Doing the Truth

Sunday, February 2, 2000

Location - Bath
Attribute - Spiritual Disciplines
Bible Verses - Isaiah 26:1-9
John 26:1-21


Bath 2-20-00

Isaiah 26:1-9

John 3:1-21


From Arcana Coelestia 6917



Whoever does truth comes to the light . . .

John 3:21



This reads very nicely, with the obvious and important lesson that goodness an openness go together. What we want to hide from each other is, to say the least, suspect. It is easy to become so absorbed in this that we overlook the fact that our text puts together two simple words in an unusual way--"Whoever does truth." We normally think of truth as something we learn or know or say, not as something we do. We may do what truth entails, but how do we do truth itself?

There is an intriguing aspect to this text in Greek that is not reflected in our translation. The verse preceding our text speaks of one who "does evil," using a verb that means "to accomplish" or "to manage." Our text uses a different verb, one whose primary meaning is "to make" or even "to create." "To do" is a well attested but secondary meaning. So while "Whoever does truth" is a perfectly defensible translation, it misses a nuance, as translations often do.

What might that nuance be? Whatever philosophical skepticism may assert, our theology has no room for the notion that we actually create truth. We may, though, give it visible form. It is fairly obvious that we may paint a true picture or make a true statement. It is perhaps less obvious but at least equally important that we may give visible form to the truth in the way we treat each other. We may do a true deed.

If, for example, I treat you condescendingly, if I talk down to you, my behavior is saying derogatory things about your intelligence or your maturity or your willingness to understand. If I am so preoccupied with my own agenda that I cannot give full attention to your concerns, my behavior is saying that my agenda is more important than your concerns. If it is true that you are precious in the Lord's sight, these behavioral statements are false. I am called to "do" that truth by treating you accordingly.

The eighth chapter of The Doctrine of Sacred Scripture is entitled, "The Church Is from the Word, and its Quality Is Determined by the Quality of its Understanding of the Word" (heading to #76). When Swedenborg edited this chapter for inclusion in True Christian Religion, though, he added a significant paragraph.

It is recognized that the church depends on its doctrine, and that its doctrine comes from the Word. Still, the doctrine does not establish the church˙Ä it is the integrity and purity of doctrine and therefore the understanding of the Word. However, the individual church that is in individual people is not established by doctrine but by a faith and life in accord with doctrine. In the same way, the Word does not establish and make the church, but a faith in accord with principles that are true and a life in accord with principles that are good, drawn from the Word and applied to ourselves (True Christian Religion 245).

What we learn from books is rather like what we learn from a road map--immensely useful, but theoretical. We do not really find out what the map is telling us until we get out there and try to follow it. There is a huge difference between what a map means to us before and after we have experienced the territory.

Some of the literature of our church seems to me to miss the point in this respect. I have in mind a fairly lengthy study of the word "proprium" which carefully looks at the various contexts in which the word occurs but never once, if I remember correctly, cites actual experience. This is a little like writing a description of Bath by holing up in the library and reading everything available on the subject. The city itself is just outside the walls, and proprium itself is with us every day.

The map, useful as it is, is not an end in itself. It is a means to finding our way around, a means of getting us to places where we are needed or places where our own needs can be met--a means, therefore, to the exchange of services that is basic to the fabric of society. By no stretch of the imagination can we claim that it is a substitute for that exchange. Looking at Portland on the map does not get us there. Reading about repentance, reformation, and regeneration does not make us better people.

This is the point that underlies the frequent critiques of "faith alone" in the theological works. Knowing the truth is no more than a means to an end. The end, the goal, is doing it. Knowing, for example, that the good in the neighbor is the neighbor to be loved is only abstract information until we perceive that good in someone else and are moved to affirm it. To turn this around, it is quite possible for someone to be very earnestly engaged in trying to understand a difficult situation and not realize that this is an instance of "the affection for truth." I'm reminded of the story of a man who was astonished and absolutely delighted to discover that all his life, he himself had been writing prose.

Time after time, I have heard members of our church say that they do not feel they can be effective in spreading the doctrines because they do not know them well enough. But let us try for a moment the hypothesis that the best way to come to understand them is not simply to memorize them but to do them.

Let us imagine first of all reading in that spirit. My colleague the late Cal Turley was inordinately fond of the question, "So what?" Read a sentence, read a paragraph, and then ask, "So what? What difference does it make?" The very purpose of creation is a heaven from the human race, a particular way of understanding each other and living out that understanding. The purpose of revelation is to lead us toward that way of living together not just after death but here and now--"on earth, as it is in heaven˙" (Arcana Coelestia 1285). There is not a sentence in the writings that is not intended to have some effect on the way we treat each other.

To take a very simple example, everyone who comes into this church on a Sunday morning has both needs and gifts, comes both seeking and offering. The church itself has both needs and gifts, is both seeking and offering. This is part of what is meant by the statement that the Lord's kingdom is "a kingdom of uses" Arcana Coelestia 997). It is implicit in the many statements about reciprocity and mutuality (see, for example, Arcana Coelestia 2004). So with everyone whom we meet, with the newcomer as well as with the lifelong member, we can be quite sure that under the Lord's providence, this person has something to offer us and that we have something to offer this person. We all have a lot to learn.

It is a truism in congregational studies that the most effective "missionaries" for the church are the lay members, not the clergy. There is a technique of church growth that has been proven time after time. It involved calling on newcomers within twenty-four hours of their first attendance at a church service, and it is something like half as effective if the call is made by the minister. This may not be welcome news, but it seems to be one of the facts that needs facing.

But think for a moment about your last week. How may opportunities did you have to spread the doctrines? If you restrict your answer to the number of times you had occasion to talk about our theology, to the number of times you were asked theological questions, I suspect the answer will hover somewhere around zero. If you include the number of times you had occasion to do the doctrines, you very soon run out of fingers and toes to count on.

Before we go any further, there is an important note of caution to be sounded. Let me put it most obviously first. If we look to the writings for instructions on automobile maintenance, we will look in vain. The external world has changed a great deal since the eighteenth century. What has not changed is the way our hearts and minds work. If we look to our theology to tell us what decisions to make, we focus our attention on those externals that are most evident and least reliable. If we look to our theology to tell us how to make decisions, we look toward its true strength. There are attitudes of mind and heart that make for wise decisions just as surely now as they did then. There are attitudes of mind and heart that are as destructive now as they were then.

Let's spend the rest of this sermon time, then, exploring how we might more consciously do one of our familiar doctrines, namely the doctrine that the Lord's providence keeps us in a balance between heaven and hell in order that we may choose between them. This means that everyone we meet is caught in the middle. It means that in everyone we meet, there are two voices calling for attention. It may seem as though this individual has it all together, has no problems, but that is just the way it looks from the outside. It may look as though this individual has no redeeming social value whatever, but that is just the way it looks from the outside. Especially with people we are meeting only casually or only for the first time, we may simply have caught them on a particularly good day or a particularly bad one.

In either case, we want to make some contact with the voice that is calling upward. This means believing that it is there already. We do not have to provide it. It means listening for it, which can be demanding. It is not easy to still our own concerns for ourselves and give our full attention to someone else; but we know from doctrine that every individual--ourselves included--is worthy of the Lord's total attention. Attention is a gift we have to give as well.

Simply to notice that a store clerk is harried makes a difference. Simply to notice someone's patience makes a difference. If we can be "in the affection for truth--that is, if we can simply try to understand, knowing that this individual is caught in the middle--we are much more likely to make life better for the people we encounter than to make it worse. It is when we are totally wrapped up in our own concerns, when we are lost in a sense of our own importance, that our behavior tells others that they are insignificant; and that is a message not from heaven but from hell. It is not true. Our behavior is doing what is false.

". . . the individual church that is in individual people is not established by doctrine but by a faith and life in accord with doctrine." This is what we are being told in the Gospels when we are commanded to let our light shine in such a way that people may see our good works and glorify our heavenly father. It is not simply a matter, then, of going out and explaining to people how glorious the Lord is. It is much more a matter of embodying love and understanding. One of the early rabbis, I believe, was asked for a summary of the law. He cited the two great commandments of love to the Lord and to the neighbor and said, "That is the law: the rest is commentary." What we do is the message of our church: our explanations are the footnotes.




From Arcana Coelestia 6917


The Egyptians' vessels of silver and vessels of gold are the things we know about what is true and the things we know about what is good even though the Egyptians, both here and in what has come earlier, mean false information. We need to realize that the things we know are neither true nor false in and of themselves, but that they become true for people who are engaged in truths and false for people who are engaged in falsities. Their application and use is what does this. What we know is like our wealth and possessions. Wealth and possessions are harmful for people who put them to evil use, but they are useful for people who are involved in what is good because they are being put to good use. So if the wealth and possessions which are in the hands of evil people are transferred to good people, they become good. It is the same with what we know.

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