Swedenborg 101

By the Rev. Lee Woofenden

Bridgewater, Massachusetts, November 2, 1997


Psalm 33 The word of the Lord is right and true
John 1:1-14 The Word became flesh
Divine Providence #259.3 The three essentials of the church

I couldn't decide whether to use a verse from John or a verse from Psalm 33 as my text this morning, so I decided to use both. First from John:

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the only child who came from the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:14)

And from Psalm 33:

The Word of the Lord is right and true; he is faithful in all he does. The Lord loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of his unfailing love. (Psalm 33:4, 5)

While we worship here in the church, the teens are still at their retreat at Blairhaven (in South Duxbury, Mass.). By their own request, the retreat theme is the basic teachings of the Swedenborgian Church. The topic is "Swedenborg 101," and this morning I would like to cover that theme here in church, too.

I was pleasantly surprised when the teens asked for a retreat on the basic teachings of our church. We usually think of teens as wanting more "exciting" topics (and I emphasize the quotes). But according to the Rev. Eric Allison's newsletter What's Happening Now, this is part of a trend. One of the most frequently requested subjects for both teens and adults of all denominations is the beliefs of their own church.

This is an especially hopeful sign for our church, since we are a church that draws a great deal of our distinctiveness from our teachings. As a denomination, we have spent several decades doing a lot of soul-searching about who we are and where we are going. There have been many different--and often conflicting--views about this over the years. In previous decades, the "liberal/conservative" split in our denomination was a deep rift that divided our church into feuding camps. I am happy to say that while there are still echoes of that split, the current attitude and atmosphere in the church is that these differences are not irreconcilable, but rather are complementary viewpoints that can work together to add richness and depth to our church.

In addition to this interpersonal healing, our soul-searching has led to a generally accepted resolution about who we are as a denomination--where the center is around which we as individual people and as churches are arranged. That center is seen more and more clearly by people from all different viewpoints within the church. That center is the basic teachings--the essentials--of our church, and our living out of those teachings.

This morning I would like to condense into a single sermon what the teens have been covering during the whole weekend, giving you a bird's-eye view of the basic teachings of our church. We will start, though, with the source of those teachings.

We often call ourselves the "Swedenborgian Church," but that name has been controversial in the church. Some feel that giving Emanuel Swedenborg's name to our church gives a mere man too prominent a place--a place that should be reserved for the Lord. Others take a more pragmatic view: we are best known and best differentiated from other churches by the teachings found in Swedenborg's writings; therefore calling ourselves the "Swedenborgian Church" best identifies us to people outside the church.

There is virtue in both viewpoints. What is undeniable is that Emanuel Swedenborg--both as a person and as an instrument of the Lord--holds a key place in the rise and progress of our church. So we will take a brief detour on the way to the basic teachings of our church, and start in the same place the retreat started: with Swedenborg's life.

Emanuel Swedenborg was born in Stockholm, Sweden on January 29, 1668, and died in London, England on March 29, 1772. His eighty-four years were filled with an amazing variety of activities and accomplishments. Although his father, Jesper Swedberg, was a Lutheran bishop and hoped that Emanuel would devote his life to the church, Swedenborg instead studied science and engineering. He eventually gained a position on the Swedish Board of Mines, which oversaw the largest industry in Sweden. As he fulfilled his duties of his post, he also studied every branch of science, and wrote groundbreaking books on many of them, including chemistry, crystallography, metallurgy, cosmology, anatomy, and psychology. In later years, he also took a seat in the Swedish House of Nobles when his family was ennobled by the Queen of Sweden. He continued to take an active part in the Sweden's political life right up to the closing years of his life.

However, Swedenborg was not content with the areas of human learning that he studied. He was on a quest to find the human soul. Yet no matter how deeply he pressed his investigations into the human brain and body, his search was unsuccessful. Then, in 1743, at the age of fifty-five, a dramatic change of direction began in Swedenborg's life. Though he as a human being was unable to penetrate to the human soul, the Lord began to open his spiritual eyes while he was still living on earth so that he could not only investigate the realm of the soul, but could bring back news of the spiritual world. His new mission from the Lord was to carry to the world teachings intended to renew a Christianity that had seriously fallen by the wayside in its beliefs and its life.

Swedenborg spent the last thirty years of his life on this new mission. The results of his labors were over thirty volumes of theological writings, which led to the founding of the Church of the New Jerusalem (or Swedenborgian Church) after his death.

What are these teachings that Swedenborg was commissioned by the Lord to bring to a world that was sorely in need of new vision and enlightenment? Our reading from Divine Providence puts them in a nutshell:

There are three essentials of Christianity: accepting the Lord's divinity, accepting the holiness of the Bible, and living a life of kindness. Our faith always exists according to our life of kindness; we have a rational perception of what our life should be from the Bible; and we are reformed and saved by the Lord. (D.P. #259)

These three essentials are also the basis for the Bridgewater New Jerusalem Church's mission statement, which reads:

Our mission is to nurture spiritual growth by: worshipping the one God, the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, studying his Word, and living a life of kindness and service.

Let's take a brief look at each of these essentials of our church. We will see them more clearly if we understand the spiritual context into which they arrived.

In Swedenborg's day, the Christian Church had fallen very far away from the original vision that Christ gave to the church. At that time, Catholicism was more concerned with worldly power than with leading people to God. Protestantism, meanwhile, had adopted some very non-Christian and non-Biblical teachings. The most troublesome of these teachings was the idea that God was not a single person, but three distinct persons. Whereas Jesus said "I and the Father are one" (John 10:30), Protestant dogma held that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were each distinct persons of God, but were somehow united so that they had a single will.

This contradictory and confusing idea of God led to one of the most damaging teachings ever preached in the name of Christ: the Vicarious Atonement. According to Vicarious Atonement theology, we humans are all born sinners because of the sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Since God the Father is perfect, his justice must be perfect--which was interpreted as an inability to tolerate sin and imperfection in human beings. This "perfect justice" demands the penalty of death for our sins. However, God the Son was willing to come to earth as Jesus and die instead of us, thus satisfying the justice of God the Father. All we have to do to be "saved" is to accept that Jesus Christ died for us; then God the Holy Spirit will bring redemption and salvation to us.

Swedenborg utterly rejected this dogma because it not only divides one God into three, but attributes contradictory and even blasphemous characteristics to God, saying that God is both loving and condemnatory at the same time, and that God arbitrarily saves only those who profess one particular faith--whether or not they actually live by it.

Our church's view of the Lord is very different. (And I believe mainline Christianity is moving in our direction.) We do not divide God into three. We do not see Jesus as a separate "person" of God. Rather, we see our Lord Jesus Christ as one with God the Father, just as we are taught in the Gospels. We believe that Jesus was and is God coming personally into our world to save us from our own evil by struggling against it himself, and by teaching us what genuine religion is. The miracle of Jesus' birth is that the infinite God bent the heavens and came down to us as a human being just like ourselves--but with the soul of God within.

This teaching is the most profound and the most challenging one in our faith. In many ways, it goes beyond belief that God could be born as a human being. Yet it is the very humanity of Jesus that makes it possible for us to have a personal relationship with our Lord. Christianity is a personal religion. Our religion is one of love and understanding for each other based on the Lord's infinite, human love and understanding of us.

We do not have the Lord physically present among us today. However, the Lord did leave us a physical reminder of his presence, in case we should forget. That reminder is the Bible--the Word of God. We place God's Word centrally on our altar because, more than the writings of Swedenborg, it is the inspiration for our religious life. Swedenborg helps us to understand the Bible, but the Bible itself is where we are most strongly challenged--in vivid and memorable stories and teachings--to live a Christ-like life.

The beauty of our church's view of the Bible is that it opens the deeper meanings within. Instead of having to glean words of wisdom from various teachings that shine out from a matrix of history and prophecy that often seems strange and outdated, the entire Bible shines forth with spiritual meanings that are a light to our spiritual path. Through "correspondences"--a living symbolism relating physical objects and events to spiritual realities and processes--we can see our own spiritual growth reflected in the flow of the Bible story, and gain insight and inspiration to lead us on every step of our journey.

That insight and inspiration always leads in the same direction: toward applying the Lord's teachings to our everyday life. Our religion is spiritual, but it is also supremely practical. As Swedenborg points out in our reading from Divine Providence and in many other places, any person of any belief who makes a real effort to live a life of kindness based on what he or she believes will be saved. It is our motives and our actions, not just our beliefs, that bring about the spiritual transformation of our lives that we know in Christian terms as "salvation."

This is our "Swedenborg 101" class. All of the thousand pages of the Bible and all of the thirty plus volumes of Swedenborg boil down to a very simple message--one that is both spiritual and practical at the same time: We are to love the Lord God Jesus Christ above all things; we are to study the Word of God and search out its deeper, spiritual meaning for us; and we are to take that meaning--that message from the Lord--and practice it in our lives through kindness and service toward our fellow human beings.

What could be simpler? Yet we need an entire lifetime to put it into practice.


Graphics courtesy of the Swedenborgian Church