In an interview ranging from discussing Hugh Nibley to missionary work in New Zealand to systematic theologies to the dedication of the Swiss Temple, Kurt Manwaring recently sat down with Latter-day Saint apologist (and retired professor of political science) Louis C. Midgley. What follows here is a co-post to one at Kurt Manwaring’s site, where I’ll focus in on a couple points of particular interest, but for those interested in reading more, hop on over to the full interview here.
Louis Midgley was a friend and colleague of Hugh Nibley and has worked hard to defend Nibley’s career and to share his writings with the world. At a few points throughout the interview, he shared stories about Hugh Nibley. One humorous one from Nibley’s mission was that:
When Hugh Nibley was a missionary in Germany before WW II, a local branch took up a collection for someone who really needed a suit. Hugh chipped in with some money. He did not realize that he was the one for whom they were raising money—it was his suit that was in rags.
A more poignant story was about Nibley at the end of his lifetime:
Phyllis called me and urged me to visit her husband. I did. And we talked. Hugh was in a hospital bed. He could hardly speak. He’d mumble and we’d talk back and forth. We talked a bit about New Zealand and the Maori. Since he had heard that I had been to Normandy, he wanted to know if I had visited what is called Exit Five, on Utah Beach, and what I thought of the whole miserable mess.
Then he finally said, “You people treat me like I’m dead. I haven’t seen the latest issue of the FARMS Review.” And at that moment there was a knock at the door—it was the postman with the most recent copy.
Hugh said: “Damn, I’ve made an ass out of myself again.”
Soon, two Relief Society sisters knocked on the door. They had brought him dinner. They rushed over and hugged him and kissed him. And he just wept. When they left, Phyllis asked me, “Did you notice that?”
I said, “Yes, I did.”
“Have you ever seen my husband show emotion?”
I answered, “No, never.”
Phyllis said that “he couldn’t” show emotion. But when he was reduced to lying there, hardly able to talk, he would say to me, “Phyllis, I have been kept after school by the Lord so I could learn a lesson that I needed to learn before I pass away.”
I found this very interesting. I saw my dear friend in a different light. What seemed like self-depreciation was his sense of inadequacy, despite—or because of the fact—that he was extraordinarily bright, learned a dozen languages, and so forth. But he couldn’t learn how to use a computer. I realize that things that are very easy when one is young are much more difficult as we near the end.
At another point in the interview, Midgley also discussed some of his efforts to collect and publish Nibley’s works:
The moment I knew there was a Hugh Nibley, I was delighted with his academic work. I immediately began collecting the documents that made The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley possible. Hugh was willing to give me the only copy of some of his best lectures and essays. Then he would want to give them to someone else who was interested.
I never once gave something back to him. Instead, I always made a copy but retained the original.
This explains why [the] first volume of the massive two volume collection of 46 essays honoring Hugh Nibley begins with a more than seventy page carefully annotated bibliography of his essays and books that I fashioned.
Together, these show some interesting insights to an influential apologist and scholar of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Midgley’s life was also deeply influenced by his association with the Maori people of New Zealand and his time doing missionary work among them. He noted that: “My first missionary endeavors in New Zealand changed my life for the better,” recalling that he was told by Elder Matthew Cowley (an apostle who also spent a significant amount of time among the Maori) that “if I payed close attention to the faithful Maori Saints, they would teach me many things about the gospel—including by their example how we all ought to behave now in order to get to a future where we all need to end up.” One of those things was his approach to studying scripture: “It was the older Maori Saints who gently but firmly teased me out” of reading the Book of Mormon in a way he described as “clumsy proof-texting.” Instead, “they saw the Book of Mormon as a very complex, subtle, and carefully written text full of stories—and full of life and light.” Later, Louis Midgley and his wife “served a glorious mission in 1999-2000” in New Zealand, where they directed “the Lorne Street Institute which is close to Auckland University and next to the Auckland University of Technology.” In addition, he stated that “I have published nine essays setting out and defending what I call the Maori Latter-day Saint historical narrative.” New Zealand and its peoples have been an important part of Midgley’s life.
He shared a rather interesting tidbit of Latter-day Saint history among the Maori, involving seer stones. As he told Kurt Manwaring:
When Latter-day Saint missionaries began contacting Maori in the late 1880s, they immediately found different groups who had been prepared for them and their message by nine different Matakite (which means “seer” in the Maori language).
(The Maori word poropite is merely a lone word–that is, the English word “prophet” spelled in the Maori alphabet.) And what do seers sometimes have? In the Book of Mormon they have two seer stones known as Interpreters, which made it possible for the seer to understand an unknown language. Maori seers also had two seer stones. And seer stones also played an important role in their esoteric teachings.
These seer stones helped pave the way for Latter-day Saint missionary work in New Zealand.
Midgley also shared some deeply-felt feelings about various topics throughout the interview. He noted that “Most every advance in technology is morally ambiguous. The Saints must learn how to control technology or it will control us.” He went on to note that: “There are, of course, advantages to technology because we can go higher and faster, but we can also use them to fashion stronger chains with which to bind ourselves.” He stated that “this seems to me why some young and old people leave the Church. They come to think of the Church of Jesus Christ not as a community of Saints, but as a building you go to on Sunday, often to be bored. They find that there is nothing new and exciting in the lessons. They don’t long to renew their covenants.” Technology can be both good and bad for us.
Louis Midgley also talked a bit about studying Paul Tillich’s liberal theology to see how and why it differed from his own Latter-day Saint faith and to find out “if my own faith could stand up to his theology.” The difference in wording of faith vs theology is intentional, since he isn’t particularly fond of theology: “Along with Hugh Nibley, I detest it, since theology is a merely human concoction and hence not what God has revealed to humans. Instead, theology is what humans have to say about divine things, much of which is at least bunk.” Ultimately, there are more important things than theology: “The Saints actually live by the stories found in our scriptures, which are then confirmed by their own encounters with the divine. No one has become a truly faithful disciple of Jesus Christ by reading creeds or confessions, or proofs, or schemes fashioned by theologians.” There is some truth in the statement that how we live is more important than developing a systematic theology, though as someone with a deep interest in theology, I personally disagree with detesting the idea of trying to understand God through theology.
Now, as I mentioned, the full interview covers a lot of ground, including Louis Midgley’s time in WWII, his experience with being part of “the first couple sealed in Europe in this dispensation” in Switzerland, his experiences in college and some more on the topics covered here. You can hop on over and read the full interview by following the link here.
For those who are up for a bit of discussion, what do you think about Louis Midgley’s assessments of theology and technological advances? Do you have any particular thoughts about or experiences with Hugh Nibley of your own to share? Have you spent time in a culture different from you own that has shaped the way you approach your faith, as the Maori did MIdgley? If so, how has the experience affected you?