Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me. - John 5:39
Our theology tells us very clearly and repeatedly that there is a place in heaven for all the people who live by the principles of their religion, whatever that religion may be. The only restriction, if we can call it that, is that a religion must teach that there is a God, and that the will of that God is to be heeded. In this view, the Lord makes sure that everyone has the means to choose heaven, and those means include some knowledge of the will of the Divine.
This was at odds with the conventional wisdom of his own church, and of much of the Christian world. Jesus had said such things as ¡°No one comes to the Father except by me,¡± and this was widely interpreted to mean that the only means to salvation was the acceptance of Jesus Christ. Considerable effort went into missions to the heathen, who were presumed to be lost souls because they had not heard the Gospel.
While Swedenborg rejected this stance as utterly incompatible with an all-loving, wise, and capable God, he did not reduce the standing of the Bible to just one more revelation among many. He saw it as the central, definitive revelation of the nature and workings of the Lord, and in particular he saw the birth and life of Jesus as the sole and therefore definitive incarnation of the infinite Divine. We can reconcile this intense Christianity with this broad ecumenism, as I suspect I have mentioned before, by the statement that in the Christ, Swedenborg saw the primary revelation of the God who is at work everywhere and at all times.
This morning, though, I want to look more closely at the place the Bible--or more precisely, the Word--holds in our theology. This goes hand in hand with the same combination of exclusivism and ecumenism. For Swedenborg as for any good Lutheran, the Word was the final authority in all matters of religion and theology. He could make strong statements to that effect, and I have one in particular in mind. It comes from Arcana Coelestia (n. 9411), and says, ¡°When those who are in enlightenment are reading the Word, they see the Lord . . . . This takes place solely in the Word, and not in any other writing.¡±
It is a very short step from this to a statement that without the Word, one can have no knowledge of the Lord--a short step, but obviously an unwarranted one. It would mean that someone could read such an insightful book as Paul Vickers¡¯ God Talk/Man Talk, and come away with no knowledge of the Lord. No, we have to read carefully here, and take the word ¡°see¡± quite seriously. People in enlightenment see the Lord when they read the Word. This, I believe, can only mean that they get a unique view of the Divine coming into human history, a view that cannot be gained from any other source. It may be echoed in collateral literature, especially to the extent that that literature refers to and quotes Scripture, but the vivid picture is in the pages of the Bible itself and nowhere else.
What is so special about this book? It is easy to assume that it is special because it is inspired by the Lord; and in some ways, that answer will do. But if we look more closely, it is a risky answer. Our theology tells us that the Lord is fully present everywhere; and in fact, what would be the use of finding the Lord in the pages of the Bible if that did not help us discover the Divine presence and working in our own times and in our own lives? Absolutely everything comes from God, so if we could look to the inner source and meaning of anything, we would find God revealed. This presses us to think that the Bible is unique not in the fact that the Lord is present in it, but in the way the Lord is present in it.
On this subject, there is a wide variety of opinions. Some Christian denominations hold to theories of verbal inspiration, and claim to believe that everything in the Bible is literally true. Inevitably, they must ignore some passages, because there are direct contradictions in the literal sense. God cannot be love, as the first epistle of John maintains, and hate Esau, as is stated in Malachi. Most Christians take a much ¡°softer¡± view of the matter, and apparently believe that there are nuggets of truth, so to speak, that must be sorted our from a considerable mixture of material. For a time, the most academically respectable stance was that the Bible recorded with moderate fidelity genuine acts of God, and that by using good scholarly discipline, we could learn the lessons of that special history.
Swedenborg proposed a different approach, one that has not caught on except among Swedenborgians. His fundamental premise is that the Bible is a literal story which contains deeper meanings. He sees it as largely accurate on the literal level, but not entirely so. From time to time, he points out places where literal accuracy has been sacrificed for the sake of spiritual accuracy, especially in instances of numbers.
Again, we need to be careful how we understand this. What makes the Word special is not simply that it contains this kind of meaning. Everything created corresponds to something spiritual. What makes the Word special is that this meaning is consecutive and coherent--in short, that it makes a story.
It is not easy to explain this to non-Swedenborgians. It is familiar enough to those who have been brought up in our Sunday Schools, but we may not realize how unfamiliar it is to anyone else. It may all too easily sound impossibly esoteric, or sound like some kind of secret code for people in the know. Such images miss the point completely, because Biblical imagery, the ¡°language of correspondences,¡± is not artificial at all. It is wholly natural to the way our own minds work, as natural as our tendency to use light as a symbol of understanding and warmth as a symbol of love, to use physical height and depth and symbols of levels of value.
Sometimes, in fact, people have been persuaded of the validity of this view of Scripture by seeing a particular story come to life through correspondential interpretation. Going down from Jerusalem to Jericho and falling among thieves, for instance, can strike a newcomer as a vivid image of what happens when we move from our states of idealistic reflection down to the everyday states of involvement in the workaday world. For centuries, Canaan has been seen as a symbol of heaven, and crossing the Jordan as passing from this world to the next. When the pilgrims came to this country, some saw themselves as repeating the exodus from Egypt--crossing now a watery wilderness to escape religious bondage and reach a promised land of freedom. The Epistle to the Hebrews is an exercise in looking at themes in the Old Testament as seeing them as symbolic prefigurings of the heavenly events of the New.
Again, though, the spiritual meaning of non-Biblical events can be just as valid and just as striking. Swedenborg notes in Divine Providence (n. 251:4) that ¡°all things which take place in the natural world correspond to spiritual things in the Spiritual World.¡± So again, it seems that we are pointed back not just to the correspondence but specifically to the coherence. What is unique about the Word is that it is a coherent story from beginning to end.
If we reflect on it, this has some important corollaries. It means especially that it is not legitimate to take anything out of its context. If God said such and such to Jacob, that was said in a particular context and is appropriate to that particular context. We cannot simply transfer it thoughtlessly to our own contexts, which may be radically different.
We can certainly learn from it, though, if we examine it in its context. We need to ask questions about the problem being dealt with and the purpose being sought. What was the Lord trying to accomplish? How open and cooperative was Jacob? What would have happened in the story of the Lord had sent a different message?
What emerges from this kind of exploration of the whole story has, I believe, an appealing validity. If we take the largest view, the Genesis-to-Revelation view, the Lord is trying to come into people¡¯s lives. The Lord is trying, in perhaps a more appropriate image, to lead people into heavenly community, and is trying to do this without overriding their own freedom.
This means working within the limits of their willingness. You do not persuade a two-year-old to go to sleep by offering it a season ticket to the Boston Symphony. God did not appeal to Abram with a promise of loving relationships. The appeal at that point was to Abram¡¯s desire for prosperity and posterity--your descendants will become a great nation. Only very gradually, through extreme ups and downs, does the story progress to the point where the prophets begin to talk about the law being written on the heart. Only after centuries can the story reach the point where the Lord enters in the flesh, preaching not the kingdom of Israel but the kingdom of heaven.
In a way, there is a double standard of judgment required. Looking, say, at the life of Moses, we must see both its rightness for its own time, its appropriateness for those particular needs and circumstances, and its inadequacy for times yet to come. It is fine, good, and right in its place. It succeeded in moving the people from where they were one giant step toward the realization of the promise, but it did not provide an eternally definitive model, except in one significant sense. That is, the actions did suit the circumstances, as our actions must suit ours.
I would close with one reminder. We do not lay great stress on the literal accuracy of the story. We do ask, though, that the story be taken as told. It is a story less of events than of values. We probably have some naive notions about the history of our own country, but those notions may embody values which we urgently need. We may very well, then, recognize that the stories are naive, but retain them as stories because they communicate ideals of honesty, freedom, and courage that are essential to our national well-being. So Swedenborg points out a literal inconsistency in the story of the ten plagues, and then goes on to interpret the story as told.
¡°Search the scriptures, . . . for they are they which testify of me.¡± They have for many, and they can for us. Amen.