Saturday, September 9, 1991

Location - Pacific Coast Association

Mainstream Christian theology has for some time been focused on issues of social

injustice. "Liberation theology" in general, with such subcategories as feminist theology

and black theology, has raised urgent questions about the participation of Christian

churches in a world of dismaying inequality and about the role of theology as tending to

reflect and justify the status quo. There has been a tendency to highlight those passages

in both Old and New Testaments that criticize the rich and advocate the poor. One recent

scholarly introduction to the Old Testament goes so far as to see the period of the Judges

as Israel's golden age, when there was an egalitarian society and when social problems

were taken care of by informal networks. The author then proceeds to label the monarchy as

"Israel's counter-revolutionary establishment."

In the general schema, the basic problem is seen as one of unequal distribution of power.

The poor, the minorities, or women are seen as "marginalized" by their exclusion from

circles of power. The solution is therefore to "empower" them. In the jargon of the trade,

there are writers who insist on "a hermeneutics of suspicion" in the case of more

traditional theologies, and claim "hermeneutical privilege" for the marginalized. In more

colloquial terms, this means that one cannot take anything a traditional theologian says

at face value, while what the minority theologian says is exempt from criticism.

On the intellectual level, this is a frontal assault on the problem, a direct effort to

redress the imbalance. The minorities have not been heard. The "establishment theologians"

have been heard too much. The goal seems again to be an egalitarian society; and in

liberation theology circles, "hierarchy" is almost as derogatory a term as "patriarchal."

What does this have to do with creation spirituality? I want to argue this evening that on

this particular issue, on the issue of the distribution of power, creation spirituality

and liberation theology tend to be diametrically opposed to each other. Creation

spirituality is profoundly and thoroughly hierarchical. If one reads or listens to Matthew

Fox, there are countless references to higher and lower values. A theology is not to be

criticized because it is propounded by a white male or espoused because it is propounded

by a black female. It is to be considered compassionately regardless of its source, in an

effort to understand it first of all, and to see what it implies. If it has no underlying

cosmology, it will not help us find our fitting place in the scheme of things. If it does

not leave room for mystical experience, it will cut us off from a major source of

spiritual light and strength.

And if Matthew Fox's theology is broadly hierarchical, Swedenborg's is hierarchical in

detail. One can scarcely read a page without coming on some reference to higher and lower,

or (which is the same thing) more or less internal. We read early and often about the

celestial, spiritual, and natural heavens, arranged one above the other. But let me give

you a sample quote.

. . . there are three heavens. The first is where good spirits live, the second is where

angelic spirits live, and the third is where angels live. Their degrees of perfection are

heightened the way more outward things relate to more inward ones. It is almost like the

relationship between hearing and sight, and between sight and thought. That is, what

hearing can take in in an hour can be presented visually in a minute--as, for example, a

country landscape or a view of mansions or cities; and what the eye can see over a space

of hours can be grasped by thought in a minute. This is like the ratio between the

language of spirits and that of angelic spirits, and between the language of these latter

and that of angels. In one concept of their language or thought, angelic spirits can

actually grasp more than spirits can with some thousands; and there is a similar ratio

between angels and angelic spirits. (Arcana Coelestia 1642)

Since Swedenborg is talking here about speech and language in heaven, he presents the

intellectual side of this hierarchy--the concepts of higher angels are vastely more

perfect than those of lower ones. But there is, of course, more to it than that. This is

very definitely a hierarchy of power as well. I quote again, ". . . one angel is more

powerful than tens of thousands of hellish spirits . . . " (Arcana Coelestia 3417).

But it is not just a matter of intellect and power. It is first and foremost a matter of

love. Heaven and Hell 479 begins with the statement that "After death, we are our own

love, or our own intentionality. It continues,

The whole of heaven is divided into communities on the basis of differences in the good of

love [which I'll have more to say about shortly]. All the spirits who are transported to

heaven and become angels are taken to the community where their love is, an on arrival

are, so to speak, with themselves, as though there were in the house where they were born.

. . . then whatever does not make one with their ruling love is put aside and apparently

taken away. If they are good, then everything that is discordant or in disagreement is put

aside and apparently taken away, and they are in this way brought into their own love.

The same thing happens to evil people, with the difference that it is true things that are

taken away from them, while it is false things that are taken away from the good.

This, I would suggest, brings us to the root of Swedenborg's hierarchical view of reality.

It is summed up in True Christian Religion 394f. The title of the section is" "There are

three universal loves--love of heaven, love of the world, and love of self." It continues

(I abbreviate considerably),

We begin with these three lives because they are the universal and fundamental [aspects]

of everything. . . . By love of heaven we mean love of the Lord and also love of the

neighbor. . . . Love of the world is not just love of wealth and possessions, but love of

everything the world provides, everything that delighes the physical senses, as beauty

delights the eyes, harmony the ears, fragrance the nostrils, delicacies the tongue, and

caresses the skin. . . . Love of self is not just a love of honor, glory, renown and

eminence, but also a love of earning and seeking positions of influence and thereby

controlling other people. . . .

[395.] These three loves are in every one of us from creation and therefore from birth,

and when they are properly subordinated, they perfect us as humans; and when they are not

properly subordinated, they distort us.

The social message of this particular version is, I think, clear. The empowerment of the

marginalized will not necessarily bring us any closer to a just society. The only change

that can move us toward that goal is the empowerment of the compassionate. This can be

accomplished either by identifying the compassionate and empowering them, or by finding

those in power and converting them to compassion. Neither of these means is at all simple

or easy, but there are instances of both. We know that they can happen because they have


It seems unrealistic or idealistic to think that they can happen with enough regularity to

make a major difference to our planet. In rebuttal, though, I would ask that we look

honestly at what the "realists" have done. We have had successful revolutions against

tyranny, empowerments of the disenfranchised. One of these happened about three-quarters

of a century ago in Russia, and the extent of its disastrous consequences is just becoming

evident. One of them happened much more recently, with the victory of the North

Vietnamese. It led not to a just society, to genocide in Cambodia. Idi Amin was not more

benevolent than his colonial predecessors, and in general the native governments in former

African colonies have been oppressive and corrupt.

There is the rather cynical statement that "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts

absolutely." If it is true that power corrupts, then the equal empowerment of everyone

would simply mean that we would all be equally corrupt. It would be more accurate, I am

sure, to say that it is easy to be righteous when you are powerless to do anything bad on

a scale big enough to attract attention. Power amplifies our intentions and broadcasts

them. We give lip service to the Gospel principle that faithfulness or faithlessness in

least things means faithfulness or faithlessness in great things, but we do tend to shy

away from it when things get tough.

Let me take an example that could be closer to home. I trust we would agree that having

power entails a corresponding responsibility. It trust we would also agree that having

money grants us a corresponding amount of power. When we think of having more

money--whether by writing a best-seller or getting a marvellous raise or winning the

lottery--do we ask ourselves seriously whether we are ready for that responsibility? Do we

look carefully at the way we are handling the responsibility we have now? This is not a

frivolous question. One of Mike Tyson's trainers made the same point recently in a very

concrete way. If you take someone from reform school and give him four or five million

dollars, what do you expect?

contact phil at for any problems or comments