A SWEDENBORGIAN VIEW OF COMMUNITY
Thursday, December 12, 1999
Darwin did not invent the idea of evolution. In The Origin of Species, he noted that some
thirty-two previous thinkers had advocated it. Where they had failed, in his view, was in
their inability to identify the mechanism of the process. They made the mistake, in his
view, of assuming that the process was purposeful.
Central to Swedenborgian theology is the insistence that there is a purpose to creation,
namely that there should be a heaven from the human race, and for Swedenborg, heaven is
perfect human community. That is, it is not a static beatific vision or an eternal singing
of praises. It is a fabric of interpersonal activities wholly characterized by mutual
understanding and care.
Consequently, I cannot take the survival of the human race on our planet as an end in
itself. As the most destructive species on earth, with vastly greater capacities for
destruction than we have used, we should rather feel obliged to question our right to
exist, to answer the charge that the planet would be better off without us. We are given
the privilege (not the right) of existence for the purpose of human community, and to the
extent that we do not realize this purpose, we forfeit the privilege. It has become clear
since Hiroshima that there is no need that God impose this forfeit--we have become capable
of doing it ourselves.
As to the ultimate purpose of creation, the perfect human community, the simplest
Christian description I know of is found in the two great commandments of love of the Lord
and love of the neighbor. Narrowly construed, it is true that these can be
destructive--love God as I define God, and love the people who agree with me. Broadly (or
better, deeply) construed, though, it works. That is, God is the beneficent and personal
intent and design of the universe, and the neighbor is the global community, inseparably
bound up with Gaia herself. A human community of loving and perceptive relationships,
sensitive to its embeddedness in the world of nature, is supremely worth having. Its
survival, even the survival of hope for its realization, is not only defensible, but
urgently needed. I would note that what I am talking about can be summed up with the
single word, "beauty," which impels me to pay closer attention to the artists among us and
to the artist within myself.
Clearly, the human race at this point in history is not that kind of community and has not
been so in historical times. Equally clearly, there have been moments of that kind of
community. I think particularly of times when neighborhoods have united to help a member
through a crisis. I understand the Christian message to be saying that we are gifted with
the potential of forming that kind of community, that "the kingdom of heaven" is
accessible to us.
This gap between actuality and ideal means that present communities cannot be
constructively or adequately evaluated on any static basis, but must be seen in terms of
process. To take a somewhat limited example, the question is not simply whether this
community is ecologically sensitive, but whether it is becoming more so.
In looking at this process, I find Robert Kegan (The Evolving Self) particularly helpful,
and consonant with my theology. He focuses primarily on the individual process, but
assigns a major role to the human environment (or community) in which it occurs. He also
sees that process as fueled by an inherent tension between felt needs for identity or
autonomy and felt needs for inclusion or relationship, and therefore as characterized by
alternate motions toward separation/differentiation and toward integration.
This has clear implications for the nature of the "functional" community. He sees a need
for the human environment to serve three basic functions--holding on, letting go, and
remaining in place. By "holding on," he means that the community must express a
trustworthy care for the individual. By "letting go," he means that the community must
allow the individual to distance herself as appropriate in order to (re)define her
identity. By "remaining in place," he means that the community must remain accessible and
be open to re-form relationship with the individual on a new basis once the individual has
defined herself differently.
Under this construction, then, the healthy community is one in which individuals are
progressively discovering their uniqueness, and are finding that it is prized. It is a
community that can tolerate the confusion, sometimes the pain, of redefinition, that is
not threatened by the tension and anxiety attendant on needs for separation and
distancing. It therefore cannot be completely defined by the manifest state of
relationships at any given moment, which may be a major factor in the regular failure of
My Swedenborgianism inclines me to apply this model to any community, regardless of scale,
and would recognize that the constituents of larger communities may be smaller communities
rather than individuals. The community that cannot hold is uncaring; the community that
cannot let go is tyrannical; and the community that cannot remain in place is
There is a corollary to this attitude toward scale which may be unwelcome. By Gospel
standards, the church should first model community and then preach it--should first get
rid of the log in its own eye, in order to know what it is doing in its efforts to heal
broken communities outside itself. There is something pathetic about a church caught up in
power politics at the same time it preaches a message of love and understanding. There is
something quite false about teaching liberation theology in a seminary whose students are
intellectually or otherwise bullied.
This leads me to question the dichotomy implicit in the title, "Organized not for Power,
but for Community." These are certainly distinguishable aspects of community, but until
they are united in practice, the community is incomplete. Caution flags go up for me when
I read, "the transformation involved when a congregation puts its community at the service
of power can be magnificent." In my theology, power should always be at the service of
community. Only when this is the case will community be "maintained while power is
If we are to bring the resources of world religions to bear on the problems we face
ourselves with, then we must be quite candid. Today's paper (10/27/90) tells of violence
between Hindus and Muslims in India, Muslims against Muslims in the Middle East, and the
effects of Catholic-Protestant tensions in Ireland on communities in Boston. The tendency
of religions to buttress internal community by portraying the "outside world" as hostile
is very much with us. It is nurtured in the world of academic theology by the practice of
bolstering one's own position by attacking others; and current debates about
"globalism" in theological education are directly pertinent to the subject of community.
There is a great deal of work to be done within religious bodies if it is ever to be taken
for granted that there cannot be genuine internal community in isolation from or in
hostility to the larger, and ultimately the global, community.
It is not easy to define genuine community. In trying to understand its dynamics, we find
ourselves dealing with part-to-whole relationships, and in this area I have been impacted
by my layman's reading in contemporary science. Specifically, David Bohm's thought has
awakened me to aspects of Swedenborg's concepts to which I had previously paid little
It is Swedenborg's assumption, based on his experience, that we structure our
participation of non-material events by the use of images drawn from physical sensory
experience. Many of his own images of interpersonal relationships, like most of our
own, are structured by our physical perception of ourselves as discrete beings. In the
terms of physics, that is, they are particle images, characterized by the limitation that
two particles cannot occupy the same space at the same time.
Under the general heading of "influx," however, Swedenborg offers a wealth of images that
begin to cohere when they are associated with wave models; and it is especially notable
that waves are readily and regularly superimposed on each other. They do so, in fact,
without losing their individuality, so that a single groove on a record can represent the
distinguishable sounds of all the instruments of an orchestra. This image, to my mind,
helps us to be observant of ways in which the community affects us not simply by impinging
on our boundaries, but by being internalized. It also renders suspect any view of
perception which would posit either total objectivity or total subjectivity.
Perhaps the most direct pertinence of this to the subject of community is the effect it
has on concepts of personal boundaries. To illustrate, I have cited Darwin, Bohm, and
Swedenborg in the preceding discussion; but if I traced every idea to its source, the
footnotes would be interminable. It is impossible for me to tell just what is "mine" in
this paper, or to what extent any particular component is "mine." At the same time, I am
well aware that something is distinctively "mine" here, and that I am uniquely accountable
for what I am writing. I find myself pushed toward the rather unwelcome conclusion that
particle models are useful when I think about my responsibilities, but misleading (and
even perilous) when I think about my rights.
This (if I take it to heart) has direct effects on my participation in community. It
offers, first of all, a certain flexibility of boundaries. I need not enter interpersonal
situations defensively, concerned to mark off and protect my "turf." I can recognize that
the legitimate interests of others overlap with my own, and that because of my own
internalization of the community and its internalization of me, I cannot separate its
welfare from my own, or my own from its. I can recognize that it is normal for my own
interests to expand and contract periodically, that at least in regard to what I sense as
my boundaries, I fluctuate. I can therefore recognize and if necessary acknowledge openly
that I am more or less concerned at a given moment without taking it as a final judgment
on my worth. I can recognize that others have similarly fluctuating needs for relationship
and distancing, for the expanding and contracting of their boundaries.
It is equally significant, I believe, that in this model the locus of one's sense of
identity does not disappear, but shifts from the boundaries to the center. I remain a
unique individual because of where I am located in the pattern of the community. There can
be no other place where exactly the same "influences" intersect in exactly the same way.
This sense of identity is therefore perfectly secure, and does not need the kind of
defense required by the identity of boundaries.
Third, it delivers me from simplistic assumptions about "out there" and "in here." When I
am faced with competing demands, I can recognize that the competition is inside me as well
as outside, that one aspect of myself is inclined to accede to demand A while another
aspect is inclined to accede to demand B. I need blame neither the situation nor myself
exclusively; and this gives me a wider range of options for dealing with the conflict.
Fourth, it enables me to look at problematic situations in a community in a non-judgmental
way. It tends to shift the focus of attention from locating the blame to understanding the
pattern and the process. Faced with inappropriate behavior, the immediate question is not
what retribution is called for, but what response is likely to move the process in a
healthy direction. I believe it is a common experience that the successful dealing with
difficult situations is the surest path to the development of a mature and healthy
community. Certainly when we find ourselves in distress, we are most likely to be
helped by people who have successfully negotiated similar circumstances. In Swedenborg's
view, the prime "method" of spiritual growth is not meditation, prayer, worship, or
theological correctness, but an active, thoughtful, and constructive life. We are changed
more by our decisions than by our thoughts or intentions.
The last element of my Swedenborgian view of community is perhaps the most important. It
is Swedenborg's constant message that love and wisdom are "distinguishably one," that
while we can usefully distinguish them in thought, neither can exist in reality without
the other. A genuine care for others necessarily involves a genuine desire to understand
them, and that understanding will be distorted to the extent that it is unsympathetic or
hostile. Far from being "blind," a genuine love is supremely sensitive. Far from being
cold, a full understanding is supremely compassionate. Anger, however justifiable, tends
to blind us to the very real needs of those against whom it is directed. It inclines us to
see them entirely as they impinge on our own interests, with little or no awareness of how
we appear to them. This I would take to be implicit in Jesus' commands to love our
enemies, including those who persecute us. I find neither Gospel warrant nor wisdom in the
statement that we are "against the oppressor," and see it as prophetic of the replacement
of one tyranny by another.
Anger can of course lead to constructive behavior. It can rouse us from apathy, or push us
beyond inhibiting fears. If we are to take full advantage of this, however, I believe we
must recognize and allow for the severe limitations it imposes on our perceptions, on the
ways in which it distorts our understanding. Unless we realize that "objects in this
mirror are closer than they appear," the convex mirror will seriously mislead us.
In summary, my Swedenborgian view of community centers in the thought that only the beauty
of true human community justifies the continuance of the human race on any scale. Given
the radical imperfection of present communities, I believe that we must focus particularly
on the nurturance of process rather than on any steady state of relationships. I find this
outlook fostered by the recognition of the radical extent to which we are in fact members
of each other, and am convinced that a genuine understanding of each other and a genuine
caring for each other are inseparable.
:. In 1852 M. Naudin, a distinguished botanist, expressly stated, in an
admirable paper on the Origin of Species (`Revue Horticole,' p. 102; since
partly republished in the `Nouvelles Archives du Muséum,' tom. i, p. 171),
his belief that species are formed in an analogous manner as varieties are
under cultivation; and the latter process he attributes to man's power of
selection. But he does not show how selection acts under nature. He
believes, like Dean Herbert, that species, when nascent, were more plastic
than at present. He lays weight on what he calls the principle of finality,
"puissance mystérieuse, indéterminée, fatalité pour les uns; pour les
autres, volonté providentielle, dont l'action incessante sur les êtres
vivants détermine, à toutes les époques de l'existence du monde, la forme,
le volume, et la durée de chacun d'eux, en raison de sa destinée dans
l'ordre de choses dont il fait partie. C'est cette puissance qui harmonise
chaque membre à l'ensemble, en l'appropriant á la fonction qu'il doit
remplir dans l'organisme général de la nature, fonction qui est pour lui sa
raison d'être.' (Darwin, Charles, The Origin of Species by means of Natural
Selection or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life
[New York: Modern Library, n.d.], pp. 8f.)
:. cf. Divine Love and Wisdom n. 329. On this reference system, cf. n 6
:. In The Neighborhood Works, October-November 1990, pp. 6f.
:. Perhaps Charles Bonney's most brilliant move in the planning of the
1893 Parliament was to encourage separate denominational congresses,
providing a recognized arena for more sectarian presentations.
:. David Bohm. Wholeness and the Implicate Order (London: Routledge &
Kegan Paul, 1980).
:. The main body of such concepts is found in his most metaphysical
work, Divine Love and Wisdom (New York: Swedenborg Foundation). This and
the other theological works of Swedenborg are kept in print by the
Foundation, and since references are not by page but by paragraph number,
which are uniform in all editions, the dates of publication are both varied
:. cf., for example, Arcana Coelestia (New York: Swedenborg
Foundation), nn. 1489, 3310, 5510).
:. Wave images are explicit in Arcana Coelestia 1763 and 6200, Divine
Love and Wisdom 263, and True Christian Religion 137:2.
:. It may be that it would not be necessary to "invent" the
difficulties of CPE programs if we gave due attention to the problems
within the seminary communities themselves. It does seem that the world in
general has enough problems to provide adequate learning experiences.