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The Parable of the Changed Man

Hugh Nibley

From Hugh Nibley, "The Way of the Church," The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley: Volume 4 Mormonism and Early Christianity, (Salt Lake City and Provo, Utah: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1987), 302-307. "The Way of the Church" originally appeared as a series in the Improvement Era, 58 (Jan.-Dec. 1955).

Imagine, then, a successful businessman who, responding to some slight but persistent physical discomfort and the urging of an importunate wife, pays a visit to a friend of his--a doctor. Since the man has always considered himself a fairly healthy specimen, it is with an unquiet mind that he descends the steps of the clinic with the assurance, gained after long hours of searching examination, that he has about three weeks to live. In the days that follow, this man's thinking undergoes a change, not a slow and subtle change-- there is no time for that--but a quick and brutal reorientation. By the time he has reached home on that fateful afternoon, the first shock of the news has worn off, and he is already beginning to see things with strange eyes. As he locks the garage door, his long-held ambition to own a Cadillac suddenly seems unspeakably puerile to him, utterly unworthy of a rational, let alone an immortal being. This leads him to the shocking realization, in the hours that follow, that one can be rich and successful in this world with a perfectly barren mind. With shame and alarm he discovers that he has been making a religion of his career. In a flash of insight he recognizes that seeming and being are two wholly different things, and on his knees discovers that only his Heavenly Father knows him as he is. Abruptly he ceases to care particularly whether anybody thinks he is a good, able, smart, likable fellow or not; after all, he is not trying to sell anyone anything any more.

Things that once filled him with awe seem strangely trivial, and things which a few days before did not even exist for him now fill his consciousness. For the first time he discovers the almost celestial beauty of the world of nature, not viewed through the glass of cameras and car windows, but as the very element in which he lives; shapes and colors spring before his senses with a vividness and drama of which he never dreamed.

The perfection of children comes to him like a sudden revelation, and he is appalled by the monstrous perversion that would debauch their minds, overstimulate their appetites, and destroy their sensibilities in unscrupulous plans of sales promotion. Everywhere he looks he gets the feeling that all is passing away--not just relatively because he is saying goodbye to a world he has never seen before, but really and truly: he sees all life and stuff about him involved in a huge ceaseless combustion, a literal and apparent process of oxidation which is turning some things slowly, some rapidly, but all things surely to ashes. He wishes he had studied more and pays a farewell visit to some friends at the university where he is quick to discover, with his new powers of discernment, that their professional posturing and intellectual busy-work is no road to discovery but only an alley of escape from responsibility and criticism.

As days pass, days during which that slight but ceaseless physical discomfort allows our moribund hero no momentary lapse into his old ways, he is visited ever more frequently by memories, memories of astonishing clarity and vividness--mostly from his childhood, and he finds himself at the same time slipping ever more easily into speculations, equally vivid, on the world to come and the future of this world. The limits of time begin to melt and fuse until everything seems present but the present. In a word, his thinking has become eschatological.

"What has happened to our solid citizen?" his friends ask perplexed. He has chosen to keep his disease a secret; it would be even more morbid, he decides, to parade his condition. But he cannot conceal his change of heart. As far as his old associates can see, the poor man has left the world of reality. Parties and golf no longer amuse him; TV and movies disgust him. He takes to reading books, of all things--even the Bible! When they engage him in conversation, he makes very disturbing remarks, sometimes sounding quite cynical, as if he didn't really care, for example, whether peppermint was selling better than wintergreen or whether the big sales campaign went over the top by October. He even becomes careless of his appearance, as if he didn't know that the key to success is to make a good impression on people. As time passes, these alarming symptoms become ever more pronounced; his sales record drops off sharply; those who know what is good for their future begin to avoid being seen with him--like Lehi of old, he is hurting business, and dark hints of subversion are not far in the offing. What is wrong with the man?

As we said, his thinking has become eschatological. He lives in a timeless, spaceless world in which Jack Benny and the World Series simply do not exist. His values are all those of eternity, looking to the "latter end" not only of his own existence but of everything and everybody around him. As he hears the news or walks the streets, he sees, in the words of Joseph Smith, "destruction writ large on everything we behold." He is no longer interested "in the things of the world." The ready-smiling, easily adjustable, anxious-to-get-ahead, eager-to-be-accepted, hard-working conformist, who for so many years was such a tangible asset to Nulb, Incorporated, has ceased to exist.

Now the question arises, has this man been jerked out of reality or into it? Has he cut himself off from the real world or has cruel necessity forced him to look in the face what he was running away from before? Is he in a dream now or has he just awakened from one? Has he become an irresponsible child or has he suddenly grown up? Is he the victim of vain imaginings or has he taken the measure of "Vanity Fair?" Some will answer one way, some another. But if you want to arouse him to wrathful sermons, just try telling the man that it makes no difference which of these worlds one lives in--that they are equally real to the people who live in them. "I have seen both," he will cry. "Don't try to tell me that the silly escapist world of busy-work, mercenary back-slaps, phoney slogans, and maniacal `careers' has anything real about it--I know it's a fake, and so do you!"

It will be noted that this eschatological state of mind does not bear the mark of just one school of thought: once it gets in the blood, all the aspects and concepts of eschatalogical thinking enter with it. Our businessman, for example, begins to wonder about certain possibilities: What about the hereafter? Will he ever really see the face of the Lord? Is there going to be a judgment? He almost panics at the thought which has never bothered him before because he has been successful. He becomes preoccupied with history and prophecy, aware for the first time that his whole life is linked not only with D Division of Nulb, Incorporated, but, for better or for worse, with all that happens in the universe; he belongs to history and it to him--"the solemn temples, the great globe itself" are as much his concern as any man's. These ideas that come to him are all essential parts of the same picture in which one can descry inextricablyjoined and intermingled apocalyptic, prophecy, millennialism, messianism, history, and theology--all belong to the same eschatology.

But where is myth, the thing that the scholars tell us is "the very essence of eschatology"? That is there, too, but you will find it only in the minds of his friends and associates: they, wide-awake and practical people, know perfectly well that the man is suffering from delusions; they know that the things which have become so real to him are all just imagination. To anyone who does not experience it, the eschatological view of things is pure myth--an invention of an overwrought mind desperately determined to support its own premises. Only what they fail to consider is that those who have had both views of the world interpret things just the other way around: it is after all eschatology that looks hard reality in the face; lazy and timid people take refuge in the busy-work of everyday; only strong and disciplined minds are willing to see things as they are, and even they must be forced to it! No wonder the scholars have agreed that whatever else eschatology is, it is not real!

To conclude our parable, what happens to our man of affairs? A second series of tests at the hospital shows that his case was not quite what they thought it was--he may live for many years. Yet he takes the news strangely, for instead of celebrating at a night club or a prize fight as any normal healthy person should, this creature will continue his difficult ways. "This," he says, "is no pardon. It is but a stay of execution. Soon enough it is going to happen. The situation is not really changed at all." So he becomes religious, a hopeless case, an eschatological zealot, a Puritan, a monk, a John Bunyan, a primitive Christian, an Essene, a Latter-day Saint. In every age such people with their annoying eschatological beliefs have disturbed the placid ("perfectly-adjusted") waters of the slough of custom and paid dearly for their folly.