Conversations about the religious and spiritual life on the other side of fundamentalism
054: Boyd Jay Petersen

054: Boyd Jay Petersen

Boyd Petersen pictureBoyd Jay Petersen is the Mormon Studies Coordinator at  Utah Valley University, where he also teaches in the English Department, including courses on Mormon literature. He is also an adjunct instructor at Brigham Young University. In this delightful conversation hosted by Dan Wotherspoon, Boyd shares about many aspects of his spiritual journey, centering on a several-decades-long process of coming to be able to testify that the “Church is true.” His framings and how he got to them reveal an active mind and open heart, a person who is deeply thoughtful and who takes the challenges of history, human foibles, the call to actively work for social justice, and spiritual and other meaningful experiences seriously. In sharing this journey, he offers a wonderful and powerful analogy about similarities in the ways he makes sense of his relationship with the Church and how he does it in his relationship with his wife. One recurring struggle in Boyd’s life is with depression, which he talks about openly in this episode. The discussion also includes anecdotes about Boyd’s experiences with Hugh Nibley, his father-in-law (Boyd is married to Zina Nibley Petersen), including some about the processes involved in his writing of the award-winning biography, Hugh Nibley: A Consecrated Life (Greg Kofford Books, 2003).

After listening, please share your thoughts in the comments section below!

A few things from Boyd:


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  2. Thanks Boyd and Dan for the interview.

    After listening to it and reading Boyd’s Sunstone article I came away a little more knowledgeable about how one can deconstruct in their mind the contradictions they find in a belief system and still believe. To be frank, I found it less than positive and a bit sad. You seem to be saying that truth is not that important, and community is more important than truth. If that were the case, the Glenn Beck community is more important than his assertions and concepts. For that matter I am sure the inner circle of Hitler had a sense of community and even love at some level. I found, at a psychological level, this interview somewhat interesting. However, I was hoping to hear more, because of Boyd’s relationship with the Nibley family, about Hugh and his relationship with his daughters, specifically, Martha and her accusations of sexual abuse and how Hugh deconstructed and handled the original Book of Abraham papyri discovery.

    However, with all that, I appreciate the interview and the time you both took to do it.



  3. Glen:

    Please let me assure you that I do think truth matters, but in a postmodern worldview I think we have to recognize that we can never completely ascertain TRUTH, especially with metaphysical issues like this. We can never know in the same sense as you can with science, and even scientists understand that what we know today may turn out to be false tomorrow after we’ve gathered more data.

    I like the way Paul puts it in 1 Cor. 13:12: “For now we see through a glass, darkly . . . now I know in part.” He seems to be stating that we can’t know in this world in the same way we can in the hereafter, “then shall I know even as also I am known.” Truth is important, but perhaps it’s just a middle-aged man’s perspective that I see things as forever tentative in this world. Faith is the choice we make to believe something we cannot prove.

    Obviously, I believe I have discovered the truth about religion, politics, culture, life. But I also assume that others think the same thing. It’s easy to dismiss other’s views as wrong–especially when we’re talking about Glenn Beck or Hitler where there are not only truth claims but ethical and moral issues at stake. But I have neighbors who completely disagree with me about politics (actually most of my neighbors do since I’m a Democrat in Utah valley), so I can’t dismiss them so easily if I want to remain friends. And in conversations with them, I typically find that there is truth in their beliefs too and that I have to moderate my own after discovering the world through their eyes.

    As for religion, most of my closest friends are of other faiths or no faith. Are they right or am I? I believe I’m right and I’ll defend my positions, but I cannot KNOW in this world in the same way I could know about a scientific issue. That keeps me open to their ideas and their love and friendship. And I certainly don’t think friendship depends on agreeing.

    To go back to Hugh Nibley, one of the things I admired most about him was that his closest friends were RADICALLY different than he was. He was a liberal, TBM Mormon who observed the WoW and did his home teaching. His closest friends were often conservative, non-Mormons, with very different values. He didn’t find this threatening; he found it invigorating because the conversation never got stale. He loved that dialectic, and his positions on many things evolved over time.

    As for talking more about Hugh Nibley, as Dan said we are planning a podcast where we focus just on that subject, and Hugh’s relationship with Martha and his handling of the BoA papyri don’t really have much to do with my faith journey. I’ve already written extensively about the Martha accusations in a review that was published in the Journal of Mormon History and another that was published by the Maxwell Institute. And I do devote an entire chapter of the biography to the Book of Abraham. Surely those issues will come up in a podcast about Hugh, but didn’t see them as important in this discussion.

    I hope that helps explain where I’m coming from, and I sincerely hope you can find hope instead of despair in what I’m saying. I had one person recently tell me that the first time he read my Sunstone piece he thought I was defensively dodging the issues, but upon reading it again he found more hope in what I was suggesting.

    But the other important thing to remember is that this is just *my* experience (and my children keep assuring me that I’m weird!). I know many other people whom I respect who have very different attitudes about faith and I can respect them and am happy for them if they are able to make them work. If my way doesn’t work for you, I hope you find some way that does. The Church, I believe, grows smaller in numbers and in vision when people leave.

    And thanks very much for your kind words and for taking the time to comment.


    1. Dear Boyd,

      Thanks for your response. You are right, science is not the holder of 100% assured truth and as your Paul quote states we all have dark glasses on when viewing the truth. 😉 However, at the correct level and given a defined context there are some things that we both can agree on and know reasonably (> than 95% certainty) well that they are true. One example might be the speed of light is faster than the speed of sound as evidenced by lightening and thunder. There is some truth that a reasonable person doesn’t have to be tentative about. There are also relative truths, like the sun rises and sets. Given observation and defining the context of observing from the surface of this Earth it is true, however, in the global (OK universal) context this is really not the case. Jesus is alleged to have said, “If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” In a way, this is a commandment with a promise. We need to take our dark glasses off and wear our Son glasses! 😉 Knowing the truth, and not just having faith, according to Him, is possible, wouldn’t you agree?

      Again I agree with you that one can learn from those who have different perspectives like a man on the earth and one in space watching the sunrise. However, the world as we know it, at a certain level is binary, that is, is black or white and not grey. Assertions like the Mormon Church is true is grey and is not one of those because it is at too high a level. For instance, perhaps Brigham got sidetracked with blacks and the priesthood and was not directed by God in those choices. Those kind of assertions have too much “hair” on them. However, a binary question like, did God tell Joseph Smith that all Churches were “an abomination” in His sight, is either true or false. Now we might not be able to prove it, but can’t we at least agree that it is either true or false, correct?

      Also I agree with you that without diversity of beliefs life would be rather boring. Preaching to the choir as it were is not very fun nor healthful. One that I agree with says it this way:

      “…having a belief system of a set of thoughts that you regard as the absolute truth – does not make you spiritual no matter what the nature of those beliefs is. In fact, the more you make your
      thoughts (beliefs) into your identity, the more cut off you are from the spiritual dimension within yourself. Many “religious” people are stuck at that level. They equate truth with thought, and as they are completely identified with thought (their mind), they claim to be in sole possession of the truth in an unconscious attempt to protect their identity. They don’t realize the limitations of thought. Unless you believe (think) exactly as they do, you are wrong in their eyes, and in the not too ­distant past, they would have felt justified in killing you for that. And some still do, even now.” ET in “A New Earth”

      One thing that bothers me and is related. Most of FARMS and the Maxwell Institute papers that I have read, and granted I have not read a lot of them, have a tendency to start from a mental position, and then try to fit the facts to that position. Some call that faith, but I call it less than genuine scholarship. Reminds me of politics. 😉

      Looking forward to Dan’s interview with you about Hugh Nibley. I have fond memories of Dr. Nibley when I was living in Oakland in the early 60s and attended what they called at the time “Education Week” where Hugh gave a number of lectures. He was brilliant, and few people would argue with that, especially at his prime. I have read Martha’s “Leaving the Saints” as well as your Maxwell review of the book. Some of Martha’s characterizations of Provo and BYU really ring true to me as I have experienced them first hand at that time. I question her motivation for accusing her father sexual abuse, if it was false. Maybe in your paper you felt you were defending a frail old man who was “kidnapped” by his daughter, but the amount of loss in the terms of family relations that Martha was willing to incur seems credible in and of itself. Would you agree that Martha really thinks that she was abused?

      Martha, as you know, claims that her father had mental issues because of, as you admit in the interview was his tendency, trying not to offend the faithful, but realizing that the Book of Abraham was not what Joseph Smith claimed it to be. I am very interested in hearing your take on those events. I got some of it out of your paper on Martha’s book, but hope that Dan will query you extensively about that episode in Dr. Nibley’s life.

      Thanks again,

    1. Hi Michael:

      The quote I refer to is found in JD 3:247, “Instructions to the Bishops—Men Judged According to Their Knowledge—Organization of the Spirit and Body—Thought and Labor to Be Blended Together” A Discourse by President Brigham Young, Delivered in the Tabernacle, Great Salt Lake City, March 16, 1856. It’s a strange but delightful little sermon where BY warns about keeping harmony between body and spirit. And, yeah, Wow!! about Zina.

  4. Mark A. Clifford

    This is a great interview that I am striving to hear all of the way through (it gets cut off around minute 60 for me).
    As a practicing psychiatrist who is LDS I was so happy to hear the discussion of depression framed up as an illness. It is, and one that can afflict people irrespective of their righteousness or godliness or being in grace or however it is okay these days to say that.
    I sat yesterday with a wonderful 9 year old with Autism. His brain does not work in conventional ways. This is no reflection of his status before God. It is an encumberance, a difficulty, an injustice. Mortality seems to be full of these, and it is distinctly unhelpful for us to forget that. Depression is no different. It gets in the way.
    My professional experience has been that when we treat these problems fully it permits the soul to most fully manifest itself. Ensoulemnt is not what happens when we are the most hungry, tired, sick, or troubled; it is what happens when we are at our best in every way. I think God knows that. I think He does not see us – or judge us – as being what we are when we are at our worst.
    I loved the book (A Consecrated Life) and I was glad to hear (or almost, I keep trying) more about you, Boyd.

    Dan, as always, you rock.

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