Sunday, May 5, 1996

Location - Bridgewater
Bible Verses - Deuteronomy 5:1-12
John 5:1-14

am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me. - Deuteronomy 5:6f.

Some years ago, I was on a committee interviewing applicants for a position on the faculty of our theological school. One of them was a woman with excellent credentials who had had to read up on Swedenborgianism in order to decide whether or not she wanted to apply. She comes to mind in connection with our text because she said she had found in us something that surprised her. We had what is known as a “high Christology,” meaning a strong emphasis on the divinity of Christ, combined with what seemed to be an equally strong appreciation of other faiths. In her experience, the churches that emphasized the divinity of Christ taught that people who did not accept Christ could not be saved, and people who regarded other faiths as having validity did so by stressing Jesus’s humanity.

At about the same time, I got a very similar reaction from a young scholar who was working on a history of the 1893 Parliament of Religions. He was a Catholic who had recently returned to his church, and he said that if he had run across Swedenborgianism during his questioning period, he probably would have become one of us. He had not wanted to desert his Christianity, but he was troubled by the spirit of intolerance that he found in his church.

We do have something special here, something that is widely sought in our own times. In seminaries across the country, questions of “globalism” and “multiculturalism” have come to the forefront. Christian theologians are struggling with a problem that has deep roots in the history of the church. They are profoundly embarrassed at many chapters of that history—at the Crusades and the Inquisition, at the efforts to annihilate Native American religious belief and practice, at arrogant dismissal of the profound religious traditions of the East, for example~—but have come to no agreement as to how to combine faith in Christ with appreciation of non-Christian religions.

How do we do it? How do we give our allegiance to one who said, “No one comes to the Father except by me” and recognize other paths as valid? One of the most eloquent explanations, if I may call it that, was given by Charles Bonney, the Swedenborgian lawyer who was the guiding spirit of the 1893 Parliament. In connection with that event, an invitation was extended to all religious bodies to hold their own “denominational congresses,” giving any church or religion that wished an opportunity to present itself. The first of these to open was the Jewish Denominational Congress, and Bonney, as was his custom, gave a welcoming address. He alluded to the fact that this was the first of the adjunct congresses to convene, and continued,

But far more important and significant is the fact that this arrangement has been made, and this Congress is now formally opened and welcomed, by as ultra and ardent a Christian as the world contains. It is because I am a Christian, and the Chairman of the of the General Committee of Organization of the Religious Congresses is a Christian, and a large majority of that Committee are Christians, that this day deserves to stand gold-bordered in human history, as one of the signs that a new age of brotherhood and peace has truly come.

We know that you are Jews, while we are Christians and would have all men so; but of all the precious liberties which free men enjoy, the highest is the freedom to worship God according to the dictates of conscience; and this great liberty is the right, not of some men only, but of all—not of Christians, merely, but of Jews and Gentiles as well. I desire from all men respect for my religious convictions, and claim for myself and mine the right to enjoy them without molestation; and my Master has commanded me that whatsoever I would have another do to me, I should also do to him. What, therefore, I ask for myself, a Christian, I must give to you as Jews. Our differences of opinion and belief are between ourselves and God, the Judge and Father of us all. Through all the Sacred Scriptures of the Old Testament we walk side by side, revering the creation, journeying through the wilderness, chanting the psalms, and inspired by the prophecies; and if we part at the threshhold of the Gospels, it shall not be with anger, but with love, and a grateful remembrance of our long and pleasant journey from Genesis to Malachi.

Again, in opening the first session of the main congress, he said,

We meet on the mountain height of absolute respect for the religious convictions of each other; and an earnest desire for a better knowledge of the consolations which other forms of faith than our own offer to their devotees. The very basis of our convocations is the idea that the representatives of each religious sincerely believe that it is the truest and the best of all; and that they will, therefore, hear with perfect candor and without fear, the convictions of other sincere souls on the great questions of the immortal life.

Underlying these expressions is a very basic notion, essentially a very simple one. Devotion to Christ is not devotion to a name, not even devotion to a particular individual, but devotion to the essential quality of that individual. It is put very bluntly in Luke (6:46), “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do the things that I say?” The “intolerant Christian” is a contradiction in terms, a Christian as to title but not as to quality. The Christ of the Gospels praised a Roman centurion, a so-called pagan and presumably a polytheist, for his faith. He did not go around with a catechism in his hand, giving doctrinal quizzes. Essentially, he asked people whether they actually valued each other or whether they were trying to exalt themselves at the expense of others.

When he described himself as “the way, the truth, and the life,” when he said that there was no other way to the Father, no other door to the sheepfold, he was saying that there are standards of heart, mind, and life that we simply cannot evade. Yes, there are many different cultures, many different outward patterns of living, but in the last analysis there is a difference between good and evil that will not go away. Bonney was obviously wrong in believing that a new age of brotherhood was about to dawn. We can be thankful that the man who so warmly opened the Jewish Congress did not live to see the Holocaust. But he was surely right about the ideals that inspired him, surely right in believing that true Christianity demanded “absolute respect” for the sincere convictions of the sincere souls of all faiths.

He was right also, I believe, in a conviction that lies a little further below the surface of his words. When he equated depth of conviction with openness to others, he was implying that intolerance is a hallmark not of faith but of doubt. If I “sincerely believe that [my religion] is the truest and best of all,” then I will “therefore”—and this is a huge “therefore”—“hear with perfect candor and without fear, the convictions of other sincere souls on the great questions of the immortal life.” True faith, “sincere” faith, banishes fear. True faith opens the mind, broadens the mind. True Christianity does not try to exalt itself by demeaning other faiths because the Lord did not try to exalt himself by demeaning others. How can someone call him “Lord” and not follow his example?

One of my favorite passages from Swedenborg puts it this way:

. . . no one should be instantly persuaded about the truth--that is, the truth should not be instantly so confirmed that there is no doubt left. The reason is that truth inculcated in this way is “second-hand” truth [verum persuasivum]--it has no stretch and no give. In the other life, this kind of truth is portrayed as hard, impervious to the good that would make it adaptable. This is why as soon as something true is presented by open experience to good spirits in the other life, something opposite is presented soon thereafter, which creates a doubt. So they are enabled to think and ponder whether it is true, and to gather reasons and thereby lead the truth into their minds rationally. This gives their spiritual sight an outreach in regard to this matter, even to its opposite (Arcana Coelestia 7298:2).

Perhaps we should start thinking in terms of a difference between “hard truth” and “soft truth,” truth that tyrannizes and truth that responds. This may at first seem like compromising our standards, and that is certainly a legitimate question to raise. However, we can scarcely accuse the Jesus of the Gospels with being a compromiser. What he calls us to do is to move our standards deeper, to make sure that the values we give total allegiance to are actually worthy of that allegiance.

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” There is nothing “soft” about this. It is a horrible teaching unless “coming to him” is the absolute highest good, the good that includes the ideal response to father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters. We all know the impulse~—“After all, he is my brother, so I should bend the rules a little for him.” “My children deserve special treatment.” Family loyalty is not in and of itself a bad thing at all, but we cannot hold to it rigidly without actually compromising deeper values.

With his sometimes violent words, his impossible questions, his cryptic parables, the Jesus of the Gospels challenges us not simply to “take a stand” but to look very thoughtfully about where we are taking that stand. In doctrinal terms, the highest good is the complete union of infinite, divine love and wisdom. If we refuse to compromise about anything lower than that, we are putting some other gods first.

The history of the church is full of stories about times when this happened. In every case, we see a total devotion, an unquestioning loyalty, to something that was not worthy of that devotion. The cynic looks at this and says that there are no absolutes, that absolutists are what is wrong with the world. But the sometimes unwelcome message of Scripture is that there is an absolute highest good, an infinite Deity, incarnate in the infinitely accepting Jesus Christ of the Gospels.


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