Archive for March, 2009
You Are My Friends If
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
March 29, 2009
Exodus 33:7-17 John 15:9-17
Last Sunday we saw that love is the final measure of good and evil. A so-called sinful woman poured out love for Jesus and in this outpouring of love her sins were forgiven. The passage is challenging because it confuses our notions of judgment. It challenges traditional categories of right and wrong. Today I thought I’d explore the difficult terrain of judgment in relation to love.
It seems that the issue we will look at today is captured by Jesus’ words to His disciples. Jesus calls them friends, but He also adds the important word IF– “You are my friends if.” In this line, we see that entering into a relationship with God is conditional. That phrase contains the very important and very conditional word “if”. And the “if” means that we are Jesus’ friends if we do what He commands. Jesus as God incarnate loves everyone. But not everyone is Jesus’ friend. Friendship requires mutuality. Those are Jesus’ friends who love Jesus back. And not everybody loves Jesus back. And loving Jesus back is doing the things He commands. What is involved here was said well by Aristotle. Aristotle says that only the virtuous can be true and lasting friends. He says further that friendship is actually friendship with virtue itself, when we see it in a person. Swedenborg, with his excellent Classical education, adopts Aristotle’s teachings on friendships of virtue and states it in Christian language.
Even a bad man can love the neighbor for the sake of the good or the use that there is in the neighbor for himself; none but a good man, however, can love the neighbor from the good or the use that there is in himself for the neighbor; for it is from good that he loves good, or it is from affection for use that he loves use. . . . One does not love the neighbor interiorly unless he is himself in what is good, and from this loves the neighbor’s good; he is thus in charity, but the other is a friendship which is not charity. He who from charity loves the neighbor, conjoins himself with his good, and not with his person, except in so far as and as long as he is in good. This is spiritual; and he loves the neighbor spiritually. But he who loves the neighbor from friendship alone, conjoins himself with his person, and then at the same time with his evil. After death, the latter can scarcely be separated from the person who is in evil, but the other can (Doctrine of Faith #21).
Our Friendship with Jesus is like the friendship of the virtuous. Our friendship with Jesus occurs when we are like Jesus. Our friendship with Jesus occurs when we are Christ-like. Our friendship with Jesus occurs when we do the things he commands. We are friends of Jesus when we are in good.
So friendship involves mutuality and virtue. Love, on the other hand, is different. There can be a kind of love that is purely giving. There is a kind of love that doesn’t need to be returned. This kind of love wishes what is well for everyone. It wishes that everyone find what their heart most desires. This kind of love is happy when it sees another in happiness. But this kind of love is not friendship. It doesn’t seek a mutual relationship. It doesn’t join its life with the other in the kind of intimate union of friendship.
These two different forms of affection relate to our spiritual life. Jesus calls upon us to love everyone—even our enemies. But He doesn’t call us to friendship with everyone. As we saw above, friendship with evil can be harmful to us. It can bring us into spiritual company with evil, and it can cause evil delights to flow into our own affections. Furthermore, we are finite creatures. There are going to be people we resonate with better than others. There is nothing bad about befriending people with whom we get along well. And there is nothing bad about not befriending people with whom we don’t seem to click.
But this is far different from withholding spiritual love from others. That, we are not permitted to do. We are called to extend love unconditionally to others. This means we are to wish well to others, we are to forgive others, we are to want the best for others—whether we are their friends or not. We are not allowed to withhold love from people we judge to be undeserving. We are not in a position to judge who is or who is not worthy of love. As we saw last Sunday, this is what God does with us. He sends His infinite love to everyone. It is how we respond to God’s love that makes us His friend or not.
I do not mean to suggest that we ignore judgment altogether. When we are in good, and love good, we will seek to encourage those qualities in others. Remember that spiritual friendship is friendship to what is good first and foremost. In some cases, our expressions of love will look like correction and discipline. This is how judgment enters our love relationships. Swedenborg comments on this in a rather black and white way. But I think we can all get the main point he is trying to express. He writes,
To love the neighbor is not alone to wish well and do good to a relative, a friend, or a good man, but also to a stranger, an enemy, or a bad man. But charity is to be exercised toward the latter in one way and toward the former in another; toward a relative or friend by direct benefits; toward an enemy or a bad man by indirect benefits, which are rendered by exhortation, discipline, punishment, and consequent amendment. This may be illustrated thus: A judge who punishes an evil-doer in accordance with law and justice, loves his neighbor; for so he makes him better, and consults the welfare of the citizens that he may not do them harm. Everyone knows that a father who chastises his children when they do wrong, loves them, and that, on the other hand, he who does not chastise them therefore, loves their evils, and this cannot be called charity (TCR 407).
This may be a hard teaching for us. It means that we care enough about someone who is heading in a bad direction, that we remain in relationship with him or her. We struggle with them. We work to help them back on their feet, point them in a better direction. As Tolle points out, we are all connected. Tolle wouldn’t like Swedenborg’s language of good and evil, but he would like the notion that we remain in relation with others. It’s easier to avoid conflict, and turn our back on them and ignore them. But this is not what Christ calls us to do. It is not what Christ Himself did. The point here, is that we are called to care about everyone. And we are called to be open to friendly relations with all who are seeking good according to their own lights and to labor to help those who are in need of ammendment.
Jesus also calls us to account for our own feelings about others. The spiritually advanced person wishes well for everyone. But it is easy for us to carry grudges and resentments for certain people in the private spaces of our own mind. These resentments can be poison to our spiritual welfare. In AA we call that “giving people free rent in our head”. Whether we know it or not, filling our minds with poisonous resentments for others actually puts us in relationship with them on the spiritual plane. I found a most interesting passage in Swedenborg when I was researching this talk. He writes,
In the other life . . . when anyone is there thought of intently, he becomes present; hence it is that in the other life friends meet together, and also enemies, and from the latter they suffer severely (AC 6893).
We put ourselves into spiritual relationship when we dwell intently on our enemies. I have been told that if I’m carrying a resentment against someone to walk up and shake their hand as soon as I see them. I’ve also been told to picture them in light and to pray for their well being. What we need to do, in whatever way works best for you, is to let go of grudges that fill our mind with resentment. What we need to do is to find a way to feel good about the people we encounter.
Our relationships are the measure of our spirituality. We are called to love everyone. We are called to wish well to everyone. Though we will form friendships and intimate relations according to the good qualities we share with others. As Jesus says in John, “You are my friends if you do what I command.” When we are truly Jesus’ friend, we will make friends according to how we understand what good is. We will befriend the good we see in others according to the good we have incorporated into our own lives. But these friendships will always be limited according to the good we ourselves have embodied and according to the good qualities we see in others. So we need to be very careful about the judgments we use with other people. Certainly, how we show love, and whom we bond with in friendships depends on our judgments of good. But we need always remember that our judgments of good are finite and limited by our own level of spiritual advancement. We can only say of another person, “I see you this way, but I may not see the whole picture.” We need remain humble in our judgments, and leave the final judgment to God alone, as to another’s spiritual condition. Relations with others are a touch-stone for our own spiritual development. Relations with others are a measure of our capacity to love, our embodiment of good, and our commitment to the teachings of Jesus. While God loves everyone, we are only His friends if.
His Love Endures Forever
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
March 22, 2009
Deuteronomy 7:1-15 Luke 7:1-15
We have looked at truth as pointing the way to good; we have looked at good as being truth expressed from the heart; our subject today is love. Love is the object of religion. Teaching the ways of love is what all Christianity is about. God is love itself. And religion is about a person’s relationship with God. When we let God into our hearts, we are letting love into our hearts. We only love truly when God is in us.
But the word love has a wide range of meanings in our society. But I think all these meanings can be captured in the way Swedenborg talks about love. In Divine Love and Wisdom, Swedenborg writes,
Love is a person’s very life; not only the general life of his whole body, and the general life of all his thoughts, but also the life of all their particulars. This a person of discernment can perceive when it is said: If you remove the affection which is from love, can you think anything, or do anything? Do not thought, speech, and action, grow cold in the measure in which the affection which is from love grows cold? And do they not grow warm in the measure in which this affection grows warm? (DLW 1)
So it is love that motivates us to do anything. And when we are involved with what we love, we are in delight, enjoyment, and blessedness. So when we speak of love, we are also speaking of what gives us our delights and enjoyments. Take away our delights, and we will not want to do anything. In fact, one of the sad facts about the illness called depression is what psychologists call “avolition.” Avolition means a lack of will. In depression, a person loses feelings of pleasure, and consequently, in depression a person can’t get up the motivation to do anything. When we are healthy, however, and when we are happy and in a condition of delight, we are in a state of love. Imagine our delight, enjoyment, and blessedness when we are involved with the infinite Source of all love.
Since love is what gives us our sense of delight, everything we enjoy is a reflection of love. So loving is doing and it is also giving and receiving love in an interpersonal way. So we are not abusing the word when we say that we love working on cars, or playing the piano, or preparing balance sheets for businesses. And we all recognize that when we are showing care and compassion for others in an interpersonal way we are also loving.
But when love is defined as that which gives us enjoyment, we can speak of different kinds of love. There is love for our occupations, there is love for our significant other, there is love for children, there is love for our country. There is also healthy and unhealthy loves. In religious language, there is good and there is evil love. Humans are capable of finding delight in both good and evil loves.
Make no mistake, however, there is only one Source for love. There is only one power. Only one reality. And that Source, that power, that reality is good. That Source is God. God is love itself; and God is goodness itself. And God’s love is infinite. We are created out of finite substances—both spiritual and material—proceeding out of God. As such, we only receive love from the Source. We do not love from ourselves. We are not the source of love. God’s infinite, good love flows into us and we receive it according to our nature. If we are consumed with self and ego, we turn God’s love into selfishness and other vices and depravities. If we are spiritually advanced, we receive God’s love in a more direct way and our expressions of love are healthy and good. There is no anti-God that is an opposite source of evil loves. There is only God’s love that is twisted into depraved forms by the nature of the human that receives it. It is true that there are hellish beings who inspire our souls with evil loves, but these beings are still recipients of God’s good love. They have chosen to twist love into self-interest and mean-spirited expressions.
Our loves change over time, if we are advancing spiritually. We can see this by paying attention to the things that we enjoy. Over the past few Sundays we have looked at the progression of spiritual development. We saw that we begin by learning truth for its own sake. We then apply truth to our lives. And finally we are doing good from a love of good. All these stages in life are motivated by love. We learn truth because we enjoy it. We love learning and then learning is the way love is expressed. Then when we start to apply truth to our lives, a love of doing good motivates us. Actually, at this stage in our development, we are doing truth. Then when we feel delight in goodness, we are loving goodness itself.
Corresponding to these stages of love are also changes in our primary motivating love. Swedenborg calls this our ruling love. In his system, there is a dominant, all inclusive love that motivates our life. All the other things we love are like streams flowing out of this primary river. These ruling loves come down ultimately to two heavenly loves and two hellish loves. The ruling loves of hell are a love of the world, or love of wealth, and a love of self, or love to control others. The two heavenly loves are love to God and love to the neighbor. All these loves are part of our growth toward heaven. In the natural progression of life we begin with a healthy love of self and the world. These loves are a necessary stage in human development as they fit us to meet the needs of life—home, food, clothing, and money. But in the natural course of life, we grow out of these loves and become aware of our neighbor and from self we turn to God. From a dominant attitude of, “What’s in it for me?” we grow into an attitude of, “What can I do for you?” In this sense, evil is really a matter of arrested development. An individual becomes evil when that person fails to advance in love to the higher levels and remains ruled by a love of wealth and control. Then, a person is stuck with an attitude of, “What’s in it for me?”
All good and evil, all sin and salvation have relation to what we love. Salvation and good are in a person to the extent that God’s love flows through one into his or her life. In this sense, evil is simply that which blocks God’s love from shining through us. Spiritual growth is a matter of getting rid of the blocks. Being reborn is a process of letting God into our lives ever more fully—even to our very actions in this material world.
This brings us, finally to our New Testament story. This story teaches us about the dangers of being judgmental, and it points the way to a deeper understanding of saving faith. These themes are all brought up in a story about an act of love. At the very beginning of the story Jesus is invited to the home of a Pharisee. I find it striking that Jesus goes to the Pharisee’s house. He didn’t discriminate against anyone—even the Pharisees who so often are the subject of Jesus’ denunciations. I take it that Jesus saw that he could reach out even to the Pharisee, and bring his teachings to him, too—which is exactly what happens in the story. The teaching happens around a so-called sinful woman. She shows her love for Jesus by washing Jesus’ feet with her tears, drying them with her hair, and anointing them with perfume. This event is striking in and of itself. Here we find Jesus on the receiving end of love. So often we think of Jesus as the healer, the comforter, the miracle-worker—the one who is always giving to humanity. But here Jesus also receives love. It reminds us that our relationship with God is a mutual relationship. Like every loving relationship, God loves us and desires our love in return. The Pharisee in this story is concerned with ritual purity, and would have refused the woman’s expressions of love. He thinks to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner” (Luke 7:39). But what kind of woman is she? She is a woman brimming over with love. And it is this love that makes her other failings of no account. Recall that sin is only that which blocks God’s love. Whatever her other deeds, this woman was so filled with love that it possessed her totally. Therefore Jesus can say, “her many sins have been forgiven—for she loved much” (7:47). And later Jesus reaffirms this teaching when he blesses the woman, “Jesus said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you, go in peace’” (7:50).
I would ask you to take this story to heart. It seems to me to capture the nature of religious life. We have two people involved in a loving relationship. We have the woman showing love and we have Jesus accepting love. So we are called to give love and to become vulnerable enough to receive love from others. Honoring love when it is shown us can be more difficult for us than expressing love. The power dynamic becomes reversed when we are on the receiving side of love. When we are the giver we can see ourselves above others. But when we are the object of love from others, we can become uncomfortable. We may wish to downplay it, say, “Oh, it is nothing,” or remain unmoved. But this story shows us how important it is for us and for others to open up, become vulnerable, and accept love. So in this Gospel story we have love in both its dynamics—giving and receiving. And we are taught to both give and receive. So may it be said of us, as Jesus says to the woman, “her many sins have been forgiven—for she loved much.”
The Good of Life
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
March 15, 2009
Genesis 41:17-40 Mark 4:1-20
Last Sunday I talked about the way truth points to good. Our topic today is taking the truth a person has learned, applying it to life, and finally doing the good one has learned. This process contains all the stages of spiritual rebirth, which, for Swedenborg, takes place gradually over a whole lifetime.
Both our Bible readings today talk about this process. The Old Testament reading talks about fat cattle and plentiful grain. In the literal story, this is about a famine that was going to take place in Egypt. But these images can take on symbolic meaning. And in Swedenborg’s Bible interpretation, there is a deeper layer of meaning inside the symbols of the Bible story. The multiplication of grain and cattle are the acquisition of truths and the emotions of love that accompany them. Grain being truths that a person learns and cattle being spiritual affections for goodness and The process symbolized by storing food for the famine is how truth is planted in good affections and how these good affections become actualized in a person’s actions. The same meaning is found in Jesus’ parable of the sower. Swedenborg explains this parable as we all would probably understand it:
That the seed here is the Word of the Lord, thus truth, which is said to be of faith, and that the good ground is good which is of charity, is plain, for it is the good in a person that receives the Word; the wayside is falsity; a stony place is truth that has no root in good; thorns are evils (AC 3310).
There are a few terms Swedenborg uses when he describes this process that require brief explanation. Swedenborg uses terms from traditional Christianity, but their meanings are so different in his theology that he could have used different terms altogether. So the possibility is there for a person to hear Swedenborg’s terms and to think about how they are used in traditional Christianity. Lest this happen, I will take a few minutes to define the terms he uses.
The first, and most important term is “rebirth”. Almost every Christian sect talks about the need to be born again. This is Biblical, when Jesus says that we need to be reborn to enter the kingdom of God. For many Christians, this all happens in an instant when one accepts Christ as one’s personal savior. But for Swedenborg, actual personality change takes place. One’s ideas grow, and one’s actual emotions change, as do a person’s motivations and intentions. This cannot take place in an instant—that is if the change and growth is real. The process of rebirth begins in infancy and continues even to the very last days of life here, and even continually ever after in the next life.
He also uses the terms “faith” and “charity.” Faith isn’t just belief that Jesus saves. For Swedenborg, faith is the whole complex of truth that we hold in our consciousness. It is knowledges of all sorts; it is doctrines we learn from religious education; and it is truth we acquire from any source. Actually, faith is nothing else except truth. Charity isn’t just donating food to food banks or donating money to build hospitals. Charity is every feeling of love for God and for the neighbor. It is our emotional complex in its totality. And this comes down to good for Swedenborg. So faith is truth and charity if good. Faith is also wisdom and charity is also love in every and all meanings those words have.
Spiritual rebirth, then, is a lifelong process. It starts by our learning truth and doctrine from church, personal study, and experience. This stage in spiritual growth is especially evident in youth and early adulthood. Then, a person is delighted as he or she learns knowledge. Knowledge as an end in itself is the primary goal in this period of life. Later in life, one wants to learn about life and how to live better. Then knowledge is acquired with the goal of amending life. Then the truth one learned in early life is put into practice, and more truth is acquired with living well as a motivation. Throughout these stages in life, truth takes the leading role. Truth tells us how to act and we are essentially doing truth, when we do good from what we know.
But there finally comes a time when we are doing good from a love for good. At this point, truth takes a secondary role. When we are so completely accustomed to doing good from practice and habit that it is second nature to us, we then act from our heart, not our head. We feel what it is to be good, and we do good because our heart tells us what it is to do good. This is a very advanced stage in spiritual growth. It comes late in life. Confucius describes this process almost identically with the way Swedenborg describes it. In The Analects of Confucius, we find,
The Master said, At fifteen I set my heart upon learning. At thirty, I had planted my feet firm upon the ground. At forty, I no longer suffered from perplexities. At fifty, I knew what were the biddings of Heaven. At sixty, I heard them with docile ear. At seventy, I could follow the dictates of my own heart; for what I desired no longer overstepped the boundaries of right (Confucius, Analects, Book II, no. 4).
Notice how cognitive Confucius’ system is. He sets his heart on learning in his teens. At forty his confusion is cleared up—but he is still involved with truth in a cognitive way. At fifty, he knows the will of heaven. Sixty years is very interesting. He says that at sixty he hears the biddings of heaven with a docile ear. That is, his life and his mind accepted the truths of heaven. This implies that before sixty he may have rebelled against what he knew, or struggled to align his life with the biddings of heaven. His emotions and his desires may have not always been in accord with what he knew. Then at the ripe old age of seventy, he could follow his heart. He had worked to so align his emotions, desires, and intentions with what he knew to be the biddings of heaven, that now his will was the same as the will of heaven. He no longer needed to think about what to do. He no longer needed to meditate on what the right thing was. He could follow his heart because he had trained it to follow heaven’s biddings. Swedenborg describes this state of attainment similarly to Confucius:
faith, when the spiritual man has been reborn, becomes charity; for he then acts from charity . . . and then he cares nothing for the things of faith or truth, for he lives from the good of faith, and no longer from its truth; for truth has so conjoined itself to good that it no longer appears, except only as the form of good; that is, faith appears no otherwise than as the form of charity (AC 3122).
Recall that for Swedenborg, faith means truth, and charity means good or love. When a person is reborn, then love or good is what drives a person. Issues or doctrine or faith no longer perplex him or her. The person is no longer driven by the promptings of truth. As Swedenborg puts it, “he then acts from charity . . . and then cares nothing for the things of faith or truth.”
The way a person gets there is about the same for Swedenborg as it is for Confucius. Swedenborg writes,
. . . they who are reborn, first do good from doctrines, for of themselves they do not know good, but learn it from the doctrines of love and charity; from these they know who the Lord is, who is the neighbor; what love is, and what charity, thus what good is. . . . afterward when they are reborn, they do not do good from doctrines, but from love and charity, for then they are in the good itself which they have learned from doctrines . . . . (AC 3310).
I think that it is remarkable that a man from the Age of Enlightenment would so subordinate truth. Swedenborg’s Age valued reason above all things. Yet for Swedenborg, reason is simply a tool that gets a person into good, or a tool that tells a person how to love. But another way to view Swedenborg is as a man in between the Enlightenment and the Romantic Periods. Just after Swedenborg’s life, and perhaps in large part because of his influence, the Romantic Period burst into Europe’s consciousness. And in the Romantic Age, the primacy of feelings and passion becomes the driving force in the arts and literature.
For us, I don’t think that this process of turning cognitive motives into affective motives is a cut-and-dried process. I think that we are continually doing this one truth at a time. For instance, I no longer need to fight against my craving for alcohol. I’ve done the leg work, and I could say that I am now in the good of sobriety. I stay away from alcohol because I love the feeling of sobriety. I am now acting from love in that area of my life. I think the process is similar for all the many issues that a person deals with in life. Each issue one overcomes or masters becomes a sort of platform on which he or she stands to move ever upward and ever inward. What I am saying is that moving from truth to good is a continual process. It may well be that a time will come when we are so filled with God’s love that truth does then become entirely subordinate. But for most of us, that very high level of attainment is probably a long way off. Still, we can look toward the day when love moves us to do good, no longer truth. This is what spiritual rebirth finally comes down to in Swedenborg.
How Truth Points to Good
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
March 8, 2009
Exodus 22:16-23:9 Matthew 5:17-48
Last Sunday I talked about doing good to the neighbor and love to God and the neighbor. There were a lot of questions and comments that followed the talk. So I thought in the next few Sundays I would go into love and doing good, and hopefully address some of the issues that were raised last Sunday.
When Plato tried to talk about the Good in his dialogue entitled The Symposium, he realized that he had a very high and lofty subject to discuss. He thought it was so lofty that the closest he could come to the Good is one step down, namely, the True. He thought that truth was as close as he could get to the Good with his mortal rationality.
In some ways, Swedenborg says a similar thing. We can’t come to good except through truth, though Swedenborg does say that we can get to good. All genuine truth points the way to good. Truth is nothing else than what leads us to good. “All truths are knowledges of good; the truths which are not from good, or which do not regard good as the end, are not truths” Swedenborg writes in AC 3680. Likewise we find that, “when good is formed so as to be intellectually perceived, it is called truth” (AC 3049).
That is why this Sunday, our Bible readings were all laws, or rules for conduct. I deliberately picked Bible passages that we would identify as truth, or as laws for behavior. And they all point to what is good, or how to be good. In Exodus I picked a section that has a lot of what lawyers would call “case laws.” They are laws about how to adjudicate matters regarding property and social interaction. So we find laws like, “If you come across your enemy’s ox or ass wandering off, be sure to take it back to him” (Ex. 23:4). And in the New Testament we find this teaching reinforced by Jesus when He says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:43-44).
The relationship between love and case law can be seen in these two passages. If you do love your enemy, when you see his or her ox wandering off you will return it to them. This is because you care for them and want what is good for them—that is what love is. But to reinforce what to do on a strictly behavioral plane, in case a person does not feel love, we have the law that tells you to return the wandering ox to its owner, your enemy. The case is the same with all the laws we find written in the Bible. In case a person doesn’t feel love for their neighbor, we have a list of laws that tells us how to act toward them. These laws can be called truths. They tell a person how to behave in order to be a good person, and then ultimately in order to be a loving person.
Our first inkling about how to be good comes in the form of truth. We call this conscience. Our conscience tells us what is right and what is wrong. But conscience must be formed. And it is formed out of truths.
Conscience is formed by means of the truths of faith, for what man has heard, acknowledged, and believed makes conscience in him. . . . Hence unless it is the truths of faith that he hears acknowledges, and believes, he can have no true conscience. For it is through the truths of faith . . . that man is regenerated. . . . From this it is evident that the truths of faith are the means by which he may become, or live, a man according to what faith teaches, the principal of which is to love the Lord above all things, and the neighbor as himself (AC 1077).
We are created such that our natural instincts are not always good. Often, perhaps always, we need to be taught what it is to be a good person. This teaching is done by truths. But there is a tricky part to truth.
We none of us have actual truth. None of us are able to grasp Divine truth. All we have now, and all we ever will have is an appearance of truth. Appearances of truth are approximations of truth that are suited to our mindset and to what we have experienced in life.
Truths Divine themselves are such that they can never be comprehended by any angel, still less by any man, as they exceed every faculty of their understanding. That still there may be conjunction of the Lord with them, truths Divine flow in with them in appearances, and when truths Divine are with them in such appearances, they can both be received and acknowledged. This is effected by adaptation to the comprehension of every one . . . (AC 3362).
This brings us to the questions raised by Darren and Lynda. I affirm Darren’s comment that whatever a person does in the moment according to his or her understanding of good is good for that person. We none of us ever have anything more than that. We only have the appearances that fit with our best understanding of good. And that understanding of good may be very flawed. This brings us to Lynda’s question about the child molester. Obviously, this individual’s conscience is perverted. But conscience continually grows and our appearances of truth become more and more genuine. Our mind also acquires more and more truths of different kinds. This means that the child molester can be instructed by the law or maybe by a treatment facility to see the sickness of his or her behaviors. Such instruction and treatment would be truths that improve the sick conscience into one more healthy.
Faith is perfected according to the abundance and coherence of truths . . . True faith, by abundance of truths coherent as it were into a bundle, also becomes more lustrous, perceptible, evident and clear; it also becomes more capable of conjunction with the goods of charity, and consequently of being separated from evils; and successively more removed from the allurements of the eye and the lusts of the flesh . . . Especially it becomes more powerful against evils and falsities (TCR 352).
So for all of us, truth that we learn, truth that has become a fact in our memories points the way to good. Truth begins to live when we start to do good from what we have been taught. When the truths we have learned are put into practice, then they become part of who we are as people. They enter our intentions. They become things that we will. In Swedenborg’s language, they become part of our will. Like Aristotle, we start to do good because we have been taught what good is. This becomes habit. And ultimately we enjoy doing what is good.
Truth does not have life from itself, but from good, and it has life from good when man lives according to truth; for it then infuses itself into the man’s will, and from his will into his actions, thus into the whole man. . . . when a man wills truth, it is then on the threshold of his life; and when from willing he does it, the truth is in the whole man; and when he does it frequently, it recurs not only from habit, but also from affection, and thus from freedom (AC 4884).
This is why it is so critical to learn truths. As we heard above, “Faith is perfected according to the abundance and coherence of truths” (TCR 352). We are born totally dumb. We don’t know anything. Everything has to be taught to us. This includes teachings about what it is to be good. We learn truths everywhere. We learn them through experiences in life. We learn them through reading the Bible. We learn them through preachings in church. We learn them through theology, philosophy, and literature. I would suggest here, that TV, movies, and Media, along with society in general and the specific neighborhoods some live in are not very good places to learn genuine truths. We need the presence of the church and holy scriptures especially in today’s society.
The knowledges we have of truth are filled with love and good by God when we start acting on them. Swedenborg calls truths vessels that hold good, or love. We learn truth, and God fills these containers with good and gives our truths life. We apply principals of truth to our lives and begin to do good—for all truth is a statement of what good is. In the course of time, the truth becomes transparent and only good itself shines through. When we have so committed teachings about good to our hearts that we instinctively do them, then good is all that appears.
When a man is being regenerated, that is, when he is to be conjoined to the Lord, he proceeds to the conjunction by means of truth, that is, through the truths of faith; for no one can be regenerated except through knowledges of faith, which are truths, by means of which he proceeds to conjunction. The Lord goes to meet these through good, that is charity, and applies this to the knowledges of faith, that is, to its truths; for all truths are recipient vessels of good, and so the more genuine the truths are, and the more they are multiplied, the more abundantly can good accept them as vessels, reduce them to order, and at length manifest itself; so that at last the truths do not appear, except so far as good shines through them (AC 2063).
With this background of truth, we are now in a much better position to consider what good is next Sunday. After that, we will be able to look at love.
Living for Others
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
March 1, 2009
Leviticus 19:9-18 Luke 22:24-30
“Who is greater?” Jesus asks, “The one who sits at table or the one who serves.” Jesus says the obvious, of course it is the one being served. He then goes on to say that He Himself came to serve. Thus Jesus reverses the common perception about who is greater. It is greatest to serve, not to be served. And in the middle of the Old Testament book of Leviticus, a book primarily devoted to tedious regulations about sacrifice, we find the words, “love your neighbor as yourself” (19:18). We all recognize this Leviticus passage as one of the two great commands that Jesus taught. But many do not realize that Jesus was not teaching something new. The Pharisee is asking Jesus which commandment is the greatest in the Law—namely the first five books of the Bible. So Jesus answers the Pharisee by quoting the Law—namely Leviticus 19:18, “love the neighbor as yourself.”
Jesus calls our attention to a bold new way to look at our purpose in life. Some people question what their purpose is on earth. Particularly people who have survived a near death experience. Jesus tells us our purpose is to serve others. Swedenborg says this in a simple sentence, “Man is not born for the sake of himself, but for the sake of others; that is, he is born not to live for himself alone, but for others . . .” (TCR 406). This message is as bold today as it was when Jesus first said this in the first century A.D.
This means we’re not here to look out for number one. We’re not here to get what we can out of life. We’re not here to seek fame and fortune for ourselves. We’re here to do something good for someone else.
This is about the opposite that our society teaches us. We’re taught by society to make a name for ourselves. There’s an old song by a strange group called Devo that captures the kind of messages our society tells us. They say, “Move forward! Get ahead!” Get ahead, get to the top of your office or business. Make a lot of money. There’s another rock song that goes, “What have you done for me lately?” Imagine walking into the office of some CEO and saying, “What are you doing for your neighbor? How are you serving?”
But we’re not here to serve ourselves. We’re here for the sake of others. We’re here to say a kind word to the grocery clerk when we buy our groceries. We’re here to cheer up our friends when they are having a bad day. We’re here to spread joy in whatever way we can. This is what heaven is all about.
The enjoyments and happiness in the other life are constantly communicated from one to many by a real transmission that is wonderful . . . and these communications are effected without any loss to him who communicates. . . . From this it may be manifest what the happiness of those who love the neighbor more than themselves, and who desire nothing more than to transfer their happiness to others. This has its origin from the Lord, Who thus communicates happiness to the angels (AC 1392).
What a beautiful image of God Swedenborg gives us. He says that when we share our joys with others, we are an image and likeness of God. Sharing joy, says Swedenborg, “has its origin from the Lord, Who thus communicates happiness to angels.” God, for Swedenborg, is not a condemning God, is not a stern, judging God, but a God who wants to communicate happiness to angels.
Sharing joy with others is a selfless act. When we genuinely love others from the heart, we don’t take credit for the good we do them. We are happy if we have made them happy and the happiness of others is our concern.
They who are in this enjoyment [heavenly good] do not wish to hear of merit, for they love to do good and they perceive that they are favored in the doing; and they are sorry if it is believed that their doing is for the sake of a return. They are like those who do good to friends for the sake of friendship, to brother for the sake of brotherhood, to wife and children for the sake of wife and children, to their country for the country’s sake, thus from friendship and love. They who do acts of kindness also say and urge that the do them not for their own sake, but for theirs (TCR 440).
So far I have been talking about doing good to the neighbor in terms of the individual. But the neighbor is also a group of people. The neighbor is also the people of the city we live in, or the country we live in, or the people in our church, believers everywhere of all creeds, or society in general. So the neighbor is also people in a collective sense. Now I have to come back to that CEO that I painted in a negative light earlier. I asked the CEO, “What have you done for others?” Well it is entirely possible, that by being a conscientious CEO, that business man is serving society. In this sense, by doing the job a person is called to do, people serve the greater good of society, or the neighbor in a collective sense. This is the heart of the famous “Protestant work ethic” that we hear about sometimes. Doing one’s job, whatever that job is, is a calling from God to serve society. People traditionally think that only ministers have a call from God. But the Protestant work ethic says that the owner of a factory, a plumber, a teacher, a social worker, and an auto mechanic all have a calling from God to do the work they have chosen. So doing your job faithfully is a religious act. It is doing good to the neighbor as a collective. It is an act of charity.
Charity itself is to act justly and faithfully in the office, business, and work in which one is, because all things which a man so does are of use to society; and use is good; and good, in a sense apart from persons, is the neighbor (TCR 422).
The neighbor is also good itself. And when we love the neighbor spiritually, we love the good that is in a person, not just the person. This idea has its origins in Aristotle’s friendship philosophy. Aristotle teaches that only the virtuous person can truly be a friend. And it is virtue first that one seeks out in another. Swedenborg says essentially the same thing, substituting only the word virtue for good. So Swedenborg teaches that we are to love the neighbor according to the good we see in him or her.
… a man is to be loved according to the quality of the good in him. Therefore good itself is essentially the neighbor. . . . Now as the Lord is to be loved above all things, it follows that the degrees of love toward the neighbor are to be measured by the love to Him, thus by the measure in which another possesses the Lord in himself, or has possession from the Lord; for so much good he also possesses, because all good is from the Lord (TCR 410).
Seeing the neighbor as good itself combines Jesus’ two great commands into a marvelous unity. Jesus said that the two great commands were to love the Lord above all and to love the neighbor as oneself. But when we understand the neighbor to be good itself, and when we acknowledge that all good is from God and is God, then loving good is loving God. “He who loves good because it is good and truth because it is truth, eminently loves the neighbor, because he loves the Lord who is Good itself and Truth itself” (TCR 419). So loving good and loving truth, wherever we find it, is loving the source of good and truth, namely God.
Some people seek spirituality in exotic forms. They practice yoga, or meditate, or fast, or, like me, do Tai Chi. But spirituality is not a commodity a person can gather and have as a personal possession. Spirituality is measured by a person’s relationships. Is one a good neighbor to all the people they come in contact with in their daily lives. So one measures spirituality by whether one is a good friend, a loving parent, a sympathetic partner, a friend to strangers. If yoga, or meditation, or fasting, or Tai Chi make a person more responsive to the people he or she encounters in their daily life, then these are valuable spiritual practices. If these disciplines make a person a faithful worker, then they are valuable. The point here, is that spirituality is seen in the extent to which a person embodies those two great commandments from the Torah, loving God and loving the neighbor. And these two commandments come down to loving and doing good, according to one’s best understanding of good.