Scholars & Saints

The Unexpected Hugh Nibley (feat. Joseph Spencer)

April 22, 2023 Stephen Betts Episode 33
Scholars & Saints
The Unexpected Hugh Nibley (feat. Joseph Spencer)
Show Notes Transcript

In this episode I chat with Professor Joseph Spencer, a philosopher and theologian from Brigham Young University. We talk about Spencer's recent reassessment of Nibley's legacy not as a scholar of the ancient world or of Mormon apologetics, but as a theologian. Spencer unfolds a unique take on Nibley undergirded by extensive research in Nibley's personal papers and correspondence in the archives at BYU. We talk about Nibley's affinity with Christian "neo-orthodoxy," his political theology, his recovery of Brigham Young as a thinker, and his meditations on grace.

The Unexpected Hugh Nibley

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Nibley, I think, sees the world as having this rivenness at the very heart of being, but for him, that is simply what there is, right? He doesn't begin, I think, from a kind of ideal conception of what the world ought to be. In fact, and I think this is the essence of the comedic stance, the comedic stance is to say, well, did you genuinely think the world could be otherwise?....And as a result, there's a kind of Nibleian laughter running through his work that I think is really quite important and a part of his conception of grace."

                                                                                                               — Joseph Spencer
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Stephen Betts: Welcome back to Scholars and Saints. I'm your host, Stephen Betts.

Stephen Betts: I’m joined today by Joseph Spencer, a philosopher and assistant professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University. Dr. Spencer is the author of numerous articles and books about philosophy and Latter-day Saint scriptural theology. He's also the editor of The Journal Book of Mormon Studies, co-editor of the University of Illinois Press's Introductions to Mormon Thought series, vice president of the Book of Mormon Studies Association and associate director of the Latter-day Saint Theology Seminar. We're discussing Dr. Spencer's recent reassessments of the work of Latter-day Saint Scholar Hugh Nibley as a theologian. Thanks for joining me today. 

Stephen Betts: So, Joe, can you set the stage for us a little bit? Who is Hugh Nibley? What is he known for and really how has he contributed to the formation of something that we might call today Mormon studies?

Joseph Spencer: Yeah, so I think most Latter-day Saints, at least in the English-speaking world these days, have heard of Hugh Nibley. He was the towering 20th century intellect that the Church produced, right, the early 20th century saw a series of really theologically minded leaders of the Church. Folks like James Talmage, B.H. Roberts, John Widtsoe, but Hugh Nibley coming sort of on their heels is the first sort of towering intellectual figure who stands outside the leadership of the Church. He cut his teeth writing about Latter-day Saint topics by doing what we call apologetics, right? Writing learned defenses of the historical claims of the Church, and that sort of catapulted him into a kind of celebrated position among members of the Church. And as a result, he spent years writing serialized treatments of these things in Church magazines. He wrote an official manual for use in the priesthood quorums in the Church and then wrote many other books and articles of his own.

But an absolutely astonishing intellectual figure. The man fluently read 22 languages and sort of a scholar’s scholar who nonetheless had a kind of broad-based appeal among members of Church. He died only in 2005, but in his nineties. He had not been terribly active intellectually for a few decades at that point, but especially the fifties, the sixties, the seventies is a towering intellectual among the Saints.

Stephen Betts: Yeah, so he, I mean, he's really well known for a couple of different topics, especially studies in the Book of Mormon, studies in the Book of Abraham. Of course, the Book of Abraham is what's going to dominate the last couple of decades of his active intellectual work. But in some recent presentations and some articles that you've put out, you've talked about his role in kind of the development of something called Book of Mormon Studies. You know, you're the editor currently of a journal that's specifically focused on the Book of Mormon. That was unthinkable 50 years ago, right? 

Joseph Spencer: Yeah, totally. 

Stephen Betts: So, talk about his role in that and then, you know, we can sort of get into some of the particulars in his thought.

Joseph Spencer: Sure. Yeah. So, I mean, Nibley begins writing when there isn't a field of Mormon studies, let alone Book of Mormon studies. And what triggers his own activity really seems to have been Fawn Brodie's infamous biography of Joseph Smith, No Man Knows My History and that seemed to just get under Nibley’s skin essentially and began to get him working. But he ended up focusing his work, early on at least, on the Book of Mormon, very specifically.

And he saw what he was doing at first just as a kind of defense of the Book of Mormon as an ancient document. Which he saw as a kind of response to Brodie's dismissal of the Book of Mormon as nineteenth century product. And so, this is how Nibley got involved, but he didn't see what he was doing as contributing to a field. This was work that he saw as sort of popular, or populist, working to try to help average Latter-day Saints make sense of a really powerfully, influential book [The Book of Mormon] that had dropped on the American public. But eventually, of course, this sort of embroiled him in decades of research on the Book of Mormon that grew into something much larger and really then became the foundation of what is now a field. Though the field has gone in very different directions over the years than Nibley is pursuing. 

Stephen Betts: Yeah. So, you talk about how early in his career as a scholar of the ancient world, he's trained, of course, in ancient languages, ancient history, culture, and he, he comes up during a period in the study of religion that's informally called the “Myth and Ritual School,” right? Scholars like Mircea Eliade especially are known for this sort of approach to comparative study of culture and religion, myth and ritual, and Nibley early on in his treatment of the Book of Mormon is very much in this comparative mode almost, it seems to really situate the Book of Mormon, not definitively, but thematically within an ancient context in this apologetic project of his. But as we see, or as you note, there seems to be a shift, pretty radical reversal in how he approaches the Book of Mormon. And you say this happens between 1957 and 1967 especially. So, could you say more about that? What's going on for him? What's that shift? 

Joseph Spencer: Sure. Yeah. Nibley’s trained very specifically as a classicist, right. Working on Greek and Roman texts. And he gets involved in this comparative stuff and this Myth and Ritual school, but with a very specific angle for him in the field of classics. The idea, it's a project that is, it's very modernist in the sense that we speak of modern art, or something like that, right? Or the way that you might speak of early twentieth-century projects as modernist. These are projects that are sort of trying to take the sort of arrogance of Western civilization down a notch or two, right? And so, intervening in the field of classics, Nibley is part of a school that is trying to show that this supposedly great literature, right, the Greek and Roman classics that we take to define Western civilization, are actually ultimately elaborations of very common quote unquote pagan rituals, right? That these have a ritual basis and so on. For Nibley, this is a kind of way of showing up classical civilization in certain ways. But this gets him invested in this massive comparative project. So, the comparative work for him is a way of showing that there are these ritual things back behind these texts.

When he begins working on the Book of Mormon, he's not doing anything like comparative work in a strong sense. He's just read a lot of stuff and starts connecting those things to the Book of Mormon saying, “See, this kind of stuff that you find in the Book of Mormon is going on in the ancient world. It fits.” And so up to the later 1950s, everything that Nibley is writing about the Book of Mormon (he's been writing for about 10 years about the Book of Mormon at that point). Everything he is writing on the Book of Mormon is in that vein. He doesn't see the Book of Mormon as part of his own project, so to speak. He's got a scholarly project where he's trying to show you where the roots of Greek and Roman ritual are.

But when he is working on the Book of Mormon, he is just taking the data he gathers there and then using it to say, “See the Book of Mormon fits in the ancient world.” But then something changes pretty dramatically over the course of the late 1950s and early 1960s. And I think this is tied in certain ways to other research he's doing on early Christian history because he spends a lot of these same years trying to reconstruct the Latter-day Saints have often called the Great Apostasy. Right? So how did early Christianity go astray, such that it calls for a restoration of original Christianity? Nibley’s fully on board with that faith claim, and so he's trying to show it in the historical documents. And as he sifts these records and tries to sort this out, he's struck that he's been working on this question for 10, 15 years when the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Nag Hammadi Library, and so forth, come on the scene, right? And start to show up in scholarly discourse and so on. And in the 1960s, especially when Vatican II is underway, right? This massive council of the Roman Catholic Church asking a lot of questions about modernization and where the Church sits in the second half of the 20th century. Nibley watches all of this and begins to say, “Now take a look at what's happening. Documents are coming out of nowhere. We're reconstructing the ancient world in all kinds of new ways, and we've even got the oldest form of organized Christianity reassessing its foundations. 

Nibley takes all of this to be a kind of confirmation of his own faith, right? And as a result, he starts to see the Book of Mormon in a new light. He takes these passages from First Nephi that speak of records coming forth in the last days and this kind of thing. These are in the context of the Book of Mormon, pretty obviously just a prediction of the Book of Mormon coming forth. But Nibley takes the plural “books” when it says, “books will come forth” and says, “we're watching this happen.” And where before he's then seeing, “My task is to reconstruct the ancient world. And let's find where the Book of Mormon fits there, and maybe the ancient world can confirm the Book of Mormon's truth.” Now he starts to see the Book of Mormon as the linchpin to understanding all of history, and it has told us that documents will be hid up and kept away. Things like the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi Library, and they'll come forth by God's hand at a very specific time so that we couldn't have until then reconstructed the ancient world in full. The Book of Mormon forces us, if we're believers, forces us to see a kind of gap in the historical record. And now that these things are coming forth, the Church can lead the way in reconstructing what Christianity was in its origins. And so yeah, the Book of Mormon becomes now a kind of lens for making sense of the whole ancient world. Whereas before, it's just been one document within the ancient world that of course has religious value for Nibley. 

Stephen Betts: Yeah, you write that he begins to see the Book of Mormon less in these discussions about historicity, right? Like historicity has always been one of the primary lenses through which Book of Mormon scholarship has really seen itself. And Nibley says very early on, before even the sort of formation of a field of Book of Mormon studies that, look, that's not what we need to be focusing on here. And he really begins to see it with this existential force that has real theological heft. And he begins to focus on a theology of grace, which we'll go into in just a little bit. But I think that this claim that Nibley is maybe even primarily at this point in his career, coming to see himself and his work as explicitly theological might be a little bit strange for people who are aware of Nibley’s work and familiar with his work, there's a certain sense in which, in a general way, we might see what Nibley’s doing for Latter-day Saint apologetics as a sort of theology, but to really think about it as a sort of theology in the sense that other Christian denominations might recognize that's a surprising claim. So, say more about how it is you come to see him as a theologian.

Joseph Spencer: Yeah, so I think we can watch this happen pretty clearly in the mid-sixties. So, yeah, so he starts a new series of articles in the Church's magazine, which at the time is called The Improvement Era that he titles “Since Cumorah.” At first, these look, I think he starts in 1964 with this series, maybe ‘65. At first, this series looks like what Nibley’s always done, right? Here's another connection. Here's another connection. And he's now drawing things from the Dead Sea Scrolls that are very much in circulation and in fact, some of the articles are titled “Since Qumran,” right? So, he's looking at what has happened since the coming forth in the Dead Sea Scrolls and what have we learned about Christianity, but how does that then give us an ancient setting for the Book of Mormon?

But as the series goes on and he starts to transform it into a book, so in 1967, he takes the series and republishes it as a book. But he reorganizes the order of the articles he had published, and he adds 150 pages that don't appear in the serialized articles at all. And the book as a result is a little awkward because the first, it's 300 pages or whatever of the book are classic Nibley, so to speak, 10,000 footnotes pointing to German sources, right? Trying to tie the Book of Mormon to these very ancient contacts and now weaving it into things discovered in light of the Dead Sea Scrolls and so forth. The last 150 pages literally has something like four footnotes for the whole thing, and it's Nibley thinking. And what he seems to have done at this point is sort of twofold. He seems on the one hand to say, look, I've given you enough evidences, I can stop doing it right. But on the other hand, he seems genuinely, if he's now taking the Book of Mormon as a lens onto the world, and it takes this almost as an article of faith and says look, “What it means to read history as a believer is to take what the Book of Mormon says seriously about the documentary record.” Then he also seems to wanna say, “Well, so what does the book actually say?” And so, this last 150 pages is Nibley saying, this book matters, right? It's got a message, it's got content, and he starts to read it theologically. For Nibley, that's mostly political, interestingly. It's political theology, but this seems to be a kind of shift in his own thinking about the Book of Mormon and for the rest of his life, he'll write an occasional article that sounds like old Nibley on the Book of Mormon, but the vast majority of what he'll write to the end of his life about the Book of Mormon is political and theological. 

And I think this dovetails with another development going on for him in these same years. For ten years or so, he had been involved in a kind of ongoing public conversation with Sterling McMurrin. McMurrin is a University of Utah professor of philosophy and very, very influential and very successful. He ends up being in President Kennedy's cabinet and doing all kinds of things in a very public way. And Nibley and McMurrin have this kind of ongoing conversation. And increasingly into the 1960s, McMurrin is in print criticizing Nibley as conservative and as over-historicizing, right? He says, Nibley has invented a kind of historicized version of Mormonism that, for him, doesn't match up at all with what he understands Mormonism to be. His Mormonism is the Mormonism of Talmage and Roberts and Widtsoe and theological speculation and this kind of thing. And he keeps calling Nibley conservative, right? Nibley’s whole project is ultimately just trying to maintain in a reactionary way, the status quo within the Church, the status quo within the West. And so on. And so, part of, I think what triggers Nibley coming out as a thinker is he's trying to show McMurrin that he's got him wrong. And when he starts to read the Book of Mormon in theological ways, Nibley’s progressivism comes out, his political inclinations come out. His, I don't even know if it's quite right to call him progressive so much as a kind of, almost like a syndicalist or an anarchist, right? At times Nibley has got a local certain kind of localism or a regionalism. (Rosalynde Welch has a really nice essay on Nibley and regionalism, localism.) But yeah, Nibley starts to really come out with a kind of thought and I think reading back from the late 1960s to Nibley’s earlier writings, you can see it scattered all through there. It was there, but he wasn't just making it the focus. But suddenly there's a kind of thought and it's really overt, and I think this has been lost because we have read Nibley without this kind of chronologization of his work. And because we tend then to focus on the proofs he brings forward for the Book of Mormon’s antiquity or other, The Great Apostasy or the Book of Abraham, rather than to let him tell us what he's trying to think about at that point in his career. 

Stephen Betts: I mean, what do you see as the implications for understanding his work on the Book of Mormon? I mean, you sort of highlighted this a little bit earlier, but his larger academic project as he referred to it, how do we read that in light of this political theology that he's developing in the late 60s? 

Joseph Spencer: Yeah, I mean, I think he genuinely is committed, fully committed to say the historicity of the Book of Mormon, the traditional faith claims of the Church. It would be the wrong move to say that he's not. But what I think the way this works for him is that those things are, they're important to defend for him, but if they're defended and none of the content of the Book of Mormon or none of the content of the theological claims of the Church, if those don't get expounded and have some kind of existential impact, then what was historicity worth of the Book of Mormon, for example? What are any of these things, how are any of these things actually valuable? So, for him, it seems like he begins to almost get frustrated that he has himself become obsessed with just one dimension and an important dimension for him, but only one dimension of what Mormonism has to offer.

Stephen Betts: And, you know, it's not just the Book of Mormon that he's beginning to theologize, right? He turns to the New Testament as well and you gave a presentation a couple years ago about his theological interpretation of 1 Corinthians 13 that I think really highlights what his thought and what his process looks like. In other words, it's a lot of people have accused him and there are good argents for [parallelomanic] tendencies in Nibley, and yet you show that no, there's something much more careful at work here. So talk about that. 

Joseph Spencer: Yeah. So, I think you're referring to a paper I delivered at the Society for Biblical Literature on Nibley’s relationship to the Bible. And one of the things that's striking about Hugh Nibley is for all of his training that he had in ancient languages and especially in languages relevant to the Bible, he doesn't have a lot of creative interpretations of biblical passages. He tends, for the most part, to have relatively mainstream, you could almost call uncritical interpretations of a lot of biblical texts, but there are a few passages that he really developed kind of odd and unique—odd in a, I don't mean that in a, in a critical way, but odd and unique interpretations. And one of these is First Corinthians 13. He takes a passage there, reads it in a what seems a kind of wild way, and seems to have interpreted this way at least on the surface because it would help to make his case about early Christianity falling apart and going into apostasy and this kinda thing. But what Nibley does with the text is actually really quite astonishing. It's not simple proof texting. It's not simply forcing a verse to mean one thing rather than another cuz it would fit his story. It really does seem to be a close and careful dismantling of the Greek words in the received text and trying to see what weight they can bear. And he develops over the course of literally a decade, develops this unique reading into a kind of theological picture, a kind of salvation history picture of how Jews and Christians and Gentiles and so on are all interrelated and what all of this might mean about human arrogance and love, and so on and so forth. So it's really, really quite something, I think. 

Stephen Betts: Yeah. He, you know, he's not just putting these interpretations out there, however careful they may be for Latter-day Saints, right? He's,

Joseph Spencer: Right. 

Stephen Betts: He puts the, you know, he puts out significant papers, essays in Church History, other major publications which are engaged by, you know, by his peers as significant scholarship in their own right. And so I think, you know, you point out that we have to take seriously the ways that he's approaching scriptural texts as a kind of discipline, a creative discipline that's also minimalistic in its assumptions about what the text is doing right, or what you know, or what the faith requires, what the orthodoxies of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints requires of him as an interpreter of scriptural texts. One place that this really comes out is in another presentation you gave a while back at the Mormon Scholars in the Humanities conference. This was ostensibly in the context of sort of ecocriticism and environmental thought, and you draw out from this something beneath his environmental thought, which he certainly had. He certainly had ideas about the environment, but you draw out something beneath that, which is this theology of grace that he distills from a certain reading of the thought of Brigham Young. Now, Brigham Young, of course, you know, in “penny dreadfuls” and all kinds of different representations over the years has been associated, you know, with polygamy, settler colonization, mountain Meadows Massacre, Danites, Adam-God theory, blood atonement, pretty much everything that you don't want to talk about in Latter-day Saint history. And so, you know, understandably, not always the person that people turn to for inspiration when they're thinking theologically about Latter-day Saint thought, but Nibley turns to Brigham Young and he sees something there that's very unique and that's very inspiring for him.

Joseph Spencer: Yeah, it's really something. I mean, honestly, it's really something, the sort of old saw in the world of thinking about the history of the Latter-day Saint tradition is that Joseph Smith is this kind of creative, inventive genius, right? Who just produces theology like most people eat meals, right? And that Brigham Young is then just a hard-headed, practical person who could take that vision and turn it into a kind of lived community, but that he had very little to contribute in his own right. And Nibley was, I think, polar opposite right? on this question. He, of course, sees Joseph Smith having given the world a whole lot of things, but he doesn't see Joseph as a genius or as a kind of thinker, or anything like that. He sees him simply as a kind of channel through whom revelation and translations of ancient texts come to the world. But Brigham, he sees as a kind of thinker. It's very unique. I mean, I think it's obviously, in Latter-day Saint historical circles, it's recognized that Brigham Young had certain things he thought about very hard and tried to develop, Adam-God being the most well-known or whatever. But Nibley sees this like running through all of Young's thinking, and this is, it really is something that Nibley takes him that seriously.

Nibley spends years going through Young's writings very, very carefully, taking extensive notes, and he gives just strings of talks, all of which appear is collective works, strings of talks, just sifting through what he finds of value in Young and what he reconstructs is a kind of theological picture. Nibley almost never touches on Adam-God though he does. And it is interesting that he does and at least in a few letters I've found in Nibley's archival collection there, he lets people know that he's fully on board with Brigham Young's Adam-God doctrine, which is itself an interesting little detail, though he didn't write about it publicly, but he sees a whole lot more there. And I think the most interesting dimension of it is this theology of grace. He in a few passages, talks about Brigham Young, making visitors to his office sit in a big leather chair or couch and Nibley explicitly compares this to Freud and calls Young a kind of great psychologist, right? The person who could size things up, sort of what was going on, discern a kind of structure there. Sounds very like how Nibley reads texts. Discern a structure there, see what's really back behind things, and then really sort of give a crystallization of what's at stake and so he sees Young as basically always getting it right.

Stephen Betts: I wanna unpack this theology of grace. You have this really arresting passage in your presentation where you say, “for Nibley, as for say Adam Miller,” we can bring that up in a minute, “theological reflection on grace has everything to do with explaining human resistance to divine favor.” So again, this psychologizing element of, of theology. “Our resentment toward grace in its simplest and most universal definition, this means that what's at stake is, at least in a general sense, questions of a psychological nature. It also means that for Nibley, grace is never God's backup plan. Grace is a given, and so the real question is why we're so tied up in knots about it.”

So this concept of grace that will really get taken up in what's colloquially known as the neo- orthodox turn in Latter-day Saint theology in the eighties and nineties Nibley’s is dealing with much earlier and in a completely different way. And he's thinking about grace as something that's already operative. Thinking about it as something that isn't really about theology; it's more about psychology. So, I'm hoping you can unpack that a little more. Say more about the connection with, with Adam Miller as well. If you, if you would.

Joseph Spencer: Yeah. There's a lot there to play with. I mean, so for one, lemme say something about neo-orthodoxy. Yeah, there's this old book by Kendall White, published by Signature Books where he talks about what he calls neo-orthodoxy in the Latter-day Saint tradition, and he tells a story about it emerging in the 1960s at Brigham Young University in the College of Religious Education with a few faculty members, but then, but really with an eye to what happens in the nineties, as you mentioned. Right. Stephen Robinson, Robert Millet. Brent Top and a number of others. These are also religion faculty at BYU. And they're these sort of emergent, these emergent periods of an intense interest in grace and that kind of a thing. White only mentions Nibley once or twice in his book, but he should have made half the book about Nibley. In a lot of ways Nibley is precisely a neo-orthodox figure. Neo- orthodoxy writ large is of course a twentieth-century Christian movement. They of course didn't call themselves neo-orthodox, right? This is a term they get labeled with. It's often sort of pegged to Karl Barth early in the 20th century.

And what you have here is a certain kind of theology of pessimism that emerges in response to the disasters of the 20th century: World War I, World War II, and a kind of loss of the optimism of the great Progressive era, right? So, where the late 19th century and especially the early 20th century just has this kind of, “We're gonna solve everything with science. Everything is looking good. Christianity's becoming largely humanistic. You're getting, in the English and German speaking world, Walter Rauschenbauch, these other German thinkers that are kinda paving the way. But what we have happen in the wake of these just disastrous things and this kind of mood of pessimism about whether modernity is really a good thing, is a kind of return to orthodoxy, hence neo-orthodoxy.

Karl Barth writes a commentary on the letter to the Romans that he publishes right after World War I ends, it's 1919, I think, was when the book shows up. And it's, I mean, it's been said that it dropped on the world of biblical studies like an atom bomb, right? It just because he took Paul seriously and read him as like, let's take straight up classic Christian readings of Paul and of what he has to say about grace and let's make this again, the heart, the beating heart of a kind of evangelical theology, but in the universities, not just in the churches. And Nibley is very much, I think of a piece with this. He is deeply modernist, but he's modernist in the pessimistic sense. He thinks that modern technologies have alienated us and disconnected us. He thinks that our embrace of capitalism has led mostly to the devastation of our lands and the loss of community.

And Nibley’s very, very clear about these kinds of things. And I think as a result, maybe not that surprising that Nibley, unlike say Talmage or Widtsoe or Roberts he grabs hold of grace in a really strong way. And so already in the fifties and sixties, it's showing up in his writings in certain ways. And when he starts really using Brigham Young, it's coming out with a great deal of clarity. And so for him, it looks sort of like a classically Calvinist picture in a certain way. We are awful, we human beings, and there is so much goodness offered us and we resist it. We push back against it. We are afraid of what God is trying to give us. But grace was the offer first. And we in our sin walk away from it, right? Our sinfulness is our walking away from this abundance God gives us. And for Nibley, that's just, that is what Brigham is trying to think about in the Utah territory. This abundance of land, this abundance of gift, the giftedness of the soil, the giftedness of the air, the giftedness of the water, that of course many, many Latter-day Saints coming west are just seeing as opportunity. And Nibley reads Brigham as a kind of constant point of resistance to that basically capitalist mentality right Here, we can, we can capitalize on the West. For Young, for Nibley, that's not at all the project. 

Stephen Betts: I mean, it's, it's interesting in what you just said, it's kind of interesting to, to recast this label of  neo-orthodoxy, which really for Latter-day Saints is kind of a misnomer in a lot of ways theologically, but maybe to recast it in terms of Brigham Young, whereas Karl Barth and these other theologians are harking back to Calvinm Hugh Nibley is getting back to Brigham Young.

Joseph Spencer: Yep. 

Stephen Betts: And Brigham Young is our Calvin. Brigham Young’s the Latter-day Saint Calvin in a certain kind of way, whereas Joseph Smith does have a sense, you know, or at least you know, in the Book of Mormon, certainly there's a strong emphasis on a kind of depravity, but there's a much stronger emphasis on this theology of grace that Nibley is going to pick up on. Right. 

Joseph Spencer: Totally.  

Stephen Betts: And one of the places that he really focuses in Young's thought is on how this theology of grace is rooted in ideas about what it means to have an enemy. And precisely this orientation towards others that, that we call having an enemy. So, can you unpack this a little bit more? What does grace have to do with having enemies? 

Joseph Spencer: Yeah, I mean, basically, I mean the key line for Nibley coming out of young is where is the enemy for the righteous? There is no enemy, right? There just is no enemy. So that the form of sin, as Nibley reads Young, is having an enemy. The fact that we have any enemies at all shows that we are sinful, but not that we were sinful from the beginning, right? This is our rejection of grace. I think this is crucial because where a kind of traditional Christian embrace of grace or Calvinism as you were just talking about, right? There's always a kind of threat of individualism in Calvinist thought about grace and very classically, very famously, Max Weber, the great German sociologist, argued that there's something about Calvin's theology that gave rise to the American capitalist project, right? And that could be debated. There's all kind historical reasons to be a little nervous about that broad claim.

But as a kind of theoretical model, it's a really interesting and often compelling one. But there's something in the idea of my own private cretinism or something, right? My own tendency to selfishness and so on, that can be turned in some direction for good, but then that always ends up being a certain kind of selfishness and individualism, right? And my salvation might then turn me toward a certain kind of inquisitiveness that I'm offering up to God because I'm hoping to be saved and to demonstrate my salvation that's always a mystery, but I'm trying to demonstrate my salvation and there's this kind of privacy to it. But what you get in Young, if you're not turning back to Calvin, but you're turning back to Young, like Nibley does, then you get a theology of grace that is bound up with communalism, right?

It's not, there's the threat of privacy isn't there, and what goes wrong when one sins here is not a certain kind of knee-jerk individual selfishness: “I want good things for me. And that's it.” It’s that when I get selfish in a kind of private way, it's at odds with the community, right? I am not living out the Zion ideal. I'm not living as a people so that sin here is a rejection of God's abundance and grace, but it's a rejection that takes the form of destroying community. And that you don't tend to find in the Calvinist tradition so clearly. So yeah. So Nibley’s use of Young to do this ends up making the whole idea of the enemy central to have an enemy at all, that's the form of sin and that means that community is falling apart. The possibility of real, genuine human interaction is at risk. 

Stephen Betts: So I've had some conversations recently with Terryl Givens and Kristine Haglund about Eugene England and his thought, and of course for Eugene England opposition, which isn't to say the enemy, right, but opposition, which shows up in the Book of Mormon and in a variety of places in Joseph Smith's thought especially is at the heart of his theology of grace, is at the heart of his atonement theology. His [England’s] ideas about God and whether, you know what the nature of God is and does God progress, et cetera. Ultimately that kind of becomes for Eugene England, a really tragic worldview. And something that you pointed out in your presentation was really interesting to me was that Nibley doesn't see this sort of giving in or this surrender to this, I guess we could say “prevenient grace” in a certain kind of way. This surrender to grace as a kind of resignation of the world. As a tragic worldview. He sees this as something else, and that has something to do with the way that he sees worldliness or the world or human existence. Say more about that and clarify a little bit what maybe those distinctions might be.

Joseph Spencer: Yeah, that's really good. I think that what's crucial for this is certainly Nibley on Young, and it would be harder, I think to make the case for Young himself, but it does seem to be really crucial for Nibley, what's got to be gotten right about grace is a certain comedic worldview over against a tragic worldview. So, I think it's, it's exactly right that for England, the world is fundamentally tragic. And I mean, reading Givens’s recent book on England, man, the world feels really tragic, just devastatingly tragic. Right? But I think that's right and that this is in a certain sense how that passage from 2 Nephi 2:11 on opposition would have to read for someone like England, but for Nibley the world is not tragic, but comedic and I think you could read that into the same passage. So what the passage claims is that the world at its very ontological heart is riven, right? It can't be reconciled. It can't be held together. And what that can mean is two very different things. On the one hand, that can mean that the world is always broken, that the world is always not what it should be. But if we think it that way, and I think this is how England saw it. Then we assume from the outset that the ideal situation, right? We make the ideal situation somehow primary, and we look at things from the ideal standpoint and then say, since the world should not be broken, the fact that it is broken is this terrible thing. The world is fundamentally tragic. 

Nibley, I think, sees the world as having this rivenness this at the very heart of being, but for him, that is simply what there is, right? He doesn't begin, I think, from a kind of ideal conception of what the world ought to be. In fact, and I think this is the essence of the comedic stance, the comedic stance is to say, well, did you genuinely think the world could be otherwise? Right? Like, did you gen, like that's funny, right? It's funny that you thought the world would be otherwise. The essence of comedy is someone thinking that they might not slip on the banana peel, right? It's the aristocrat putting on airs who then slips on the banana peel, which reveals that this is the way the world always was all along. Why did you think it was going to be otherwise? It's hilarious that you thought it was otherwise. That's the comedic worldview, and it seems to me that that's running all through Nibley. He would take, I think, something like 2 Nephi 2:11, not as a kind of sad description of how the world, unfortunately is, but instead as a straightforward description of what the world is, and it's just hilarious that anyone ever thinks it will be otherwise. And as a result, there's a kind of Nibleyan laughter running through his work that I think is really quite important and a part of his conception of grace.

Then to really get your head around grace is not just to say, we're so broken and we need heaven's help. It's to say, well, of course the world is broken, so give in. My heavens. Give in. Let's see what we can do with this and stop running from communities. Stop running from God. We can, we can do something here together. It was funny that we thought we had to somehow strive individually as sort of romantic heroes to do this. Heavens, no, we don't need romantic tragedy. We need people who can laugh together while we put away the chairs after Church. 

Stephen Betts: What you're describing in a certain way sounds like the kingdom is going to come and it's going to fix this rivenness, this division, this, this imperfection that, that human beings like, you know, in the early 20th century especially, really thought, in their probably hubris that they could fix. It seems like Eugene England w wants to say, it's not just the world that's broken. It's being itself is fundamentally riven, and in a certain way, that's the tragedy, is that it never stops. It's not just the world, you know, the world's gonna get fixed when the kingdom comes. It's that even after that it's still there. 

Joseph Spencer: Yeah. 

Stephen Betts: Do you see this, is Nibley just concerned with a certain kind of worldliness and the worldly, the, the sort of fallenness of the world? Or does he also view in this, in this [comedic] way being itself? 

Joseph Spencer: Yeah, so I think he sees, I think he sees the status of being in exactly the way England does. Yes. So for England, and for Givens following him, right? For the world, for being to be riven at its heart is not just a temporary condition and this is why God himself weeps. Right? It's crucial for both England and Givens. But I think for Nibley, the world is riven at its heart and we and God deal with that. Right. So that there's a, there's a certain kind of, yeah. I don't think that Nibley ends up looking like a certain kind of Christian optimism. Like, well, eventually God comes and this all gets sorted out, every tear will be wiped away. Though there are times where I think Nibley talks that way but I think it's something more like Nibley see…for Nibley, maybe this is the way to put it. For Nibley, repentance looks like getting over, needing to fix the world, right? Whereas there's some sense in which, for England, I think repentance looks like confessing that the world is so broken that we've gotta do something right, rather than recognizing that the world is broken, so what are we going to do? That's a very subtle distinction, but I think it's, I think it makes for a very different sensibility in these two thinkers, and these are two very different ways of dealing with Latter-day Saint materialism, right? Materialism is something like being is riven at its heart. That's the claim of materialism. And for England, this calls for a kind of compassion. My duty toward others is compassion ‘cause they are broken as I am broken. But for Nibley, it calls for something like the construction, collaboratively of community. Not because others are broken, but because everything's broken. It's all broken. So what are we going to do? We didn't, it wasn't going to be otherwise. Let's get some work. 

Stephen Betts: This has been really great, and I've really enjoyed this. I hope that you can maybe tie up a few loose ends for us and, and kind of bring together what, like what is this theology of grace that you're pointing out in his use of, in his reading of Young. What does this maybe reveal about his larger comparativist project on human religion and culture? I mean, what is, what is he up to in your mind? 

Joseph Spencer: I think there are two ways in which it really connects back to that. One is more complicated, so I'll start with the simple one. First I think you can just say that there's something of the same sensibility running through both projects. When I mentioned this earlier, that when Nibley takes up the Myth and Ritual School as a kind of hermeneutic angle. And now I'm talking about when he's in graduate school, he's not thinking about Latter-day Saint things at all. Right? He's just thinking about Greek and Roman culture. What he's doing in some sense is saying Western civilization is the aristocrat putting on airs that's about to slip on a banana peal, right? Western civilization is, oh look. Look at the great Greek myths and look at the great Roman culture and look at the arts. And so he is going, “you’re pagans, like everyone,” right?  Back behind this is a set of blood thirsty myths and, and hypersexualized cults. And so, this is just like every culture. There's no “Greek miracle,” there's no Western unique.

This is the kind of absurd self arrogation that destroys community. And this is why the West has, while it's brought science and so on and so forth to the world, has mostly devastated the planet. And this is how Nibley sees it early on. And I think that's very clear. A little more complicated version of that answer is to tie into what he's doing with temples from the very beginning. People who have read a little bit of Nibley or even just heard a bit about Nibley, tend to know that Nibley is obsessed with the temple, right? Temple endowment. Trying to trace it to its ancient ties and so on. This is actually a massively complex dimension of Nibley's thought. There is no simple version of this, and the chronology of his involvement in thinking about the temple is so crucial to understanding what he's doing.

In its earliest form, so prior to 1957, so far as I can tell, so for the first 20 years of Nibley thinking about temple things, the temple is bad. Now, that's not to say the Latter-day Saint temple is bad. He's not trying to think about Latter-day Saint temples, but he sees temple rituals, he sees ritual practices in general in Roman and Greek culture. These are all things that they borrow from the great ancient eastern empires: Babylon, Syria, and so on, and so forth. These are, and he's constantly tracing ways in which they are explicitly borrowing these from these ancient empires. And he sees this as clear evidence of the corruptness of Greek and Roman cultural, especially Roman culture.

And he tries to trace back to the beginnings of civilization in the Fertile Crescent and look at how Babylon took its rise and Syria took its rise and so on. And the temple is the heart of everything that's evil. It's the center of a kind of global program of destruction and everything passes through the temple. This is the center of power and it's money and economy and so on. And it destroys the nomadic simple life of those who simply want to build community. And so on and so forth. For Nibley, the temple is originally the site of all things bad. Now in 1957, this all gets complicated massively for him, for, for all kinds of reasons. And he begins to rethink all of this in certain ways. In light of his conviction regarding the Latter-day Saint temple and his sudden belief that he can tie this in certain ways to what he's been researching for all these years. That's maybe a whole other story. But I think for him, then, this is running through all of that comparative project from the very beginning for him.

He is trying to find in things like these temple practices, these ritual centers, these annual events where everyone comes together and so on and so forth. He sees this as the site of human arrogance, right, of destruction of community, of creating enemies and building up munitions and so on, and having “community” only in the sense that you bring together—“com-“—your munitions—“munity,” right? You have community only in the sense that you point your guns at everyone else and claim that you can devastate all others. The very first connections Nibley draws between all of this kind of research he's doing and the Book of Mormon is through the book of Ether, which he sees, of course, as just classically these ancient near Eastern devastating communities, kings killing kings and putting everyone, and there's no one left in the end. And so, for Nibley, I think this is a perfect model of what human beings tend to do in their rejection of joy and love and goodness and their elimination of communities. So, I think these are, there really are of a pair, and it's why I say that when you start to see him coming out as a theologian in the sixties and seventies, you can read back earlier and, ah, this is all there in that early research, even when he is not saying anything about latter. It's there from the very beginning. 

Stephen Betts: Thanks. This is tremendously helpful for thinking through this. The legacy of this really complex, really just, I mean, I don't think it's too much to say genius figure in Latter-day Saint history. Joe, before we go, what projects are you working on right now? What's next for you? 

Joseph Spencer: Yeah, that's a good question. Too many things. I am working a lot on Nibley. I am trying to think through him and come to grips with him, in part because he formed me as a thinker. Not so much as a person, though I did get to meet him a few times before he died, though I didn't get to know him well at all, but simply his writings and so on shaped me. And so I have been trying to sort of come to grips with that, reread him going through his papers and so on, and we'll see what projects continue to spin out. I've got a number of other projects I'm working on. I've got a book that is formally in production with the University of Illinois Press on, Isaiah and the Book of Mormon. The title is still being decided, but it's probably something like, The Reception of Isaiah in the Book of Mormon. And that will bring, I hope, to an end all of the work I've been doing on Isaiah and the Book of Mormon for a long time. So, I can take a break from that and work on something else. But as far as more theological, which is what we've spent most of our time talking about here, I'm working right now on a book with Adam Miller. We're working on a book that we are tentatively titling Force of Christ where we are doing an analysis of three major continental philosophers and trying to think about how we can align them in a way that we can sort out what it is to do theology. That's the project. So we're looking carefully at Gilles Deleuze, at Giorgio Agamben, and at François Laruelle in succession. And using their thought to isolate a kind of theological method. This is a book not aimed at Latter-day Saints per se, though we hope Latter-day Saints will read it. But a book aimed at the larger world of continental philosophy of religion and theology, to try to make an intervention and say, here's something of what we think theology looks like. That's grown out of our own work on scripture, right, in the Latter-day Saint context. But we use these thinkers to try to articulate what that method looks like. So that's kind of the big central project right at the moment. 

Stephen Betts: That's Joseph Spencer talking about Hugh Nibley as a theologian. Thanks for joining me on the show today, Joe.

Joseph Spencer: Yeah, thanks for having me. This was great.

Stephen Betts: Thanks for listening to Scholars and Saints. This podcast is made possible by the Mormon Studies Program at the University of Virginia. To learn more, visit mormonstudies.as.virginia.edu. Music for this episode is used by permission of the artist Ben Howington. The track name is “Wayfaring Stranger.”

Stephen Betts: To hear more, visit mormonguitar.com.