And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord. - Luke 1:17
In several different contexts over the past couple of years, the subject of community has come up--community as it relates to our church. If we scan our memories and look through the masses of writing our church has produced, I suspect that we will find a great deal more on individual regeneration than on the formation and growth of community. Yet it is not the regeneration of the individual that Swedenborg identifies as the purpose of creation, but “the formation of a heaven from the human race,” and heaven is a community. This morning I want to pull together some Biblical material, some doctrinal material, and some thoughts from contemporary human growth theory that I hope will bring our individual and our common concerns together constructively.
Let us begin with the Biblical material. As a literal story, the Bible is first and foremost the story of a people. Of course there are the stories of individuals in it, but those stories are chosen and, we might say edited, in view of their relevance to the story of the people. Abraham is important because he was called to be the father of a nation. Joseph is important because he led the family to prosperity in Egypt. Moses was important because under divine guidance he brought a lot of people into independence and formed them into an organized whole; and I should like to dwell on this transition for a few moments.
If the Israelites were a community during their period of slavery, it was a community only of shared hardship. They had, so to speak, no will of their own, no freedom to act as a unit. The first step toward that freedom was a fascinating one--the first Passover. All of them observed the same ritual at the same time, each family in its own quarters sacrificing a lamb, smearing its blood on the doorway, and eating it with bitter herbs and unleavened bread. In a way, then, they acted as one, but separately. It was a kind of halfway house toward community. The first thing they actually did together was to leave Egypt. It was then that the Lord’s promise moved visibly toward fulfillment--”I will take you to me for a people.”
Sometimes it seems as though our church--like most churches--is still in the Passover stage. Most of the week, we are trying to “do the same thing” in the broad sense of living out the values of our theology, but we are doing this separately, in our own houses, in our own communities. In that sense, we are not a “parish church” at all, for the “parish” was historically the region the church served. When the term was fully appropriate, there would be one church in a community, and all the members of the community would be members. When I was in England in the early nineteen fifties, I visited an elderly relative of Bill Woofenden’s in a small town whose name and location I have forgotten. She was in her eighties, had never once in her life been outside the limits of the town, and had no desire to do so. Times have changed, and perhaps one reason for the general decline in mainline churches is that they--and we--have not effectively adapted to the changes. How do we act as a church community when each of us is a member of so many other communities?
To underline the importance of the corresponding doctrinal point, we may look at a book that was published by Yale University Press a few years ago. It is called Heaven: A History, and it has a full chapter on Swedenborg, entitled “Emanuel Swedenborg and the Emergence of a Modern Heaven.” The authors’ rationale is clear. “With the publication of Swedenborg’s writings in the mid-eighteenth century, a major shift occurred in the perception of heavenly life.: “Swedenborg’s visions of heaven contrasted sharply with the ascetic, theocentric heaven of the Protestant and Catholic reformers. . . . (His) writings provided both a vital challenge to the theocentric heavenly tradition and a sharpening of certain background themes dimly heard through Christian history.”
What is this all about? The “theocentric heaven” is the concept of heaven as the “beatific vision”--the image of the individual caught up in bliss in contemplation of the glory of the divine. It points a path away from the world we live in, away from consciousness of our relationships with each other. It assumes that when we love the Lord our God with all our heart and mind and soul and strength, there is no room left for loving the neighbor as ourselves.
Swedenborg’s lively, interactive heaven, full of people in communities bound together by ties of mutual affection and understanding, is radically different. We may not realize that for many people, the word “spiritual” simply does not have this kind of substantial, almost earthy content. It still suggests the visionary, a kind of other-worldly escape from the cares (and perhaps the responsibilities) of this world.
From the point of view of our theology, which I believe is the point of view of the Gospels, this is a harmful distortion. The harm comes not simply because it would lead us into private capsules of bliss, from engagement with each other, not just because it separates love of God from love of the neighbor, but because it sets those two loves at odds with each other.
In a way, this is understandable. One of the most familiar features of human life is the tension between private and public concerns. We are unfulfilled if we are useless to others, and we are unfulfilled if we have no time of our own. Sometimes it seems as though the best we can do is work out some kind of budget that keeps the accounts in balance, but that still leaves us torn between competing demands.
In a book I am very fond of, The Evolving Self, Robert Kegan insists that this can be a creative tension rather than an exhausting competition. That is, he sees the process of inner growth as energized by the tension between our needs for autonomy and our needs for inclusion. At times our primary need is to take responsibility for our own lives. Pressed to the extreme, this becomes unbearably lonely, and we turn to family or church or some other supportive community. This motion, pressed to its extreme, becomes engulfing and oppressive, and we are impelled again to self-assertion.
In a way that I find quite compatible with our theology, Kegan does not see this as an endless or fruitless circle. If we use our time of autonomy well, we return to the community with deeper understanding of ourselves and deeper appreciation of the role of community in our lives. If we use our times of inclusion well, we set forth on our excursions with decreasing anger and increasing clarity of vision. The tone of both autonomy and inclusion becomes more affirmative, more grateful, and the level of both becomes deeper.
The goal is “a heaven from the human race,” a heaven which is not gained--which would be in fact subverted--by any effacement of individuality. “A form is the more perfect,” Swedenborg wrote, “as its constituents are clearly different, and yet united” (Divine Providence 4.4). In heaven, each individual is the center of the love and care of all, and each individual extends care and love toward the whole. In a marvelous image in The Last Judgment (n. 12), Swedenborg states that heaven can never be full because each new arrival strengthens the whole fabric. “In the most perfect form, the more people there are the more focused is the aim and consensus of the many, the closer and more harmonious is the union. For every new arrival serves as a welcome intermediary between two or more, and every arrival strengthens and unites.”
The events of the past year and a half would seem to be telling is something in this regard. It seems that “the whole”--the community of Bridgewater--cares more about our welfare as a church than we would have guessed. It also seems that this church is capable of more concerted and strenuous action than we would have assumed. Some have done a little more, some a great deal more--everyone has done more. Circumstances have demanded that over this period of time the primary concern be with rebuilding, that the energies go toward remaking our own walls and our own roof.
It would be strange if we did not rejoice to see how well that remaking has succeeded, but it is not without real risk. The walls and roof protect us from the elements. They can also isolate us from the community--the very community that helped us remake them. That would be a tragedy indeed.
There is no inherent rivalry between our traditional concern for individual regeneration and community service. We are finite beings and cannot give infinite energy to either; but personal spiritual growth involves increasing concern for the community, and engagement in service is the arena the Lord offers us for personal transformation. In a book I just finished on the after effects of near death experiences, one of the recurrent themes is a kind of twofold change. People who have had these experiences tend toward increased concern with what is wrong in the world they live in, and less inclined toward quick or superficial solutions. Like Edgar Mitchell, they believe that changes in policy or behavior are not enough--there must be fundamental changes in attitude. The gift they bring to the community is their very personal and private transformation is that transformation of attitude.
This is far from a “program” for the church’s future. At best, it outlines some limits within which such a program might be developed. We are not “Brand X,” a generic church. We are unique both in our common heritage and in our individual gifts. The Lord’s call is to accept that uniqueness as the best gift we have to offer, and to then to learn how best to give it.