Archive for March, 2011
Disjunction from Good
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
March 13, 2011
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7 Matthew 4:1-11 Psalm 32
We are now in the season of Lent. Lent began with Ash Wednesday, which was last Wednesday. We will be in the Lenten season until Easter. In the old Christian traditions, one would observe Lent by fasting and giving up some vice. By fasting, I do not mean abstaining from eating altogether, but rather abstaining from meat, or red meat, or some other dietary restriction. In today’s society, to some Lend has come to mean giving up smoking or drinking, or some other destructive habit. In Lent, the church traditionally emphasizes sin and human frailty as we lead up to the crucifixion and then Christ’s triumphant resurrection. Nobody wants to hear about sin. But I think that a clear, rational understanding of the dynamics that make for sin is very useful for a person’s spiritual wellbeing.
The issue of sin is very clear from our readings this morning. I am following the Common Lectionary that many Christian churches use, and it prescribes these Bible passages for the first Sunday in Lent. We read about the original sin, which cast Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. And we read about the temptation of Jesus after His baptism.
The Genesis reading can sound misleading. It can make the tree of the knowledge of good and evil appear positive. The serpent tells Eve that the forbidden fruit will make her like God, knowing good from evil. And the woman thinks that eating the fruit would be, “Desirable for gaining wisdom.” These lines make the tree of the knowledge of good and evil appear positive. If it would make a person know the difference between good and evil, wouldn’t that be good?
The real meaning of this passage, though, is summed up in a few key words. Those words are spoken by the serpent. He says that Eve will be, “Like God.” The sin of eating the forbidden fruit is making oneself into a god. It means trusting human knowledge instead of revealed truth. It means trusting in self and what the self knows on its own, and not trusting in the inward perception of truth that comes from God and God’s Word. Being like God means trusting in what can be proven scientifically. It means believing only in what you can see, touch, hear, smell, or taste. In other words, to be like God means to trust only in information we gather from our senses. When we believe only what we understand by reasonings based on our senses, then we make human intelligence into a god.
I have spoken with such people. They can appear smug and proud that they stand on proven truth, not childlike belief. They can look down on those who have simple faith. In fact, they can look down on those who have a highly developed belief system. In fact, they can look down on everyone but themselves.
This is love of self in a negative sense. We need self-esteem in order to love others. If we are crippled by destructive images of self, we are not in a position to support others. We will think we are not worthy. We would think we are incapable of anything good. This is a destructive self-image. So we do need what could be called a positive self-love. This means that we love ourselves enough to pass love along to others. When theologians write against self love, they are talking about something we would call pride, or arrogance. Swedenborg calls it contempt for others compared with self. When person is filled with evil self love he or she looks down on everyone else besides the self. This is when self love becomes evil.
There are lists of sins, and descriptions of the various kinds of evil that a person can commit. In the middle-ages, there were seven deadly sins known to all. These were anger, sloth, envy, pride, gluttony, lust, and greed. But there is a simpler way to look at sin. There is a way of seeing sin that makes it less disturbing to consider. It can be summed up in one simple sentence. “Evil viewed in itself, and also sin, is nothing else than disjunction from good” (AC 4997). Evil or sin is that which separates a person from what is good, and what separates a person from the love that flows into us continually from God.
But Swedenborg does go further in describing evil. For Swedenborg there are two fountains of evil: love of the self and love of the world. The worst of these is self love. Self love is directly opposed to love of God. For when a person makes him or herself out to be god, then one is in opposition to the true God. Then, everyone who doesn’t favor him or her is hated.
He loves no one but himself, and others only so far as they make one with him. Hence he turns the attention of all to himself, and entirely averts it from others, most especially the Lord; and when many in one society do this, it follows that all are disjoined, and each looks upon another as an enemy; and if any one does aught against him, he holds him in hatred, and takes delight in his destruction (AC 4997).
This is the nature of a person who has figuratively eaten from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. This is the kind of person who makes a god of themselves.
The other kind of evil is less severe. It is called love of the world. Swedenborg describes this as a desire to possess all the wealth of the world, and all the possessions of everyone else. Although Swedenborg says this is less evil than the love of the self, I think that it may be more problematic in today’s society. I think that society teaches this sin as a virtue. Our society teaches us to strive for gain and wealth. Anthony Robbins and Deepak Chopra have written best-selling books on how to achieve success. They even cite spiritual laws you can use to acquire wealth. Some New Age establishments even say that there is a law of attraction that will give you wealth if you correctly meditate. Swedenborg defines love of the world as coveting, “the wealth and goods of others, and desires to possess all that belongs to them; whence also arise enmities and hatreds, but in less degree” (AC 4997). Let me be clear. I don’t think that wealth is evil in and of itself. And wealth can be used to better society as Bill Gates is doing. In this sense, wealth is a blessing to society and to the person who has it. It all comes down to how a person reacts to wealth. I can think of three ways in which wealth becomes a sin.
One way is for wealth to make someone think they are better than others. Wealth makes some people look down on those who are middle class or poorer. I remember when I was at Harvard that some people would size me up by the clothes I was wearing and decide whether I was worthy of talking to. I remember talking with someone in a bar in Boston. I asked him, “How much does a person’s self worth depend on his money here?” The guy looked askance at me and said, “What are you–one of those ultra-librals?” Then there were some wealthy people, usually old money, who didn’t care how much money I had, who would treat me as an equal personally. So one sin that derives from wealth is similar to that of love of self–the idea that wealth gives one the right to look down on others.
Then there is that old sin from the middle ages–greed. Some wealthy people never have enough. I heard one man of wealth interviewed on TV. The interviewer said, “I consider you a wealthy man.” The man replied, “Moderately wealthy, you always want more.” This is a craving for more and more wealth as Swedenborg describes it. It is a desire to possess “riches and wealth for their own sake” (DP 215). And when you set your heart on wealth, you will never be at peace, satisfied, or content.
The third, and probably worst form of love of the world depends on one key phrase. Swedenborg describes love of the world as primarily coveting, “the goods of others.” In other words, the sin of worldliness is wanting to take away what belongs to someone else. Ultimately to take away everything from everyone and to possess the riches of everyone by any means possible. I remember back in Florida relaxing, smoking a cigar in a cigar club. An acquaintance I knew came in and wanted to know what were good cigars for him to purchase. I showed him some very fine cigars in the club, but then he did something very strange. He pointed to one of my own cigars and asked me, “How much for your cigar?” I told him that the cigars I showed him were just as good, in fact, better. But he held out for my cigar. Perhaps that is a mild example of worldliness. This guy didn’t want a good cigar; he wanted my cigar.
Both love of self and love of the world disjoin a person from their neighbor. They throw up walls between their brothers and sisters. So much for sin and how it disjoins people from God and each other. It remains now to reflect on what it means to be good and how being good conjoins people together.
While evil and sin are disjunction from good, and oppose love for God and for the neighbor, goodness is conjunction with God and with the neighbor. Swedenborg describes the nature of good, and how it conjoins one to God and heaven,
Good is conjunction, because all good is of love to the Lord, and of love to the neighbor. The good of love to the Lord conjoins one to the Lord, and consequently all good which proceeds from Him; and the good of love toward the neighbor conjoins one to heaven, and to the societies there (AC 4997).
All good flows out from God as its source. Think of good as everything that brings people together. Kindness, friendliness, good will, service, generosity, empathy, compassion, and the like. Whatever can be seen as an expression of love is good. Good flows forth from God, so when we do good, then God is in us and we are conjoined with God. Jesus says, “Whatever you did for the least of these brothers of mine you have done to me” (Matthew 25:40). This implies that God is in each one of us, and when we do good to our neighbors we are doing good to God who is inside them. And doing good to others joins us together. Imagine a realm where everyone is trying to make everyone else happy. Imagine a realm where everyone does good to everyone else. That is what heaven is like. And when it happens in this world, then heaven is on earth.
In this season of Lent, let us reflect on the two great directions we can go in life. We can disjoin ourselves from God and our neighbors. Or we can conjoin ourselves with God and our neighbors. This is a simple way to view sin and goodness. And is so often the case, in simplicity is the greatest truth.
The Mountain Top
Rev, Dr. David J. Fekete
March 6, 2011
Exodus 24:12-18 Matthew 17:1-9 Psalm 2
I can think of three story elements from our Bible readings for this morning. They are all interrelated with one another. First, there is the mountain. Moses ascends Mount Sinai, and Jesus ascends a high mountain whose name we are not told. Then there is the presence of God on the mountain top. In Exodus, the glory of the Lord settles on the mountain and appears like a consuming fire. In Matthew, the glory of God shines through Jesus Himself as His face beams as bright as the sun and His clothes become as white as light. Furthermore, the same bright cloud of God’s glory that settled on Mount Sinai settles on the mountain where Jesus, Peter, James, and John are. We hear God’s voice saying that Jesus is His beloved Son with whom He is well pleased. The third story element is God’s laws and commands. God calls to Moses to come up onto the mountain top in order to receive God’s law and commands. In Matthew, Moses and Elijah appear on either side of Jesus, as representatives of the law and the prophets. They appear because Jesus is the human embodiment of the law of God, or in other words, the Word made flesh. Swedenborg tells us that Jesus Christ is Divine truth of the Word in human form.
It’s no accident that these story elements all surround a mountain. God’s glory appears to Moses and Jesus on the mountain top. Why would Moses and Jesus need to go up to a mountain top in order to experience this revelation of God? We don’t need Swedenborg’s system of correspondences in order to understand the meaning of mountains for the Biblical writers. Mountains are high places. Some of the very names for God involve mountains, or high places. In Genesis, God is often called El Shaddai which means, “The Mountain One.” Another name for God in Genesis is El Elyon, which means “God Most High.” And El Elyon was worshipped on none other than the mountain on which Jerusalem was built.
It’s not as if God lives on mountains. God is actually present everywhere. It would be too literal a reading of these stories to think of God as actually living on mountains. Rather, it is the symbolism of mountain tops that gives the power of these stories. We talk of God as being above. We pray for God to send us help from on high. As high places, above the ordinary places in the world, mountains were associated by the ancients as holy places and the dwelling of God. So when God appeared to the Biblical writers, He appears on mountain tops. This mountain revelation is a powerful symbol in the Bible. It gives power to our ideas about God when we envision the mountain covered with the glory of God.
In ordinary language we use reference to heights to describe important events in our lives. When we have particularly strong feelings of connection with God we talk about being on a spiritual high. On the natural level, even when we are very happy, we say we are feeling high. There was a psychologist named Abraham Maslow who talked about rare and exceptional human experiences as Peak Experiences. The Wikipedia–thank God for that wonderful research tool–defines just what these peak experiences are. It says,
Peak experiences are described by Maslow as especially joyous and exciting moments in life, involving sudden feelings of intense happiness and well-being, wonder and awe, and possibly also involving an awareness of transcendental unity or knowledge of higher truth (as though perceiving the world from an altered, and often vastly profound and awe-inspiring perspective).
Maslow describes peak experiences in a book entitled, Religions, Values, and Peak Experiences. In its very title, one can see that Maslow is considering the realm of religions when he talks about peak experiences. Notice, too, that these special moments are called peak experiences, drawing language from mountain peaks.
I like Maslow’s term, but it would be best to leave his psychology behind as we proceed to talk about spiritual peak experiences. In our spiritual life, we will find times when it seems that God is particularly close to us. There are times when we feel the presence of God more strongly than at other times. Sometimes these peak experiences happen when we are in special natural environments on earth. I have found these experiences at our various church camps. But it doesn’t have to be limited to these spiritual surroundings. I can recall one special peak experience I had when I was in my late teens. I was just standing on the front lawn of my parents’ house. I looked at the sun, and thought about God as the spiritual sun, and thought about my church friends, and then felt this wonderful closeness of God. I knew in that moment that there was a God. I had felt Him in my heart with as much certainty as if I had touched Him with my hand. Since then I have never doubted the existence of God, although my relationship with God has been a bumpy road.
Our journey of spiritual growth is not an even line of progression. It is not even a straight, uphill pathway. Rather as we grow and mature spiritually, we will have peaks and valleys. We will have experiences of wonderful union with God. and then we will come down from the mountain to the world of ordinary experience. Both Moses and Jesus came down from their mountains. Jesus’ complexion turned back to normal and didn’t shine with the brilliance of the sun. We can treasure our peak experiences of God, but acknowledge that we won’t necessarily stay there. I remember how sad and disappointed I used to be when I would leave Almont, and return to my ordinary life in school and at home. I see this feeling, too, when I work at youth retreats and Paulhaven Camp when the spiritual high that the teens feel together in God’s name must be left behind for life back at home and away from camp. But these peak experiences of the nearness of God still remain with us, although pushed back into the recesses of our unconscious minds. When Moses came down from the mountain, where he met God, he carried with him the tablets of stone on which God’s law was written. Swedenborg might call this part of our personality the inner self. There will be moments when this inner self shines brilliantly through our personality and then moments when it is clouded over with the darkness of life in this world.
There is also the issue of the lawgiver that we can associate with these peak experiences. The Wikipedia says that the peak experiences may also involve “an awareness of transcendental unity or knowledge of higher truth.” The is the lawgiver of our Biblical stories. This is the law and commands that God gave to Moses on Mount Sinai. And this is the appearance of Moses and Elijah in the mountain top experience of Jesus, Peter, James, and John. During a peak experience, our minds may find resolution of a problem, a new truth may intuitively come to us, or we may find how a particular truth we memorized actually works in real life. This relationship with truth may help create the peak experience itself. We may come into that higher feeling of God’s presence by contemplating a Bible passage, or a teaching from a theologian. I once asked the teens at Paulhaven Camp if they thought that the camp would still have that magical feeling if we took away chapel, classes, and confirmation class. They all said, “No, it wouldn’t be the same.” So chapel and religious instruction helped to create that peak experience that they associated with Paulhaven.
I think that in a mountain top experience, God’s presence is intimately connected to truth. We show our love for God by living according to His principles. Jesus says,
If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him (John 14:23).
We see from Jesus’ words that love to God means doing what Jesus teaches. So conjunction with God depends on learning what Jesus teaches and then doing what Jesus teaches. Love of God is not just a feeling. In our society, we think of love as a feeling. But love is actually an ongoing relationship. It means how we are acting in relationship to our beloved. So loving God is actually a relationship in which we are doing Godly things. We can’t do Godly things unless we know what they are. So Swedenborg writes,
Love to the Lord is nothing else than committing to life the precepts of the Word, the sum of which is to flee from evils because they are hellish and devilish, and to do good because it is heavenly and Divine (DLW 237).
Only by the lawgivers Moses and Elijah can we find the glory of God that enveloped the holy mountains in our Bible stories. There is an intimate relationship between God’s laws and God’s presence. We love God when we do what God asks of us. Only by learning God’s law from the Bible and applying what we learn to our lives can we open ourselves to God’s presence. But as we grow spiritually, as we learn truths intuitively or by conscious study, and as we flee evil and do good, more and more we feel God’s presence. We will be transported to the mountain top. We will see the glory of God and bring that glory into our ordinary lives. We can expect to go up and down the mountain as we travel along this pathway in life. By going up the mountain to experience God’s nearness, we will have God in our hearts to shine through our lives when we go down the mountain. Our peak experiences will elevate the plane on which we live in ordinary life. As we progress spiritually, our peak experiences will grow higher, our comprehension of truth will grow more profound, and our lives will become more and more characterized by a love of doing good. Then God will come to us and make His home with us forever.