The words temple and cosmos appear together in the title of this volume because the “temple is a scale model of the universe” (p. 15). Participation in the instruction and ordinances of the temple enables “one to get one’s bearings from the universe.” The temple is the link between the seeming chaos and dissolution of this temporal world and the beautiful configuration (cosmos) and permanence of the eternal order. “The mystique of the temple lies in its extension to other worlds; it is the reflection on earth of the heavenly order, and the power that fills it comes from above.”
Except among Latter-day Saints, the notion of temple had been all but lost to the world until early in this century, when scholars rediscovered (or perhaps simply began to acknowledge) the richly consistent stories (myths) and practices (rituals) in nearly all cultures (but in particular the ancient Near East) that take place in sacred structures. One can now safely say that the temple is “the source of all civilization” (p. 22): “there is no aspect of our civilization which doesn’t have its rise in the temple” (p. 25) — all the arts, government, commerce, the traditional academic disciplines (mathematics, astronomy, history, architecture, philosophy), writing (and hence libraries), athletic competition, judicial systems, our festivals, the patterns of our celebrations, and so on. In fact, many of the accouterments and much of the aura of our contemporary institutions yet resemble what went on in ancient temples.
Latter-day Saints will welcome these “notes” on
temples. In acknowledging the temple as a high expression of godliness, a place where some of the most vital work of our dispensation takes place, Latter-day Saints have suffered some abuse. Outsiders find and remind members of the Church (sometimes to the point of ridicule) that temple worship is strange by the standards of the secular world and most modern religious communities. The temple is indeed a very “different” experience — as well it ought to be, reflecting, as it does, the realities of another world. Nibley most helpfully delineates the flatness of human attempts to avoid the big questions that all humanity poses — the “terrible questions,” as he calls them: Where did we come from? What is the purpose of life? What happens to us after death? These are questions the temple answers.
An interesting dimension to the notion of temple is the fact that many leading scientists now talk openly about an “organizing, ordering force” (p. 8) in the universe that creates and maintains order and stability — this in contradiction to the traditionally conceived “laws of nature,” according to which everything tends to “corruption and disintegration” (p. 10). While this occurs on the physical level, the temple is the school of the mind, producing a stable cosmic mental state: “bringing anything back to its original state in at-one-ment” (p. 10).
The present book naturally divides into two sections:
1. Articles 1-4: “The Meaning of the Temple” through “The Circle and the Square.” The chapters in this section focus on the nature, meaning, and history of the temple.
2. The remaining articles: These emphasize the cosmic context of the temple. A short review of each of the pieces in this latter section may be helpful.
The temple presents a view of human existence as a progression toward godhood. “The Expanding Gospel” emphasizes the dynamic quality of the gospel message, in contrast to the traditionally static view held by scholars
and clergy, most evident in their restrictive views of the scriptures — an uninspired or closed canon. The discovery of numerous new manuscripts (and these shed new light on long-known apocryphal documents) has led to a reconsideration of “many . . . areas of doctrine and important rites and ordinances” (p. 199). Nibley outlines broadly the documents and principal themes that have emerged — the general features of the plan of salvation (the premortal existence, the process of the creation, the doctrine of the two ways, and many others). “Rediscovery of the Apocrypha and the Book of Mormon” also rehearses the main themes of the gospel “plan,” in particular as set forth in the Book of Mormon — which turns out to be a genuinely cosmic (hence temple) document. The “Apocryphal Writings and Teachings of the Dead Sea Scrolls,” along with the Book of Mormon, takes up the persistent themes of creation: again, the process of the creation itself, relationships among the many worlds, the place of ordinances in the cosmic plan, and the role of messengers in communicating the plan to humankind.
“The terrible questions are terrible because they can’t be answered. . . . Few people will touch them, or even think about them” (pp. 351, 371): Who are we? What is real? Joseph Smith certainly did not flinch from these questions; and it is the temple that faces them most directly.
“Hermetism . . . is the label for a body of knowledge resembling that of the gospel which has been circulated among mankind for a very long time” (p. 389) — knowledge of the primal world, as expressed in countless cultures in sacred myth and ritual from time’s beginning. Such knowledge — touching on things “beyond this ignorant present” (William Shakespeare, Macbeth, act I, scene v, lines 57-58) — has a way of surfacing from time to time, always contradicting the prevailing practical pursuits of academics, business, and consumerism — the comfortable lifestyle. While Joseph Smith did not draw directly on the Hermetic
tradition, much that was revealed to him relates to it and is implicit in temple worship; hence the connections are instructive.
A prevailing modern view is that the facts of history contradict the claims of religionists. In “Do Religion and History Conflict?” Nibley asks, Whose history? And whose religion? He goes on to track the popular heresies of history and traditional religion, inviting readers to view history in a more complete perspective, one that considers open-mindedly the large ancient corpus of primary records; the ancients viewed the world much differently than we do, and in a manner very consonant with the tenets of a revealed religion.
The alphabet, which makes possible writing (the “miracle of miracles” [p. 458]), was a gift of heaven, appearing first in the decor and archives of ancient temples. In “Genesis of the Written Word,” Nibley reviews evidence that writing was not, as most scholars believe, the end product of a long, evolutionary process (evidence of intermediary stages is lacking), but a skill we humans have enjoyed from our beginnings.
Nibley calls science fiction “folk scripture” because its authors unoriginally draw their best themes and plots (and sometimes even titles) from the Bible or apocryphal literature. In fact, scripture itself, in its treatment of these themes and plots, is more mind-boggling; and its cosmic content is authentic.
The eternal perspective fostered by the temple provides answers to contemporary issues. “The Best Possible Test” discusses the now largely irrelevant question of why blacks did not hold the priesthood. It approaches this difficult subject in an other-world context: “The greater the tribulation here, the greater the glory hereafter.” “Some Notes on Cultural Diversity in the Univeral Church” describes the “Zion culture” and the expression of this culture in various world civilizations.
The book concludes with two reviews: the first, “From the Earth upon Which Thou Standest,” of artist Wulf Barsch’s paintings; and the second, “Foreword to Eugene England’s Book,” a review of England’s essays Why the Church Is As True As the Gospel. In both, Nibley emphasizes the advantage of an other-world perspective, which both England and Barsch reflect in their work.
Indeed, it is in the temple where “time, space, and lives are extended” (p. 83); where men and women are invited to step beyond “this ignorant present” and gain clear perspective of the great plan of the eternities.
This volume, like the other volumes in the Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, is the result of countless hours of selfless work by many individuals. The energy and skill they have devotedly given has made this book possible: Glen Cooper, James Fleugel, John Gee, Fran Hafen, William Hamblin, Daniel McKinlay, Tyler Moulton, Phyllis Nibley, Art Pollard, Shirley Ricks, Stephen Ricks, Matthew Roper, Barbara Schmidt, James Tredway, and John Welch. Michael Lyon has directed the production and research on the illustrations, aided by Tyler Moulton, Mark Clifford, and Philip Lyon. Jack Lyon, Shauna Gibby, Patricia Parkinson, and Emily Watts at Deseret Book have been most helpful in the production of this volume. We also wish to thank those whose generous contributions have facilitated the preparation of this and other volumes in the Collected Works of Hugh Nibley.
DON E. NORTON