Hugh Nibley’s view of intellectual attacks on the gospel

From “The Way of the Intellectuals,” an essay in “An Approach to the Book of Mormon,”  pp. 375-376.

One thing the Book of Mormon illustrates is that there is no compromise possible with those who attack the gospel on what they call intellectual grounds.  The church flourished mightily when it got rid of them, but suffered gravely while they were in its midst.  No men spent more time with Jesus than the Scribes and Pharisees; they questioned him constantly, and he always answered them — yet there is no instance of his ever converting one of them.  The doctors talked his language, they studied the scriptures day and night, they heard him preach, and they held long discussions with him, yet though he converted dockworkers and bankers, farmers and women of the streets, tax-collectors and soldiers, he never converted the doctors.  It was they who planned his death.

After all, no man can learn enough in his lifetime to count for very much, and no one knows that better than the man who diligently seeks knowledge — that is the lesson of Faust.  How then can any honest man believe that his modicum of knowledge can supersede revelation and supplant the authority of the priesthood?



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About Geoff B.

Geoff B graduated from Stanford University (class of 1985) and worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. He has held many callings in the Church, but his favorite calling is father and husband. Geoff is active in martial arts and loves hiking and skiing. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

21 thoughts on “Hugh Nibley’s view of intellectual attacks on the gospel

  1. I will pick one nit with Dr. Nibley’s statement. You could make a strong argument that the disciples spent more time with the Savior than the Scribes and Pharisees, but you get his point anyway.

  2. Somehow I don’t think the problem with the Scribes and Pharisees was that they were learned per se. Rather, I suspect it was the power and influence they wielded in defense of the status quo that made them tought nuts to crack.

  3. Geoff,

    I think it depends on what you mean by ‘disciple.’ We often equate that with those that followed Jesus around. They *did* spend more time with Jesus than the Pharisees. But the average person that believed in Jesus probably didn’t follow him around and probably only got to see him once or never.

    I think this is an interesting quote for a number of reasons. It certainly reflects well my point of view that no matter what point of view you choose it’s ultimately faith-based on the things that matter most to us; things like morality, happiness, and meaning.

    If I had a complaint about Christian (and by extension LDS) Intelligentsia it wouldn’t be that their arguments aren’t worthy of discussion, it would be that they go far beyond discussion right into a sort of counter orthodoxy which is really just a new faith-based orthodoxy complete with inability to self assess. (My frustrations with Karen Armstrong in my recent posts are a good example of where I feel she has lost all ability to look at her own arguments and beliefs objectively any more.)

    Sometimes it even leads, in the name of compassion, to some very uncompassionate views and acts.

    In short, this approach to religion seems to not solve the very problems it sets out to solve and instead dumps the good in religion while preserving the bad parts.

    And contrary to assertions often made against believers, I think this approach to religion exchanges a conscious choice of faith for an unconscious one, which makes it all the harder to reason with.

    I don’t think it has to be this way and there are people that aren’t like this to be sure. I’m not even sure this is the ‘average’ case because I subscribe to the idea that the vocals one are generally more likely to be the bad examples. But it does seem to be an observable heuristic, if perhaps a skewed one.

  4. Be careful when proof-texting Nibley. He was also very worried about the ideological and anti-intellectual aspects of Mormon culture.

    The intellectuals that Nibley speaks of are not really intellectuals, but those who seek the praise of the world.

  5. What is the real standard of an “intellectual”? Possession of a credential? A propensity toward using complex legerdemain? A widely-read column on the bloggernacle?

    I think Nibley was brilliant in showcasing the long-standing battle between the “mantic” and the “sophic”. The arguments and issues that get debated on the bloggernacle can be boiled down to those who stand on the side of the Mantic and those that stand with the Sophic. It really isn’t more complicated than that.

  6. I would add a bit to your nitpick Geoff: Acts 15 talks about “Pharisees which believed.” It doesn’t say when they converted, but I think it’s a huge assumption to say that none of them converted during Jesus’ life. Then there’s Nicodemus, who possibly converted (though the text is not explicit). Then, after Jesus’ death, there’s Saul Paul.

    Anyway, I think Nibley overstates his example to make his case. An alternate reading is that the NT shows Jesus tongue-lashing the Pharisees for effect, much the same way it depicts Peter: always messing up and getting called to repentance by Jesus.

    Putting that nitpick aside, I downright disagree with Nibley’s “no man can learn enough in his lifetime to count for very much.” That’s baloney. (But to state my reasons for rejecting it would be too ironic, no?) That he follows it up with “How then can any honest man believe that his modicum of knowledge can supersede revelation and supplant the authority of the priesthood?” is just a non sequitur.

    I will grant that I may be reading Nibley way out of context. I only read what you quoted, so maybe this fits into a larger, more agreeable argument….

  7. “What is the real standard of an “intellectual”? Possession of a credential? A propensity toward using complex legerdemain? A widely-read column on the bloggernacle?”

    I just read a book called Intellectuals and Society. The author suggested that we do have something somewhat specific in mind when we speak of ‘intellectuals.’ For example, we do not think of Engineers and Physicists — despite considerable learning and intellect — as being ‘intellectuals.’

    He suggests that the definition of an ‘intellectual’ (as it is commonly used anyhow) is one that makes a business (and possibly living) out of developing and promoting *untestable* ideas. Thus the primary standard of ‘success’ for an intellectual (of this stripe anyhow) is that one is considered ‘spot on’ by the community of intellectuals. i.e. it’s a recursive definition.

    If this is a legitimate way to think of ‘intellectuals’ then we *are* saying that they are tautologically seeking the praise of their own group.

    However, note that ‘seeking praise’ is not necessarily a bad thing. The author suggests that the real problem is that they do so on untestable topics and aren’t held accountable for any damage they do.

    Ironically, he then spends the rest of the book ‘testing’ their ideas and finding them wanting. So go figure. Take it for what it is worth, I guess. I can’t say I recommend the book.

  8. “Putting that nitpick aside, I downright disagree with Nibley’s “no man can learn enough in his lifetime to count for very much.” That’s baloney.”

    Nibley knew the dangers of smug intellectual self-complacency. He saw it everyday, whether at Berkeley or BYU. He understood, as Faust did (one of his favorite authors), that as frail mortals we are quite small in the universal scheme of things. “Now I know that man is nothing” is what Moses said. Do you really disagree?

  9. What was Nibley talking about, BrianJ? And a follow up question: Do you really believe that a single human being can learn enough in his single lifetime to count for very much in the overall scheme of things?

  10. I’m asking these questions, BrianJ, because quite frankly I am finding YOUR position to be the baloney one.

  11. I agree with Nibley. We can learn a lot compared to other humans, but when compared to what there is to know in the universe, we can’t learn squat in this lifetime. We can learn a lot, sure, but what we know turns into the size of a pea once we put it in proportion to the vast body of the unknown. So to think we’re somehow better than other human beings because our “pea” of knowledge is slightly bigger than someone else’s “pea” of knowledge is quite arrogant indeed. The truth is, the differences between smartest among us and the most ignorant among us cease to be consequential when we look at things from an eternal perspective. So yes, I agree with Nibley here.

  12. Michael: “What was Nibley talking about, BrianJ?” Nibley was, it seems, talking about intellectualism. From your #8, I think you agree.

    “Do you really believe that a single human being can learn enough in his single lifetime to count for very much in the overall scheme of things?” First, stop asking me what I “really” believe. Perhaps you don’t mean to, but you sound smug when doing so. You can simply ask what I believe without adding the “really,” as though I’m just here presenting a false view of my beliefs. Second, the answer to your question is “yes”—with the caveat that your term “overall scheme of things” is so vague that I can’t be sure what you mean by it.

    “I’m asking these questions, BrianJ, because quite frankly I am finding YOUR position to be the baloney one.” I can’t question your motives, but I’m not sure what use that information is to you or me.

  13. ldsphilosopher, 13: If that’s the case, then what difference does your knowing this versus someone else’s not knowing it make? Whatever insight one might gain from reading—or lose by not reading—your comment is inconsequential.

  14. What Nibley is talking about is the feeling of “importance” or “superiority” that accompanies knowledge. Me know more as a result of reading this article does not in any way make me more important or superior than someone who has not. My “pea” of knowledge may be slightly bigger, but it does not grant me authority over anyone else, nor does it magically override the divinely given authority of the Lord’s spokesmen.

  15. Okay, I didn’t get that from the two paragraphs quoted, so in reading your comments I will have to take your word for it that superiority and not intellectualism is what Nibley was talking about.

  16. BrianJ,

    From the “tone” and “tenor” of your comments, you sound very smug in your responses. Perhaps that is unintentional on your part.

    And I’m sorry that my “really” really got to you. Really.

  17. It’s worth going and reading the original Nibley article to get at what he was saying. Here is another key section:

    “At the outset of the Book of Mormon Nephi states a clear-cut case for the whole thing—”O that cunning plan of the evil one! O the vainness, and the frailties, and foolishness of men! When they are learned they think they are wise, and they hearken not unto the counsel of God, for they set it aside, supposing they know of themselves, wherefore, their wisdom is foolishness and it profiteth them not. And they shall perish” (2 Nephi 9:28). Here is the devil’s plan, and it is devilishly clever, the best possible way to turn men’s minds against the plan of salvation being the appeal to their vanity. The two things people want are to be successful and to be smart—The Elite: “and the wise, and the learned, and they that are rich, who are puffed up because of their learning, and their wisdom, and their riches,” are the ones who think they are putting God in his place, while it is He who is rejecting them: “yea, they are they whom he despiseth; and save they shall cast these things away, and consider themselves fools before God, and come down in the depths of humility, he will not open unto them” (2 Nephi 9:42). Nephi goes on to speak of conditions in these latter days:

    And they shall contend one with another . . . and they shall teach with their learning, and deny the Holy Ghost (2 Nephi 28:4). They have all gone astray save it be a few; . . . nevertheless, . . . in many instances they do err because they are taught by the precepts of men (2 Nephi 28:14). Others he [the devil] flattereth away, and telleth them there is no hell; and he saith unto them: I am no devil, for there is none—and thus he whispereth in their ears (2 Nephi 28:22).

    Since humility is one of the rarest of human qualities, the most direct and effective appeal is to vanity: “Priestcrafts are that men preach and set themselves up for a light unto the world, that they may get gain and praise of the world; but they seek not the welfare of Zion” (2 Nephi 26:29).”

    Me again.

    So, I would agree with Chris H in comment #4 that was Nibley is saying is that he is concerned about intellectuals who want praise from the world, not intellectuals in general. Nibley had no problem with learning (obviously, he dedicated his life to it, and Joseph Smith and all prophets have spoken well of learning). But just as a rich businessman can lose his way if he spends all his time thinking only about making more money and getting more stuff, a successful intellectual can lose his way if he spends all his time thinking about how he can get awards for being popular and well-liked by the Elites, rather than pursuing Truth.

    The gospel is not popular. As Mormon intellectuals, we can agree that there are some very, very smart people we admire (like Nibley and Bushman and Givens), but notice how they used their intellectual skills to build up the gospel, rather than tear it down. It seems to me this should be our model, and this is Nibley’s message.

  18. Regarding the comment that said, “no man can learn enough in his lifetime to count for very much” in comparison to revelation, the point is whatever you learn will not count for very much unless you’ve received revelation. If you disagree, point to me one thing you’ve learned that will count for much in the eternities compared to a revelation that Jesus Chris is the Son of God, died for your sins and was resurrected and has prepared a place for you to follow and receive of Him.

    You could equally say, no man can do enough in his lifetime to count for very much [without the atoning sacrifice of Jesus].

    Neither of these statements disqualifies learning or doing and they are both imparative. But on both instances there are greater principles – revelation & atonement.

    Nibley was extremely intelligent, and what seems to bother some people is he placed that intelligence in support of gospel truths, rather than to undermine or override gospel truths as some intellectuals do. He recognized he had received revelation, and that revelation was far greater than the personal knowledge by study and learning he had received and with that simple recognization he evidentilly determined to use his intellectual talents in support of the gospel, rather than questioning it. No doubt, he questioned the members, and occaisonally the organization. But he knew the gospel and was perhaps its greatest intellectual defender — without seeking to undermine the scriptures or rerwite them after his own preferences. Well at least most of the time, I’m sure he wasn’t perfect 🙂

  19. Socrates and Nibley, my two favorite philosophers. And both agreed that compared to the universe, we know nothing.

    I think we fail miserably in life when we get to a point where we are no longer teachable and think we know more than everyone else. This is true whether a BYU professor, a prophet, or a blogger. When we think we have learned everything, we cease to progress and receive more revelation.

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