I just discovered that FARMS had put online Nibley's seminal essay "Before Adam." Given that there are still a lot of literalists among Mormons unduly influenced by Creationists from the Evangelical ranks, this is probably a good essay to popularize. Nibley is probably the quintessential Mormon scholar, even if by putting out everything he wrote FARMS ended up tarnishing his image somewhat. (i.e. by putting offhand comments from various firesides on the same plane as his more rigorous writings) Although to be fair, many of his apologetic writings haven't exactly weathered time very well. I've long put Nibley more in the Mircea Eliadi or Joseph Campbell school of thought, even if he tended to be more a diffusionist rather than appealing to a post-Freudian psychological structuralism to explain common myths. And, like those focusing in on myths, he tended to end up making texts say far more than perhaps was applicable. Still, his comments are quite interesting and offer a nice conter-point for some of the more Protestant influences on Mormonism of late.
Allow me to quote from the opening paragraph.
I am often asked by students: What about those people that lived thousands of years before Adam? They usually ask after class and expect me to give a definitive answer before leaving the room. Why don't I bring up the subject in class? I did for twenty years, and then gave it up—it was a waste of time.
Nibley then decides to tell the story, with the basic idea that neither most religion nor science can give a plot to the narrative of history. I should add that in terms of science the essay (which is quite old) is very dated. Further, Nibley never got his science terribly correct. So you kind of have to overlook a lot (as is common with a lot of Nibley writing). But if you're giving it to a Biblical literalist, their science is already far worse than Nibley's so it can only be a step up...
The most important truth that Nibley gets at though, and this is where the philosophical connection comes in, is in giving meaning. He argues that the uniquely LDS creation accounts in Moses and Abraham entails a natural (Darwinistic) process which is given meaning by blessing it. He also emphasizes quite strongly that all such accounts are perspectivist in nature. That is, we have someone seeing events and communicating what they mean to him. It is not an objective account of life, and certainly not absolutist in nature.
This is not Deism, the prearranged harmony of Leibniz, for the Gods keep up an active interest in the operation in which indeed things often go awry: "We shall go away now," they say, "but we shall visit you again," which they do from time to time, keeping up an active interest. The most important provision of all is, "We will bless them," and "cause them to be fruitful and multiply." (Abraham 4:28.) That blessing of everything makes all the difference. The Darwinists might say, "You people are simply describing a natural process in humanized terms," for they have always made much of the completely natural, inevitable, mindless, undirected, spontaneous, mechanical aspect of natural selection necessary for its operation as a purely and completely physical law. They ever gloated on the unfeeling cruelty of the whole thing—"nature red in tooth and claw," as Kipling put it. The blessing is the whole difference between a play and no play.
After the earth is set up we are shown everything from Adam's point of view. In Genesis 2:5, we are definitely referred to a pre-temporal creation, then (2:8) we see a garden planted, and (2:15) a man put into the garden, where he is wonderfully at home. He can eat of every tree in the garden (2:16). He lives on terms of greatest intimacy with other creatures, naming and classifying them as he takes his place among them, in the manner of Claude Levi-Strauss's "primitives." (Genesis 2:19–20.) When Adam eats the fruit his eyes are opened—he is a piqqeah, one who sees things as they were not seen before, who sees things which he in another condition could not see. He is in a new ambience. Cast out of the garden, he finds himself in a dry climate and changes his diet from fruit to grains, which he must work hard to cultivate.
The reason I bring all this up is that regardless of his many weaknesses, I think Nibley sets out the basic approach to theology within Mormonism. We don't, as with medieval theology, Descartes, Leibniz or others, focus on the absolute or the metaphysical, as such. Rather we focus on a person within a world trying to make sense of that world and give it meaning. It is primarily an anthropology and not an ontology. When we consider creation that radically shifts what we consider important as well as how we read it. (Or perhaps how we ought read it)
"No Adam, no play."
It's been awhile since I've read any of Nibley's writings. And yes he has many weaknesses -- I'm sure I'm not the only one who is always thinking "Yes, but what about?" or "But that doesn't quite..."? when reading his works -- but he really is a great rhetorician. His prose flows well, and I love how he varies his sentence structure.
His thesis, back at Berkeley as I recall, was on the satirists in Roman rhetoric. You can really see that influence in books like Tinkling Symbals and Sounding Brass. Overall it is horrible apologetics and history, avoiding many valid charges and frequently arguing beside the point. However it is amazing rhetoric. I once had someone point out that it is classic Roman style. I don't know much, if anything about the rhetoric of late antiquity, so I really can't speak to that. But he is a great writer when he wants to be.
My bad. I should have looked before speaking. His thesis was The Roman Games as the Survival of an Archaic Year-Cult.
Interesting paper up at Sunstone on Noah's flood that is relevant to all this. Nothing in it terribly new to those familiar with the speculation on the subject - especially Widstoe or various FARMS authors such as Bill Hamblin. Still worth a read.