Nibley was smarter than you!!

There are many Nibley-o-philes who harbor an obsession with his extraordinary intellect. He knew lots of languages and was an incredibly creative thinker. He was on the cutting edge for many in his time by paying attention to otherwise obscure texts. All this is quite admirable, but it’s time to move on from this particular fetish.

First, though Nibley was smart, so are lots of people. Lots and lots of people. In fact, the overwhelming majority of really really smart people aren’t Mormons and don’t agree with him. Being brilliant and influential doesn’t mean you’re right. Otherwise, Aristotle would be right, Kant would be right, Heidegger would be right, and al Gazali would be right. Rather, it is okay to disagree with smart people, as long as you provide a smart argument. If you want to defend Nibley, you have to provide a smart argument, not mention that he was smart.

Second, Nibley was a product of his time in two ways. First, he was influenced by mid-century intellectual currents, methodologies, and questions. Second, he was limited by the state of the research in his day. For instance, the Nag Hammadi texts and Dead Sea Scrolls had just been discovered and beginning to be translated. Scholars were just beginning to understand (and still are) and seriously research these materials.

These limitations on Nibley’s scholarship do not undermine completely his innovations, but they do require current readers to approach his work critically with an awareness of his place in history, and the history of scholarship.

This responsibility is a great one for those who desire to utilize Nibley in public and online disputations, nevertheless it is a requirement. Whether it be early Christianity, temples, ancient near eastern history, 1960s political liberalism, and even Book of Mormon studies, these conversations have progressed in spite of Nibleys smarts, and so must we.

18 Replies to “Nibley was smarter than you!!”

  1. Well Said, and the same could be said for McConkie, Talmage, Widtsoe, Roberts, Smith, and many others. We need to always be keeping current with our religion, our theology and our academics. This also means accepting that we don’t have it all now either.

  2. Well said, TT. Those who parrot Nibley tend to be those who have not put in the time and effort to discipline themselves in the languages, methodological tools, and academic context with which and in which Nibley worked. Some of these folks also demonstrate a disturbing tendency to prooftext with Niblemics like others do with scripture.

    Here is a thing I learned after my initial exposures to Nibley: my pulse would rise, I would get all excitable, I would try to ‘teach’ someone else what I had ‘learned,’ and I would realize that I didn’t know what I was talking about. And when I hear someone go Nibley me on me rarely do they know what they are talking. It is time to move on.

    Good post.

  3. Well said. My problem tends to be that those who use him the most are often clueless about the historical context (and as a result the political undercurrents) of his writings. To his credit, I think Nibley would have found most Nibley-ites to be ridiculous(particularly those that read Nibley but reject scholarship).

    The limited usefullness of Nibley is that he does not provide a theory, methodology, or system of thought to build upon (nor do I think he claimed to do so). Aristotle is a bit outdated, but he provided something to build on.

    Of course TT (whoever the hell that is) is smarter than most people. Really.

  4. I love Nibley. Although I wish he wasn’t compared to McConkie. Nibley was a true scholar. McConkie worked hard and had the initiative to research and analyze subjects that few other dared to venture in his time. We indeed owe much to him.

    However, McConkie didn’t seem to be able to overcome himself, his pride nor his prejudices, resulting in a plethora of opinionated misinterpretations and uninspired statements that still pollute his good work and unfortunately the minds of good LDS men and women all over the world.

    Nibley, on the other hand, was light years ahead on that sense. Nibley’s work will never bring about the heartache that results from some of McConkies unacademic and disgraceful resolutions.

  5. Mark N.,

    I too love Approaching Zion, but it points in many ways to the limited usefullness of Nibley. He doesn’t really produce Approaching Zion, it is a collection of speaches, articles, and essays. Many of them heavily overlap each other and the collection is uneven.

    Lucas and Woodworth’s “Working towards Zion” actually succeeds in developing an argument about Zion that is inspired, to a degree, by Nibley. However, they do something that Nibley never does: produce a book-length thesis driven and theoretically rich argument about Zion.

    Don’t get me wrong: nobody loves a book brutally bashing Reagan-era capitalism than I do. My own blog is partially dedicated to Approaching Zion. But I think far too many Nibleyites treat Nibley like certain people treat the bible:

    “A Mormon Intellectual, A Mormon Intellectual, we already have a Mormon Intellectual.”

  6. TT,

    Kant was wrong? I’m not following:)

    But more seriously. I have in the past year or so taken a look at some of Nibley’s writings which dealt with issues I was otherwise studying. The thing that stuck out to me was that those that I looked at were uniformly awful. Not some of them, ALL of them. Of course I only looked at a few articles, so one could of course chalk it up to a bad sample, but I don’t think that’s the case.

    In any case, thanks for writing the article TT. Perhaps I should saddle up again and analyze the articles that sucked, to further buttress your points. Then again, a constant negative attack on Nibley may just be alienating to most people, given how high of an opinion most people have of him.

  7. I consider myself a Nibleyophile and I love Hugh Nibley. But I agree with what TT says. I only rarely read or use him today; most of his writing is very dated and has been superseded by more mature scholarship. I do however have a great appreciation for his role in Mormon intellectual history. I probably would not have developed my own scholarly interests but for his influence. And there are an awful lot of Saints that have been similarly influenced by him. In my estimation he was a great man.

    If anyone still hasn’t read it, I would urge you to read Boyd Petersen’s wonderful biography, Hugh Nibley: A Consecrated Life. Or, if you want the short version, you could read my Sunstone In Memoriam piece. The Sunstone site seems to be screwed up, but I found a copy here:

  8. Chris, while I agree completely with what most have said I think it incorrect to say Nibley offered nothing to build upon. While I’ve been critical of his structuralism (characteristic of 40’s though the 60’s scholarship) the fact is that aspects of structuralism combined with a healthy recognition of limits is immensely helpful for Mormon scholarship. While we may dispute what studies are or aren’t relevant, I think the comparitive structuralism using ancient and especially Jewish structures to examine the Book of Mormon has been tremendously helpful. The change in focus he offered by focusing in on diffusion was groundbreaking in LDS theology and thought. While looking back we can see it was quite limited and Nibley frequently overstated his case, that basic approach has been something that has been built up.

    Yet a lot of these elements are just part and parcel of scholarly thinking. And in a way Nibley just introduced such things to LDS theology and scriptural exegesis. But the influence probably can’t be overstated. I also think he offers an interesting middle ground between those who tend to discount all scriptural history and those who adopt a naive literalism. Instead we have Nibley who adopts a quasi-literalism but sees it as reflecting the author’s limited perspective. While I think Nibley still overstated literalism, that move to perspectivism (rather than a God’s eye view) still offers the strongest basis for a more “conservative” approach to scripture. (i.e. that doesn’t attempt to just de-mythologize everything by treating it as fiction) This enabled Nibley to take seriously a lot without going too far the other direction.

    I think that is the only basis for taking the scriptures seriously – especially theologically. Otherwise they simply lose a lot of their authority.

  9. To add, one problem with Nibley stuff is that there is a lot of stuff published in his Complete Works that was never intended for publication. Then there are the embarrassing stuff (Tinkling Cymbals). Even his good stuff is, of course dated. But I think he does offer some arguments and positions that have held up better.

    The problem is that a lot of people pick up his works thinking it is all stuff that has stood the test of time whereas a lot simply has not. Ironically he’s at his strongest and most relevant on the more polemical political and moral works. (Even though there I often disagree with him more – I think he adopts a naive economic view for instance)

  10. Clark: When I said that “he does not provide a theory, methodology, or system of thought to build upon” (in #3) I had his social/political thought in mind. This is, of course, the stuff I like about Nibley, it just has limitations. Heck, his “naive” view of economics is the thing I like most about him. 🙂

    When it comes to his “scriptural exegesis,” I have little to say, that is not my cup of tea (though I troll around here anyways). I really could not say one way or the other. But I think that you are getting the the heart of the matter. As a figure in the history of Mormon intellectual thought, we should not discount his contributions. Yet, we should also move on.

  11. Am I to infer from the post that someone had the audacity and stupidity to tell TT that Nibley is smarter than him? Foolish Nibleyphiles.

    I’m with Kevin, though. Despite all of the very valid criticism of Nibley’s various works, I think one can hardly overestimate his impact on Mormon scholarship and I believe a lot of that impact was for the better. As a person, Nibley seems to have been a genuine disciple. I agree with the basic point of the post, but I still love Nibley. Oh, and one thing I rarely hear people complain about is that Nibley must be one of the worst teachers ever. So add that to the stuff in your pipe before you light up.

  12. Jacob, lol. No, I haven’t been in any conversations on this topic, at least not that I can remember. I do see this theme come up frequently when I poke around though.

  13. Sorry to reveal my ignorance of Nibley, but what was the “highest” ecclesiastical calling he had? He seems to be one of the few intellectuals that are given respect within Mormonism that doesn’t seem to be attached with a leadership role in the Church.

  14. smallaxe, I think it would have been gospel doctrine teacher. Which is to say, you’re right, he was quite an anomaly that way.

  15. However, McConkie didn’t seem to be able to overcome himself, his pride nor his prejudices, resulting in a plethora of opinionated misinterpretations and uninspired statements that still pollute his good work and unfortunately the minds of good LDS men and women all over the world.

    Sadly, Manuel, I think that describes Nibley as well. I think McConkie produced some key theological works which are amazingly insightful – usually with the insights put in vague language in a fashion very similar to Nibley and with a very similar topic. Reread his New Testament Commentary realizing that, like Nibley, he is really speaking about the temple and rites of the temple in ways not openly spoken of in the 20th century. It “appears” to be a NT commentary but is loosely connected to it much like a lot of Nibley’s commentary is. (Think Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri)

    While a lot of people oppose Nibley to McConkie what always stands out to me when I read them is how similiar they are in technique, style and focus. Yes Nibley is an ancient studies professor and McConkie a lawyer. But beyond how those disciplines lead them to comport themselves to the topic the parallels are really quite astounding. And frankly the weaknesses are pretty similar.

  16. Jacob, having been in a few Nibley classes I can say I’d have a hard time calling him a good teacher of a subject. However he knew so much and has so many original thoughts that he was amazing to listen to. I think those interested in Nibley learn so much that they miss that as a teacher he had pretty significant weaknesses. Most of his classes were just lectures with no feedback from the class, no way for a student to know what they were supposed to know or how they were doing and so forth. Perhaps more akin to a certain view of education. And I’m not knocking that. But it’s not really teaching as I understand it. More a resource students could make use of if they were up for it.

    Maybe he was different in his prime in the 50’s and 60’s in how he taught though.

  17. Sorry to lurk, but I’ll throw in some anecdotes and let you accept them as you will: my maternal grandfather taught at BYU at the same time Nibley was there. My grandfather had little respect for Nibley as a scholar. He felt that Nibley was sloppy with his research, tended to pick and choose haphazardly from sources and was poor at sourcing references (my grandfather felt that this was a combination of just being sloppy, but also so Nibley couldn’t be pinned down with some of his more fantastical claims.)

    I didn’t know any of this until about ten years ago when I read one of Nibley’s early books and made some extremely critical comments to my mother about it. She just laughed and said my grandfather would have agreed with me and related the above.

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