Then he said to the dresser of his vineyard, Behold, these three years I come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and find none: cut it down; why is it cumbering the ground? - Luke 13:7
The topic I want do deal with this morning is quite serious, so it seems appropriate to begin by mentioning that I am beginning to discover touches of humor here and there in Swedenborg. In The Last Judgment (n. 15), for example, he connects the traditional idea that angels are a separate creation with the traditional idea of the last judgment, and observes that you can’t very well believe that heaven and hell are made up of people like us if you believe that none of us is going to get there until after the end of the world. And in Arcana Coelestia (n. 1644), he describes a visual image of the intellectual part of a particular kind of evil spirits as looking like the hind end of a horse whose front end could not be seen.
But the one that leads most comfortably into this morning’s topic is in heaven and hell, in the chapter entitled “It Is Not So Hard to Lead a Heaven-bound Life as People Think It Is.” His basic point is that for reasons of enlightened self-interest, we have to behave reasonably well most of the time. Since we can’t really help that, we might as well give the Lord credit for it instead of claiming merit for ourselves; and that’s all it takes to lead us into heaven. The humor of this didn’t strike me until I realized that the essence of the message can be put in a little maxim--”When virtue is inevitable, relax and enjoy it.”
It would be absurd if it were not tragic, how often we see people (including ourselves) doing something quite worthwhile, something perfectly painless, and resenting it. There is nothing actually painful about washing the dishes or paying a bill or writing a letter--or sitting in traffic, for that matter, but time after time such simple things are done with resistance or resentment or envy or anger.
Underlying these negative attitudes is a feeling that we deserve better. This is precisely the sense of merit Swedenborg points to as spoiling the outward good that we may do. He puts it in the context of spoiling our chances of heaven, which is precisely the same thing as saying that it robs us of any genuine joy. In fact, time and time again our theology points to this sense of merit, in one form or another, as the root of all our misery. While he tends to focus on the individual aspects of this, we do not need to read between the lines very much to draw a more societal conclusion. It is this sense of merit, this sense of our own importance, that underlies all social injustice and all environmental abuse as well.
In its blatant forms, this kind of self-concern is unattractive enough that most of us would recognize it and avoid it like the plague it is. But particularly for people like us, whose lives are relatively comfortable, it can come in more persuasive guises. The specific one I have in mind is “a concern for our rights.” This sounds good. It calls up images of the quest for justice, of simple fairness, and it usually involves the implication that the answers are obvious, simple, and undeniable. If I can establish my right to this piece of property or this particular privilege, then that is the end of the discussion. It is clearly wrong to deprive me of my rights.
Clearly, our country’s Bill of Rights is worthwhile. Clearly too, the civil rights movement was and is desperately needed. Equally clearly, the worldwide effort to secure adequate human rights for all people is worthwhile. Still, I have a more and more of a problem with the whole practice of defining human society in terms of “rights.” I look particularly at the vision of heavenly community offered to us in our theology, and I find no mention of “angels’ rights.” I am beginning to think that while the emphasis on rights is carrying us in the right direction, it cannot carry us as far as we need to go.
This seems clearest to me in regard to what we might regard as the most fundamental of rights, the right to live. I suggested Friday night that if the purpose of creation is a heaven from the human race, then the human race has a right to exist only as it fulfils that purpose. In view of the damage we have done, and especially in view of the damage we might do, it is surely arrogant of us to assume that we are worth saving. I believe we are, since the Lord’s providence has preserved us, but I do not believe it is a foregone conclusion. To use a familiar image, we have not won our preservation by a landslide. It looks much more as though we just about squeaked by. I do not think we can take the next election for granted.
However, my own life is not led on that global scale. I have a little influence in the matter of my own survival, and with right-to-die issues getting the attention they are, I may wind up having something to say about the time and manner of my death. But the area where I have a great deal to say--an area, in fact, where no one else seems to have much to say--is that of my attitude toward my life and death.
I am grateful to Judaism for putting this in striking form. I quote from the Yizkor or Memorial Service which is part of the Yom Kippur ritual.
If some messenger were to come to us with the offer that death should be overthrown, but with the one inseparable condition that birth should also cease; if the existing generation were given the chance to live for ever, but on the clear understanding that never again would there be a child, or a youth, or first love, never again new persons with new hopes, new ideals, new achievements; ourselves for always and never any others--could the answer be in doubt?
No, I have an obligation to die, in order to make room for new life. There is only so much room in this physical world, and I cannot cumber it forever. When my father died, one of my most vivid and pervasive realizations was that my behavior was no longer relevant to him. I could not decide to something because it would please him or not to do something because it would distress him. I had a freedom which I had never realized I lacked, and which I was not at all sure I wanted. There was a very real sense in which his death opened a door to maturity which could not have been opened in any other way.
I am quite sure that the same situation holds for my own children. There are steps into maturity which they will not be able to take as long as I am alive. They care about me; they do not want to hurt me; they want me to think well of them. This is not a bad thing, but it has to be a temporary thing. If they resented me, wanted to defy or hurt me, they would have no greater freedom. They would still be governed in part not by their own feelings, but by mine, and in this case the “government” would be harsh.
This is simply an instance of a much more general situation. Death is neessary to the maintenance of life. Salt and water are about the only two things we ingest that were not alive once. Vegetables and animals alike once had their own living form, and they had to give up that form, which we call dying, in order for their matter to become part of us. Otherwise, we would become carrots or cabbages or coffee beans.
At SSR this past week, someone quoted with approval what are probably Dylan Thomas’s best-known lines:
Do not go gentle into that good night--
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
There is a kind of herioc romanticism about this that is appealing, but I am more and more convinced that it misses the point disastrously. I should simply add dying to the list of things I will have to do one of these days, and try to make sure that I do it well. We have a theology which assures us of eternal life, in a realm vastly preferable to this one. We have now the testimony of countless people who have tried it and have told us what it is like, what beauty we can look forward to. We have every reason to regard death not simply as a necessity, but as a virtue, and when virtue is a necessity . . . ..
As this begins to sink in, as I begin to recognize that I have an obligation to die, a great many things begin to look different. “Owning things” is a temporary condition. I begin to experience myself more as an episode in an extraordinary story than as a story in my own right. I begin to experience my physical self as a part of the ecosystem I see around me. I begin to experience my mental and emotional selves as embedded in family and church and nation and world, part of a spiritual ecosystem.
For very good theological reasons, I was raised to believe that I would have particular distinctive talents, which ideally could be integrated with other distinctive talents into a harmonious whole. This is a simple idea, and I think clearly a profoundly sane one. However, I conceived it in rather mechanical ways, like differently shaped parts in an engine. Now the images that seem appropriate come more from the arts--images of adding a particular pigment to a color, or a particular tone to a song.
These images do not lend themselves to crisp, clear boundaries; and there is a sense in which there has been a considerable loss of identity. The intriguing thing is that there is a corresponding loss of anxiety about identity. It reminds me of the provocative statement in Divine Providence (n. 42) that “the more closely we are united to the Lord, the more clearly we seem to be our own, and the more obvious it is to us that we are the Lord’s.”
That is, the biggest obstacle to our being ourselves is our effort to define anddefend ourselves. In Gospel terms, when we try to save our lives, we lose them, and when we let go of them, we find them. The distinctive dimension I find our theology adding to this is that we are to lose them in a greater whole--ultimately in the Lord, but intermediately in spiritual community with each other and presently in physical community with our planet.
Physically, that is, I am a temporary aggregation of matter, organized by what I can only think of as a soul or inner person. The matter that makes up my body is not constant. There is old stuff constantly leaving and new stuff constantly coming in. David Bohm uses the image of a ripple in a river. When there is a snag just under the surface, there can be a very steady ripple on t he surface, just downstream. What is this ripple? It is not any particular thing at all, in the sense of a specific set of water molecules. It seems to be a kind of elusive form through which water is constantly flowing; and that form is affected by the speed and direction of the water, by the size and location of the snag. If anything in that environment changes, it will change.
Spiritually, I am constantly part of one community or another. At the present moment I am part of your experience, and you will be a little different as a result. I cannot and should not want to control that result. The image of eating comes in handy here. One of the most ridiculous notions we have is that words are “vehicles of meaning.” The words I am speaking are sound waves. Would you like to take some of those sound waves and look inside them for the meaning? Would you like to take the black marks off the page and look inside them for the meaning? No, the meaning is in our minds and hearts, and we have devised this marvelous, absurd, intricate, arbitary code called language to try to evoke the sense of meaning in each other.
So the ideas that are alive and vigorous in me have to die. They have to get transformed into lifeless sound waves or lifeless black marks on a page. You have to take those sound waves or those marks and ingest them; and if they are to come to life in you, it must be with your life and not mine. I need to leave you the space to digest, to assimilate what nourishes your own distinctiveness, and to reject the rest. As the food we eat has to die before it becomes part of us, the only thoughts in this talk that will become “yours” will be the ones that cease to be “mine”--the ones that die to my intentions, and come to life again with yours. A little death, it is true--but if it is a willing one, it is a preparation for the larger one that lies ahead.
This has come to be for me a major aspect of the meaning of the Holy Supper. The bread was once grain, the wine was once grapes. They are about to become part of our own living tissue. For this to happen, they have been killed, crushed, and brought into very different forms. This is an extraordinary image of the self-giving of the Divine, of God’s will that we take the gift of life and do with it what we will. When Jesus said that the greatest love was to lay down one’s life for one’s friends, he was not talking abstract principles only. He was talking about a letting go that we can practice every day, a letting go which is the only path to peace and joy.