Sunday, June 6, 1993

Location - Bridgewater
Bible Verses - Isaiah 43:1-13
Matthew 43

You are my witnesses, says the Lord, and my servant whom I have chosen: that you may know

and understand that I am he: before me there was no God formed, neither shall there be

after me. I, even I, am the Lord; and beside me there is no savior.

Isaiah 43:11f.

This statement from Isaiah is one of the many which Swedenborg cites in support of the

central theological tenet that, to quote the apostle Paul, "In Christ dwells all the

fullness of the Godhead bodily." The issue of the divinity of Jesus has been a thorny one

throughout the history of the Christian church, leading on more than one occasion to

schism and to bloodshed. In mainline Protestantism, there seems currently a tendency to

lay much more stress on Jesus' humanity, and some form of traditional trinitarian thinking

keeps cropping up in efforts to deal with the difficulty.

There are risks in an emphasis on Jesus' divinity. This is nowhere clearer than in the

abuses that have been committed in its name. Jesus is recorded as saying, "All power is

given to me in heaven and on earth: go therefore and make disciples of all nations." The

church has all too often "made disciples" by the exercise of power, ridiculing or simply

destroying other religions. At the close of the last century, there was a widespread

assumption that the conversion of the world to Christianity was only a matter of time.

This notion is directly contradicted by our theology, and I should like to quote Divine

Providence (3269f.) at some length as the clearest statement on the subject that I am

aware of.

To acknowledge God, and not to do evil because it is against God--these are the two

elements that cause a religion to be a religion. If either is lacking, it cannot be called

a religion, because to acknowledge God and do evil is self-contradictory, as is doing good

and not acknowledging God. Neither occurs without the other. The Lord has provided that

there be some religion almost everywhere, and that these two elements will be present in

it. The Lord has also provided that everyone who acknowledges God and does not do evil

because it is against God, should have a place in heaven. Heaven, taken in a single grasp,

reflects a single person whose life or soul is the Lord . . . .

It is known that there are in a human being not only the organic forms constituted of

blood vessels and nerve fibers, called viscera, but also layers of skin, membranes,

tendons, cartilages, bones, nails, and teeth. These are alive to a lesser degree than the

organic forms which they serve as connectors, coverings, and supports. That heavenly

person who is heaven, if it is to have all these constituents in it, cannot be made up of

the people of one religion only, but must be made up of the people of many religions.

This is why everyone who has made the two most inclusive tenets of the church matters of

life has a place in that heavenly person, that is, in heaven . . . .

Swedenborgians have taken this principle seriously enough to rank among the worst of

Christian missionaries. By and large, we have felt under no obligation to go forth and

save the heathen from damnation, especially given Swedenborg's clear statements that these

heathen often lead better lives than Christians. We have concentrated on the publication

and distribution of the theological works and collateral literature, leaving the

recipients free to make what they would of them.

Swedenborg is, though, highly critical of traditional Christianity. He makes quite

scathing comments about doctrines that assume a vengeful father accepting the sacrifice of

a son, about any teaching that something called "faith" can save us no matter what kind of

life we lead, and about doctrines that place the power of salvation in the hands of the

church and its priesthood. Armed with such weapons, we did engage in vigorous and largely

successful debates with local clergy.

That is no longer an effective strategy, though. A significant change has taken place

around us. It would be interesting to explore just how, and we might discover that our

theology, working sometimes quite indirectly, has had more effect than our church. Be that

as it may, it is not easy to find the angry, vengeful God proclaimed. It is far easier, in

fact, to find that doctrine condemned.

There is currently, though, a lively debate going on, in which the key words are

"pluralism" and "globalism." As television brings Africa or Australia or India into our

living rooms, we find that we have new neighbors to live with. The religions of the world

are not just things we read about in a book, but things we see. There is a vast difference

between having an outsider describe a religion, and having a proponent of that religion

speak out. Now we see the faces and hear the voices of the adherents of other religions.

At the same time, distance is not the physical obstacle it once was. Religions are not

confined within geographical bounds. An Islamic center is being built in Sharon. There is

an active Vedanta Temple near Boston University. Local news broadcasts call attention to

Passover as well as to Easter. In any metropolitan area, "the religions of the world" are

very much present.

The question this is raising can be simply stated. Given our own beliefs, what degree of

recognition can we offer to other religions? The assumption that the world was supposed to

be converted to Christianity exerted a major force in the mainline churches for a long

time. It was part and parcel of the belief that besides him, there is no savior. "Jesus

shall reign where'er the sun Doth his successive journeys run." Let every tribe and every

tongue, All creatures great and small, Loud swell the universal song And crown him Lord of


The Swedenborgian originator of the first Parliament of the World's Religions, Charles

Bonney, had an answer that is theologically sound, and perhaps surprisingly for a century

ago, psychologically astute. Describing the intended mood of the Parliament, he said

" We meet on the mountain height of absolute respect for the religious convictions of

each other; and an earnest desire for a better knowledge of the consolations which

other forms of faith than our own offer to their devotees. The very basis of our

convocation is the idea that the representatives of each religion sincerely believe

that it is the truest and the best of all; and that they will, therefore, hear with

perfect candor and without fear, the convictions of other sincere souls on the great

questions of the immortal life.

The psychological principle involved has become familiar. Aggressive behavior is not a

sign of strength or confidence, but a sign of insecurity. People who feel safe do not

attack others. When we, without effort, can rest secure in the goodness of our beliefs, we

can listen to others with nothing but genuine interest, and desire nothing more than

genuine understanding. We can care about them as individuals in their own right, because

we do not see them as threats to ourselves. If we find in them sources of strength, we can

rejoice. If we find in them sources of distress, we may be able to help.

In saying this, though, we have come at least to the borderline between psychology and

religion. We are talking about a marriage of love and understanding expressing itself in

life, and that is not only the life of charity which our theology mandates, it is the life

of charity which the Lord embodied for us. Bonney was able to say that he welcomed the

Jewish Congress because he was "as ultra and ardent a Christian as the world contains."

Quite simply, his religion told him to extend to others the freedom of worship and respect

that he wanted for himself.

It is this essence of religion which we believe is most perfectly incarnate in the life of

the Christ. It is this essence, rather than the church that calls itself Christian, that

should "reign from shore to shore." These are the qualities of heart and mind and life

that make for heavenly community wherever they occur and in whatever language they are

expressed. Or to put it negatively, the cold heart, the closed mind, and the insensitive

life are destructive, no matter what theological rationalizations for them we may invent.

There is an image from the beginning of Divine Providence that may serve for a close. In ¶

3, Swedenborg writes that "Divine love and divine wisdom emanate from the Lord as one."

They enter the very core of our being, the inmost," as one, and diverge, so to speak, as

they come down to the levels of our workaday consciousness. This section of Divine

Providence goes on to say that the most perfect oneness in one in which the constituents

are "distinguishably different, and yet united," and that the whole effort of providence

is toward that kind of oneness.

If we put this together, we get a picture of a world in which outward diversity is

altogether fitting and proper, and can be so because of the oneness that exists at the

core. What is holding things together is not superficial resemblance. That would be much

more of a curse than a blessing. What is holding things together is a profound kinship.

Most importantly, this kinship is not something we have to manufacture. It is given by the

Lord, given constantly. On the issue of pluralism, then, we still have a distinctive

message. It is to accept the outward diversity gladly, and to look ever deeper for the

unity. And when we have let the Golden Rule explore the depths of our own hearts, we will

know the nature of the only power that can be trusted to rule the world.


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