“If God were to despise all things beneath him, as we do, where would that leave us?”
~Hugh W. Nibley
Hugh Nibley, most widely known for his scholarly work in the field of ancient scripture, was an outspoken voice of reason on all manner of things concerning Mormon social habit and culture. He famously opened (in prayer) a Commencement at BYU with the words “[w]e have met here today clothed in the black robes of a false priesthood.” Some years later he explained himself:
Many have asked me since whether I really said such a shocking thing, but nobody has ever asked what I meant by it. Why not? Well, some knew the answer already, and as for the rest, we do not question things at the BYU. But for my own relief, I welcome this opportunity to explain: a ‘false priesthood?’ Why a priesthood? Because these robes originally denoted those who had taken clerical orders, and a college was a ‘mystery’ with all the rites, secrets, oaths, degrees, tests, feasts, and solemnities that go with initiation into higher knowledge. But why false? Because it is borrowed finery, coming down to us through a long line of unauthorized imitators.
Such was the tone of Nibley. Critical, but honest. Misunderstood, eccentric, and yet unmatched by any of his pupils, colleagues, and rivals. He died in 2005, leaving a gaping hole in Mormon scholarship, filled admirably if differently, by his close friend Truman Madsen*, who followed Nibley in death in 2009. Many others now carry onward the work that Dr. Nibley pioneered.
*I had the privilege of working closely with Truman Madsen for the better part of a year on a documentary film series shortly before his death. That experience remains a highlight. In many ways, his voice was unique and irreplaceable. While the church is long on scholars, it is short on philosophers. Truman represented the very best of both.
As in most things, Nibley was well-versed in his defense of the environment, or rather, our stewardship over it, and highly critical of what had become—and remains—the default views of many Mormons regarding its preservation, treatment, and sacred nature. He wrote, “The connection between the sacred and profane is entirely a proper one, and I welcome the excuse for a philosophical discourse. For as we learn even from the Word of Wisdom, body and mind—the temporal and the spiritual—are inseparable, and to corrupt the one is to corrupt the other. Inevitably our surroundings become a faithful reflection of our mentality and vice versa.”
He lamented “that every living thing exists to be converted into cash, and that whatever would not yield a return should be quickly exterminated to make way for creatures that do.”
Nibley understood, however, that there are legitimate needs and uses for natural resources. He did not object to those uses by men in the least. It was, instead, the wanton destruction of those resources that drew his ire. Unrighteous dominion—the use of position and power to force and coerce—is widely condemned in Mormon scripture. “…[W]hen we undertake to cover our sins, or to gratify our pride, our vain ambition, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved;…”.
What are “our vain ambitions”, and does the principle of unrighteous dominion apply to the natural world? Nibley answered with a quote from Brigham Young, “The world is after riches. Riches is the god they worship…”. Nibley then posed the question: “Should the sacred Blue Canyon of the Hopis be strip-mined to light millions of bulbs glorifying the gambling dives of Las Vegas?” That is, how far are we willing to go in our pursuit of riches? Will we allow greed, disguised as growth and progress, to distort markets and corrupt hearts? Brigham Young said of civilized nations that “[t]hey have been cheating themselves for the golden god—the Mammon of this world”, and that they desire to “dwell amid the whirl of mental and physical energies, constantly taxed to their utmost tension in the selfish, unsatisfying and frenzied quest of worldly emolument, fame, power, and maddening draughts from the syren cup of pleasure.”
“Restraint is the watchword in dealing with God’s earth”, Nibley taught, “[t]he products of the earth are ‘to please the eye [that always comes first!] and to gladden the heart; yea, for food and for raiment, for taste and for smell . . . to be used with judgment, not to excess, neither by extortion'”. “We have a right to take what we need” he continued, “but when we would extend that right to justify taking things we do not need, that is extortion, and is expressly forbidden.”
Both Brigham Young and Hugh Nibley (among many other Mormon leaders and scholars) taught that the earth was divinely created, and that our treatment of it is reflective of our capacity for respect and stewardship. If, as Mormon doctrine teaches, we are inheritors of kingdoms without end, then certainly our treatment of this kingdom, and its finite bounties, is a relevant indicator of our future procurement of eternal worlds. “A favorite theme of Brigham Young” wrote Nibley, “‘was that the dominion God gives man is designed to test him, to enable him to show to himself, his fellows, and all the heavens just how he would act if entrusted with God’s own power; if he does not act in a godlike manner, he will never be entrusted with a creation of his own worlds without end.'”
If God himself created the earth, is it not then, as professed followers of Him, our responsibility to treat his creation with dignity and hallowed reverence?
Nibley quoted an early Christian writing, “Man by his sovereignty over nature resembles God, but he enjoys that authority only as long as he behaves in a godlike manner.” Or, in Mormon vernacular, “We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.”
We are stewards of the earth. It has been created for our enjoyment and to fulfill our wants and needs. But when we become exploiters, extortionists, and predators in pursuit of needless profit, our stewardship over the earth is forfeit, and we become, in Nibley’s analogy, like Pluto of Hades who “in his… stretch limousine, sweeps out of his subterranean realm amidst choking clouds of sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide, and assorted particles, and snatches Proserpine [the goddess of life] away from the scene to go down and live with him as a very rich but unhappy bride….He takes the treasures of the earth and with them creates the wealth and the armaments that enable him to rule through the ages with blood and horror.”
Too often our politicians and businessmen, cheered on by crowds and congregations, eagerly imitate Pluto. “I support SkiLink and disagree with the speculation that a gondola will harm our water quality” chided former Utah Senator, and celebrity SkiLink supporter, Jake Garn, “I unreservedly agree we must be careful to balance our future water quality needs, but the balance must be without prohibiting activities that are a vital source of our economic well-being in Utah – like skiing and snowboarding.” One wonders when exactly economic well-being trumped, not only a clean water source, but our ability to use restraint and common sense in deciding exactly what “economic well-being” entails. “Babylon has never wanted for dedicated and highly paid apologists” Nibley reminded us, “to justify the ways of those who ‘seek for power, and authority, and riches'”.
Our singular focus is profit, rather than value. Our goal is riches, instead of greatness. Our stewardship is forgotten, and the peace and harmony it promised, lost and unwanted. Dr. Nibley concluded that “[m]an’s dominion is a call to service, not a license to exterminate.” Brigham Young prayed “Let me love the world as [God] loves it, to make it beautiful, and glorify the name of my Father in heaven. It does not matter whether I or anybody else owns it, if we only work to beautify it and make it glorious, it is all right.”
Do we, Mormons and otherwise, possess the will to make the world beautiful? Are we capable of restraint? Or have we, in the words of western fabulist, huckster, and governor, William Gilpin, come to believe that “progress is God“?
Edward Stevenson wrote that “The earth is here, and the fullness thereof is here. It was made for man; and one man was not made to trample his fellowman under his feet” through the possession of it. “Light, intelligence, good, that which is of God, creates, fashions, forms, builds up, brings into existence, beautifies, makes excellent, glorifies, extends and increases.”
The conservationist conserves. He works to multiply and replenish the earth. He plants, rather than burns, and is content to live simply, peaceably, without the constant pursuit of silver and gold driving him mad with energetic and destructive envy.
This is God’s country. We ought to treat it as such.