Sunday, August 8, 1989

Location - FNCA 1989

Moses because of the hardness of your hearts gave you this commandment, but from the beginning it was

not so.

I've been corresponding for a couple of years with a graduate student in Chicago, whose interest in

William Blake has led her to explore Swedenborg to some extent. One of the questions she has raised is

at first sight simply a question about literary criticism, but as we have discussed it, its

implications have broadened considerably.

As the question was first raised, it had to do with the standards by which one evaluated a poet like

Blake. Should we look at him strictly in the context of his own times? Was it fair to apply

twentieth-century standards? There seemed to be problems in either case. Not to apply contemporary

standards would seem to deny us the right to our own opinions, for we are twentieth-century people.

Yet we surely cannot hold Blake accountable for not dealing with issues that had not been raised in

his own time.

To make a long story short, it gradually became apparent that we must exercise both kinds of judgment,

but must be clear about what we are doing. We must try our best to understand the poet in his own

context; and we must take advantage of the perspective offered by a century or more to recognize that

the context itself is limited.

What does this have to do with everyday living? Let me begin by offering a very simple parallel.

Parents are obliged to evaluate children's behavior. To take a fairly neutral example, suppose a

second-grader has drawn a picture. If we evaluate it by the child's standards, it is marvelous. If we

evaluate it by adult standards, it is not very good at all. If we apply only the adult standards, we

fail to recognize and nurture the child's ability. If we apply only the child's standards, then we are

helpless to offer guidance, and the encouragement we offer is empty of substance. We need a double


This becomes more critical when we look at the child's spiritual development. Let us suppose that the

child desperately wants something that the parents know would be inappropriate. To see only through

the child's eyes is to abdicate parental responsibility. To fail to see through the child's eyes is to

be insensitive, to trivialize the child's strong feelings. It is both futile and harmful to tell a

child that something doesn't really matter when for the child it is the most important thing in the


In our New Testament reading, we find the Lord trying to move people to a new level of judgment, and

we find his hearers trying to hold on to past standards. The Lord did not condemn those standards. He

did not say that Moses was wrong. He said, in effect, that Moses did the best he could in the

circumstances he faced, but that things were different now. They could appreciate the need for Moses'

laws and the benefit that those laws had provided, without clinging to them as though they were

binding for all time. It had not been that way at the beginning, and it did not need to be that way in

the future.

Our church has particularly high ethical standards. We are expected not simply to abide by the laws of

our society, but to examine our motives. We are supposed to put spiritual values above material ones;

and we are supposed to do this in a culture that is avowedly materialistic. How are we supposed to

deal with people whose standards are less demanding than our own? Do we take the position simply that

that is their business, that everything is all right as long as they live up to their own principles?

That would seem to be abdicating our responsibility to do what we can for a better world. Do we, on

the other hand, judge others by our standards? That would seem to be the royal road to


Again, I would suggest that we need a double standard. We need to be able to see through their eyes

and through our own. We need to recognize that their values are as real to them as ours are to us, and

to understand the efforts that they are making to live up to them. We need also to see where we have

something to offer.

This rests in the familiar view that regeneration is a lifelong process. This means two things--that

the earlier stages are not as good as the later ones, and that the earlier steps are just as good as

the later ones. In the Biblical story, the wilderness was not as good as the promised land, but the

journey through it was a good step, out of slavery in Egypt and toward the establishment of an

independent nation. That nation was not the kingdom of heaven on earth, but it was a good step,

creating the expectation of a Messiah.

It is particularly important to hold faithfully to this double standard when things seem to be going

wrong. One of the fundamental principles of regeneration is that evils cannot be dealt with unless

they come to the surface; and when they do come to the surface, it seems as though we are taking a

step backward. When the cooperative child becomes stubborn and rebellious, parents may overreact in

either direction. They may say, "It's only a stage," and make excuses. Or they may fail to see that

there is an underlying new need and capacity for independence, and simply to try to force compliance.

The first steps toward liberation of any group are likely to be hostile to some extent, but we should

not allow that to blind us to the legitimacy of the goal at its best.

Our theology compares life to a journey, a journey that actually never ends. If we follow this image

just a little way, it should be clear that our path may take us through some difficult places. It

would be foolish to try to pretend that they are not difficult, and equally foolish not to keep them

in context. The wilderness is worse than Egypt in terms of climate and fertility. It is bleak and

forbidding. Its only advantage is that it is one step closer to the promised land, and that is an

important advantage.

We would like our own lives to be without difficulty, without pain or distress. But as long as there

are evils within us to overcome, there will be bleak stretches ahead. We can let them dishearten us,

and we cannot prevent them from discouraging us to some extent, but we need not give in. We can tell

ourselves that the Lord must believe we are ready to deal with this issue, that it is, if we will, a

sign of progress.

contact phil at for any problems or comments