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Friday, February 25, 2005
Zeal Without Knowledge

The redoubtable Hugh Nibley passed away yesterday at age 94. I never met him, though I had classmates at BYU in the 1980s who aspired to be the next Hugh Nibley. (I am not aware that any of them has achieved that impossible goal.)

Among the hundreds or thousands of pages of his writings which I have read, a 1975 lecture entitled "Zeal Without Knowledge" is my favorite. It has been published in several books, including Approaching Zion (Volume 9 of The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley), as well as in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought.

In tribute to a colossal intellect, now departed, I re-read "Zeal Without Knowledge." I highly recommend it. When you read it, be prepared for such thoughts as these:

  • We are not able not to think, and we (unlike God) are able to think of only one thing at a time. This means we have to choose what to think about every moment of our conscious lives. Thus every conscious thought proclaims to "God, angels, and my fellowmen" (Nibley's words) where my values lie, what my treasure is. Thus there are no thoughts which are at once idle and truly innocent.
  • As Aristotle taught, the shortage of knowledge is an intolerable state; the brain will invent knowledge if none is available, regarding any information at all as better than none.
  • "True knowledge never shuts the door on more knowledge, but zeal often does." Zeal needs knowledge, and knowledge needs zeal; zeal is not an adequate substitute for knowledge - and I suppose the reverse is also true.
  • "If we would exchange or convey knowledge, we must be willing to have our knowledge tested." Note that Nibley insists upon this specifically in the realm of religion.
  • While some are excessive in their reliance upon intellectual effort, generally "the Latter-day Saints . . . lean too far in the other direction, giving their young people and old awards for zeal alone, zeal without knowledge - for sitting in endless meetings, for dedicated conformity and unlimited capacity for suffering boredom. We think it more commendable to get up at five a.m. to write a bad book than to get up at nine o'clock to write a good one - that is pure zeal that tends to breed a race of insufferable, self-righteous prigs and barren minds. One has only to consider the present outpouring of 'inspirational' books in the Church that bring little in the way of new knowledge."

Be advised: This zeal without knowledge, in Nibley's view, is not the essence of Mormonism. "The Prophet [Joseph Smith] would never settle for that." In the religion of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, the emphasis is on "the continuous, conscientious, honest acquisition of knowledge."

The essay concludes with Nibley's discussion of what we ought to think about . . . but I have to leave something for the reader to discover.

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