Archive for June, 2010
A New Heaven and a New earth
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
June 20, 2010
Isaiah 65:17-25 John 3:1-8 Psalm 18
Our Bible passages this morning all relate to spiritual rebirth, or in Swedenborg’s language, regeneration. This is clear in our New testament passage, where Jesus discusses rebirth with Nicodemus. In both this morning’s Psalm and in the reading from Isaiah, regeneration is treated according to correspondences. In Psalm 18, we read about God lifting the Psalmist out of deep waters; about God rescuing him from a powerful enemy because God delights in him. These passages refer to God’s deliverance from evils, or God lifting us upward into heavenly joy. The Psalm also talks about the earth being shaken up. We read about the earth trembling, the foundations of the mountains shaking, the valleys of the seas exposed, and the foundations of the earth laid bare. These passages all refer to the reformation of the external person, or our natural degree. The earth corresponds to the outward person, or external person, or natural degree. In regeneration, this part of our personality is shaken up, sometimes dramatically. Likewise in our reading from Isaiah, we heard about all the blessings of a reconstituted heaven and earth. God will create a new heaven and a new earth. Here, a new heaven is a new internal person and a new earth is a new external person. The inhabitants of this new heaven and earth will be, “a people blessed by the LORD.” There will be no more crying or weeping. When they call to the Lord, He will answer. The wolf and lion will become peaceful animals. All these things refer to a person who has been regenerated. His or her outward character and his or her inward character will be holy and blessed by God. The savage passions of the natural degree will become peaceful and gentle.
The process of regeneration takes place over a long period of time. The reshifting of values and the replacement of worldly passions for heavenly loves can happen only gradually.
Sins are removed so far as a person is regenerated, because regeneration is restraining the flesh that it may not rule . . . Who that yet has sound understanding, cannot conclude from this that such things cannot be done in a moment, but successively, as a person is conceived, carried in the womb, born, and educated . . . (TCR 611).
Swedenborg uses the analogy of a person’s birth to symbolize rebirth. The spiritual change that a regenerating person undergoes is like being conceived, carried in the womb, born, and educated. This fits quite well with the Bible, since Jesus says we need to be born again.
The actual process of rebirth, or regeneration, is treated in different ways by Swedenborg. One way is the three “R’s” of Swedenborg–Repentance, Reformation, and Regeneration. This process is described in True Christian Religion. He also talks about opening up the three higher degrees of our minds in Divine Love and Wisdom. Then there is the interaction between the internal person and the external person. That is the process I will talk about this morning.
We begin our lives with an external person. This is also called the natural degree. It is called the natural degree because it is a form of nature, or the world. This aspect of our personality has been formed in the image of the world. It is an image of the world, because the natural degree is formed in reaction to the world. It is how we make our way in the world. It is how we respond to the world. The famous psychologist B. F. Skinner says that our whole personality is formed by stimuli from the outside world. He says we are programmed by the conditions we grow up under. I think that there is a good deal of truth to this claim. Our natural degree is formed by how the world comes at us and how we react to it. Our survival instincts create a personality that allow us to live under the conditions we are born under. Another way to describe this is to say we create a natural degree according to the conditions we are born with–according to the world we experience and know. But psychologists also talk about heredity. So does Swedenborg. Our natural degree is not just a response to stimuli from the outside world. It is also formed by the inclinations we receive innately from our parents’ heredity. We will favor certain things above other things. We will be drawn to certain things and ignore other things. We have abilities and aptitudes in certain areas, and we don’t have aptitudes in other areas. The hereditary inclinations we are born with also determine how our natural degree is formed.
The process of regeneration is one in which our internal person is opened up, and it then acts on our natural degree to bring it into agreement with itself. The first process, then, in spiritual rebirth, is the formation of an internal person. The internal person is that part of us that knows good from evil. This knowledge is learned. Some of the things that we enjoy doing early in life are contrary to divine order. Our survival instincts begin with the drive to protect the self. We need to learn that others matter, too. We need to learn to love others as much as we love ourselves. This, our natural degree usually doesn’t have at birth.
One of the fascinating things to me about regeneration is that Swedenborg talks about changing what we enjoy. The things our natural person enjoys can be contrary to spiritual loves and enjoyments. So regeneration is very much a process of changing what we enjoy. Swedenborg tends to think that many of our early enjoyments are evil. I would agree with him to no small degree. Just think about how we react when people oppose us, and we will have an idea of how strong the self is imbedded in our personality. Plus, when I was younger, I remember enjoying partying till all hours of the night. I was after self indulgence and cared little about how my own quest for pleasure affected others.
The process of regeneration begins when we learn other ways of living. We reflect on our lives, and begin to question behaviors and delights we have come to enjoy. This aspect of our personality that can reflect on our lives is the internal degree. It is formed by spiritual teachings. As our internal is formed, we begin to feel heavenly loves. We begin to sense what it feels like to be a loving person. We begin to find our former enjoyments distasteful. As we feel heavenly delights more and more, we begin to see our self-indulgent enjoyments as evil and finally undelightful.
All affections have their enjoyments; but such as the affection are, such are the enjoyments. Affections for evil and falsity also have their enjoyments; and before a person begins to be regenerated, and receives from the Lord affections for truth and good, those affections appear to be the only ones; so much so, that people believe that no other enjoyments exist, and consequently that if they were deprived of these, they would utterly perish. But they who receive from the Lord the enjoyments of affections for truth and good, see and feel by degrees the nature of the enjoyments of their former life, which they believed to be the only enjoyments–that they are vile in comparison, and indeed filthy. And the farther he advances into the enjoyments of affections for truth and good, the more does the person begin to regard the enjoyments of evil and falsity as vile, and at length to be averse to them (AC 3938).
As time went on, I came to care about others, and to care about how I could make them happy. I replaced bar-room partying with healthy interpersonal relations with sober friends.
Swedenborg describes this process in theological language. He makes reference to evils and falsities. These are words our current society doesn’t like to hear about. I think that there is a reality to them, though, and I’m not quite sure there are other words that can be substituted for them. Maybe neurosis, or perversion, or sickness, or ego, or selfishness, or hurtful behaviors, or abusive behaviors could be exchanged. I remember in University talking about how our society wants to change evil into sickness. So things like child abuse is a sickness, rather than an evil. I do agree that evils can be “cured” by regeneration. Or in theological language, that a person can be lifted out of their evils. But I would want to keep the religious connotations of good and evil in the process. I want religious connotations because if a person refrains from evil for any other reason than because it is against God, no real spiritual reformation happens.
As our internal person is formed, we come to see in clearer light that things we had found enjoyment in are evil and hurtful. Since our natural degree is formed by the world in order to survive in the world, we need spiritual knowledge to tell us that we may be indulging in unhealthy, or evil passions.
Unless they are excited, a person scarcely knows that evils and falsities exist; but they then appear, and the longer the combats of temptation last, the more they appear, until at last they are held in horror as evils and falsities. And as evils and falsities are dissipated, so do goods and truths succeed in their place; and the more horror there is contracted for evils and falsities, the more of love for goods and truths is insinuated by the Lord (AC 1740).
As the internal degree is formed, or opened, we actually sense and feel the enjoyments of good, and we are delighted by the truth. As these feelings become rooted in us, we shy away from evil. It no longer feels good. We are acquiring a new self, a new identity. A new heaven and a new earth is formed. God draws us out of deep waters and brings us into a spacious place. We grow in our love for our neighbors and for God. Over time, and into eternity, we are reborn.
Never to Hunger and Thirst Again
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
June 13, 2010
Exodus 24:3-11 John 6:35-40 Psalm 22
This is a Communion Sunday, and I thought I would reflect on just what the Sacrament of Holy Communion means. It is a Biblical sacrament. In the Old testament, we hear of the blood of the covenant being sprinkled on an altar and on the people of Israel. This is after the Israelites agree to follow the Law that they have heard from Moses. Then in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says that Holy Communion is the blood of the New Covenant (26:28). In Matthew we also hear the following,
While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to His disciples, saying, “take and eat; this is my body.” Then He took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, “drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the New Covenant” (26:26-28).
We don’t hear this same language in John, but we hear words quite like it. There, Jesus says, “I am the bread of life. He that comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never thirst” (6:35). Jesus is clearly speaking symbolically here, as we do hunger and thirst after partaking of communion. You have heard me say that the Bible is written in a symbolic language in which the literal stories mean something spiritual on a deeper level. Here, we can clearly see that this is the case. The bread and the wine are clearly not Jesus’ body and blood. Although the Catholics have a doctrine called transubstantiation in which the priest actually turns the bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood. We don’t subscribe to that doctrine. The breads and wine do signify Jesus’ body and blood, but even those symbols mean something deeper. The symbolism here is partaking of God’s love and wisdom, which are eternal spiritual qualities. When we are filled with them, we never lack spiritually.
Holy Communion is the most sacred ritual of the church. Swedenborg says that “the holy supper contains all things of heaven and the church, both in general and in particular” (TCR 711). The reason why the whole of heaven and the church are contained in the Holy Supper, is because the Holy Supper contains everything that heaven and the church depend on. The church is made out of truth and good, or wisdom and love. And these qualities are given to us by God, so they are actually God in us. So by symbolizing love and wisdom, the Holy Supper also symbolizes the Lord, too. So the Holy Supper contains the love, wisdom, and presence of God that constitute the whole of heaven and the church.
that the Lord Himself is in the holy supper, and that flesh and blood are the Lord in respect to the Divine good of love, and blood and wine are the Lord in respect to the Divine truth of wisdom. Therefore the holy supper involves three things, namely, the Lord, His Divine good, and His Divine truth. Since, therefore, the holy supper includes and contains these three, it follows that it also includes and contains the universals of heaven and the church (TCR 711).
There are quite a few Bible passages in which Jesus tells us to celebrate Holy Communion in memory of Him. But there is more involved than merely remembering Jesus in the Holy Supper. And we have more reason for partaking of it than merely because the Bible tells us to. The Holy Supper actually brings us into communion with God. “It is evident from the Lord’s very words that He is wholly present in the holy supper, in respect both to His glorified Human and the Divine from which the Human proceeded” (TCR 716). The actual presence of God occurs in the Holy Communion. But this only happens to those who approach the Holy Communion in the right frame of mind.
Holy Communion is a ritual, and it derives its power from the things rituals depend on. Eating bread and drinking wine are physical acts, and looked at in themselves, do nothing for spiritual life. It is what a person brings to the Holy Supper that makes it a holy sacrament.
When a person brings good and truth to the holy supper, then the symbols take on spiritual meaning. When a person has love in their heart, and truth in their mind; and when a person’s thought is on God, then the symbols of Holy Communion have power to bring God to the ceremony. “They approach the Holy Supper worthily, who have faith in the Lord and are in charity toward the neighbor, thus who are regenerate” (TCR 722). The symbols of the Holy Supper actually bring conjunction with God.
They who approach the Holy Supper worthily, are in the Lord and the Lord is in them; hence conjunction with the Lord is made by the Holy Supper. . . . the truths of faith establish the Lord’s presence, and the goods of charity together with faith establish conjunction . . . Whence it follows that they who approach the Holy Supper worthily, are conjoined with the Lord; and they who are conjoined with Him are in Him and He in them (TCR 725).
The Holy Supper is a ritual that brings spiritual life to those who partake in it worthily. As Swedenborg says, “The Lord is present and opens heaven to those who approach the Holy Supper worthily” (TCR 719). The actual power of the Holy Supper depends on the condition of those who are partaking in it. It depends on whether they have charity in their hearts and truth in their minds. The Holy Supper isn’t magic. Only those who already have the principal components of heaven in their souls have heaven opened to them in the Holy Supper. That is, only those who already have charity and faith in their souls find heaven opened to them when they partake in the Holy Supper. This can happen because their souls are already open to heaven in the love and wisdom they possess from God.
But how do the symbols of communion actually bring about this conjunction? Swedenborg isn’t clear on this. To answer this question I looked at the nature of correspondences in general. The physical acts we do are a grounding for the spiritual realities that transpire in our souls. That means that our soul is grounded in the physical things we do. What would an agreement be without a handshake to confirm it? Or what is happening more and more today, what would an agreement be without a contract that ratifies it. The things that we see in nature and the things that our bodies do correspond, or communicate with the world of spirit. So Swedenborg writes,
. . . all goods and truths descend from the Lord, and ascend to Him; that is, that He is the first and the last; for man has been so created that the Divine things of the Lord may descend through him down to the ultimates of nature, and from the ultimates of nature may ascend to Him; so that man might be a medium that unites the Divine with the world of nature, and the world of nature with the Divine; and that thus the very ultimate of nature might live from the Divine through man as the uniting medium (AC 3702).
The bread and wine are those “ultimates” that Swedenborg refers to. They are the elements of nature that God descends to and ascends upward from. When we are focused on the physical elements of Communion, the angels that are present with us fill our hearts with love and wisdom. In this way the physical elements of Communion communicate with the spiritual realities of heaven. A connection is formed with spirit and matter through the human mind.
Eating the bread signifies accepting God’s love into our hearts. And the physical act fills us with the love we have embodied throughout our life. It surrounds us with love from angels and even from God himself. Drinking the wine signifies accepting God’s wisdom into our minds, and we are filled with the presence of angels who enlighten our thoughts. Ultimately, God Himself enters our consciousness. So when we have these spiritual realities in our souls, we have the symbolism of Holy Communion in us. When we have love in our hearts, we will not hunger spiritually. When we have wisdom in our minds, we will not thirst spiritually. We can see clearly now, how the Biblical symbols relate to the sacrament of Holy Supper. We see, now, how those who have God in their hearts will never hunger nor thirst.