For which of you, intending to build a tower, sitteth not down first, and counteth the cost, whether he have sufficient to finish it? - Luke 14:28
The motto that Swedenborg saw over the door of a temple in heaven has for good reason become a kind of motto for our church. In its expanded form, it is ¡°Now it is permitted to enter with understanding into the mysteries of faith.¡± Our church has prided itself on the rational coherence of its theology. It has used reason, often effectively, in its outreach. It has expected doctrinal competence of its members, and especially in past generations has expected its clergy to be teachers first and foremost.
Given the fact that we are human and fallible, we have managed at times to make vices out of these virtues. I do not want to rehearse the many and ingenious ways we have done this, but would point only to one byproduct. That is, we have glossed over the fact that there is a huge and lovely paradox at the center of our theology. Time after time, we are advised to act one way and believe another. We are invited to make believe that things are not the way they really are. This is putting the matter in extreme terms. The terms familiar to readers of Swedenborg are that we are to do what is good as if of ourselves, yet are to acknowledge that it is from the Lord.
We can rationalize this, and sometimes do, by rephrasing it. We can say that the power to do good is not really ours, but is a gift from the Lord. This, however, does not solve the paradox, it only hides it. If I truly give you something, it is yours. If the power to do good is not really ours, then the Lord has not really given it to us. If the Lord has really given it to us, then it is really ours.
There are, further, passages in our theology which should dissuade us from seeking any such easy way out. One is in Heaven and Hell 302, and reads as follows:
If only people believed the way things really are, that everything good is from the Lord and everything evil from hell, then they would not take credit anything good within themselves or attribute any evil to themselves. In everything good they were thinking or doing, they would focus on the Lord, and everything evil that flowed in they would throw back into the hell it came from. But since people do not believe anything is flowing in from heaven or hell and therefore think that everything they think and intend is within themselves and therefore from themselves, they attribute evil to themselves, and pollute the good that is flowing in by taking credit for it.
As we read further, it is abundantly clear that we cannot reach this point of believing ¡°the way things really are¡± just by reading, or by intellectual argument. The obstacle to this true belief is not simply mental misconception, but that far subtler aspect of our nature which our theology labels the proprium our very sense of selfhood, the whole image we have of ourselves as real and independent creatures. There are some very astute passages about ¡°intermediates,¡± and the whole picture we have of our spiritual process is that it is a lifelong one, depending on the choices we make in our day-to-day activities.
If we attend carefully to what is going on in this process, if we do not block out the messages we do not want to hear, we find our assumptions about our independence at first challenged and ultimately destroyed. If we look honestly at what has happened, in as much depth as we can manage, we realize that our pretensions to virtue and our confessions of guilt have simply missed the mark. We have been living with an illusion of being in control, when in fact all that we could control was the illusion.
Again, this may sound extreme, but it has solid theological support. It was brought home to me, in fact, by the heading to paragraph 191 of Divine Providence:
OUR OWN PRUDENCE IS NOTHING, AND ONLY APPEARS TO EXIST--AND INDEED IT SHOULD SEEM TO EXIST. NO, DIVINE PROVIDENCE, BY BEING IN THE VERY SMALLEST DETAILS, IS UNIVERSAL.
Swedenborg goes on to argue this unwelcome point at some length. All our thoughts, he says, arise from the affections of our love, and these affections are known only to the Lord. The Lord is constantly guiding these affections by his providence, which means that he is guiding the thoughts that make up our prudence. It is the Lord¡¯s providence that gathers these affections into a single form, namely a human form.
At this point, though, we may need to remind ourselves that this is simply one side of the paradox. The other side is implicit in the heading, in the statement that our own prudence should seem to exist. It is more explicit in the frequent stress our theology lays on our acting in freedom according to reason. There is a quite compelling description of all this in paragraph 1712 of Arcana Coelestia which I¡¯d like to quote at some length. The Scripture verse being explained tells of events happening by night, which leads to the following comments:
. . . night [means] a state of obscurity. We call it a state of obscurity when we do not know whether something is [only] apparently good and true or is really good and true. Whenever we are caught up in apparent good and truth, we think it is genuine. The evil and false element within apparent good and truth is what creates the obscurity and makes [the apparent] seem genuine. When we are in [this] ignorance, we cannot help ¡°knowing¡± that the good we are doing is our own and that the truth we are thinking is our own, just like people who take credit for the good things they do and attribute worth to them without realizing that they are not good, no matter how good they seem to be. The proprium and sense of merit they invest in them are the evil and false aspects that obscure and becloud. The extent and quality of the evil and falsity in them lies hidden and can never be seen in this life the way it can in the other, when everything is presented to view in clear light. Then it makes a great difference whether its cause is unconfirmed ignorance, in which case the evil and false elements are easily dispelled, or whether we have confirmed ourselves in a belief that we can do good and resist evil with our own strength and therefore that we deserve salvation. If this is the case, [the ignorance] clings to us and makes our good evil and our truth false. Still, the design is such that we should do good as though we were doing it on our own. We should not hold back our hands thinking that if we can¡¯t do any good on our own, we should wait for direct influx and stay in a passive state. This is contrary to the design. No, we should do what is good as though we were doing it on our own, and when we reflect on the good we are doing or have done, then we should think and recognize and believe that the Lord did it within us. If we hold back from thinking along these lines, then there is no subject into whom the Lord can work. The Lord cannot flow into people who strip themselves of everything into which strength can be poured. This is like people who do not want to learn anything unless it is given them by revelation, or who do not want to teach unless the words are granted them, or who do not want to make an effort unless it seems as though they were impelled without willing to be. If this actually happens, they resent it acutely because it is as though they were an inanimate thing. The fact is, though, that what the Lord brings to life in us is what seems as though it came from us. For instance, it is an eternal truth that we do not live on our own--if we did not seem to live on our own, then we could not live.
We need to accept and in a way trust the appearance of prudence. Swedenborg¡¯s definition of charity (in The New Jerusalem and its Heavenly Doctrine 100) is that it is ¡°acting with prudence to the end that good may result.¡± I was startled by a paragraph in the business section of the Sunday New York Times last month, which read as follows:
If nobody goes shopping, is it really a recovery? That is the question that economists may soon have to confront. The early 1992 burst of consumer spending has faded, and American consumers are reaching for their wallets not to spend but to pay off debts. ¡°There is a worrisome trend toward prudence,¡± said James Grant, editor of Grant¡¯s Interest Rate Observer.
After years of reading how Japan was outstripping us because their high rate of savings gave their industry the capital for modernization, I¡¯m now supposed to lose sleep over the fact that we are beginning, as individuals, to try to get out of debt?
No, prudence may not be anything in relation to eternal concerns, but it seems to be something, and it should. I would suggest that this means that prudence is something in the make-believe world of finance, in the world that we are involved in for a few years, and then leave behind forever.
Perhaps the greatest problem with our trust in the rational coherence of our theology is that it can lead us to believe that we really know what is going on. We pay little heed to the repeated warnings that as long as we are in this world, we are in darkness. Time after time, our theology tells us that the light of heaven is immensely clearer than the light of this world, that hidden in everything we do perceive there are miracles that lie quite beyond our grasp.
We need to face these reminders squarely, and not try to minimize their impact or explain them away. If they seem to reduce us to nothing, that may be exactly what we need. If they leave us wondering whether we understand anything, that sounds like the beginning of true receptivity. Solomon¡¯s wisdom began when he admitted his ignorance.
If these reminders leave us with a sense that we are utterly powerless, that may be the beginning of a new effectiveness. For then, when we have dropped the shield of our own sense of self-importance, we are finally open to receive. We are ready to do our part as the occasion arises simply because it is there to be done and we are there to do it. We are impatient with issues of praise and blame because they are miss the point. We ought to be concerned with what the Lord is trying to accomplish, and concern with praise and blame distract attention from everything that really matters. We do sit down and count the cost, yes--but we know that whether or not the tower actually gets completed is in the Lord¡¯s hands, and we are glad that it is.