clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Son explores Nibley's paradoxes

PROVO — Who better than the youngest son of Hugh Nibley to explore the scholar's love of disagreement?

Alex Nibley presented a lecture Feb. 18 detailing his father's life from graduate school to his time at BYU, a span of about eight years from 1938 to 1946. The lecture was the latest in the weekly series commemorating the centennial of Hugh Nibley's birth.

In explaining the paradoxes, the younger Nibley described his father as a dignified buffoon, an infantile sage, a childlike old man and an ecumenical sectarian.

"He hated war and volunteered to fight," Alex Nibley said.

He pointed to his father's participation in World War II as the greatest educational experience of Hugh Nibley's life.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, it became clear to Nibley what had to be done. It pained him in many ways to see the country and culture he had fallen in love with on his mission to Germany be at the center of the war. He took no satisfaction in destroying Germany, only that the Hitler-led Nazis were stopped.

Shortly after his enlistment, Nibley's language skills were recognized and he was transferred into an intelligence division. There was not much organized intelligence at this time, and Nibley was assigned to teach many officers about German history and warfare.

"He knew everything about war except what it was like," Alex Nibley said.

Hugh Nibley would soon have more firsthand knowledge of war than anyone could ever need.

His intelligence group was made a part of the now-renowned 101st Airborne Division. Originally scheduled as a member of the glider portion of the D-Day assault, Nibley was bumped from his seat in a glider and instead drove a jeep onto Utah Beach.

Nibley grew tremendously from this time, but was condescending and critical of the Army and its operations later in life.

Alex Nibley interviewed his father extensively about the war years for his own book "Sergeant Nibley, Ph.D.: Memories of an Unlikely Screaming Eagle." In his estimation, he had more conversations with his father about World War II than anyone.

The younger Nibley saw hints of nostalgia and admiration in his father for the men he served with.

The end of the war was a great moment of triumph — "and for Hugh Nibley a great moment of sadness as he watched the destruction of the civilization that he admired so much and the people that he had preached to," Alex Nibley said.

These internal conflicts seem to have continued with Nibley throughout his life as a Mormon apologist and conversationalist.

Disagreement appears to have been a hobby of sorts for Nibley as he always looked forward to a healthy discussion presenting each side.

"I think people don't understand about Hugh Nibley is how much he valued disagreement," Alex said. "This is a subject on which I can speak with some authority."

There were many instances of disagreement between father and son.

More than being right when possible, Nibley valued the process of discussion. He often went out of his way to ensure that both sides were represented.

Hugh Nibley and his family possibly made up 20 percent of Utah County's Democrats at one time, Nibley joked.

He remembered one time he and his family were campaigning for a Democrat during an election and were to hold a rally of sorts.

After the side of the Democrat challenger was presented, the already-leaning crowd seemed to be in unanimous favor of the Democrat. Professor Nibley then noted that there was no one in attendance to present the opponent's side. Nibley then proceeded to present the Republican's side and won over the crowd — much to the chagrin of the family.

It wouldn't be fair to Hugh Nibley if all sides weren't represented and a discussion had.

"Hugh Nibley believed that differences in philosophy and belief were not only inevitable but strengthening." "He cared more about the people than the stupidity of their ideas — as he might have said."

Hugh Nibley never delighted in the loss of precious life surrounding him during the war, but reflected once in his journal of his happiness in a foxhole, surrounded by destruction. Maybe he shouldn't be feeling this way at this time, he thought.

He then wrote in his journal, "It's not what happens to you that matters, it's not what becomes of you — it's what you become that's important."


More online

To read coverage of other lectures in the series, go to and click on "Studies & Doctrine," then "doctrine discussions."