The Meaning of the Temple – Notes from Temple and Cosmos

I am reading Temple and Cosmos, which is Volume 12 of the Collected Works of Hugh Nibley. The book is a collection of essays that focus on the temple work being performed in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. There are numerous insights into temple work and I have been highlighting many passages. Because of the number of highlights and notes I have, I will be splitting the notes by individual essay. I believe this will help the notes stand on their own, as each essay is self-contained.

Temple and Cosmos consist of the following essays:

  • The Meaning of the Temple
  • Return to the Temple
  • Sacred Vestments
  • The Circle and the Square
  • The Expanding Gospel
  • Rediscovery of the Apocrypha and the Book of Mormon
  • Apocryphal Writings and Teachings of the Dead Sea Scrolls
  • The Terrible Questions
  • One Eternal Round: The Hermetic Vision
  • Do Religion and History Conflict?
  • Genesis of the Written Word
  • Science Fiction and the Gospel
  • The Best Possible Test
  • Some Notes on Cultural Diversity in the Universal Church
  • From the Earth upon Which Thou Standest
  • Foreword to Eugene England’s Book

All of these notes are direct quotes from the book.

The Meaning of the Temple

The “temple is a scale model of the universe”

Participation in the instruction and ordinances of the temple enables “one to get one’s bearings from the universe.”

Indeed, it is in the temple where “time, space, and lives are extended”; where men and women are invited to step beyond “this ignorant present” and gain clear perspective of the great plan of the eternities.

If you’re walking on the beach and find a beautifully made Swiss watch, you should not with Archdeacon Paley conclude that some intelligent mind has produced the watch. It proves nothing of the sort. Finding the watch only proves, quite seriously, that mere chance at work, if given enough time, can indeed produce a fine Swiss watch or anything else. Indeed, when you come right down to it, the fact that Swiss watches exist in a world created and governed entirely by chance proves that blind chance can produce watches. There is no escaping this circular argument, and some people use it.

If, after seeing a room in chaos, it is subsequently found in good order, the sensible inference is not that time is running backwards, but that some intelligent person has been in to tidy it up. If you find the letters of the alphabet ordered on a piece of paper to form a beautiful sonnet, you do not deduce that teams of monkeys have been kept for millions of years strumming on typewriters, but rather that Shakespeare has passed this way.

The Egyptian word for everything is ntt íwtt everything I know and everything I don’t know. Everything we are aware of and everything we are not aware of makes up everything. So you can’t say “everything,” just “everything I happen to know.”

Two things stand out in all this. First is the awareness of an organizing, ordering force in the universe that is very active and runs counter to all we know of the laws of science. The second is the awareness of great gaps in our knowledge that may account for our failure to discover the source of that force. This takes us directly to the subject of the temple — through you would never have guessed this from what I have said so far.

Recently David Winston and Jonathan Goldstein, writing on Jewish Hellenistic thought, have shown at great length that the idea of creation out of nothing was totally unknown to the Christian or the Jewish Doctors before the fourth century A.D.28 It had no place in their doctrines.

Notice what atonement means: reversal of the degradative process, a returning to its former state, being integrated or united again — “at-one.”

There is matter. That is the first law: matter was always there. There is unorganized matter. Or as Lyall Watson says, “The normal state of matter is chaos.”

The temple represents that organizing principle in the universe which brings all things together. It is the school where we learn about these things.

The basic rite of the temple was sacrifice. The point that interests us here is just how the Egyptians thought they could contribute to upholding the physical world order by purely symbolic indications of thought. It was thought that really counted after all. Yet the symbols are important. They direct, concentrate, discipline, and inform the thought. To be effective, thought must be so motivated and directed.

whenever the task is set, successful performance is directly related to the power of concentration, to the will, to the desire, to total interest and involvement. The person has to be excited; then he can do amazing things. But if the interest and concentration are not kept at a high level, nothing much goes on. When the level is high, the mind actually has a direct effect on things. The mind can do astonishing things just by thought. It is a matter of concentrating and ordering it.

This principle is illustrated in the ancient prayer circle in the temples. Concentration of thoughts in a single structure has a definite significance. (Much could be said about this.) For the Egyptians and the Babylonians, as for us, the temple represents the principle of ordering the universe. It is the hierocentric point around which all things are organized. It is the omphalos (“navel”) around which the earth was organized

The temple is a scale model of the universe, boxed to the compass, a very important feature of every town in our contemporary civilization, as in the ancient world.

The pioneer Saints throughout the half-explored wastes of “Deseret” oriented their streets with reference to the temple. The street is designated first, second, third, east, west, north, or south, depending on its orientation to the temple. The temple is boxed to the compass. On the west end of the Salt Lake Temple you see the Big Dipper represented, a very important feature (fig. 2). Like the Egyptian temple at Dendera, you had to have the Big Dipper there, representing the North Star, around which all things pivot (fig. 3). The main gate must face east. The sun, the moon, and the stars — the three degrees — are represented there. It is a scale model of the universe, for teaching purposes and for the purpose of taking our bearings on the universe and in the eternities, both in time and in space. And of course as far as time is concerned, we take our center there. We are in the middle world, working for those who have been before and who will come after.

Truman Angell, the [Salt Lake] temple architect, interpreted the Big Dipper, “Moral: the lost may find themselves by the Priesthood,” just as the ancients used it to find the still center of the turning heavens.

The temple is also an observatory (fig. 5). That is what a templum is — a place where you take your bearings on things. More than that, it is a working model, a laboratory for demonstrating basic principles by use of figures and symbols, which convey to finite minds things beyond their immediate experience.

(Lucian’s famous essay on the ancient dance, among the earliest accounts, takes it back to the round dance in the temple, like the prayer circle that Jesus used to hold with the apostles and their wives — Jesus standing at the altar in the arms of Adam, and the apostles’ wives standing in the circle with them. Some have referred to this as a dance; it is definitely a chorus.)

dextrarum coniuncto, the symbol of a marriage that transcends the grave

Lacking such a synthesizing principle, our present-day knowledge becomes ever more fragmented; our libraries and universities crumble and disintegrate as they expand. Where the temple that gave us birth is missing, civilization itself becomes a hollow shell.

One very popular argument today says, “Look, you say the Book of Mormon contains the fullness of the gospel, but it doesn’t contain any of the temple ordinances in it, does it?” Ordinances are not the fullness of the gospel. Going to the temple is like entering into a laboratory to confirm what you have already learned in the classroom and from the text. The fullness of the gospel is the understanding of what the plan is all about — the knowledge necessary to salvation. You know the whys and wherefores; for the fullness of the gospel you go to Nephi, to Alma, to Moroni. Then you will enter into the lab, but not in total ignorance. The ordinances are mere forms. They do not exalt us; they merely prepare us to be ready in case we ever become eligible.

The purpose of such ordinances is to bridge the space between the world in which we now live, the telestial world, and that to which we aspire, the celestial world. Therefore, the events of the temple were thought to take place in the terrestrial sphere. Recall that you leave the creation, and you end up at the celestial; but nothing happens in the celestial. Everything happens in the telestial and terrestrial, but not until after you leave the garden. Then the fun begins, until you arrive at your celestial rest.

The bringing of the temple into the world was a reminder in the days of Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Christ, and Joseph Smith that the world as a going concern is coming to a close. That little phase of human existence was about to pass away and give place to another.

The temple is there to call us back to our senses, to tell us where our real existence lies, to save us from ourselves. So let us go there often and face the reality, brethren and sisters.

In a speech in the 1880s in St. George, Brother Erastus Snow said that every temple has a slightly different design, because it performs a different purpose (fig. 9). The St. George Temple was built after the pattern of the Kirtland Temple, to emphasize certain things. Our Provo Temple is built in a different way entirely. It functions with a different thing in mind — efficiency in getting a lot of work done in a hurry, but also as a teaching tool.

In 1897, scholars discovered a marvelous document called the Apocalypse of Abraham. In it, Abraham is shown an ordinance, as if in a moving picture projected on a screen. And an angel instructs him: “Now see this, . . . now this picture. You walk with me in the Garden. This is a picture of the Garden of Eden.” And Abraham asks, “Who is the man here?” The angel replies, “That is Adam and the woman is Eve, and I will tell you about them.”53 He leads Abraham through and then he takes him to the next picture, as it is projected on a screen.\

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