Sunday, August 8, 1989
Location - FNCA SSR
Our major theme this week is world unity, and I should like this evening to talk about sectarianism as
perhaps the greatest obstacle to that end. Sectarianism occurs on various scales, and a quotation from
William Law states the general principle forcefully. I'll be using this quotation again Tuesday
evening, so I will present only part of it tonight.
Selfishness and partiality are very inhuman and base qualities even in the things of this world; but
in the doctrines of religion they are of a baser nature. Now, this is the greatest evil that the
division of the church has brought forth; it raises in every communion a selfish, partial orthodoxy,
which consists in courageously defending all that it has, and condemning all that it has not.
Law is, I believe, quite right in identifying this "orthodoxy" as selfish and partial--partial as
opposed to impartial or prejudicial. In psychology, the phenomenon has been called "ego extension,"
which is also accurate. That is, rather than boasting about ourselves as individuals, we identify with
the group to which we belong, whether it be the family, the community, the church, or the home team,
and take personally everything directed to that group. The other team plays dirty: we play good
Part of the difficulty is that we are enabled to think of this "partiality" as a virtue. We call it
"loyalty," and reward it with approval. We allow the beast to wear a mask, but the nature of the beast
is not changed. It is still selfishness. In the history of our own church, it has been most prominent
in the form of an insistence that the "Old Church" has been totally vastated, and that our
organization, which we have often called "the New Church," is the only genuine Christian church, the
true church of the future.
At times, I suspect, this has been a relatively naive and innocent assumption, and at times it may
still be. But surely it is increasingly difficult to ignore the evidence to the contrary, the faults
within our own number, and the virtues in other churches. We may indeed have something to do with the
new church that Swedenborg writes about, but we have little excuse for identifying ourselves with it.
We would be far better off claiming less and doing more.
But that is a subject in itself, and perhaps not an unfamiliar one. I want to look for a few moments
at an area where Law's "selfishness and partiality" are far more prevalent, and far less frequently
challenged. It is an area which is rarely addressed directly in Swedenborgian sermons, the area of
We have in this country a two-party system, which has some signal virtues. It has proven itself
adaptable and durable, and has earned world-wide admiration. It is not, however, proof against human
nature, and it exhibits with startling clarity the characteristics which Law notes. Each party, that
is, makes a supreme virtue of "courageously defending all that it has, and condemning all that it has
not." To admit that the other side has come up with a good idea is basically against the rules.
Now, if we think in theological terms of truth and falsity instead of in terms of political
expediency, this kind of party loyalty becomes problematic. We are claiming, in effect, that one whole
large group of people, many of them well-educated and experienced, is always wrong. The odds against
this are astronomical, I am sure, but that is not the point. The point is that we form the habit of
refusing even to look at issues of truth and falsity. If "our" policies do not bring the promised
results, then we must find a way to blame the failure on the opposition. It cannot be our fault. This
attitude we identify with a love of our country.
Swedenborg identifies this attitude very precisely, in a different context, describing it as loving
oneself in the other. It is a form of self-love, and is just as destructive in this form as in any
other. On the individual level, it blinds us to the need for self-examination, repentance, and
reformation. On the political level, it blinds us to the need to try to see what is really going wrong
so that we can do something about it.
Any good party loyalist could listen to all this and be quite delighted at the way it describes the
opposition. I am quite sure that the opposition will have provided plenty of evidence. What we need,
however, is a form of loyalty that looks for this failing within one's own party. It seems obvious
that we agree in large measure with the policies of the party to which we give allegiance, and that
should not change. However, we should regard this basic agreement as giving us a foundation from which
we can work for improvement. We can stand not as hostile critics, but as sympathetic ones. Our
observations are not subject to the same one hundred percent discount as those of the opposition. We
may be heard.
On a larger scale still, we have a similar foundation for evaluating the role our country plays in the
world. There is selfishness and partiality on this level as well, and it is just as divisive, just as
inimical to unity. This will be central to my first lecture tomorrow morning, so I do not want to
pursue it. I mention it only to underline the point that the character and effects of selfishness do
not change just because larger groups of people are involved.
Lastly, all this makes our own individual lives more significant. We can begin to see ourselves as
microcosms, and to realize that there is little we can do for world unity except as we learn to heal
the divisions within ourselves. We cannot work effectively for world peace until we find out what
peace is, and in order to discover that, we have to find it in ourselves. I have always admired the
teacher one of our children had, I think in first grade. When she was asked why she did not do more to
raise the children's consciousness of world problems, she said it was because she had gotten tired of
seeing the children moved by the plight of people far away, and as insensitive as ever to each other.
They could care deeply about the Ethiopians, and then trample each other as soon as the bell rang. Or
as it has been put very briefly, "I love humanity, I just can't stand people."
We have a marvelous resource in our church for dealing with our own selfishness and partiality. We can
talk about it all we want, explain it to others, write books about it. The most effective witness to
the new church, though, always has been and always will be the demonstration that it works.