I remember distinctly my first encounter with Hugh Winder Nibley. I was a missionary in the Provo Missionary Training Center experiencing a faith crisis. I had been converted from agnosticism just about a year before entering the MTC, and over a hectic first year of college I had matured in my commitment to God and Theism generally, but I had not entirely worked out what it meant that my conversion to God had occurred within the context of the LDS Church. Still, I felt that God wanted me to serve a mission for the Church, even if I could not immediately reconcile all of Mormonism’s complexity with my basic faith experience. I had some minor intellectual doubts about the details of Mormon history and scripture, I suppose, but what brought the crisis to a boiling point was the culture of the MTC. Regimentation, dogmatism, boys in their late teens, the disappointment I had in not being called to Russia, all played together to leave me on the verge of abandoning my mission. My branch president recognized that the patron saint of bookish Mormon teens might still save me, and he provided me a copy of Since Cumorah. Nibley had such a confident tone, and his approach seemed novel and important. Instead of arguing about whether anyone had found a Nephite sword in the Yucatan, try to decide whether the Book of Mormon bears the mark of an ancient Semitic origin. As I read chapter after chapter, I didn’t become convinced, but I was able to calm down some. I recognized that a very intelligent, readerly Saint was still committed to the LDS Church, and there were at least some arguments that suggested that Mormon historicity was not an entirely lost cause. That, combined with my sense that God would guide me away from the MTC if that was really what needed to happen, allowed me to stay in the MTC and to make the difficult transition to the mission field in Louisiana, where I completed an honorable mission. On the mission I read a lot of anti-Mormon material because I was the resident “intellectual” (I ended up arguing with a lot of ministers and going on a few radio talk shows to argue these points), and fortunately anti-Mormon literature (then and now) was generally so unsophisticated that it was easy to see those pamphlets and tired arguments about closed canons and a silent modern God as empty cavils against the truth. For a time I think I even practiced a form of Nibleyan apologetics. In any case, I continued to revere Nibley and even met him once at BYU (I happened to be at BYU for some reason I can no longer recall and sat in on one class; I protested his reading of Genesis 1:1 at the side of the lectern immediately after class, and he quickly dismissed me, a smug undergraduate with more questions than wisdom).
Over ensuing decades (and there have been two of those now), I have become less moved or reassured by the style of explanation that is contained in Nibley’s apologetical writings (and Nibley himself urged that those writings had a very limited shelf life). On the other hand his intense social criticism, modeling so well a loyal opposition that urges us to worship God more than Mammon and to see the Gospel clearly, have continued to inspire me. I also understood as I became better trained in the quantitative disciplines of epidemiology and biostatistics that Nibley’s brand of parallelomania could not establish the definitive, positivistic truth of Mormon historicity. But I have matured as a thinker (I hope) and feel much readier to allow writers and ideas to have other roles to play than polemical positivism.
As I have developed over the last decade into a fairly persistent student of human history and early Mormonism, I find that my relationship to Nibley’s writings has changed substantially. As I read Nibley now, I see apologetics as a necessary evil that he felt obligated to engage in (a point he admittedly freely). But even as apologetics they weren’t just a necessary evil. They were also a collection of interconnected stories about human history. I have come to see his writing as a love poem to human culture, a paean to human religious creativity. With a different kind of idiosyncrasy, Nibley seems to be participating in the kind of creative engagement of past cultures that drove Mircea Eliade. As I read Nibley now, I don’t think “Oh, this vague semitism in the Book of Mormon proves Mormonism true,” I think “what a beautiful belief that may be preserved in various cultures, mutatis mutandis; what does it mean exactly?” I realize this position risks smugness, and I believe that smugness is a kind of intellectual poison that we should root out. In many respects, I see Nibley as a practitioner of the prisca theologia, “primitive theology,” which sought to see echoes or fragments of an ancient truth scattered about the epochs of human history. Nibley’s work is a type of remembering as a kind of communal endeavor, with just enough Plato to be beautiful, and not so much Plato as to be non-Mormon. For me historicity and Mormon truth claims are about faith, inspiration, and a revelation that combines the personal and communal. As a believing and practicing Latter-day Saint, I feel drawn to appreciate beauty and truth all around me, and I see in Hugh Nibley’s love of language and culture and documents and stories an expression of that same love. God bless you, Brother Nibley, as your mind continues to range over the vast expanses of human and cosmic history. I will keep a place in my heart for your memory and for your style of remembering.
 I don’t mean reasonable people can’t accept a closed canon (see David Holland on that point), I mean that raising a closed canon as if it were a logical necessity is a tired argument. People can (and should) agree to disagree about canons.
 The wikipedia entry on prisca theologia is of exceptionally low quality, alas. Prisca theologia was (in a crude but less wrong summary) a Patristic technique to make sense of Plato and other ancient philosophical traditions. It of course mattered a great deal in Renaissance perennial philosophy, but that’s far from the whole story.