A MOVING CENTER
Saturday, May 5, 1988
Location - FNCA 1997
One of the giants of the early days of critical Biblical scholarship was a German
named Julius Wellhausen. With impressive linguistic skills and with a kind of
Hegelian logic that was apparently very much in vogue at the time, he convinced a
generation of students that the whole story of the tabernacle had no basis in fact,
but had been made up to provide historical legitimization for the temple. Both that
theory and the radical skepticism that underlay it have fallen out of favor at
present, and it is assumed that while the details, like the curtains, may have been
embroidered, there was indeed a portable shrine which provided a religious center for
the Israelites before they settled in the Promised Land.
There is actually evidence in the Biblical text that challenges the very rationale
behind the kind of invention Wellhausen proposed. For some people, that is, it seems
that the temple was not so much a fulfillment of the intent of the tabernacle as it
was a rival to it. In the seventh chapter of Second Samuel, we find David proposing
to build a temple. The prophet Nathan at first approved, but then the word of the
Lord came to him, as follows (II Samuel 7:5f.):
Go and tell my servant David, "Thus says the Lord: `Shall you indeed build me a house
for me to dwell in? I have not dwelt in a house since the time I brought the children
of Israel up out of Egypt even to the present day, but have walked in a tent and in a
That is, the tabernacle was not necessarily a precedent for the temple. A huge shift
was involved in the utter loss of mobility. One of the essential features of the
tabernacle, one of its virtues, was that it moved. The scene is set in the ninth
chapter of Numbers, which I should like to quote at some length.
On the day that the tabernacle was raised up, the cloud covered the tabernacle, the
tent of the testimony; and at evening there was upon the tabernacle the appearance of
fire, until the morning. So it was always: the cloud covered it by day, and the
appearance of fire by night. And when the cloud was taken up from the tabernacle,
then after that the children of Israel journeyed; and in the place where the cloud
abode, there the children of Israel pitched their tents. At the commandment of the
Lord the children of Israel journeyed, and at the commandment of the Lord they
pitched; as long as the cloud abode upon the tabernacle they rested in their tents.
And when the cloud tarried for a long time upon the tabernacle, many days, then the
children of Israel kept the charge of the Lord, and did not journey; likewise when
the cloud was a few days upon the tabernacle, according to the commandment of the
Lord they abode in their tents, and according to the commandment of the Lord they
journeyed. And so it was, when the cloud abode from evening until the morning, and
the cloud was taken up on the morning, then they journeyed: whether it was by day or
by night that the cloud was taken up, they journeyed. Whether it was two days, or a
month, of a year, that the cloud tarried upon the tabernacle, remaining upon it, the
children of Israel abode in their tents and did not journey: but when it was taken
up, they journeyed.
At the commandment of the Lord they rested in the tents, and at the commandment of
the Lord they journeyed: they kept the charge of the Lord, at the commandment of the
Lord by the hand of Moses.
In a way, the pillar of cloud and fire is really the secondary theme in this passage.
The primary theme is Israel's obedience. We are told seven times that they moved or
rested "at/according to the commandment of the Lord." Later generations, apparently
forgetting the complaints and the rebellions, would look back on the wilderness
wandering as the period of faithfulness, contrasting the asceticism of desert life
with the indulgence and immorality of urban living. It was not that simple, though.
In the "old days," the divine will was made abundantly clear. When the cloud moved,
everyone could see it. The choice was simple, to follow or not to follow. But how
could the Lord "lead" the people if the ark of the testimony was housed in a building
made of great blocks of stone? What could be the visible signs of the Lord's intent,
the signs that everyone could see?
Historically, though, this was apparently a necessary shift. If the promise to Abram
was to be fulfilled and his descendants were to be a great nation, they needed a
stable center of government. David's move of his capital from Hebron to Jerusalem was
a brilliant one, entirely appropriate to the situation. For some seven years after
the death of Saul, David had been king of the southern tribes with his capitol near
their center, in Hebron.
When the northern tribes chose him as their king after the death of Ishbosheth, this
would no longer do. Jerusalem, a neutral city just south of the border of the two
kingdoms, was as close as possible to the northerners without deserting the
southerners. It was ideal for holding the fragile coalition together. It was not
unlike choosing Washington as our own capitol rather than Philadelphia-as close as
possible to the southerners without deserting the northerners.
The story of David's impulse to build a temple raised the ante considerably. David
had managed, with a great deal of care, to have the ark which had always been housed
in the northern kingdom, brought to Jerusalem. To build a temple for it would mean
that it would now stay there. It would never again return to the region where it had
evidently been throughout the period of the Judges. In effect, this would irrevocably
sanction the city of David as the Lord's chosen place, and David himself as the
Lord's chosen king. The band of nomads would become an established nation.
All of this, our theology tells us, must represent some basic development in our own
spiritual lives, and that is what I want to spend the rest of this lecture talking
about. What is it to have a "moving center" to our spiritual lives, and what is
happening when that center becomes fixed in one place?
Let us set the general context first. The overall shape of the Biblical narrative is
very concisely schematized in the first chapter of Matthew-fourteen generations from
Abram to David, fourteen generations from David to the exile, and fourteen
generations from the exile to the Lord's birth. It is a pattern of promise leading to
literal fulfillment, of the failure of that literal vision, and ultimately of the
transformation of the promise to the spiritual level. In the Gospels, that is, "the
kingdom of Israel" is effectively replaced by "the kingdom of heaven."
In our lives, childhood dreams of "becoming a grown-up" do come true, at least
physically. Then the aging process leads inevitably to the failure of that kind of
external maturity, and the call comes to look deeper into the purpose of our being.
We can see our childhood dreams imaged in the promise to Abram, our arrival at adult
independence in the establishment of the nation under David, our midlife
confrontation with mortality in the exile, and our consequent spiritual blossoming in
This places the deliverance from Egypt very persuasively at the beginning of
adolescence-at that awkward time when we necessarily begin to declare our
independence from home and parents. This begins a time of real difficulty, of
spiritual wandering, when we are torn between a profound need of our parents' love
and support and an equally profound need to move toward something like
By later adolescence, we have normally left the most blatant form of this dilemma
behind, but the issues involved are still with us in subtler forms. In fact, the
central issue of the priority of our basic loves is with us throughout our lives. My
hope is that as adults see more clearly the process they went through in their own
adolescence, two things will happen. First, they will recognize that they are still
facing essentially the same issues, and not necessarily handling them perfectly; and
second they will therefore identify with kids who are running into these issues head
on for the first time. There is a real sense in which we are all in this living
business together, and few of us have left confusion so far behind that we have
forgotten what it is like.
How is the Lord leading us in the midst of this confusion? The basic image is
concisely presented in the thirteenth chapter of Exodus: "And the Lord went before
them by day in a pillar of cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of
fire, to give them light . . . ." This is treated in Arcana Coelestia ¶¶ 8106ff.,
where the cloud is interpreted as a tempering of enlightenment by a dimming of the
truth, and the fire as a tempering of dimness by enlightenment from good-which I
suspect could use a little further translation.
We are dealing, I would suggest, with a very recognizable kind of human floundering.
Adolescence has its times of apparently total certainty and its times of apparently
total bewilderment, equally terrifying, but as different as day and night. Their
saving grace lies hidden in the word "apparently." The certainties are actually much
fuzzier than they seem. The naked light of truth does not feel kindly, and is not
really welcome. We cannot be led by perfection, only by approximations, adaptations.
The best we can do is live up to some fairly limited ideals or expectations. At the
other end of the scale, it is when things seem darkest that the gentler affections
begin to well up. When real distress surfaces through the facades of
self-sufficiency, the only "light" that can be seen comes from impulses of
Adolescence is a time when begin to challenge what we experience as our parents'
expectations for us and to search for an identity of our own. We look everywhere for
"role models"-everywhere, that is, except to our parents, who seem rather out of
touch. We try on different roles in an effort to find one that we are comfortable
We face problems of two major kinds. First, we are not really ready for thoughtful
introspection. That requires a kind of stability and detachment that the rush of
growth and hormones is constantly upsetting. Second, the world around us offers us a
bewildering welter of genuine and fraudulent models to imitate. We are trying to
establish an equation between inner desires that are largely mysterious to us and a
social scene that seems designed to mislead us. We had better wander, that is,
because the chances of getting it right the first time are virtually nil. The
percentage of adolescent dates that ultimately become spouses is, I suspect, very low
indeed. A thirteen-year-old simply does not know what kind of person he or she is
going to be in another ten years, and will have even less of a chance of being right
about his or her date in this respect.
It looks as though it used to be easier. From a kind of historical perspective, our
time and place are marked by unprecedented opportunity. A century or so ago, most
children saw their futures pretty well mapped out for them. Most sons would follow
more or less closely in their fathers' footsteps, in part because this was a familiar
route and in part because they could not see entryways to other routes. Most
daughters would become wives and mothers, again partly because this was familiar and
partly because little else lay open for them. In other parts of the globe, in what
are sometimes referred to as "traditional cultures," expectations are still
relatively clear. Fathers hand on their learning to their sons and mothers hand on
their learning to their daughters, secure in the knowledge that this learning will
continue to be appropriate.
The search for identity still goes on in such cases, though. The question of ultimate
importance for a girl, for example, is not "Am I going to be a mother," but "If I am,
what kind of mother am I going to be?" It does not take much effort to discover that
there is a huge variety of styles and qualities of motherhood. Similarly, where a boy
knows early on what he intends to do with his life, commitment to a particular style
and quality still does not come early or easy.
Let us look at this in a particular doctrinal context for a moment. Our theology
describes us as having an inmost which is wholly beyond our experience, a kind of
absolute center where the Lord's life is constantly flowing into us. Beneath or
around that, there is a heavenly/celestial level, then a spiritual level, and then a
natural level, and all of this is focused in the particular physical body we are
walking around in. Our consciousness is normally restricted to the lowest level of
the natural, the level that is in contact with our physical senses. Everything
else-which means the vast preponderance of our own natures-is either "subconscious"
or "superconscious," depending on which way we look at it. It makes little
difference, that is, whether we talk about "the depths of our being" or "the heights
of the soul." We probably mean pretty much the same thing.
A comparison with our eyesight comes to mind. We are capable of seeing detail only in
the center of our field of vision, over an area that comprises one forty-thousandth
of our total visual field. Just in order to have a number, let's transfer that ratio
to our perceptions of ourselves and assume that at any given time, we are conscious
of one forty-thousandth of our own physical-spiritual nature.
Now in the physical world, we have somehow managed to adjust to this visual
limitation. We can scan a scene and decide where we need to focus our attention. We
can retain a peripheral awareness that gives us a sense of location. I recall reading
some years ago about the difficulties faced by blind people who have had their sight
surgically restored. Their attention would be caught simply by motion. A car moving
toward them a block away might seem more threatening than one beside them standing
still. Often, they would have to close their eyes and listen in order to get
What catches our attention when we are observing ourselves? Is that one
forty-thousandth of our nature accurately representative of all the rest? It is
surely representative in some way, but how are we to interpret it? Why are we drawn
to this person and repelled by that one? What is this telling us about ourselves? Why
do we have such strong reactions to particular situations? What is this telling us
The only way to find out, I would suggest, is to observe ourselves honestly over the
years. If we cannot experience more than a minute fraction of ourselves at any
particular moment, we can experience ourselves a little at a time. We cannot
experience a new house all at once, but we can go from room to room, and eventually
build up a picture of the whole.
To pursue this image, I would suggest that in adolescence we are offered a kind of
overview. Remember that the physical/spiritual house we are exploring is forty
thousand times bigger than our normal field of vision. The Lord seems to have
designed our process so that we can begin with relatively vague experiences of whole
sections or wings, a little like beginning with an architect's model. We can lift off
the roof, we can detach this or that section, we can shift quickly from one vantage
point to another.
Eventually, these various views begin to cohere. At first, that is, the view from the
south side occupies our consciousness so completely that there is no room for the
conscious memory of what the north side looks like. Little children are totally
absorbed in the feelings of the moment. The message that they will feel different in
a few minutes has no meaning for them. Gradually, though, we make connections, we see
or sense a kind of rationale to the whole. Then and only then can we decide where we
need to settle in order to function. To shift the image only slightly, the building
is our business, and we have to decide on the best location of our main office.
In a way, this is what Joseph Campbell was talking about when he offered his
misunderstandable advice to "Follow your bliss." He did not mean that we should
simply do whatever feels good. He meant that we should pay particular attention to
those times when we felt ourselves fulfilled in what was occupying us. There are some
things that we believe we ought to enjoy, things that we definitely do not enjoy but
know that we ought to do, and then there are some things that we are simply and
spontaneously at home with. If we can read them rightly, Campbell was saying, these
are clues to our particular and unique gifts, to what Swedenborg would call our
primary use in life, or our life's love.
In fact, there is a passage in the Arcana Coelestia that Campbell would probably have
quoted if he had been aware of it. It reads as follows:
It is recognized that we have one state in infancy, another in childhood, another in
adolescence, another in maturity, and another in old age. It is also recognized that
we shed our state of infancy and its games when we make the passage into the state of
childhood, and that we shed the state of childhood when we make the passage into the
state of adolescence, shed this in turn when we make the passage into the state of
maturity, and shed this again when we make the passage into the state of old age.
And if we reflect, we can also recognize that each age has its delights, and that
through these, in sequence, we are led to those appropriate to the next age-that
these delights serve to bring us through from one stage to another, eventually to the
delight in intelligence and wisdom appropriate to old age.
Arcana Coelestia 4063
Our delights, lead us through distinctly different states. The shift from tabernacle
to temple offers an image of one of the most significant transitions. We may perhaps
best appreciate that transition if we return to the issue of obedience mentioned
earlier. "At the commandment of the Lord they rested in the tents, and at the
commandment of the Lord they journeyed." In a way. this doesn't sound much like early
adolescence, but there is a difference between the those years as we experienced them
and those years as we reflect on them. As we experienced them, they were full of
resistance-and there is plenty of "murmuring" recorded in the story of the wilderness
wandering. As we reflect on them, we begin to realize the extent to which we were
being driven hither and yon by forces we did not really understand. We did not turn
on the hormones, choose to declare our independence, awaken the new sense of
selfhood. All sorts of things were happening to us, and we were responding.
In fact, a great deal of our discomfort arose from this sense of not being in control
of our own destiny. The stories we read in the book of Numbers are marvelously apt in
this respect. The Israelites followed Moses, yes, but with massive reluctance. At
first, they wished they had never left Egypt. Maybe they hadn't been free, but at
least they had been fed, taken care of. With every difficulty, there was the impulse
to blame the leadership, the belief that there had to be an easier way. Even when
there were not actual rebellions, there were complaints. It is little short of
startling to realize that this would one day be remembered as an ideal time, held up
as a model of faithfulness. But in fact, retrospect discloses that we were far more
innocent than we realized, and that the disparity between our actual innocence and
our self perception stemmed in large part from the fact that innocence was for kids,
and the last thing we wanted to be was kids. If anyone had called us "innocent," we
would have taken it as an insult.
It is just as well, then, that we did not settle down at that stage. It was essential
that we keep moving. It was essential also that there be periods of stability, of
rest, that we dwell with some of our experiments long enough to learn from them. It
was in fact the Lord who was overseeing the process, determining the delicate balance
between motion and rest. The wisdom necessary was totally beyond our reach. The
pillar moved or rested of its own accord as we vacillated between certainty and
The shift from tabernacle to temple does not represent the end of the story. On
Friday, I'll be looking at some Gospel material, which glimpses back at the messages
of the prophets and ahead toward the final image of the Holy City. Only then, I
believe, can we see this particular transition, from moving tabernacle to fixed
temple, in its context, as one necessary step in a process central to our eternal