Archive for February, 2012
Repent and Believe
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
February 26, 2012
Genesis 9:8-17 Mark 1:9-15 Psalm 25
Our Bible readings this morning touch on a topic I’ve been meaning to talk 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 self-importance. 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 heavenly proprium. Another way to put this is to change from a self that is only self-interested to a self that is 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. And after Jesus was baptized, he was tempted in the wilderness. Temptation is part of the process of 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 and world interested only. When we are acting from our proprium, our attitude is only, “What’s in it for me?” 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, needs 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.”
This Is My Beloved Son
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
February 19, 2011
2 Kings 2:1-12 Mark 9:2-9 Psalm 50
In our reading from Mark, something awesome happens on the mountaintop. Jesus’ clothes become dazzling white. Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus. A cloud envelops the mountain and a voice booms from the cloud, “This is my beloved Son; listen to Him.” All of these things say something about who Jesus is. And in this question of who Jesus is, we confront a very difficult problem.
Swedenborg tells us that Jesus is the Word incarnate. Or should I say that the Gospel of John tells us that. John 1 reads,
In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (1-2, 14).
So Jesus is the Word in the flesh. What does this mean? It means that all the wisdom taught in the Word, and all the good that the Word points us to is embodied in Jesus. The Word, in fact, came from God. It was God’s words to the prophets that became the prophetical books of the Bible, and it was the law given on mount Sinai by God that Moses wrote down. Taken together, the Law and the prophets mean the whole Bible. That is why Elijah and Moses appear with Jesus when He is transfigured on the mountaintop. Moses represents the Law, and Elijah represents the prophets. So the Bible contains God’s wisdom and goodness; it was given by God. And when Jesus came to earth, He embodied all God’s wisdom and goodness. And it was this wisdom and goodness that made Him radiate the brilliance that He did on the mountaintop.
As the embodiment of all God’s wisdom and goodness, Jesus was God in the flesh. As John tells us, the Word was with God and the Word was God. So the Word was God and Jesus was the Word in flesh. So Jesus is God. Thus far, we have been discussing Jesus’ identity according to Swedenborg’s understanding of the Bible.
But the language of the Bible can cause a vexing difficulty when it comes to who Jesus is. While Jesus is transfigured on the mountaintop, the disciples hear God’s voice, “This is my beloved Son; listen to Him.” This statement is similar to the one the crowds head when Jesus is baptized. Then, the heavens open, the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus like a dove, and we hear God’s voice, “This is my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11). It is language like this that leads to the belief that Jesus is God’s Son–the Son of God. This is not surprising. The words of God are clear enough in the literal sense. God calls Jesus His Son. And the angel Gabriel announces to Mary that, “the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). The difficulty with this Biblical language occurs when we apply ordinary human genealogy to this Biblical language. When I think that I am my father’s son, I am thinking about two different human beings. My father is a very different person than I am. There are two of us, and we are two different humans. This kind of thinking leads us to the Jesus problem when we think of Jesus as the Son of God. Thinking from mortal genealogy, there is a tendency to think of Jesus and God as two separate beings, as my father and I am. But things are very different if God is your Father and you have a mortal mother. Then you won’t have two humans as you would with ordinary human birth. If God is your Father and you have a mortal mother, then the child will be divine and the humanity from Mary will be as a sheath clothing God’s soul. Father and Son will not be two separate humans. Father will be the soul clothed in a human form. There will be a connection between Father and Son that isn’t the case between two mortals.
Thinking about Jesus from the perspective of human genealogy causes huge problems. If Jesus and God are two beings, like my father and I are, immense problems arise. I see two basic problems. Problem one arises when we think of Jesus as divine. If Jesus is God, and God is God; and if they are two beings, then we have two Gods. Problem two is just as bad. In order to reconcile God and Jesus, Jesus can get demoted to a status in which He is not fully God.
People don’t usually think critically about these problems. They call Jesus the Son of God, they see that Jesus prays to God, so they think that Jesus and God are two distinct beings. This is when Jesus can get demoted. By this way of thinking, Son of God means that Jesus isn’t God. I once asked someone who held this view if she thought that Jesus is divine. She said, “Yes, just not as divine as God.” I told her, “Then you’ve got a God and a half.” In fact, the Nicene Creed, which was developed in the fourth century AD, is a bit more complex when it comes to this question. When it comes to the relationship between Jesus and God the Father, the Nicene Creed says that the two are of one substance. It goes as follows:
We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. . . . And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds (æons), Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father . . .
So the Nicene Creed says that Jesus and God the Father are of one substance. How two beings can be one substance is impossible to understand. I think that most people who ascribe to the doctrine of the trinity ignore the one substance part.
But ignoring the one substance part of the Nicene Creed leads to the worst possible conclusion. If Jesus is God and if God the Father is God, and if they are two beings, then there are two Gods. This is a huge problem. Everybody knows that there is only one God. Swedenborg thought that Christians, in their hearts, really believed in three gods. They said one God with their lips, but in their hearts they thought of three gods, God the father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. I said this in a religious studies class at Urbana University a few years ago, and the teacher emphatically agreed with me. He said that most Christians, and he was one, uncritically think of three gods when they use the language of the trinity. I think that other religions like Jews and Muslims think the same about Christians. I remember in Boston I saw graffiti spray painted on the sidewalk in front of a Christian church. It read, “You worship gods I cannot understand.”
To resolve these difficulties, we need to use reason. One way to resolve these difficulties is by not taking the language of the Bible literally. This will give us one way to preserve God’s unity and Christ’s divinity. “Son of God” must be taken symbolically. In fact, in the original Aramaic language, “Son of God” doesn’t even mean God’s Son. It means God Himself. In Biblical Aramaic we also find the words “Son of Man.” This doesn’t mean “Man’s Son.” It means “a man.” So “Son of God” is how you say, “God” and “Son of Man” is how you say “Man” in Biblical Aramaic. So in the original language, by calling Jesus “Son of God,” the writer is actually calling Jesus “God.”
But this doesn’t solve the whole problem. There are times when Jesus prays to God. There are times when Jesus calls God His Father. There are times in the Bible when it looks like Jesus and God the Father are two different beings–which cannot be. Swedenborg has an answer to this problem. Whether it satisfies is up to you. Remember, Jesus took on flesh in Mary’s womb. And according to Swedenborg, Mary was an ordinary human. By taking on flesh in a mortal woman, Jesus had a human nature that partook of ordinary humanity. Swedenborg calls this the Mary humanity. Jesus had a human nature that He took from Mary. Jesus was both fully man and fully God. He had a human nature and a divine nature. When His Mary humanity, or His human nature, was in charge, Jesus saw His divine nature as different from who He was. These were times when His humanity overwhelmed His Divinity, and Jesus’ divine origins were obscured. When He looked up from His Mary humanity, He called out to His divine nature as to His Father.
We can understand this by reflection on our own spiritual evolution ourselves. The process by which Jesus became united to God is analogous to our own regeneration. We will find that for us there are times of ecstasy. Ecstasy literally means “standing outside one’s self.” And in moments of ecstasy, we feel filled with God to the extent that we feel not to be ourselves. These are times when we seem filled with God’s divine love and we are lifted up out of what Swedenborg calls our lower self, what is our own, or the proprium. Then there are times when our lower self, what is our own, our proprium overwhelms us, and our higher nature seems distant. Jesus went through processes like this. He had times of ecstatic union with His divine origins. And He had times when the Mary human obscured His divine origins. But Jesus became fully united with the God of His origins. We will never be one with God in this way. We are only vessels that receive God’s life and love. Jesus and God became one. We will always be in relation with God as finite to infinite.
The complete union of Jesus and God in one Person is clear in some of Jesus’ statements. For instance, in Matthew 28: 18 Jesus says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” How could all authority in heaven and earth be given to Jesus unless He is God? Then there is Jesus statement in John 10:30, “I and the Father are one.” However we might interpret this statement, the Jews who heard it wanted to stone Jesus because He claimed to be God (John 10:33). Then, finally, Jesus claims that seeing Him is seeing the Father. This could only mean that Jesus is the Father in human form. Jesus says, “If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen Him” (John14:7).
There is one very practical application for all this difficult theology. In the life of Jesus we have a model for all we need to do to be saved. By learning about Jesus’ ways, we learn about what God would have us do to be saved. By imitating Jesus, we will come into heavenly love and joy. We don’t really need to fully understand the complexities of the trinity. All we need to do is to worship, love, and imitate Jesus Christ. Jesus says, “I am the way and the truth and the life” (John14:6). Those of us inclined to theological inquiry can discuss, analyze, and reason about the trinity. But for salvation, the simple stories Jesus told and the simple narratives about His life are all we need. I recall the words of one of my theology teachers named Stanley Hauerwas. Professor Hauerwas enjoys a powerful reputation in the world of Christian ethics. He is the Dean of the Divinity School of Duke University. He is respected and learned. When he introduced himself to a friend of mine, all he said was, “I just love my Jesus.” He could have said something about Immanuel Kant, Karl Barth, Aristotle, William James, Thomas Aquinas, Charles Taylor, Martha Nussbaum, Iris Murdoch or any of the plethora of theologians and ethicists he was expert on. Instead, he said the words we can all take to heart, “I just love my Jesus.”
That Is Why I Have Come
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
February 12, 2012
Isaiah 40:21-31 Mark 1:29-39 Psalm 147
After Jesus had preached in the synagogue and healed all the sick in the whole town of Capernaum, his disciples found Him praying the next morning. Jesus told them that He wanted to go to the nearby villages to preach there also. And He said the words that characterized His whole incarnation on earth, “That is why I have come.” Jesus’ whole ministry on earth was to heal humanity. In the story we just heard, Jesus teaches in the synagogue. Then he goes to the home of Simon and Andrew, heals their mother-in-law, and then the whole town brings the sick to Jesus to be healed. This was a typical day in the life of Jesus. Think of it! Think of what an average day in the life of Christ was. Teaching, preaching and healing. His whole life was one of service to the human race. His whole life was dedicated to our salvation. When the disciples were arguing about who was the greatest, Jesus told them the least would be greatest and the servant, not the master. Here we find another statement as to why Jesus came to us, “I am among you as one who serves” (Luke 22:27).
Our Bible readings this morning talk about God’s two great qualities: divine love and divine wisdom. In Isaiah we hear first about God’s infinite wisdom. We hear about how God created the universe and how He knows all the stars by name. The Prophet then says, “His understanding no one can fathom (Isaiah 40:28). When we think of the vastness of the universe and think of the God that made it and keeps it all in balance, we are lost in wonder. And yet, this vast, unfathomable God is also a God of love and compassion. Just as He sustains the tiniest atom or quark, so He cares and sustains the least of each human being. After praising God for His unfathomable wisdom, the prophet then turns to God’s care for the human race. He says,
He gives strength to the weary
and increases the power of the weak.
Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the Lord
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint (Isaiah 40:29-31).
We see these two qualities of God in our New Testament reading, too. Jesus demonstrates His divine love and wisdom in His ministry to the world. His wisdom is shown in His teaching in the synagogue. He amazed His listeners because, “he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law” (Mark1:27). And immediately after enlightening His listeners, Jesus showed His love for the human race by healing the sick.
We can think of love and wisdom as two separate things. But in fact they work so closely together that they are one. In fact, love and wisdom flow out of God as one. Swedenborg begins his discussion of God’s love and wisdom by discussing them separately. Swedenborg’s discussion sounds quite personal even in this somewhat abstract topic.
No one can deny that in God we find love and wisdom together in their very essence. He loves us all out of the love that is within him, and he guides us all out of the wisdom that is within him (DLW 29).
Swedenborg then goes on in a rigorous philosophical way to say that God’s love and wisdom are, in fact, one:
Since the divine reality is divine love and the divine manifestation is divine wisdom, these latter are distinguishably one. We refer to them as “distinguishably one” because love and wisdom are two distinguishable things, and yet they are so united that love is a property of wisdom and wisdom is a property of love (DLW 34).
We can see how God’s love and wisdom are united when we consider Jesus’ ministry. His healings are united with His teachings. And His whole ministry was to save us and bring us into a loving relationship with God. The miracles that Jesus performed showed His love for the human race, in that He wanted to relieve our suffering. But the healings were also symbolic of what Jesus was doing for our souls. All the illnesses that Jesus cured symbolized spiritual illnesses that Jesus teachings cured. So as Jesus healed bodies through His miracles, He also healed souls through His teachings. Healing both body and soul is how Jesus’ teachings and Jesus’ miracles were united. Through His healing miracles, Jesus opened the eyes of the blind. And through His teachings, Jesus opened the eyes of the spirit to heavenly truths. As Jesus’ miracles healed the lepers, His teachings showed us the way to purify our souls from sin and base instincts. Love and wisdom came together in Jesus’ ministry. Jesus showed his care for the human race by providing for the wellbeing of their bodies. But more important was Jesus care for the wellbeing of our souls. Swedenborg tells us that all Jesus’ miracles symbolized what He was also doing for the souls of the human race,
All Divine miracles represent states of the Lord’s kingdom in the heavens, and of the Lord’s kingdom in the earth, that is, of the church. This is the internal form of Divine miracles (AC 7337).
So all Jesus miracles had a spiritual significance, too. Swedenborg explains,
All the miracles which the Lord Himself wrought when He was in the world signified the coming state of the church; thus that the eyes of the blind were opened and the ears of the deaf, that the tongues of the dumb were loosed, that the lame walked, and the maimed and also the lepers were healed, signified that such men as are represented by the blind, deaf, dumb, lame, maimed, and leprous, would receive the gospel and be spiritually healed, and this through the coming of the Lord into the world. Such are Divine miracles in their internal form (AC 7337).
So we can think of Jesus’ miracles and Jesus’ teachings as outer and inner. The healing miracles were physical, or outer. And the teachings that purify the soul are inner. We can also see them as love and wisdom. Love heals us and wisdom enlightens us.
The story of Jesus’ miracles is just as relevant for us as it was 2,000 years ago. We need the healing of Christ’s Gospel in our lives. We need to receive the Gospel message of love in order to become angels in God’s heavenly kingdom.
What was that Gospel message around which the Christian church grew? Let us again think about Jesus’ life. He did not come to rule but to serve. His entire life was dedicated to relieving suffering from people–both physical and spiritual. This is the Gospel message of love. We are not here for ourselves alone. We are here for each other. We are all going through life together and we are all each other’s responsibility. Our mission, should we choose to accept it, is to make the people we know happy and to relieve their suffering. I think that His Holiness the Dalai Lama said it best, and I’ll close with a citation from his book, My Spiritual Journey. In this passage, His Holiness explains the nature of compassion–the cardinal virtue of Buddhism,
We sometimes wrongly liken compassion to a feeling of pity. We should analyze the nature of true compassion more deeply.
True compassion does not stem from the pleasure of feeling close to one person or another, but from the conviction that other people are just like me and want not to suffer but to be happy, and from a commitment to help them overcome what causes them to suffer.
This attitude is not limited to the circle of our relatives and friends. It must extend to our enemies too. True compassion is impartial and bears with it a feeling of responsibility for the welfare and happiness of others (My Spiritual Journey, p.20)
We can only pass on what we, ourselves, have. Let us take to heart the teachings of Jesus, the Dalai Lama, and other great masters of religion. Let us remember that we, too, are not here to rule, but to serve. Let us remember that others are just like us, and want to be happy, too. Let’s do what we can to make that happen.