The STQ: Material Prosperity thread has been a good one to follow; I’ve some strong (if somewhat inchoate) feelings on the whole topic of righteousness and wealth, but haven’t taken the time to put them down. However, both A Humble Scientist and Clark Goble have made reference in their comments to the writings of Hugh Nibley on these matters, and that reminded me of a favorite Nibley passage of mine. This is from “Deny Not the Gifts of God” (in Approaching Zion, pg. 145):
“What are we instructed to do, then, in our falled 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. Even so Adam was told to cultivate his garden, preach the gospel among his children (a most strenuous mission), and finally to seek ever greater light and knowledge. Let me remind you that this system has worked throughout the ages, whenever it has been given a try.”
Leave aside the fact that Nibley’s reading of the scripture he cites is arguable(does “labors on the land” really mean farming?). I find his challenge a powerful one–the idea that, besides humble physical labor, the work of the church, and studious pursuit of godly wisdom, nothing we do or measure ourselves by in this world is worth much at all. It would be difficult to figure out exactly what kind of social or economic order Nibley is calling for here, but it clearly isn’t industrial capitalism and career specialization, particularly in either the military or business or law (all of which he lumps together and harshly condemns throughout the essay). His “Triple Combination” might be called socialist, republican (with a small “r”), argarian, or communitarian; certainly it is utopian, and I’m enough of an idealist (in a certain philosophical sense) to consider that a compliment, not a criticism. Still, it’s worth contemplating in a larger sense the costs of Nibley’s effort to wean his people away from the lure of profit, comfort and material things. Two points in particular:
1. It’s not democratic. Unless you accept the classic Marxist doctrine that a classless society will be one in which all people do all the work equally and more or less simultaneously, then to eschew economic specialization will simply mean some other form of role-based responsibility will have to emerge, one that will probably be more authoritarian than liberal capitalism has been. That is, someone is going to have to be told to get the farming done, and someone is going to have to do the telling. This needn’t necessarily be troublesome, of course: after all, the church isn’t democratic, and we all get along fine (right?). As long as authority is tied to some more or less “public” truth (i.e., not some secret combination or conspiracy based on bloodlines or backroom deals), maybe liberal freedom isn’t worth missing. But it does seem excluded by Nibley’s vision.
2. It’s not modern. Nibley may not be a Luddite, but his fears about technology–whether literal or organizational or economic–are as obvious as Heidegger’s (I wonder how much Heidegger Nibley read?). His vision is incompatible with complexity–communities must be intimate, humble, homogenous, or else Farming, Preaching and Studying won’t be enough to keep the village (or ward) afloat. Hence, the tools which allow the streamlining and speeding up of modern life, thereby enabling larger and more diverse groups of people to associate together, appear to be problematic in Nibley’s view. Again, this is hardly an insurmountable problem: criticisms of modernity are legion, and many of them are valuable. However, to the extent that our ability to think politically about certain moral concerns–say, for example, “justice”–is a function of our creation of social organizations which can, in fact, affect the status of persons in relation to some political standard, then Nibley’s humble servant society must bypass such projects in favor of simple charity (again, shades of the current church, which–as has been discussed at length on this list–has a tremendous welfare program, but really can’t or doesn’t address itself to the problem of poverty in a systematic way).
Ultimately, where I stand is (like most of us, I suppose) conflicted. In my case, I talk radical communitarian talk pretty well, but I’m a creature of the modern world: to return to a humble, church-dictated, participatory, trusting, insular, agriculture-based, collectivist Amish-style exist in a United Order community is something which appeals to me perhaps directly in proportion to the degree to which I am certain that it’ll never happen in my lifetime. We have a big organizational church now, and maybe the compromise we struck with the modern United States (not really all that different, if you think about, from all the other compromises so many other radical Christian movements have been forced to make over the centuries) really isn’t a bad one. It leaves us personally with the constant tension of fearing that we have become too “wordly,” with chastisements like Nibley’s always floating around us. We end up focusing on such small issues as temple outfits, because we can at least do something about that, as opposed to feeding the world. But better to argue over small acts of consecration, I suppose, than to have lost the ideal entirely.