The great Hugh Nibley was very wrong about a few important things

The late High Nibley was right about many, many things. The auto-didactic BYU Professor/Super man popularized Mormon apologetics and may be the single smartest Latter-day Saint ever. I will never forget the first thing I read of his, and this was before I joined the Church as an adult: “No Ma’am, That’s Not History,” his evisceration of Fawn Brodie’s ridiculous biography of Joseph Smith. I had read Brodie’s “No Man Knows My History” and found it strange because it was, even to my then non-LDS eyes, so clearly ahistorical and, frankly, laughable. So when I read Nibley’s response I thought: “here is a man, like HL Mencken, who knows how to bury the absurd.”

Since joining the Church, I have read everything I could find by Nibley, and I have even listened to many of his lectures, which you can now find on Youtube. And, like many of you, I have enjoyed almost everything I have read and watched. I love Nibley’s writing style, his use of sources and his wide range of knowledge. There is no disputing he was a very great man and a great scholar.

But even great men can be wrong about some things, and in Nibley’s case he is as wrong as he can be about the whole issue of real-world economics and how it applies to our lives today. I refer here to the essays in his book “Approaching Zion,” all of which I have read many times.

These essays, at least some of which were delivered in live talks, are thought-provoking and deliberately shocking. And I like thought-provoking and deliberately shocking essays because they challenge my belief system. Taking another look at your paradigm is never a bad thing, and this is clearly Nibley’s goal.

And many of Nibley’s points are surely correct: our world is too materialistic, we do not spend enough time doing good in the world, we should voluntarily consecrate ourselves and our talents to the Church. These reminders are welcome and on point.

But Nibley goes much further than this: he proposes that the way almost all latter-day Saints live today is evil and on the side of Satan, rather than God. An honest reader cannot peruse these essays without seeing that as his primary message. Nibley has the same dripping sarcasm and disdain for us that he has for Fawn Brodie’s very poor book on Joseph Smith.

I want to make it clear that by all reports Hugh Nibley was an incredibly kind man who really did consecrate his life to the Church. Unlike most people with his politics, he lived what he preached. He was also a very good teacher, husband and father. I do not want any reader to go away from this post thinking I have anything but respect for the man and the scholar.

But if we are going to be serious about Bro. Nibley, we must accept what he wrote. Repeatedly. And there we find things like this:

“When I first came to Utah in the 1940s, it was a fresh new world, a joy and a delight to explore far and wide with my boys and girls. But now my friends no longer come on visits as they once did, to escape the grim commercialism and ugly litter of the East and the West Coast. We can watch that now on the Wasatch Front. The Saints no longer speak of making the land blossom as the rose, but of making a quick buck in rapid-turnover real estate. All the students I have talked with at the beginning of this semester intend eventually to go into law or business; Brigham Young University is no longer a liberal arts college. They are not interested in improving their talents but in trafficking in them.” (“How Firm a Foundation! What Makes it So”)

And in that same piece we have this:

“The mental paralysis of our times strongly suggests that God has withdrawn his Spirit from among men, as he said he would. Quite recently the newspapers and journals have been full of the alarming decline in mental capacity and learning among the rising generation, in which, I sorrow to say, Utah leads the parade with its appalling 26 percent drop in Scholastic Aptitude Test scores and the lowest rating in all the land in mathematics—the one subject that requires some real discipline.”

According to Nibley, latter-day Saints are stupid capitalists, and nearly every profession they practice is unholy and ungodly (From “Our Glory, Our Condemnation”):

“What do we find today? Zion’s Investment, Zion Used Cars, Zion Construction, Zion Development, Zion Bank, Zion Leasing, Zion Insurance, Zion Securities, Zion Trust, and so on. The institutions of Mammon are made respectable by the beautiful name of Zion.”

And

“Well, here we have it: the world we have made and are making is not the world God meant us to have, and the world he made for us in the beginning is the world we must have. With our present limited knowledge we could devise a perfectly practical order of things in which there would be no need for doctors, lawyers, insurance men, dentists, auto mechanics, beauticians, generals, real estate men, prostitutes, garbage men, and used-car salesmen. Their work is justified as an unpleasant necessity, yet there have been successful human societies in which none of those professions existed, any more than dukes, earls, and kings need to exist in our society.”

So, according to Nibley, doctors and lawyers and auto mechanics are as unnecessary to society as dukes and earls? In a word, yes. In fact, Nibley says there are only a few honorable professions:

“What are we instructed to do, then, in our fallen state? One of the shortest and most concise sections of the Doctrine and Covenants tells us, “Let your time be devoted to the studying of the scriptures; and to preaching, and to confirming the church . . . and to performing your labors on the land” (D&C 26:1). The Great Triple Combination—farming, church, and study.”

Nibley’s message over and over again in “Approaching Zion” is that there are only two paths, the one righteous path he has taken of being a professor, and the unrighteous path of doing just about anything else in your life except working for the Church and being a farmer.

It is not hyperbole to say that he believes most professions are against God’s law and are on the side of Satan. He repeats several times in “Approaching Zion” that the only righteous things to do with your life are to study, work for the Church or be a farmer. We may be able to argue that it might – perhaps – be OK to be an artist because he states he has nothing but contempt for the people who decide to go into business because they can’t make any money being an artist.

We can chuckle about the absurdity of Nibley’s approach. Who, after all, is going to print the books he wants to study if not for the printers who must make money to hire workers and buy paper, and who is going to heal the farm animals if not for the veterinarians who presumably are unnecessary? Nibley says there is no need for mechanics, so I guess he would only allow farming by horse or oxen. Would he permit plows? If so, who would make the plows and the harnesses for the horses and oxen? Nibley has no patience for these types of questions, of course, because he has one of the approved careers, that of an academic. Everybody else needs to simply have faith that it will all work out – as long as they don’t choose one of the unapproved careers, all of which are obviously condemned by God.

Nibley wants Zion now and today, and he wants latter-day Saints to act as if they are already in Zion, even though the rest of the world is not. In one essay he makes fun of his students for unacceptable answers on what they would do if the Millennium arrived today (some of them say they would be bored). It apparently never occurs to Nibley that the vast majority of devoted Saints would act very differently if the Millennium were actually here and we did not have to go to our dreary jobs to pay the mortgage. I love capitalism, but I would retire literally today if I could get away with spending all day in the temple or in homeless shelters. But we all, except for Prof. Nibley I guess, must work in our dreary jobs or our families will starve.

In addition to these types of questions, I have several other problems with Nibley’s approach. The first and most important one is that no modern-day prophet (despite his many talents, Nibley was not a prophet) has ever said anything close to what Nibley is saying here. To be clear: prophets have warned repeatedly about loving money more than God. They have warned about doing your best to serve the Lord and to doing your callings. (Would Nibley accept the fact that the prophet today was a doctor, and many of the apostles were businessmen and lawyers and pilots?) And the prophets have also – repeatedly – warned about being lazy. They have told us to be self-reliant. They have told us to help the poor and provide a good home for our families. The obvious question is: if we can’t get a job because we insist on being an artist or working in the temple all day, how are we supposed to provide for our families and how are we supposed to be self-reliant? Does Nibley really think that the 35-year-old living in his mother’s basement is the model for today’s young people if that young person goes to the temple every day?

The second point is that these conclusions lead Nibley to an unfortunate brand of socialist politics that has caused nothing but human misery. He is against private property and any kind of profit at all. He is a militant environmentalist who insists at the same time that 1)land must be protected but 2)it also must be free to all who want it. (I wonder if he ever saw the contradiction). He decries being labeled, but clearly he embraced left-wing politics. One of Nibley’s favorite magazines was The Nation, a leftist magazine where I worked as an intern in the 1980s, and a magazine I have read regularly since then. The Nation has been wrong about nearly everything: it praised Soviet and Chinese “equality” and very often ignored the resulting tens of millions of deaths. It praised Fidel Castro in Cuba and Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, ignoring the millions of starving and imprisoned victims of socialist repression.

And of course one of the worst things about socialism is that a few tyrants benefit while the majority suffer. Victor Navasky, the editor of The Nation when I was there, lived in a multi-million dollar apartment in New York while hypocritically calling for a socialist uprising against the rich in the United States. Bernie Sanders has three houses while he complains about other people who have three houses. Such tyranny is a feature, not a bug, of socialism: Stalin, Mao, Castro and Chavez all ruled over their poor countries from massive, opulent presidential estates.

It is not an exaggeration to say that socialism leads to Babylon, not Zion. Yet Nibley was unapologetic about his corpse-strewn politics.

Meanwhile, there has been a massive worldwide movement away from Babylon, and it has taken place through the free market economics that Nibley hates so much. Hundreds of millions of people in China, India, Vietnam and Indonesia have escaped extreme poverty because these countries have adopted economic measures that promote human freedom and prosperity. In fact, extreme poverty was cut in half worldwide in just two decades from 1990 to 2010 because of a decline in socialism and an increase in economic freedom, ie capitalism. You can read more here:

https://fee.org/articles/extreme-poverty-rates-plummet-under-capitalism/

Nibley’s approach is also wrong because it encourages members of the Church of Jesus Christ to believe they are never good enough. One of the primary scourges of Church members these days is the feeling that they will never measure up. The result has been mass depression and even suicide in the Church, caused in part by feelings of inadequacy. This is one of the reasons you will never hear General Authorities talk the way Nibley does – such calls to repentance are usually counter productive and very often harmful. How is it helpful to insist – repeatedly – that you are on the side of Satan if you start your own business or work as an auto mechanic?

From a pure practical standpoint (and to be clear, Nibley hates being reminded that he is not being practical), the great professor has nothing to offer to most latter-day Saints regarding their careers. His approved careers – being an academic, working for the Church or farming – don’t offer much of a future for most of us. It turns out that there is a surfeit of academics in the world today, and if you speak to anybody in a liberal arts PhD program they will say their major concern is the huge number of applicants for a small number of jobs. And given the closing of so many colleges and universities, the future looks increasingly grim for liberal arts academics. (And of course many academics hate facing the reality that their colleges and universities would not have any jobs at all if it were not for a capitalist system that brings in tuition money and other funding).

And being a farmer and making a living at it is increasingly difficult in a time when corporations are taking over more and more family farms. And of course you need money to buy land for a farm, but Nibley says money isn’t necessary, so if you don’t already have a farm you are just plain out of luck.

Think of all of the otherwise good people condemned by Bro. Nibley: bankers, business people of all stripes, lawyers, publishers, venture capitalists, people who work in factories, doctors, etc, etc, etc. Can you imagine, if he were still alive, what Nibley would say about Mitt Romney, who made many tens of millions making businesses more profitable? And despite my political differences with Bro. Romney, there is no doubt he has done more good than bad in the world. Yet, Hugh Nibley would have nothing but contempt for him. Remember, in the world of Prof. Nibley, Mitt Romney is literally of the devil.

I can recount many conversations with people about immoral jobs they would never do. I have several friends who say they would never be policemen because policemen beat up innocent black people. In various conversations, it has been made clear to me that anybody working in the gambling industry is immoral, not to mention anything having to do with the alcohol or cigarettes.

My perspective is completely the opposite. Most people are good people just trying to make a living. All of us have student loans to pay off, and hopefully families to raise. Most of us have mortgages and Christmas gifts to buy. Are we really stuck in Babylon because of this?

According to “Approaching Zion,” yes, we all are.

Never mind that you have $100,000 in student loans, which causes you to take whatever job you can to support your family. Never mind that you go to the temple once a week, do your calling and volunteer at the local homeless shelter – in Hugh Nibley’s mind you are nothing but a promoter of Babylon and condemned by God.

Now, let me make this very clear: if you are the kind of person who has quit your corporate job to go work at a non-profit, I say: more power to you! Presumably you have analyzed how to continue to support your family and get by with a lot less money. And I would say there are huge advantages to this. It is true that when you are a materialist you begin to be controlled by your own “stuff.” You want a boat, so you buy a boat, but then you need a truck to haul the boat, and then you need to pay for a slip at the marina, and gas and boat repairs, and all of a sudden one-third of your monthly paycheck is going to maintain this boat that you use six days a year. It is obvious to me that the better solution would be to go rent the boat rather than buy it, or maybe find another hobby. But our materialistic society pushes you to buy the boat.

But Nibley goes way too far. He sees modern society with all of its horrific commerce as nothing but violent competition. What he refuses to see (because it does not fit his ideology) is that the vast majority of people, using commerce, are engaging in peaceful, mutually beneficial exchange.

Let’s say I am good at making cupcakes – I spend my time making them and selling them to people who want them. You want a cupcake, but you are not good at making them. You are willing to give me $2 for a cupcake, which I will gladly take because I can then go make more cupcakes, which I enjoying doing. Both of us are happy.

The vast amount of transactions in a free, capitalist society are like this. Every time you go into a store to buy something you are engaging in “commerce,” which Nibley hates, but in fact most people enjoy doing. In the real world, the only alternatives to mutually beneficial exchange (ie, commerce) involve force and theft. So, in a less free world, people with guns prevent you from making or selling cupcakes, or they try to tell you what price you can sell at, or they tell you that cupcakes are bad for you and can’t be allowed, or they tell you that you can’t sell things at all. And of course there are people who may tell you that you should give away the cupcakes you make, but of course in the real world you will eventually run out of money to buy ingredients, so no cupcakes at all will be made.

So, we have two choices today: 1)the free, voluntary, mutually beneficial exchange of goods, which is called commerce and is actually a good thing that makes almost everybody happy and 2)all of the alternatives, which only makes tyrants and busy-bodies happy. Which one is closer to Zion?

I want to be clear that Nibley, even in “Approaching Zion,” says many things that are true. For example:

“So we have the paradox: the body serves us best when we are least aware of it, and so with money. We have to have some, but to “set our hearts on riches”—that is what the scriptures keep harping away at. “The love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Timothy 6:10). That is a quotation from the Pseudepigrapha,11 which is quoted by Paul, and it is also quoted in the Book of Mormon. To set our hearts on riches is, in the Book of Mormon, the ultimate disaster.” (From “Gifts.”)

It is also almost certainly true that Nibley did not expect the people hearing his lectures to all suddenly quit their jobs and spend the rest of their lives in the library. His intent was surely to get people to consecrate themselves to the Church more than they already did.

Most people appear to take these good things from Nibley’s writings and lectures and ignore his true message, which is that he sees almost all latter-day Saints as iniquitous. You cannot read the essays in “Approaching Zion” without coming away with this message. We all may be iniquitous in our various ways, but it is not because we are not farmers or academics or working for the Church. It is truly unfortunate that Nibley felt it necessary to leave such a message to us all.

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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.

26 thoughts on “The great Hugh Nibley was very wrong about a few important things

  1. A few thoughts, going both ways.

    (1) Nibley, despite all of his criticisms and condemnations of the pious hypocrisy of the ivory tower, succumbed to it frequently. He elevated the subjects he loved — the “liberal arts” — over and above all other “baser” subjects. In his mind, the study of Plato is far superior to the study of plumbing, for example, and far more elevating to the soul. He could have used some conversations with Mike Rowe.

    (2) His view of Zion is at times wrong. Zion needs plumbers. Zion needs business. Zion needs lawyers. Zion isn’t going to operate fundamentally differently than the world we are in now. Heck, I’ll venture to say that there will still be courts in Zion, and interpersonal conflicts to mediate. The only difference is that the system will be more just and the parties involved more humble.

    (3) Nibley is right that we — as a community — are living far, far beneath our privileges, and that there is so much we are missing out on (spiritually) for the fact that we are often slow to heed and lax in our spiritual devotions. I think there is a wealth of spiritual power God is eager to pour into our communities, once we repent of sloth and step into our covenant duties more fully.

    (4) That said, there is a risk of self-righteousness that Nibley sometimes dances with, a sense of spiritual superiority, a “looking down” upon our brothers and sisters in the Church. It can lead to spiritual auto-immune disorder and neofundamentalism.

    (5) I disagree strongly with the paragraph that begins “Nibley’s approach is also wrong because it encourages…” Yes, our Church leaders are far more gentle than Nibley in their rhetoric, but they haven’t always been and I don’t think they always will be. It was President Uchtdorf — one of the most gentle speakers of all — who told us that we are not living up to our privileges.

    Yes, discouragement and self-disparagement are issues to be concerned about — but the claim, “The result has been mass depression and even suicide in the Church, caused in part by feelings of inadequacy,” is both un-sourced and seems straight from enemies of the Church. The Gospel is *supposed* to prick our conscience and inspire within us a divine discontent, a striving to be a little better each and every day.

    We really *are* all iniquitous in many ways, and I think that we could do with a lot less self-praise and patting ourselves on the back, and more recognition of our fallen-ness, the ways Babylon has rubbed off on us as a people without even realizing. It is precisely a recognition of our own need for repentance and redemption that places us in our true relationship with Christ: in humble need of grace and rescue.

    (6) I think it’s possible to reframe Nibley’s criticisms in more precise language. This is where I reveal my inner Nibley, I guess. I think it’s possibly true that we (generally speaking) have bought into a consumerism that differentiates us very little from others. We strive a little to hard to be normal, and often find ourselves as basically a bit nicer versions of other consumeristic Americans. I think there are things we can do to revisit that.

    I think we can set up our own traditions, our own culture, that emphasizes our different priorities. We shouldn’t be afraid to be radical.

    (Just one example among many: instead of having Santa come to the ward Christmas party and make the event indistinguishable from any other mall Santa, have the Bishopric dress up as the three wise men and explain their gifts. Then instead of inviting kids to ask Santa for something, have them tell the wise men the secret gifts they plan to give for Chrismas. It’s just one example of how — instead of just borrowing from secular traditions — we can be different instead.)

  2. “A liberal in the Church is merely one who does not have a testimony.”
    — Harold B. Lee

    I put that quote above because that (combined with your post, which I enjoyed), highlight the frequent truth of it. If I were a liberal (I am not) with a testimony I would be shouting Nibley from the rooftops. I would be on this website and all over the bloggernacle quoting Nibley left, right, and center.

    And yet, from my experience, a strong majority (almost 100%) of those I have dealt with who refer to themselves online as liberal Mormons hate Nibley. The only conclusion I can draw from that is that however important their shared economic ideals, they dislike his firm testimony more.

    Nibley has caused me to understand what it means that because one man owns more than another the whole world labors in sin. I am forced to constantly examine some positions based upon that (as, it appears, you have). And for that I am very grateful to Nibley. But I think he also acts as a fairly good Rorschach test as to which posters are Members of the Church who happen to be Liberal and which are Liberals just happen to be Members of the Church.

    If your stated concern about the Church is City Creek Mall or the absence of tithing disclosures or the cattle farm in Florida and yet you don’t like Nibley, my guess is you are engaging in self-deception — your problem is with the Church and the mall et. al. are just justifications after the fact.

  3. Those who believe Zion will come top down usually also fail to acknowledge the importance of the return of the Jews to Israel, failing to recognize that Zion will come about as individuals begin to live Christlike lives until a certain saturation point is reached and Zion is a general condition with inevitable exceptions where some continue in selfishness. Just as many Jews have accepted Christ including those who have accepted the Restored Gospel and we need not wait for the government of Israel to declare that it is a Christian nation for the condition of Jews accepting Christ to be met. We need to avoid becoming worldly, but lawyers, investment brokers and even dentists can lead lives worthy of Zion according to their personal choices. I have long admired Nibley’s contribution to a variety of gospel topics, but my doubt about his economic stance is decades old. Unfortunately many academics share his naive belief in the efficacy of socialism. In a recent Sunday School discussion several influential BYU faculty members expressed the opinion that that Church should take an active role in what is essentially income redistribution. I had a really negative reaction. Sharing of resources must be voluntary and guided by the Spirit. Too many things of real worth; progeny, competence, talent, happiness, health, and faith cannot be subjected to monetary evaluation.

  4. Jonathan and Patricia, good comments. I would like to point I that I don’t think Nibley was a liberal. He did not believe in private property and did not believe in any business enterprises and certainly did not believe in profit. He was clearly WAY to the left of a liberal. I also would say that the word “liberal” is undergoing yet another shift. In the 19th century, liberal meant “libertarian.” During most of the 20th century, it meant somebody who rejected laissez faire but somebody who was not a socialist. Now, most people on the left are calling themselves “progressives” or “democratic socialists.” It is not accurate to call these people “liberals.” I look forward to the day, hopefully soon, when liberal goes back to meaning the same thing as “libertarian” so I can embrace the label liberal again. But, Jonathan, I agree with you that there is a strange dichotomy among leftist members of the Church where they don’t fully accept Nibley because he actually believed in the Church and defended it. It appears (to me at least) that left-wing Church members reject any form of apologetics, and this is the thing Nibley is most famous for. Patricia, you are correct to call out the strange attempts among people on the left to call for *forced* rather than *voluntary* charity. The Gospel is about voluntarily giving of yourself, including your time and your talents and your money, to the poor. If you are forced to do it by some government bureaucracy it is no longer charity, and if fact it is the opposite of charitable.

  5. Geoff,

    Those poor professionals condemned by Hugh Nibley! I hope they can somehow manage to cope! (That was a bit of a tease.) I know many professionals who adore Hugh Nibley, because he points out the problems and dangers of the professional world.

    I knew Nibley at BYU. His personal attributes and how he treated my fellow students from diverse backgrounds was extraordinarily Christian. So I suppose my own assessment is colored from what I know of the man personally. He once pulled out his wallet and handed a student cash when he learned the young man was struggling to stay in school. He rejected titles and financial considerations as best as any man in his situation. And if I could explain what it was like to be in his presence, I felt the same powerful spirit as when I was in the presence of Spencer W. Kimball.

    And if I could temper any of Jeff T’s comments it would be this bit of snobbery and elitism he perceives in Nibley’s writings. I actually perceive the opposite in the both the writings and the man. He refused to talk down to anyone and ardently believed that all, regardless of their station in life could take the time to ask the big questions and expand their minds.

  6. I think Nibley was more right in Approaching Zion than most of us think. As a Libertarian, I think that a free market is the best thing we have going right now. That said, Nibley was looking past worldly economics, politics, and lifestyles to celestial ones.
    In the Millennium, we won’t need doctors. As it is, the current system is corrupted. Limits on the number of schools and number of graduates. Then, the medical workers all must be AMA certified, which creates a monopoly that keeps prices artificially high. Of course, the insurance companies love Obamacare, as it forces everyone into their system that borders monopoly.
    As it is, the scriptures note that those who do not work “for Zion” will not eat. Working for Zion is very different than working for oneself.
    He gives great examples of the corruption that money did, even in his own family. His grandfather, Charles Nibley, was Presiding Bishop. To get funds for the Hotel Utah, Charles went East and got a short term loan. When Joseph F. Smith asked him how they could ever pay it off, Charles told him they would build a bar in the basement, and let the drinkers pay for it.
    Clearly, our world is better off in some ways because of free markets. But also much worse off because of them, also. Look at how the very wealthiest seem to control our taxbase, so they get wealthier on the backs of the middle class.

  7. Geoff,
    I also think that anyone who uses the word “liberal” should be forced to define it. Your definitions work, but their are also cultural and social aspects.

  8. Old Man, as I say in the post, Nibley was by all accounts a kind and generous man. But I also point out we must deal with the things he wrote. He was not kind or generous at all when discussing how people should live. In fact, he was self-righteous and quick to condemn those who lived differently than he did. He did not just condemn professionals — he condemned anybody who was not a scholar or a farmer or a full-time church worker. As I say in the post, we must deal with what he actually wrote, not the things we want to believe he wrote. He clearly said that most latter-day Saints are following the devil. This is a difficult thing to justify. As I said in the OP, if we want to warn about too much materialism or not enough consecration among the Saints, I am right there with Nibley. But that was NOT his message when you actually read what he wrote.

    The above also applies to Gerald Smith’s comment. Nibley was not talking about how we should behave during the Millennium. He was talking about how true latter-day Saints should behave now, today. And he was not just talking about bad tax rates. He rejected our entire system and condemned us all for participating in it. He believed we all should live in an agrarian, Amish-like system. Again, let’s study what he actually wrote, not the things we wish he would have written.

  9. Nibley is ultimately right.

    Put God here. What would he do? Would our choices line up? Every ungodly choice moves us away from him, and Zion. Can you be like God and not make choices he would?

    Let’s be pragmatic and fairminded. God doesn’t expect you’ll make every choice like him all at once. He expects you to grow in the same pattern as his son — from grace to grace. And certainly we’re more slow going and mistake prone. Perhaps that starts with our choices of who we follow.

    God knows we won’t make every decision perfectly in following him. If we did, we’d have a life that looks like Jesus’s. If we’re don’t, well, we’d need to cleansed from the blood and sins of this generation. He knew it would be impossible or least beyond all probability that we’d follow him in all things.

    But let’s make it clear — God did not ordain inequality. He did not set his children in robes and rags. Those children who serve him obediently, we have an obligation to esteem them as ourselves. Prophets have made it clear that means whatever we do for ourselves, we have an obligation to do for those in rags who serve God.

    And it you are not United in this, you aren’t mine. Period. Zion is God’s people. That’s what that all means. Read the 38th section of the directive and covenants and carefully consider it.

    It’s clear the path to Zion, is not possible through our present system. It will necessarily have to be thrown down.

    I’m not harshly judging here, even though it’s seems quite strongly worded. But I’m not saying you should get hung up on what Nibley said or run faster than you have strength.

    But my personal experience with revelation independently confirms what Nibley said. And I’m trusting in it, because that confirmation comes with a knowledge of the patience and love of God knowing that we never live up to it.

  10. Ec, I agree with most of your comment, but again you are missing what Nibley says and putting your own spin on it. Your comment is very consistent with what one would hear in General Conference. Yes, we should be united. Yes, we should strive for Zion in our personal lives. Yes, the world we live in is not Zion, and it will ultimately be thrown down. Yes, we should voluntarily decide to help the poor. Yes, we should try to live like Jesus. These things are all not controversial, and if this were all Nibley said then I would never had written this post. There are literally hundreds of books written by apostles and Church of Jesus Christ intellectuals that say what you said in your comment above. Those books are all fine, and I mostly agree with them.

    What Nibley says again and again in “Approaching Zion” is that the only righteous careers are those of a scholar, a farmer and somebody working for the Church. He says that everybody — EVERYBODY — who does not do these things is following Satan, not God. He hates ALL businesses. He condemns private property and all for-profit enterprises. He says all land should be free (but also protected because we are all ruining the environment — I am not sure how he imagines we can do both). This is not a mild rebuke of a few people whose houses are too big or spend too much money on Christmas presents. This is a call to repentence of every member of the church who does not live like he did. Nibley’s approach is self-righteous and condemnatory of nearly every Church member. It is the opposite of what you would hear at General Conference.

    I hope this is the last time I have to write a comment like this. A lot of people are praising Nibley without actually reading what he wrote in “Approaching Zion.” I am going to ask that future commenters read the book before commenting, because people are simply not getting the message.

  11. This is a fascinating discussion, and your practical critique of Nibley’s ideas have a lot of merit. I am not convinced with labelling Nibley a “socialist”. His ideas, in my brief reading, come off as more utopian/agrarian communitarianism. He seems to offer a challenge to be clear-eyed about both the pitfalls of unfettered capitalism, and the dangers of totalizing/utopian systems. Poking around, I see that you and Russell Fox have already been over a lot of this. https://www.timesandseasons.org/harchive/2004/12/can-a-good-mormon-be-a-socialist/

  12. Approaching Zion is one of my favorite collections of Nibley’s writings.

    It is also the most painful of his collections to read. And that is partly because I do think that I feel a rebuke when I read it. And It is partly because regardless of Nibley’s position on the subject, I realize that I am a long way away from being free enough from selfishness and pride to be Zion ready.

    That being said, I will read it again and again. First as a reminder of the ideal of Zion (even if I do not entirely agree with how I think Zion might be structured as compared to how Nibley might think of it) and that it is what we need to consider as we make decisions.

    Second, as a reminder that it really is incredibly hard to be in the world while not being of the world. It reminds my that our cultural filters effect how we perceive the Gospel (I think that everyone’s cultural filters a part of why missionary work is challenging), and church history, and current messages from church leaders, etc.

    I agree that Nibley is not necessarily right in his viewpoint. But, I still find his writing to be valuable.

    And in agreement with comments above. Zion only works on a voluntary basis. I am pretty sure that agency will likewise exist on the Celestial Kingdom.

  13. Andrew Hall, I am sincerely grateful for that blast from the past on T&S. It was wonderful for me to remember those halcyon days when one could dare to write free market ideas on a popular Mormon blog without personal insults sent to you and your family by multiple supposedly charitable, tolerant people. Yet another reminder of how far the Mormon blog world has fallen. But there was a time, just 15 years or so ago, when it was a lot of fun!

    Regarding your description of Nibley, I think you make a decent point. If we are being picky, Nibley did not like labels like “socialist,” and he probably would not have accepted it. But I think it is a distinction without a difference. Would Nibley have voted for Bernie Sanders, favored Medicare for all and trumpeted most of the policies of the socialist wing of the Democratic party? We can probably agree he would have. I don’t think it is, ultimately, inaccurate to call him a “socialist.”

    Just to give another example, I am an anarcho-capitalist in the Murray Rothbard tradition in terms of my socio-economics. But I am also in favor of any tax cut and any cut in regulations. Meanwhile, I favor more conservative judges in the Neil Gorsuch tradition and I favor the Church’s socially moderate to conservative policies. So, if somebody calls me a “conservative” when I am actually an anarcho-capitalist, well, are they wrong? As much as it pains me, they are at least partially right. Those of us (and I believe Nibley is like this) who don’t fit into easy categories must accept that sometimes we will be described in shorthand in ways that are not fully satisfying.

    And as I said in the OP and in the comments, I welcome Nibley’s challenges to today’s much-flawed social order. We live in a fallen world in many, many ways. What I don’t like are are his self-righteous prescriptions lacking any constructive solutions for those of us who cannot, for various reasons, be academics or farmers.

    But thanks again for that T&S thread. You must have done some deep dives into internet history to come up with that.

  14. Mike, thanks for your comment. I have re-read Approaching Zion twice in the last week, which is the reason I wrote this post. I agree with you that Nibley’s perspective is valuable, and I also agree that it is a good thing to have your worldview challenged.

    I ultimately strongly disagree with his most extreme positions, but I am glad we live in a world where all kinds of different perspectives are put forward. And as I clearly said in the OP, I have tremendous respect for the man and the scholar.

  15. Really good post Geoff, but I also echo Jeffrey’s alarm at the paragraph linking strong calls to repentance with suicide and depression. I agree with Jeffrey that when you write that you are buying into a very dangerous narrative.

    The Gospel is not one of extremes, but one that calls for a harmonious balance. Yes, we must do better and are called to constantly repent and strive to consecrate our everything. Yes, being reminded of that is important because it is easy to become complacent otherwise. But similarly, we need powerful reminders that ultimately it is not our efforts that consecrate us, but the free gift of the Holy Ghost that is given to us thanks to the atonement of Jesus Christ. We need to both think about what we lack yet, but also remember that Christ is the “author and finisher” of our faith and that his grace is sufficient for us despite our shortcomings and failures. Both messages are a necessary and vital part of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

    I think your point might be that Nibley (and others) have perhaps focused more heavily on one side of the equation than the other. That is a fair criticism. But I think that is actually one of the reasons that we have multiple apostles with different perspectives, life experiences, and viewpoints. Some are better at emphasizing one aspect of that equation than another, but together their messages form a harmonious whole. Maybe your comment is simply a reminder than we should never shape our perception of the Gospel based on the teachings of a single author because everyone brings certain biases or perspectives into his interpretation of the Gospel.

  16. With all that’s been said here about how liberal Nibley was, I recall in his biography how one of his daughters recounted a time when some admiring students were at their home, and one of the young men said something to the effect of, “You sure show those liberals a thing or two!” to which Hugh replied, “I’m the most liberal of them all!”

    This got the student somewhat flustered, so he mumbled something like, “I’m sure you’re at least as liberal as the Lord.”

    When I read Approaching Zion, with the idea that we could have such a society if we just did it, the problem is one of who’s going to jump first. I don’t really see it happening any faster than the pace the prophet sets for us; any faster and we’ll most likely get a reminder from our bishops or other leaders about what King Benjamin said about running faster than we have strength, not to mention how to get by in a world economy built around money.

  17. Eric, good points. None of us knows exactly how the Church-supported Zion project will work. But I think it is safe to say that it won’t work by 35-year-olds quitting their jobs and moving into their parents’ basements so they can study 16 hours a day the way Nibley apparently wants them to. The last year few years have shown us how the Church implements change: slowly and with clear direction from leadership. If you think about it, it is really a big deal that we are moving to a two-hour block on Sundays, but we are also getting clear explanations for the change and training from the stake and bishoprics. So it is a very safe bet that, when we move to a more financially consecrated church, there will be years of preparation, and this preparation will be handled by our local leadership with clear direction from the Brethren. In the meantime, we do not have direction from the Brethren that we should all sell our homes and buy farms, and we do not have direction that we should quit our jobs so we can study Church topics all day long. I follow the prophet, not the admonishments of academics, no matter how brilliant.

  18. Geoff: I think Nibley well-illustrated the connection between ivory-tower-academics and socialists.

    Geniuses are idiots outside of the area of their specialty. Nibley was not a specialist in economics.

    And not all specialists are geniuses or honest. If all economists were honest, we would not have a 20 trillion dollar stated national debt, and somewhere around 3 times as much unstated debt when you include present value of future liabilities (mainly unfunded pensions, future SS, future Medicare) of the federal govt. And again as much in the present value of future liabilities and pensions of local and state governments.

    We’re screwed. We’re doomed. And it won’t get fixed until after the Second Coming. And if I understand correctly, there’s the 3.5 years of tribulation leading up to the 2nd Coming, then the Great and Terrible Day itself, and then another 3.5 years of _clean-up_.

    One year food storage? I think we’re gonna need 7.

  19. When I read Approaching Zion, I read many things that I felt were somewhat judgmental of various professions, some of which I agreed with, but realized that just as with anything, there are good doctors, and good lawyers, and there are bad doctors (greedy) and bad lawyers (unethical). I struggled a little with his condemnation of “the brethren” in saying they were too cowardly or involved in Babylon to bring Zion to reality.
    That said, I also felt a prick of conscience and began to examine myself. I too, had found myself asking why there are people (many of them!) with two homes–one for winter in my home community of St. George, and another elsewhere for summer, when at the same time, by the very fact of those who are wealthy artificially inflating the cost of homes, there are many, many hardworking men and women in our town living in extremely substandard conditions or homeless altogether in tent cities out of sight of the community at large. Brother Dr. Nibley had a point that is often overlooked, as our communities rush headlong into the materialism and greed of “me-first” and “if I can afford it, I should have it,” world in which we live.
    Today, in 2018/2019, the “haves” are more wealthy as a whole than ever before in the world’s history. While great strides have been made, I, like Brother Nibley, find it offensive that the gap between those who have is largely justified, while employers in my community continue to underpay the worker to line the pockets of the “shareholders.” I am in the “haves” community, and my husband and I have a business. While we could continue to do what we do on our own, contracting out some of the things we cannot and increasing our personal profit, neither of us can swallow that as acceptable. Brother Nibley’s writing brought home to us that as employers, we are responsible (as Brigham Young also taught) to use our excess provide good-paying jobs and livings to those in our community rather than to buy another home, an RV, a boat, etc.
    The message of Approaching Zion is not “liberalism” nor “conservatism”, both of which, as Nibley pointed out, are a false dichotomy. We do not have to buy into the lie that if we are not one, we must be the other. We can, as we do in declaring our faith in Jesus Christ and ignoring the world’s clamor to follow in one path or the other and instead, walk calmly in the narrow path. The narrow path includes the dictum to care for our brothers and sisters, despite the world’s selfish screams to the contrary.

  20. I was discussing this topic with my son and he seemed to think that Zion would only be established when all of the people in in a given geographical location were practicing the un-selfishness and dedication required. But I have a different perspective, based on our modern communities that can span the globe by virtue of modern methods of communication. I was a temple worker for over 20 years in Washington D.C. and Provo. Zion is in the temples where virtually all the workers are volunteers. They come from every walk of life and economic station. I worked alongside people with well-known names such as Marriott, Ashton and Hatch and served with some who came to the temple in jeans and t-shirts because that was the best they had. Although none of us were perfect, we served together with patrons to serve the Lord. We benefit from reminders that material wealth and worldly acclaim are ultimately diversions from vital issues, and we cannot wait until we receive a formal calling to organize Zion. Zion is available now in various places including temples, families and communities made up of people who may never meet in person this side of the veil.

  21. Nibley is as great as they come — what else is a guy like me gonna say when I so reveled in his connections across the broad range of classics which I was extraordinarily prepared in before I sat his class? Full disclosure, he further endeared himself to me because of the testimony cited above, and the time he confirmed the validity of a discovery I made showing temple symbolism via artifacts of ancient China.

    Plus he would probably agree w/ me (but for very different reasons) on Mitt Romney becoming a senator based on celebrity idolatry.

    However, like my top tier preferred author Orson Scott Card, HN had a great many faulty presumptions about this place for being proven now herewith. Its part of life to find the good even in errors and of course even more so the greatness despite imperfection across the range of all topics. I have seen how some people find reasons to accuse Abraham Lincoln of being the great villain of US history, so it’s not surprising that good and smart people can be wrong.

    Jordan B. Peterson makes a great point that w/o the likes of Nibley we all too readily fall for the prosperity gospel scam which does a lot to foment anarchistic revolt. He also notes how from trees to stars to incomes the universal rule holds true as my paraphrase of Matthew’s recorded “to those who have shall be given and from those who have not shall be taken”. Prices Law that the square root of the number of creative workers produce fully HALF of whats valued in that domain — why would God make any mention of justice if it only applied to un-repented sins?

    What does “there shall be no poor among them” mean when Christ said “the poor ye have always with you”? Perhaps it means the “one heart and one mind” of testimony riches rather than income “parity” — how else are the poor and unbelieving kept from disastrously flooding a place which insistently equalizes one kind of wealth (or even tries to do so w/ children, attractiveness, age and other inequalities)?

    I find great resolution in the grand shortcut available to individuals and theoretically cultures across the grinding wheel of the prosperity/pride cycle — you can escape Pride-Wickedness-Destruction by taking the chute of GRATITUDE from Prosperity directly to Humility-Righteousness-Prosperity THRU THE GRACE OF GOD and your diligent/intelligent/courageous willingness.

    Jesus parables range from 1-in-3 (Samaritan and Talents) to 1-in-4 (Sower) to 5-in-10 (Virgins) as to our odds of getting things right among the church membership, so it’s not surprising there should be a 1/2 to 2/3 to 3/4 failure rate w/in the seasons of each life or across the population already aboard.

  22. I would be careful using terms like Socialist on Bro Nibley. He never called himself that. And while he wanted us to share, it was always in terms of the Law of Consecration, not government mandate/control.

  23. Let us refer to what Nibley actually wrote:

    “Brigham, the greatest and certainly the most able economist and administrator and businessman this nation has ever seen, didn’t give a hoot for earthly things: ‘I have never walked across the streets to make a trade.’ He didn’t mean that literally. You always do have to handle things. But in what spirit do we do it? Not the Krishna way, by renunciation, for example… If you refuse to be concerned with these things at all, and say, “I’m above all that,” that’s as great a fault. The things of the world have got to be administered; they must be taken care of, they are to be considered. We have to keep things clean, and in order. That’s required of us. This is a test by which we are being proven. This is the way by which we prepare, always showing that these things will never captivate our hearts, that they will never become our principle concern. That takes a bit of doing, and that is why we have the formula ‘with an eye single to his glory.’ Keep first your eye on the star, then on all the other considerations of the ship. You will have all sorts of problems on the ship, but unless you steer by the star, forget the ship. Sink it. You won’t go anywhere” (p.336).

    I am afraid that some of the Nibley’s critics have completely misunderstood him. Does he point at the Amish, the agrarian societies of old? Yes. Do some of his arguments lean towards hyperbole? Yes. But he does so to make a point. The ship is need of severe course corrections and no amount of tinkering with the ship can make those corrections. He is challenging the radical capitalism, radical individualism and extreme materialism within the business world of modern times not because of how it operates, but because of the gross immorality and amorality so common within that system and within us. Nibley simply couldn’t embrace the faulty ideals of modern economists. They are poor navigational beacons.

    And calling Nibley a socialist? Who ever says that needs to read Nibley yet again. Nibley’s suggestions are radical. But the Gospel is truly radical. And the Gospel (repentance, sacrifice, consecration) is the antithesis of the pro-business and political ideologies of today. If one can’t see that, one will always bristle at Nibley’s statements.
    I recommended Nibley’s work to college students, particularly business and law majors. I think they need to realize that regardless of their professions, the world’s political, economic and educational systems are not the Lord’s way. I want my own children to avoid worshiping false idols. With the exception of Spencer Kimball, Nibley teaches this better than anyone.

  24. Old Man, one of the frustrations of blogging is that people simply ignore arguments that are already made and continue making assertions that have already been refuted. This is called the “argumentum ad infinitum” fallacy, and it is one of the most annoying fallacies to me personally.

    However, I think you are primarily arguing from an emotional place where you think I am somehow attacking Nibley personally. In addition, you leave a lot of very good comments on other posts, so I will do you the respect of addressing your comment, even though the same arguments have been addressed and refuted either in the OP or in the comments.

    First, as I said many times in the OP and the comments, I think Nibley is brilliant. I agree with 99 percent of the things he writes in other books (and about half the things he writes in “Approaching Zion.”) As I said in the OP, he writes many, many good things even in “Approaching Zion.” Your quotation is one of them. But here is the fallacy: the good things he writes do not somehow negate the bad things he writes. He writes repeatedly that there are only three approved careers. He insults the intelligence and righteousness of people who go into business. He says that people who go into most careers are literally following Satan. As I said in the OP, you can choose, if you like, to concentrate on the good things in “Approaching Zion.” But you cannot pretend he didn’t write things that he did write.

    Nibley had a very sharp pen. I *like* that kind of writing. I appreciate his honesty and I appreciate how he takes a strong position on issues. But ultimately, I disagree with half of the the things he writes in “Approaching Zion.” This does not mean I hate him or don’t think people should read his book. He is making an argument, a very well-stated and strong argument. I just disagree with it. I am showing respect for him by taking his argument seriously and considering it completely.

    Regarding the claim that Nibley is not a socialist, Nibley writes repeatedly that he is against private property. In fact this is a central claim of his personal ideology. (The reason he kept on saying that he is “the most liberal of them all” was that he was to the left of a liberal, ie a socialist). So, if you are against private property, this means you believe all property should be “public,” ie, owned by “the government.” When the Millennium comes, and “the government” is governed by Jesus Christ, then yes, I have no problems with the idea that all property is public. But the Millennium has not come yet, which means “the government” is “Donald Trump” and the other very imperfect members of the government. There is simply no other way of getting around this: all property being public rather than private means the government owns all property, and this is socialism. Nibley may or may not have rejected this label, but he proudly said he was “the most liberal of them all,” so actually I think that if you pressed him he would have admitted he was a socialist.

    I hope we can put this issue to rest by my saying that I have recommended Nibley to dozens of people. He is, in my opinion, the greatest intellect in Church of Jesus Christ history. I agree with you that Nibley does a good job of reminding people that “the world’s political, economic and educational systems are not the Lord’s way.” Of course they are not — the Lord’s way is not of this world. But I think Nibley in “Approaching Zion” goes much farther than this in ways with which I disagree. I also think he does a very poor job of considering the logical conclusions of what he writes. That was the point of my post.

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