But Daniel resolved not to defile himself with the royal food and wine, and he asked the chief official for permission not to defile himself this way. - Daniel 1:8
On the literal level, the stories in the book of Daniel serve as a source of encouragement in times of difficulty, and certainly neither Israel nor Judaism was a stranger to such times. After a brief moment in the sun under David and Solomon, the nation divided, clinging precariously to a measure of independence while overshadowed by much more powerful neighbors. Then first Israel fell, followed ultimately by Judah, and the dark night of captivity, of exile, closed in. After the return from exile, Judea was subject to Persia, then to Greece, and then to Rome, with only one brief span of freedom under the Maccabees. Generation after generation needed the message of Daniel, needed assurance that it was possible to remain faithful against apparently impossible odds, that the Lord would deliver those who trusted in Him.
Politically, we have no such experience. We live in what is arguably the most powerful and independent nation the world has ever seen. We do not know what it is like to have our country occupied by a conquering army, to be dispossessed of our homes and taken against our wills to the country of our captors. The literal story of Daniel is not particularly relevant to our lives.
Like all the stories of the Bible, though, it expresses principles that apply on a much deeper level. As a parable of the struggles of our own souls, it is as fresh and telling as ever. We do have our inner tyrants, we do feel ourselves at times pressed hard to abandon our religious values and give in. The writings of our church enable us to move beyond this level of generalization and to identify a particular kind of tyrant who may be all too familiar.
In traditional doctrinal terms, Babylon corresponds to “the love of dominion from the love of self.” In its crudest form, this expresses itself as a lust for power, attempting to force other people to do what we want them to. We see it sometimes in people who do have power, whether in the nation, in the community, or in the church. We see it also, if we look, in the people who feel powerless, and who believe that their problems would be solved if they only had the power that they want.
In order to bring the message home to ourselves, though, we may have to look for subtler forms of this “love of dominion.” I would suggest that in contemporary terms, the obvious candidate would be called “the need to be in control”—in control of our lives, in control of what other people think of us, in control of what we think of ourselves, in control of our children or our marriages or our health or our destinies. It is a very “natural” need, both in the sense that it is perfectly understandable and in the sense that it is not very “spiritual.”
Natural as it is, it is a hard taskmaster for the simple reason that there is not very much that we do or can control. The universe is very big, and we are very small. Plan as we may, we do not know what the future holds for us. Other people have an extraordinary tendency not to want to be controlled any more than we do. In fact, in order to feel that we are in control, we have to live in a very small world, largely a world of our own making. The only way we can make ourselves feel big is by blinding ourselves to everything that is bigger than we are.
Our own times of “captivity” are likely to be the times when we feel as though things are getting out of control. As long as life runs along smoothly, we are content to let it run without our close supervision. But let the threat of uncertainty raise its head, let there be some real doubt, some real anxiety, then the “take charge” attitude has a strong appeal. Politically, it is easiest for dictators to come to power when the alternative seems to be chaos. “Mussolini made the trains run on time.”
Daniel pictures the small voice in us that insists that the Lord is in control. Theologically, that is quite obvious. We know perfectly well that God is infinite and omnipotent and so on and so forth. I know perfectly well that parachutes work, too, but I suspect that if I were about to take my first sky dive, that knowledge would not carry the conviction it does when I stand safely on the ground. Trusting the Lord’s care when things seem to be getting out of control is not an issue of doctrinal correctness. It is a matter of believing with the heart as well as with the head.
“Trusting in the Lord” does not necessarily mean sitting back and doing nothing, though. I am fond of the pseudo-Buddhist maxim, “Don’t just do something, sit there,” because it points to the folly of rushing into action before we have a clue as to what the problem is, of doing something just for the sake of doing something. Swedenborg’s definition of charity as “acting with prudence to the end that good may result” (The New Jerusalem and Its Heavenly Doctrine, ¶ 100) reminds me of the sign I saw some years ago: “Caution: be sure brain is engaged before setting mouth in motion.” However, the goal of the sitting, the goal of engaging the brain, is still action of some sort or other.
In that sense, our trust in the Lord is simply the context in which we decide what to do. It helps us to see the situation in proportion, to realize that we have a very real but very limited responsibility. We might actually see this imaged the Daniel story in the fact that Daniel did not mount a challenge to the throne. He simply asked for control over his own diet.
This is the point at which a light began to dawn for me in exploring the meaning of the chapter. Our food is what we take in from the outside world and, quite literally, “incorporate.” It is processed by our digestive system and to a considerable extent then becomes part of our own living tissue. In this sense, our spiritual diet is made up of what we take in from the world around us, the solid food being the feelings we are sensitive to and the drink being the truth or falsity we take in.
There is no way we can devour the whole world. Our awareness of the world around us is immensely selective, and that selectivity is not random. Our fundamental goals, what Swedenborg calls our ruling love, focus our attention. When we are ruled by a need to feel in control, we are sensitive to every threat, to every indication that things might be about to wrong. Some people get to be very good at this. There is the mother who somehow gets sick every time her favorite daughter shows signs of wanting to leave home. There is chairman who finds compelling reasons to delay the vote until his has had time to work behind the scenes. There is the child who has discovered a parent’s Achilles’ heel—the list could go on and on.
The point is that since we can attend to only a tiny fraction of what is actually happening, we center our attention on that fraction that is important to us. That becomes our steady diet: in the case of the Babylon of the need to be in control, it is the heady wine of power.
Daniel opted for natural food, for vegetables and water. It may sound a bit flippant, but we can see this as being less interested in what other people might be cooking up than in what might be sprouting in their lives. It is the difference between the minister who focuses on church politics and the one who focuses on pastoral concerns. In the same situation, they will be aware of very different things.
The voice of what is sometimes called “realism” says that your contract is up for renewal next year, so you’d better make sure you have enough people on your side. That turns out to be the broad way to an atmosphere of mistrust and political infighting. The voice of Daniel says that these are human beings we are dealing with, people standing in the presence of their Lord and moving toward eternity. It urges us to listen as hard as we can. We can hear only a little of what they are saying, but if we really try, perhaps we can hear the most important part.
There is nothing necessarily impractical or unrealistic about this. Actually, if we pick up on what is really important to others, we are picking up on the sources from which the political realities flow. We are looking behind the facade, seeing through the smokescreen.
Our Lord was fully aware that the world we live in is not always a safe one. In fact, ours is both physically and spiritually far safer than his. He advised his disciples that he was sending them out as sheep in the midst of wolves, he advised them to be wise as serpents as well as harmless as doves. We need to learn from experience what tends to work and what does not. We need to develop skills both in observation and in expression, in receiving and in giving. Good intentions are no substitute for competence.
In fact, if we are genuinely concerned with each other, if, in doctrinal terms, we are “in love toward the neighbor,” we will want to learn. We will be impatient with our ignorance, our clumsiness, our ineffectiveness. We will try to help and then try to learn from the results of our efforts.
This is one of the points at which the need to be in control points us in the opposite direction. The need to be in control prompts us to justify what we have done, to take credit for anything that looks like success and to avoid the blame for anything that seems to go wrong. The need to be in control says that circumstances must give us the answer that we want. It cannot afford to be contradicted. Like the Soviet Union, whatever it publishes it labels as Pravda, “Truth.” This is the mentality that closes Scripture, incidentally, by going to it not to learn but simply to find proof of its own dogmas. Whether we are in favor of the death penalty or against it, we can find Scriptural support for our preference and claim that we believe this because the Bible tells us so. In fact, though, we are telling the Bible what to tell us. We are still “in control,” and not about to relinquish it.
The Lord gave His disciples instructions when he sent them out, some specific and some general. But perhaps the most practical, the most realistic thing he told them was, “Behold, I am with you always,” because no matter where or who we are, no matter what circumstances we find ourselves in, this is absolutely true—and it is the most important fact of our lives. It is the fact that Daniel stands for in the midst of captivity, the fact that not only guided him but nourished him as well.
“Take heed what you hear,” the Lord said. The world does not tell us what it is; we choose what fraction of it we will give importance to. The world offers us all kinds of food for thought and feeling; we are the ones who select a particular diet. Daniel “resolved not to defile himself with royal food and wine,” and contrary to the expectations of skeptics, flourished. May we be at least as attentive to our spiritual diet as we are to our physical one.