As always, you can find links to all of the previous installments of the Approaching Zion Project (including a link to the text of the book Approaching Zion) here.
So here we are, a day early (or, um, six days late, if that’s the way you want to look at it). Since we’re here, let’s take a look at Nibley’s next approach toward Zion:
Merit and Gifts
Sunday during the third hour, we talked about obedience. Our quorum being small, the discussion was relatively informal and veered toward the scriptural idea the blessings are predicated on said obedience. But what about gifts? Some gifts, at least, seem to be gifts, freely given, irrespective of merit.
Nibley would certainly agree with that conclusion: he uses King Benjamin and the Israelites to illustrate the idea that we don’t earn or merit the gifts we receive from God. We can, in fact, receive His gifts even when we are clearly unworthy, when we don’t merit them.
So what do we do? For one thing, we must “never fail to recognize the pure gifts” (182). But not only should we be grateful for the gifts we receive, but we shouldn’t use them as a measure of our righteousness, of of others’ wickedness. Sometimes, it turns out, the Lord blesses His people irrespective of merit. Again, notwithstanding the pride/wealth cycle of the Book of Mormon, the Prosperity Gospel is not consonant with our theology. That is, we get rain and sunshine whether we’re righteous or wicked.
A Right to What We Need
Across Seventh Avenue from where I worked in New York, somebody had slipped a printout into a newspaper vending box calling for a new constitutional amendment to guarantee affordable housing. It was, if I remember right, pretty standard New York crazy-person language, but it sat there, undisturbed for months.
Nibley takes the idea of gifts from God and moves in a similar radical direction. If God gives everything away, he says, then everybody has the right to what they need to live on (184). He goes back to Deuteronomic law to support this: the owner of a vineyard couldn’t deny a passerby from taking what she could eat (although she couldn’t take more than she could eat), and every seventh year, Israel had to forgive all debts and release all slaves (and slaves had to be released with a generous severance payment, as it were).
Nibley seems to view necessities as quasi-public goods. Note here that I’m putting words in his mouth: he never says public good. And if he had, he’d be wrong: while he claims that, under Deutoronomic law, necessities were to be non-excludible, they were not non-rivalrous. That is, if the passerby eats ten olives as she passes through my vineyard, those are ten olives that I cannot eat.
The problem with public goods is, they tend to be underproduced, because the producer cannot internalize her full profit. That’s why even the most dyed-in-the-wool libertarian agrees that government can and should produce (or subsidize the production of) public goods. Similarly, if the owner of the vineyard cannot prevent the traveler from taking (for free) olives and grapes, the owner may shift production to something that she can fully profit from.
Likewise, the Sabbatical Year’s forgiveness of debts would seem to injure potential borrowers: as you get closer to the Sabbatical Year (where you are required to forgive all debts), credit will freeze up; lenders, knowing they won’t get their money back, just won’t lend, or, if they will lend, will only lend for short terms at high interest rates (to compensate them for the very real possibility that they won’t be paid back).
Nibley recognizes the impracticalities of his view of the right to necessities: “The question is never raised, ‘Will this work, is it practical, is it sensible, is it realistic?; Quite the contrary, the main question always is whether people feel good about serving him . . .” (187). But maybe that’s the point, at least rhetorically. Because clearly this won’t work.[fn1] But God has told us to put off the natural man, who may be, in part, homo economicus. Because our goal is not necessarily efficiency; rather, our goal is to create Zion.
That doesn’t mean that we need to pursue economic inefficiency; reflexively running away from the efficient solution is just as wrongheaded as pursuing efficiency as the end goal. Instead, we need to work through what our (read: God’s) goal is, and pursue it using the best path possible. And, if positing a world of radical inefficiency is what it takes to shake us from our blind faith in efficient solutions, so be it.
- Nibley talks briefly about the mezuzah; it jumped out at me because our neighbors have one, as did several neighbors in New York. Having seen them in person helps me grasp what they are and, to some extent, what they mean.
- If we’re looking to create a society that produces public goods and quasi-public goods sufficiently, we need to have some incentive. Government works, but Nibley seems to posit a Zion that inculcates those norms through reputation and familial instruction (188). And really, in Mormondom, we do a lot of that: I teach my children to put off the natural man, in spite of the fact that the natural man comes more, well, naturally. And they interact in a society that rewards them for acting according to these norms.
- My etymological disagreement du jour[fn2]: Nibley mentions D&C 59:20‘s proscription on obtaining the things of the earth through extortion; he defines extortion as “to squeeze the last drop out of a thing” (193). As best I can tell, he’s right about the underlying Latin. But I suspect we get a better picture of the meaning of the verse by understanding the word as Joseph would have understood it; Webster’s 1828 dictionary defines extortion as “wresting any thing from a person by force, duress, menaces, authority,or by any undue exercise of power.” That is, we’re being told not to take the things of the earth by violence or other abuse of power. It’s still bad, just flavored slightly differently.
- I didn’t spend time on it, but my favorite part of this discourse is Nibley’s assertion that God doesn’t tolerate meanness of spirit, doesn’t tolerate our taking advantage of our neighbors (192).
FYI: This will probably be the last AZP post until sometime in August. As much fun as I’m having with it, the next month or so will be crazy for me. But I hope to see you all again when it picks up again.
[fn1] And please don’t argue that it will; it won’t.
[fn2] And what is more fun than an etymologic disagreement?