels sing tunes in the background. That at least is a step toward reality.

  3. H.Bob
    May 8, 2013 at 7:27 am

    Re: Footnote 2–there’s “Gathering Scattered Israel: Then and Now,” by Paul Browning, Ensign, July 1998, or “Come, Let Israel Build Zion,” by Bruce R. McConkie, Ensign, April 1977, that both talk about the Zion concept moving from a literal gathering in one place to “wherever the pure in heart reside.” BTW, as you’ve discovered, the search engine is, well, crap. Use Google’s site-only search. I searched for “‘literal location of Zion’” and those two talks were among the first three citations.

  4. H.Bob
    May 8, 2013 at 7:39 am

    And regarding comments 1 and 2 here, it’s been a while since I read Approaching Zion, but my sense–and this may be conflated with my own extracurricular reading–of Nibley’s ideal for a physical Zion comes from the plans Joseph Smith had for smallish towns with “city” features in the interior (shops, government and arts centers), residences in the middle belt, and farms and manufacturing ringing the exterior. Those plans saw some limited application along the Mormon Corridor under Brigham Young, but most of those have now cannibalized the farmland for more residential development. Not to mention the topography of Utah was somewhat ill-suited for that concept. It’s hard to built equidistant farms when your “center place” (as in SLC) is, of necessity, nearly next to the mountains and canyons that the water comes from.

  5. May 8, 2013 at 8:36 am

    Coase’s treatment on externalities pointed out that they can always be turned around to point the other direction. In other words, it is a negative effect on the plant not to be able to put something in the water, while it is a gain for those who want to drink.

    So in that sense. someone will have to put up with something. Either put up with not getting to do something or put up with what someone else does. You wondered which way it would go, but really they are both in there every time.

  6. May 8, 2013 at 8:36 am


    I don’t have a lot to add because I’m in pretty much perfect agreement with your entire post. Just wanted to say I appreciated it and that I’m enjoying this project. Looking forward to the next one!

  7. May 8, 2013 at 9:44 am

    Nice post, Sam, and comments others (Russell, I hope you’ll keep commenting as as we, since I’m quite interested in hearing your elaborations/translations/comments regarding how Nibley’s vision might compare or contrast with modern movements toward localism, intentional communities, agrarianism, etc.)

    Regarding “finance” and “mammon,” I think Nibley’s thinking/wondering is based on an unstated question of how “finance” might be translated into scriptural terms. So, it’s interesting that “finance” translates into Hebrew as “mammon,” which is also a Greek term (made famous, of course, with Jesus’ teaching about “two masters”).

  8. Sam Brunson
    May 8, 2013 at 3:23 pm

    Thanks, everyone.

    Russell and Dave, the idea of small city vs. big city (and of love for nature vs. full fidelity to what the scriptures say) involves an interesting tension. I’ve never really lived in a small city, but big cities are full of ugliness and beauty and, like you say Dave, have everything available at our fingertips. Moreover, in New York, you only have to go a little north and you’re in the beautiful Hudson Valley. (It’s a little harder to get anywhere beautiful outside of Chicago.) Both cities have amazing parks and other nature areas within them. Both also have real problems—neither is currently a Zion society—but, then again, neither is anywhere else.

    Robert, that’s an interesting theory for why he would look at a Hebrew etymology for finance. I think, in the end, it would be really hard to translate it conceptually into scriptural terms, given the proscriptions on usury and the fact that the economy(-ies) of scripture is/are not terribly advanced. But I like the idea of trying to see how it could fit in a scriptural context.

  9. May 8, 2013 at 3:56 pm

    The part about the beauty of Zion was very interesting, and provokes a lot of questions that Russell touches on: how are we defining “beauty” here? Is there a universal aesthetic that Zion aspires to, or are multiple ideas of beauty able to co-exist together? How do our particular, cultural notions of beauty merge with other nations as we gather togheter? It’s interesting that beauty is tied for Nibely so closely to natural beauty–it suggests that nature itself might be this sort of universal aesthetic (maybe akin to E. O. Wilson’s idea of “biophilia”) that we can all agree is beautiful. The trouble is, as the discussion of big vs. small cities raises, big cities are easier on the environment (less sprawl, more efficient use of resources) but they make “experiencing” nature much more difficult. What’s aesthetically beneficial to human beings may not be useful to the environment, and vice versa.

    But again, the notion that Zion must be beautiful is very striking. It reminds me of a comment made by Terryl Givens once that to leave the church because it isn’t aesthetically satisfying isn’t a trivial excuse but one of the best reasons he could imagine for that decision (I believe the context was the aesthetically pleasing idea of premortal existence).

  10. May 8, 2013 at 8:03 pm

    “… we should put more effort into making our contributions to our Sunday meeting beautiful.”

    This is, IMHO, the whole purpose of the MoTab Choir at Conference time. I think that in a lot of respects, I get more out of conference by what the choir does than from what the speakers say.

  11. Jax
    May 9, 2013 at 8:54 am

    I largely agree with Nibley about location of “Zion”… while it is nice to have a zion-heart in dealing with other covenant makers, it is awfully hard for me to help carry their burdens when I live 30mins+ away from them. I can’t lift the spirits of the lonely if they live alone and visiting them would pull me from my family routinely. And helping the sick would be much easier if they were next door where they whole family could be of assistance to them. And doing my priesthood duty of seeing that no iniquity enters in is almost impossible with a once-a-month visit but almost inevitable if we live communally (perhaps we all live on the same street/block?)

    Nibleys point is that it is awfully nice of us to say we are willing to do something, but infinitely more beneficial if we construct our lives so that we actually do it.

  12. Rob Perkins
    May 9, 2013 at 7:48 pm

    I’m more than willing to ascribe Nibley’s small-town/farmer-town ideal to his upbringing in the Western United States during the early 20th Century. But, I think later on he had some acerbic things to say about suburbia, as well, in terms of pollution and over consumption. I just can’t remember where he said it.

  13. May 10, 2013 at 1:04 am

    Elder Christofferson recently addressed the topic of Zion in General Conference (“Come to Zion” Like Nibley, he centers in on God’s definition of Zion and of beauty, and on the “unbridgeable gap between Zion and Babylon” (Nibley). The most impressive portion of this first essay, in my opinion, was the end, in which Nibley referenced one of the early accounts of Joseph Smith’s first vision. Joseph Smith was pure in heart, a Zion soul, with reverence for God and his creations, and like Enoch, one who mourned because of the wickedness of the world. I was intrigued by Nibley’s concluding paragraph: “With our present limited knowledge we could devise a perfectly practical order of things in which there would be no need for doctors, lawyers, insurance men, dentists, auto mechanics, beauticians, generals, real estate men, prostitutes, garbage men, and used-car salesmen. Their work is justified as an unpleasant necessity, yet there have been successful human societies in which none of those professions existed, any more than dukes, earls, and kings need to exist in our society.” Elder Maxwell repeatedly exhorted the saints to give up the summer cottage in Babylon to establish residence in Zion, and he even wrote a fictional account that makes it clear that the work of Zion can be done (“The Enoch Letters” or “Of One Heart”

  14. May 10, 2013 at 2:35 pm

    What happened to my comment?

  15. JLMerkling
    May 10, 2013 at 4:02 pm

    Great interview of John O’Donahue on the religious duty of beauty

  16. Sam Brunson
    May 10, 2013 at 6:07 pm

    John, it seems to have been caught by our spam filter. I’ve released it. I should note that I vehemently disagree with (almost) everything from that paragraph of Nibley’s, but I’m not planning to address it until a later installment (not, of course, that my delay should prevent anyone else from discussing it; I’m not, however, going to interact with this idea just yet).

    Ok, slight response: my life and the lives of a number of family members have been saved by doctors. Sure, you could have a Zion without doctors, but it wouldn’t be a Zion I’d want to raise my kids in. (That’s a summary of the footnote I deleted.)

  17. Irene
    May 10, 2013 at 7:04 pm

    Given a choice, I would far rather raise my children in a Zion without doctors, where the Lord would be trusted to heal his children when necessary, than in any sort of Babylon where we can only rely on the arm of the flesh. We will never have Zion as long as we are reluctant to keep any amount of Babylon in our lives.

  18. Jax
    May 10, 2013 at 10:52 pm

    Nibley mentions doctors as a profession we won’t need in the after-life, but we won’t need farmers either, will we? But if we are to one day have the power/knowledge to control/build bodies it would be very useful if we learned here as much as we could about how they operate… and the medical field is a fine way to do that IMO.

  19. Sam Brunson
    May 11, 2013 at 7:30 am

    Jax, he mentions doctors among professions unnecessary in Zion. If he’d said the afterlife, I wouldn’t have any quibble.

  20. Jax
    May 11, 2013 at 8:08 pm

    He’ll get to it in another chapter then Sam… sorry my memory didn’t keep this chapter separate from the others… i’ll try to read along next chapter…

  21. Jason Hardy
    May 22, 2013 at 10:49 am

    Late to the party but here! Anyway, as an avowed fan of cities some of my reaction is similar to Sam’s–a little too much Rosseau in Nibley’s thesis, not enough Voltaire. And not enough Jane Jacobs. But there was another concern, one that perhaps will come out more in future chapters, and it’s that I don’t think Nibley is giving enough respect to chaos and entropy.

    This is kind of a church-wide thing, what with the whole “all things must be done in order” thing and God saying his house is a house of order and not confusion, so we tend to view chaos as the enemy. Nibley’s reflections on nature make it seem as orderly as we portray the Creator, as he refers to “The order of Zion” repeatedly (in somewhat of a different sense than I’m using it, but not entirely) and he portrays the paradisiacal world as a self-sustaining machine, one that produces plants and everything else on its own, without intervention. (He does, at least, point out that nature provides variety in contrast to the uniformity of the works of man. I’d quibble with him on that last part, but at least we would agree that variety is good).

    The thing is, the universe is not a place of sheer order. It’s a place where order and chaos interact, and that interaction is important to creating a diversity of life, or even life itself. Diverse life does not just spring up out of nowhere, it comes from combinations and recombinations of genes, and from nature constantly pushing against itself. It is dynamic, not as static as Nibley portrays it. And it proceeds inexorably toward chaos, where the order that helps balance it eventually dissolves.

    My thinking of Zion, then, is less about us enjoying a perfectly ordered world, and more about us joining the work to keep order and chaos in balance. Without chaos, dynamic life doesn’t exist; without order, chaos dissolves everything into nothing. I think that balance is important, and I’m missing that in Nibley’s descriptions

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