And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared of God, that they should feed her there a thousand two hundred and sixty days. - Revelation 12:6
The books of Daniel and Revelation are of the literary type called “apocalyptic.” This means that they deal largely with otherworldly scenes on a cosmic scale. They look into the future, and see cataclysmic events. We are well aware that Biblical literalists look to such descriptions to determine when the world will come to an end. One brochure currently in circulation informs us that “The Rapture” will occur this coming October twenty-second. On that day, the faithful will be caught up into heaven. The rest of us will suffer seven years of tribulation before the world comes to an end in 1999.
Our own church regards the apocalyptic visions as truly prophetic, but wholly correspondential or symbolic. They are talking about what will happen in the spiritual world, and they are describing this in striking images because this is the most appropriate way to represent spiritual events in natural language.
For example, Swedenborg interprets the woman clothed with the sun, in the twelfth chapter of Revelation, as representing a new church. The chapter then becomes a prophecy, informing us that this new church will meet with opposition, and will be sequestered until the time is right for its emergence.
We have tended--wrongly, I think--to identify this “new church” with our own organization, and we have consoled ourselves for our small size with the thought that we may be in this period of latency. Sooner or later, in our own lifetimes or in future generations. our church will really come into its own.
I don’t want this morning to go into my reasons for resisting the identification of our organization with the new church. I hope it will be sufficient to remind us that the deeper meaning of this chapter is talking about spiritual states and not about external organizational matters. The dragon is not primarily the Christian churches that believe in faith alone, it is the principle of “faith alone,” or more broadly, the attitude of intellectual pride.
Now, this attitude is by no means restricted to Protestant churches, or to those churches which stress Paul’s statement about faith in his letter to the Romans (3:28). It is alive and well in our own church, in seminaries around the world, and in fact in secular institutions--in colleges and universities and graduate schools. Wherever there is the feeling that “we are better because we are brighter,” the dragon is at work.
I my talk last Tuesday night, I referred to Harvey Cox’s statements that American philosophy is in crisis. By its own admission, he said, it is so caught up in specializations that is irrelevant to life concerns. This strikes me as another guise of the dragon. There is an immense effort to be intellectually invulnerable, to construct arguments that cannot be refuted. This has led philosophers into an overriding concern with language itself, language as a phenomenon virtually divorced from actual situations. Occasionally there will be a spasm of interest when someone sees an implication for a current social issue, but the main stream of American philosophy seems to sweep undeterred toward its ocean of abstraction.
By contrast, the new church, the woman clothed with the sun, sees truth as the agent of love, as the light for living. In the description of the New Jerusalem, we are told that everything in that church will flow from the good of love. This means to me that the recognition that American philosophy is in crisis, the recognition that it has become irrelevant, is in and of itself a blow against the dragon. If this consciousness were to gain such ground that it became the dominant theme of our academic institutions, the woman would be taking a major step out of the wilderness. That is, scholarship would not be valued as an end in itself, but for the guidance it offered in a complex and perplexing world.
Quite conceivably, our little church could play a significant role in this process. We have among us minds just as capable as any, and we have the tremendous headstart, or the tremendous special resource, of our doctrines. However, if we are to live up to our potential, we must identify and defeat our own dragon. We might paraphrase the familiar question from the Sermon on the Mount--”How can you take the gnat out of your companion’s eye when there is a dragon in your own?”
One of the most familiar devices of our own dragon is the conviction that we, either as individuals or as a church, are special because of our doctrines. It is an appealing thought in part because it masquerades as respect or reverence for the doctrines. But by the testimony of those very doctrines, the question is not how much we know but how we live what we do know. We might turn again to the Gospels--”If you were blind, then you would have no sin; but now you claim to see, so your sin remains” (John 9:41).
Don’t we know this? Do we really think of ourselves as special because of our doctrines? I suspect that when I talked about the current crisis in American philosophy, most of us thought of this as applying to somebody else. If I were to talk about the present state of Christianity, or the present state of spirituality in this country, I would be heard as talking about “other people.”
We are, though, embedded in our culture. We are not so different as we would like to think. Imagine for a moment that a neutral observer came to town. Imagine that we were all obliged to go about our daily lives as usual, with the sole proviso that we could not indicate what church we belonged to. How long would it take this neutral observer to identify the Swedenborgians? Do we stand out in anyone’s minds but our own? Maybe we do a little bit, but I doubt that we are as distinctive as we’d like to think we are.
I do think, though, that our theology is much more distinctive than we are, and I would take this as suggesting very strongly that we are not bringing this theology down to earth in truly convincing ways. Rather than simply looking for new translations and new literature, we might look for less verbal modes of outreach. Suppose we were to take the doctrines we felt were most needed at the present time, and see whether we could come up with convincing, unmistakeable ways to do them. So we have a marvelous doctrine of the trinity, one which fully asserts the divinity of the Lord without falling into the noxious pits of trithesism. How do we live this doctrine?
If we can’t figure out a way to live it, then we should acknowledge that as far as we are concerned, it does not relate to our lives. It does not make a difference to us in our everyday choices. So now the pressure is on. We know, intellectually, that this doctrine is at the very heart of our church. We know, intellectually, that it is highly distinctive. Surely this means that there ought to be highly distinctive ways to live the doctrine, ways that would stand out in a crowd the way our theology stands out in a discussion.
It has been mentioned, with good reason, that we do tend to stand out in our attitude toward death. Swedenborgian funerals are different, and people who encounter our church for the first time in this way are often impressed. This I would take as indicating that we might be equally distinctive on other occasions, in other contexts. We might at least hope that no one could attend one of our worship services without the same kind of reaction we get to funerals.
No, it looks as though we were less differentiated from the world around us, the culture we live in, than we think. It looks as though if we want to look at the future of the new church, we must look both in and around us with the acknowledgement that much that is around us is also within us. We may stand out in some respects, but in many respects we blend right in.
If we do look for the new church in this larger context, I believe we can discern some hints of things to come. We can see, for example, that under the Lord’s providence the pressures toward sane ecological living will keep mounting. Ultimately, we will have to recognize our interdependence on the rest of creation, or suffer disastrous consequences. We will have to give up our power trip, our dreams of mastery over nature, and accept the role of stewards.
In our societal relationships, there will be increasing pressure to recongize the obvious fact that no just society will ever be formed in the absence of human compassion. Our standard of living in this country is the envy of much of the world, and yet our American society gives every evidence of discontent. As population density increases, and as technology amplifies the effects of our decisions, we will be driven toward the admission that only fair-minded people can form or maintain a fair-minded society.
This in turn will put a premium on the development of fair-mindedness. We know that people can change. We know that such change cannot be imposed. We need institutions that work at fostering such change on a long-term, ongoing basis, institutions that keep trying and keep learning. We need institutions that do more than intervene in crises, institutions that call forth every trace of good will that is to be found in average people, and that know how to encourage, strengthen, and inform that good will.
In short, we need “churches,” if we may use that word, with the vision and the patience to help people change--to move beyond their resentments or their personal ambitions toward genuine community. There is a world of wisdom and guidance in the simple statement that the purpose of creation is the formation of a heaven from the human race. It means that the central task of the church is the encouragement of the insight and compassion that make for true community here and now.
Yes, the dragon stands in the way. Yes, we are overly concerned to have our church succeed according to the standards set by the culture we live in. Yes, we are prone to let such concerns override the deeper and subtler issues of spiritual honesty and innocence. But whether we admit it or not, the “new church heaven” of mutual affection and understanding is the only viable, practical way for people to live together.
We may not be able to see what is going to happen, or when. We can be very sure, though, that the more we resist the heavenly model, the more pain we will bring on ourselves. Perhaps we can be different enough, distinctive enough, to understand what is going on. Perhaps we can stop trying to point to the way on the basis of what we have read, and start exploring the way for ourselves. After all, what we are looking for is the way out of the wilderness. We may be very sure that the way is there. Our theology can set us on the path, and it will open before us as we walk along it.