It is the spirit that quickens; the flesh does not profit at all: the words that I am speaking to you are spirit, and they are life. - John 6:63
Once we start to look for it, there is ample evidence that, to put it in good Swedenborgian terms, the Lord came to disclose the spiritual sense of the Old Testament. In the Gospels, we have the internalizing of the Commandments, where the prohibition of murder, for example, is intensified to include internal wrath, where the prohibition of adultery is intensified to include adultery of the heart. We have the denouncements of those Pharisees who were rigorous in their obedience to the externals of the law, but who neglected the “weightier matters” of judgment and mercy and faith. What they were doing, Jesus said, was cleansing the outside and neglecting the inside. We have the story of the walk to Emmaus, where Jesus expounded to two of the disciples all the things in the Law and the Prophets that had to do with him. “The Law” means the first five books of the Bible, and to find things about Jesus in them can only mean looking beyond the literal.
The message apparently got through. It turns up as a recurrent theme in the letters of Paul. In Romans 2:27 he writes of people who by obedience to the letter actually transgress the law, and later in the same epistle he calls his readers to “serve in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter.” More explicitly, in II Corinthians 3:6 we find the familiar statement that the letter kills, but the spirit gives life. And finally, for present purposes, the main theme of the Epistle to the Hebrews is that the historical events of the Old Testament were an earthly shadow of heavenly matters. The writer uses the marvelous image of the building of the tabernacle “after the pattern that was shown to you on the mountain” (8:5). That is, the earthly structure was to be modeled on a reality from a higher level.
Biblical literalism is in fact not very Biblical. It can be traced, I believe, to what we might call the Cartesian mentality. Descartes drew a sharp line between the material and the non-material realms, and in so doing laid the groundwork for the study of how matter itself behaves. The scientist is not interested in what a physical event means.
It would be hard to exaggerate how foreign this mindset would be to people of Biblical times. The Babylonians examined the livers of sacrificed sheep and plotted the courses of the planets not for a better understanding of biology or astronomy but for clues as to what the gods had in mind. Every culture had its wise men (and sometimes women) to whom it turned for understanding of the cryptic signs of divine intentions. Belshazzar had his “magicians, astrologers, Chaldeans, and soothsayers.” Herod quietly called the wise men to find out what meanings might lie hidden in the Jewish prophecies.
We may be inclined to dismiss a belief in omens as superstitious, but that simply betrays our own bias. As far as the Babylonian was concerned, whether a planet’s course was determined by gravitation or by the curvature of space was irrelevant. Whatever biochemical processes went on the liver of a sheep would go on whether they understood them or not. They wanted to know what mattered to them. They took it for granted that the gods spoke, and that they spoke in riddles. Matthew shared this belief, and he knew that his readers did as well. None of the prophecies he describes as “fulfilled” is actually fulfilled in its literal sense. A literalist would demolish his references. Anyone with a feel for the language of oracles would find them convincing.
There is a risk involved in this, obviously. It opens all kinds of room for undisciplined speculation. It challenges the sense of security we have when we are sure a statement means exactly what it says. However, there is at least as great a risk in Biblical literalism. It assumes that we know the whole meaning that God intends, and as soon as we put it like that, the specter of arrogance begins to make itself known. It is often in Biblical literalists that we meet the rigidity of mind that will not allow for the possibility that “I might be wrong.”
Our own theology offers a way to avoid both the arrogance and the undisciplined speculation. It insists that there are depths beyond depths of meaning in Scripture, more than we can ever fathom. It invites us to wonder, to read with the expectation of flashes of meaning that may catch us unprepared. It also offers a discipline of interpretation, principles of “correspondence” that it presents as deeply rooted in the very nature and process of creation. The whole physical world is an effect and therefore a reflection of the spiritual world, an earthly tabernacle created after the pattern shown on the mountain.
For better or for worse, though, this also offers us the chance to fall into the trap of arrogance. It does not take extraordinary perceptivity to find in the story of our church traces of the in-group mentality, of a pride in having a secret, esoteric knowledge that the rest of the world is too benighted to see. In many instances, this mentality also prompts an attachment to our own private language, the language of “celestial, spiritual, and natural,” of “will and understanding,” of “remains,” and the like~—of the terminology by which we identify and recognize each other as Swedenborgians.
Finally, though, our theology offers us a way out of the traps. It is presented with particular clarity in Arcana Coelestia 43682:
It is recognized that there are many people in the church who are influenced by the Lord’s Word and devote a great deal of labor to reading it. But there are few who do so with a view to being taught about the truth. Most of them actually stay within their own dogma and just work to confirm it from the Word. They seem to be involved in an affection for the truth, but they are not. The only people who are involved in an affection for the truth are those who love to be taught about what is true, that is, to know what is true, and who search the scriptures with this end in view. No one is involved in this affection except those who are involved in what is good--that is, in compassion toward the neighbor, and even more so those who are in a love for the Lord. For them, the good itself is flowing into the true and producing the affection, since the Lord is present in that good.
This calls us to outlaw the study of correspondences for the purpose of proving that Swedenborg was right. That is simply staying within our own dogma and working to confirm it from the Word. It calls us to turn to the Word wanting to understand ourselves and each other in the Lord’s light, because we care about each other and about ourselves. This entails a profound humility about the adequacy of our own understanding, and a correspondingly profound reverence for the wisdom of revelation. It leaves no room for arrogance, and it entails a sense that the issues we are dealing with are far too important to be treated with mere intellectual curiosity or with undisciplined speculation. The key to Scripture, the key to the spiritual sense of the Word, is a desire to know the truth for the sake of love—to be truly teachable.