Louis Midgley on Hugh Nibley, the Maori, and More

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?

6 comments for “Louis Midgley on Hugh Nibley, the Maori, and More

  1. Chad, thank you very much for sharing this here. I read through the entire interview with Midgley, trying to imagine hearing those words in his voice. But I couldn’t quite do it–partly because my memories are so dated (I think the last time I saw him was 25 years ago, and the last time I took a class from him would have been close to 30), but also partly because the Midgley I remember is very colored by the somewhat contentious environment of BYU in the early 1990s, and thus what comes to my mind is an excitable, inquisitive, often accusatory voice, not the reflective, almost pensive one I hear behind the words in the interview on Manwaring’s site.

    I took my first class from Midgley during my freshman year, 1987-1988; I think it was the spring, because I remember telling him about my mission call to South Korea. I’m not sure why I took the class; I think it must be that the philosophy class I took from Chauncey Riddle my first semester must have somehow gotten me to think about political philosophy, and Midgley’s class must have appealed to me. I don’t remember what it was called, but it must have been something to do with political theology–he introduced us all to Paul Tillich, Leo Strauss, Michael Harrington, Carl Schmitt, and more. I didn’t have anything like the chops to understand what he was assigning us, but it a great intellectual adventure all the same. Later I took classes from him on the Federalist Papers, Alexis de Tocqueville, and Hume (I think). He was a delight–his long scarves and hat would make him look like a skinny, older version of Tom Baker’s Dr. Who, and we could easily derail him in class, getting him to talk about his figs, or about New Zealand, or Hugh NIbley, who knows what else. I don’t remember him talking about his memories of Europe and the Army, though, so those stories from this interview were especially interesting.

    The controversies from BYU in these days–the firing of Cecilia Konchar-Farr, the September Six excommunications, Signature Books, Elder Oaks’s “alternate voices” sermon, and all the rest–were ones that I remember Midgley gleefully jumping into, often with what seemed to me a kind of vindictive delight. In my memory, he’s snarking crudely about D. Michael Quinn, Lavina Anderson, or the VOICE feminist club on campus, or giggling as he shared with anyone who wanted to listen the latest inside joke or snide attack which he and Dan Peterson managed to work into the pages of the FARMS Review of Books. (The story of the “butthead” acrostic, as I remember it from the time, is that Midgley refused to turn in his preliminary copy to get reprinted once the word came down that such behavior should be beneath FARMS’s dignity, and Noel Reynolds had to break into his office to liberate it.) It embarrasses me today to reflect on how much all that affected my opinion of Midgley and all the great things I’d learned from him. I think the last time I saw him, at least as a student, was a day or two before graduation, at some function in the political science department, and I think I was curt with him. That bothers me, and this interview makes me mourn for the larger man and teacher than I judged on the basis of a few impressions of the moment (though I don’t think those judgments were necessarily wrong).

    Anyway, sorry for the long reminiscence. Your questions at the end are good ones–it would be fascinating to get Midgley today into a conversation about Wendell Berry and technology, or put him in dialogue with some of the new generation of Mormon theological thinkers like Joseph Spencer. Maybe the philosophical and generational differences would be too great to make for productive discussions, but it would be wonderful to try.

  2. Thank you for this. Louis Midgley is, quite simply, one of my very favorite people, a dear friend, and one of the most distinctive, “biggest,” personalities I’ve ever known. I’m far from alone in regarding him with very great fondness, and I genuinely don’t believe that most of his critics understand him at all. I hope that this piece and the original interview will help, at least a little bit, with that.

  3. In 1958 I was a missionary serving in Rode Island and had the opportunity to visit with Brother Midgley in his apartment while he was a student at Brown. I was troubled by the policy of not allowing black members to hold the priesthood. I don’t remember all the details but I came away realizing that the current reasons were not sound doctrine. My Testimony was strengthened by our visits. Will always be grateful for that.

  4. I enjoy theorizing about theology, but in philosophy and responses to the problem of evil I align with the skeptical theists generally. This impacts how I view theology as a whole. Ultimately I believe that there can be no true theology in the sense that our theological schemas are actually true. We just don’t have enough perspective (nor, I suspect, cognitive faculties), and we don’t even have grounds to charitably assume that we would have such perspective. So, theology is interesting to do and can open up new ways of thinking about things which can be useful, but I’m ultimately a theological and philosophical quietist and so I think theological constructs are of limited value.

  5. Hoosier, I can see where your coming from and would tend to agree that theology is limited in practical value. It can be fun to consider and work with, though.

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