Friday, August 8, 1989
Location - FNCA SSR
My main thesis this morning is that Swedenborg's Divine Providence is a book about revelation--not the
Book of Revelation, but the more general topic of the ways in which the Lord communicates with us. I
suspect that when we hear the world "revelation," most of us think immediately of the Bible and of
Swedenborg's writings, and I want to argue that these are special cases of a far more inclusive
This follows, I believe, from the premise that the purpose of creation is a heaven from the human
race, one of the more familiar premises in our theology. Given that purpose, then the primary function
of revelation must be not simply to disclose truth, but more profoundly to support the process of
regeneration, the development of the angelic in human beings. Truth is not an end in itself, but a
means to love. It also follows that what we identify as revelation is just one of the means which the
Lord uses in a constant effort toward a single end.
Given that the Lord always acts for our regeneration, this means first of all that the truth disclosed
in revelation must be comprehensible, but comprehensible in various measures, because our ability to
comprehend changes as we grow. Sunday School teachers do not read long passages of Arcana Coelestia to
preschool children. Each of us knows of concepts that are only now beginning to make sense to us. And
each of us also knows that there were those initial ideas that seemed to grasp us, to make immediate
and potent sense. As one of our hymns puts it, "They must upward still and onward who would keep
abreast of truth."
The word Swedenborg uses to describe this aspect of revelation is accommodatio, "accommodation," or
perhaps better, "adaptation." I'm coming to prefer the latter, because there can be a hint of
unwillingness to the word "accommodation" in colloquial usage. If someone makes unreasonable demands,
we may "accomodate" them, as a kind of temporary and reluctant expedient; but it is reasonable and
normal to adapt to changing circumstances. There seems to be less suggestion of condescension.
There is a great deal in our theology about the ways in which Scripture is adapted to our needs, and I
want to make special mention of two. First of all, Scripture makes copious use of "appearances." God
is portrayed at times as angry, vengeful, jealous, and unforgiving; and we are told that this is
because that is how we perceive the Divine when we ourselves are in such states. In fact, we need to.
There are times, especially early in the process of regeneration, when we can be restrained from evils
only by fear of punishment, and when it is necessary for us, for our own safety, to believe that God
will punish us if we transgress.
Second, Scripture is written in the language of correspondences. This has the marvelous effect of
keeping certain messages hidden from us until we are ready to hear them. The classic example is
Nathan's parable to David, where the injustice was described in such a way as to get by David's guard.
Once he had condemned the rich and selfish man in the parable, he could not evade the same judgment on
himself. In much the same way, particular passages of Scripture will light up with meaning only when
we are in a state to perceive. At other times, they will seem perhaps interesting and valid, but not
Both of these features can be related directly to the first principle or law of providence, that we
should act in freedom according to reason. Freedom has to do above all with our willingness, and
revelation is designed not to override that willingness, but to take it into account. Within the
limits of our willingness at any given time, revelation is designed to speak to our reason, to enable
us to make decisions rather than to make decisions for us.
This is a particularly critical point, and in many circles a controversial one. There are churches who
see the Bible as a book of rules to be followed unquestioningly. When the morality of a particular
action is challenged, their tendency is to find some particular passage that specifically addresses
that point, and to regard it as authoritative. One is not supposed to ask why, or to take consequences
into account. One is supposed simply to obey.
We ourselves have not been immune to that tendency, but it surfaces in particular situations. We are
most likely to resort to the concept of Biblical authority when something is challenged that matters
very much to us, and when we cannot seem to find anything else that works. These are emotional times,
and one of the normal emotions in these circumstances is fear. We are afraid of what will happen if
something we see as evil is not checked immediately and decisively, and so we call on divine
There are two obvious difficulties with this. The first is that we are very selective about what we
regard as authoritative. We may cite the prohibition of homosexuality in Leviticus 20:12, glossing
over the fact that it demands the death penalty, and that in adjacent verses the same penalty is
prescribed for cursing one's parents, adultery, and cohabiting with a daughter-in-law, for example.
The second problem is closely related. By what principle do we make our selection? Usually, it seems,
"because it's obvious." It's obvious that cursing one's parents is not such a serious transgression as
adultery or homosexuality. But it seems even more obvious that if our criterion is what is obvious to
us, then we are setting ourselves up as authorities over Scripture. Our final standard is not what the
Bible says, but what we perceive. We are, in a sense, unwilling to take responsibility for our own
moral values, so we say "This is what God commands" instead of "This is how I feel."
This is not to rule out the practice of looking to Scripture for moral guidance, or even for moral
laws. It is simply to insist that if we do so, we do so consistently, developing principles which
govern our selectivity. For surely we must either be selective or be orthodox Jews. As a a first step,
for example, we might say that we are not bound by the simply ritual laws, or by the dietary laws, but
even then we should have a defensible reason, one that did not depend primarily on our own
Where would we turn for such principles? The obvious place, for us, would be to the writings, and
particularly to the basic principle that the purpose of creation is a heaven from the human race; and
if we do so, something quite significant happens. We find ourselves forced to look not just at
theories, but at actual results.
Let me give you an example. There are passages in Scripture which can readily be interpreted as
forbidding any kind of contact with spirits. In fact, there are strong warnings in our theology, as
well. I have known, and I suspect you have, people who have been helped through a crisis by some
paranormal experience, sometimes an experience that "just happened," and sometimes one that was
purposefully sought. We have also known people for whom such experiences were clearly harmful. They
gradually cut themselves off from anyone who did not agree with them.
That is, it seems to be not the experience itself that makes the difference, but the way in which it
is accepted and understood. We can of course say that there is a risk involved, but this is hardly a
decisive point for people who see themselves as constantly held in a balance between heaven and hell.
There is always a risk involved. The question is, what risks are necessary, and what risks are
foolish, and that must depend on the individual.
But let me apply this to the current matter of controversy, homosexuality. If we stand by our
principles, then our concern is for the regeneration of all individuals. If we see growth in
compassion and understanding, then we are entitled to assume that some inward marriage of love and
wisdom is taking place within. If we see increasing hostility and alienation, then we have not only
cause for concern but an obligation to be concerned. The primary requirement, as I see it, is not to
prejudge in such a way that we blind ourselves to what is actually happening.
Most of the foregoing has dealt with just one aspect of revelation, namely revalation as the
presentation of law. I want to spend some time now talking about something different, another way
revelation speaks to our freedom and reason, namely revelation as the asking of questions. This aspect
of revelation came to my attention especially while I was studying the Gospels for a course at SSR. I
began to notice, really for the first time, how rarely Jesus gave straight answers to his questioners.
He presented them with parables, with paradoxes, and with questions as often as not.
Any teacher will recognize the method. It is expressed in parable form by the proverb that if you give
a man a fish, you have given him a meal, but if you teach him how to fish, you have given him a
lifetime of meals. The disciples had to learn to figure things out for themselves. They could not go
on forever depending on their Master to hand them the answers on a platter. He would not always be
with them, for one thing; and for another, he knew very well that the answers that mean the most to us
are the ones we work out for ourselves.
There is a very simple example of this. If you want to memorize something, say a poem, it will not do
just to read it over and over again. You have to put the book away, and make the effort to remember.
Then when you get stuck, you go to the text with a specific question, and the answer sticks.
What does this have to do with revelation? We are so accustomed to think of Swedenborg's writings as
containing "all the answers" that we may resist the notion that they also raise serious questions. It
may seem as though this represents some kind of inadequacy. But I am more and more convinced that the
questions are there, and that they are there because a wise and loving providence knows full well that
we need them.
Some of them are fairly obvious. What we find in Earths in the Universe raises one kind of question.
Are we to accept as infallible what Swedenborg has to say about the physical universe? For most of the
history of our church, this was not a particularly troubling issue. Swedenborg's grasp of science was
well ahead of his time, and it was encouraging to the church to see discoveries that confirmed some of
his more advanced conclusions. But now that we have visited the moon and have seen the results of
remote exploration of the surface of Mars, we are faced with the question.
It is a a good question for us to face. Do we give our allegiance to this theology because it offers
us some kind of special, esoteric knowledge, or because of the quality of human life it describes and
nurtures? Is our devotion to that kind of life so uncertain that it needs props like information about
I suspect most of you have imagined what would have happened if the moon landings had confirmed
Swedenborg's descriptions. The whole focus would have been on this incidental aspect of his work, with
little if any attention given to the essential message. I have little doubt that we as a church would
have tried to take advantage of the publicity, and would have tried to attract people by calling
attention to the fact that he was, in some quite miraculous way, right. We would then have found
ourselves struggling to turn the attention of sensation-seekers to the serious business of living a
heavenly life, when that was not at all what they were looking for.
This, as I mentioned, is one of the more obvious questions. There is another that surfaces from time
to time, and it too is a good one. If, as seems clear from Heaven and Hell, gentiles have an easier
time accepting heaven than Christians do, then why should we insist on being Christians? It certainly
seems to be a particularly demanding faith, and our own version of it offers no shorcuts whatever. I
have one answer in particular in mind, but I'm not going to offer it at this point. Perhaps in the
discussion time some thought will emerge.
For me, one of the most fundamental questions posed by our theology is summed up in the familiar
injunction to resist evils as if of oneself, yet acknowledging that it is in fact the Lord who is
doing the resisting. By any logical standards, this is simply not consistent. It says I must pretend
that I am doing something and at the same time recognize that I am not. Aristotle would be appalled.
A thing cannot both be and not be at the same time. If the Lord gives me the power to resist, then I
am using that power. Or does the Lord only seem to give it, actually retaining it? "Human prudence,"
says Divine Providence "is actually nothing. It only seems to be something--and it should."
This is the fundamental question, the question of our relationship with the Lord. It cannot be
answered adequately simply by intellectual analysis. It has to be answered with our lives. At some
point or other, either gradually or traumatically, we have to discover that we are not just weak, we
are powerless. As long as we have mental reservations about this, we are avoiding the issue, begging
the question. The answer has to be our own. No one else can make it for us.
This is also a prime example of the way revelation works, for the paradox presented in the "as if of
self" principle is one that will grow as we grow. People in Alcoholics Anonymous, for instance, have
faced it in regard to one specific problem in their lives. They have learned that they are powerless
to resist alcohol, and are wholly dependent on a higher power to keep them sober. They also know the
other side of the paradox, that they must themselves live one day at a time, refusing to drink. But it
can be somewhat surprising to discover that these same individuals often do not realize that the same
principle applies to other areas in their lives. When it comes to their marriages, to the way they
handle their children, to how they react to stress or to obstacles, there often is not the same
realization of powerlessness, of need of the higher power. The appearance is that they can handle the
problems, and like the rest of us, they may be quite content to live without really questioning that
This may serve to illustrate the point that the "as if of self" principle is not something we are
supposed to solve intellectually. It is to remain a question, so to speak, asking us to answer it over
and over again, on deeper and deeper levels as our regeneration advances. Carolyn Blackmer expressed
what stays in my mind as an extraordinarily deep level. In the terminal stages of cancer, she wrote of
having to abandon control of her own body to the doctors and nurses, to realize that, like an infant,
she really had nothing to say about her physical life. At the same time, the inner process by which
she was facing this was intensely personal and powerful. No one else could do it for her.
Swedenborg experienced this in a different way, at an earlier stage of life. Early in The Word
Explained (which he drafted at the very beginning of his theological career), he wrote,
I am able to asseverate by God that I have experienced so sensibly the government of the mind through
Spirits, that I suppose it would scarcely be possible to feel it more sensibly, and this now for the
space of almost eight months, within which, by the Divine grace of the Messiah, my mind has been
governed through Spirits of His Heaven, with whom I have daily spoken almost continually during that
period. They flowed at the time into my mind to the life with spiritual light, and also with the ideas
themselves, with every single particle of thought, and with the living words themselves, but which no
one present was able to hear. So that I was not able to think anything, not even one atom, that did
not thus sensibly inflow, and therefore could not produce one single idea by my own effort, unless it
had been left to me that it should appear so. . . . In the same way as they inflowed into the
understanding, did they also inflow into the will, and into the very actions, so that I was led
altogether as a mere passive power wheresoever it was pleasing: through ways, streets, to an inn, and
round about. They thus sensibly ruled the very movements of the feet, arms, head, eyes, and joints of
the body, during the conversations, according to the bidding of the Messiah Himself.
(The Word Explained n. 943)
At the same time, Swedenborg was involved in an intense effort, at times in a painful struggle with
himself. Later in the same work, he wrote,
If, as now appears, I am destitute of these [heavenly] things, the Knowledges heretofore given me of
the Divine mercy of God Jesus Christ are of no use. Thus in vain have I labored hitherto, so that
nothing do I dare, nothing do I know, as to whither I am going. "The land" is the understanding itself
of the mind, which is at the same time taken away, so that I understand almost nothing; for thus do
evil Spirits darken me; and the things which I am able to write are given me piecemeal. This is my
state at this day, exactly as was foresignified by the Egyptian man; and what they want further, I
know not. I wait for thy salvation, O God Messiah.
(ibid., n. 2/1063)
My purpose in presenting these particular quotations is twofold. First, it is to illustrate that when
Swedenborg wrote about the "as if of self" principle, he was not simply the philosopher dealing with
an intellectual issue. This was a life and death issue, one which he had faced in extreme form. He was
a brilliant man. A research project at Stanford identified him, along with John Stuart Mill and
Goethe, as having the highest IQs known. He was a worker, who had been immensely productive. And at
this point in his life, he wrote, "Thus in vain have I labored hitherto, so that nothing do I dare,
nothing do I know, as to whither I am going." "I understand almost nothing." "I wait for thy
salvation, O God Messiah," and he knew he could do nothing else. His marvelous intellect and immense
capacity for concentrated work were useless. All this lies behind the little words of one syllable,
"as if of self."
My second purpose in presenting the quotation is to come directly back to the subject of
"accommodation," because I think they illustrate how the adaptation happens, and may even suggest how
extensive it is. Revelation is adapted to our comprehension because the Lord uses human agents for it,
and uses what is in their minds and hearts to give his truth form that can be familiar to us. This is
inescapably obvious in the use of human language, with the prophets using Hebrew, the evangelists
Greek, and Swedenborg Latin. It is only a little less obvious in such matters as choice of image, with
Biblical writers drawing from a world of agriculture and herding, and Swedenborg drawing from his
understanding of such matters as anatomy, physics and the planets. He came to regard his entire career
as engineer, civil servant, and researcher as preparation for his role as revelator. He was
accumulating the forms in which the truths could be expressed, forms which other people could
This is not an easy matter, and I'd like to use an illustration. We are all familiar with the fact
that it can be awfully hard to express precisely those thoughts and feelings that mean the most to us.
Let us focus for the moment on how we feel about someone who is very dear to us, and what we see in
that individual. We know, and that knowledge is vital knowledge. It does not seem to want to fit into
It has struck me that that kind of knowledge is itself a primary form of truth, and that the verbal
form is secondary. When we read about truths in our theology, I suspect that we usually think of
doctrinal statements, statements especially about the Lord. These we can learn, by heart if we wish,
and they may prove invaluable guides to us. But they are no substitute for the kind of realization
that comes with experience. and the experience itself shapes our understanding of the verbal
expressions. The experience itself is a form of accommodation. No two people have the same experience.
To be most specific, no two people will experience the Lord's care in precisely the same way, so no
two people will have exactly the same understanding of divine providence.
Bill spoke yesterday about the fundamental doctrinal statement that "God is one." That is a verbal
statement, and may even be interpreted as a mathematical one. At a session of last fall's annual
meeting of the American Academy of Religion, one prominent New Testament scholar talked about passages
where Jesus spoke of being one with the Father as being claims of equality with God. That was what
"one" meant for him. Jesus also prayed that his disciples might be "one" in the same way that He and
the Father were one. This to me says very clearly that the truth of the statement "God is one" lies at
a level far deeper than the verbal or the mathematical. It must lie in our own incommunicable
experiences of oneness.
As we begin to realize that Swedenborg's experience shows through in his theological works, then, it
is entirely likely that we will become less literalistic about them. They are not the products of God
simply dictating to a secretary. They are, in the form in which we have them, the products of a man
who was led through a most strenuous process of discovery, and who--as his manuscripts make abundantly
clear--worked hard to express clearly and directly the truths that resulted. These were truths, as he
himself often reminds us, that lie beyond the power of words to communicate.
I want to close by pushing my last illustration a little farther. When we are at odds with someone,
one of the devices we can use is extreme literalism. We examine everything that individual has said to
see how we can use it to our own advantage. When we care deeply for someone else, though, and have
come to a real appreciation of that individual, then we tend spontaneously to see through the literal
form of statements to their actual intent. Of course we know what the person said, but we also know
that that is not enough. We also know why, and that is what we find most important. That is what
enables us to respond constructively--we see through the "accommodation," the means available to that
individual at that moment. May we do the same with our theology.