Here Dr. Hugh Nibley quotes himself in one of his most well-known sayings. The video is taken from his prominent BYU commencement address he gave on August 19, 1983 that he entitled “Leaders to Managers: The Fatal Shift.” We smile and chuckle at the brazenness with which Nibley makes this tongue in cheek submission. But is there any real merit to what he said? He seemed to think so; that is why he took the opportunity of this commencement address to explain himself.
In classic Nibley style he goes on to talk about how the graduation ceremonies have become a type of priesthood, a false one at that, and about the caps, gowns, and hoods and their origins in medieval times, and even dating back to the Bible, being very similar to the white robes and linen caps of the Hebrew priesthood. Indeed, the departure from the original intended use of such ceremonial apparel is so vast that Nibley brings up a comical hypothetical:
“What if I appeared for an endowment session in the temple dressed in this outfit I’m wearing now?” There would be something incongruous about it, perhaps even comical. But why should that be so? The original idea behind both garments is the same—to provide a clothing more fitting to another ambience, action, and frame of mind than that of the warehouse, office, or farm. Doctrine and Covenants 109 describes the function and purpose of the temple as much the same as those of a university: A house where all seek learning by study and faith, by a discriminating search among the best books (no official list is given—you must search them out), and by constant discussion—diligently teaching “one another words of wisdom”; everybody seeking greater light and knowledge as all things come to be “gathered in one”—hence university (D&C 109:7, 14; 42:36).
Nibley continues to address the vestige, explaining that what makes them different than the real deal is precisely what is wrong with them—they are worldly, opulent, apostate symbols, outwardly proclaiming stations, attainments, or degrees which neither rightly profess the inward intelligence of their wearers nor their attainment of any true light or skill of merit. I heard just a few days ago from a well-known radio talk show host the same truth, that education itself does little to advance us. One can purchase a degree today with the flick of a finger. What makes the difference is how we apply that education. What skills do we possess, what virtue, honesty, integrity, truth and right do we fight for? What difference are we making in the world? How do we use the education that we’ve attained? But the philosophy of the Sophists has become much too solidified into our culture such that many locales of employment will not even consider applicants without that scrap of paper with their name so neatly written, no matter how high their skill level or experience. While at the same time, those of high certificates are accepted and exalted no matter their actual talent. Of course, this isn’t anything new. The Old Testament attests to the same – “for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7; see also 2 Cor. 10:7, and Christ’s words in Matt. 23:27-28).
Although torn from their original environment and context, like most fragments of the temple experience have come down to us, they are nevertheless very instructive in the parallels they present to the restored ordinances that were revealed through the prophet Joseph Smith. A comment by Jonovitch on the Times and Seasons blog makes some additional observations of the graduation exercises (proceeding carefully by only describing one side and not the other, for most Latter-day Saints will immediately “hear the ringing of familiar bells” (Nibley, The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri, xxvi)):
- receiving a higher “degree” of knowledge
- some being clothed with ropes, hoods, banded sleeves, or other special markings to identify their distinction or level of knowledge as Undergraduates, Masters or Doctorate degrees
- being in the presence of family, siblings, friends, and associates who affirm our right to receive the degree
- the exercises in the deJong Concert Hall at BYU are especially dramatic with the use of the stage curtain which is drawn back to reveal the students graduating
- being called forward one by one as your name is called
- the head of the college, or supreme “knowledge-giver”, shaking your hand and presenting a token of your advancement, your diploma (although noting the actual receipt of the diploma comes later as long as you are faithful in completing and scoring well on your last classes, finals and theses!)
- crossing from one side of the stage to the other, the graduate moves the tassel from the right side to the left side of their cap (although Wikipedia notes that this mark of transition or advancement in status was traditionally done by “individual conferring of the hood, or a complete change of dress part-way through the ceremony”)
- some ceremonies of higher learning are even more striking in their ritual qualities, such as those displayed at the beginning of the movie Mona Lisa Smile, which I will talk about in my next post.
The degree of imitation of these counterfeit rites even caused the blog post’s author, Ben Huff, to abstain from walking in his own graduation. Can we blame him? Must we “rummage in a magpie’s nest” when we have the unadulterated “king’s treasury” before us (Nibley, The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri, xxviii)?
But tradition is tradition, and Latter-day Saints might actually find themselves feeling more comfortable in the familiar trappings and forms of graduation ceremonies than many others.
It is notable to recognize the difference with which the world upholds the two rites, however. The graduation of a university or college is considered one of the most solemn and dignified orders of business in the world, the ceremonies carefully administered, and speeches given by presidents, consulates, dignitaries, and other officers of high rank. While many in the world, when they learn about the LDS temple practice, look down upon it with scorn, ridicule, and suspicion, suspecting only the most dark of circumstances and fears, which apparently reveals the Church’s “murky past” as one political pundit put it recently.
Let it be known that the LDS temple has the real deal.