Friday, July 7, 1992
Location - FNCA 1992
We pray with some regularity that the Lord's kingdom should come on earth "as it is in
heaven," and this morning I'd like to use some basic ideas from Heaven and Hell in
conjunction with a major theme of current academic theology, philosophy, and Biblical
scholarship, to explore what that might involve. If I wanted to be severely "practical," I
would also be including specific steps we might take toward that ideal, but sometimes the
distance between here and there seems daunting. It's a little like standing on the front
porch and being asked for directions to Seattle. Well, at the end of the driveway you turn
right . . . .
I would start with the major academic theme, which is a resistance to the idea of
hierarchy. For a variety of reasons, scholars in the humanities have become particularly
sensitized to issues of abuse of power. Ethnic and racial minorities and women have felt
themselves and their concerns excluded from the upper levels of academia in the past and
have asserted themselves. Academia has responded with a considerable measure of
acceptance, as witnessed not only by the increasing numbers of women and minorities in
high academic posts, but also by the abundance of books and articles by them, published by
For the sake of economy, I am going to lump them all together under the general heading
"the marginalized," meaning those who have not been effectively present in the centers of
Western culture and power. I am going to use "liberationism" as a similarly general label
for their thought. I would warn you, though, that these labels cover a vast diversity. It
is possible to make generalizations about "Americans" too, but that does not mean that we
all think alike. I am talking about what I see as general or prevalent trends only.
Within the general category of "liberationists," there are significant voices who see the
essence of the problem in the unequal distribution of power. In the field of Old Testament
scholarship, for example, this view is represented by Norman Gottwald. He sees the ideal
Israel not in the monarchy at all, but in the period of the judges. He sees the essential
call of the law of Moses as a call to complete egalitarianism, where order is kept by
common consent, and problems are solved by a kind of interfamilial networking. A leader
may arise to handle a particular crisis, but the position is a temporary one only; and
when the need has passed, the leader resumes a status of equality with everyone else.
Gottwald goes so far as to refer to the monarchy as "Israel's counterrevolutionary
establishment," and sees it as a betrayal of the true ideal.
This may sound strange to people familiar with a Biblical narrative in which the founding
of the kingdom is the point of the whole story. Abram was promised that his descendants
would be kings. David, who represents the fulfillment of that promise, is described as the
king after the Lord's own heart, and the Lord promises him that his dynasty will last
forever. Out of this promise grows the further promise of the Messiah, which is the root
stock of Christianity--of the kingdom of heaven in the New Testament.
Gottwald's view is not without its Scriptural support, however. There is a significant
strand of narrative which does see kingship as an evil. The most vivid instance involves
the people's initial request to Samuel. The Philistines are threatening, the people are
frightened, and a delegation comes to Samuel asking him to appoint a king to lead them.
Samuel seems to take this as a personal affront, but the Lord tells him, "They have not
rejected you--they have rejected me" (I Samuel 8:7). Deuternomony 17 contains strong
warnings against the abuses of kingship. Solomon's excesses are painted in vibrant colors.
The prophets often stood over against the kings, and by their words and their lifestyles
called people back to the supposed virtues of the old days. With some effort, one can
assemble convincing evidence that from the time of Samuel on, there was a persistent
anti-monarchical element, strongest perhaps in the northern kingdom, where dynasties were
often short-lived, but present under the surface in the southern kingdom as well.
In fact, the Ebionites I talked about here a couple of years ago, the "Jewish Christians"
of apostolic and post-apostolic times, totally ignored any claim that Jesus was the
Messiah, the anointed king. They never referred to him as a descendant of David. Instead,
they saw the heart of his mission as purifying Judaism from its nationalism and from its
ritualism--as abolishing both palace and temple. In their eyes, Jesus' mission was to
refocus attention on ethical law alone. In this, they were certainly the legitimate
successors to those prophets, such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Amos, who argued against
trusting in sacrifices and offerings, and insisted that the prime requirement of the law
was justice. The anti-temple, anti-monarchical strand continued, then, into New Testament
Gottwald, like other liberationists, has this material to draw on, and it is material that
has often been ignored. I might mention in passing that there is also a strong trend to
dismiss the whole idea of a military conquest under the leadership of Joshua and to
portray Israel's "takeover" of Canaan as an uprising of the oppressed, accomplished with a
minimum of violence and destruction. Again, there are previously neglected items of
evidence that lend more credence to this theory than we might first grant it.
To my mind, the primary agenda of such lines of interpretation is the effort to preclude
the use of the Bible to justify injustice and violence. It is not a bad thing that we look
seriously at this side of Scripture. We should not simply say "Of course" when we read
that Joshua was a military aggressor, when we read stories about Israel simply marching in
and conquering a land that had done nothing to warrant such treatment.
At the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion last year, I attended one
session on ecological concerns. The principle of egalitarianism was extended in that
context to include the place of humanity in creation as a whole. Ecologists have for some
time pointed to Genesis 1:28 as problematic:
And God blessed them, and God said to them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the
earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the
air, and over every living thing that moves on the face of the earth.
It is frighteningly easy to use this to justify exploitation of our environment. In fact,
the most obvious way to understand it is wholly in line with the mentality that thinks of
nature as something to be controlled. I find it quite understandable that concerned
individuals would look in the direction of egalitarianism in an effort to counter the
blatant abuses of power, especially since technology has so amplified the effects of our
However, I do not think that scholarly discipline in any field will long sustain complete
egalitarianism. Biblical scholarship cannot tolerate any complete dismissal of the
monarchical and militaristic attitudes which in fact are the major rather than the minor
themes. Ecological scholarship cannot pretend that there is no difference in value between
a human being and a potato beetle, or ignore the fact that precipitates the whole
crisis--that the human component of our planet is vastly more powerful than anything else
in the animal and vegetable kingdoms. While there can be no doubt whatever that
inequalities of power regularly support abuses of power, I do not see egalitarianism as an
effective or even a possible answer.
My reasons for this are rooted in my understanding of our theology. I find Swedenborg's
cosmology, first of all, profoundly hierarchical. The whole notion of discrete degrees is
utterly "anti-egalitarian." To quote from n. 184 of Divine Love and Wisdom,
A knowledge of levels is like a key for unlocking the causes of things and getting inside
them. Without this knowledge, we can know hardly anything about cause. In fact, the
objects and subjects of both [the spiritual and the natural] worlds seem so very simple,
as though they contained nothing more than meets the eye. Yet actually the ratio between
this and what lies within is on the order of one to a thousand or one to tens of
The invisible inward matters cannot be unveiled unless one knows about levels. Actually,
the more outward things progress to more inward ones, and through them to inmost things
all by levels--not by gradient levels, but by distinct levels. We use the term "gradient
levels" to refer to losses or decreases--coarser to finer or denser to thinner--or better
yet, to additions or increases--finer to coarser or thinner to denser--like levels of
light progressing to darkness or levels of warmth progressing to cold.
Or from n. 6724 of Arcana Coelestia,
That which works more inwardly is vastly stronger than that which works more outwardly,
since the more inward, being purer, acts into the very particular details of the more
outward, and thus arranges the outward to suit itself.
I could go on and on with quotations about how vastly the wisdom of higher angels exceeds
that of lower angels, about how, as influx descends, it becomes coarser and more sluggish,
about heavenly light vastly exceeding earthly light in strength and clarity. I don't think
I need to do so for this audience.
I would remind us, though, that in Heaven and Hell a full chapter is given to the topic of
governments in heaven. The basic principle is expressed as follows:
Since all the people in a community are involved in similar good but not in similar
wisdom, it follows of necessity that there are governments, . . . But in the heavens the
only kind of government there is is the government of mutual love--the government of
mutual mutual love is heavenly government (Heaven and Hell 213).
This means, as the chapter proceeds to explain, that in every community some individuals
are granted a stronger voice than others are. Those who are so privileged are the ones who
see most clearly what is needed for the welfare of the community and all its members--the
wisest--and we are fully aware that in the spiritual world, the only source of greater
wisdom is greater love. This is nicely expressed in Arcana Coelestia 454:
An angelic life consists in service, and in the good of compassion. Angels find nothing
more joyous than enlightening and teaching spirits arriving from this world, than helping
people, controlling evil spirits so that they do not exceed their limits and instilling
good into them, than awakening the dead into the life of eternity and if possible . . .
leading them into heaven.
Now I'd like to take our thoughts in a direction that may be a little unexpected, but
which will bring the main issue closer to home. I would like us to bear in mind that the
hierarchical structure of the heavens is reflected in the hierarchical nature of ourselves
as spiritual-natural beings. The human form is the form of heaven as a whole, of every
community, and of every individual.
Last week, in talking about the nature of evil, I noted that one familiar definition of
evil was inversion of order. Swedenborg identifies four principal loves--of the Lord, of
heaven, of the world, and of self--and says that the difference between heaven and hell
rests in the ordering of those loves. They must be in some hierarchical order, and if love
of self rules, the result is spiritual death. We then become images of hell, where the
ruling principle is self-love.
If love of the Lord rules, we become images of heaven--in fact, of the highest heaven. I
can't resist a digression here, and it is even germane to some extent. If you look up
"Celestial Heaven" in Potts' Concordance, you will find yourself referred to "Third
Heaven." Under that heading are grouped references to "Third Heaven," "Inmost Heaven,"
"Highest Heaven," and "Celestial Heaven." Their are over eight pages of references, and
scanning them quickly, I found only eight occurrences of the phrase, "celestial heaven."
My guess is that they make up less than one percent of the references.
There is a very simple reason for this that emerges only when you look at the Latin. The
phrase for "celestial heaven" is coelum coeleste--more literally, "the heavenly heaven."
It's a clumsy phrase. It sounds redundant, and I think Swedenborg usually avoids it for
precisely that reason. However, I also think that it is a significant phrase. The highest
heaven is the really heavenly one, where innocence rules supreme, where love to the Lord
and the longing to be led by the Lord have free rein. Anything less or lower than this is
not completely heavenly. Everything less or lower is a kind of compromise.
This is worth careful attention. The highest heaven is highest exactly because its
innocence is the surest possible safeguard against any abuse of power. As the highest
angels, they are necessarily the wisest and the most powerful, and they are the ones who
look like little children from a distance. I'll come back to this point a little later.
At the moment, I want to balance my attention to liberationist thought by referring
briefly to a few thinkers who buck the egalitarian trend. One would be Ilya Prigogine,
with this theory of dissipative structures. In his model, there is a kind of principle in
living organisms that counters the general law of entropy--the tendency of inorganic
things to settle down into a least active stage. In "dissipative structures," meaning
structures which engage in active interchange with their environment, there are tendencies
to respond to outside stimuli. When such a structure is faced with a situation it cannot
handle with its present level of complexity, it either regresses, surviving only where the
challenging stimulus is absent, or it makes a kind of quantum leap to a new level of
complexity. This new level gives it a new ability to cope; and the result is that after
millions of years of history, some living beings are vastly more complex and therefore
more capable than others.
A second thinker would be Matthew Fox, whose "creation spirituality" sets spiritual
reality on a discretely higher plane than physical reality. Time and time again, Fox
insists that if religion is to be a vital resource in facing today's problems, it must
recover its sense of cosmology--the perception or vision of the world as cosmos. The Greek
word cosmos means "order," and Fox uses it in its classical, hierarchical sense.
The third thinker would be James Fowler whose Stages of Faith is the classic study of the
development of religious ideas, attitudes, and convictions that can take place in
individuals. Through an abundance of carefully designed interviews, he has come to the
conclusion that there is an underlying pattern to such development, and he has no
hesitation in asserting that the later stages of faith are better than the earlier ones.
They see reality more clearly and approach it more constructively. Fowler, incidentally,
makes this assertion in the full knowledge that it goes against one current, significant
Prigogine's hierarchy seems to be essentially a hierarchy of ability. With Fox and Fowler,
though, we meet hierarchies of quality. Fox's higher levels and Fowler's more advanced
levels are not just stronger, but better. In each case, part of the reason is that the
higher levels include the lower in a way that is simply not reversible. An adult can
understand and appreciate the problems a child faces. A child cannot understand and
appreciate in the same way the problems an adult faces. This means that adults can care
for children, can foster their growth.
This is very close to what Swedenborg is talking about when he describes heavenly
government. Those who are "governors" are those who care most deeply for the welfare of
the community and all its members, and who as a consequence of that caring have the
clearest understanding of what needs to be done. Given the communication that exists in
the spiritual world, such individuals would govern by the consent of all. Turning to them
for counsel would be as natural as asking a native for directions or a cook for a recipe.
In fact, different forms of government are distinguished from each other by the way in
which they handle disagreements. If a community were absolutely unanimous, there would be
no way to tell whether its principle of government were tyranny or anarchy, because no
"force" would be exerted, no one's will would be overruling the will of anyone else. In a
way, then, such a community could be hierarchical and egalitarian at the same time. It
would be hierarchical in the sense that the different abilities of its members would be
universally recognized and welcomed, and egalitarian in the sense that every member would
be wholly affirmed by all. I'm fond of reminding myself and others that in Robert's Rules
of Order there is a paragraph that explains the purpose of the rules as the protection of
the rights of the minority. If a group is unanimous, the general says, if there is no
minority, the rules not only can but should be dispensed with. They will simply obstruct
the process of recognizing and carrying out the clear intent of the group.
People do not arrive in heaven until their inner discords have been resolved. They do not
settle into a community until they have found the one where they belong. In angelic
communities, then, there is an underlying unanimity, so much so that it is intriguing to
speculate on what kinds of problems might arise that would need "government."
Things are different in this world. Our spiritual environment is not heaven but the World
of Spirits, where heaven and hell meet. There are disagreements. The struggles going on
within us come out in the form of conflicts between us. It is necessary that the will of
some be overridden by the will of others. Certain things that some people want to do are
harmful, and some degree of force is necessary to keep such desires from running rampant.
This is one of the hard facts on which I think the ideal of total egalitarianism founders.
Total egalitarianism would mean a state without police, and I find no way to pretend that
we are ready for that. No, I believe that the nature of our world as an intersection of
influences from heaven and influences from hell requires that some people be granted more
power, more authority than others.
I also find no way to pretend that the present distribution of power is wholly just.
There are too many people who have it easy, and too many who face huge obstacles. The
current disillusionment with the quality of our elected officials may be a temporary
extreme, but it reminds us that however convinced we may be of the virtues of democracy,
our present exercise of it leaves something to be desired. One seminary program I heard of
required students to try surviving for a short period of time in a major city, starting
with no money and wearing old clothes. I doubt that anyone who tries this will defend the
proposition that our present system offers equality of opportunity.
The solution I object to is the one that proposes simply a redistribution of power. This
is the egalitarian approach, the anti-hierarchical approach, and apart from the
theological objections I have already raised, I find far too much pragmatic evidence that
it does not work. The demise of colonialism in Africa and elsewhere has not resulted in
the flowering of justice.
What I would propose is needed is not the empowerment of the marginalized per se. As I
look both at what our theology says about the kingdom of heaven and what is happening in
the world around us, I find us pointed toward what I would like to call "the empowerment
of the compassionate." I may add that I am experimenting with the word "compassion" as a
translation of the Latin word traditionally rendered as "charity." At one point
(unfortunately not listed by Potts, so I can't give you a reference), Swedenborg explains
charitas by connecting it with carus, "dear." He is saying that "charity" is valuing the
other, which is also what we call "caring," and which is close to the essence of true
I need to close by paying a little attention to how we get there from here. Step one, for
me, is simply recognizing that there is no shortcut. Last week, I mentioned the tension in
Russian thought between what we might call social engineering approaches and spiritual
growth approaches. I noted, for example, that as early as 1866, Dostoevsky criticized
socialism as ignoring the facts of human nature. At the same time, though, it seems
abundantly clear that governmental systems do make a difference, that some cope with human
nature better than others.
If we can accept "the empowerment of the compassionate" as the ideal, I would suggest that
we can see the two approaches as clearly and inevitably complementary. Social engineering
can be directed toward locating and empowering those who are most compassionate. The
intent of democracy, for example, is that the people will elect those individuals who care
about the welfare of the electorate, and however short we may be falling from this ideal,
there does not seem to be anything else that is working as well. Spiritual growth seeks to
nurture compassion itself--to enlarge and deepen, if you will, the pool on which
government can draw. In particular, spiritual growth could be directed to nurture
compassion in those who are in power.
In short, I am talking about a conscious effort to establish and maintain a hierarchy of
compassion, and I want both terms, "hierarchy" and "compassion," to be taken with all
seriousness. Hierarchy is genuine stratification, not just the granting of lip service.
"Compassion" involves clear perception and profound commitment, not just rosy
well-wishing. To the extent that such a hierarchy is established, the kingdom does come on
earth the way it is in heaven, where " . . . all power is in heaven, and none in hell"
(Heaven and Hell 539).