And he was afraid, and said, How dreadful is this place! This is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven. - Genesis 28:17
There are two ways to read this verse, ways that correspond to two distinct tendencies in our church. One way is to stress the definite articles--this is the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven, implying that there is no other house and no other gate. This parallels tendencies in our church to claim sole possession of the truth, and to find everything possible wrong with “the old church.” The other way is without such emphasis and therefore without implying such a claim. This parallels tendencies in our church to recognize that the Lord is at work in all religions.
Toward the close of the last century, these two tendencies surfaced in vivid fashion. A Swedenborgian lawyer in Chicago, Charles Bonney, was the moving spirit behind the Parliament of the World’s Religions, and stated that it was in the New Church in Peoria, Illinois, that he had learned the principles that were embodied in that remarkable gathering. To the contrary, the recently founded New Church Life dismissed the Parliament with the brief comment that there was “nothing New-Church about it.”
There can be little doubt about the appropriate reading of our Old Testament text. As the story proceeds, God appears to other people at other places. When the promise to Abram finally reaches its literal fulfilment under David and Solomon, the “house of God” is built not at Bethel but at Jerusalem. It is abundantly clear that the voice of God or the appearance of God at one place does not preclude a similar voice or a similar appearance at some other place.
In fact, the message of the story of Jacob’s dream is quite the opposite. Before the dream, there was nothing holy about the place at all. It was just a certain place where Jacob found himself at sunset, presumably chosen because it looked secure and comfortable. After the dream, Jacob is quite explicit. Yes, the Lord was in this place, and no, Jacob had not known it beforehand. What this implies is that the Lord may be in other places that have no obvious signs of sanctity. If God could be so powerfully present on this roadside, where there was a stone that would do for a pillow, then God might show up anywhere, at any time.
Yet it does seem as though this message got obscured, at least in one Old Testament tradition. As we read the stories of the Divided Kingdom, we find a recurrent effort to centralize worship in Jerusalem. The kings that are given the highest praise are the ones who abolish not only idolatry--that almost goes without saying--but even worship of the Lord at unauthorized places. There is a clear reminder of this in the Gospel of John, when the Samaritan woman says, “Our fathers worshipped in this mountain, and you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people should worship.” The official position of the priesthood in Jerusalem was not so much that the Samaritans were worshipping the wrong God, but that they were worshipping in the wrong place.
The Lord’s answer again makes it clear which reading is appropriate. “The hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem. . . . The hour is coming, and has arrived, when true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth; for the Father is seeking worshippers of this kind. God is a spirit, and those who would worship him must do so in spirit and in truth.”
Three times in the past couple of years, this issue has been raised for me. Twice it was by Christians. One said that if he had known of Swedenborgianism during his seeking years, it would have appealed to him very strongly, because he had been looking for a way to be faithful to his Christian faith without looking down on other religions. The other expressed surprise that a church which laid such stress on the divinity of the Lord could insist that salvation was indeed offered in all religions. The third individual was a Buddhist who simply refused to believe that a Christian could appreciate the worth of Buddhism.
There are exclusive statements in the writings of our church. Many of them are to be found in the later works, notably A Brief Exposition and True Christian Religion. Here Swedenborg is especially concerned to define the new theology over against the distortions that had vitiated the church, and to demonstrate that this “new” theology was in fact truly Christian. Not surprisingly, the individuals who set out to form a separate church made copious use of such statements, and reading the platform on which our church was founded in England can be embarrassing in this more ecumenical age.
Such individuals are heartened, though, but many very strong statements about the “church universal.” One of the most striking is found in Divine Providence (326:9f.).
Provision has been made by the Lord that there should be some form of religion almost everywhere; and provision has also been made by the Lord that everyone who acknowledges God and does not do wrong because it is against God whould have a place in heaven. Heaven, taken all together, reflects a single person, whose life or soul is the Lord. In that heavenly person are all the components that exist in the natural person, the difference being like that between what is heavenly and what is natural . . . .
That heavenly person . . . cannot be made up of the people of one religion--it needs people of many religions. So everyone who has made these two universal [principles] of the church matters of life has a place in that heavenly person--that is, in heaven.
This goes beyond simple “tolerance” of other faiths, far beyond that smug attitude that says we are so enlightened that we can think kindly even of people who are not enlightened at all. It says explicitly that heaven needs many religions, and it cuts the ground completely out from under any effort to rescue the benighted heathen. It says that this other religion exists because the Lord wants it to, because it is needed. It presses us, then, to try to understand what its special gifts are, and in fact to rejoice at its ability to minister to people whom we cannot reach.
Shortly before the statement just quoted, Swedenborg argues that it is clear that a Gentile who refuses to do wrong for religious reasons is saved, and that a Christian who does not care what is against God is not saved (Divine Providence 322:4f.). “If this [latter] individual were to say, ‘I was born a Chrstian, I have been baptized, I acknowledge the Lord, read the Word, and take communion,’ do these things matter when there is a breathing aura of murders and acts of revenge, of acts of adultery, false witness, theft, and violence, and these are not taken to be sins?” The section concludes with the observation, “We make these statements about Christians because gentiles from their religion think about God in their lives more than Christians do.”
At the 1893 Parliament, Kinza Riuge Hirai of Japan “created quite a sensation” by his frankness about the behavior of so-called Christians toward athe Japanese. He says he can find no text which says, “Whosoever shall demand justice of thee smite his right cheek, and when he turns smite the other also,” and goes on to list the blatantly racist policies of our nation, including such things as a San Francisco regulation barring Japanese from public schools. he said, “We are very often called barbarians, and I have heard and read that Japanese are stubborn and can not understand the truth of the Bible. I will admit that this is true in some sense, for, though they admire the eloquence of the orator and wonder at his courage, though they approve his logical argument, yet they are very stubborn and will not join Christinaity as long as they think it is a western morality to preach one thing and practice another.”
Swedenborg would applaud. This is precisely what he was talking about in Divine Providence, and finally, more than a century later, someone is saying it out loud and in public. I believe it is no coincidence that he is saying it at a gathering initiated by a Swedenborgian, and that Charles Bonney would have had no difficulty recognizing the truth and justice of this critique. Hirai described himself as the first in his country “who ever attacked Christianity--no, not real Christianity, but false Christianity, the wrongs done toward us by the people of Christendom.”
How do we as Swedenborgians reconcile a genuine appreciation of other religions with our profound allegiance to the Lord Jesus Christ? This, from a truly New Church point of view, is the wrong question, disastrously wrong. It implies that there is something to reconcile, when in fact it is our very allegiance to the Lord that requires us to search out and nurture the good wherever we find it. Most simply, the only valid reason for being a Christian is that in the Christ we see most clearly the Divine that is at work everywhere.
The hallmarks of that Divine are unmistakable. In doctrinal terms, the primary characteristic is the marriage of love and wisdom. There are some hard sayings to this effect in our theology. Listen to this one from Arcana Coelestia (1088):
. . . those who are in no charity think nothing but evil of the neighbor, and say nothing but evil: if they say anything good, it is for their own sake, or for the sake of him whom they flatter under the appeaqrance of friendship; whereas those who are in charity think nothing but good of their neighbor and speak only well of him, and this not for their own sake or the favor of another whom they flatter, but from the Lord thus working in charity. The former are like the evil spirits, the latter are like the angels, who are with us. The evil spirits excite nothing but what is evil and false in us, and condemn us; but the angels excite nothing but what is good and true, and excuse what is evil and false.
Could our church survive if we were actually to live this way--constantly to seek out what is good and true in other people and in other faiths, to do our best to “excite” that good and true, and actually to “excuse what is evil and false?” This is against the rules of survival for organizations, rules that say we must prove that rival instutions are inferior to our own. Why should anyone join us if we are not better than others?
But again, this is the wrong question, disastrously wrong. The real question is, what right does our church have to survive if it does not try to live up to its principles, if it is so concerned about its own survival that ignores such a major aspect of its own theology?
The Gospels are quite clear on this point, and quite insistent. From that most Jewish of Gospels, Matthew: “And I say to you, that many shall come from the east and the west, and shall sit down with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into out darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Our theology offers us a glimpse of true humanity, a glimpse in fact of divine humanity, which presses beyond cultural variables toward what is universally good and true. We betray that theology when we make it parochial, for the simple reason that we deny its universality. In the effort to exalt our own organization, we actually claim to set limits on the Lord’s saving presence. Effectively, we deny the very divinity which we claim to worship.
That Divine, according to Divine Love and Wisdom, is everywhere present, and everywhere the same. As the force of this takes charge of our hearts and minds, as we become engaged in the effort to discover that divine in everyone we meet, we will become a church worthy of the name, a churc hwhose growth with truly be a blessing to an ailing world.