Sunday, April 4, 1994

Location - Bridgewater
Bible Verses - Deuteronomy 2:1-8
John 2:1-15

And the Lord spoke to me, saying, You have compassed this mountain long enough: turn


Deuteronomy 2:2f.

One of the distinctive marks of our theology is the insistence that "salvation" is not

something that happens in a moment, once and for all, but is a lifelong process. We refer

to it as "regeneration," and see it as the Lord's work in our hearts, provided only that

by the right use of our God-given freedom we allow that work to take place.

This stands in sharp contrast to theologies that identify salvation with the emotional

moment of conversion. We need not doubt the reality of such a moment. One impressive

testimony is found in the story behind the song, Amazing Grace. The man who wrote it had

been captain of a slave ship--living and becoming wealthy by transporting natives from

freedom in Africa to slavery in America, under unthinkably brutal conditions. Somehow or

other, he woke up to the hellishness of what he was doing, and faced it. When he wrote

about the grace "that saved a wretch like me," he was painfully aware of what kind of

wretch he was talking about. When he wrote about having once been lost and blind, he was

not talking in clichés.

There certainly have been countless people who have found themselves overwhelmed by a

sense of their sinfulness and have genuinely reversed the course of their lives. What

Swedenborg would respond to them, I believe, is that the turning was only the beginning.

It would not lead to heaven unless the new direction were followed thereafter, and this

does not happen automatically. Some people are regulars at revival sessions, getting

"saved" and lapsing back as predictably as the seasons of the year. Some who have the gift

of oratory wind up exploiting the gift shamelessly, coaxing money out of the people who

can least afford to give it.

Sometimes it seems incredible that the Gospel message could be so totally misunderstood.

It seems inescapably clear that we are to love each other as our Lord loves us day after

day, to treat each other fairly, to give help when we can. Faithful following is implicit

throughout the Sermon on the Mount. Nothing else makes sense of the Lord's characterizing

himself as "the way." Nothing else makes sense of his command to take up the cross and

follow him, or his promise that his yoke is easy and his burden light. Clearly, this is

intended to encourage us to accept the yoke and to bear the burden.

In view of our conviction that regeneration is a lifelong process, it has been heartening

in recent decades to see a lively and growing interest in what is called "faith

development." A man named James Fowler stands as the pioneer in this growth of interest.

He conducted interviews with individuals of various ages with a view to discovering how

they understood the religious meaning of their lives, and concluded that there can be a

lifelong process of change. In childhood, the stages are fairly predictable, leading from

naive trust through a kind of legalism to loyalty to the principles of some particular

group. Adults may or may not move beyond this to principles of greater depth and


This view of faith challenges the assumption that once we have given our loyalty to a

particular creed, fidelity demands that we never challenge or doubt it. Some forms of

institutional religion encourage this attitude, since it does tend to make for loyal

members. From a broader perspective, though, it is hard to quell the suspicion that in

such cases, the church is using its members rather than serving them. It is placing its

own growth ahead of theirs.

It came as a surprise to me, then, to discover at a recent meeting that there is a

determined challenge to this developmental view not from the fundamentalist or evangelical

side of religion but from the liberal academic side. In this challenge, the notion of

lifelong growth is apparently seen as part and parcel of a middle-class image of progress,

an image that can be used as a put-down of "non-theologians."

How might we respond? It is worth pointing out at the outset that Swedenborg has some very

favorable things to say about "the simple good." To offer just one sample,

The internal is closed more often in intelligent people than in simple people because the

intelligent ones are more involved in loves of themselves and the world than simple folk

are, and because the intelligent ones have the skills to devise justifications of their

evil and false traits. They can do this because they have more information than simple

people do (Arcana Coelestia 104924).

In other words, while simple people might see clearly that, say, price gouging was wrong,

someone with a degree in economics could probably figure out a way to "prove" that it was

an essential part of a healthy market economy. When individuals can make millions of

dollars on "failed takeovers," there has to be some kind of strange rationalization going


At the same time, though, Swedenborg saw these same simple folk as potentially vulnerable.

He stated in no uncertain terms that it was the intellectuals who doubted the reality of

the soul and of life after death, for example, because of their narrow-minded absorption

in learning about the physical world (Cf. Arcana Coelestia 47604). However, he wrote

Heaven and Hell

[t]o prevent this negative attitude--especially prevalent among people who have acquired a

great deal of worldly wisdom--from infecting and corrupting people of simple heart and

simple faith . . . . (Heaven and Hell 1).

In general, he seems to have had a remarkably sane attitude toward the proper use of his

theological works. They were not intended to create difficulties, but to meet them. As

long as simple trust was effective, nothing more was needed. Simple trust would enable the

individual to live a useful and thoughtful life, caring for self and the neighbor,

contributing to the welfare of the community.

The problem was that the growing power of scientific inquiry was raising doubts that could

not be met on this simplistic level. In his book, Forgotten Truth (New York: Harper & Row,

1976), Huston Smith states the case clearly. Science set out to examine the physical world

and became so engrossed in this pursuit that it came to assume that there was no reality

to anything else. This view was persuasive. Smith says,

Through technology, science effects miracles: skyscrapers that stand; men standing on the

Moon. Moreover, in its early stages these miracles were in the direction of the heart's

desire: multiplication of goods and the reduction of drudgery and disease. . . . No wonder

man converted. The conversion was not forced. It did not occur because scientists were

imperialists but because their achievements were so impressive, their marching orders so

exhilarating, that thinkers jostled to join their ranks (p. 7).

This, I believe, gives us a context in which we may be able to understand both Fowler's

attraction to the idea of faith development and the resistance to that idea. We should not

assume that everyone has to struggle through to some identifiable state of theological

depth or skill or acuity. However, we need to face the fact that a simple faith may run up

against questions it cannot answer.

If we take this stance, then it is worth repeating that we are not here to create

difficulties or to tell people that their faith is not adequate. We are here to meet

difficulties, to help out at those times when a faith is being found inadequate.

Our text offers a memorable image. The people of the exodus had been wandering around the

neighborhood of Mount Seir for forty years. They did not decide that it was time to move

on. Moses did not survey the situation and conclude that staying where they were would

prevent further growth. The message came from the Lord. "You have been making this circuit

long enough. It is time for the next step."

We can be very sure that the Lord will send us such messages when we need them. We have no

need to invent them for ourselves. Challenges will come that cannot be met with what we

have at hand, and we will be faced with a choice. It will normally be possible to retreat,

to cling to what we have and deny the challenge. "This is what mother taught me, and I

don't care what anyone says."

The problem with this is that it begins to isolate us from the rest of the world. In order

to maintain our integrity, in order to hang on to our faith, we have to block out the

voices that disturb us. We have to find some way to convince ourselves that they should

not be heard. The more regularly we do this, the more we shrink back into a little world

of our own, dismissing other people as mistaken or even demonic.

We are also cutting ourselves off from something else--from our own intelligence. Toward

the close of his life, Swedenborg wrote of seeing a temple in heaven. Over its door was an

inscription that has become a kind of motto of our church. He interpreted it to mean, "Now

it is permitted to enter intelligently into the mysteries of faith." In the fullest

humanity for which each of us was designed, there is a warm heart and a full life, yes,

and there is also a lively mind. Simple folk, we are told, gain access to this

intelligence after death. "True intelligence," Swedenborg wrote, "is seeing and grasping

what is true and what is good, and therefore what is wrong and what is false" (Heaven and

Hell ¶ 351). Anyone who has this "instinct for goodness" has an inner brilliance of

understanding that will come into its own once the limitations of the flesh are left


"Eventually," the saying goes, "why not now?" The Lord does not want to delay our access

to this understanding. We are nudged toward it by every doubt we feel. The image from our

New Testament lesson is a telling one. Our minds themselves are like the pool where

healing can be found with the spirit moves. Something will come from time to time and

trouble the waters. Do we have the will to dive in, or are we so lame, so fearful of will,

that we hesitate until the moment is lost?

Again, we do not have to trouble the waters. If we try to, we will probably do a poor job

of it because we do not really know what we are doing. No, our task is to be prepared when

the moment comes. This, incidentally, is where learning our theology comes in. To use an

analogy, if we waited to learn addition until there was an actual life need of it, we

would wait until it was too late. We have to acquire the basic tools or materials before

we actually need them. By the same token, there is real wisdom in learning about our faith

before the hard questions are posed.

But this is like gathering together our supplies before we set out on a journey. It is

simply being ready so that when the Lord's voice tells us we have compassed this mountain

long enough, we will be able to start moving. In some of his most vivid language, the Lord

has told us that we do not know the hour when this will happen. The message may come like

thief in the night. But as the Lord loves us, the call will come. Blessed are those who

are ready and willing to begin.


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