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.
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
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.