FAITH ALONE, SWEDENBORGIAN STYLE
Friday, July 7, 1998
Location - FNCA 1998
The context of the story of Samson and Delilah is the struggle between Israel and the
Philistines. It is an intriguing story because it is so much more personal than
political. Samson never rallies the troops, never asserts any kind of political or
military leadership. Yet always in the background is the military power of these
outlanders. Delilah, Samson's downfall, is one of them. My primary concern this
morning is with their representation as it may be seen not in traditional
Christianity but in our own efforts toward a new church, not in criticism of others
but in challenge to ourselves.
Swedenborg says of the Philistines that "they do not reason from natural knowledges
about spiritual and heavenly things . . . but learn about the insights of faith and
keep them in their memory for the sole purpose of knowing them" (Arcana Coelestia §
1198). In Arcana Coelestia § 24689 he makes the further comment that they represent
people who are, in traditional terms, "in the knowledge of the Knowledges of truth
(and I'll come back to this "knowledge of Knowledges" later), and not in charity."
Then in Arcana Coelestia § 34122 he says that "in the Ancient Church and later, they
called people Philistines who paid little attention to life and a great deal of
attention to doctrine." Such passages add up to a predominantly negative picture of
the Philistines, and certainly in the history of Israel they are remembered as a
There are a few passages, however, that stand out as exceptions. One such is Arcana
Coelestia § 1197, where it is said simply that the Philistines represent "the
knowledge of the Knowledges of faith and charity." Similarly, Arcana Coelestia § 2504
says that they represent "the knowledge of the Knowledges of faith." The overall
impression is that the problem with the Philistines is not what they are or have, but
what they are not or do not have. Swedenborg would be the last to disparage knowledge
or doctrine-after all, he wrote and published one book called The New Jerusalem and
Its Heavenly Doctrine and four small works whose titles begin The Doctrine of . . .
.It is not the attention to doctrine that the Philistines are faulted for, but the
inattention to charity.
I propose this morning to look at this in two distinct but related contexts, first
the context of Swedenborgianism, and then the context of the regeneration process. I
trust the distinction between them is obvious; and the connection is most simply
indicated by the fact that our religion calls on us to be in process-to be changing.
This means there may well be states we have to pass through which are not
particularly attractive. This is hard to deny in view of Swedenborg's assertions that
evils cannot be resisted unless they become visible (Divine Providence §§ 1832, 278).
Let me turn first, then, to this matter of faith apart from charity in the context of
Swedenborgianism. We do have thirty volumes of doctrine, and we do want people to be
interested in them. Many of our churches started with reading circles, and adult
study groups have been one of the commonest features of our polity.
Nor should we underestimate the power of those doctrines. One of the first people, if
not the first person, to campaign actively for the abolition of the slave trade was
Charles Wadstrom, a reader of Swedenborg. Harriet Beecher Stowe was a reader as well,
and so was one of the leading figures in the abolition of serfdom in Russia. The
Swedenborg Foundation will shortly be publishing a collection of essays by Anders
Hallengren of Stockholm, and time after time, we encounter the theme of liberation.
It was Charles Bonney's Swedenborgianism that inspired the 1893 Parliament of World
Religions, the pivotal introduction of East and West. I have no doubt that the
potential is still there, that if we were turned on by our theology with the kind of
passion that impelled those individuals who discovered it, there could be similar
events in our own times.
One key ingredient, though, is that those individuals were not simply turned on by
the doctrines. They were concerned about the world they lived in. The doctrines
helped them see that world in a new light, and they found themselves impelled to do
something about the evils they saw. Further, these particular individuals were in
positions that enabled them to act on a scale that makes it into the history books,
and most of us cannot make that claim. For every one that we might read about in the
encyclopedia, there are surely hundreds who have lived lives of similar quality and
concern in the smaller circles of family and local community; and such lives are,
ultimately, the foundations of our national security and prosperity, the necessary
raw material of social justice and world peace.
The same doctrines that can focus minds so clearly on life issues, though, can also
be taken as ends in themselves. We have had our periods of preoccupation with
orthodoxy, our doctrinal battles. Sometimes these have involved matters of practice,
which is one thing. At other times, though, the issue has been one simply of
correctness, with no significant attention paid to life.
Currnently, for example, we are likely to meet people who believe in reincarnation.
As far as I can see, our teachings are clear and unequivocal that we die just once,
and from then on live as spiritual beings in the spiritual world. Swedenborg's
picture of human personality even allows for memories of supposed "past lives" by the
perfectly plausible proposal that we may on occasion have access to the memories of
other individuals (Heaven and Hell § 256).
Suppose, though, that someone has been brought up believing in an unforgiving god,
believing that one mistake was all it took to damn you to hell for eternity. For such
an individual, the doctrine of reincarnation might be the first ray of hope, the
first hint that there could be a second chance, that it was at least worth trying.
Certainly, too, we cannot pretend that the world we observe is fair. Virtue is not
always rewarded, nor evil punished. The doctrine of reincarnation is one way of
asserting that in the long run, life is fair. The prosperity of the evil is temporary
only, even if it lasts until death, and the same can be said for the sufferings of
the just. Reincarnation, then, may be the best way someone has found to believe that
God is loving and fair, contrary to appearances.
Of course, this can backfire as well. It can lead and has led to an appalling kind of
fatalism. It leads logically to the assumption that all suffering is deserved, that
the abused infant is being punished for the sins of a past life, that there really is
no such thing as injustice. There is much to be admired in the culture of India, but
its dark side is surely its toleration of poverty to the point of starvation.
At this point, it may help to look at the seemingly peculiar phrase, "the knowledge
of Knowledges." We are dealing with two different and distinct Latin roots, and the
difference continues to plague translators. The first root, which Potts associates
with lower-case "knowledges," yields words that have to do with being informed about
something. The second root, which Potts associates with upper case "Knowledges,"
yields words that have to do with first-hand, experiential knowledge. For example,
when I read accounts of near-death experiences and what NDE-rs have learned from
them, I am gaining "knowledge about Knowledges." The word for upper case "Knowledge,"
incidentally, is the word from which we have borrowed the terms "gnosis" and
"gnostics." The true gnostic is not the one who has read all the books but the one
who has actually encountered the Divine.
There is, I trust, nothing wrong with reading about near-death experiences, but it
can go wrong. The most obvious way this can happen is for me to regard my lower-case
knowledges as primary, to set myself up as an authority on matters of which in fact I
have only second-hand information.
There is a spectacular example of this in the academic world in the person of a
particular scholar much published on the subject of mystical experience. He is
obviously very widely read, and just as obviously has never had a mystical experience
in his life. I've been at meetings where he has responded to people who have told
their stories, and he consistently imposes his own theory on their experience,
apparently incapable of hearing what they themselves are trying to say.
There are of course two ways to learn about mystical experiences-to have them or to
study accounts of them. It seems fairly obvious that anyone who has not had such an
experience should start by respecting any and all first-hand accounts. Granted, they
may have faults, but there will be no learning whatever if one is determined to
cancel out any alleged features that cast doubt on one's own pet theories.
Let me come back to the Swedenborgian context, though, by way of near-death
experiences. I recall seeing a video of a Swedenborgian clergyman interviewing a
woman who had had such an experience. He kept pushing her to say that this offered
proof of our immortality. She kept trying to tell him that it was not about life
after death, it was about life here and now. She had discovered that she was a
spiritual being here and now, and that had made a tremendous difference to her; but
the poor clergyman simply could not hear what she so deeply wanted to communicate.
For him, the important thing was that the experience proved that Swedenborg was
right. For her, the important thing was that her own life had new meaning. She had
Knowledges with a capital "K"; he was totally absorbed in his knowledges with a small
So we live after death. So what? Some people have used this the way others have used
reincarnation, to excuse their tolerance of present injustice on the grounds that
everything will be made right in the afterlife. "Pie in the sky when you die."
"Religion as the opiate of the masses." In fact, the whole traditional view of heaven
as a reward for virtue and hell as a punishement for sin lends itself to this misuse.
The immense merit of the Swedenborgian view is that heaven and hell are seen as
present realities. Hell is not a place of punishment for sin, it is simply a place of
sin; and sin is as bad for us here as it is hereafter. Heaven is not a place of
reward for being good, it is a place where people live good lives, and living good
lives is as good for us here as it is hereafter, under the ambiguous material
"appearances" that enable us to deceive ourselves if we so choose. If the
Swedenborgian clergyman in question had actually listened to what the woman was
trying to tell him, the conversation could have been about heaven here and now. As it
was, though, he seemed very much like one of those people "who paid little attention
to life and a great deal of attention to doctrine."
At this point, we are on the border of our second context, the context of the process
of regeneration. There is a cognitive side to this process which Swedenborg describes
in § 1495 of Arcana Coelestia as follows: "When we are being taught, there is a
progression from `scientifics' (lower-case knowledges) to rational truths, then to
intellectual truths, and finally to heavenly truths." That is, we begin by learning
about the Lord's will for us, by taking in information. Then we learn to process this
rationally, to theorize, and then to use it discriminatingly. Whan Swedenborg
describes the final step as arriving at "heavenly truths," he is talking about true
wisdom, about knowledge that has taken root in our hearts; and this is Knowledge with
a capital "K."
It is abundantly clear, though, that we do not arrive at wisdom simply by thinking
things through. What we learn about the Lord's will has implications for our
behavior. It is put this way in Arcana Coelestia § 7857:
When we are being regenerated, whatever good we have comes from the truth of our
faith because we are not acting from an affection for truth but from obedience,
because it has been commanded. Later, though, when we have been regenerated, we do
good from affection and therefore from love. These two states of ours are decisively
distinguished from each other in the Word because no one can be in both at the same
That is, what we are taught becomes rooted in our affections by our regeneration, or
by our conduct of life, or, if you will, by our shunning evils as sins against the
Lord as if of ourselves, with the acknowledgment that our doing so is in fact a gift
from the Lord.
In view of this, it would seem inevitable that we will have times when we have
knowledges with a small "k" that we are not yet ready to apply to our lives. If we
stop to think about it, it is fairly obvious that our minds in fact need to see goals
we have not yet achieved. If there is no gap between our theory and our practice, we
are simply complacent, self-satisfied; and there is something seriously wrong with
In the biblical story, though, the Philistines are a major presence only at one
point. Israel has been freed from Egypt, has had her forty years in the wilderness,
and has gained her footholds in the promised land, but she is disorganized, living
from crisis to crisis. The Philistines are actually a major factor in the decisive
step to monarchy. It is the threat of Philistine domination that impels the tribes to
If we look at the Genesis-to-Revelation story as an image of our spiritual lives from
cradle to grave, the establishment of the monarchy is the prime candidate for our
arrival at adulthood, the period when we become self-governing; and it is clear that
this is a strenuous transition. Samuel, Saul, and David all play key roles, each
representing a significant step toward centralized government. Samuel is the first of
the judges to be recognized nation-wide, "from Dan to Beersheba," as 1 Samuel 3:20
has it. Saul is essentially a general who commands the loyalty of all the tribes, but
there is no suggestion of any administrative steps. David is the one who builds on
Sauls's achievements and establishes a capital city and an actual government; and the
filfillment of the promise to Abram is signalled in the first verse of 2 Samuel 7: ".
. . when the king sat in his house and the Lord had given him rest from all his
surrounding enemies . . . ."
The Samson story, then, would be located somewhere in our late teens, and the
Philistine threat is particularly apt for that very familiar passage when we knew
better than our parents and teachers. This should probably come as no surprise, since
our parents and teachers have been trying to convey to us the best of what they have
learned over the years; and it would be unrealistic to expect them to teach us what
they haven't figured out yet. It is appropriate that we enter adulthood with a sense
of commitment to high ideals, appropriate that we see clearly that those ideals make
sense. Much of this will ultimately get built into our conduct as we move out from
our parents' homes and take primarly responsibility for our own life journey.
In the Samson story, that time is not yet. For reasons there is not time to explore
here, I see Samson as the impulsive doer, the absolutist who charges into action
without counting the cost. The interplay between this attitude and the "I have more
understanding than all my teachers" is a fascinating one, reflected, I believe, in
the tension betweeen Samson's proclivity for Philistine women and his conflicts with
Philistine men. Certainly the Philistine attitude is defeated not by better arguments
but by life experience.
To summarize, then, if we are inclined to be Philistines, our theology offers us
ample resources. We have an immense theology, a whole arsenal of spiritual swords and
shields and chariots and horses. We can joust to our heart's content. That theology
itself, though, tells us to expect frustration if all we want to do is understand.
Theology is something we are supposed to think about and do. not just something we
are supposed to think about. It is only when we start trying to do the truth that we
begin to find out what it means, that we begin to move from "knowledge of Knowledges"
toward that "Knowledge" which can rightly be called wisdom.