PARTICIPATION IN OUR CHURCH AS A COMMUNITY
A vital ideal for the church is being a good (loving and caring) community. In a good community, each member is accepted and valued and each member contributes and receives. This compares with the image of parts of the body working in harmony suggested in Scriptural teachings on the “Body of Christ” and in Swedenborgian teachings comparing a good community with a healthy and flourishing human body. Especially important for our continuing development as a church community is us continuing to develop ways of being of service to people within and beyond the church community. It is important that we have a community where there is love of one another and where there is an extending of love and service into the world.
Ideals of service and being part of a good community can be lived and practiced in day to day life. We can approach other with love and caring in whatever contexts we meet them. Perhaps someone in the church needs to be encouraged or needs to be comforted, and a caring presence will make a great difference to that person. Perhaps it will lift people’s spirits and help what an event contributes if some volunteers help in cleaning up at the end of the event.
A variety of activities are part of the ongoing life of the church – church services, classes, meeting, outreach efforts, group trips, and other programs. With such activities, there are different ways of contributing, depending on one’s gifts. Some ways one can contribute are by doing readings or leading prayers in church, being an usher or greeter in church, serving on church boards and committees, writing for the newsletter, or volunteering to help with meals, service programs, social events, or other activities. With new people may come new possibilities and ventures, new avenues of community.
SWEDENBORG’S LIFE OF SERVICE
This church is Swedenborgian in looking to and following certain teachings of Swedenborg, for example, teaching on a life of love, charity or service. Swedenborg was a person who lived a practical life in the world and also had extraordinary spiritual experiences. However, the church does not elevate Swedenborg and follows his lead in being both Christian and committed to interfaith work. What follows is a brief account of Swedenborg’s life, emphasizing especially the theme of service which is so important for us.
Swedenborg who lived to be 84, was born in 1688 and died in 1772. He was the third of nine children, and the second oldest son. He had four brothers and four sisters. Two brothers, including his older brother, died when he was a child. Swedenborg’s father was an influential Lutheran minister. Swedenborg’s mother died when he was eight, and his father married again about a year later. Swedenborg’s background was one of economic and educational privilege. Reports about Swedenborg’s childhood indicate he often thought of God, and also discovered avenues of inner awareness associated with a slowing down of breathing
As Swedenborg grew into youth and then early adulthood, he was very interested in the natural world, science, and technology. Such interests for him very compatible with religious faith. He completed university training by age 21, and in his twenties began his practice of traveling through Europe to observe, study, and learn. He developed plans for a variety of inventions, including a number of devices relating to mining and also a design for an airplane.
For considering Swedenborg’s adult life, it is very important to be mindful of the political context of eighteenth century Swedenborg. The death of Charles XII, in 1918, ended time of absolute monarchy. The period between 1719 and 1772 could be described as a time of political freedom. In 1819, at the age of 31, Swedenborg entered the House of Nobles in Sweden’s Parliament. He remained active in the parliament the rest of his life, his work in it being a vital part of his life of service. He authored many papers on economic and political issues, which he circulated among members of the parliament. Swedenborg was a strong supported of political freedom, limited monarchy, balance of powers in government, and the value of public service.
In his thirties and forties, Swedenborg had a very active vocational life. He eventually settled in an administrative job with Sweden’s Board of Mines. In this capacity he sought ways to improve the productiveness of the industry and the conditions for workers. While holding the position in the mining industry, he was also a prolific inquirer and writer in a wide range of sciences. During his time of great activity in the sciences, Swedenborg sought out ways for religion and science to be in harmony. While very much part of the great scientific revolutions of the time, he remained a person of faith. Sometimes he experienced flashes of light which he took to be indications he was on the right path with something.
As Swedenborg moved through his forties, his scientific work was turning from physical sciences to study of the human body and to a search for understanding how the soul and body are connected. In Swedenborg’s late forties and his fifties, there was an intensifying of his spiritual experiences. His abilities to concentrate on, attend to, and note his inner experiences grew. When he was 55 and 56, Swedenborg kept a diary of dreams, he described many of his dreams, some of them in great detail. His descriptions included powerful images, intense expressions of feeling, efforts to interpret dreams, and references to great struggles with his pride and ego. Swedenborg apparently had at least two Christ visions. The first is described in detail in his dream diary, and this was followed by a later vision which Swedenborg understood as including a call to take up a new vocation.
Following what he understood to be a call from God, Swedenborg’s vocational life profoundly changed, He took up study of the Bible with great intensity. He wrote accounts of spiritual experiences. Gradually he began to wrote more and more on theological themes in relation to life and service in the world. He no longer pursued scientific work, and at age 59 retired from his work with the Board of Mines. An important part of his vocational life continued to be his service in the Swedish Parliament. His overall focus became writing on spiritual issues relating to living and service, and the works produced are what are known by Swedenborgians as the theological works in which the teachings of the church are found.
Swedenborgian beliefs are explored in more detail in another section. Among key themes in these beliefs are: God as loving and wise, a life of charity and service, community, rebirth, human cooperation with God, inner meanings in the Bible, and life after death. Swedenborg sought reform and new insight for Christianity, but did not attempt to start a new denomination. His approach was both explicitly Christian and interfaith oriented (open to multiple paths). An emphasis on service stands out in all this as a constant in Swedenborg’s life and central in his theology.
A LOOK AT SWEDENBORGIAN BELIEFS
It is sometimes very humbling to offer a very brief and attractive statement of what Swedenborgians believe. Swedenborg was a believer in many paths, and there are many commonalities between Swedenborgian beliefs and beliefs in other religions. Swedenborg was a life long Christian, and there are many commonalities between Swedenborgian beliefs and beliefs in other Christianities. Yet it is possible to attempt an outline of a uniquely Swedenborgian combination of beliefs, and such an outline will now be presented.
VIEWS OF GOD
It could be said that, according to Swedenborg, God is love itself and wisdom itself. What does that mean? We can picture examples of good and wise human love. Think of a parent caring lovingly and wisely for a child. Imagine a health care worker caring for a client and using knowledge to help that client. Also, we can picture a caring community in which different members use their different areas of knowledge and strengths of character to serve in the community. God’s love and wisdom are the source of and have resemblance to the many forms of human love and wisdom we find among us. God’s incarnation with Jesus was a unique act of love, opening paths.
VIEWS OF THE BIBLE
Swedenborg looked to the Bible as a foundation of truth. He looked to inner meanings within the Bible. A character in a Bible story can represent a quality in us, and a Bible story can represent something that can happen in people’s spiritual development. Sometimes the inner truth with the Bible is very different from the outer or literal account. Some pictures of God (for example, God commanding that vengeance be carried out) reflect human projections that mask deeper realities (God as loving all and seeking good for all).
God, out of love, continually works to bring good to all. Involvement in good relates to what, in Swedenborgian theology, is identified as uses. Uses can be understood as what contributes, serves, or benefits. Uses are evident in beings contributing in nature and people contributing in communities. A good life is a life of involvement in uses, service or charity. Charity involves loving others and seeking to benefit them. One can think of examples such as a public official conscientiously serving the public, a merchant working to serve customers, a teacher seeking to nurture the growth of students, or a church member working to serve a church and the communities in which the church is situated. The greatest and one kind of truly lasting happiness is that of loving others and contributing to their growth and flourishing. God continually works to help all find such happiness.
FREEDOM AND LIFE CHOICES
Out of love God created us with freedom of choice. A life of charity or service, a truly loving life, can only be one that is freely chosen. It cannot be forced on anyone. Yet people can also choose a life opposite to charity and service, as when one seeks to control and dominate over lives of others. Much that happens in life is beyond what people choose, but people can choose in how they respond to whatever happens and in what for them is happiness. Swedenborg saw life as continuing after death, in community with others, with a person living whatever life goes with what for them brings happiness.
EVIL AND REBIRTH
According to Swedenborg, evil was not created by God. Evil entered the world as people chose it, and now people are drawn to evil as well as good. A good life involves turning from whatever is evil or harmful and to what is good and of service. Such turning involves a rebirth in one’s life and how one lives. A life of rebirth goes with service and charity, cooperating with God and working to benefit others. Such a life is guided by God’s provision or providence, and involves people doing and having a part in connection with others.