In this essay, the first of two, Coleman shares principles for how one might approach the Writings most successfully. He advocates carrying an affirmative attitude toward what the Writings literally say, a watchful eye for weighing the larger messages in scripture against any apparently incongruent truths, and an openness to being found incorrect. -Editor.
In a lot of the discussions that happen on this website, a question arises: how should we read the Writings? I think it’s pretty clear from the discussions that the answer to this fundamental question affects everything else in the way we approach New Church teachings. This article is about my own understanding of the best way to read the Writings; I’m hoping it sparks discussion from lots of other points of view.
For starters: I assume the Writings are true. Why is that? Well, it’s a long story, which I shared in detail on an old blog. In summary, though, I got to the point where I said, “I see the truth in the these books, and it seems to be truer than any other truth I’ve seen before – so I will trust that what they say about themselves is true.” Part of that willingness to make the commitment came from teachings in the Writings themselves: that unless you commit to the truth and start living by it, you’ll never really see the truth in it. The more I live by the teachings of the Writings, especially about repentance, the more truth I see in them.
But saying, “The Writings are true” is a pretty big generalization, and there’s room for a lot more interpretation within that. So, there are two things I look at: 1.) What do the Writings say about how to read and interpret Scripture? And 2.) What do the Writings say about themselves (and in particular, in what ways are they different from the Old and New Testaments)?
1.) What do the Writings say about how to read and interpret Scripture?
I’ve heard people say that it makes no sense for there to be Swedenborgian fundamentalists, since the Writings are so opposed to literalism. They’re always encouraging us to look deeper within the literal sense, and point out the fallacies in the literal sense of the Word. If we treat the Old and New Testaments that way, shouldn’t we treat the Writings in the same way? Shouldn’t we try to look beyond the fallacies? I’ll get to that more in the second part of this article, but first it seems important to me to look at what the Writings actually DO say about how we should approach the literal sense of the Word.
There are a few principles the Writings make clear. First and foremost, they say, a person ought to be in the affirmative principle: that is, a principle that says, “This is true because the Lord says so in His Word.” If a person comes across something in the Word that is “obscure,” or difficult to understand, a person who is in faith from charity does not reject it or call his faith into doubt, but “defers” it, or puts it off to the side, with the acknowledgment that what he understands is NOTHING compared to what he doesn’t understand (see Arcana Coelestia 1072).
Is this any different from blind faith? That’s an interesting question. Arcana Coelestia 3394 says that it is harmful for a person not to analyze his faith, and question it, and subject it to rationality:
“[Some spiritual] people desire that the things of faith should be believed in simplicity, without any mental view of them on the part of the rational, not being aware that nothing of faith, not even its deepest secret, is comprehended by any person without some rational idea, and also a natural one.”
It’s important for a person to seek to understand faith rationally and even naturally. But there’s a caveat which is easy to miss – this is useful and necessary only after a person has made that initial acknowledgment that the Word is true because the Lord has spoken it. That passage continues:
“Hereby they may indeed protect themselves against those who reason about everything from what is negative as to whether it is so; but to those who are in the affirmative concerning the Word (namely, that it is to be believed) such a position [that faith should not be examined rationally] is hurtful, as they may thus take away from anyone his freedom of thought, and even bind the conscience to that which is in the highest degree heretical by in this way dominating both the internal and the external things of a person.”
It’s useful to examine everything in faith from a scientific and rational perspective – but only after you’ve adopted the “affirmative principle” that the Word is true. As I understand it, the teaching is that for a person to advance in understanding of revelation, he has to first acknowledge that it is true in some way. But obviously this still doesn’t call for a literal reading, since the Writings advocate looking beyond the literal sense of the Word.
So, what else is needed if a person wants to understand revelation? He has to read it for the sake of life, for the sake of living in charity toward the neighbor and love toward the Lord. When a person does that, he can be in enlightenment – even if he doesn’t actually see beyond the literal sense. Arcana Coelestia 3436 puts it this way:
He who reads the Word in order to be wise, that is, to do what is good and understand what is true, is instructed according to his end and affection; for unknown to him the Lord flows in and enlightens his mind, and where he is at a loss, gives understanding from other passages.
The most important thing is that a person approach the Word for the sake of love to the Lord and the neighbor. But notice that that passage says that enlightenment comes from "understanding from other passages." And the other thing a person needs to understand the Word, according to the Writings, is doctrine of genuine truth. This is where I think the key is. The Writings say a person can draw the doctrine of genuine truth, in its entirety, from the literal sense of the Word. It gives examples of the way doctrine is formed: for example, from looking at Luke 6:20, “Blessed are you poor,” a person might think that those who are literally poor are more blessed than the rich; but by comparing that to Matthew 5:3, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” it becomes clear that the lack of money itself isn’t the important thing, but that a person has an attitude of humility.
The important thing I notice here is that as far as I can tell, the Writings do not advocate saying, “This is not true because it doesn’t reflect the world as I see it.” Rather, they advocate saying, “I’m going to have to understand this differently because it seems to contradict other passages from the Word, and to contradict the fundamental teachings within the Word.” In fact, it’s harmful for a person to reject even fallacies from the literal sense before he has taken “a full view” of the teachings:
“For that which has been made of anyone's faith, even if it is not true, ought not to be rejected, except after taking a full view; if it is rejected sooner, the first beginning of the man's spiritual life is plucked up by the roots; and therefore the Lord never breaks such truth with a man, but as far as possible bends it” (Arcana Coelestia 9039).That passage gives the example of someone believing from the literal sense that the glory and joy of heaven consists in ruling, since the Lord’s disciples are promised that they would sit on thrones and judge the tribes of Israel (Luke 22:30), and since the “faithful servants” in the parable of the talents are told that each of them would be made a “ruler over many things” (Matthew 25:21, 23). This passage says that it would actually be harmful for a person simply to reject these literal teachings, even though they are not literally accurate; but if he sees from other places in the Word that there is a deeper meaning (e.g. "whosoever will be greatest must be the least," and "whosoever would be the first must be the servant of all" (Matt. 20:26-28; Mark 10:42-45; Luke 22:24-27), then and only then is it useful for him to look past the literal sense to see what is really being taught in a deeper sense.
So how does that affect my view of the Writings? It means that if I come across something that contradicts my experience, I try to see how it could be true, and question if maybe my experience of things is based only on appearances. But if something in the Writings seems to contradict a bigger principle within the Word itself, then I try to see how they can be reconciled, and see if maybe one of the places is only speaking in appearances. For example, Arcana Coelestia 289 says, “The Most Ancient Church, because it was the first church, and the only one that was celestial, [was] therefore beloved by the Lord more than any other.” Taken one way, this could seem to contradict a major principle about the Lord, that He loves everyone with the same amount of love, e.g. “It seems as if the Divine were not the same in one person as in another…But this is a fallacy arising from appearance; the person is different, but the Divine in him is not different. A person is a recipient, and the recipient or receptacle is what varies” (Divine Love and Wisdom 78). The first statement, then, about the Most Ancient Church being more beloved, must mean that they received more of the Lord’s love than any others, not that the Lord directed more toward them. It is still true – but you need other passages from the Writings to understand that “more beloved” says something about the way they receive love, not the way the Lord sends it.
And so, my approach to the Writings is to take what they say at face value, unless it seems to contradict a bigger principle from the Word. The reason I feel comfortable in this approach to the Writings is that the Writings actually say mostly good things about people who accept the literal sense of the Word in simplicity; for example, Arcana Coelestia 6775 says this:
“Those are said to be in simple good who are in the externals of the church, and in simplicity believe the Word as to its literal sense, each according to his apprehension, and who also live according to what they believe, thus in good such as are their truths. The internal of the church flows in with them through good…”If I have an attitude of genuinely seeking for what the Lord says for the sake of life, even if I get things completely wrong, those falsities can be used for good. The problem only arises if a person confirms himself in the fallacies of the senses – and especially when a person not only confirms himself in his understanding, but also uses them to confirm lusts in his life. How do I avoid this? I try to always be open to the fact that my understanding could be off. And I try to avoid confirming truths for selfish reasons. In that case, even if something is true, it’s as if it were evil. To use an example from a recent discussion here: I believe Conjugial Love 175 when it says that women cannot enter into the offices proper to men and men cannot enter into the offices proper to women, and that women cannot raise their minds into the same rational light as men (nor can men raise their minds into the same warmth as women, per CL 188). I believe it because the Lord says it, and it doesn’t seem to me to contradict any other teachings in the Word. And I try to see the truth of it in the world. But – I am open to the fact that I could be understanding it wrong. And even if it is true, if I use that to love my own intelligence, or to feed a love of dominion in myself, then even though it’s true in itself, it’s false with me.
And I do admit that I may err a little on the side of being one of those who “believes the literal sense in simplicity” – which, even though it is allowable, is not the ideal, at least not for the Old and New Testament (and again, these Scriptures themselves encourage a person to look deeper; especially in the Gospel of John, the Lord is always encouraging people to look beyond His literal words). That passage about those who believe the literal sense in simplicity does conclude describing their understanding as obscure:
“The internal of the church flows in with them through good, but as they are not in interior truths, the good that flows in becomes general, thus obscure; for spiritual light cannot there flow into the singulars, and thus clearly enlighten things.”So, at least for the Old and New Testaments, it is better to be able to look beyond the literal sense, even though believing it in simplicity can lead a person to heaven. But is the same thing true of the Writings? Or should we read the Writings differently than we read the Old and New Testaments? I'll address those questions in the second part of this article.
Coleman Glenn is a minister in the General Church of the New Jerusalem. Born and raised in Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania, he now lives in beautiful British Columbia, where he is the pastor of the Dawson Creek New Church. When he has time, he blogs at the comparative religion website patheos.com.