Nibley Fellow Reflections—”Irreversibly in love with scripture”

02.24.2015 | Guest

Today marks the tenth anniversary of Hugh W. Nibley’s passing, but his legacy continues to inspire Latter-day Saints who value religious scholarship. As the Chair of the Maxwell Institute’s Nibley Fellowship Program, it has been my pleasure to become familiar with many young, promising scholars who trace their intellectual yearnings in part back to Dr. Nibley. I’ve invited some of them to reflect on their experiences learning about religion in the academy. In this post, Joseph Spencer recalls being introduced to Nibley’s work. More “Nibley Fellow Reflections” are on the way.  —Kristian Heal

Joe Spencer at the 2014 Mormon Theology Seminar

When I returned home from serving a mission in 2001 I was hungry for understanding. I’d fallen irreversibly in love with scripture while serving, and I hoped to benefit enormously from the freedom to read beyond the boundaries of the approved “Missionary Library.” The day after my return, I sold off my pre-mission music collection for two hundred dollars, and I drove to the nearest LDS-themed bookstore. I had no idea what sorts of books to look for, though I knew exactly what I hoped to find: responsible scholarship on context and history, coupled with theologically-inclined close reading of scriptural texts. I had no familiarity with the world of Mormon scholarship. I spent an hour or two going through the shelves, entirely unsure of what was worth my attention and my time. I picked up a quasi-encyclopedic study of the atonement, written in an entirely devotional tone, figuring it would give me a place to start on what mattered most. I selected a book on theology from an early president of the Church, which I figured had to give me a better understanding of what it meant to think about Mormonism philosophically. And I decided, on a whim, to buy a book whose very title seemed to me a dare—and perhaps a danger: Temple and Cosmos.

All three went on the shelf that afternoon. I’d already pulled the seven-volume History of the Church from my parents’ shelves and begun to read. This kept me busy enough as I attempted to adjust to post-mission life and re-inaugurated my studies at Brigham Young University. I happened to begin dating that first semester the woman I’d soon marry, and that meant that I did a good deal more leisure talking than leisure reading. It took me most of that first year home just to get through the History. Shortly after we were married, however, I made time to turn my attention to those books I’d purchased almost a year earlier. I began with the two safer titles, as well as with a couple of other safer titles I’d collected over the course of the year—something on politics and the gospel, a devotional book on temple worship, and a few of C. S. Lewis’s works. Finally, however, I thought I’d try the book whose title made me wonder and worry.

I’d heard Hugh Nibley’s name float around in the mission field. I remember hearing a story about him being with a lost group of travelers in the Amazon that happened upon a group of natives who had never had contact with Western civilization. When Nibley heard them speaking their native language, he communicated with them easily and got the directions they needed to find their way home: the natives spoke a dialect of Hebrew. And I remember hearing a story about him having a public debate at BYU with a general authority about the legalization of drugs. When the general authority criticized drug culture, Nibley asked him whether he’d even bothered to try LSD, and when he was answered with a horrified denial, he responded simply with a self-incriminating “That’s too bad!” Of course, I figured these stories had more than a bit of folklore about them—especially considering my sources for them. But I’m sure they added to both my curiosity and my suspicion as I opened Temple and Cosmos to begin to read.

I’ll never forget it. I began reading the book as I walked to work. It was a gloriously sunny day in July of 2002. I could take you to the corner on Ninth East in Provo where I stepped into the shade of some trees to catch my breath. I couldn’t believe what I was reading.

Over the course of the following year, I read every word I could find that Nibley had written. I read all fourteen of the then-published volumes of his collected works, as well as every un-collected article of his on the FARMS website and the un-collected-but-published volumes of his work that had appeared decades earlier from other publishers. Of course I tried my own hand at Nibley-like work, studying the ancient world obsessively and acquiring basic skills in ancient languages and then taking these resources to my reading of the Book of Mormon, hoping to see how the book could open its meaning to me through my studies. During the same year, I was studying philosophy intensely, trapped between a deep interest in the ancient Greeks that was fueled by my Nibley-inspired love for the ancient world and a deeper interest in German and French thought that resonated profoundly with the way I’d come to make sense of the Restoration. I produced hundreds of pages of notes on the Book of Mormon.

In the thick of all that, I was one day waiting for a meeting with the bishop of our just-south-of-campus ward, and I was doing my Hebrew homework while I was waiting. A counselor in the bishopric happened by and asked what I was working on. When I explained, he said something about me following in the steps of Hugh Nibley, and then he mused to himself out loud: “We don’t see much of Brother Nibley these days, though. He’s too ill to come to sacrament meeting.” With a shock, I realized that we were in Hugh Nibley’s ward—and had been for months! I’d assumed he’d already passed away, since everything I’d read by him had been published years (most of it decades) earlier. It turned out that I lived a block away from him.

A few weeks later, the bishop asked me to go with one of the young men to take the sacrament to Brother and Sister Nibley after Sunday meetings. I was happy to go, but I was entirely intimidated by the experience. I suppose I expected a kind of condescending spirit, a justified rolling of the eyes at what Brother Nibley would recognize as yet another groveling fan. (He’d presumably have dealt with kids like me for half a century by this point!) When we arrived and I introduced myself (I think only by name), Brother Nibley took me by the hand, looked me directly in the eyes, and thanked me so sincerely for bringing the sacrament that I was almost brought to tears. I expected noble condescension, but I experienced genuine fraternity. The sacrament we ministered felt like communion in a realer way than I think I’d ever experienced.

My wife and I had a few more experiences with the Nibleys while we were in the ward, some of them very-cherished memories. I don’t know that we ever made an impression on them, but they left an impression on us. We moved from the ward and out of the state just months before Brother Nibley passed away ten years ago. He knew nothing of my work, unless his son, Tom—who was living with them at the time and attended my Sunday School lessons on the Book of Mormon—told him anything of my humble insights. (Tom may have given me the greatest compliment-cum-criticism I’ve ever received in a church setting. After I gave my final Book of Mormon lesson before moving from the ward, he told me: “I have only one complaint. That should have been shouted, not spoken.”) I’ve wished a thousand times that I’d arrived at scholarly maturity in time to share something of my work with Brother Nibley. I dedicated my most recent book to his memory (For Zion, published last year by Greg Kofford Books), but it’s work I can’t hope he’ll respond to.

I can’t express how honored I feel to have received the most distinguished award attached to this man’s name. I realize—since I’ve continued in philosophy and have ended up privileging contemporary European thought over ancient studies—that, if there’s anything of Nibley in my work, it’s more representative of the spirit than the letter of Nibley that drives me. But I’m deeply inspired by that spirit as much as I am by that letter, and I often take my own measure by asking whether I’ve reproduced Nibley’s unquestionable fidelity in my own work. Unswerving commitment to the Book of Mormon’s truth, coupled with the courage necessary to let that truth shape reflection on what it means to live a life of holiness today—that’s what I find in Nibley’s work, and that’s what I aspire to embody in my own. I couldn’t be more aware of how much I fail to achieve that ideal, but Nibley’s work remains a guiding light for me.

I hope Nibley’s example can inspire many more.