I spent the first nine months of married life living in a tent. It was a little tent that accommodated the two of us as well as our few travelling possessions. Together we journeyed through Morocco, Algeria, Niger, Tchad, Central African Republic, Zaire, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece, Yugoslavia, Switzerland, Austria, and Germany. We grew fond of our little tent, our first home.
The spiritual life is like a journey. Our upbringing, opportunities, relationships, experiences, disappointments, and delights mediate God to us. As we change our experience of God changes. Each emotional or intellectual place in our journey can seem to have a God associated with it. When we move on from one place to the next, often that God doesn’t. It stays put. For that God might be time-locked or theologically-locked into that place. I think of this sort of fixed God as a ‘house God’ grounded in one locale.
There are however spiritual experiences that travel with us. These experiences of the Divine change as we change and grow as we grow spiritually. This God is like a travelling companion, open to the new, interesting, and challenging. It is a vulnerable God who weeps and laughs and learns with us. It is a God of both intimacy and absence. I think of this sort of moving God as a ‘tent God.’
Travelling and tenting go together. A tent gives one the flexibility to stop wherever, meet whoever, and move on whenever. It offers simplicity, mobility, and the freedoms that accompany them. The spiritual traveller often needs to adapt quickly, change plans or place, in order to see or welcome the unexpected. It’s hard to be that responsive with the weight of a house on your back.
A tent doesn’t have a lot of room and one has to be prudent about collecting acquisitions. Indeed travelling with a tent is more about collecting experiences and building relationships than collecting things. Any purchases are simply reminders of those experiences and relationships. A tent doesn’t need furniture and ornaments. The more possessions one has the more one is spiritually weighed down.
A tent opens one to a different type of hospitality. Unlike a house there isn’t room for people to move in and stay the night. But a tent, especially when travelling in warmer climes, necessitates that hospitality takes place just outside, around a fire or cooker, and people stop to say hello and often stay a while. One is literally out in the open – plain to see, and vulnerable. You are at the mercy and grace of strangers. The Trump government should spend some time in tents at the US/Mexico border and learn from those they are afraid of. And learn to ‘judge not’.
A tent lacks security. There are no guards, alarms, fences, or solid walls. The only security is the relationship built with local people and fellow travellers. A tent can be very cold – as nights in the Sahara taught me! It can be uncomfortable, lack privacy and space. One can be heard well beyond the cloth and nylon walls. Spiritual travellers when departing from the well-worn paths of institutional religion can find the going cold and uncomfortable. Their tent God is disdained and at times threatened by many of the conventional house Gods.
These things mark our travelling life of prayer: a flexibility and responsiveness to change; awareness of the weight of possessions; and being open and hospitable to strangers – and in doing so taking the risk of being spiritually insecure.
The Hebrew Bible tells of a struggle between a tent God and a house God. For at least a couple of centuries the presence of God was not fixed in any form or to any place. The reading from Exodus today has God symbolized by a pillar of cloud, and the meeting of God and Moses was in a tent that the cloud enveloped.
Later in the Torah the presence of God was symbolized by the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark was an ornate box allegedly containing, amongst other things, the tablets of stone resembling the law given to Moses on Mt Sinai. This was a summary of instructions about how people were to respect one another and respect God. There are different versions of this summary in the Bible.
The ancient Hebrew tribes were nomadic, living on the margins of society, labouring where they could but without permanent homes. The Bible condenses perhaps two centuries of history into a story involving leaving oppression in Egypt, travelling for ‘forty’ years, and eventually arriving in Canaan where they displaced or killed the indigenous population and settled down. God in the cloud or in the box travelled with them. When they camped God camped too. The tent was a symbol of the tribes’ long journey to freedom.
Eventually, after the Hebrews had been in Canaan some time, their leader King David saw the need to take the box out of its tent and give it a proper home. And so in King Solomon’s time a great temple was built, at a great price, to house God. The kings of course controlled the chroniclers who all agreed this was a good thing.
Another way of telling this story is that in Canaan the confederation of Hebrew tribes who had banned together in times of war became persuaded, due to external threats, to create a centralized power structure including a standing army. That structure was monarchy, with a capital city, a bureaucracy, and a house to keep God in. The king’s house and God’s house were physically close, and their wills became entwined.
Yet within the biblical texts, despite the editorial gloss, there remain hints that not all were happy with this housing arrangement. Prophets, suspicious of centralized power, made their resistance known. At stake was the principle of ensuring the same standard of justice for every Hebrew citizen. The amassed wealth and privilege in Jerusalem was not equally shared among all the inhabitants of the land. Indeed the cost of building the house for God was met by extraordinary taxation and conscripted labour. Hebrew citizens were once again enslaved. Not surprisingly national unity collapsed under Solomon’s successor.
The tent God symbolized the freedom of the nomadic life but more importantly the principle of justice and respect for all. The God of the temple symbolized the aspirations of a settled nation. However, the price of that stability was the consolidation of power into the hands of the king and his favourites. The house God largely became a servant of those elite.
Not dissimilarly today political powers still look to institutional religion to provide a caring stability for the nation and, indirectly, legitimacy for their regime. When religious leaders question this arrangement, and in particular uphold the principle of justice for all, they are derided as naive or subversive.
Tent Gods are always wary of bedding down in political palaces. Comfort, privilege, possessions and stability are enticing but they can come at a cost. That cost could include losing one’s vision, dampening the spirit of liberty within, and failing to fight for what is just and right.
A spiritual traveller becomes familiar with house and tent Gods. The concept of a divinity that is fixed and never-changing offers a stability that the weary might need. Such a God seems permanent and offers a secure base as devotees endeavour to bring more love and justice into the world. This is the God that institutional religions call the one and only God.
Spiritual travellers in time also learn that there is another way of understanding God. This is a God on the move, a companion God, travelling with us, tenting among us [as John’s Gospel says of Jesus[i]]. This is a God that offers little security, lots of freedom, few rewards, and the wealth of a broad range of relationships. This is the tent God of the margins, who entreats us to ‘judge not’ and to pursue justice and respect for all.
[i] The words from the prologue of John’s Gospel “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” can be translated as ‘tented among us’.