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Born of Water and the Spirit
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
March 2, 2014
Genesis 9:8-17 Mark 1:9-15 Psalm 25
Our Bible readings this morning touch on a topic that I’d like to revisit, which I haven’t talked about for some time. It involves a strange Swedenborgian word that is unique to his theology. That word is the proprium. The meaning of this word is “what is a person’s own.” You may notice its relationship to our English word, “proper.” In this case, it means “what is proper to a person.” So it means the self. In general, the proprium has negative connotations. It is often used to mean the self in its lowest sense. This would be self-interest, selfishness, and inflated self-aggrandizement. But it does have positive connotations, too. Remember, its primary meaning is the self, or what is a person’s own. And after spiritual rebirth a person’s self is transformed into a lovely image and likeness of God. Then, we have a heavenly proprium. Our self is really not our own anymore. It is God in us. But we still have a sense of self. We all have our own ways of receiving God. And even when we are filled with God’s love and wisdom, we have a self that receives these qualities in our own unique way. This is proprium in a good sense. This is our heavenly proprium. You could say that the whole process of regeneration is a process of lifting us out of proprium in a bad sense and gifting us with a proprium in a heavenly sense. Another way to put this is to change from a self that is only inflated self-interested to a self that is humble and God and neighbor-interested.
There seems to be no way out of the idea that we need to grow up spiritually. There seems to be no way out of the idea that we need spiritual transformation to find heavenly joy. This is clear from our reading from Mark. Jesus travels to Galilee to proclaim the good news. I think that the good news is a mixed blessing. Jesus says, “The time has come. The kingdom of God is near.” This sounds pretty good. But then He adds, “Repent and believe.” So the coming of God’s kingdom also carries with it a charge to repent. And John the Baptist’s message was the same. Mark tells us that, “John came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” We see here that the forgiveness of sins is dependent on repentance. Finally, Jesus tells Nicodemus a message that applies to us all: we all need to be spiritually transformed, or reborn:
Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again. Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, “You must be born again” (John 3:3, 5-6).
Swedenborg talks about spiritual rebirth in the context of the proprium. It is the proprium that is self-interested, egotistical, and world interested only. When we are acting from our proprium, our attitude is only, “What’s in it for me?” Or, “I am the centre of the world.” We are only interested in what benefits us. And what doesn’t favor us we care nothing about. Furthermore, when we are self-interested, anyone that comes in our way is an enemy. Anyone who threatens our self-interest is our foe. So Swedenborg defines the proprium as follows:
To make known what proprium is:–proprium is all the evil and falsity springing from the love of self and of the world; and from not believing in the Lord or in the Word, but in self (AC 210).
And Swedenborg also talks about the consequences of this view on life.
The love of self is nothing else than the proprium; . . . From self-love, that is, the love of self, or from the proprium, all evils flow, such as hatreds, revenges, cruelties, adulteries, frauds, hypocrisies, impiety (AC 1326).
The Buddhists have a similar idea about the self. They claim, too, that from the idea of the self arise all human evils. The Buddhists, like Swedenborg, believe that the self is an illusion. Someone once challenged the Buddha about whether there is a self. The Buddha’s answer was very practical. He said that wherever you have the self, you have greed, violence, lust, and hatred. “Show me an idea of the self in which there are none of these things,” he said, “and I will agree that there is a self.”
One of the problems of self-interest is that it is based on falsity. When proprium dominates a person’s life, a person thinks that he or she is self-made. A person thinks that they are independent and self-sustaining. In short, a person thinks that they live by their own power. they think that the life they live and the deeds they do are all done by themselves. But this is an illusion. The life we have is given us by God. God alone is life itself. We are mere vessels of life. And furthermore, our very thoughts and emotions are all influenced by influx from heaven’s grand human form. Angels and demons inspire thoughts and feelings in us. There is very little of us that is actually our own. The real idea of self is only what we choose to let into our minds and hearts. So our true self is only the choices we make. Thus the idea that we are living by our own power is an illusion. The Hindus call this illusion Maya. Maya is the illusion that we are independent poles of life and not connected to the One Source of everything, or God, or Brahman. This illusion of self-independance is Swedenborg’s proprium. And Swedenborg says that when proprium rules, we are in a deep sleep.
Man’s state when he is in his proprium or when he thinks that he lives of himself, is compared to a deep sleep . . . The man who thinks he lives of himself is therefore in a false persuasion (AC 150).
The illusion of self and all the evils that stem from it is a powerful illusion. To be spiritually reborn we need to have that illusion broken up. Our proprium, and all the evils that come with selfishness and worldliness, need to be destroyed. Then we become open to God’s inflowing love and wisdom. Breaking up the illusion of self, and subduing the evils that come with it, is called temptation. Temptations are “the heartache thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to,” to use Shakespeare’s words. Temptations are all those calamities, and frustrations that break up our self-interest and make us realize that we aren’t in control and that we need God. And finally, temptations make us want God and they soften us so that we see our neighbors as friends, not means to self-interest.
Through the process of temptation, self is broken up and love and truth flow into our consciousness. These glowing qualities make our self shine with heavenly rays. Through temptations we are gifted with heavenly virtues that radically change our proprium. It is as if we are lifted up out of proprium. Or it is as if we are given a new proprium from God. Swedenborg says,
Man’s proprium is all evil and falsity. So long as this continues the person is dead; but when he comes into temptations it is broken up, that is loosened and tempered by truths and goods from the Lord, and thus is vivified and appears as if it were not present (AC 731).
We are actually born again. We become different people. We are given a heavenly proprium. We are given a sense of self that regards God and the nrighbor in everything we do, not only what’s in it for me. Swedenborg describes this radical transformation.
As regards the heavenly proprium, it exists from the new will which is given by the Lord, and differs from man’s proprium in this, that they who have it no longer regard themselves in each and every thing they do . . . but they then have regard to the neighbor, the public, the church, the Lord’s kingdom, and so to the Lord Himself. It is the aims of life that are changed. The aims that are fixed on lower things, that is, on self and the world, are removed, and aims that look to higher things are substituted in their place. . . . He to whom the heavenly proprium is given is also serene and full of peace; for he trusts in the Lord, believing that no evil will befall him, and knowing that lusts will not infest him. . . . From this it may be evident that they are in blessedness and happiness, inasmuch as there is nothing to disturb them, nothing of self-love, and consequently nothing of enmity, hatred, and revenge; nor is there any love for the world, consequently no insincerity, fear, or anxiety (AC 5660).
This, finally, brings in our Old Testament reading–believe it or not. The rainbow that God put in the clouds symbolizes a regenerated person. And Swedenborg says that such regenerated people actually are surrounded by rainbows. I think that this is a description of what some people see as auras around people. Swedenborg tells us,
Spiritual angels who have all been regenerated men of the spiritual church, when presented to sight as such in the other life, appear with as it were a rainbow about the head. . . . These angels are those who those who are said to be born again, of water and the spirit . . . There is in the regenerate spiritual man an intellectual proprium in which the Lord instills innocence, charity, and mercy. According to the reception of these gifts by man is the appearance of his rainbow when presented to view–the more beautiful as the proprium of the man’s will is removed, subdued, and reduced to obedience (AC 1042).
Well, I know that this is a difficult subject. Perhaps one of Swedenborg’s most elusive concepts. But I think I can sum it up in a short sentence that I heard from an AA speaker. “There is a God, and you’re not it.”
Lord, We thank you for all the gifts you have given us today, and in our lives. We thank you for your unceasing efforts to lift us out of our self and raise us up into heaven. Your have told us that we need to be born of water and the spirit in order to come into your kingdom. And you have made plain the way for us to go. You have told us about repentance for the forgiveness of sins. You shine a light on our souls, Lord. And in that light we see where we fall short of glory. And, Lord, you give us the power to refrain from harmful thoughts, feelings, and actions. By all these means, and by the power of your unfailing love, you bring us to you and into eternal happiness. We give you thanks, Lord, for shaping this clay into a vessel of your love.