The Approaching Zion Project: Zeal Without Knowledge

Approaching ZionRather than begin each AZP post with links to the previous installments, with this prefatory section becoming more and more unwieldy, I’ve decided to put all the links up on an index page. You can find links to each installment here. I’ll update the links as I post new installments.

For the second time, I read this chapter in an airport and on an airplane returning home. With that as my full preface, let’s jump into this chapter:

The Economy

If I can be frank, I’m really hesitant to address Nibley’s view of the economy in this chapter. Not because it shouldn’t be addressed, and not because it doesn’t raise any relevant issues, but because I’m afraid it (and associated ad hominem attacks and praises) will suck the air out of any discussion in the comments. If we can just accept that Nibley’s vision of Zion was better-developed than his vision of the functioning of a modern economy, though, I think we can avoid being mired in arguments about Nibley, and can instead address problems and strengths in his vision of Zion.

Are we good on that? Great.

Nibley is clearly right that the economy can be overweight finance. I don’t know that it was in 1975[fn1] when he presented this lecture, but it clearly was in 2006, and by 2010 (and notwithstanding the financial collapse, which hit Wall Street relatively significantly) it had eclipsed its 2006 peak. As of 2010, finance and insurance accounted for 8.4% of GDP.

Why is it bad to be overweight finance? A couple reasons: for one thing, too many trades may reduce the sector’s efficiency as a financial intermediary, undoing technological efficiency gains. Also, an overweight financial sector could lead to an  inefficient allocation of workers, encouraging top graduates to go to Wall Street rather than doing something more productive with their talents.

So why do too many young people go to Wall Street? In a word, the money. Being an investment banker pays very, very well. Being a white shoe attorney pays very, very well. And why does it pay so well? Because, even if the societal value of the financial sector doesn’t warrant its accounting for 8.4% of GDP, it makes money for those in the sector.

Don’t get me wrong here: we need financial intermediation. The ability to help money flow to the parts of the economy that need the money makes productive work possible. But finance shouldn’t be an end itself; that is, finance doesn’t create societal value itself—its value lies in helping money get to where it needs to go.

So Nibley’s right: all of our best and brightest shouldn’t be going to Wall Street. Still, we’re left with at least two problems: first, how do we encourage those who could, but shouldn’t, go to Wall Street to do something else, something less remunerative, instead? and second, how do we know who shouldn’t be going to Wall Street? Because clearly some of our best and brightest should; it’s an important sector that needs good and talented people. And maybe a blanket denunciation is the way to do it—by creating social costs to counteract the financial draws, maybe we balance out Mormons’ incentives to provide for an optimal participation.[fn2]


Here, Nibley perhaps helps us solve the conundrums presented as he writes about economic issues: zeal and knowledge, after all, are both good attributes. But either one, alone, exaggerated, can be problematic. Nibley illustrates the problematic nature of zeal in perhapsthe best sentence I’ve seen written by Nibley:

We think it more commendable to get up at five A.M. to write a bad book than to get up at nine o’clock to write a good one—that is pure zeal that tends to breed a race of insufferable, self-righteous prigs and barren minds. (75)

He goes on to take some swings (swings with which I agree) at Mormon devotional literature, but, before I get to comfortable criticizing it, I’m forced to look at me. Because there are areas in my life where I work hard, rather than work well, and figure that the working hard should make up for my lack of care in the hard work.[fn3]

Sometimes our zeal without knowledge hurts somebody. I’ve seen people hurt when they’re accusingly asked about when they plan to start a family, by somebody who doesn’t know their struggle with infertility. I’ve seen new members—people who gave up family, friends, and even income sometimes—hurt when they’re accused of being selfish because they don’t dress like everybody else at church.

Other times, the zeal without knowledge means we spin our wheels, not doing anything good, but not really doing any harm. I think Nibley would argue that the wheel-spinning zeal can be equally harmful, though. It leads us to engage with deep spiritual ideas at a superficial level, preventing us from seeing, much less reaching, the depth of spiritual experience we need to progress.[fn4]


In his approach to knowledge, I think Nibley is spot-on and prescient. Today (unlike 1975), we have all the knowledge in the world ready to be accessed. Do I want to know who’s in that movie? IMDb. What’s that song on the radio? Shazam. What’s that verse that talks about eternal life? Google. But there is some value ,as he says, to not just having the answer book open to us, but in working to figure out the answer. And the skill of working to gain knowledge is, I believe, a much bigger issue today than it was when Nibley was writing.


  • Nibley has no patience for the idea of revelatory “discovery” trumping study and empirical testing. That is, revelation builds on a foundation of knowledge, achieved through hard work.
  • He really seems into Arthur C. Clarke.
  • More on that: it’s interesting to me that, even in the 70s, society was looking to infinitely efficient production leading to infinitely low cost. I thought that was just the (unfulfilled) promise of the internet, but it seems to significantly predate the internet.

[fn1] Though it looks like finance and insurance accounted for just over 4% of GDP in 1975.

[fn2] Though I kind of doubt it.

[fn3] An example: I floss almost daily. But it turns out that my flossing technique sucks. I guess I don’t do any harm flossing, but my dentist tells me that I don’t really do any good, either. If I took an extra minute each night and flossed carefully, I’d do my teeth a world of good. But generally, I floss to check flossing of my list (for whom? I really don’t know), as quickly as I can while still putting the floss between all of my teeth.

[fn4] Another sad-yet-hilarious part of his essay: “It actually happens at the BYU, and that not rarely, that sutdents come to a teacher, usually at the beginning of a term, with the sincere request that he refrain from teaching them anything new.” (75-76)

17 comments for “The Approaching Zion Project: Zeal Without Knowledge

  1. You wrote: “second, how do we know who shouldn’t be going to Wall Street? Because clearly some of our best and brightest should; it’s an important sector that needs good and talented people.”

    Is this really a problem? Would the ethical problems of Wall Street go away if it were composed of five percent functioning Mormons?

  2. Mark, I really don’t know. But I do know that there’s no religious reason why Mormons should not work on Wall Street. And I frankly don’t know currently if Wall Street has too many, too few, or the perfect number of Mormons (both because I don’t know how many Mormons are on Wall Street and because I don’t know the optimal mix).

  3. I find it ironic that Nibley criticizes zeal without knowledge, when many would lay the very same criticism at Nibley for his tireless efforts to defend what many find to be absolutely implausible.

    I won’t comment further on Nibley, but I will say that zeal with incredible knowledge is not necessarily a positive thing. Many ideologues and conspiracy theorists are highly knowledgeable and persuasive people, but who espouse beliefs about morality and justice that are rather radical or who come to conclusions that greatly deviate from ‘common beliefs’ and assumptions. I suppose this begs the question of what knowledge really is.

  4. Steve, it’s not our fault that many find an explosion from a singularity starting everything to be more plausible that a more intelligent being/race catalyzing growth of people on Earth a la Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001. I find it quite interesting that 2001 has some shared ideas with the Restored Gospel. I know Clarke wrote about space mormon pilgrims, but perhaps he gleaned some ideas for 2001? Doubt it, but it’s possible.

  5. I was attending BYU in 1975 when Nibley delivered his “Zeal Without Knowledge” lecture. I even have an old mimeographed copy of his speech (many of you will probably need to look up the word “mimeograph” to understand what I am talking about). It created a bit of a stir back then.

    Though BYU is hardly a bastion of academic freedom today, it’s a lot better than it was in 1975 when the university was still recovering from the Wilkinson administration. A professor of lesser stature probably could not have gotten away with such a candid assessment of Mormon culture and academics. Today, such observations are frequently made; back then, they bordered on heresy.

    Sam, thanks for your thoughtful discussion of some of the issues Nibley raised in his lecture. The fact that we are still wrestling with them almost 40 years later suggests that they are difficult to resolve.

  6. Steve, I think Jacob has a good definition for you:

    “…the Spirit speaketh the truth and lieth not. Wherefore, it speaketh of things as they really are, and of things as they really will be; wherefore, these things are manifested unto us plainly.”

  7. Interesting, Eric. Thanks. (And, for the record, I have held mimeographed sheets of math problems in my hand. I can half-way remember the distinctive smell.)

  8. I find it ironic that Nibley criticizes zeal without knowledge, when many would lay the very same criticism at Nibley for his tireless efforts to defend what many find to be absolutely implausible.

    What exactly is the “implausible” to which you refer?

  9. I think part of the problem of zeal without knowledge for Nibley is that many people (and in his discussion included many BYU students) think they know the gospel is true, and so the rest is just fluff. God created the earth and man, so we do not need to know about evolution or plate tectonics. God created everything, so we just need to have a basic faith, and hold on for dear life.
    People focus on one area or another, specializing, and often becoming zealots in that area, without knowing other things that may be of great import. For example, Wall Street moguls developed all kinds of financial strategies to make lots of quick money with housing, lending, etc., without realizing how such was impacting other things in the economy. Ignore the concept of economic bubbles, as house prices always go up. “Yes, it is true we are tinkering with things like who is eligible to buy a house, bubble payments, and increasing the lending power of a bank from 5 times the money in the vault to 40 times the money in the vault, but we are zealously certain that none of that is going to blow up in our faces.”
    Such is the zeal without knowledge we have today. We “think” we have knowledge, when we really do not know anything. We think short term gain, rather than the long term impact on society, nature, and the individual. Looking at the longer strategy requires more research, thinking, and consideration of any lasting negative impacts. Short term thinking only requires finding the fast buck, and don’t worry about the consquences that may occur.
    So, there are PhDs on Wall Street who are zealots without knowledge (or perhaps “wisdom” might be a better term?).

  10. Nice write-up, Sam. One of Nibley’s many hats is social critic, in particular a critic of Mormon society and culture. And those writings are still helpful because so few followed in his footsteps. BYU profs do many things these days, but criticizing LDS culture and BYU is not generally one of them. I think it is too bad he added his own rather rigid views about the unrighteousness of various career paths (about half the university) to his more general call to add knowledge to our LDS zeal.

  11. Wasn’t the distinctive smell from ditto transfers? I thought mimeo was done from stencils. (Though the correction fluid for mimeograph stencils certainly had a potent aroma.)

    Thanks again for your thoughts on Nibley. Fascinating to revisit these essays again.

  12. The Zeal Without Knowledge piece was required reading in my mission.

    Did it discourage the zealot missionaries that described the missionary handbook daily schedule as the “terrestrial law”, and that the “celestial law” required much, much more? No.

  13. “think they know the gospel is true, and so the rest is just fluff.”


  14. Clarke was a Buddhist, but he also was open minded enough to realize that there was sufficient prior history in the cosmos that there was a real possibility that some other intelligent species preceded ours, and may have encountered ours in the past, even to the point of affecting our own species’ development. To dismiss the existence of an intelligence superior to our own is based on human ego rather than a scientific analysis of the facts.

    The Big Bang is not an explanation for the intelligence of mankind or for the rational structure of the universe we observe. The Big Bang does not explain the anthropocentric numbers, the fact that certain important numerical quantities that describe our universe have arbitrarily been set to precise values that are necessary to enable intelligent life to exist on a planet like ours. The values are not dictated by any scientific theory, but are simply observed quantities and ratios. Our theories say the numbers could have any value and would not contradict our science. But the whole group of them have precisely tuned values, neither too large or too small, that enable stars to exist and last long enough for life to develop and evolve on planets, and many other things essential to life as we know it. We expect a scientist would exercise her curiosity and get suspicious, but about the only hypothesis offered is that there are an infinity of universes with all possible combinations of those values, and we just happen to be in one of the few that can harbor intelligent life. Besides the obvious question, where do all these universes come from? the hypothesis of infinite universes with variations in conditions offers the possibility of existence to every conceivable version of the universe, and at least one of those will include an entity that is, to the limits of our observation, indistinguishable from the God we Latter-day Saints believe in (the creedal Christians don’t believe God is “in” the universe, so their God drops out of this argument). And just as we just happen to be in the one universe in a trillion that is life-sustaining, we could be, for all we know, in a universe with a super intelligence who meets our definition of God. Indeed, in an infinity of universes with all possible variations actually existing, there MUST BE a God like ours in at least one of them. The attempt to avoid the theistic implications of the very real anthropic coincidences thus leads us right back to an argument for the reality of God as we know Him.

    Clarke is famous for the aphorism that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” A corollary is that “Any technology that can be distinguished from magic is insufficiently advanced.” The information technology available on our smartphones and tablets through the internet would appear magical to someone from a century ago. The Urim and Thummim used by Joseph Smith for translation of the plates have been denigrated as “magic”, but aside from battery life they acted a lot like Google Glass, including Google’s translation system. They were “sufficiently advanced technology”.

  15. That’s a great Clarke tie-in Raymond. I think reminding ourselves of the definition of ‘miracle’ would be good for both believers and non-believers.

  16. Elder Bednar has written an excellent book, “Increase in Learning”, that describes in detail what knowledge is (in the Gospel sense of the word) and how it is obtained. ( In this book, Elder Bednar distinguishes (among other things) between wisdom, intelligence and knowledge. (D&C 121 also makes a further distinction between “knowledge” and “pure knowledge”). There are passages in AZ where Nibley equates intelligence with knowledge, but the scriptures clearly indicate that although they are related, there is a difference between the two. As Elder Bednar points out in his book, intelligence can only be obtained by obedience, whereas knowledge is obtained through diligence. Hence, we seek after further light and truth, not just more knowledge, although we certainly seek after the latter as well.

  17. One of my favorite passages from this chapter begins with this statement by Nibley: “But who is going to listen patiently to correct knowledge if he thinks he has the answers already?” and then this poignant statement of the prophet Joseph Smith: “There are a great many wise men and women too in our midst who are too wise to be taught; therefore they must die in their ignorance.”

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