Mormon Metaphysics & Theology

Nibley: Three Shrines 2
August 20, 2005

The key point I wish to make about Nibley's text is that he is not arguing for a traditional sense of religion. Even Mormons who wish to read him as implying a traditional Mormonism are doomed to be somewhat disappointed. Likewise non-Mormons who might wish to read him as simply offering an apology of Mormon notions of revelation and doctrine will find that this is not what he is arguing. Indeed I think that once we see his argument, it will force us to rethink the very approach he takes. The key line I quoted last time was that the Greeks "lost their original mood of expectation, putting something else in its place." It is that mood which Nibley not only sees as key, but sees as primordial Manticism. "What is expected is not as important as the act of expectation, and so those who share the Mantic conviction are a community of believers, regardless of what it is they expect." Thus to tie the Mantic mindset to any particular religion is to miss the point, in Nibley's perspective.

His discussion of Paul probably is the best place to see this.

The greatest Christian convert was a man who believed all the wrong things about Christ - it was not what he believed, but his capacity for faith that made Saul of Tarsus eligible for immediate enlightenment.

Saul's case would seem to indicate that it is more desirable to have faith in false propositions than to have no faith at all. Actually one cannot have faith in a proposition at all. One does not have faith in propositions, creeds, or institutions, to which one is merely loyal. One has faith in God alone - all else is subject to change without notice. Faith does not seek secuirty by boxing itself in with definite and binding creeds, as did the Doctors of the Church in a time of desperate uncertainty and insecurity. One does not cling to faith but to substitutes for faith: drowning men cling to things, but men of faith are not desperate and don't cling to anything. . . .

Did the pagans, then have faith in true principles? No more than the Christians. Jesus made it perfectly clear that he considered faith the rarest thing on earth. The Greeks did not have true faith: Plato was appalled by the lack of faith among his fellow Athenians. . . No, the Greeks did not have the true religion: even Plato didn't, and he knew he didn't. His Socrates is a seeker, convinced as he is that true enlightenment can come only by revelation.

Now I wish to hold to the end of the discussion on Nibley writing his presentation of the conflict between the Mantic and the Sophic as the conflict between science and revelation. I clearly think Nibley wrong on many counts. But the foundational ground must be set first. And that ground is the ground of creation and creativity. I think by looking at Nibley's discussion of creativity we can see that it is this pure sense of creation that he sees as the Mantic. The approach that Nibley wishes to take is the idea of Plato that there is a divine plan and that all creativity comes from that plan. This world is at best a place of imitation.

Now imitation, or perhaps better put, re-presentation is not creation. To re-present is simply to bring back what was done before. It is as far from creation as one can get. Further, as we'll see in his section on the Sophists, once the ability to create is lost, we move purely into a world or re-presentation. This might be called the world of technology. Things are governed by already known rules and manipulations. There is no origination from within this world. There can't be, given that only re-presentation is possible and never originary presentation. Yet it is precisely this technology of appearances that allows men to exercise power.

As I said we'll get to that in the following section in Nibley. However what Nibley here wishes to focus in on is what the Greeks saw in creation. ". . .for the Greeks 'the whole work of the artist is to create,' and that 'creation is in the last analysis simply revelation (Schöpfung im Grunde eine Offenbarung ist).' Those who have had to acquire their art by study and learning alone, Pindar reminds us, 'can never be anything but a flock of crows, jealous squawking against the divine bird of Zeus.' Poesis means creation, and is only true poetry to the extent that it is creation and not imitation." (325)

Thus I think we can see that for Nibley the good and the true is always a revealing or shining forth of this other world. To know is never to repeat but only to show forth. Further it is "out of their control. The power to create is something not only completely beyond the comprehension of the uninspired, but equally beyond the control of those who possess it: in the moment of creation they are seized with a divine frenzy, shaken, and even frightened." (326) That is the unveiling or origination is never under the control of the speaker, but not even understood by them except in the moment of inspiration. Why? Because if they are uninspired, then they have only replicas and repetitions, but not this originary meaning. To understand what was said as opposed to the saying is simply to imitate the original experience. But as Nibley says, "for Plato, whatever is not inspired can only be mere imitation. True knowledge comes to the race only through men who prove their inspiration 'when they say many great things without knowing what they say.'" (326-7)

Now the obvious objection at this stage to Nibley is to bring up Plato and the poets. Famously in the Republic, Plato bans the poets. According to Nibley though "Plato was the great champion of the Mantic. He banned Homer from his model state not, as the Sophists did, because he was inspired . . . but because with his inspiration he mingled his own human contribution, or, as Plato puts it, he mixed mere imitation with inspiration." (326) The "Philosopher-Kings" that Nibley sees in Plato's ideal state are really "Philosophers of Faith." That is, philosophers not of the sophic mode of reason, but of the mode of Socrates. Questioners who have that basic "act of expectation" I started out with.

Most importantly for Nibley to have an expectation as an expectation it can't be expecting something. Rather it is a pure openness for what is to come. Thus we see and understand his earlier comments about Paul being faithful despite believing the wrong things, and Socrates being faithful despite not finding what he was looking for.

Let me conclude by returning to my opening paragraphs. The "religion" Nibley is talking about isn't a religion of imitation, representations, or doctrines. Rather he wants to get at the primordial Manticism that is found behind all religions. This is why he turns to the structuralism that one might find in Jung, Eliadi or Campbell. But whereas he accuses them (or at least Jung) of being in the Sophist mold, he feels that this structuralism opens up the "universal Mantic substratum." (318)

The pages that follow this announcement introduce a brief analysis of Mystery religions in the near east. What was the point of these Mysteries, either Greek, Egyptian, Christian or Jewish? "There was 'no deeper meaning' to the mysteries, Rohde concluded, than the doctrine hen andron hen theon genos, the coexistence of the human race with the divine race..." (320) That is that the earthly was thoroughly infused by the divine or the other world.

Now thus far I've really only been emphasizing what Nibley has been saying in his text. What I want to get to next is comparing this with certain recent claims in philosophy. After that, we'll return to Nibley and his critique of the Sophists. Eventually I wish to put up Nibley's views to certain criticisms, for there are some severe weaknesses in his approach.


Note that this is part of a larger reading club. All the posts in this reading club can be found here.

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