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Church of the Holy City

All the Law and the Prophets

All the Law and the Prophets
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
November 21, 2010

Exodus 20:1-21 Luke 10:25-28 Psalm 119

Today I would like to consider the catechism. Formally speaking, a catechism is a compilation of knowledge about spirituality that a person needs to know to be confirmed into a church. In the Catholic Church one needs to attend confirmation class and be taught the catechism in order to be confirmed. The catechism for this is a set of questions that the priest asks and the initiate needs to answer them to be confirmed into the church. Some of our older children’s hymnals had a catechism in them. But Swedenborg himself only identified one set of propositions for the catechism of the New Church. In his book True Christian Religion, Swedenborg identifies the Ten Commandments as the catechism for the New Church. So for this Sunday, and those following Advent, I will be looking at the Ten Commandments.
Swedenborg tells us that the Ten Commandments are the sum total of all that religion teaches. He writes,
they were in brief summary an aggregate of all things of religion, by which conjunction of God with man and of man with God is given, therefore they were so holy that there is nothing holier (TCR 283).
He divides the Ten Commandments into two tablets–one tablet contains commands that relate to love of God, and the other contains commands that relate to love of the neighbor. We heard in our Luke reading that all the law comes down to love of God and love of the neighbor. Since the Ten Commandments contain a list telling us how to put into practice these two commands, they contain the whole essence of all the law and the prophets. By the law and the prophets are meant the whole Bible. So Swedenborg holds that the Ten Commandments contain all that is of doctrines and life.
Now because love to God and love toward the neighbor are the all of the Word, and the Decalogue in the first tablet contains a summary of all things of love to God, and in the second table all things of love toward the neighbor, it follows that the Decalogue contains all things which are of doctrine and of life (TCR 287).
This is a grand claim. And from a literal reading of the Ten Commandments it may not look like they contain “all things which are of doctrine and life.” But in Swedenborg’s Bible interpretation, there are three levels of meaning. There is the literal level–which is the text taken at face value. But there are also two internal levels of meaning. There is the spiritual level which relates to the church. And there is the celestial level which relates to God. When considered in its fullness–when all three levels are considered–one can see that the Ten Commandments contain all the law and the prophets. This Sunday we will consider the first commandment.
The First commandments is: “You shall have no other gods before me.” On the literal level, this command forbids idolatry. Today, I know of no one who worships a figure carved out of wood or stone, as they did in the time of Moses. But this commandment also forbids the worship of any human as a god. As a child of the Reformation, Swedenborg took issue with the veneration of saints. For him, the saints were humans–albeit very, very good humans–but humans nevertheless. They may be excellent models of life to follow, but to hold that they have some special spiritual power and can intercede for us between God and man would be a violation of the first commandment. I know of some who value humans in another way. A friend of mine said to me once that everything he needed in life could be found in the works of William Shakespeare. The man Shakespeare became a god for him, and Shakespeare’s work his sacred text. This is a form of idolatry. Finally, anything a person values above God is a form of idolatry. This is a very real issue in our world today. If a person values money and what money can bring above all things, then he is holding money up as a god. This can lead to all kinds of evil. When the unbridled lust for wealth is given free reign, humanity can be trampled over heedlessly. I think of the terrible havoc reaped by the ruptured oil pipe in the Gulf of Mexico recently. I can’t help but think of this as caused by the greed of British Petroleum who thought of their profits first, and the welfare of the Gulf and the people who live by it last. The CEO of BP even had the nerve to say in an interview that he cared for “the little people.” “The little people.” We can see what he thought of himself in order to make a statement like that.
In the internal meanings of this commandment, Swedenborg becomes doctrinal in a way that doesn’t appear in other of his writings. In fact, he seems to change his mind even in his consideration of other commandments. In the spiritual and celestial levels, Swedenborg claims that Jesus alone is to be worshipped as God incarnate. As he puts it, “the Lord our Savior is Jehovah Himself, who is at once Creator, Redeemer, and Regenerator” (TCR 294). All who acknowledge and worship any other God than the Lord the Savior Jesus Christ, who is Himself Jehovah God in human form, sin against this commandment” (TCR 295). Swedenborg then goes on to argue against the doctrine of the Trinity.
This narrow view of who God is doesn’t gibe with Swedenborg’s liberal attitude in other places in his writings. In discussing the same commandment, Swedenborg opens up his description of God to a more general characteristic:
Jehovah the Lord is infinite, immeasurable, and eternal; He is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent; He is the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End; who was, is, and will be; He is love itself, and wisdom itself, or good itself and truth itself; consequently, life itself; thus the only One, from whom are all things (TCR 295).
Seeing God as “the only One, from whom are all things” is a pretty broad understanding of God. And in fact, when Swedenborg discusses the command to honor one’s father and mother, he applies this command to the whole community of saints spread all over the world. He writes, “In the celestial sense, by father is meant our Lord Jesus Christ; and by mother, the communion of saints, that is, His church, spread all over the world” (TCR 307). I take this to mean that Swedenborg affirms all who worship God according to the teachings of their church. This would include all the world religions. He goes on to speak about God as father in extremely inclusive language.
It is to be kept in mind that there continually proceeds from the Lord a Divine celestial sphere of love toward all who embrace the teachings of His church, and who obey Him as little children in the world obey their father and mother, apply themselves to Him, and wish to be nourished, that is, instructed by Him (TCR 308).
Clearly, Swedenborg isn’t referring here only to Christians in Europe and Christian missionaries in other parts of the world. And we also know that Swedenborg holds up the Africans in particular as being especially favored in heaven. In Heaven and Hell we find, “Among the Gentiles in heaven, the Africans are most beloved, for they receive the goods and truths of heaven more easily than others” (326). The celestial sphere proceeding from the Lord reaches even into nature, where the sun is called father and the earth mother:
This is most universal, and affects not only men, but also birds and animals, even to serpents; nor animate things only, but also inanimate. But that the Lord might operate into these, even as into spiritual things, He created the sun, to be in the natural world as a father, and the earth to be as a mother. For the sun is as a common father, and the earth as a common mother, from whose marriage arises all the germination that adorns the surface of our planet. From the influx of that celestial sphere into the natural world arise the wonderful progression of vegetation, from seed to fruit and to new seed. It is from this also, that many kinds of plants turn as it were their faces to the sun during the day, and turn them away when the sun sets; it is from this also that there are flowers which open at the rising of the sun, and close at his setting; and from this it is that song birds carol sweetly at early dawn, and likewise after they have been fed by their mother earth (TCR 308).
We see here an early articulation of the kind of reverence for mother earth as a holy creation that is popular today. This reverence was illustrated fantastically in the movie Avatar. And it seems to me from these passages, that Swedenborg is affirming God’s outpouring of holiness into the whole world and everyone in it.
What I take from the first commandment is reverence for God as God is seen all over the world. For me, God is indeed the risen and glorified Jesus Christ. But it isn’t Christians alone who “wish to be nourished, that is, instructed by Him” (TCR 308). We have many different religions in the world and many different names for God. But there is still only one God. And whether we find God in a Catholic church, or a United Church, or in a synagogue, we will find the same one God who is Father to us all.
This commandment urges us to hold God sacred and God alone. Though society may offer us seductive alternatives in the form of man-made inventions–including the economic structure of the world economy–we need to remember that a loving God is at the centre of everything. No other gods before the one true God. Not ourselves, not money, not prestige, not power;–no other gods. And for us, this God is all love married to all wisdom.

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