The Inner Word
Sunday, November 11, 2001
Attribute - Bible
Bible Verses -
THE INNER WORD
Psalm 78:1-16 Hymns: 372
Luke 24:13-35 *140
Responsive Reading #34, p. 162 **157
The New Jerusalem and its Heavenly Doctrine 252-254
Then beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
We continue this morning with the effort to put the basic teachings of our church into simple statements. The five previous statements have been "There is no wrath of God," "The Lord is good to all," "The Lord our God is one," "We worship the risen Lord," and "No, love is not blind." We turn this morning to one of the most familiar and distinctive principles of the church, "There is inner meaning in the Word."
Contrary to popular opinion in our church, this in itself was not a new idea when it was presented in Secrets of Heaven. Through most of the history of the Christian church, and in a different way in Judaism, it was assumed that there were depths to revelation that did not show on the surface. There were careful distinctions of levels of meaning, with the deepest only for the elect. What we now experience as literalism really came into its own at the time of the enlightenment, as a defense against the materialism of science.
Against this background, though, at least three things are distinctive about our own teaching. The first is the consistency and discipline of the system of interpretation. One cannot read Secrets of Heaven without being impressed by the constant cross-referencing, the demonstration that the meaning of a horse in this passage, for example, applies in other passages as well. Swedenborg went to the immense labor of compiling his own index to that massive work, an index that is a massive testimony to its consistency.
Second, the reading of inner meaning is grounded in a uniquely vivid and detailed understanding of the nature of the spiritual world. This connection is highlighted at the point early in Secrets of Heaven where the descriptions of that spiritual world are first introduced (§67). I quote only part of the first sentence of that introduction.
Since the Lord's divine mercy has granted me knowledge of the inner meaning of the Word, and since this meaning contains the deepest of secrets, things that have never come to anyone's notice and that cannot do so unless people know what things are like in the other life . . . .
The substantial reality of that spiritual world, a reality that we glimpse through the many stories about it, gives substance and clarity to a "spiritual meaning" that otherwise is vague and speculative.
The third distinctive feature is the establishment of what has been called "the Swedenborgian canon of Scripture." That is, we are told that while spiritual meaning is necessarily present everywhere, even in the events of our own times, there is a coherent story being told in a select number of books of the Bible-basically, in the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms of the Old Testament and in the Gospels and the Book of Revelation in the New (See Secrets of Heaven 10325 and The New Jerusalem and its Heavenly Doctrine 266). Only in True Christianity, the last of the published theological works, is "the Word" evidently used in its Lutheran sense to include the Epistles.
This is not nearly as arbitrary a selection as it might seem.We are informed that the spiritual meaning is not only consistent but also consecutive, in essence that a coherent spiritual story is being told. The books that are included are the ones that tell a particular story from beginning to end; and the books that are excluded are books that offer sidelights on that story, books that do not materially advance the plot. Let us look, then, at that story.
It begins with a striking account of creation whose major themes are that humanity is the crown of creation and that the whole of creation is good, in fact "very good." It goes on to tell of a decline from that ideal state to one of conflict, at which point God intervenes with a call to Abram. This call presents the main theme of the rest of the story, the promise of a glorious kingdom.
We can turn for a moment to the opening of the Gospel of Matthew for the briefest of summaries of the story from then on. "So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations, and from David to the exile in Babylon are fourteen generations, and from the exile to Babylon to the Messiah are fourteen generations" (Matthew 1:17). Abraham marks the giving of the promise, David marks its triumphal literal realization, the exile marks its disastrous failure, and the coming of the Messiah marks its restoration. The Gospels then tell of the shift of focus from "the kingdom of Israel" to "the kingdom of heaven," closing with the crucifixion that demolished political hopes and the resurrection that awakened spiritual ones. The Book of Revelation then does not tell the history of the early church on earth but instead follows the risen Christ into the spiritual world, tells of the conflicts on that level, and concludes with the vision of the spiritual kingdom descending to earth as the Holy City, the New Jerusalem.
This epic lays out for us a path for our own souls to follow. We can see in the call to Abram our first childhood intimations that adulthood lies ahead for us, adulthood with all its apparent freedom and power. We can see in the tortuous path toward the establishment of that kingdom the struggles of early youth and adolescence-the sense of oppression that comes over us at puberty, the struggle for independence that leads us into the wilderness of early adolescence, the inner battles against our own childishness, and the eventual arrival at that time when we stand on the same level as our own parents.
We can see in the stories of the divided kingdom the ongoing battles between heart and mind as our ideals are tested by the realities of parenthood and career, and we can see in the exile the crisis that overtakes us as age makes itself known and tells us that our childhood goals are either unreachable or empty.
Devastating as this realization is, it marks the removal of the greatest obstacle to the true coming of the Lord into our lives. Only as we let go of the illusion that we have things under control is the door opened for the Messiah. Then our own attention is freed from its attachment to external achievement and drawn to the truly human values that do not die when our bodies die. We become capable of the kind of self-forgetfulness that does not distract us from this world but enables us to work within it without anxiety, simply to do what we can and leave everything else in the Lord's hands.
The image of the Holy City descending from heaven to earth is marvelously appropriate in this respect. The spirituality to which we are being called is not "other-worldly," not at all. It involves a sensitivity to and concern for the souls of the people around us. It tells us that we will not have physical peace until our hearts are at peace and impels us then to do the physical things that convey this message.
"The spiritual sense of the Word," then, is not some special, secret information reserved for the elect. "The spiritual sense of the Word" is the story of our own inner journey, and when we see our own lives and the lives of others in that light, it makes a difference. It helps us to look beneath the surface of our immediate comfort or discomfort and try to understand what is happening. It counsels patience both with others and with ourselves, the recognition that the way is long and that sometimes the steps we can take are small. It assures us that even the smallest step toward heaven is worth taking.
A man about my age, raised in a Swedenborgian church, surprised me recently by telling me that he now believed in reincarnation, his primary reason being that he felt in his heart that he was too far from heaven to make it in one lifetime. I suspect most of us know the feeling, though it may not have led us to the same conclusion. Seeing the Word as the story of our own pilgrimage assures us that the Lord is present with us when we are at our worst, never condemning us, always treasuring us, leading us through our own wilderness toward the blessed and beautiful holy city.
This spiritual story counsels us to beware of hasty judgment, either of ourselves or of others. We see only what others choose to do: we do not see the alternatives they have rejected, so we do not really know the choice they have made. We would dismay ourselves far less frequently if we understood better why we do some of the things we do, what we are up against. It may be hard to believe it, but if we saw ourselves as the Lord sees us, we would be moved not by dismay but by love and understanding. In the language of the Gospels, the Holy Spirit is "the Paraclete," the advocate or counsel for the defense. The prosecuting attorney is the satanas or Satan.
Let us then acknowledge both that the way is long and that the Lord is with us, with each one of us, throughout the journey. That is the inner message of the Word, of the law, and in the words of the Psalmist, it is truly a law worth loving and worth our meditation all the day.
The New Jerusalem and its Heavenly Doctrine 252-254
252. Since the Word is a revelation from Deity, it is divine throughout, since nothing that comes from Deity can fail to be divine. What comes from Deity comes down through the heavens all the way to us, so in the heavens it is adapted to the wisdom of the angels who live there, while on earth it is adapted to the grasp of the people who live there. As a result, there is inner meaning in the Word, inner meaning that is spiritual and that is for angels. There is outer meaning as well meaning that is on our natural level and that is for us. This is why heaven is united to us through the Word.
253. Only enlightened people can understand the real meaning of the Word; and the only people who are enlightened are the ones who have love and faith in the Lord. Their deeper reaches are raised by the Lord into heaven's light.
254. The only way to understand the Word in its letter is by doctrine framed from the Word through enlightenment. Its literal meaning is suited to the grasp of average people, so they need doctrine from the Word as a lamp.