This is he that was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah, saying, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord!’” - Matthew 3:3
Our most widely used statement of faith is quite unambiguous: “We worship the one God, the Lord, the Savior Jesus Christ, in whom is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; whose humanity is divine.” It is drawn from the early paragraphs of Swedenborg’s True Christian Religion, which I believe are likely to be misunderstood unless they are seen in two contexts, one historical, and one we might call devotional. The devotional context more closely touches the concerns of our own lives, so I shall get the historical out of the way first.
The thought that Jesus was divine, was God with us, did not really take hold until after the resurrection—which, when you stop to think about it, is not at all surprising. The greatest obstacle to belief would be the ordinariness of the physical body, subject to all the limitations that we take for granted as part of our material human nature. The resurrection would have been a major wake-up call. This person was not just a cut above average, not just a prophet. This person was something else entirely.
As the early church moved out into the Gentile world, and particularly as it began to include individuals steeped in the habits of Greek philosophical thought, it felt pressed to define that “otherness” more precisely. Two notions that had been entirely separate had somehow to be combined. It was the humanity of Jesus, the beauty of his life and teaching, that had won the disciples’ allegiance in the first place. That intimacy was too precious to be lost. Yet the apostles went forth as witnesses of his resurrection (Acts 1:22), full of a sense of his transcendent power.
The difficulty this posed is reflected in the early creeds. The command to baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit led to formulation of doctrines of the Trinity, to learned arguments concerning unity of substance, efforts to define what there were three of and what there was one of, often sadly politicized.
From a Swedenborgian point of view, the saddest result of all this was the image of a division of the divine will so radical that any real sense of the unity of God was destroyed. The Father came to be seen as remote and severe, as the righteous judge who was ready to bring eternal damnation on a sinful humanity. The Son stood on our side, and out of love for us volunteered to take our place, to bear the punishment that we really deserved. The death on the cross was the sacrifice that relieved us of the consequences of our own evil choices.
Let me depart from the usual Swedenborgian path and say that this view may not be wholly without merit. It has spoken to many people who have felt the unbearable weight of divine condemnation. We may know in our heads that the divine does not condemn, but feelings are not always doctrinally correct. The power of “accepting Jesus,” the joy that acceptance can bring, are very real.
Ultimately, though, we need to move beyond this stage. We need to realize that the love and forgiveness experienced in the acceptance of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior are in fact the love and forgiveness of the Father. The wrathful, remote, condemning deity is a deity of our own creation, a projection of our own fears, an image of our own self-condemnation. The power that creates and sustains the universe is on our side, absolutely and eternally.
This, I would suggest, is the import of the “oneness” that Swedenborg defended so passionately. It is not just a numerical oneness; it is a unity of purpose a unity of love. The divine is wholly, undividedly, devoted to our blessing. God has no reservations, no second thoughts, no internal arguments about whether we are really worth the trouble.
This is exquisitely implied in John the Baptist’s reference to the fortieth chapter of Isaiah. John did not identify himself as the herald of the Messiah, of the human descendant of David who would reestablish Israel as an independent nation. He identified himself as the herald of the Lord—Jehovah or Yahweh in the Hebrew. But while most of the passages describing the coming “day of the Lord” describe it as great and dreadful, as a day of fearful and violent judgment, this one is different. This one goes on to describe the Lord as one who will feed his flock like a shepherd, gather the lambs with his arm, carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.
This is also a Lord who can change the landscape. “Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill make low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain: and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the Lord has spoken it.” In other words, the gentle shepherd is not an agent hired or sent by God. The God who fashions the earth is the gentle shepherd.
The qualitative message is straightforward and not difficult to grasp. It is most simply put in the first epistle of John: “God is love.” But the Psalmist’s question becomes more difficult as we discover the incomprehensible size of our universe—when I consider the heavens, can I believe that their Creator is mindful of me? I may be able to put divinity and humanity together in the quality of love, but can I put infinity and humanity together?
Here we move into the devotional context, and here I would again depart from the usual Swedenborgian path and say “No”—not, at least, with what our theology refers to as my “natural mind.” On the level of my deliberate doctrinal thought, I can put the words together but not the ideas. When God is close enough to talk to, sitting at the foot of the bed, there is no room in my mind for the vastness of the universe. I maintain my sense of the oneness of God by experiencing the infinite and the intimate at different times.
We should not expect too much, though, of the “natural mind.” Time and time again, our doctrines remind us of its limitations and assure us that we have deeper or higher levels of ability, ability both to understand and to love. People who have visited those levels speak of a sense of oneness with all that is, a sense that their own “natural minds”” cannot comprehend and that their own natural language cannot express.
It has occurred to me only recently that in this respect, we are a lot like the disciples before the resurrection. In focusing our attention on “the Lord, the Savior Jesus Christ,” we focus on a finite form—on “the visible God in whom is the invisible,” as it is phrased in True Christian Religion 339 and elsewhere. In its essence, this passage continues, our faith is spiritual, but in form it is natural.
Perhaps a analogy will help here. Think of a couple that has been married for forty or fifty years. Think of the husband looking at the wife, or the wife looking at the husband, and having a sense of all the years of shared experience, all the qualities that have held them together over the decades. There is a very close relationship between the physical sight and the deeper appreciation, but the years are not actually registering on the retina.
In this analogy, our natural minds are like the physical eye. They cannot actually see the spiritual. As long as Jesus was physically with the disciples, they could not “see” his divinity because they could not see naturally and spiritually at the same time. Yet because of what Jesus did and said, that physical form came to stand for a particular quality of love and understanding. That was what drew them; and when then went forth as apostles, as witnesses to the resurrection, what had been resurrected was that quality of love and understanding.
A contemporary theologian named Raymondo Panikkar distinguishes between “Christianity” and “Christianness.” “Christianity” is the church in all its forms, “Christianness” is the quality of person presented in the Jesus of the Gospels. “Christianity” has been much preoccupied with theological debate, but the crying need, within and outside the church, is for “Christianness.”
When I try to understand the spiritual sense of the Gospels, then, I find them portraying a state in which we are drawn to particular qualities of heart and mind for the sake of “Christianness”—not because they are doctrinally authorized or Biblically mandated but because we find them beautiful. We find them “human” in the best and deepest sense of that word. We find them in the people who sense what is in our hearts and who value us. We find them in ourselves when another soul is inexpressibly dear to us.
If, like the disciples, we follow these touches of human beauty, they will lead us along the path of the cross. They will demand that we lay down our selfishness, that we learn to forget our own importance. They will lead us ultimately to the hard experience of our own powerlessness, of the totality of our dependence on the Lord for love, light, and life itself.
When Jesus died on the cross, the veil of the temple was rent. Swedenborg interprets this as the rending of the veil between the natural and the spiritual. The figure the disciples saw after the resurrection was the Lord who had been hidden by the physical body, the one who had shone through it at the transfiguration. So when we pass through the death of self-importance, we will see what we cannot see now—the transcendent, divine reality of those qualities that are truly human.