Many essays in this volume will be new to readers; most have not been published, except through the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (F.A.R.M.S.), and all have been written since 1971. Brother Nibley explains:
All my life I have shied away from these disturbing and highly unpopular—even offensive—themes [the uses of money]. But I cannot do so any longer, because in my old age I have taken to reading the scriptures and there have had it forced upon my reluctant attention, that from the time of Adam to the present day, Zion has been pitted against Babylon, and the name of the game has always been money—”power and gain” (see below, page 58).
Perhaps no one in our dispensation dwelt so pointedly on this theme as Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, whom Brother Nibley cites liberally. Heber C. Kimball, Mosiah Hancock, John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff, Lorenzo Snow, Joseph F. Smith, and others had the same vision of impending doom brought about by the Saints’ succumbing to Satan’s materialistic ploys (Brigham Young aptly calls them “decoys”).
In counseling the Saints on how to resist covetousness, President Young used, in his words, a “most plain and homely” analogy: just “keep your dish right side up.” The Saints should not be “in a hurry” to obtain wealth, he cautioned; they should entertain no preoccupations with acquiring the goods of this world. Rather they should attend to their prayers, ask for forgiveness before the Lord, and seek the Lord’s protection from temptation; “Guide your steps aright, that you may do something” (JD 15:36-37). Don’t you try to fill your own dish; to attempt to do so is to partake of the spirit of Babylon. If the Lord wishes an individual to have more than a sufficiency for basic needs, he will so provide: “And having food and raiment let us be therewith content” (1 Timothy 6:8); the sole justification for “seeking” any surplus is to bless the poor, whose presence among us is, as it were, a test of our commitment.
In that same spirit of plainness, Brother Nibley stands on its head one of the maxims of many Saints and some politicians of our day: “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” “It’s pretty much all a free lunch,” Nibley counters (at least “the price [of lunches] varies”). Board and room are free on this earth; everything is a gift of God, which we can obtain by preparing ourselves through constant repentance. It is Satan who exacts a price: “Sin pays its servants; the wage is death. God’s gift to man is eternal life” (Romans 6:23).
Thus this volume will certainly be among the most controversial of Hugh Nibley’s Collected Works, troubling to Latter-day Saints who think to accumulate and enjoy Satan’s salient icon in this world—money. Many readers of Nibley have confessed that reading one or two of Nibley’s Zion essays is stimulating. Reading and rereading all these essays is thoroughly sobering, based, as they are, in Nibley fashion, on ample reference to the scriptures and the best thinking of all ages. Job’s words perhaps apply: “For God speaketh once, yea twice, yet man perceiveth it not” (Job 33:14). Study of these many essays produces an arresting cumulative impression: in no place do the scriptures, including the voices of our modern prophets, assent to the goal of amassing the goods of this earth. Such a course is to yield to Satan’s Golden Question: “Do you have any money?”
Nibley’s comments are not to be misconstrued as a call to reinstitute formally the law of consecration. Nibley explains that it does remain the privilege of individuals to live the law in their personal lives, as they so covenant regularly in the temple—to seek first the kingdom of God, and to share freely one’s various resources with those who may have less. In time the law will be reinstituted; in the meantime, Nibley sets forth lucidly the principles that enable us to live that law in face of the feeble realities of the present. The ideal is before us, and nothing prevents us as individuals from living that law, thus enjoying its blessings and preparing ourselves for its renewal.
A parallel exists in the Word of Wisdom. The Saints realize that its principles extend far beyond abstinence from tea, coffee, liquor, and tobacco, yet it has taken many of the Saints years to appreciate the ramifications of even the basics of this inspired health code; and the education is not yet complete. How much more there is to be learned in the principles of consecration!
This volume, perhaps more than others, also reflects Nibley’s characteristic style of thinking and writing. Many of the essays have a highly informal flavor, being carefully edited transcriptions of Nibley’s rapid-fire, often extemporaneous remarks from notecards. And Nibley’s mind is constantly at work, even in the midst of formal discourse, working and reworking ideas and resource materials, ever discovering and making new connections and drawing new inferences.
Thus the same scriptures, themes, anecdotes, arguments, and quotations frequently recur in different contexts in these essays. For example, the essays “Gifts” and “Deny Not the Gifts” contain some of the same material, though the introductions are quite different.
The editors even wondered whether all these texts warranted publication, for a few are discursive and unpolished in other ways. We decided to go ahead. Together, these essays and transcripts offer a vivid impression of the man Nibley and his most deeply felt concerns. Regular readers of Nibley will welcome them all.
Nibley also does a good deal of paraphrasing and individual translating of scriptures and foreign-language texts. The retention of his words creates a degree of coherence and individuality that, again, reflect his style of work.
In the spirit of all the prophets, Brother Nibley yearns for Zion; and his broad historical perspective enables him to define with precision why the people of the covenant, and other Utopians as well, have achieved, or failed to achieve, this goal. The scriptures speak of Zion. Joseph Smith received the principles and essential elements of the Zion order. Brigham Young and others preached them. On this theme, Nibley’s voice is one of the most outspoken of our century.
Some may resist Nibley’s views, considering them unjustifiably extreme, for he uncompromisingly exposes the foibles of modern society. He leaves nowhere to hide. In this regard, however, his message is basically the same as that of President Ezra Taft Benson’s April 1989 Conference talk on pride, “the universal sin, the great vice.” Both men define the problem of pride very broadly—it manifests itself in competition, selfishness, contention, power-seeking, backbiting, living beyond our means, coveting, climbing the ladder of worldly success at the expense of others, and in a multitude of ways that “pit our will against God’s” and limit our progression. As President Benson warns, “Pride affects all of us at various times and in various degrees. . . . Pride is the stumbling block to Zion.” This, too, is essentially Nibley’s cry in Approaching Zion.
Hugh Nibley is more than an idealist; he practices what he preaches. His life is profound precisely because of its simple, clearsighted, often childlike vision of the priorities and stewardships of the kingdom.
So his remarks are certified by a life of careful scholarship and personal application of the principles he hopes to see in place among the Saints. Missing this point, some may question his credentials to talk on such subjects as “management” (the label universities attach to business programs nowadays). An economics professor recently asked, “If Nibley knows so much about management, then why isn’t he rich?”
The essays in this volume are, with some exceptions (the two “work” essays and the two “gifts” essays), arranged chronologically, reflecting the pattern of Hugh Nibley’s thinking and speaking in the past two decades, and the increasing urgency of his message.
The first article, “Our Glory or Our Condemnation” (1971), is a literalistic interpretation of the Tenth Article of Faith—which is in essence a charge to maintain the earth in as paradisiacal state as possible, and to prepare to receive the beauty and joy of Zion, when that order returns to the earth. We are not to convert the resources of our planet into cold cash, which is the driving force of Babylon.
“What Is Zion? A Distant View” (1973) is an extended definition of the Zion order, in contrast to Babylon, the order of the world. Many of the contrasts are from the contemporary scene, in which the Saints awkwardly try to straddle both orders.
One of Nibley’s best-known sermons on saintly priorities is “Zeal without Knowledge” (1975). As he delivered this stinging indictment of the Saints’ topsy-turvy value systems, the air in the Varsity Theater (in the Wilkinson Center on BYU campus) was electric: no one had ever said so plainly what so many present had been suspecting. “Amens” were sometimes audible. The lecture takes its title from Joseph Smith’s admonition to the Saints to match their enthusiasm with intelligence. Nibley is especially distressed by presumptions (notably at BYU) that latter-day revelations excuse us from the joyous and hard mental work of figuring out life and building up the kingdom.
In “Gifts” (1979), Nibley argues from King Benjamin’s premise that “we are all beggars equally—100 percent is as far as you can go.” The necessities of life come as gifts from God; by definition they cannot be earned, despite the Saints’ dogged insistence on earning their worldly keep, and thus contradicting Moroni’s final and passionate plea, “Deny not the gifts of the Spirit.”
Both “Gifts” and “Deny Not the Gifts” (1982) take issue with the commonly held belief that “this is mine because I earned it.” “We never should ask the Lord whether or not we should commit adultery, theft, murder, or fraud. Likewise we should never ask, ‘Should I seek after riches?'” because God furnishes us all room and board on this planet free (even eternal life is a gift of God). We can but accept the gifts (by definition a gift cannot be earned) and share them; and they are available but for the asking. On this point “the Book of Mormon is fiercely emphatic; . . . no one should ever set his heart on riches.” It is Satan who exacts a price, who turns the earth’s bounty into commodities, which his disciples in turn convert into power and ruin.
In “How Firm a Foundation! What Makes It So?” (1979), Nibley summarizes the “secure” foundation laid by Joseph Smith—an “arresting, original, satisfying” scenario: a prodigality of gifts, a gospel that is not culturally conditioned, the ideas of revelation and restoration, charismatic gifts, priesthood and authority, the ordinances, the temple rituals, a third-dimensional gospel, individual testimony, and the gift of prophecy. Superseding all these gifts is the concept of Zion—the law of consecration.
In the book of Deuteronomy lies the key to “success” in this world—”How to Get Rich” (1982). The spirit of the law, as given to ancient Israel, as well as many of its practices, are still binding today.
Two of Nibley’s speeches have particularly stirred discussion: “Work We Must, but the Lunch Is Free” (1982) and the logical sequel, “But What Kind of Work?” (1987). When many of his audience and readers for years pressed him to explain what kind of “work” he was talking about (they had difficulty conceiving of work that did not produce material benefit), he simply rehearsed what Brigham Young had so often exhorted: repent, forgive, say your prayers, study the word of God, and in general do the work of the kingdom.
Both lectures were delivered to the Cannon-Hinckley Club in Salt Lake City. The first article begins with a review of some of the latest suspicions by leading scientists that “somebody out there cares—in other words, that there is direction and purpose to what is going on” in the universe; and “that gifts sent down from above are more than childish tradition.” God liberally furnishes board and room to his children; it is Satan who charges a fee.
The principle of Israel’s manna holds today as firmly as it did in Moses’ day: the manna was free, and it could not be accumulated or marketed. Particularly reprehensible in Nibley’s view is the common practice of some employers who, in the spirit of the perverse “work ethic,” withhold from laborers the necessities of life in exchange for services—”life in exchange for profits.” “To make merchandise of another’s necessity is an offense to human dignity.” “The prevailing evil of the age” is “that men withhold God’s gifts from each other in a power game.”
There is a work to do, which is largely the work of the mind, and it is spelled out in the ordinances of the temple, where, if one but looks, one can find “practically nothing else but things to do.”
Why are we so often decoyed? Nibley replies, “We know what Zion is, we know what Babylon is, we know that the two can never mix, and we know that Latter-day Saints, against the admonition of their leaders, have always tried to mix them. How is that done? By the use of rhetoric—”The art of making true things seem false and false things seem true by the use of words.” The trick is to appear rich as the result of being good—to cultivate the virtue of respectability. The “worst sinners, according to Jesus, are . . . the religious leaders with their insistence on proper dress and grooming, their careful observance of all the rules, their precious concern for status symbols, their strict legality, their pious patriotism.” Their philosophy is the survival of the fittest: “the lunch-grab as the supreme law of life and progress” versus the scriptural principle that “there is enough and to spare.”
The funeral address for Donald Decker (1982) is a unique piece—a discursive sermon in which Nibley describes the Zion attributes of a model mind and pure heart, which he found in a good friend with whom he spent many stimulating hours. There are exceptional people who go a long way toward living the ideals of Zion.
“Three Degrees of Righteousness in the Old Testament” (1982) discusses three economic orders: heaven (the celestial), Eden (terrestrial), and Babylon, the world (telestial).
Then follows, in “We Will Still Weep for Zion” (1984), a historical overview of the rejection of the Zion society in the last dispensation, from its first mention by Joseph Smith in 1831 to Spencer W. Kimball’s firm warnings in our present day.
The lecture entitled “Breakthroughs I Would Like to See” (1985) addresses the modern addiction to the “cult of change,” the notion that change equals progress. The only change worthy of pursuit is repentance.
Nibley’s most complete overview of the Zion society is “The Law of Consecration” (1986)—the lecture’s tone is urgent and the commentary candid. It is a historical summary of the Lord’s attempts to institute the law of consecration, and of man’s attempts (including attempts by some Church leaders) to delay or divert us temporarily from that ideal day. The contrasts between the contemporary scene and the scriptural idea are starkly drawn.
In an excellent historical overview of the notion of Utopianism (1986), Nibley addresses “the great question with which all utopians deal . . . : Can the mere convenience that makes money such a useful device continue to outweigh the horrendous and growing burden of evil that it imposes on the human race and that ultimately brings its dependents to ruin?” The lesson of 4 Nephi suggests that it cannot; only the law of consecration will do away with “money and private property,” which are the “insuperable obstacles to the achievement of utopia.”
Nibley was disappointed with the reception of his remarks on “Goods of the First and Second Intent” (1987) at the Retired Teachers Association. While he speculated on the probable causes of today’s classroom crises, the seasoned educators “mostly dozed,” he commented. The address in fact sets forth a fundamental premise of his life’s work: We should set our hearts and minds on those things that are good for their own sake, goods that are “good and everlasting in themselves,” things that satisfy the “hunger of the mind.” “Goods of the second intent” are those that lead to goods of the first intent; hence they are of secondary import, “good for the sake of getting something else.” Our contemporary society has reversed the priorities: “I think, therefore I am” has become “I shop, therefore I am.” “It is not the economic man at all that keeps the culture going, but his questions about his position in this life as well as the next.” The tragedy is that most universities now concern themselves largely with enabling students to achieve practical success through a cult of careerism.
“The Meaning of the Atonement” (1988) will likely become one of the great sermons of our day on the atonement. “There is not a word among those translated as ‘atonement’ that does not plainly dictate the return to a former state or condition; one rejoins the family, returns to the father, becomes united, reconciled, embracing and sitting down with others after a sad separation.” The Book of Mormon is full of such imagery, and hence is, to a greater extent than many have supposed, full of temple imagery. Becoming one with the Father means receiving the homecoming embrace, for the scriptural terms for atonement all imply such a literal reunion. By contrast, Satan would embrace us with worldly things, and hence gain power over us.
Literally thousands of hours have gone into the production of this volume: checking and double-checking references, typing, editing, consulting, confirming all sorts of details, and proof-reading. Contributors included Glen Cooper, James Fleugel, John Gee, Fran Clark Hafen, Daniel McKinlay, Brent McNeely, Phyllis Nibley, Georgia Norton, Shirley Ricks, Stephen Ricks, Matthew Roper, James Tredway, and John Welch; and of course the staff at Deseret Book. Not only their work, but their enthusiasm, have brought this volume about.
The title—Approaching Zion—is Hugh Nibley’s own. He explains, “It captures the theme and suggests movement toward that all-important goal, Zion.”