THE NEW DISPENSATION AND THE NEW AGE
Friday, July 7, 1998
Location - FNCA 1998
What difference does it make whether we believe the Second Coming has happened or
not? If the purpose of creation is a heaven from the human race, and if heaven is
attained by the way we treat each other, the doctrines that really matter must be the
ones that affect the way we live together. It is a great deal clearer how we should
"do" the doctrine of use or the doctrine of the marriage of good and truth than how
we should "do" the doctrine of the Last Judgment and the Second Coming.
My suspicion is that this doctrine does make a difference, but a subtle one. It may
be clearest if we contrast our mood with that of Christians who believe that a
literal Last Judgment is at hand. We lack any sense of ultimate urgency. However, the
mood of most Christians seems affected more by the events that make the news than by
any eschatological conviction. As I listen to people within our own church, it seems
as though we are pretty much on the same page.
It has not always been that way. Ten or so years ago I was involved in preparations
for the 1993 Parliament of the World's Religions, to be held in Chicago. This was a
centennial observation of the 1893 Parliament, held in Chicago in conjunction with
the Columbian Exhibition. Swedenborgians had played prominent roles in both the
Parliament and the Exhibition, since the Parliament itself was the brainchild of
Charles Carroll Bonney and the architect of the White City of the Exhibition was
Daniel Hudson Burnham, both very active Swedenborgians.
The Parliament made an immense impression, and in reading about it I was struck above
all by the mood of optimism. Perhaps no technological achievement has had greater
immediate impact than the taming of electricity. Steam power actually developed
rather gradually, and amplified existing machines before it began suggesting new
ones. The effects of electricity, though, must have seemed miraculous. Never before
had you been able to flick a switch in one place and have something happen
instantaneously somewhere else. The White City was electrically lit, and I gather
inspired the Emerald City of Baum's wonderful world of Oz.
In 1893, then, it seemed clear that in the coming century technology would solve the
problems of poverty and hunger, with Protestant Christianity leading the way. For
after all, the cradle of this immense inventiveness was the Protestant West-northern
Europe and especially America. The coming of the kingdom was at hand.
This feeling was even more intense for Swedenborgians. After all, one of the main
themes of the writings was that science and religion were allies, not enemies. The
victory of the spirit of free inquiry over Old Church dogmatism was surely a feature
of the New Church. Our organization might be small, but its members were
disproportionately eminent, Bonney and Burnham being more typical than exceptional.
If the the world was sailing into a new age with the West leading the fleet, we were
standing on the prow.
A century later, the mood is startlingly different. Now we find ourselves wondering
whether our technology is going to destroy us. Now it seems as though the church has
lost control, that its moral leadership is no longer recognized. Now in our own
organization, we are not so quick as we once were to proclaim the good news that the
Lord has come again, that the judgment has taken place, and that a wonderful new age
The very fact that the moods are radically different, though, betrays a fundamental
similarity. Both times can be accused of a kind of naiveté, an immersion in present
circumstances, a lack of perspective. In the nineteenth century, there was such a
consciousness of material progress that the deep rootedness of human selfcenteredness
was underestimated. Currently, the signs of social upheaval so fill our consciousness
that we do not consider what good things may be happening under the surface.
This does make a difference in the way we look at each other and the way we treat
each other. If our underlying mood is one of fear that things are getting out of
control, we are particularly sensitive to things that go wrong. There is a feeling
that we have to be constantly on the watch, ready to sound the alarm before things go
too far. It is hard to let go and trust.
On the other hand, if we believe that the judgment has taken place, that the Lord has
come again and that we are witnessing the gradual fulfillment of the prayer, "thy
kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven," we are particularly sensitive to things
that go right. When things are at their worst, we suspect that we must be missing
something. An attitude of trust is our natural refuge. Perspective does make a
What I should like to do with my two lectures this week, then, is to try to set all
this in a larger historical context, focusing today on the eighteenth and nineteenth
centuries, and in my second lecture on the twentieth.
We associate the eighteenth century with political revolutions, with the birth of our
own nation and the French Revolution treading on each others' heels. There was no
less a revolution in thought. We might think of the seventeen hundreds as a time when
the material world began for the first time to become mechanized. For the first time,
that is, the notion that matter obeyed the regular laws of physics began to take
precedence over the notion that matter obeyed the inscrutable will of God.
In a way, this amounted to a redefinition of the word, "why," a shift of focus from
purposes to causes. This is a familiar duality in our personal experience. When, say,
I get a flat tire late on a cold and rainy night in March, part of me asks the
purpose question. "Why is this happening to me?" meaning "What is the intent of this
trouble?" The mechanic in me also wants to know why it happened in the sense of what
caused it. Was it something in the road, was it a defective valve, was it a slow leak
through some overaged rubber? Understanding the intent affects my attitude;
understanding the causes shapes my actions.
We can see the same contrast on a larger scale. An earthquake that would once have
been see as a sign of divine wrath, perhaps even a warning of the coming end of the
world, is now seen as the result of plate tectonics. As far as science is concerned,
it has no purpose because the plates themselves are clearly not living, purposeful
entities. The pressure builds to a certain point, and then things shift suddenly.
Eventually, we can expect to measure the forces involved accurately enough to predict
when these releases will come, and that will be one more proof that we are not
dealing with any arbitrary divine will but with deterministic physical forces.
It also means that we will no longer be so helpless. The ability to predict is
closely allied with the ability to control, and on these twin powers of prediction
and control rests the claim of science to exclusive possession of "the truth."
Religion could not wipe out polio-science could. We take this virtually for granted.
In the eighteenth century, though, this was not taken for granted, not at all. It was
a totally radical, new idea, incredibly exciting to the minds that grasped it,
incredibly alien and threatening to the minds that did not. Swedenborg had one of the
few minds that not only grasped it but applied it full force. His airplane design
made no attempt to imitate birds. It used principles of physics. It was based on his
observations of the force that wind exerted on broad surfaces such as doors, and
involved calculating how much surface would be required to lift a human being. He is
credited with the basic concepts on which both geology and crystallography are
founded. His adumbration of the nebular hypothesis, his cataloguing of smelting
technology, his mechanical inventiveness-all these testify to his comfort and
facility with matter as mechanism. He was engaged full time in finding out "why
things happened" in that causal sense.
There are occasional evidences throughout his scientific period that he retained his
interest in "the other side of why," in the issue of divine purpose. It was not until
he embarked on his search for the soul, though, that the issue became critical. We
might think of a kind of spiritual plate tectonics, in fact. Under the surface of his
consciousness, a purpose-ful understanding of the universe was creeping inexorably
along, exerting greater and greater pressure against the more obviously powerful
mechanistic interpretation until finally, when it came to the relationship of body
and soul, something gave. Wonderful as the machinery of the body was, it was not
From a doctrinal point of view, this is obvious. The essence of the soul, its
substance, is love, and love is purposeful. The Latin word traditionally translated
"will" would be more precisely represented by the word "intentionality" or
"purposefulness." We can no more determine the nature of the soul by the science of
anatomy than we can determine the character of a driver by an analysis of her car. If
we start with the purpose of driving, then the mechanism of the car is
comprehensible-though some of the frills and furbelows are a bit harder to
But if there was a subtle tension between empirical science and traditional religion
when it came to understanding the material world, there was outright war when it came
to understanding the Bible. It has come to me only recently that this is not solely
the fault of a skeptical science. It is at least equally the fault of an intransigent
religion, and two lines of inquiry converge on this conclusion.
The first is an investigation of what was meant, traditionally, by ""the literal
sense" or "the plain sense" of Scripture. One of Andrew's Yale professors, Brevard
Childs, has written articles that show clearly that from the beginning of the
Christian church until the Enlightenment, this "plain sense" was not at all what we
are familiar with as Biblical literalism. It allowed for and included metaphorical
and analogical interpretation, plays on words, and leaps of intuition that we might
regard as fanciful. The ancients had known perfectly well that the gods talked in
riddles. If the Bible was the Word of God, of course it was oracular. If there were
no element of mystery, how could it be divine?
Swedenborg opened Arcana Coelestia with a statement that no one would gather from the
letter that the Word of the Old Testament contains hidden heavenly treasures. If we
understand this to mean that no one believed there was hidden meaning in the Old
Testament, he was just plain wrong. He was right, however, if we understand it to
refer to the kind of meaning he was about to unfold-a continuous story of a coherent
spiritual process, arrived at by a consistent discipline of interpretation. He was
not talking about a book of disconnected riddles.
For centuries, Christians in particular had believed that there was more to the Bible
than its literal meaning. We need look no further than the Gospel of Matthew to see
this. Matthew is particularly concerned with the theme of fulfillment of prophecy;
but by literalist standards, he fails miserably to make his case. Let me run quickly
through some examples.
The prophecy about the virgin being with child (Matthew 1:23) is found in Isaiah
7:14, and clearly refers to some child who would be born during king Hezekiah's
lifetime. The "prophecy" "out of Egypt have I called my son" (Matthew 2:15) is found
in Hosea 11:1, where it is not a prediction at all, but a straightforward statement
about what has happened in the past. The "prophecy" about weeping in Ramah (Matthew
2:18), found in Jeremiah 31:15, is also not a prediction, but is a statement about
the grief of the exile. The prophecy that "He shall be called a Nazarene" (Matthew
2:23) refers to the message to Manoah in Judges 13:5, where it actually says, "the
child shall be a Nazarite," and the reference is to Samson (a Nazarene is a person
from Nazareth, a Nazarite or Nazirite is someone who has taken particular vows of
John the Baptist's identification of himself as "the voice crying in the wilderness"
(Matthew 3:3) refers to Isaiah 2:44, where it also says that "every valley shall be
exalted and every mountain and hill made low,"-events which certainly did not happen
literally. Even the "prophecy" about the thirty pieces of silver (Matthew 27:9) in
its own context is not a prophecy at all, but simply part of a rather cryptic
narrative in Zechariah 11:10-14 (not in Jeremiah, as Matthew has it).
Matthew knew what he was doing. He knew that for his readers as for himself, this
kind of interpretation carried conviction. God had indeed called Israel out of Egypt.
How fitting that he should call the Messiah out of Egypt as well! God's prophets,
like Elijah, tended to be austere figures, wilderness dwellers. How fitting that John
the Baptist should be of this mold! Even the word play on Nazarite/Nazarene was
typical of oracular utterances. When the divine spoke, you had to look beneath the
surface. The literal meaning was superficial, and in fact was usually misleading.
When you saw what was really intended, what lay beneath the surface, then you knew
you had hold of the divine message itself; and as Deuteronomy eighteen says very
clearly, there is no way to know a true prophecy from a false one until it either
comes true or does not. The event interprets the prediction.
This means that the world we ourselves live in is freighted with divine meaning, and
that the Bible is the book that contains all the clues for understanding it. The
Bible reveals God's characteristic modes of speech and action, God's purposes. It
tells us all we really need to know.
Then, with the Enlightenment, science came along and started explaining things in a
very different fashion. Galileo gave one of the first hints of this, and the reaction
of the church was a harbinger of things to come. Rather than allow for the
possibility that the literal meaning is essentially a vehicle for the deeper meaning,
the church opted to defend the literal meaning as true in and of itself.
I was alerted to this particularly by a second line of inquiry, by reading some of
the correspondence between Friedrich Christoph Oetinger and Swedenborg. Oetinger was
a Lutheran prelate who was so impressed by what Swedenborg wrote, especially about
the spiritual world, that he wrote a book about it-and got himself into a good deal
of trouble thereby. He was a cleric who wanted to keep up with current thought and
who in this pursuit had read some of Swedenborg's scientific works. He was dismayed
by the tendency of most science to deny the reality of spirit, and when he discovered
that this eminent scientist was offering empirical descriptions of spiritual reality,
he believed that a new prophet had been raised up to respond to the growing
materialism of the times.
He was deeply troubled, though, by Swedenborg's treatment of the Bible. On October 7,
1766, he wrote,
Is not sacred scripture, the holy Apocalypse, a source book for everyone who reads
and heeds it? "Seek," it says in Isaiah 34:19 [AV 34:16], "in the book of the Lord;
it will not be wanting in any respect." An earth-dweller, then, should search it even
though he has as yet no inkling of its spiritual meaning. If we can have no
understanding of the unknown things of heaven apart from such meaning, then we read
the Apocalypse in vain. Still, we can understand that we await a city whose architect
You raise new doubts for me, though, since I am so curious about your discoveries.
This world is already cryptic enough, and you are taking away the possibility of
understanding the city of God as a city. We have to understand it spiritually.
Please, answer me one more time before you die, or we will be obliged to rely on the
guesswork of uncertain reports about our state of life after death as well. . . .
You have offered us some remarkable descriptions of our state after death. They are
significant, but they do not suffice to lead me to believe that the Revelation of
John is to be understood only spiritually, not physically and literally. You have
been granted signs, but they are not for us. Give us some signs that your doctrine of
the new Jerusalem is true, that God cannot say anything contrary to his spirit. I beg
you, then, to ask the Lord who has appeared to you for permission to talk with John
himself whether he agrees with your interpretation. Be bold enough to ask to talk
with the twelve apostles and with Enos, to talk with Paul, whose letters you do not
In response to a further letter from Swedenborg, on December 4, 1766, Oetinger
repeated his request.
Further, since you write than you have talked with John a third time, I do request
herewith that you discuss with him a fourth time whether this city is to be
understood metaphorically, and whether your spiritual interpretation squares with the
words of the text better than that of our illustrious prelate Bengel, whose literal
interpretation has spread through almost all regions, even to Rome.
The "Bengel" to whom Oetinger is referring is Johann Albrecht Bengel, author of the
first critical Greek text of the New Testament and of a commentary in which
(according to the Encyclopedia Britannica) "he gives a careful word for word
explanation of the Greek text in an unusually concise and penetrating way"
(Encyclopedia Britannica, 1971 ed., vol. 3, p. 477).
This is a critical first step along the path that leads to contemporary
fundamentalism, to the creationism that has so often been in the news lately. As
such, it bears our close attention; and steeped as we are in the mind set of the hard
sciences, it is not easy to recapture the pre-enlightenment attitude with enough
clarity to appreciate this first step.
Let me take a specific, somewhat hypothetical example. The twenty-sixth chapter of
Genesis tells of Isaac's dealings with someone who is identified as "Abimelech, king
of the Philistines." Archaeology, though, makes it quite clear that the Philistines
did not settle in the Holy Land until five or six centuries after the time of Isaac;
and the fact that "Abimelech" is a good Hebrew name, while the Philistines evidently
spoke a language closely related to Greek, raises further doubts.
It is not all that difficult simply to regard this as an anachronism, like talking
about Benedict Arnold leading colonial troops through Maine into Canada in the
eighteenth century, before Maine existed as a state or Canada as a nation. This,
however, was the road not taken by Bengel and the many who accepted his conclusions.
The road they took leads directly to defending the position that in the days of Isaac
there were in fact Philistines in the Holy Land and that they had a king with the
Hebrew name "Abimelech."
In Bengel's time, serious archaeological work had not even begun, and there was no
discipline of historical research into the events of the biblical era. There was
little evidence to challenge the detailed accuracy of the Bible's historical
accounts. The road was inviting.
It must have looked particularly inviting in comparison to its alternative. Once one
began to admit that the Bible might be literally wrong in some respects, that is,
where on earth would this process stop? If the Bible was wrong about the Philistines,
it might be wrong about the exodus from Egypt, about the coming of the Messiah, about
the resurrection of the body, the Last Judgment, the descent of the Holy City.
The road that Swedenborg laid out was quite different. He did hold that the biblical
accounts were substantially true on their literal level, but he did not spend much
time on that theme. Occasionally, in fact, he would point out things in the literal
sense that could not be true in order to strengthen the case for the reality of the
deeper levels of meaning. The literal level is absolutely essential, but primarily as
the vehicle of those deeper levels. To return to our hypothetical example, whether or
not there were Philistines in the Holy Land in the time of Isaac does not make much
difference to me in my relationships and responsibilities. There is a wealth of
insight available, though, in the image of encounter between rational good and
intellectualism, if I am willing to dig for it.
If I am not willing to dig for it, though, this road is a road to biblical
agnosticism at best. The fears of the early literalists were legitimate in that
sense. If the literal sense of Scripture could not be trusted absolutely, and if
there were no solid spiritual sense to hang on to, then the worth of the Bible was
seriously in question.
In retrospect, it may seem peculiar that someone like Oetinger could be so
enthusiastic about Swedenborg's descriptions of the spiritual world and so cool to
his descriptions of the spiritual sense. I can only suspect that for him, that
spiritual sense was still something remote and relatively insubstantial. He was
heartened by the way Swedenborg's accounts made sense in a world whose "common sense"
was becoming increasingly skeptical, but there was no way he could share in
Swedenborg's experience of that other world as solid, substantial, present, and
supremely real. So there was no way he could transfer that feeling to the spiritual
sense of Scripture.
I suspect that for Swedenborg it was this world that often seemed insubstantial and
insignificant. Why would so brilliant a man as Bengel waste his time on things that
really didn't matter? It would be like being given a detailed written description of
the path to heaven and spending a lifetime studing its calligraphy.
Perhaps the best image is the one offered by Swedenborg himself in The Apocalypse
Therefore the Lord compares the truths of the former church, which were external, and
representative of spiritual things, to "a piece of an old garment"; and the truths of
the new church, which were internal and spiritual, to "a piece of a new garment."
The literalist choice is to keep trying to patch the old garment; and as long as that
is the only garment available, it is hard to see what else can be done. Only when
there is at least a glimpse of the reality and beauty of the new garment is it
possible to face the fact that this is a dead-end road and to face the challenges of