The Approaching Zion Project: Work We Must, but the Lunch Is Free

VN99070lgAs always, you can find links to all of the previous installments of the Approaching Zion Project (including a link to the text of the book Approaching Zion) here.

As summer ends, my time to engage with Nibley’s social criticisms has begun to return. Of course, I say that the week before classes begin, so a couple things I want to point out before we get started: first, this is a long, detailed chapter. Even if I didn’t have class prep to do, I couldn’t engage with everything he says in a blog post. Instead, I’m going to pick out a couple things that stood out to me and respond to them. If there are other points that speak to you, please feel free to raise them in the comments. (Also, I apologize if I don’t engage directly with your comments—the first day of class’s approach isn’t going to slow down to let me be fully involved here.)

Second, I’m trying to engage Nibley’s ideas both positively and critically. I haven’t determined yet if there’s an optimal order (criticize first, then praise? praise then criticize?). Nibley’s social thought deeply enriches Mormonism. But he also gets things wrong. I’m trying to walk the line of adopting what enriches while rebutting what doesn’t. I hope I manage that line.[fn1]

And now, on to substance:

The Free Lunch

Over the course of these essays, Nibley has come back to the story of his fellowship a number of times as evidence that we can work, not for wages, but merely for work and that, moreover, we can have a free lunch. But rather than just describe, I’ll let him tell the story:

And about work? I once had a university fellowship for which I had to agree not to accept any gainful employment for the period of a year—all living necessities were supplied: I was actually forbidden to work for lunch. Was it free lunch? I never worked so hard in my life—but I never gave lunch a thought. I wasn’t supposed to. I was eating only so that I could do my work; I was not working only so that I could eat. And that is what the Lord asks us: to forget about lunch, and do his work, and the lunch will be taken care of.

This story, though, doesn’t do the work the Nibley wants it to do. Because he was clearly working for lunch (and, by lunch, Nibley clearly means compensation). That he didn’t get paid in cash doesn’t decrease the compensatory nature of the arrangement. Most of us are paid with a combination of cash and non-cash compensation. The bulk of my compensation is, of course, cash, but my employer also provides insurance. My family can take college courses at Loyola for free; I could join the university’s gym at a subsidized rate. Occasionally at faculty meetings, the school actually provides lunch itself. All of those things are compensatory and, though I prefer that most of my compensation come in cash form (because cash is fungible, and I can choose how to spend it), if I negotiated instead that the school pay my rent directly, and let me bill my groceries to it,[fn2] it would, nonetheless, be compensatory.

It’s possible that I’m misreading his intent; maybe he means that his compensation (=room and board) weren’t tied into his production of anything specific. That’s certainly possible, but that’s the rule with most salaried creative professionals.

Which is to say, his lunch was never free; he bought his lunch with the hardest work he had done in his life. Sure, he never gave lunch a thought, but, given the same arrangement, but with a cash grant instead, I suspect he would have been equally focused on his studies and still not given lunch a thought. The important thing (with which he would agree, I suspect) is where our heart and mind are; to the extent that lunch (=consumption this time) is our driving goal, rather than building Zion and the kingdom of God, we’ve got a significant problem.

And, in Nibley’s defense, the problem he’s fighting against is a real and a difficult problem. It’s easy to platitudinously declare that we worked for and that we deserve the wealth that we have, without acknowledging that our wealth is based, in large part, on the luck of our being born where and when we were and that ultimately, all wealth is derived from gifts given us by God.

A Defense of Cash

Nibley is deeply distrustful of cash (though he doesn’t seem as concerned about, for example, barter). He views cash as oppressive of the poor, causing them to starve while the rich live in opulence.[fn3] He talks of the apostles’ mission to England, where Brigham Young, et. al, saw “people were literally starving to death in the streets, while many in the city were living in the greatest opulence.” The factories were closed because of a harsh winter, and the “money [the workers] had saved up by their diligent toil was suddenly worthless—it is money alone that gets you lunch, mere work is not enough.”[fn4]

A counter-narrative: This summer, my family went to the Ingalls Homestead in De Smet, South Dakota.[fn5] De Smet is the town where the Ingalls family ultimately settled; it’s the setting of, among other books, The Long Winter. (Warning: the rest of this section will likely include spoilers from the book. If you plan on reading it, you may well want to skip to the next section. Also, if you do go to De Smet and go on the Ingalls tour in town, be aware that the guide will tell you the end of The Long Winter, which my wife and I hadn’t quite finished when we went on the tour. So maybe finish the book before you go.)

In The Long Winter, the town of De Smet faces on-and-off blizzards for about eight months. The trains with necessary supplies can’t get through a snowed-in pass, and every time the pass is cleared, another blizzard arrives. What’s worse, it’s the first year of the town, filled with homesteaders whose first year of crops is necessarily small.

We see the Ingalls family slowly eat through the food they have, until they only have wheat and potatoes left. Then the potatoes are gone, then the wheat. At this point, the townspeople’s’ money is truly worthless; there is no food left to purchase, even for those who have savings.

(Okay, here are real, significant spoilers. If you haven’t read the book and don’t want to know what happens, seriously, skip ahead.) In the end, the town hears rumors of a homesteader 20 miles away who grew a crop of wheat. Almanzo Wilder (Laura’s future husband) and a friend go in search of this possible store of wheat. They find the homesteader, who doesn’t want to sell because it is his seed wheat for the next year. Ultimately, Almanzo convinces him to take $1.25 per bushel (I think—I don’t have the book in front of me). There was no labor Almanzo and the town could have done for the homesteader to directly pay for the wheat—it was only through the medium of a fungible store of value (that is, money) that the deal could be done and the town could avoid starvation.

I realize that all I’ve done here is counter one 19th-century anecdote of the evils of money with a 19th-century anecdote of the necessity of money. But I’ve also mentioned Little House, so I feel vindicated.

Exploitation of Labor

Nibley is deeply concerned about the exploitation of labor by capital. He tells the story of 19th-century Scottish mines, where children worked, where the owners were unconcerned with the children’s health or comfort, and even relaxed rules about working on Sundays so that they could produce more coal.

We can laugh about his example: child labor isn’t a concern any more (at least in the U.S.). But even here, even today, working conditions can be exploitative.

Contra Nibley, I assume that, if we establish Zion today, its economics will be fundamentally capitalist. Not because capitalism is the economic structure of heaven, of course, but because, as Lucas and Woodworth convincingly demonstrated, the forms of consecration that the Church has instituted have always related back to the underlying economics of the time.

But capitalism does not function well with full employment. Without turnover, businesses can’t find employees and generally can’t expand. Zion, though, demands no poor. A capitalistic Zion society, then, would need to have a strong social safety net to support those who, at any point in time, are unemployed, specifically so that there are no poor. How would such a safety net work? I don’t know—there are several possible designs, including comprehensive private charitable transfers and government redistribution. The important thing is, individuals in a Zion society cannot be too attached to their possessions, because Zion requires some degree of redistribution.


  • For Nibley, food and clothing appear to be purely functional, not aesthetic or delightful or morally relevant. He’s not entirely ascetic, though: he quotes Shakespeare and bemoans the lack of Mormon artists (viz-a-viz businesspeople). Yes, food is consumption. But so is buying a ticket to see a dance performance. In both cases, that money could be otherwise spent to feed the poor, but, unless we decide that, in Zion, beauty is irrelevant, we have to spend some money on things that aren’t purely for survival. And frankly, I’m not interested in living in a purely functional Zion, and I don’t believe that’s what God wants for us, either.
  • I’m not interested in addressing his views on Darwin, except to point out that (a) I disagree, and (b) those views are irrelevant to his ultimate social criticism.
  • He says, “[T]he business of lawyers is to get around the law . . . .” He’s wrong. The business of lawyers is, among other things, (a) to advise clients how to comply with the law while accomplishing their other goals, and (b) to ensure that the legal system comes to the correct conclusion with respect to their clients. Sure, there are lawyers who help their clients get around the law. But there are mechanics who do shoddy car repairs, there are professors who sleep with their students, there are doctors who do unnecessary and harmful procedures. Just because some lawyers do bad things, that doesn’t make doing bad things the business of lawyers.
  • “Teeth comb”?!?

[fn1] Oh, one more thing: I don’t have the book in front of me, so I can’t give page number references when I cite Nibley this time. Everything I do cite will be from the online chapter here.

[fn2] Actually, I’d almost undoubtedly lose that negotiation, if only because can you imagine how big a pain that would be administratively?

[fn3] More on the rich/poor divide in the next section.

[fn4] See? He doesn’t like the mediation that money provides—he would, presumably, prefer that people’s labor directly translate into their necessities. A couple problems with that include storing excess value provided by labor, valuation, and the ability to work in one place while obtaining goods from several sources.

[fn5] Which, by the way, is really awesome, especially if you have a couple kids who’ve read all or many of the Little House books and walk around for two days in their pioneer dresses, aprons, and bonnets. And, if you go, you should spend the night in one of the covered wagons on the property.

43 comments for “The Approaching Zion Project: Work We Must, but the Lunch Is Free

  1. Sam,

    You would put this up on the second day of classes, when I’m swamped with advising and meetings! Sigh…

    Suffice to say that I consider “Work We Must, But the Lunch is Free” to be Nibley’s magnum opus, the best thing he’s ever written. There is a profound, and vital, and deeply Christian, anti-capitalist argument in there, one which you touch upon: Nibley doesn’t like cash. Why? Because cash enables people who are not involved in the production of goods to nonetheless accumulate, and thereby exercise social power over, the worth of goods, and the relationships they enable. In shifting over from an economy of production (goods can be produced, goods which can be shared, goods which can be a source a general munificence and grace) to an economy of cash, we invite a narrowing of our sense of value–we lose our sense of gifts, and things become transactional; the worth of things moves from being known through their productive, gifted relationship from one person or community or another, and becomes something known through price.

    Is putting a price on things efficient? Yes. Does it encourage innovation, by allowing us to pocket the cash and move from one place to another, and invest as seems best? Yes. Does this mean Nibley’s cash-avoiding Zion, and thus his vision of a Christian society, is a poorer one than those we’ve become accustomed to? Yes! Now you’re getting it.

  2. Highlights:

    – To summarize Nibley’s beef with Darwin: “With his usual unfailing insight, President Young saw it was the economic and political rather than the scientific and biological implications of natural selection that were the real danger and most counter to the gospel.” I think Nibley is quite accurate in his invective against social Darwinism of the Korihorian variety (see Alma 30:17).

    – On Nibley’s disdain for materialism: “It is a folly for a man to love . . . any other kind of property and possessions. One that places his affections upon such things does not understand that they are made for the comfort of the creature, and not for his adoration. They are made to sustain and preserve the body while procuring the knowledge and wisdom that pertain to God and his kingdom [the school motif], in order that we may preserve ourselves, and live forever in his presence.” – Brigham Young

    While it is true that “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God,” it is also true that Adam had to eat his bread “by the sweat of his brow.” I think Nibley is right to remind us that everything is a gift from God to be used for His purposes, but he falls short, as we all do, in his descriptions of God’s purposes for Zion. In my opinion he comes closest in his discussion of the law of love.

  3. John, I agree that he’s spot-on in attacking so-called Social Darwinism (which, happily, has largely disappeared since his delivery of this discourse). But he also attacks evolutionary Darwinism. And, on that point, he’s wrong.

  4. The problem Nibley faces, of course, that most people won’t work unless they have incentives to do so. That is Nibley sees a culture at variance with our natural psychology. Which is fine of course unless he can explain an easy way to overcome that biology. He sometimes appeals to variants on being born again but while that does make a change in our life it just doesn’t make the change he needs it to make. So Nibley’s preaching a gospel of resurrected beings at a time of fallenness. As such it’s kind of sadly an unobtainable utopian scheme like so many before it.

    A bigger issue is, even ignoring our biological psychological makeup, he assumes everyone gets to work where they are most valuable. However of course he gets a job doing exactly the sort of work he enjoys and not as the guy scooping up the spilled garbage. I’d have more sympathy for Nibley’s position if he could deal with the fairly big problem of unappealing mundane tasks. Perhaps in some distant future when we have machines to do all that his ideal of everyone as an university professor would be more workable. Short of the “singularity” though I can’t help senses within Nibley a privileging of all the sorts of tasks *he* enjoys and a disparaging or overlooking of the sorts of things he doesn’t like. Throw in some unrealistic romanticization of agrarian communities and you have a problem.

    Which is not to deny that he puts his finger on something true and important about our covenant to consecrate our time and talents. Just that the economic implications he draws from that are, perhaps, a tad more problematic.

  5. Your discussion of whether the lunch was free gets into some interesting causation issues. On a strict definition of cause the lunch was free because he could have loafed all year long and still got it. But in a less strict definition, the (correct) expectation that he would work hard was the reason he got the lunch.

    One of the gospel puzzles is how to reconcile our freedom with God’s justice. On the one hand, it seems unjust that God would let someone else’s salvation, exaltation or blessings or happiness depend on choices that I make. But if not, my ability to make meaningful choices that have meaningful consequences seem radically constrained. If you are universalist, or if you accept the Mormon sub-universalism where sealing drags everyone along to exaltation willy-nilly, the dilemma is even more acute.

    This is where the causation issues in Nibley’s story come in. In a strict definition of causation, our choices don’t ’cause’ any good, because God would step in to supply it anyhow if we didn’t. But in a looser sense, we could say that God didn’t have step in to supply the good because he rightly expected that we would.

    So I have to disagree with Nibley that the lunch is free. If it is, it makes our choices pretty meaningless.

  6. Clark,
    I don’t always get the sense from Nibley that he understood the degree that telestial mechanisms and institutions are responses to our current telestial condition, not causes of it.

  7. Clark, I suspect that Nibley would dismiss the incentives problem. To some extent, that’s right: part of our purpose is to overcome the natural man, and, in Zion, presumably we would want intrinsic motivation.

    That said, you get at what I consider one of the most problematic assumptions in his project: the assumption of calling. As you point out, Nibley clearly feels called to do what he does, as an academic. And, I would argue (selfishly, of course), academics add value to the world. But not everyone works at a calling; in fact, many of the essential jobs that underlie social living are decidedly unpleasant. Nibley doesn’t acknowledge this in his writing (at least so far), though I have to assume that he realized that unpleasant tasks need to be done. If Zion requires noncompensatory reasons for work, Zion will require significant socialization, or some other incentive structure, so that the garbage is collected. It’s not a problem that can’t be overcome, but it is a significant problem.

    Adam, thanks. The chicken-egg problem is very real here.

    Russell, I’m clearly less troubled by the existence of cash than you and Nibley are. I realize—and hope I’ve pointed out over the course of these posts—that Zion will be poorer than our current (US, at least) society. But whatever benefits may accrue from the transition from a cash to a barter society need to be weighed against the costs. And not just in efficiency—there are costs in respect of providing public and private goods, too. In that regard, it’s probably worth listening to the Planet Money segment of this week’s This American Life dealing with the charity Give Directly.

  8. Would it change these problems if the church was centred is a Scandinavian country?

    Would the Gospel be happier in a place where each is happy to accept responsibility for the welfare of others – rather than the extreme form of capitalism in the US.

    Should the US be trying to lower it’s place on the GINI index to get closer to a Zion society?

  9. I really don’t understand the people that romanticize barter and agrarian societies. They wish we could return to some purer, better age, but fail to recognize that we *already* lived that way, barely made it through the disease, pain, and starvation and our ancestors fought and *built* to make sure the next generation didn’t have to suffer like they did.
    Turning everyone into a bartering land owner with no merchants or division of labor makes everyone a subsistence farmer with huge mortality rates with crippling death in what we now call “middle age.” We know how this turns out, and it isn’t Zion purifying our hearts to heavenly ascension, it’s burying babies and defending your crop from your neighbors and nature.

    The poorest segment of 1st world society is demonstrably healthier, stronger, more disease/pain-free, educated, with more comforts and chances for personal enrichment and learning than their great grandparents had, and greater than the majority of there world’s population today. And by all measures “happier” to boot.

    It wasn’t working super hard at an academic “calling”, or engendering Christian love for his fellow man that did any of it either. It was his parents and grandparents and so forth that said “it sucks to live this way, let’s make something better for our kids and all try and live to see them grow up.” *That’s* the incentive, IMO.

  10. Sam, still love that you’re doing this and appreciate the insights you bring. I was, however, less impressed with your overall take on this one.

    1. I think you misread the point of his slogan: Work we must but the lunch is free. It’s about whether we can be motivated without cash benefit (yes), and whether cash motivation will work to build Zion (no). Hence Nibley’s anecdote hearkens back to a Zion time for him – immersed in study and scholarly production, he was working harder than he ever has, and his compensation (which he explicitly acknowledges – on your reading we have to wonder -as you awkwardly do – why on earth Nibley admits to compensation while at the same time denying compensation) is absolute pittance. His point is that a better, more rewarding, more Zion-like labor is internally and passionately motivated, not externally, compensatorily motivated. In other words, Nibley’s whole point is that Clark’s tired narrative (#5) is simply wrong. What’s so scandalous is that not only have people in past ages worked hard and been motivated by non-cash rewards, but most of us today continue to work and be motivated by primarily non-cash rewards. And yet we still repeat the crock about society falling to pieces and innovation going up in flames should we consider any alternative other than rampant capitalism.

    2. I want to go easy on you on account of your use of Ingall’s book (and I agree, the set-up in De Smet is great – and since it’s the ONLY thing to see on the hours long drive through SD, one really ought to stop). But that’s a terribly unfortunate conclusion to draw from a harrowing story. While the analogy’s not great however we try to swing it, I think it clearly works better to vindicate Nibley’s main point (see #1): if our motivation is personal rather than community aggrandizement (money), then yes, we might be the “lucky” ones, in a position to exploit those in desperate circumstances and make ourselves a killing on our wheat harvest. And in the process, undermine Zion and sink our souls to hell as that old rotter surely did.

    3. I’m utterly confused at how you think we don’t have a child labor/exploitation policy going on in the US. We still use children and use them for all the same old things we used to use them for – mining, factory work, sewing, sex, etc. It’s just that we use other people’s children instead of our own (mostly).

    4. On functional Zion – again, on your reading of Nibley, we have to wonder, “Why does he contradict himself, lauding Shakespeare and other types of ‘consumption’ while at the same time decrying consumption?” I think the right way to read this is: Nibley’s fine with luxuries that serve the purpose of enriching our (and our community’s) souls. Zion will be chalk full of them. But a justificatory prerequisite for this in Zion is that there are no poor. Until we get that problem fixed, any fixation on aggrandizement – especially the superficial stuff like our clothing, is immoral.

  11. I guess my point is that Nibley tends to present an opposition between those selfishly enjoying the fruits of others labors and those who are among the oppressed. However he doesn’t always seem to acknowledge his own privileged status and benefits. As I said I wonder if he’d feel the same were he asked to do something he really hated. Although he did write Tinkling Cymbals and Sounding Brass (grin) Of course even that’s not a fair statement since I think most of us here know how much he gave away to charity. It’s just that it’s quite easy to be non-material and a bit of a platonist when what you enjoy already is a quasi-platonic world of ideas and that’s what you’re good at. It’s easy to be anti-materialist when you really don’t like material stuff. It’s that tension between his likes and what he asks of others that I think is problematic. And frankly problematic within academia in general – I think many don’t appreciate academics are in a way parasitic on the rest of society. That’s not a condemnation of academia. Heck, I obviously love academics. Just that I think some of the criticism of business is a privileging of a certain culture without appreciating what makes that culture possible.

    The other problem you touched upon is that if you work and assume the lunch is free that only works if you’re in a community that thinks the same. Nibley can say God will provide, and sometimes he does, but typically God wants you to create a functional economy on your own. I feel like Nibley’s akin to the Brother of Jared talking about how God will light the boat but not being willing to find the rocks for God to touch. That is there’s a privileging of study, prayer and revelation but less so for pragmatic working things out. So Nibley looks at Young’s experiments and tends to point the finger of blame always on the Mormons attempting to live Young’s experiments and never on the structures or directives of Young.

    That’s why I get at the problem of Nibley dismissing the incentive problem. It leads to a kind of condemnation of others not getting things to work when perhaps they aren’t really the problem. (If you see what I’m getting at)

    MC, yes it’s interesting that many measures of mobility and inequality have Utah on par with much of Scandanavia.

  12. James, I agree our motivations should be pure and not via money. Nibley’s right about our covenants. Where Nibley fails is in creating actual working communities which have to address the actual people in them. That is the Church is a hospital by the infirmed for the infirmed. When we forget that then something is wrong.

    The problem of luxuries with Nibley is that he thinks what is enriching is ultimately the stuff he likes. In a community of regular folks rather than scholars I suspect what’s enriching might end up being power boats and ATVs not because they are materialistic but because that’s what brings enjoyment, community and family together for them. The repression of that style of things as materialistic likely misses some of why people like them (which often *isn’t* keeping up with the Joneses) and then the things he likes (books, and lots of books) which aren’t inspirational or in enriching to them are seen as good. Put an other way, Nibley ultimately doesn’t give a good criteria to decide what is enriching. He talks about goods of first and second intent but I think his analysis there fails in certain key ways by marginalizing important matters.

    Ultimately my criticism isn’t that we shouldn’t live consecration. On that I fully agree with Nibley. It’s that his conception of Zion is ultimately other worldly and utopian whereas both Joseph and Brigham sought to make Zion here and now. They failed, but they worked furiously on practical communities with people in their flaws. It’s that practical and pragmatic element that Nibley discounts far, far too much.

  13. Capitalism doesn’t require unemployment to function well. Many employed people move to new jobs that pay more because the service provided is in more demand. All capitalism requires to efficiently move labor is a price signal. While unemployment will exist in any system that is responsive to changing consumer tastes and thus the disappearance of demand for certain products, its existence isn’t intrinsic yo capitalism.

    The problem several mention of determining what kind of consumption has intrinsic value also requires, in practice, some kind of price system if it is to be compatible with the division of labor on any appreciable scale. Prices carry information about how others want me to serve them.

  14. James, thanks for your thoughts. Let me respond to a couple of them:

    (1) I agree that Nibley’s story is about intrinsic v. extrinsic motivation. But it doesn’t do the work of showing that the lunch was free; he may have been motivated by something other than his compensation, but they were linked. And, like I said, that’s the benefit of creative professions. My (current) compensation doesn’t rely on my producing articles or teaching. I do those things because I love to do them. True, if I don’t publish anything and do a poor job teaching, I’ll eventually lost my job, but, I suspect, the same would have been true of Nibley’s fellowship, except that it had a fixed period (that is, after a year, it was over). Similarly, most stipends received by Ph.D. candidates aren’t tied into their successfully achieving their Ph.D.; in fact, even in private practice, my base salary wasn’t dependent on what I produced. If I had held the job knowing I had a one-year window, I could have done no work and still been paid (again, with the caveat that I could have been fired).

    Moreover, you’re either reading into his story the “pittance” idea or he says it later in the book. Because here, he never called it a pittance.

    One of my pet peeves, actually, is graduate and professional students who say that they’re poor (with the caveat that, in the current economy, I’m slightly less irritated than I was in the booming mid-2000s). They may be cash-poor, but they’re cash-poor in an effort to shore up lifetime earnings; for most of them, their lifetime earnings will make them rich (on a worldwide standard) or comfortable (on a US standard). Likewise for Nibley: he took a one-year fellowship that provided (apparently) room and board in the interest of doing something that would not reduce, and likely increase, his marketability in the future.

    So what I’m missing in the picture is the “free” lunch. He received a non-cash lunch for doing what he loved. And I don’t have any moral problem with that. But I don’t see a material difference between receiving in-kind support for doing what you love and receiving cash for doing what you love; neither is a free lunch, or else the idea of a free lunch is meaningless.

    (2) There’s also Wall Drug in SD :) [Again, SPOILER ALERT.] I still haven’t read past where they bought the wheat, but, so far, I don’t see the settler’s soul sinking to hell; he wasn’t part of the community, he was essentially unknown to them and seemed not to know them, either. If there’s a soul sinking to hell, presumably it’s Almanzo’s; he was part of the community and refused (with one exception) to sell his wheat.

    But that wasn’t really my point: perhaps, if a Zion community were entirely self-contained, it could function without cash, based purely on the intrinsic motivation of its members. And I get that Nibley seems to want this kind of self-contained society. But that sounds hellish to me—it stinks of xenophobia and NIMBYism and exclusivity. The only vision of Zion I can accept as being morally right is one that is broadly inclusive, one where “one heart” and “one mind” don’t work to keep others out, but work to interact with them and bring them in (viz Nibley’s disgust with some students’ idea that there will be no poor in Zion because only the rich will be admitted).

    (3) We certainly haven’t solved the problem of international child exploitation. Thanks for calling me on that.

    (4) The thing is, I disagree with inherently categorizing food and clothing as superficial and not morally elevating. Sure, they can be, but so can the plastic arts (see, e.g., McNaughton) and literature (see, e.g., well, there’s lots to see). I have a friend who is a clothing designer; what she produces is art (and, in fact, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago regularly have clothing exhibits). And a great meal certainly can qualify. I think Nibley’s certainly right that we shouldn’t spend our money on that which has no value, but his (generally implicit) idea that food and clothing, beyond what we need to survive, are unnecessary is as wrong as the idea that we don’t need any books but the Bible.

  15. I should add, doubling down on Clark’s point, it’s easy to be intrinsically motivated when you do what you love. If you don’t love what you do (and, because there are unpleasant things that must be done in mortality, presumably even in Zion), you need some other motivation. And maybe that motivation is to enrich Zion. Even still, though, it kind of sucks to think you’re stuck cleaning up after horses (or whatever) while I’m teaching and researching the tax law (which is the best, most rewarding career I can possibly imagine!). How you prevent that from eventually engendering bitterness and divisiveness is a real problem that would need to be solved.

  16. One last thing, just to be completely clear: I’m not accusing Nibley of being xenophobic, exclusive, or NIMBY. But a society—even a Zion society—that refuses to interact with the outside world strikes me as morally suspect at the very best, and certainly not a place that appeals to me.

  17. I love this chapter, although I admit that Nibley is trying to understand the concept from his point of view and lifestyle, which are very different than the average American.

    I think he is trying to teach us that our value system is all screwed up. The lunch is free, but so many of us try to obtain more lunch. We believe that we can only be happy if every lunch is a giant and luxurious banquet, and not just a nice buffet.

    Here is where he argues against capitalism. Rather than seeking to work for the sake of building up Zion and benefitting everyone, capitalism has people believing it is okay to dig a pit for your neighbor, and enrich yourself on the backs of others. It is okay to eat other people’s lunches, as well as your own. Isaiah condemned those princes who gathered house after house, until there was no inheritance left, beating the faces of the poor, etc. This, I believe, is where Nibley is coming from.

    If Capitalism is a part of a Zion system, it cannot be built on greed, as is our current system. It must be built upon every man seeking the benefit of his neighbor (D&C 82). Imagine we all work, and all funds went to the storehouse, where the bishop gave everyone a monthly check based solely on the size of their family and that they work for Zion.

    If everyone received a basic stipend for living in return for them focusing on the important work to be done (as Nibleyy describes in his own experience), perhaps greed would be eliminated or greatly reduced.

    It comes down to our focus: getting gain or building Zion.

  18. Sam

    For Nibley, food and clothing appear to be purely functional, not aesthetic or delightful or morally relevant

    well at least he has the scriptures on his side (would that anyone else ever took them seriously!)

    And again, thou shalt not be proud in thy heart; let all thy garments be plain, and their beauty the beauty of the work of thine own hands;
    -D&C 42:40

    Clark (5)

    As such it’s kind of sadly an unobtainable utopian scheme like so many before it

    How does a system that has worked before (Enoch, 4th Nephi) become unobtainable? IMO solely through our lack of faith in achieving them. My estimation is Clark doesn’t believe Nephi when he says

    I know that the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them.

    Again, I wish there were more people who ACTUALLY believe the easily understood words of the scriptures.

    Adam Greenwood (6)

    So I have to disagree with Nibley that the lunch is free

    I think rather than argue with you Nibley would tell you to go read King Benjamin again and have your arguement with him.

    Sam (8)

    If Zion requires noncompensatory reasons for work, Zion will require significant socialization

    Well, what is the point of all the time spent in Sunday School, doing service projects, fasting, sacrifices, etc, if not to socialize/condition us to work for something other than our own desires? Are we to be ever “learning” and never arrive at “doing”?

    Geoff (9): are we not free in the US to carve out our own place of Zion? Must the entire country be involved? Do we have to mold Zion to US standards? or could/should we mold ourselves and our culture to the standards of Zion?


    They wish we could return to some purer, better age, but fail to recognize that we *already* lived that way, barely made it through the disease, pain, and starvation and our ancestors fought and *built* to make sure the next generation didn’t have to suffer like they did.

    But they were decidedly NOT Zion. Zion has been established and worked in this fallen world. It is us who are failing to establish Zion, not Zion that fails to be achievable.

    Clark (14)

    That is the Church is a hospital by the infirmed for the infirmed. When we forget that then something is wrong.

    Are we a generation of sickly saints who are never healed? Or do we insist on never getting better? It’s like we have some fascination with being “fallen” and we’re addicted to being weak and lowly. I’m so sick and tired of listening to “saints” explain away their lack of faith or effort with “I’ll never be perfect.” BS!!!!!! He gives us weaknesses so we will be humble, but then helps make weak things strong. But our generation of saints don’t want to be strong. We want to continue to pat each other on the back and have others tell us it is okay that we don’t try to fulfill our covenants, “because after all, nobody else is doing it.” Then we don’t feel guilty for the inequalities all around us, and we don’t think about those we ignore because if we took time to help everyone then we wouldn’t have time to earn enough money to pay for the powerboat and ski vacation. And if Zion fails to just magically appear it is because somebody else wasn’t doing enough and didn’t know to call you because you “are willing, but nobody ask me to do ______ .”

    To paraphrase Elder Holland: all God has ever had to work with is imperfect people! Enoch was just as imperfect as we are. So was Nephi. Are we somehow less capable or less privileged with our wealth and abilities that we can’t achieve what others did before us? If we are less capable, it is by our choice to be faithless and unbelieving.

  19. MC at 11 there may be lots of Scandinavian names there, and Utah at 41 may have a low gini index by American standards 45. But by world standards you have a long way to go. Australia 30, Sweden and Norway 25.

    When you are talking about a Zion society (with no poor among them) it is a culture that says we collectively are responsible for those who can not care for themselves. This is not a culture of, us and them, no ever darken world. We are all in it together and support each other, as a society.

    The church would be very different if it’s culture was based in a country with this culture instead of on with a gini index in the 40s. Imagine a 12 all like Uchtdorf, who does come from this culture.

    I personally think that would be much closer to a Zion society and what Nibley was trying to imagine, but again he was hampered by his culture. Though in his time the gini index of Utah was lower. Until about 1980 USA was 35. So Utah was much closer to a Zion society in the middle of last century. I believe this is what many elderly conservative Mormons realised was a better society, but they do not attribute it to this more egalitarian society.

  20. Thanks for the post, Sam—and everyone else in this discussion.

    Sam #8, I’m still catching up on the comments, but before I forget: I think you make a nice point contrasting menial jobs vs. less-menial jobs. In Dan Pink’s book Drive he argues for a less economically incentivized work environment, but he focuses mainly on high-tech companies where workers are engaged in creative work, somewhat similar to professors (like Nibley). There has been quite a few success stories in these environments, where employees are given tremendous flexibility, and what we economists like to call “moral hazard” problems are overcome through what amounts to a shift from extrinsic to intrinsic motivation. But this success has not really been repeated in more menial work environments, which is why I think your point is a good one.

    However, I think it’s a problem worth analyzing deeper, at least before throwing in the towel and giving up on efforts to resist a capitalist system focused primarily on extrinsic rewards. Take, for example, the case of most households where menial tasks are done without monetary compensation. Family households, in this sense, seem to me to comprise mini-anti-capitalist units of society. Churches would be another example, where menial tasks are performed sans cash compensation (or the MTC, where somehow Celestial service, at least as it was called in my day, is an unusually stark memory, for reasons I don’t understand…).

    Now, of course families and churches do not contribute a significant amount to the productive economy (at least as measured my GDP which has recently been criticized for ignoring significant aspects of the economy, like what economists are now calling “home production”). In the U.S., for-profit companies are the predominant economic producers, and in these organizations, menial tasks are overwhelmingly performed by for-pay employees.

    Fair enough, but I think it’s worth appropriating Nibley here to ask the following question (as others commenting here have suggested): would it be possible to envision a productive economic unit in society where people perform menial jobs without relying on the direct kind of compensation we see in for-profit institutions?

    Although I think that, indeed, it is rare to find this kind of arrangement, I don’t think examples are non-existent. I worked as a janitor for my dad’s dental practice, and I noticed a difference between different kinds of employees. Some clearly worked exclusively for the pay and would only avoid leaving a mess if a supervisor explicitly asked them not to. However, there were others that took pride in their place of work, and had a sense of community at the dental practice, and would “go the extra mile” in terms of performing tasks that would help the work-place community—including the performance of menial tasks (like taking out the garbage even though it wasn’t their assigned task).

    The task that I see Nibley effectively calling us to is to find a way of building these kind of communities, where people take out the trash because of an intrinsically motivated sense of belonging to a community….

  21. Sam #16-18, sorry for repeating some of your points in my #22 (kids will be up soon interrupting me, so I wasn’t sure if I’d have time to read all comments before getting a chance to express my thoughts).

    I think your points about Nibley’s latent xenophobia are a way of expressing concern for global capitalism. And this, it seems to me, is a very difficult task. Can the kind of work-place community that I was dreaming about in #22 really exist in our increasingly competitive global landscape?

    One the one hand, I think worker co-ops like the Spain-based Mondragon suggest it might, in fact, be possible.

    On the other hand, I do think there’s an important role for collective action in general, and government in particular, to play here. Otherwise, I suspect that capitalism, with its Darwinian advantages, will likely prevail, and many of the problems with capitalism (increasing inequality, extrinsically motivated work, etc.) will persist, and continue to undermine more communal/Zionistic values, practices, and institutions.

    In this sense, I take a modern reading of Nibley’s essay to effectively force us to grapple with a kind of tension between our religious beliefs and our economic and political beliefs (“beliefs” understood in a broad sense, including cosmology and relation to institutions, practices, traditions, etc.). But, clearly, economic and political beliefs are different than religious beliefs, and I can’t help worrying about the meta isssues at work here. To what extent can we even have a meaningful Mormon discussion about these issues? Are we just debating politics and economics, without really invoking distinctly Mormon ideas, or is there something distinctly Mormon at work here? And, if so, what does that Mormon aspect require of us, if Mormonism does not require us to adhere to any particular economic or political beliefs? Poorly articulated, but do you see the problem I’m trying to get at?

  22. Robert, I totally get the trying to get something typed before the kids burst in.

    Are we just debating politics and economics, without really invoking distinctly Mormon ideas, or is there something distinctly Mormon at work here?

    I think that’s a really insightful point, and I’m not sure what to do about it. I’m not sure that Mormonism has a coherent and unique philosophy on which to build an economic model, and that may be where I see the most significant cracks in Nibley’s model. Largely, Nibley seems to be going back to Brigham Young’s various economic policies in territorial Utah (with, of course, some other sources). But it’s hard to divorce BY’s policies and statements from their context—a church body that was trying to establish itself in a new and hostile land, away from an America that wanted nothing good for it, that, if it engaged in commerce with the East, would bleed all of the currency and goods it needed to establish itself. In that context, strong home production makes a lot of sense.

    Today, though, we’re not isolated and not persecuted and, more importantly, we don’t face any kind of currency crunch. So BY’s views, which were pragmatic in his society, don’t make as much sense in ours.

    Even the things we think of as unique to us, moreover—including the United Order-style economics—aren’t. For a project I’m doing, I’m looking at various communitarian and utopian religious groups, and, while not super-common, they’re also not terribly uncommon.

    I’m sure there is something (or, more likely somethings) uniquely Mormon that can be brought to bear on economic and social theory, and I think Nibley was pursuing such a uniquely Mormon vision, but he hasn’t entirely convinced me, and I’m not sure what such a lens would look like.

  23. **Adam Greenwood (6)

    So I have to disagree with Nibley that the lunch is free

    I think rather than argue with you Nibley would tell you to go read King Benjamin again and have your arguement with him. **

    I’m unclear what you, or Nibley, think King Benjamin has to say about the kind of causation that makes my acts have meaningful consequences. Could you elaborate?

  24. One of the challenges is that our modern definition of “working” has come to mean only “working for pay,” not other kinds of effort and contribution. Thus full-time parents are widely considered to be “not working” and their contributions are not included in the GDP. So if I make jam and sell it at the farmer’s market, that is work, but making it and giving it as gifts and for my family is not work.

    “…his lunch was never free; he bought his lunch with the hardest work he had done in his life.”

    A lot of full-time missionaries feel that labor is the hardest work they have done (up to that point in their short lives). Their lunch is provided by those who support them, who feel blessed to contribute to the work of building the kingdom.

    A lot of full-time parents feel that work is the hardest job they’ve ever had, and their lunch is provided by a spouse who provides financial means in partnership, recognizing the parenting and homemaking as making a contribution to the family and building the kingdom.

  25. Okay, I am a little bored today. So I am going to jump back on to my hobby horse and ride the heck out of him. I fully realize that when I get off, no matter how hard I ride him, I will get off at the same place I started.

    Regardless of all the comments here, as erudite as they are, I still believe Nibley was talking about grace. At least, if he was not, he should have been. :)

    About 12 to 15 years ago, I was really into studying/thinking about grace. I even wrote a letter to the Church headquarters explaining my problem with the Church and grace. Sometime after that, I got in the mail from someone at Farms, their publication in which Nibley gives this quote that this post is all about. (I did not ask for it, nor do I know who sent it.) I believed then and I still believe now, that he is talking about grace. I have never studied Nibley and his writings, so I accept that I am probably just wrong, and all of the comments here are more correct. But.

    Around this same time, I read Jim Faulkner’s book on Romans chapter 1. In that book, Jim tells us that when Paul refereed to himself as a servant, that in Greek, the word servant meant slave. A slave is bought and paid for, must work, but earns nothing.

    So when I put the two things together, I understood Nibley to be talking about grace. Nibley was given something that he really did not deserve and was so appreciative of that fact, that he worked harder than he ever did before, didn’t have to, he was already promised his reward, but he was so grateful, how could he not?

    That is the way grace works. We are bought and paid for with a very high price. We are like Paul, we have to work, but we earn nothing. So the idea in the Church that we earn our way to the Celestial Kingdom, to me, is just plain wrong.

    For those here that have read “Bonds That Make Us Free”, you need to go back and read it again with the understanding that it is *all* about grace. If not, it should be. :) If someone can tell me what else the light that comes into ones life is, that changes ones heart, I would be glad to change my mind. Good luck with that.

  26. I’m unclear what you, or Nibley, think King Benjamin has to say about the kind of causation that makes my acts have meaningful consequences. Could you elaborate?

    I’m unclear on the relationship between the “meaningful consequences” you are asking about and the “free lunch” that everyone else is talking about.

    What causes your actions to have meaning? That God decreed you would be free to choose life or death; joy or pleasure; light or darkness. So your choices affect your outcome. I assume you think of your own outcome as something meaningful.

    But King Benjamin makes clear that no matter what your choices you will always be in debt to God. That HE provides you with your life, body, abilities, shelter, food, and the air your breath. That you have never done anything that you have “earned” because it is all a gift from God to you. Your choices have meaning, but they don’t affect your utter dependence upon God for all you have.

  27. Answering in reverse order

    CEF (#27), I think grace is key to this but that’s where I think Nibley falls down in that he thinks grace will fill in the gaps (provide the lunch). For whatever reason God choses not to do that most of the time. He expects effort from us. He may enable us to act (which is of course grace) but he doesn’t always fill in the gaps. My problem with Nibley isn’t the working, but the utopian aspects.

    Robert (#23) Yes, I think that’s the tension I’m getting at. When Nibley moves from grace to economics things break down because of the assumptions he brings.

    Robert (#22) While I’ve not read Pink’s book, I think the evidence is that the flexible work environment in most tech companies simply doesn’t match they way those companies portray it. They attempt to paint a picture of a frat house like environment to get kids graduating from college. However once you get into those environments there’s tremendous pressure not to act in the ways stereotyped. Even at Google, the classic example, the perception and the reality are quite different. (And Google recently did away with their “free time creativity.”)

    Regarding the last points, the issue isn’t whether you can do a good job even in a menial job. Many of us do and have. The issue is whether you’d put up being permanently in that job when someone else gets the job of taking people on tours through the greenhouse. It’s the idea that there is perfect equality whereas in the practical scheme Nibley avoids, there can’t be the equality he wants. Except in either some Star Trek future of technology or in some small hunter gatherer society I think few would want to live in. (The reality of hunter gather societies simply isn’t how Nibley romanticizes it)

    Effectvely Nibely is calling for a kind of equality in Zion when the economics he appears to presume are anything but equal.

    Jax (#20) Lots of things I disagree with. First off regarding D&C 42:40 the Lord isn’t disparaging aesthetics but simply avoiding clothes that are an effect of pride. i.e. that cause divisions. When the scripture uses “beauty” I don’t see how you can simultaneously say they are only functional and not aesthetical.

    Regarding my point about Nibley’s Utopian scheme it seems odd to bring in Enoch and 4th Nephi. Isn’t my point precisely that Nibley *thinks* he is creating that economic system when the reality is he hasn’t? He hasn’t because he can’t answer the foundational questions that would let a community persist the way those did. When people bring up Utopian schemes as a pejorative they usually mean schemes that can’t work with the conditions the proponents propose. So communists and libertarians are always yelling, “our politics hasn’t been tried!” Nibley, for all the good points he makes, has economics that just don’t work.

    To my point about the infirmed, if you believe that all of us are perfect, what you say is true. The fact most of us are not. Denying it doesn’t make it any less real. Certainly our weaknesses enable humility which can make us strong. My point is simply that’s not enough. You think it is, which is fine. I’ll just point out that it’s very easy to say your scheme is right it’s just everyone follows it wrong. I earnestly believe most of the saints in the various united order experiments desired zion. They still largely failed.

  28. Loved the post and comments. Thanks for Approaching Zion series, Sam. I’m even more pleased that the discussion has not been derailed by this one aggressive troll who keeps rearing his head on the T&S blog from time to time. I forget his name, but he is a modern-day James Strang of sorts. Yes, please keep ignoring him.

  29. Just to add an other rejoinder to (12)

    I think the issue is ultimately whether Nibley is *only* talking about motivation or is making broader claims. If he’s only talking about our incentives then he’s really just preaching a roundabout virtue ethics. If we want to be virtuous then other incentives don’t matter.

    The counter claim is any economic system has to deal with people as they are who may not be perfect in Nibley’s virtue ethics sense. Yet to point this out is to raise a “tired narrative.” Put simply, Zion’s trivial when everyone is a celestial beings. It sort of falls out as the natural economy. If that’s Nibley’s point then he goes about it in an odd way. The real question is how a virtuous person ought act in a fallen world, not when surrounded only by celestial beings. (IMO)

  30. Sam,
    In the areas of your disagreement from capitalism to lawyers I get the impression you aren’t thinking deeply enough to reach the level of Nibley thought.

    He’s of course deeply ironic but also very reductionist, in a sense to strip away the junk and see things as they are. I don’t think you’re reading at his level in the way you approach the issue with your disagreement. He might say, “fundamentally every Disney movie is the same” to which you reply “not so, there is one about Lions, one about mermaids and one about mice.”

    Reading a lot of your posts have been great on this topic but the areas of disagreement I find myself thinking something along the lines of, “why do you keep saying that…. I don’t think he means what you think he means”.

  31. “It’s just that it’s quite easy to be non-material and a bit of a platonist when what you enjoy already is a quasi-platonic world of ideas and that’s what you’re good at.”

    Yes. There is a problem there, and one that colors things as much as his experiences in WWII (where the rich had houses off-limits and were protected from the incoming armies) or his family background (which included bitter arguments between the women and the men over exploiting natural resources) or his family history (which included poor mine workers).

    But Nibley really seems to be reaching for the concept that while everyone has to work or we will starve, we take much, too much, credit for the results of our individual labor. I see it in law. When I look at what happens to graduates from mid-ranked law schools with the same credentials.

    Here an editor in chief of a law review that ends up working as an insurance adjuster. There another who worked for a boutique, it lost its business and now they are doing document review and contract labor. Someone else is making $170k a year and the work product I see (being on the other side of them) is not as good.

    “Jax (#20) Lots of things I disagree with. First off regarding D&C 42:40 the Lord isn’t disparaging aesthetics but simply avoiding clothes that are an effect of pride. i.e. that cause divisions.” — or why we put efforts into beauty in Temples or keeping meeting houses clean.

    “What causes your actions to have meaning? That God decreed you would be free to choose life or death; joy or pleasure; light or darkness.” Indeed. That is exactly what Nibley would have said.

    ” I still believe Nibley was talking about grace.”


    I am still giving a lot of thought about Utopia and Zion.

    Thank you for keeping the dialog going.

  32. I’m a James Strang and a Troll? Been called many things in my life but I have to admit that’s the first time for that. Just to contextualize things for you – I really enjoy this series and thoroughly enjoy Nibley. I just think there are some things that over time made me reconsider some of his ethical claims from how I viewed them in college. That’s not to say there’s not value there. And if, as some have, you reduce his claims to a discussion about motivation, what he says is correct. It’s just that I don’t think Nibley intends them to be limited in that way.

  33. Clark #35, I laughed out loud that you thought you were the James Strang troll mentioned. Although I haven’t directly responded to you on this thread, I think you make very good points. I really like a lot of what I see Nibley trying to argue in this essay, but you (and Sam, and others) are quite right, IMHO, to accuse Nibley of being overly Utopian, at least in many respects, and I think you are asking the right questions that need to be answered in order to make progress in our efforts to approach Zion in a more actual and more realistic way. The trick, I think, is to keep holding on to our dreams of a better world, but also keep our eyes wide open to the world as it is. (I’m anxious for you to elaborate more sometime on Nibley’s Platonism, as you see it, esp. since I think it’s interesting and helpful to understand Nibley as a kind of Platonic figure point up, with a need for some counterbalancing Aristotelian figure to point down to a more practical way of realistically moving toward that vision….)

  34. I did a reading club, somewhat similar to what Sam is doing, a few years ago. In it I discussed Nibley as a Platonist. There’s not a single smoking gun in his stuff published by FARMS. However if you are familiar with Platonism it’s really, really clear he is one. Unfortunately my blog somehow ended up on a spam blacklist so it’s hard to put links in without my comments being flagged as spam. And unless someone notices it stays there. So I’ll put the link in a following comment. (BTW – if anyone from is reading, my blog isn’t showing up in their aggregation for some reason. However it’s been active the last while and I’m moving towards doing two posts a week there.

  35. Getting back to your reading, I think my third post in my reading club gets at what’s behind Nibley’s approach that you’re discussing here (I won’t link to it, follow the links above) Quoting from that old post of mine:

    What counts isn’t what one believes but rather what one anticipates openly. This expectation must be for what one doesn’t know. To anticipate with the expectation of something preconceived is not to truly anticipate. This expectation is what allows creativity to occur. Indeed all creativity is really this Mantic operation.

    I think you see that at work in Nibley’s utopianism and economics. To have a worked out position is fundamentally to be acting incorrectly in this Platonic conception. That’s because you’ve made a man-made creation rather that waiting on revelation. In other words this whole “the lunch is free” isn’t just to be viewed economically but is a basic epistemology of Nibley. We work anticipating what we don’t know and God just continually gives revelation on everything. The Platonic stance (what Nibley calls the Mantic vs. the Sophic) is just anticipation. So of course Nibley’s scheme is utopian because utopian schemes are always anticipatory without there being any clear means to get there. It’s grace as continual revelation.

    An other way of putting my earlier comments is to say that God’s grace is often a withholding of revelation in order for us to work things out on our own. The classic example of that is God telling the Brother of Jared to build a boat without explaining how to light it. I think for most of us, while we do have revelations and often powerful revelations an important aspect of God’s grace is the withholding of revelation and leaving us to our own devices. It’s that whole doctrine of “left to our own devices” that Nibley gives short shift to. Indeed I’d argue he actively criticizes it as sophic thinking.

  36. *I’m unclear on the relationship between the “meaningful consequences” you are asking about and the “free lunch” that everyone else is talking about.*

    See my comment no. 6

    *What causes your actions to have meaning? That God decreed you would be free to choose life or death; joy or pleasure; light or darkness. So your choices affect your outcome. I assume you think of your own outcome as something meaningful.

    But King Benjamin makes clear that no matter what your choices you will always be in debt to God. That HE provides you with your life, body, abilities, shelter, food, and the air your breath. That you have never done anything that you have “earned” because it is all a gift from God to you. Your choices have meaning, but they don’t affect your utter dependence upon God for all you have.*

    In effect King Benjamin says that we never can pay full price for the lunch, because God is selling it to us at a price adjusted to the allowance money he gave us at above market-rates for some chores we did. But its not free either, in that we do have to pay allowance money and we have to do some work for that money. If that weren’t the case, if the lunch were free, we didn’t have to pay for it at all, our actions wouldn’t be meaningful. I can be persuaded we’re disagreeing, but right now I don’t think so.

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