Defending Faith

One of my heroes is Hugh Nibley. I know. I know. How cliche for a Mormon Studies guy. Though it seems almost equally cliche to dismiss Nibley.

Hugh Nibley

Hugh Nibley

In my second semester of graduate school at the University of Utah, I took a graduate seminar in ethics and public affairs. It was a small group. I was the only active Mormon. However, most of the regular participants in the seminar were very familiar with Mormonism. Jason was a returned missionary who had served in Japan. He worked at Sam Wellers Bookstore in downtown Salt Lake City. He was gay and had left the Church. Another participant in the seminar, Arlyn, was somebody I knew a bit better. He was active in the College Democrats and we had been in some classes together before. He was the youngest member in our little group. He was LDS and he came from the tiny Mormon enclave of Shelley, Idaho. He was also gay.

The professor, Luke Garrott, was not LDS. However, he engaged Mormonism. This is something which none of my other professors at the University of Utah did. I never found any of my professors at Utah to be “anti-Mormon,” but instead they were completely uninterested in Mormonism.

I took many of Garrott’s classes as an undergraduate. He was my graduate advisor for a time and I had been his TA. He was the person who had introduced me to Mormon historian Leonard Arrington. We read from Building The City of God while discussing economic democracy in an upper-division undergraduate course on democratic theory. I felt very comfortable bringing up Mormonism with him, whether in class or when chatting with him in his office.

During this ethics seminar, and I do not remember the larger context of the exact conversation, I brought up Hugh Nibley as an example of a Mormon approach to social and economic equality. Jason reacted quickly with disgust in his voice saying, “Oh, he was a defender of the faith.”

I didn’t know how to respond. I honestly did not know much about Nibley. His book Temple and Cosmos was on a shelf at my home growing up, but I cannot imagine that anyone actually read it. I would not encounter the term “apologetics” until many years later. I had not attended BYU, and only one of my religion classes at Ricks touched on Nibley or related themes (and as a 17-year-old freshman that Book of Mormon class was way over my head).

In that moment, I had no idea what Nibley’s apologetics (as I now know it is called) had to do with his social criticism. I really do not think they have to be, though Nibley surely saw them both as being part of his larger argument for Zion. However, I had to deal with the initial gut reactions or eye rolls that people had to Nibley. That is not all that different now when I bring up Nibley in any variety of Mormon-focused settings. Some of you may be rolling your eyes right now.

The thing that most impressed me from that conversation, now over a decade ago, was how much I liked the sound of being a defender of the faith. Today, while I am not an apologist is the sense of FAIR or The Interpreter, I find myself  regularly, both with myself and in my writings, arguing for the value of Mormonism.

Like Nibley, I cannot conceptualize myself as anything other than a Mormon. At the same time, like Nibley, I find myself as very much a stranger within much of Mormon culture. However, while I am a stranger, I am not a foreigner. Mormonism is my home.

I no longer have a geographical home as an east coast suburban kid who has spent his adult life bouncing around the rural American West. Heck, I no longer felt at home in the Democratic Party and abandoned it. Yet, no matter how heterodox my theology might be, I feel at home in Mormonism.

In many ways, I do not find myself as a defender of the faith, but rather as a defender of faith.

Adam Miller, conceptualized faith in a way that spoke to me in his new book Letters to a Young Mormon.

“Faith is more like being faithful to your husband or wife than it is like believing in magic,” writes Miller. “Fidelity is the key. You may fall in love with someone because of how well they complement your story, but you’ll prove yourself faithful to them only when you care more for the flawed, difficult, and unplotted life you end up sharing with them.”

This I defend.

33 comments for “Defending Faith

  1. January 27, 2014 at 3:12 pm

    Adam’s definition of faith is dead on. Placing the term within the context of the Greco-Roman world, New Testament scholar David DeSilva explains,

    “Faith (Lat. fides; Gk pistis) is a term also very much at home in patron-client and friendship relations…In one sense, faith meant “dependability.” The patron needed to prove reliable in providing the assistance he or she promised to grant. The client needed to “keep faith” as well, in the sense of showing loyalty or commitment to the patron and to his or her obligations of gratitude. A second meaning in the more familiar sense is “trust”: the client had to trust the goodwill and ability of the patron…while the benefactor would also have to trust the recipients to act nobly and make a grateful response” (DeSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000, 115).

    In his commentary on the epistle to the Hebrews, DeSilva touches on Hebrews 11:1: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”:

    “In philosophical language [the Greek ‘hupostasis’] can signify the “substance” or “underlying essence” of something…The same term, however, carries the everyday legal or business connotation of “title deed” or “guarantee,” attested by numerous papyri as well as classical texts…Given this immediate context, [‘substance’] should be heard in the sense of title deed in 11:1, linking the discussion of faith more closely with 10:32-36 and the Christians’ loss of property…In this reading, [‘faith’] in Hebrews is being understood very much within the context of patronage or friendship. After a client receives the patron’s promise that a certain benefaction will be given to him or her…”trust” is all the client has. If the patron is honorable and reliable, however, having “trust” is a good as having the promised item itself. Conversely, showing “distrust” toward the patron means letting go of the grasp on the promised item not only psychologically (because distrust produces anxiety) but in reality (as “distrust” manifested itself in “disobedience,” which caused the wilderness generation to lose their possession of the promised land; 3:7-19)” (DeSilva, Perseverance in Gratitude: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on the Epistle ‘to the Hebrews’. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000, 383-384).

  2. January 27, 2014 at 3:17 pm

    Zeba A. Crook of Carleton University has found that the Latin fides and Greek pistis (from which we translate the English word “faith”) functioned “in many aspects of political life in the Roman Empire, such as friendship, love, obedience, power, fellowship, benevolence, patronage and tutelage.” Drawing on a number of ancient sources, he concludes that the terms should be defined as “faithfulness, steadfastness, and trustworthiness, all in the sense of loyalty between parties” (Crook, “BTB Readers’ Guide: Loyalty,” Biblical Theology Bulletin 34:4. Nov. 2004: 167-168).

    Even Raymond E. Brown defines the Greek as “an active commitment to a person” that “involves much more than trust…The commitment is not emotional but involves a willingness to respond to God’s demands as they are presented in and by Jesus…for to have faith implies that one will abide in the word and commands of Jesus” (Brown, The Anchor Bible – The Gospel According to John (I-XII). New York, NY: Doubleday, 1966, 513).

  3. January 27, 2014 at 3:56 pm

    I guess that makes you a stranger in a strange land, Chris.

    I read Nibley’s essay “Zeal Without Knowledge” in David Bohn’s political philosophy class at BYU, then read Nibley’s book An Approach to the Book of Mormon just before I left on my mission. Both made quite an impact on me — his freewheeling approach is not encountered often in LDS writing. I really ought to get a copy of the recent biography.

  4. Marc Bohn
    January 27, 2014 at 5:58 pm

    Chris – “We are not so much concerned with whether your thoughts are orthodox or heterodox as we are that you shall have thoughts.” (Nice first post).

    Dave – That David Bohn… always the rabble-rouser.

  5. Howard
    January 27, 2014 at 6:48 pm

    The problem with with being a defender of the faith is apologetics itself, not Mormonism. Apologetics begins with a conclusion and bends both evidence and non-evidence to fit. Recent apologetics causes less gag reflex, but at best manages only to establish “foot in the door plausibility” while ignoring probability and logic based readers typically roll their eyes. In truth the best apologetics are preaching to the choir.

    Mormonism is defendable on the basis of faith and belief, if you want to go beyond that you will likely enter the supernatural.

  6. Chris Henrichsen
    January 27, 2014 at 8:43 pm

    I taught Approaching Justice as part of my modern/contemporary political theory class at BYU-Idaho. I remember the department in Provo thinking that was odd. Maybe they were worried that I would be too much like that Bohn guy. :)

    WalkerW: Indeed. This view of faith is something I encounter as part of my dissertation, long before reading Adam’s book. It has really helped me as I have rediscovered my love of the sacred and spiritual.

    Howard: I disagree. Much of Mormon apologetics does do that. However, Summa Theologica by Aquinas is also apologetics. Apologetics can be great, too. That said, it mostly just does not interest me since I am a bit more pragmatic or postmodern in my approach.

  7. Howard
    January 27, 2014 at 9:26 pm

    Humm, isn’t apologetics that results in a conclusion rather than beginning with one called scholarship?

  8. January 27, 2014 at 10:11 pm

    For Christians, it is the faithfulness of Christ to sinners, that is the key.

    Our faith doesn’t amount to the size of a mustard seed, according to Jesus.

    “Even in our faithlessness, He remains faithful.”

    That’s the gospel. That’s the good news for those of us who just don’t quite measure up.

  9. Chris Henrichsen
    January 27, 2014 at 10:15 pm

    Howard: I am not sure what you are trying to say.

  10. Howard
    January 27, 2014 at 10:43 pm

    How does one do LDS apologetics without starting with the assumption that the church is right?

  11. Chris Henrichsen
    January 27, 2014 at 10:46 pm

    One might start from the assumption that Mormonism is good or valuable. What do you mean by “the church is right”?

  12. Chris Henrichsen
    January 27, 2014 at 10:51 pm

    Assuming that what FAIR-style apologetics does defines Mormon apologetics is like assuming that fMh defines Mormon feminism. One might not be completely off by making such an assumption. However, I fear that doing so might in some ways be a version of the straw man fallacy.

  13. January 27, 2014 at 11:02 pm

    “Apologetics begins with a conclusion and bends both evidence and non-evidence to fit.”

    This assumes all apologetics are the same.

    “Assuming that what FAIR-style apologetics does defines Mormon apologetics is like assuming that fMh defines Mormon feminism.”

    Surely no one would dismiss, say, Don Bradley’s 2013 FAIR Conference address on the First Vision as lacking in scholarship:

  14. Michael P.
    January 27, 2014 at 11:05 pm

    Two thoughts, just because you start with the assumption that “the church is right”, doesn’t make your work wrong or invaluable. Maybe it doesn’t meet the standards of modern day scholarship, but I can live with that.

    Also, if all FAIR and others do is make information available that helps dispel some common and more ridiculous anti-mormon or anti-religion propaganda out there, I am all for it.

  15. Howard
    January 27, 2014 at 11:07 pm

    Apologetics means speaking in defense of. It doesn’t result in a conclusion it assumes one from the beginning as opposed researching a topic with the goal of coming to an informed conclusion. It fits more the criminal legal defense model which assumes an adversarial setting. Scholarship would be more creditable and more interesting.

  16. January 27, 2014 at 11:11 pm

    And if you research a topic, reach an informed conclusion, and then defend that conclusion based on your previous research?

  17. Chris Henrichsen
    January 27, 2014 at 11:20 pm


    You are still peddling in straw men. Some apologists do that, too.

  18. Howard
    January 27, 2014 at 11:23 pm

    Most of the ridiculous anti-mormon propaganda is found on LDS apologetic sites offered as red herring. I almost never see that stuff seriously presented anywhere else. But it does give the LDS And if you research a topic, reach an informed conclusion, and then defend that conclusion based on your previous research? an opportunity to appear to be right.

    And if you research a topic, reach an informed conclusion, and then defend that conclusion based on your previous research? It depends on how you defend it. If you do it by ignoring evidence to the contrary and/or bending evidence to fit you are probably either an LDS apologist or a criminal defense lawyer. Lying for the Lord isn’t the way to put integrity in your work!

  19. Howard
    January 27, 2014 at 11:27 pm

    Should read: But it does give the LDS apologists an opportunity to appear to be right.

  20. January 27, 2014 at 11:37 pm

    “If you do it by ignoring evidence to the contrary and/or bending evidence to fit you are probably either an LDS apologist or a criminal defense lawyer. Lying for the Lord isn’t the way to put integrity in your work!”

    You’re starting to sound like an apologist for anti-apologetics…

  21. Howard
    January 28, 2014 at 1:13 am

    You’re starting to sound like an apologist for anti-apologetics… Lol, that’s cute!

    Well Chris,
    If I’m peddling in straw men how about pointing them out so your straw man assertion doesn’t become a straw man.

  22. Michael P.
    January 28, 2014 at 1:30 am


    A red herring? Generally speaking sites like FAIR only publish things as responses or reviews of material that other groups put out. Granted, some of it is pretty dumb and maybe doesn’t need a response, but as someone who grew up in the South and was exposed to a lot of anti stuff, sites like FAIR are a useful resource.

  23. Howard
    January 28, 2014 at 2:47 am

    I didn’t call FAIR out.

  24. frankievalley
    January 28, 2014 at 10:51 am

    Hugh Nibley was a consumate apologist. He wasn’t afraid to misquote sources or invent sources in order to prove J.S. wasn’t a money digger, steeped in treasure seeking fantasy. He also pushed the limits of honest scholarship in his defense of the invented book of abraham. So what isn’t to like or admire?

  25. Robert R
    January 28, 2014 at 11:13 am

    Chris, I look forward to your posts. Nibley was brilliant and challenging—I tire of glib dismissals of him as a “mere” apologist. He melded iconoclasm and loyalty in an unusual and bracing way. Much of his writing has aged well (though, of course, some hasn’t), and is still worth grappling with.

  26. James Olsen
    January 28, 2014 at 6:02 pm

    Chris, really enjoyed your first post.

    In the context of your discussion, I’ll say that I feel faithful to Nibley. There’s something simply ennobling in taking the best of one’s contemporary research from all over the map and trying to make it all cohere in one great, expansive, enriching whole.

    And you’re right that his social commentary easily separates from his apologetics – he’s as downright critical of the church, its members and culture as anyone – and he adds to this as thorough a knowledge and understanding (and love) of Mormonism as anyone – which makes his criticism all the more valuable. It’s difficult, I think, to pull out the contemporary political significance of his (radical) politics. But I don’t think it’s any less valuable for that.

    Looking forward to whatever comes next.

  27. Dub
    January 28, 2014 at 10:24 pm

    I was a freshman at BYU in 1986 and 87, and took a class from Nibley. It was honors Pearl of Great Price. I figured if I waited to take a class from him until after my mission, he wouldn’t be teaching anymore. The classroom at the Maeser building was packed, mostly filled by older students. A friend told me when she heard I was taking Nibley that I would get a C in the class. When I asked why, she said because he gives everyone a C. When he taught he would quote sources in the original ancient languages. He would not bother to give the English translation. It was a fascinating class. There were probably three people in the classroom on the day of the final exam. And I got a C. Good times.

  28. January 29, 2014 at 3:32 pm

    Chris, good discussion.

    There is a big difference in apologetics regarding quality. First off, people have gained spiritual testimonies of the gospel, and so want to defend it from outsiders (and some insiders) who question key things. Who is not willing to defend their testimony of Jesus?
    Second, FAIR and other groups have opened the way for better (albeit not perfect) defense. Teachings on NHM/Nahom gives evidence where many attacks still claim there are no BoM places one can find on the map, for instance. At the same time, I’ve seen many beliefs in the Church change, partially because of FAIR. FAIR invited Darius Gray and Margaret Young to speak at their conference in 2004. Their website has refuted the curse of Cain since then. A decade later, the Church publishes that we no longer accept such fables. Clearly, they are not just defending something for the sake of defending it. Instead, real research is being done to make sense out of things, to see if they really are defensible or not. You will not see FAIR defending a 6000 year old earth, anti-evolution sentiment, or a hemispheric model for the BoM, even though these ideas were very prominent in the Church just a few decades ago. They consider things like the Documentary Hypothesis. Several have insisted we do not read things into the text of the BoM or into history/archaeology, but read what really happened and then see how it fits. Brant Gardner gave a talk at the same 2004 FAIR Conference showing how to do this in regards with Mayan culture and the story of Ammon. Where there are real issues, such as regarding the Abraham papyri, we see a variety of theories suggested, but not one of them is preferred by everyone over another.
    These are not your ignorant defenders seeking to defend the indefensible to the last. There have been many times when the assumptions built into Mormonism were questioned and changed, because the actual text and archaeology said something entirely different.

  29. Howard
    January 29, 2014 at 11:46 pm

    Great comment Rameumptom! Thanks for posting it.

  30. Xenophon
    January 30, 2014 at 4:34 pm

    ?????? ?? ??? ??????? ???????? ?? ???? ???????? ????, ??????? ??? ???? ????????? ????? ?? ???????? ???? ????? ???? ??? ?? ???? ???????…

    in other words, be ready.

  31. Chris Henrichsen
    January 30, 2014 at 4:36 pm



  32. Xenophon
    January 30, 2014 at 4:37 pm

    (That was 1 Pet. 3:15 in Greek.) Perhaps the French translation will work: “Reconnaissez, dans votre cœur, le Seigneur — c’est-à-dire le Christ — comme le Saint[a]; si l’on vous demande de justifier votre espérance, soyez toujours prêts à la défendre.”

  33. Chris Crabtree
    February 12, 2014 at 4:02 pm

    frankievalley, you wrote “Hugh Nibley was a consumate apologist. He wasn’t afraid to misquote sources or invent sources in order to prove J.S. wasn’t a money digger, steeped in treasure seeking fantasy. He also pushed the limits of honest scholarship in his defense of the invented book of abraham. So what isn’t to like or admire?”

    There are studies that challenge your unfounded assertions that Nibley often misquoted or invented sources. On the contrary, you would be hard pressed to find a more meticulous scholar when it comes to documenting his sources.

    “A Sure Foundation” by Shirley S. Ricks

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