Sunday, November 11, 1994

Location - Bridgewater
Bible Verses - Isaiah 40:12-26
John 40:14-26

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.

Matthew 25:40

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



contact phil at for any problems or comments