There is an interesting post on “The Strange Career of Mormon Structuralism” over at the Metaphysical Elders about the relationship between structuralism and the thought of Hugh Nibley. I am not sure that I agree with everything in the post, but it does raise some interesting questions
The anonymous elder writes:
- What is odd is to look at the way that Mormon intellectuals pick up on and change structuralist concepts. Nibley loves the cross-cultural aspect of Eliade’s structuralist sacred space. However, unlike Eliade, Nibley doesn’t construe this as being a reflection of some elemental social fact. Rather, he takes it as evidence of apostasy and diffusion. All of the sacred spaces are trying, like Pharoah in the Book of Abraham, to copy the true order of the priesthood, even though they have forgotten the primal Adamic source of the concept. Eliade’s saving account of the apparently anomalous case of Christianity also dubs nicely into Nibley’s apostasy narrative, going so far as to name his favorite villain: Greek philosophy.
Notice how this changes the basic meaning of Eliade’s concept. Structuralism claims to be able to reduce particular human phenomena to deeper, more fundamental structures. Thus ancient shrines, Bhuddist temples, and the Kabba are all reduced to the fundamental idea of “sacred space.” Nibley neatly side steps this reductionism, by shifting its emphasis. Rather than Mormonism being but another reflection of the fundamental human condition, the human condition becomes but a pale reflection of Mormonism! This is what one might call an intellectually ambitious move. This is the kind of chutzpah that makes Nibley so much fun, and which separates him from your run of the mill Mormon scholar. The problem is that the move is somewhat isolating. Most structuralists will not be persuaded by Nibley’s move and most Mormons are not even aware that he made it. Furthermore, like all baptisms of non-religious theories, it runs the risk of wedding our self-conception to a contestable theory. I mean, what is a Mormon to do with post-structuralism?
The question relates somewhat to the discussion that we have been having about the New Mormon History. Nibley is definitely more theoretically ambitious than the run of the mill New Mormon Historian, however I wonder if this ambition isn’t even more isolating than the theoretical silence of the New Mormon History. Furthermore, once you marry Mormonism to a particular theory, to what extent do you need to worry about the inevitable divorce once the theory falls apart or goes out of fashion. To a certain extent, I suppose that this is the question that Catholics have been struggling with since the Reformation. On the other hand, as Russell points out, what goes out of fashion can come back into fasion.