The Approaching Zion Project: Gifts

June 5, 2013 | 19 comments
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giftsYou can find links to all of the previous installments of the Approaching Zion Project here.

For the third (and, I hope, final) time, I read this chapter on an airplane, taking notes as I read it. And there are just a couple quick things I want to highlight and discuss, and one sentence that really troubled me.

The Eye of the Needle

Nibley points out that the “rich man cannot enter heaven except by a very special dispensation.” (105) If that is true—and the New Testament backs Nibley up here—we should all be terrified. I know, none of us claims to be rich; everybody, it seems, is some variation on middle-class. But the thing is, the vast, vast majority of us in the U.S. (and likely everybody reading this) is wealthy by international standards; the worldwide median income is somewhere around $1,225 per person per year; an annual after-tax income of $34,000 per person in a household puts a family into the top 1% worldwide.

But isn’t a worldwide comparison arbitrary? Maybe. But so is a national, a state-wide, or a neighborhood-wide comparison; why is saying I’m middle class because I don’t make what a hedge fund manager earns a better comparison than saying I’m wealthy because I make more than a resident of a developing country?

Note, though, that it is not impossible for the rich to make it to heaven; if we want to make it, though, we better figure out what it takes to get that special dispensation. From what I read into Nibley, I suspect it takes a deliberate focus away from wealth. Whether or not Nibley approves of wealth,[fn1] what seems most offensive is a focus on accumulating wealth, a focus on our own merit and deservingness, at the expense of recognizing that everything we have is a gift, and at the expense of paying that gift forward to our neighbors.

Study: What We Should Be Doing

Nibley acknowledges that we need to work until we have sufficient for our needs. Our needs, he asserts, are basically food and clothing. (I don’t really want to get caught up in a debate over what we really need. I don’t think Nibley’s trying to give an exhaustive list of needs, otherwise I’m pretty sure he would have included shelter, too. His point, though, is that we need less than we think we need.)

After we have our needs, what are we to do? Study. The learning is the banquet; we only work so that we can make it to the banquet.

Note that I’m hugely sympathetic to this idea; I went into academia largely because I love to research, to learn, to synthesize that knowledge, and then to share it. That said, I want to emphasize the work-first part of this—Nibley doesn’t tell us that our study should replace our work, just that maybe we don’t need to work as much as we think we do (because we don’t need to consume as much as we want to), and that we have more time to study than we believe.

Without that caveat, we move into an uncomfortable and unsustainable world, one that reminds me of Gershom Gorenberg’s portrait of Israeli ultra-Orthodoxy.[fn2] In the world Gorenberg paints, “haredim are known for marrying early and having many children, even as men spend much or all of their adult lives studying Talmud rather than working.”

That doesn’t seem to be Nibley’s Zion; rather, in the Zion he envisions, we work, even as we decrease our consumption, so that we are able to study and enjoy the Lord’s banquet. And as we shift our wants from items of consumption to items of salvation, we get closer to a Zion society.

Miscellany

  • Even as he’s deadly serious about Zion, Nibley has a sense of humor. The speech is structured as a dialogue with himself, with self-deprecating questions and answers. Plus this: “But we still have the attitude of the old Danish man in Sanpete, whom Brother Jensen used to tell about: ‘That’s a fine carrot patch you and the Lord have there, Brother Peterson.’ ‘Yes, and you should have seen what it looked like when the Lord was doing it alone.’” (111) I don’t know where Sanpete is, I’m unfamiliar with most things Scandinavian (though we’ve got an awesome Swedish American Museum in Chicago), and I’ve never farmed carrots, but that story is pure awesomeness.
  • In the Q&A, Nibley says, “The Saints took no sides in that most passionately partisan of wars, the Civil War, and they never regretted it.” (113) As Ardis has highlighted, though Utah stayed out of the Civil War, some Saints were involved in one way or another. But what I’m curious about is the tone: Nibley seems happy with Mormons’ staying out. And so I’m curious: was this the result of his own personal pacifism? or was there a strain of anti-Civil War in the Church in the 1970s?[fn3] Basically, I’ve never encountered this feeling toward the Civil War before, and I’m curious if it’s idiosyncratic to Nibley, or if it reflects a strain of though still extant in the late 20th century.

[fn1] Spoiler alert: he disapproves.

[fn2] Note that I’m not saying Gorenberg’s portrait is or isn’t accurate; my familiarity with the northern Jersusalem haredi is derived almost (but not quite) entirely from this article. For purposes of this discussion, though, the extremes Gorenberg illustrates are a potential consequence of engaging in study at the expense of meeting our needs, rather than after meeting our needs.

[fn3] I know the 19th century Saints were happy to be uninvolved in the Civil War, believing that it might usher in the fall of the United States and Christ’s Millenial Reign.

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19 Responses to The Approaching Zion Project: Gifts

  1. James Olsen on June 5, 2013 at 7:53 am

    Nothing to contribute, other than to say that I’m very much enjoying your series. Oh, and I’m grateful to be in the top 1% and living like a haredi so I have time to read and enjoy it.

  2. Russell Arben Fox on June 5, 2013 at 9:18 am

    Yet another fine collection of thoughts, Sam. Let me help get things going with a few responses of my own (sorry I missed the last one; we were one the road).

    [I]it is not impossible for the rich to make it to heaven; [but] if we want to make it, though, we better figure out what it takes to get that special dispensation. From what I read into Nibley, I suspect it takes a deliberate focus away from wealth. Whether or not Nibley approves of wealth,[fn1] what seems most offensive is a focus on accumulating wealth, a focus on our own merit and deservingness, at the expense of recognizing that everything we have is a gift, and at the expense of paying that gift forward to our neighbors.

    This is basically my reading of Nibley’s point as well–the problem with wealth (and it’s very clear that he is strongly opposed, at the very least, to the large accumulations of wealth which advanced capitalist states like the U.S. make possible for some individuals) isn’t so much the fact of wealth, as its (in his view) inevitable and unavoidable corollary: people with wealth think they have earned it, think they deserve it, which means they’re thinking about it, when they should be thinking about studying the scriptures, tilling the ground, and serving their fellow man. What this means, I suppose, is that the sins of wealth can be equally present in a man in Sierra Leone who makes $1000 a year (which is three times their average annual income), as in a man in the U.S. who makes $150,000 a year (which is three times the U.S. medium income). Indeed, I suppose the sinful attitude of possessiveness (it’s mine, I earned it, no one else deserves it but me) could exist within the mind of someone is absolute deprivation and poverty as well…but the scriptures, and Nibley, and (in my opinion, at least) observed experience as well, suggests that such an attitude is much more common, and much more damaging, when wealth enters the picture. Hence, all us upper-middle-class internet users really need to pray for that gift of charity, and the strength to forget about our works and earnings, and focus on something else.

    Nibley doesn’t tell us that our study should replace our work, just that maybe we don’t need to work as much as we think we do (because we don’t need to consume as much as we want to), and that we have more time to study than we believe.

    Again, yes. And notice that this connects in an important way to the previous point: presumably, someone who cares less about, and focuses less upon, earning money and accumulating wealth, would be much more likely to do other things besides work themselves to the bone making the next dollar. I don’t think Nibley was ever familiar with her work, but I suspect he would have found a lot of sympathy for the arguments of the economist Juliet Schor (she of the Overworded American and the Overspent American fame.

    I don’t know where Sanpete is, I’m unfamiliar with most things Scandinavian (though we’ve got an awesome Swedish American Museum in Chicago), and I’ve never farmed carrots, but that story is pure awesomeness.

    Sanpete County is the land of Ephraim and Snow College and the Manti Temple, a county which was filled by Mormon immigrants from Sweden, Denmark, and Norway during the late 1800s. My wife’s dad’s people, the Madsens, were pretty 100% Sanpete County Danes going back about four generations.

    [W]hat I’m curious about is the tone: Nibley seems happy with Mormons’ staying out [of the Civil War]. And so I’m curious: was this the result of his own personal pacifism? or was there a strain of anti-Civil War in the Church in the 1970s?

    I suspect that Nibley’s pacifism is the primary motivation here–but another one (and, again, one much tied up with his ideas about socially and economically building Zion) was probably his isolationism. Nibley was probably–as Brigham Young was!–quite proud of the Mormons by and large keeping themselves separate from the plague of war which came upon the U.S. over slavery and secession in the 1860s. Let Babylon tear itself apart! We’ll humbly spin our own wool and take care of ourselves in our own egalitarian way just fine, thank you. (I can’t think of anything specific, but I wouldn’t be surprised if somewhere in Nibley’s writings there might not be a condemnation of the arrival of the intercontinental railroad.)

  3. YvonneS on June 5, 2013 at 11:18 am

    Hugh Nibley’s attitude toward wealth comes from his father or maybe his grandfather who was a councilor in the first Presidency. I can’t remember his name but there is a golf range south of Liberty Park named for him. He was a wealthy man who had lands that grew redwood trees. The mountains and trees were beautiful and were very profitable. He told Hugh before he died that his greatest fear was that an angel would come to get him when he died. He would think about the lands he had taken so much money from and he would jump out the window and die and then end up in hell. This because of all the time he spent gathering wealth. Hugh then made a different choice. This story comes from my memory of a video about Hugh Nibley. Truman Madsen interviewed Nibley and made the video about his life and the things he believed. I wish I could remember what it was called.

  4. Chadwick on June 5, 2013 at 11:51 am

    Thank you Sam. Very well thought piece. I particularly appreciate what is offered in comment #2, that people all over the world are obsessed with wealth and possessions. Some because they don’t have it and want it, some because they have it, and want to keep it, or want more of it.

    When I lived in India, I saw utter deprivation everywhere I went. Yet normally one of the first five questions an Indian citizen would ask me when we met on the street was how much I make. Apparently, salary transparency is quite common over there, meaning that people not only think about it, they talk about it.

    I certainly think about wealth more than I should. It’s hard not to. I mean, like you Sam, I count beans for a living. And regardless of where I fall out in Nibley’s views of Zion, it’s a point well taken.

  5. Klutz on June 5, 2013 at 12:08 pm

    Tevye:
    “If I were rich I’d have the time that I lack
    to sit in the synagogue and pray;
    and maybe have a seat by the Eastern Wall.

    And I’d discuss the holy books with the learned men
    Seven hours ev’ry day,
    that would be the sweetest thing of all.


    Lord who made the Lion and the Lamb,
    You decreed exactly who I am.
    Would it spoil some vast eternal plan,
    if, I were a wealthy man?”

  6. Jonathan Green on June 5, 2013 at 12:12 pm

    Russell, is “The Overworded American” a Freudian slip?

  7. Adam G. on June 5, 2013 at 12:40 pm

    Work just enough, then study? I see the point, but I also see two problems with it. First, not everyone has the gift of studying. Most people don’t, I’d say. We should always be a little suspicious of someone who is good at studying telling us that studying is what the gospel is really about. I also doubt that “work” is only a means to an end where studying is an end. You grow carrots to eat them, sure, but you also grow because growing stuff is sacred. Same with almost any thing.
    Second, what’s enough? The Egyptians apparently worked more than they needed to during the seven fat years, but that turned out to be just enough to get through the lean years that followed. If you respond that, well, God will let you know when lean years are coming, then ultimately you are doing the same thing as the Haredim only at a different point–you are letting God cover for your improvidence. I ultimately see no where to draw the line between enough wealth and too much that isn’t ad hoc or that doesn’t get away from the fact of wealth itself and get into motives. But Nibley, if I recall, is suspicious of the old arguments that wealth is OK as long as you’re motives are pure, with some reason.

  8. Jax on June 5, 2013 at 1:00 pm

    people with wealth think they have earned it, think they deserve it, which means they’re thinking about it,

    A very good point that Nibley makes in several of the speeches/essays in Approaching Zion. I think he says that all those how-to-get-rich books tells us the only way is to think of money and nothing else. I think he’s basically right (though someone disagreed in an earlier post). In several sales jobs I was always told to hang a picture in a prominent place to remind me of what I was working for (big house, boat, car, etc) so that I could see it have motivation to keep going. Or one book I read (Rich Dad, Poor Dad ? or maybe The Millionaire Next Door) where it said that rich people always talk about investments they’ve made, and ask for/give advice to others… whereas poor people almost never talk about money. They were trying to get people to think/talk about money; exactly in the say way that Nibley says they do.

    When I went into business for myself it was AMAZING the backlash I got from my parents and (especially) my in-laws about my work hours, which were only about 40/month. But I was able to get about $50,000/yr for those hours and spend a GREAT amount of time with my kids/wife/callings. I could have earned much more and had a great retirement account, a nicer house/cars/boat, but IMO it wasn’t worth the time away from the family. I know not everyone can earn that kind of money with those hours, but if you can do it, or do better, then make the choice do actually do it… the blessings were FANTASTIC!

  9. Publius on June 5, 2013 at 2:14 pm

    How consistent was Nibley in his isolationism/pacifism? Nibley’s response to Neville Chamberlain’s actions in Munich was “May God punish England.”

  10. Eric Facer on June 5, 2013 at 3:53 pm

    “people with wealth think they have earned it, think they deserve it, which means they’re thinking about it”

    Nibley’s penchant for gross exaggeration and stereotyping is appalling. Is there absolutely no correlation between one’s work ethic and the material benefits one reaps from his work? (“There is a law irrevocably decreed in Heaven . . ..) And his assertion that anyone who believes there is a correlation between their efforts and their rewards MUST mean they “are ALWAYS thinking about their wealth” is a laughable non sequitur. My father became a millionaire when he reached middle age and it never affected his priorities, which were always family first, church second. In fact, it was clear that he thought less about work and money once he had accumulated some measure of wealth and didn’t have to worry about how he was going to pay next month’s mortgage.

    By the way, by Nbley’s measure, based on what we know about the personal lives of the current Quorum of the Twelve, most, if not all, of them are rich.

    Sam, you use the phrase “Nibley’s Zion” to describe his vision of utopia. You’re right—his Zion is truly his own invention.

  11. Jax on June 5, 2013 at 4:20 pm

    Is there absolutely no correlation between one’s work ethic and the material benefits one reaps from his work?

    I think Nibley would agree with you whole-heartedly. There is no correlation… further along in the book we’ll get to his recounting of miners in Scotland (I think it was Scotland) and he points out that the labor involved in work doesn’t correlate to people’s wealth accumulation. I think he would most likely say that wealth accumulation is a sign of taking advantage of other people’s labor. Being wealthy, by which I mean consistently having enough without doing any labor, means it is other people’s labor/products/services being provided to you… that is as big a problem with wealth as constantly thinking about it.

    It is the inherent advantage taking of the poor that I am speaking about. Being able to rely day after day, week after week, month after month, on being supplied the goods from other people’s labor without needing to do anything about it yourself is condemable as working non-stop for no goal other than wealth creation.

    D&C 104… I, the Lord, stretched out the heavens, and built the earth, my very handiwork; and all things therein are mine.

    15 And it is my purpose to provide for my saints, for all things are mine.

    16 But it must needs be done in mine own way; and behold this is the way that I, the Lord, have decreed to provide for my saints, that the poor shall be exalted, in that the rich are made low.

    17 For the earth is full, and there is enough and to spare; yea, I prepared all things, and have given unto the children of men to be agents unto themselves.

    18 Therefore, if any man shall take of the abundance which I have made, and impart not his portion, according to the law of my gospel, unto the poor and the needy, he shall, with the wicked, lift up his eyes in hell, being in torment.

    So while that abundance stored in our bank accounts is nice to look at say, “Nibley is wrong. I have enough money I don’t have to think about it any more.” I think you’re misisng Nibley’s point altogether.

  12. Russell Arben Fox on June 5, 2013 at 4:27 pm

    Jonathan,

    Russell, is “The Overworded American” a Freudian slip?

    No, it was an unconscious throwback to my undergraduate studies in Egyptian and the Semitic languages, resulting in my accidental replacing of “k” (kapf) with its hieroglyphic root “d” (d-r-t, or “hand”). My apologies.

    Adam,

    Not everyone has the gift of studying. Most people don’t, I’d say. We should always be a little suspicious of someone who is good at studying telling us that studying is what the gospel is really about. I also doubt that “work” is only a means to an end where studying is an end. You grow carrots to eat them, sure, but you also grow because growing stuff is sacred. Same with almost any thing.

    I actually think Nibley does a good job–in some of his essays, anyway–of acknowledging this point, and observing that the gifts we receive from the Lord are very diverse, from one person to the next. But I also think he really did believe that, whatever our particular gifts, certain tasks (specifically farming, scholarship, and church service) are available to all within the Zion community, because they all would mutually reinforce and build up each other. So the lousy gardener and the poor scholar and the shoddy home teacher can all take satisfaction and grace from their tasks, because their putting their meager gifts to work in a holy endeavor (something that the businessman or lawyer, so matter how excellent or devout they may be in their tasks, presumably cannot say).

    Eric,

    By the way, by Nbley’s measure, based on what we know about the personal lives of the current Quorum of the Twelve, most, if not all, of them are rich.

    Which I think Nibley would take to be just another point of his condemnations.

  13. Adam G. on June 5, 2013 at 4:36 pm

    *But I also think he really did believe that, whatever our particular gifts, certain tasks (specifically farming, scholarship, and church service) are available to all within the Zion community, because they all would mutually reinforce and build up each other. So the lousy gardener and the poor scholar and the shoddy home teacher can all take satisfaction and grace from their tasks, because their putting their meager gifts to work in a holy endeavor (something that the businessman or lawyer, so matter how excellent or devout they may be in their tasks, presumably cannot say).*

    I see this argument as both under-inclusive–Nibley really didn’t get how business and law and other things were also God service, but they can be–and over-inclusive, as anyone who mocked the black robes of the false priesthood should know. Nibley was never systematic.

  14. Dave on June 6, 2013 at 11:25 am

    Nice discussion, Sam. Here’s a quote from his essay that I like:

    What are the qualities that make for success in the business world? Hard work, dependability, sobriety, firmness, imagination, patience, courage, loyalty, discrimination, intelligence, persistence, ingenuity, dedication, consecration—you can add to the list. But these are the same qualities necessary to make a successful athlete, artist, soldier, bank robber, musician, international jewel thief, scholar, hit man, spy, teacher, dancer, author, politician, minister, smuggler, con man, general, explorer, chef, physician, engineer, builder, astronaut, scientist, godfather, inventor.

    At the local level, leaders are called from most of these backgrounds (except jewel thieves and hit men, although there might be a few con men). But at the senior level there seems to be the idea that only lawyers and executives have what it takes to run the Church. Nibley seems to be arguing against that view. We should call a few athletes, artists, musicians, astronauts, scientists, and inventors at that level. Maybe we’d hear some new perspectives and ideas in General Conference. Look at what a refreshing change Pres. Uchtdorf has been!

  15. Publius on June 6, 2013 at 2:06 pm

    If the term “executive” is expansive enough to include college administrators (Bednar, Holland, Eyring), supervisors of seminaries (Packer), nuclear engineers (Scott), and heart surgeons (Nelson), why doesn’t it include being a VP for Lufthansa?

  16. John Hancock on June 6, 2013 at 6:04 pm

    In this chapter Nibley seems to be focusing in on the question, “What should we seek?” The answers he finds include wisdom, truth and light, liberal education and the Lord. But in a chapter entitled “Gifts” I was surprised to see no direct mention of seeking the gift of charity. One of my favorite quotations from this chapter was “No man’s opinion is worth a straw: advance no principle but what you can prove, for one scriptural proof is worth ten thousand opinions.” Thus far, in answer to Nibley’s question “What kind of work?”, the answer for me has been the work of separating Nibley’s opinions from the scriptural proofs.

  17. RobF on June 6, 2013 at 7:04 pm

    I’m wondering if our quibbling is missing Nibley’s overarching point in this chapter–we should be living by grace, the gifts of God, rather than by trying to earn our way in “the world” which is run by Satan. Jobs and riches can be blessings if given by the Lord–but we have a tendency to get mixed up about these things (hence the quibbling?).

  18. Michael on June 8, 2013 at 11:39 am

    Nibley articulates and expands upon the deep, glorious and exalting truths which are most attractive to those who seek Zion. As we know, many of these truths are hard to accept, let alone practice. Hence, many are called but few are chosen. And why are they not chosen?……..

  19. John Hancock on June 8, 2013 at 2:31 pm

    In order to clarify my last comment, even though “no man’s opinion is worth a straw” I do appreciate Nibley’s work and more often than not I tend to agree with him. While I think that Nibley is right about many things, perhaps most things, I don’t think that all of his opinions, however valuable or insightful (or the opinions of any other person, however valuable and insightful), including my own, are simply synonomous with scriptural truths.

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