In Mormon circles, it’s de rigueur these days to trash Hugh Nibley. We need to stop! Instead of trying to have a debate with a scholar who cannot defend himself, we need to listen to his message. His message may not be perfect, but so what? His message is important and we need to listen. Two areas that have been recently over discussed are: (1) his 1983 address-turn-article titled “Leaders to Managers” and (2) his criticisms of affluenza and capitalism.
In the first, Nibley makes a strong bifurcation between managers and leaders. He implies that managers are not so good, and that the ideal should be to have more leaders, individuals with vision. Walker Wright in discussing the 1983 article makes a strong accusation:
While Nibley may have had both church and university bureaucracies in mind at the time of his remarks (perhaps even correlated Mormon culture as a whole), he nonetheless engages in a kind of rhetorical irresponsibility when discussing the supposed differences between leadership and management as well as the nature of business. Not only do I believe Nibley is mistaken, but I believe his views are potentially damaging to the progress of Zion.
Talk about hyperbole. While we may not agree with all of Nibley’s “extreme” points, it is important that we (including LDS Church leaders) understand his message. The Church and other organizations are overrun with managers, but we seem lacking in leaders with a clear vision of where the Church should be headed in the 21st century. Our current managers are reacting rather than leading. I suspect that President Uchtdorf and Elder Holland have a vision, but somehow it is getting lost in all minutiae and effluvia that we are currently obsessing over. What was Christ’s message? Let’s read the NT and go there.
We are talking about a continuum. Extreme managers at one end and leaders with vision on the other. Those in leadership roles need to be somewhere along that continuum. Nibley is arguing that they need to be closer to the visionary terminus. That idea is certainly defensible and hardly deserves the harsh criticism of Wright et al. And it is not “potentially damaging to the progress of Zion.” In fact, our over-institutionalized Church is sadly in need of “leaders.” Instead of trashing Nibley, let’s see what we can learn from his writing.
On the second issue of affluenza, “the bloat, sluggish and unfulfilled feeling that results from efforts to keep up with Jones,” we really shouldn’t be over analyzing Nibley here either. Building bigger and bigger houses and buying more and more adult toys is obviously a problem, as is unbridled capitalism. What case do you want to argue here? That we should be free to stomp on the poor and that it is okay to construct 4 expensive homes and own 2 Escalades and a Mustang, and “secretly” lampoon those in the lower financial rungs?
Nate Oman, in his overly pedantic paper, summarizes Nibley’s concern with free-market capitalism:
Broadly speaking Nibley’s indictment of the market has three parts. First, he attacks what he calls “the Work Ethic.” a set of perverse moral habits and beliefs reinforced by market exchange. Second, he denounces the inequality created by trade and commerce. Finally, he argues that market exchange rests on the harm and exploitation of the weak and the innocent.
Oman tries unsuccessfully to refute each of these 3 parts.
I travel to east-central Africa on frequent basis, principally to the countries of Uganda and Ethiopia. From my observations, the second and third indictments are certainly a defensible position, and I have written about some of the ugliness. So Oman’s arguments don’t ring true with me. Wealth is increasingly accumulating in hands of a very small percentage of the world’s population (the 1 percent). And with money, brings power. So Oman can quote all the scriptures and GAs he wants, there are still no Christian justifications for these social inequities and market obscenities.
Again there is continuum with laissez-faire capitalism (free trade) on one end and agarian socialism at the other end. I’m pretty sure that Nibley would be very happy with some serious movement toward the latter and a reevaluation of our personal priorities away from affluenza.
As I have stated over and over again, soon over half the members of the LDS Church will be living in developing countries. Oman aside, we as LDS churchmembers should be doing more, a lot more. And not just for members. Instead we are squandering our heritage. Let’s honor Nibley, not trash him!