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A Common Heart

Chelsea writes of how religion, while becoming more central to peoples lives generally, is also the justification for increasing aggression between people of differing faiths. She calls on humanity to recognize our common heart, and shows us how New Church doctrine is uniquely suited to inform the growing desire for interfaith respect and love. -Editor.

Religious intolerance and extremism are current issues in American society and around the globe. The combination of increasing religiousness world-wide (see, for example, God is Back) and a vastly interconnected global society makes it nearly impossible for people of different religious identities not to cross paths. These current circumstances raise the question: is it possible under conditions of such close proximity for the world’s religious variety to coexist harmoniously?

A December 2009 study published by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life found that nearly three in four countries reported crimes, malicious acts or violence motivated by religious bias and that there was some degree of public tensions between religious groups in the vast majority (87 percent) of countries (Global Restrictions on Religion, p. 18-19). America is no exception. In fact, crimes involving religious hatred were reported from nearly every state (ibid).

A recent example of religious bigotry in America which incited national and international attention was the threat by an evangelical pastor from Gainesville, FL, the Rev. Terry Jones, to burn a copy of the Quran, the central religious text of Islam, on the 2010 anniversary of the September 11th bombings of the World Trade Centers. There were protests against his threat to burn the Quran in Afghanistan and Indonesia (Montopoli). Multiple members of the Obama administration, including Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, General David Petraeus, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and President Barack Obama himself made public statements condemning the act of burning the Quran, exhorting Pastor Jones not to follow through on his plan, and declaring the event contrary to what the American nation was founded on (Condon).

The threat to burn the Quran is a relatively local incident that highlights the chronic state of misunderstanding among religious groups and between non-religious and religious people. The threat not only offended American Muslims but, as cited, Muslim groups around the world were inflamed, thus endangering Christian groups around the world as well as U.S. troops abroad. What starts as a local act of interreligious bigotry quickly can become a cause for confrontation between religious groups globally. Although Rev. Jones didn't end up burning a copy of the Quran on the September 11th anniversary, he did burn one on March 20th of this past year. News of his burning the Quran incited riots in Afghanistan during which at least twelve people were killed (Nadafizada and Nordland).

On account of the prominence and visibility of religion as it is involved with terrorism and other extremist action, people often are misled into focusing predominately on the negative use of religion by religious groups other than their own. More damage is done to the reputation of religious devotion when one takes into account how hateful acts of extremism and terrorism throughout the world are perpetrated more often than not in the name of justice. Without effort to develop genuine understanding and mutual respect between people of different religions, hostile interfaith relations are inevitable. Religious conviction needs to be bridged with living respect for others. Effort to learn about people of different religious affiliation than our own with an open mind is the first step to forging a bridge of understanding across the chasm of ignorance.

An awareness of the understanding needed in order to bridge religious differences is beginning to be acknowledged by a growing number of individuals. In addition to the international protests and the American government’s own urging of the cancelation of the planned Quran burning, the threat prompted Dr. Ingrid Mattson, President of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), to organize an emergency interfaith summit where thirty-six leaders of the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian faiths met and composed an official statement denouncing “categorically the derision, misinformation, and outright bigotry being directed against America’s Muslim community,” recognizing the people of this nation’s “sacred responsibility to honor America’s varied faith traditions and to promote a culture of mutual respect and the assurance of religious freedom for all,” and announcing “a new era of interfaith cooperation” (Text of Statement).

The Emergency Interfaith Summit is an example of the rising awareness of the pressing need for understanding between and among people of different religions. As the statement by interfaith leaders at the Summit advocates, it is time for the people of the world to commit to building a future “in which religious differences no longer lead to hostility or division between communities” (Text of Statement). What allows for them to envision such a bright future is the identification of “a common understanding of the divine command to love one's neighbor,” in which they recognize “an intimate link between faithfulness to God and love of [the] neighbor” (ibid). They recognize that the path to such a future requires “faithfulness to our deepest spiritual commitments” (ibid). Living out these commitments includes promoting mutual learning among religions as well as between religious and non-religious people (ibid), as well as “working together for interfaith understanding across communities and generations; and... cooperating with each other in works of justice and mercy for the benefit of society” (ibid). The teachings of the New Church contain unique concepts that add rich texture to this vision of the feasibility of the harmonious coexistence of the world’s varied faith traditions. These concepts have the potential to deepen our understanding of the world’s religions and grow in awareness of the unity from love that could connect us all.

The Writings explain the phenomenon of different religions and their inner connectedness through the existence of what is called the Lord’s church. I see the term church here as used with very broad implication beyond strictly Christian adherence, suggesting a group of individuals united by something deeper than a particular professed belief system. “The Lord's church is spread throughout the whole world. It is universal, then, and consists of all individuals who have lived in the virtue of thoughtfulness according to the principles of their religions” (Heaven and Hell 328). Its universality is why it is also common to refer to it simply as the universal church.

We are able to look at all the various religions together through the lens of doctrine or through the lens of the life lived (Arcana Coelestia 8152). When only paying attention to the doctrines of various religions the appearance of many wholly distinct religious traditions is true; on the other hand, when a person’s attention is given to how people live then he can see that the Lord’s church “resides wherever people lead lives in keeping with the commandments of charity,” irrespective of differences in doctrine (ibid). Charity as well is used here with a broader definition than what is commonly understood. It is distinguished from “neighborly acts of kindness,” (Secrets of Heaven 454) but encompasses them as an aspect of charity. Namely, “genuine charity involves acting circumspectly and with the end in view that good may result,” rather than restricting the term solely to “giving to the poor, helping a person in need, and doing good to everyone” (Arcana Coelestia 8120). In other words, charity is not simply performing acts of kindness to other people but striving for genuine usefulness; charity results from a love of serving others in the most effective way. In order for this to be accomplished, a person’s desire needs to be tempered by thoughtfulness as to what action may support the best outcome in the long run. I believe that this idea of loving thoughtfulness is one that is contained within and directed toward by any of the world’s religions. It is this concept of charity and the kind of life it encourages that extends the Lord’s church beyond the boundaries of any one religious belief system.   

One passage in the Writings holds that religion is a way of life, and elaborates on this idea by adding that the life of religion is to do what is good (Doctrine of Life 1). In one sense it could be said that there are as many religions as there are people in the world, according to the teaching that “anyone is a church in whom the Lord is present in the qualities of love and faith” (Heaven and Hell 57). It should be noted here that I use the terms ‘Lord’ and ‘God’ interchangeably to reference the one God of the universe. When speaking of ‘God’ or the ‘Lord’ I am referencing the same being, or as Swedenborg terms it, “the underlying divine reality” (True Christianity 18; see also 19-24). The concept that there is one divine being is foundational to the idea of one church. The existence of multiple religions conjures the appearance that there are multiple gods. But rather than each having its own god, it could be seen that each religion offers a unique vision of the same divine being. An analogy could be made in the image of a stained glass window with sections depicting a variety of colorful scenes. Each scene casts the light differently, yet each is illuminated by the same sun. And so, it is not a question of which god a person believes in as it is what concept of God a person has. A person’s religion is constituted primarily by her concept of God. The concept of God “is the very core of the thinking of anyone who has religion [and] all the elements of religion and of worship focus on God” (Divine Love and Wisdom 13). And so each person’s religion is unique to how she personally conceives of God and the life she lives as a result of her understanding. According to this line of logic, there are as many religions as there are people in the world in relationship with God, living according to their own personal understanding. And as long as a person has within her qualities of love and faith as a result of her understanding then that person is in the universal church. Furthermore, the phenomenon of multiple religions is held in the Writings to be an essential aspect of human existence written into the order of the universe by the Lord himself. Swedenborg maintains that “all unity is formed out of harmony among many” and that “no monolithic unity lasts, only the unity created by harmony,” and further that “the Lord alone makes this happen, and he does so through love” (Secrets of Heaven 457). 

Love is the hub around which all of life revolves.1 Its expression is the critical element that could enable the harmonious coexistence of religions. One way to demonstrate this is through looking at certain aspects of the New Church concept of heaven. Similar to the idea that a person is himself a church or a religion on the smallest scale, a person who lives a heavenly life can be thought of as a heaven in its smallest form (Heaven and Hell 53, 57). This is due to the fact that “the activity of love and faith is what makes heaven” (Heaven and Hell 51). Swedenborg holds that heaven “exists wherever people have love and charity (or the Lord’s kingdom) inside them” (Secrets of Heaven 450). Or in other words, heaven is defined as “wishing better for others than for ourselves with all our heart and serving others for the sake of their own happiness, not for any selfish goal but for love” (Secrets of Heaven 452). In this way, heaven, like religion, can be called a way of life, not only a ‘place’ a person goes to after he dies. Anyone who lives a life in harmony with heaven has heaven within him and will live in heaven when his physical life in this world comes to an end. One can see that a heavenly life defined in this way is beyond the confines of any one religion and is available immediately to all who live a life in keeping with the good actions that love desires and the true ideas taught by one’s faith that serve this love.

To take it a step further, it is ultimately the divine nature that emanates from God that makes heaven. The divine nature that emanates from the Lord is “the good intrinsic to love and the truth intrinsic to faith” (Heaven and Hell 7). In other words, “the very essence of the Divine is love and wisdom” (Divine Love and Wisdom 30), and so of heaven. Swedenborg describes these two, love and wisdom, as “distinguishably one” (Divine Love and Wisdom 34). The divine nature is present within each of us; the Lord flows into each of us, no matter what our outward religious affiliation, “with all his divine love, all his divine wisdom, and all his divine life” (True Christianity 364), and it is this inflowing that gives us “our ability to be wise and our ability to love” (Divine Love and Wisdom 30). It is up to us, though, how much of the Lord’s nature we adopt into ourselves by how we choose to live—in keeping with love and charity for others or not (True Christianity 364). Of the two components of the divine nature, the Lord’s divine love is the essential element and divine truth is derived from it (Divine Love and Wisdom 30); the two united give life to everything (Heaven and Hell 13). Love is the vital element because it is love that creates spiritual union and is spiritual union (Heaven and Hell 14). “It unites angels to the Lord and unites them with each other” (ibid).

Heaven exists as a whole unit because of the union love creates. “Love pervades the whole of heaven, for in the heavens no other life is found except the life that belongs to love” (Arcana Coelestia 32). The same is true for our lives in the physical world: “love is the essential reality of every individual life. It is therefore the source of the life of angels and the life of people here [in the physical world]” (Heaven and Hell 14). Love unites angels to such an extent that “in the Lord’s sight they are like a single being” (ibid). On account of the union created through love, it could be said that everyone there shares a common heart. It is this common heart of love that makes it so that people of all religions can go to heaven. Anyone who lives a life of love and service to others and God also shares the common heart. In other words, those who mindfully give expression to the love and goodwill that comes from the Lord are channeling the blood of the common heart. It is a life of thoughtful loving-kindness that enables a person to live in harmony with the sphere of heaven and so be a part of the universal church here and now no matter what his outward religious affiliation.

How would our perception be different if we saw people as having varied forms of love rather than discriminating between them on the basis of faith-beliefs? By directing our gaze to a deeper level of being we could see that people devoted to the living practice of their religions are all rooted in a common, nutritive soil of love.

It is a human tendency to use difference as an excuse for prejudice and hatred. This is clearly apparent in interfaith conflict. The differences between the varied faith traditions of the world are not going to disappear. A way must be found for them to coexist harmoniously. Dr. Gerald L. Durley, a Baptist pastor, when speaking during the press conference for the ISNA Emergency Interfaith Summit listed what he holds to be the three essential ingredients for genuine, healthy, and effective interreligious communication: understanding, respect, and trust (Full Video of Press Conference). These three could be listed also as necessary ingredients for harmonious coexistence. In order to understand others, a person needs to have some level of sympathy for the other; in order for there to be sympathy, there must be some awareness of a shared affinity, no matter how faint. Respect grows out of understanding once it is developed, and ultimately trust can be cultivated from these. Love is the medium through which a connection with others could be discovered. The diversity of religious cultures is not evidence of ultimate disparity. On the contrary, the very possibility of variegation among people and their faiths is due to the common essence of love from which we all have our life.

During the press conference about the ISNA Emergency Interfaith Summit, Dr. Ingrid Mattson, president of ISNA, said as words of comfort to the people of her religion to not worry about the threat of burning the Quran. She reminded Muslims that “the Quran will not disappear with the burning of a book. It wouldn’t disappear with the burning of all of the Qurans in the world, because millions of Muslims across the world have memorized the Quran; they have it in their heart; they live it every day; they refer to it as their source of ethics [and] compassion” (Full Video of Press Conference). The Quran is a body of truth. Its eternal existence is not on account of its own material substance. Rather, its eternal life is due to all the Muslims around the world who embody in their daily lives the love toward which its truth directs.

Mattson continued saying, “God’s word is eternal and it won’t be harmed by fire” (Full Video of Press Conference). God’s word cannot be harmed by fire because it is not solely about what is written—it is alive in the people of different religions who live according to the love-truths that are at its center: true ideas that lead to a way of life rooted in the common heart of love for others and God.


1I want to make it clear that while I emphasize the centrality of love, I in no way intend to minimize the importance of wisdom. While reading, it may be useful to keep in mind these passages as well:

The angel said, "From creation, all things that are in the whole of heaven and all things that are in the whole world are nothing but a marriage of goodness and truth, since each and every thing, whether it lives and moves or does not, was created both from a marriage of goodness and truth and for that marriage. Nothing was created for truth alone, and nothing was created for goodness alone. Neither truth nor goodness is anything on its own, but when they marry each other they become something, and the nature of that something depends on the quality of their marriage.

"In the Lord God the Creator, divine goodness and divine truth exist in their essential quality. The divine goodness is the underlying reality within that essential quality; the divine truth is that quality's capacity to become manifest. They also enjoy a complete union together, since in the Lord they become one in an infinite variety of ways. Since these two are one in God the Creator, they are also one in each and every thing that was created by him. As a result, there is also an eternal covenant, like a marriage, that joins the Creator to all that he created." (True Christianity 624)

God is not only the intrinsic underlying reality but is also an intrinsic capacity to become manifest. For unless the underlying reality is capable of manifesting, it is nothing. It is equally true that the capacity to become manifest is nothing without the underlying reality. Neither one can exist without the other. (True Christianity 21)

Chelsea Rose Odhner

Chelsea is a wife to a PhD candidate. She lives in a multi-generational household in Huntingdon Valley, PA, with her husband, their two young children, and her parents-in-law. In addition to mothering round the clock, she is an editor for New Church Connection and New Church Perspective.