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Internal and External Worship
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
1 Kings 8:1-14 Matthew 15:8-20
Last Sunday we considered the opening of the internal person. After talking about the internal person, we got into a discussion about how the church service relates to the internal person. To some, we sounded a little judgmental about those people who don’t go to church. Today I will talk at greater length about the relation of the internal person to church services.
I will try to walk a tightrope here. I’m going to try to say that a person doesn’t need to go to church to be saved, and yet at the same time I’m going to try to say that there is value for spiritual people in going to church. So I will begin with the first part of my claim. A person does not have to go to church in order to be saved. Going to church is called the external of worship. Loving God and the neighbor is the internal of worship. And loving God and the neighbor is what really counts in a person’s worship life.
Internal worship, which is from love and caring, is real worship; and that external worship without this internal worship is no worship (AC 1175).
To claim that only people who go to church are the saved is to make external worship the be all and end all of worship. Swedenborg cautions against such reasoning.
To make worship of the form without its essential, is to make internal worship external—as for example, to hold that if one should live where there is no church, no preaching, no sacraments, no priesthood, he could not be saved, or could have no worship; when yet he may worship the Lord from the internal (AC 1175).
So let’s be clear on that. A person may love his or her neighbor and love God inwardly and still not go to church.
At the same time, however, I do think that church is valuable in a person’s spiritual development. People have told me how much better they feel when they attend church. I think that that is because the internals of these people find a place where they can open up in the church service. One hour concentrated on God fills a person’s heart with God’s very Spirit. Furthermore, there are spiritual states of mind that arise in church services. Finally, hopefully a person learns spiritual truths in church—although these can also be learned outside the church. So Swedenborg writes,
But a person, while he is in the world, ought not to be without external worship also. For by external worship internal things are called forth, and by means of external worship the external things are kept in a holy state, so that the internal things can flow in. And besides a person is thus imbued with knowledges, and prepared for receiving heavenly things, and also gifted with states of holiness, though he knows it not; which states of holiness are preserved to him by the Lord for the benefit of the eternal life; for all the states of his life return in the other life (AC 1618).
Then a person brings out into the world the spiritual nurture that he or she receives in the church building or from a church service.
As our internal level develops in us, we also need to have it grounded in an external. This is one function that church serves. It is similar to our soul’s development. To be whole people in this world, we need a soul and a body. So church is like the body for our internal person.
Nevertheless with everyone who is of the church there ought to be both, namely, an external and an internal; otherwise there is no spiritual life with him, for the internal is as the soul, and the external as the body of the soul (AC 8762).
Spiritual people will find value in attending church, but they don’t make going to church the essential thing. In fact, those who think that going to church is the only thing that matters, are making what is external to be the essential thing. So Swedenborg says,
Let it be also supposed, for example, that men place the very essential of worship in frequenting churches, going to the sacraments, hearing sermons, praying, observing feasts, and many other things which are external and ceremonial, and persuade themselves that these, with talking about faith, are sufficient—all of which are formal things of worship. . . . They indeed who make worship from love and caring essential, do these things likewise . . . but they do not place the essential of worship in these things. In the external worship of such men there is something holy and living, because there is internal worship in it; but in the external worship of the former there is nothing holy and nothing living (AC 1175).
A friend of mine talked about her childhood and how, as she puts it, the church guilted her into attending. Rather than going as an act of love and free will, her sense of guilt and obligation made her go. Even to this day, there is at times a struggle with her when she gets the slightest feeling of obligation about church. When it works, church is a free expression of love for God and a place of spiritual refreshment. It is a place where one can bring their feelings for God and share them with others. It is also a place for community as ones feelings for other people can be safely expressed. Any sense of obligation and guilt about attendance would stifle these freely expressed joys. Such worship would become external as the internals of love can’t survive in an atmosphere of compulsion.
The states of holiness that a person can find in church are God’s very dwelling place in a person’s soul. As we mature spiritually, we sometimes let go of some of the things we learned in childhood. But our spiritual maturity is a very gradual process and we need to respect the forms of worship that others know. Something that appears quite evident to us may conflict with the beliefs that others have grown up with. And special sensitivity needs to be observed when we discuss faith issues with others. We want to preserve the faith others know, as we respectfully state our truth. Gandhi once said, “Whenever you have truth, it must be given with love, or the message and the messenger will be rejected.” Swedenborg comments on this,
The Lord by no means wishes to destroy suddenly, and still less in a moment, the worship implanted in any one from infancy; for this would be to tear up the root, and so to destroy the holiness of adoration and worship, which is deeply implanted and which the Lord never breaks, but bends. The holiness of worship, rooted from infancy, has this nature, that it does not bear violence, but a gentle and kindly bending (AC 1992).
I try to be respectful when discussing my beliefs with others. But it’s not always easy. I can be very convinced of my own truths, and there is a side of me that has a delight in argument. I recall with dismay one of our Spiritual Discussion nights. One of the people there that night mentioned the devil. At once, another member of the group said, “Swedenborg doesn’t believe in the devil.” Then the Garden of Eden came up, and the serpent, and the long and short of it was that this person’s childhood beliefs were attacked in one night. I regret that incident. That isn’t a Christian attitude to take with regard to the beliefs of others. However, I must add that usually our discussions are delightful and characterized by mutual respect.
The worship in a church building, as I have said above, is for spiritual refreshment and the expression of love. The way a person lives outside the church building will determine what a person brings into a church building. Living a loving life makes all that a person does holy.
A person is in worship continually when he is in love and caring; external worship is only the effect. The angels are in such worship; with them, therefore, there is a perpetual Sabbath (AC 1618).
If a person is open to it, church can give us joys and delights that we just can’t find elsewhere. And we can carry that joy into all aspects of our life.
We may find a great benefit in going to church. The formal things of worship may excite the internals of our souls and we may feel spiritual refreshed when we return home Sunday morning. Church may keep our external person in line with the loves and truths of our internal person. But going to church is not the essential thing in our spiritual life. The essential thing is what lies in our hearts. The essential thing is how we relate with our neighbor and how we relate with God. Is our life characterized with love and care?
But we need to realize, too, that others who don’t go to church may have an inner love for God and their neighbor also. We don’t want to make the externals of worship the main thing. So we are left in that ambiguous position of affirming church for ourselves, but not making it the main thing of worship.
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