Friday, July 7, 1998

Location - FNCA 1998

The context of the story of Samson and Delilah is the struggle between Israel and the

Philistines. It is an intriguing story because it is so much more personal than

political. Samson never rallies the troops, never asserts any kind of political or

military leadership. Yet always in the background is the military power of these

outlanders. Delilah, Samson's downfall, is one of them. My primary concern this

morning is with their representation as it may be seen not in traditional

Christianity but in our own efforts toward a new church, not in criticism of others

but in challenge to ourselves.

Swedenborg says of the Philistines that "they do not reason from natural knowledges

about spiritual and heavenly things . . . but learn about the insights of faith and

keep them in their memory for the sole purpose of knowing them" (Arcana Coelestia §

1198). In Arcana Coelestia § 24689 he makes the further comment that they represent

people who are, in traditional terms, "in the knowledge of the Knowledges of truth

(and I'll come back to this "knowledge of Knowledges" later), and not in charity."

Then in Arcana Coelestia § 34122 he says that "in the Ancient Church and later, they

called people Philistines who paid little attention to life and a great deal of

attention to doctrine." Such passages add up to a predominantly negative picture of

the Philistines, and certainly in the history of Israel they are remembered as a

formidable enemy.

There are a few passages, however, that stand out as exceptions. One such is Arcana

Coelestia § 1197, where it is said simply that the Philistines represent "the

knowledge of the Knowledges of faith and charity." Similarly, Arcana Coelestia § 2504

says that they represent "the knowledge of the Knowledges of faith." The overall

impression is that the problem with the Philistines is not what they are or have, but

what they are not or do not have. Swedenborg would be the last to disparage knowledge

or doctrine-after all, he wrote and published one book called The New Jerusalem and

Its Heavenly Doctrine and four small works whose titles begin The Doctrine of . . .

.It is not the attention to doctrine that the Philistines are faulted for, but the

inattention to charity.

I propose this morning to look at this in two distinct but related contexts, first

the context of Swedenborgianism, and then the context of the regeneration process. I

trust the distinction between them is obvious; and the connection is most simply

indicated by the fact that our religion calls on us to be in process-to be changing.

This means there may well be states we have to pass through which are not

particularly attractive. This is hard to deny in view of Swedenborg's assertions that

evils cannot be resisted unless they become visible (Divine Providence §§ 1832, 278).

Let me turn first, then, to this matter of faith apart from charity in the context of

Swedenborgianism. We do have thirty volumes of doctrine, and we do want people to be

interested in them. Many of our churches started with reading circles, and adult

study groups have been one of the commonest features of our polity.

Nor should we underestimate the power of those doctrines. One of the first people, if

not the first person, to campaign actively for the abolition of the slave trade was

Charles Wadstrom, a reader of Swedenborg. Harriet Beecher Stowe was a reader as well,

and so was one of the leading figures in the abolition of serfdom in Russia. The

Swedenborg Foundation will shortly be publishing a collection of essays by Anders

Hallengren of Stockholm, and time after time, we encounter the theme of liberation.

It was Charles Bonney's Swedenborgianism that inspired the 1893 Parliament of World

Religions, the pivotal introduction of East and West. I have no doubt that the

potential is still there, that if we were turned on by our theology with the kind of

passion that impelled those individuals who discovered it, there could be similar

events in our own times.

One key ingredient, though, is that those individuals were not simply turned on by

the doctrines. They were concerned about the world they lived in. The doctrines

helped them see that world in a new light, and they found themselves impelled to do

something about the evils they saw. Further, these particular individuals were in

positions that enabled them to act on a scale that makes it into the history books,

and most of us cannot make that claim. For every one that we might read about in the

encyclopedia, there are surely hundreds who have lived lives of similar quality and

concern in the smaller circles of family and local community; and such lives are,

ultimately, the foundations of our national security and prosperity, the necessary

raw material of social justice and world peace.

The same doctrines that can focus minds so clearly on life issues, though, can also

be taken as ends in themselves. We have had our periods of preoccupation with

orthodoxy, our doctrinal battles. Sometimes these have involved matters of practice,

which is one thing. At other times, though, the issue has been one simply of

correctness, with no significant attention paid to life.

Currnently, for example, we are likely to meet people who believe in reincarnation.

As far as I can see, our teachings are clear and unequivocal that we die just once,

and from then on live as spiritual beings in the spiritual world. Swedenborg's

picture of human personality even allows for memories of supposed "past lives" by the

perfectly plausible proposal that we may on occasion have access to the memories of

other individuals (Heaven and Hell § 256).

Suppose, though, that someone has been brought up believing in an unforgiving god,

believing that one mistake was all it took to damn you to hell for eternity. For such

an individual, the doctrine of reincarnation might be the first ray of hope, the

first hint that there could be a second chance, that it was at least worth trying.

Certainly, too, we cannot pretend that the world we observe is fair. Virtue is not

always rewarded, nor evil punished. The doctrine of reincarnation is one way of

asserting that in the long run, life is fair. The prosperity of the evil is temporary

only, even if it lasts until death, and the same can be said for the sufferings of

the just. Reincarnation, then, may be the best way someone has found to believe that

God is loving and fair, contrary to appearances.

Of course, this can backfire as well. It can lead and has led to an appalling kind of

fatalism. It leads logically to the assumption that all suffering is deserved, that

the abused infant is being punished for the sins of a past life, that there really is

no such thing as injustice. There is much to be admired in the culture of India, but

its dark side is surely its toleration of poverty to the point of starvation.

At this point, it may help to look at the seemingly peculiar phrase, "the knowledge

of Knowledges." We are dealing with two different and distinct Latin roots, and the

difference continues to plague translators. The first root, which Potts associates

with lower-case "knowledges," yields words that have to do with being informed about

something. The second root, which Potts associates with upper case "Knowledges,"

yields words that have to do with first-hand, experiential knowledge. For example,

when I read accounts of near-death experiences and what NDE-rs have learned from

them, I am gaining "knowledge about Knowledges." The word for upper case "Knowledge,"

incidentally, is the word from which we have borrowed the terms "gnosis" and

"gnostics." The true gnostic is not the one who has read all the books but the one

who has actually encountered the Divine.

There is, I trust, nothing wrong with reading about near-death experiences, but it

can go wrong. The most obvious way this can happen is for me to regard my lower-case

knowledges as primary, to set myself up as an authority on matters of which in fact I

have only second-hand information.

There is a spectacular example of this in the academic world in the person of a

particular scholar much published on the subject of mystical experience. He is

obviously very widely read, and just as obviously has never had a mystical experience

in his life. I've been at meetings where he has responded to people who have told

their stories, and he consistently imposes his own theory on their experience,

apparently incapable of hearing what they themselves are trying to say.

There are of course two ways to learn about mystical experiences-to have them or to

study accounts of them. It seems fairly obvious that anyone who has not had such an

experience should start by respecting any and all first-hand accounts. Granted, they

may have faults, but there will be no learning whatever if one is determined to

cancel out any alleged features that cast doubt on one's own pet theories.

Let me come back to the Swedenborgian context, though, by way of near-death

experiences. I recall seeing a video of a Swedenborgian clergyman interviewing a

woman who had had such an experience. He kept pushing her to say that this offered

proof of our immortality. She kept trying to tell him that it was not about life

after death, it was about life here and now. She had discovered that she was a

spiritual being here and now, and that had made a tremendous difference to her; but

the poor clergyman simply could not hear what she so deeply wanted to communicate.

For him, the important thing was that the experience proved that Swedenborg was

right. For her, the important thing was that her own life had new meaning. She had

Knowledges with a capital "K"; he was totally absorbed in his knowledges with a small


So we live after death. So what? Some people have used this the way others have used

reincarnation, to excuse their tolerance of present injustice on the grounds that

everything will be made right in the afterlife. "Pie in the sky when you die."

"Religion as the opiate of the masses." In fact, the whole traditional view of heaven

as a reward for virtue and hell as a punishement for sin lends itself to this misuse.

The immense merit of the Swedenborgian view is that heaven and hell are seen as

present realities. Hell is not a place of punishment for sin, it is simply a place of

sin; and sin is as bad for us here as it is hereafter. Heaven is not a place of

reward for being good, it is a place where people live good lives, and living good

lives is as good for us here as it is hereafter, under the ambiguous material

"appearances" that enable us to deceive ourselves if we so choose. If the

Swedenborgian clergyman in question had actually listened to what the woman was

trying to tell him, the conversation could have been about heaven here and now. As it

was, though, he seemed very much like one of those people "who paid little attention

to life and a great deal of attention to doctrine."

At this point, we are on the border of our second context, the context of the process

of regeneration. There is a cognitive side to this process which Swedenborg describes

in § 1495 of Arcana Coelestia as follows: "When we are being taught, there is a

progression from `scientifics' (lower-case knowledges) to rational truths, then to

intellectual truths, and finally to heavenly truths." That is, we begin by learning

about the Lord's will for us, by taking in information. Then we learn to process this

rationally, to theorize, and then to use it discriminatingly. Whan Swedenborg

describes the final step as arriving at "heavenly truths," he is talking about true

wisdom, about knowledge that has taken root in our hearts; and this is Knowledge with

a capital "K."

It is abundantly clear, though, that we do not arrive at wisdom simply by thinking

things through. What we learn about the Lord's will has implications for our

behavior. It is put this way in Arcana Coelestia § 7857:

When we are being regenerated, whatever good we have comes from the truth of our

faith because we are not acting from an affection for truth but from obedience,

because it has been commanded. Later, though, when we have been regenerated, we do

good from affection and therefore from love. These two states of ours are decisively

distinguished from each other in the Word because no one can be in both at the same


That is, what we are taught becomes rooted in our affections by our regeneration, or

by our conduct of life, or, if you will, by our shunning evils as sins against the

Lord as if of ourselves, with the acknowledgment that our doing so is in fact a gift

from the Lord.

In view of this, it would seem inevitable that we will have times when we have

knowledges with a small "k" that we are not yet ready to apply to our lives. If we

stop to think about it, it is fairly obvious that our minds in fact need to see goals

we have not yet achieved. If there is no gap between our theory and our practice, we

are simply complacent, self-satisfied; and there is something seriously wrong with

our theory.

In the biblical story, though, the Philistines are a major presence only at one

point. Israel has been freed from Egypt, has had her forty years in the wilderness,

and has gained her footholds in the promised land, but she is disorganized, living

from crisis to crisis. The Philistines are actually a major factor in the decisive

step to monarchy. It is the threat of Philistine domination that impels the tribes to


If we look at the Genesis-to-Revelation story as an image of our spiritual lives from

cradle to grave, the establishment of the monarchy is the prime candidate for our

arrival at adulthood, the period when we become self-governing; and it is clear that

this is a strenuous transition. Samuel, Saul, and David all play key roles, each

representing a significant step toward centralized government. Samuel is the first of

the judges to be recognized nation-wide, "from Dan to Beersheba," as 1 Samuel 3:20

has it. Saul is essentially a general who commands the loyalty of all the tribes, but

there is no suggestion of any administrative steps. David is the one who builds on

Sauls's achievements and establishes a capital city and an actual government; and the

filfillment of the promise to Abram is signalled in the first verse of 2 Samuel 7: ".

. . when the king sat in his house and the Lord had given him rest from all his

surrounding enemies . . . ."

The Samson story, then, would be located somewhere in our late teens, and the

Philistine threat is particularly apt for that very familiar passage when we knew

better than our parents and teachers. This should probably come as no surprise, since

our parents and teachers have been trying to convey to us the best of what they have

learned over the years; and it would be unrealistic to expect them to teach us what

they haven't figured out yet. It is appropriate that we enter adulthood with a sense

of commitment to high ideals, appropriate that we see clearly that those ideals make

sense. Much of this will ultimately get built into our conduct as we move out from

our parents' homes and take primarly responsibility for our own life journey.

In the Samson story, that time is not yet. For reasons there is not time to explore

here, I see Samson as the impulsive doer, the absolutist who charges into action

without counting the cost. The interplay between this attitude and the "I have more

understanding than all my teachers" is a fascinating one, reflected, I believe, in

the tension betweeen Samson's proclivity for Philistine women and his conflicts with

Philistine men. Certainly the Philistine attitude is defeated not by better arguments

but by life experience.

To summarize, then, if we are inclined to be Philistines, our theology offers us

ample resources. We have an immense theology, a whole arsenal of spiritual swords and

shields and chariots and horses. We can joust to our heart's content. That theology

itself, though, tells us to expect frustration if all we want to do is understand.

Theology is something we are supposed to think about and do. not just something we

are supposed to think about. It is only when we start trying to do the truth that we

begin to find out what it means, that we begin to move from "knowledge of Knowledges"

toward that "Knowledge" which can rightly be called wisdom.

contact phil at for any problems or comments