And to the woman were given two wings of a great eagle, that she might fly into the
wilderness, into her place, where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time,
from the face of the serpent.
The theme for this year's meetings of Convention is "Who Are We and Where Are We Going?",
and I have agreed to give one of the talks on this question. This means that my mind turns
in that direction from time to time, and that this affects my selectivity--it makes a
difference in what I focus on in the things I hear and see and read. I should like this
morning, perhaps not for the last time, to explore the matter.
We have in the past chosen to refer to ourselves as "the New Church," on the basis of the
descriptions in our theology of a new spiritual era whose beginnings Swedenborg saw in the
spiritual world. The most complete descriptions of that "church" are found in his
explanations of the book of Revelation, particularly in connection with the last two
chapters, because he takes the Holy City New Jerusalem as a symbol of that new church.
We have just witnessed the disastrous fate of another group that looked to the book of
Revelation to define itself, the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas. What happened there
points to the urgent need for clarity as to our understanding of these apocalyptic texts
and as to their bearing on our church organization. In regard to our understanding of the
texts, we not only do not understand them literally, we regard a literal understanding of
them as a complete misunderstanding. It would be like taking the parable of the sower as a
textbook for an agricultural college.
Dean Thiemann of Harvard Divinity School spoke at a meeting I attended recently, and one
of his remarks brought literalism into high relief. He had been in New York preparing to
be interviewed by Peter Jennings on the Waco events. He knew of course that David Koresh
was working on an interpretation of the seven seals in Revelation 5-8, and sat down in his
hotel room with his Gideon Bible to review the Biblical accounts. Fresh in his memory was
the admittedly disputed story of kerosene being poured along the floors and a kerosene
lamp being thrown down to ignite it. Then he read the following from the eighth chapter (I
omit a fair amount of descriptive detail):
And when he had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of
half an hour. . . . And another angel came and stood at the altar, having a golden censer;
. . . And the angel took the censer, and filled it with fire of the altar, and cast it
into the earth: and there were voices, and thunderings, and lightnings, and an earthquake.
There is at this point no proof of what happened, but there is surely an eerie resemblance
between the two stories; and it is wholly credible that a literalist mind would turn in
Swedenborg turns in the opposite direction. For him, the censer is an image of worship,
the fire is the fire of love, and the catastrophe is the total rethinking that follows of
necessity with the gift of spontaneous love in our lives. We see for the first time that
the best we had known before was sadly flawed. We see, or at least glimpse, the extent
that our efforts to do what we should were permeated with self-concern and with a need to
believe in our own worth. It is a perception we could not have before the descent of love
into our hearts because until that time there has been no outside reference point, nothing
to stand in contrast to our normal state. It is a perception we could not bear before the
descent of love into our hearts because only that gift offers any hope of deliverance.
This may serve to illustrate one difference between our reading of Revelation and that of
literalists. The other is equally stark, and yet I doubt that we are really aware of it.
In our acceptance of Swedenborg's claim that his mission was one manifestation of the
Lord's Second Coming, we believe that we are living in a post-apocalyptic age. We do not
think that all the woes are over, but we do believe that we have turned the corner
spiritually. We believe that the turmoil we are experiencing represents the surfacing of
evils that have been festering under the surface throughout human history and that if we
do our part a more humane and heavenly society will emerge from the turmoil. It is hard to
overemphasize how different this is from living in the expectation of cataclysm, what a
different meaning it gives to our everyday decisions.
This is the spirit in which we turn to our text: And to the woman were given two wings of
a great eagle, that she might fly into the wilderness, into her place, where she is
nourished for a time, and times, and half a time, from the face of the serpent. While we
take the Holy City as perhaps the primary symbol of the new church, the woman clothed with
the sun has essentially the same significance, and it is only here in the twelfth chapter
of Revelation that we are given a glimpse of the process by which this church will come
The basic scenario is a simple one, and we may begin by taking a fairly mechanistic look
at the meanings Swedenborg assigns to the major characters. The woman, as noted, is the
new church, the child is the teaching of that church, and the dragon is the doctrine of
faith alone. To quote the very brief summary offered at the beginning of the relevant
chapter in The Apocalypse Revealed (preceding ¶ 532),
It treats here of the New Church and its doctrine: by "the woman" is here meant the New
Church, and by "the offspring" which she brought forth, its doctrine: and it also treats
of those in the present church, who from doctrine believe in a Trinity of Persons, and in
the duality of the Person of Christ, likewise in justification by faith alone; these are
meant by "the dragon." Then it treats of the persecution of the New Church by these, on
account of its doctrine, and its protection by the Lord, until from a few it increases
Is this talking about our Swedenborgian organizations? If so, then we face a serious
problem. Early in our history we did encounter some persecution, but that is no longer the
case to any significant extent. We may be labeled a cult by some on the more evangelical
side, but in all candor, we are more ignored than persecuted. In the schedule of
Revelation twelve, then, we should by now be increasing "from few to many."
If, though, we understand this "new church" to be not so much an organization as a new
relationship to the Lord and to each other (as I believe we must), then the relevance of
Revelation twelve to our institutional situation is secondary. That is, it describes our
institution only to the extent that our institution perfectly reflects those new
relationships. To put it bluntly, to the extent that we do not participate in a new
relationship to the Lord and to each other, we are not the new church that our theology is
talking about. If, for example, we disregard our doctrines or slant them to bolster our
egos, we are represented by the scarlet woman, the love of dominion. If we exalt doctrine
over love, and think that we are the new church simply because we have the truth, then we
are indeed represented in Revelation twelve--by the dragon.
A hymn comes to mind--number 156 in our Book of Worship, "O Word of God incarnate." The
second verse starts,
The Church from her dear Master
Received the gift divine,
And still that light she lifteth
O'er all the earth to shine.
We would indeed like to see ourselves as shining like a beacon above a darkling world, as
being the chart and compass in a world of mists and rocks and quicksands. I have the
rather terrifying suspicion that this is what we are called to be. This brings with it a
recognition of radical personal and institutional inadequacy--neither I nor the local
church nor the national church is lifting that light convincingly, and when it comes to
guidance for dealing with current societal problems, we do not seem much freer from mists
and rocks and quicksands than many others.
At the same time, we have access to a theology of extraordinary depth and integrity. One
way of suggesting what it has to offer is to note that it insists that there is no
widespread agreement on the meaning of the word "good." Whatever we love, we call "good,"
and our loves lead us in some quite different directions. These conflicts of loves
underlie all our personal and societal ills, and theology is useless unless it helps us
understand these conflicts and resolve them in the direction of genuine good.
Let me move toward a conclusion with a specific example. The assumption behind many of our
efforts at church maintenance and growth is that the maintenance and growth of the church
are "good." It is perilous in the extreme to take this for granted. When a visitor comes
in, we should in a sense be asking whether we are in fact good for this particular
individual. This is not guaranteed by the fact that we have some wonderful books on our
shelves. It is not guaranteed by the fact that we have read some of those books and can
remember some of what we have read. It is guaranteed only by an overriding concern for the
wellbeing of the individual, a concern that overrides specifically our concern for the
institutional church. Otherwise, in doctrinal terms, externals are ruling over internals.
This is not a popular stance. It rouses opposition within and among us; and we might do
well to ask what the nature and quality of that opposition is. It looks suspiciously as
though our impulses to be faithful to the internal church are meeting with persecution.
It may well be that within and among us, the story of the woman, the child, and the dragon
is still being told.