I tell you in truth, if you have done it to one of the least of these my brothers, you
have done it to me.
This semester, I find myself for the first time teaching a course in "Christology"--the
technical theological name for the study of the nature of the incarnate Lord. This
involves some exploration of traditional doctrine on the subject and a lot of reading in
our own theology, since in Arcana Coelestia, Swedenborg interprets most of Genesis as
imaging the process of the Lord's glorification. The net result so far is a vivid
recognition of the depth and detail of our theology in this regard, and a renewed
appreciation of the unique way in which that theology brings what could be a remote and
abstract doctrine into intimate contact with our own experiences of living. I want to try
convey some of that appreciation this morning, without getting lost in the depth and
All Christendom believes that in some way in Jesus Christ the divine and the human come
together, but there is a wide range of readings of this claim. If we read the New
Testament carefully, we can pick up echoes of some very different opinions, and other
early sources confirm this impression. There were Christians who believed that Jesus was
essentially the final prophet, the second Moses who was promised in Deuteronomy. There
were others who believed that the human side was little more than an illusion. The church
eventually came simply to insist that while Jesus was fully human and fully divine, and
while the two natures were not mixed, he was still one Christ.
The main difficulty, I would suggest, lay in conceiving of the Divine and the human as
utterly and irreconcilably different. When the Divine is seen simply as infinite and
perfect and the human as simply finite and fallen, there really is no way to combine the
two in one individual. When the Divine is seen as immensely remote, working only
indirectly through agents, there is again a gap that is difficult to bridge.
This means that the problem is not simply one of defining the relationship between the
Divine and the human in Jesus. It requires that we rethink what we mean by the term
"human," and it seems regularly overlooked in discussions of the nature of Jesus that
there is no widespread agreement about our own nature. We might paraphrase a question in
the first Epistle of John: "If we do not understand our brother whom we have seen, how can
we understand God whom we have not seen?" This rethinking of human nature is what I find
distinctive in our theology, and it is what brings our Christology so close to our daily
experience of ourselves and of others.
The early Christians who saw Jesus simply as a second Moses saw humans as stubborn and
willful, needing above all the discipline of law. They saw God as giving laws, as
rewarding obedience and as punishing disobedience. The early Christians who saw Jesus as
so divine that the humanity was little more than an illusion saw humans as immortal souls
trapped in the darkness of physical bodies, and saw God as providing means for these souls
to break out into the light. The mainline church came to see humans as sinful, but as
offered forgiveness through Jesus and his successor--the church.
It seems to me as though the central issues boils down to one of "range." That is, the
law-abiding or Judaeochristian approach focuses on our fallen nature so exclusively that
it denies our angelic potential, while the human potential or gnostic approach focuses on
the possibilities so exclusively that it minimizes the actuality of where we are starting
from. To put it another way, one approach sees us as capable of traveling only a very
short distance, while the other offers us a radical short-cut. In this image, the orthodox
compromise was to claim that as long as we boarded the church, we could just leave the
driving to the clergy.
In contrast to all these positions, ours is a full-range theology. We are both remote from
angelhood and designed for it; and the conduct of the journey is placed in our own hands.
When Swedenborg insists that angels are not a separate creation, that every angel was once
a human being on some earth, this is not just a bit of esoteric information. It is a
statement about our own natures, a statement that the only road to oneness with the Divine
is the one that starts where we are. The human nature capable of "conjunction with the
Lord" is the human nature we live with every day.
But unlike the early gnostics (and also unlike many present-day movements), our theology
offers no short-cuts. There is a long road to travel, and the experience of traveling it
is essential to the transformation for which we are designed. There is a great deal in our
theology about shunning evils, about living constructively in this world, about
reformation of life. The living of a good outward life is the necessary foundation for a
spiritual life. There is real urgency in the sequence of civic, moral, and spiritual, real
urgency in the repeated focus on "use" as the basis of regeneration. If we try to bypass
this fundamental reformation of life, the "spirituality" we attain will be essentially
self-centered. In a sense, we will become addicted to the experience of the spiritual, and
that addiction will slowly but surely cut us off from other people.
If we look at the actual practices of our church, though, it seems as though we are more
prone to err in the other direction. Perhaps because of Swedenborg's warnings about the
dangers of contact with spirits, we do not talk much about our angelic potential, about
the opening of deeper levels of our understanding and love. We focus so intently on a life
of use that we lose touch with the radical inner transformation that is a major point of
the whole effort. In Marital Love, Swedenborg described it this way:
Everyone is born with bodily awareness, and then comes into sensory awareness, awareness
of the natural world, and eventually rational awareness, and if the process does not stall
there, becomes spiritually aware. The reason for this progression is that [the earlier
stages] form planes which higher stages rest on, the way a palace rests on its foundations
(Marital Love 447).
Early in his Arcana Coelestia, he had written,
The sixth state is when we say what is true and do what is good from faith and therefore
from love. The things now brought forth are called the living soul and the animals. And
since we are then beginning to act from both faith and love, we become a spiritual person,
who is called an image [of God]. The spiritual life of this kind of person is delighted
and nourished by things related to insights of faith and to deeds of compassion, which are
called "food," and the natural life is delighted and nourished by things related to the
body and the senses. This results in conflicts until love gains control, and we become
heavenly (Arcana Coelestia 12).
We should take very seriously, I believe, the statement that one goal of the process is
that we become "spiritually aware." This does not necessarily involve the kind of
paranormal experience we normally associate with the phrase "altered states of
consciousness," but it does in fact involve an alteration of state. It involves becoming
sensitive to issues of eternal concern, seeing through our physical circumstances to the
issues of heart and soul that underlie them. To take a very simple comparison, it is like
coming to know other people deeply enough that we see their physical appearance only as a
means to understanding them. Whether they are "good-looking" or not is simply irrelevant
except as it affects their relationships with other folk.
We can be very sure that Jesus looked at people in this way. We can also be very sure that
this view did not come any easier to him than it does to us. The reading assignment for
the past week in the Christology class was the twelfth chapter of Arcana Coelestia, which
tells of the call of Abram. Swedenborg interprets it as describing inner events in very
early childhood, and in his explanations he goes back and forth between talking about the
Lord and talking about normal human experience in a way that suggests that there is not
all that much difference between them.
This fits beautifully with his insistence that the Lord started the process right where we
do. At the beginning, there was not all that much difference between him and us. The early
Christians who saw Jesus as a second Moses, incidentally, believed that he did not become
a prophet until the spirit descended on him at his baptism. They also believed the spirit
could descend on him because of his righteousness, because he had learned, understood, and
obeyed the law.
In a way, the same polarization we can see in the early church is still very much with us.
There is the so-called moral majority, which sees life strictly in terms of obedience to
moral law. There is the extreme of the human potential movement, which makes
transformation of consciousness an end in itself. Each of these, from a Swedenborgian
point of view, has narrowed the range of its definition of what it means to be "human,"
one minimizing the spiritual side and the other minimizing the earthly side.
By contrast, I would see our theology as "full-range." Yes, we are designed and called to
become angels, to undergo the spiritual rebirth called regeneration. But yes, too, the
means to this are found in the very ordinary stuff of our everyday lives--in the
integrity, the fidelity, and the thoughtfulness of our dealings with each other.
What does it mean to be "human"? If we look candidly at our experience of ourselves, do we
not find that we have two natures, a higher one and a lower one? Do we not have times when
it seems impossible to love one another, and times when it seems impossible not to? The
promise of our theology is that if we shun evils as sins against God, as if of ourselves,
and acknowledge that the strength to do so is not our own at all, then this inner split
will be healed. The lower nature will not be destroyed but will be so filled and governed
by the higher that we will be at peace with ourselves. In the extraordinary words of the
Lord's discourse at the Last Supper, we will be one.
Those words go a huge step further.
I pray . . . that they all may be one; as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they
also may be one in us: . . . and the glory which you gave me, I have given them, that they
may be one, even as we are one: I in them, and you in me, that they may be made perfect in
one; and that the world may know that you have sent me, and have loved them just as you
have loved me.
This deserves our closest attention. One purpose of the oneness to which we are called is
that we may know how the Father and the Son are one. In our own experience of closeness to
and distance from our Lord we have the key to understanding, as best we can, the Lord's
statements about oneness with the Father and his prayers to the Father, and even his sense
of forsakenness on the cross. Conversely, the only genuine oneness we can have is the
effect of that divine presence within us--"I in them, and you in me, that they may be made
perfect in one." And lest we forget, this is no other-worldly, romantic dream. This is a
grounded spirituality, a spirituality rooted in our daily dealings with each other.
As we begin to understand the incarnation in terms of our experience of ourselves, then,
we find ourselves rethinking who and what we are. We find in the life and nature of the
Jesus of the Gospels a call to realize a humanity beyond what we ourselves could imagine.
The meeting of the divine and the human in that figure becomes the touchstone of our