- Deuteronomy 2:2f.
In his thought-provoking book The True Believer, Eric Hoffer remarked that while a mass movement can get along very well without a god, it cannot do without a devil. It needs an enemy out there somewhere that is bigger and more threatening than the differences between its own members. We see time and time again that nations pull together in times of war and break out into squabbling in times of peace.
Our own church is no exception. If we read the theological principles that were unanimously adopted at that first meeting in London, we cannot help but notice the heavy emphasis on the faults of “the old church,?relying heavily on A Brief Exposition and True Christian Religion, two works that Swedenborg wrote when that “old church?was accusing him and two of his followers of heresy. A church which insists that Hindus and Buddhists and Muslims and African animists have places in heaven acted as though Protestants and Catholics did not.
Certainly there is scathing critique of traditional Christianity in the writings, especially in A Brief Exposition; but if we read it carefully and in the light of the whole message of our theology, it is not really a matter of false doctrine against true doctrine. It is always a matter of life. It is put forcefully in Arcana Coelestia ?6272. Speaking of putting the truth of faith first and the good of charity second, Swedenborg says
This is why churches are at war with each other and quarrel about what is true, with one denomination saying that something is true and another saying that it is false. And what is even worse, once they have given faith the privileged position in their church assemblies they begin to separate faith from charity and make this latter nothing in comparison. So they begin to pay no attention to the life we actually incline toward by nature, and this results in the death of the church.
Or we might turn to a statement in The Apocalypse Revealed:
Because “a garment?means something true, the Lord compares the truths of the former church, which were outward truths representative of spiritual ones, to “a piece of an old garment,?and compares the truths of the new church, which were inward and spiritual, to “a piece of a new garment?(The Apocalypse Revealed, ?1664).
There is so much in this sentence that there I might even apologize for its brevity. It is saying that there is no conflict between the truths of the former church and the truths of the new church if it is seen that the truths of the former church are in fact representative of spiritual ones. The problems come when we try to patch them together on the same level.
There is no lack of obvious examples. We have no hesitation about reading Scripture passages that talk about the wrath of God as long as are aware that they are not to be taken literally, as long as we see in those passages our own fears, our own tendency to believe that the Lord is angry with us. We do in fact read Gospel passages that very clearly state that Christ is the son of God or that talk of the sending of the Holy Spirit, recognizing that such trinitarian language is “representative of spiritual truths.?Where we have tended to draw the line, then, is in using that kind of language for our own theological statements. We would not sing hymns about the wrath of God, for example, and we have carefully edited out almost all references to “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost?from our own liturgical practices.
Do we, though, pay full price for this? It is no light matter to move from the literal to the spiritual. If we learned anything from the sixties and their aftermath, it should be that it is much easier to say “all you need is love?than it is to live up to the saying. To move from the literal to the spiritual is to enter a whole new world, immensely more alive and vivid than the world of the letter. To move from the literal to the spiritual is to see life in a whole new way, to see each other in a whole new way. That man we talked with yesterday was not “a Catholic,?he was a living history of the Lord’s providence who by the fact of our perception of him entered into our own consciousness and became part of our own history. That woman we met yesterday was not “an insurance agent,?she was a resident of some particular community in the spiritual world, a soul in the process of self-definition. The outer forms are simply representative of the deeper, eternal realities.
It seems abundantly clear that the early growth of our church was fueled by the excitement of discovery. It is beautifully expressed in the hymn we just sang:
Thou hast Thy love revealed
Beyond what prophets knew;
Thy holy book of truth unsealed
To our astonished view.
“Astonished? That is a strong word indeed. It suggests people who have run into something far bigger than they expected, something quite beyond their control, something that stops them in their tracks. This is no formal reverence. There are no time-hallowed rituals to celebrate it or catechisms to define it. It is a spontaneous reaction, and there is no question that it is a gift, not an achievement.
With time, though, it seems as though the astonishment wears off. John wrote to the church in Ephesus,
I know your works, and your labor and your patience . . . how you have borne . . .and have not fainted: but I do have something against you, because you have left your first love (Revelation 2:2ff.).
Yes, if we look at the story of our church, we can see it leaving “its first love.?Especially as “the old church?changed, as the god of wrath disappeared from mainline Christianity and persecution gave way to acceptance, the threat from the outside was no longer strong enough to hold us together, and our inner divisions became organizationally manifest. We can see this, and we can also see the excitement of discovery gradually taking second place to a reverence for what had been discovered. We can see the church of the second coming becoming the church of the second edition.
How different were we in this from the Pharisees of our New Testament lesson, “making the word of God of no effect by [their] tradition?(Mark 7:13)? The Gospel picture of the Pharisees is often so negative that we refuse to identify with them at all~—which, incidentally, fits the Pharisee stereotype very nicely indeed. They were Jews who tried to be scrupulously faithful to their past. Some of them were undoubtedly self-righteous about it, some were undoubtedly sincere. What the Lord was pointing out was that this whole focus on the past, on the tradition, turned them away from the astonishing present power of the Word of God.
The parallel with our reading from The Apocalypse Revealed is striking. The Lord was quite clear about the fact that he had not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets but to fulfill them. In the Sermon on the Mount he filled the prohibition of murder with a prohibition of rage, the prohibition of adultery with a prohibition of lust, the command to love the neighbor with the command to love the enemy. In no way did he challenge the prohibitions of murder and adultery or the command to love the neighbor. It was almost as though he was saying, “Take that for granted. It is too obvious to belabor. Look deeper; there is far more to see than you have seen.?
Old and New Testaments agree in their counsel to us. Our text comes from the former: “You have circled this mountain long enough.?The letter to the Ephesians enlarges on the same theme in an intriguing way: “Remember therefore where you have fallen from, and repent, and do the first works?(Revelation 2:5). The implication is that there is a way of looking back, of remembering, that is not the fossilization of tradition but the recovery of the “first love.?
The foundation for such an effort is really quite obvious. It is simply the recognition that as a revelation, the writings contain far deeper truth than anyone has discovered thus far. This is not to demean the discoveries that have been made or to suggest that they should be ignored; it is to say that we cannot forever coast on the energy of past pioneers.
“But they were giants, and we are ordinary folk.?Statements such as this are only the tip of an iceberg. The history of many of our churches is studded with eminent names, which means that our buildings were once loci of extraordinary energy and ability, to say nothing of wealth and prestige. The financial loss with the passing of these families of wealth and power is easier to cope with than the loss of morale; all that’s left is we ordinary folk.
is a fatal disease if it is left unrecognized and unchecked. The remedy is not some inflation of our own importance but the recognition that each of us has a field of unchallenged expertise—our own lives. Remember the Arcana quote mentioned earlier: “So they begin to pay no attention to the life we actually incline toward by nature, and this results in the death of the church.?
Let me offer an example. With good reason, we stress the doctrine of the Lord, the teaching that the trinity is not a trinity of separate individuals but of “essentials?in one person, and we focus our worship on the figure of the glorified Christ. Well and good as far as it goes, but how do we do the doctrine? In more traditional terms, how does it relate to our lives? No one else can give us the answer, not even the giants of past eras of Swedenborgian theology. They can suggest, stimulate, offer materials to work with, but the answers come in the way we view ourselves and each other, the way we treat ourselves and each other. To say that our doctrine of the trinity makes no difference in our relationships is to say that the two great commandments are unrelated to each other, that love of the Lord and love of the neighbor occupy separate compartments.
Every day we deal with people that the giants of the past did not know. Every day offers us information that they did not have. Each one of us and every individual we meet has spiritual depths that are present, not past. The world around us is full of resources and full of needs. Each one of us has spiritual eyes that can be opened, that are opened bit by bit by every thoughtful effort we make for others.
One of the themes that comes up again and again in Swedenborg’s descriptions of the church is “the affection for truth.?Do we want to learn? The greatest obstacle to learning is the illusion that we already have the answers. “The affection for truth?calls us to discover, to remember where we have fallen from and do the first works, to stop circling the mountain and start moving.