Fathers and Atypical Swedenborgian Monotheism

All that Belongs to the Father Is Mine

Rev. David J. Fekete, Ph.D.

June 16, 2019

Isaiah 45:5-8, 22-24                                        John 16:12-15                                     Psalm 8

Quite a while back I was interviewing for a teaching position at our divinity school in California.  I made the observation that in Swedenborgian theology, the male corresponds to truth and the female to love.  The dean of the consortium to which our divinity school belonged challenged this doctrine.  He said, “I feel that I love my children as deeply as my wife does.”  Fathers do love their children as deeply as their wives do.  I was caught off guard by this remark.  I didn’t say what dawned on me later.  I could have asked him if he expresses his love in the same way as his wife does.  I still believe that there is a distinction between the way men and women express love.  But this doesn’t mean that fathers love their children any less than mothers do.  The fathers I observe in this church are very affectionate with their children.

Fathers haven’t always shown their love for their children.  In my parents’ generation, fathers were often the disciplinarians in the family.  “Just wait till your father gets home,” I often heard my mother say.  It was difficult to relate to my father on a day to day basis; he wasn’t easy to talk with; and his general manner was harsh.  While my father may have expressed his love for me decidedly differently than my mother did, on a few occasions he indicated his love dramatically.  There was one time when I had set out across the United States and moved to a far-away city.  I was going to be my own man, stand on my own two feet, and make it on my own.  I didn’t need my parents; I was a man.  Later, a friend of mine and I were driving back to our parents’ house in the winter for Christmas vacation.  As it turned out, my van broke down outside of Detroit.  We had to hitch-hike into the city.  We waited and waited for someone to pick us up.  But no one did.  Standing outside in a blizzard, in the freezing cold, we seriously wondered if anyone would ever pick us up, or would we die in the cold.  There weren’t any cell-phones back then, so there was no way to call anyone.  Finally, we did get a ride, and my friend and I got dropped off at the bus station in Detroit.  What do you suppose this man who was standing on his own two feet, who didn’t need his family, who was going to make it on his own, what do you suppose the first thing he did upon arriving at the bus station?  I called home and my dad answered the phone.  I broke up, and couldn’t talk.  My dad asked me where I was.  And while my mother slept through it all, my dad drove out in a blizzard to the bus station and took me home.

Years passed.  Now I was completing my studies for ministry.  But after five years of studying in good standing, the Committee on Admission to the Ministry had doubts about me.  At Convention in 1985, they held a meeting of the whole council of ministers late at night to decide whether they would ordain me.  In a rather perverse display of ineptitude, they told me to sit outside the meeting room while they deliberated just in case they wanted to bring me in for questioning.  I had gotten a degree at our church’s university, spent five years in our church’s divinity school, I was now 29 years old, and my future was being decided in the meeting room I was sitting outside of.  I sat there for three hours.  But I didn’t sit there alone.  For the whole three hours, my father sat next to me, trying to make the unbearable situation bearable.  My mother had gone to bed.

All this happened when I was living in Boston.  The result of the meeting was that I wouldn’t be ordained.  I had no future.  Over the next year, I applied to Ph.D. programs.  One by one, my applications were declined.  Only one came through, the University of Virginia.  Then, as I was preparing to make the move from Boston to Charlottesville, Virginia, the engine blew out on my car.  My father drove all the way from Detroit to Boston, had a trailer-hitch installed on his car, helped me load up a U-Haul, drove me down to Charlottesville, and helped me get set-up in my new apartment.

It’s unfortunate that my father was so hard to deal with on a day-to-day basis.  Though these dramatic actions demonstrated how much he loved me, our relationship remained strained throughout our lives.  I think that he believed that a father had to be in charge all the time;–be the boss.

I think that today’s fathers feel differently about their role in the family.  Showing outward affection, hugging, playing with their children are things that today’s fathers do, which fathers of my dad’s generation didn’t.  Today, we see stay-at-home-dads.  Today’s dads are nurturing.  Like mothers.  Maybe today, even the differences between the way women and men show affection are beginning to diminish.  Men and women are beginning to show love in analogous ways.

This new direction in fatherhood has important theological resonances.  We use male language when we talk about God.  We talk about God the Father and God the Son.  And with today’s fathers showing love outwardly, our images of God are more loving than they had been a generation ago.

However, in Swedenborgian language we speak of God as Divine Love and Divine Wisdom.  This includes both masculine and feminine correspondences in Swedenborg’s system.  Remember, the feminine corresponds to love and the masculine to wisdom.  So seen as love and wisdom, God holds includes feminine and masculine aspects.

This Sunday is also Trinity Sunday.  And once again, I need to state that Swedenborgians do not have a doctrine of Three Persons, as do traditional Christians.  Our understanding is based on language like we heard in John, “All that belongs to the Father is mine” (John 16:15).  Only if Father and Son are the same Person can Jesus say, “All that belongs to the Father is mine.”  It is all Jesus’ because the Father is in Him and He is in the Father.  It is not that they are as one—they are one.  How else are we to understand Isaiah 45:22,

Turn to me and be saved,
all you ends of the earth;
for I am God, and there is no other

Most Christians think that it is Jesus who saves.  But Isaiah 45 clearly says that it is Yahweh who saves, or Jehovah as the King James Version translates God’s name.  And also, Yahweh clearly says, “I am God, and there is no other.”  So either Jesus isn’t God, or Jesus is Yahweh.  “All that belongs to the Father is mine.”  Jesus and the Father are one.  Jesus is Yahweh in the flesh.  “I am God and there is no other.”

Among the last things that Jesus says after His resurrection is, “All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth” (Matthew 28:18).  Jesus has all power because He is one with the Father, is Yahweh in the flesh.  This is what John’s Gospel means when it says, “Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God” (John 13:3).  Only God comes from God and goes back to God.  Only God has all things under His power.  Jesus is God; God is Jesus.  Jesus is God, and there is no other.

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The End Times and Us

For those interested, I have a novel take on the book of Revelation at the following link:

Why Sacred Texts?

I was recently on holidays in the Caribbean.  I was immersed in nature, with the lush foliage, palms, the ocean and snorkeling, sunsets.  It is not easy to explain, but being in nature served to shuck off all the city anxiety, worry, and stress.  I fell into a natural way of being.  Taoists would call it being in harmony with Tao.

My fellow companions on this vacation and I talked about our upbringings and how our past determined the present issues we confront in our life growth.  We talked of spiritual ideas like reincarnation, Scientology, Buddhism, and Swedenborg.  My worldly concerns were gone, and I found myself falling naturally into spiritual interests.  This and the healing power of the love my partner, her sister, and her sister’s partner all felt together.

Then I returned home, and got caught up in the wheels of the world again.  There was one striking impression that I experienced as I returned to work.  I am a pastor.  And in the middle of my first church service back from holidays, I saw the open Bible on the altar.  I thought about how little I was involved with the Bible while on holidays.  And yet there was a deep spirituality about my holidays.  I felt like so many people in the world today.  I wondered why the words of a bronze-age storyteller matter today.  Matter to me, to my spiritual life.

Ralph Waldo Emerson had similar doubts about the relevance of Israelite history and the landscape of Palestine.  His language is somewhat hard to read, but the examples he cites from the Bible are so strange and opaque you get the idea—Emerson doesn’t understand why he needs to read the Hebrew Scriptures.

“What have I to do,” asks the impatient reader, “with jasper and sardonyx, beryl and chalcedony; what with arks and passovers, ephahs and ephods; what with lepers and emerods; what with heave-offerings and unleavened bread, chariots of fire, dragons crowned and horned, behemoth and unicorn? Good for Orientals, these are nothing to me. The more learning you bring to explain them, the more glaring the impertinence. The more coherent and elaborate the system, the less I like it. I say, with the Spartan, ‘Why do you speak so much to the purpose, of that which is nothing to the purpose?  My learning is such as God gave me in my birth and habit, in the delight and study of my eyes and not of another man’s. Of all absurdities, this of some foreigner proposing to take away my rhetoric and substitute his own, and amuse me with pelican and stork, instead of thrush and robin; palm-trees and shittim-wood, instead of sassafras and hickory,- seems the most needless” (Representative Men: “Swedenborg; or The Mystic).

Emerson wants to rely on his own lights, his own mind, draw metaphors from his own natural world—“thrush and robin . . . sassafras and hickory.”  Emerson thinks that he doesn’t need sacred scriptures.  Instead, Emerson thinks that his own mind, birth, and habits are sufficient modes of spiritual inspiration, “My learning is such as God gave me in my birth and habit, in the delight and study of my eyes and not of another man’s.”  This is the basis of Emerson’s criticism of Jacob Behmen and Emanuel Swedenborg.  They bound their imagination to Christian symbolism and the Bible, “Swedenborg and Behmen both failed by attaching themselves to the Christian symbol, instead of to the moral sentiment, which carries innumerable christianities, humanities, divinities, in its bosom.”  Instead of relying on the Bible and Christian symbolism, Behmen and Swedenborg should rely on their own minds, their own moral imagination, says Emerson, “the moral sentiment, which carries innumerable christianities, humanities, divinities, in its bosom.”

However, I think that there is value in mining sacred texts for spiritual direction.  I think that there are things in the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Scriptures that are of value today—taken with advisement.  I admit the antiquity of the Hebrew Scriptures, and the Christian Scriptures.  But everything we think, every judgement we make, everything we know, we learned—either from our family, our city, our country, our schools.  We are born ignorant of everything.  We need to learn everything—to walk, to talk, to think, to make judgements, to hold spiritual ideas.

This is where Emerson mistakes.  He writes, “My learning is such as God gave me in my birth and habit, in the delight and study of my eyes and not of another man’s.”  First, there is no delight and study of Emerson’s eyes.  Every delight and study came to Emerson from another person.  Someone taught him manners; someone taught him civility; someone taught him language; someone taught him the habits he practices.  I think that his New England culture taught him much of who Emerson was.  He himself says so, “My learning is such as God gave me in my birth and habit.”  His birth and habit came from the New England Culture he grew up in.

We are fated to our local customs, our family’s habits, if we do not look outward.  There may be much good in our local habits.  But to remain only in one’s local habits can be limiting.  There can also be falsities and misguided values in our localities.  This is why we need input from other world-views.

The Bible is a 1,500-year-old record of humanity’s encounter with God.  Even if some of it comes from a bronze-age culture, it is still a sincere record of humanity’s encounter with the Other.  Buddhist Scriptures, too, are the product of intense thought, meditation, and spiritual inspiration.  Where do we get our own ideas of spirituality?  I will admit that we can receive spiritual influx directly from God, or the angels.  But a little reflection will show just how much of our spiritual thought and beliefs came from parents, teachers, school, church, local culture.

I suggest that more than we might realize, our spiritual beliefs are, in fact, “another man’s” and not “the delight and study of my eyes.”

 

Faith in Unbelief

I am one struggling to have faith in unbelief.

Contrary to many, I feel that religion is a positive force in the world.  Where else will a person find teachings that oppose the excessive consumption, greed, and vanity of western capitalist culture?  Where else will a person be valued not by the clothes they wear, but by who they are?

The May meeting of the Faith and Order Convening table of the National Council of Churches of Christ USA just concluded.  There are 38 different Christian denominations that are members of the NCCC USA.  I think that we do a pretty good job of working together considering the differences among our 38 denominations.  Some may find it hard to believe that there are 38 different Christian denominations–and I don’t think that there should be.

As a Swedenborgian in the NCCC USA, I have an uphill battle.  Despite the good will we have for one another, there are still religious prejudices.  Although there is an impressive list of poets, philosophers, and literati who have been avid readers of Swedenborg, the Swedenborgian connection has been actively suppressed.  Scholars and theologians don’t want a Swedenborg in their world.

For things like this, and other division-causing reasons, some have turned away from religion.  Perhaps many.  As a believer, this concerns me.  Religion has taught me so much wisdom, and has guided me out of hellish behaviours that I can’t imagine life without it.

But spiritual people, who aren’t religious, do find guidance and a higher power.  Where, I wonder, and how do such people find their way to God?  I know that God flows into every heart and mind and guides.  Even without God, people live good lives and have conscience.

I would have to have a trust in humanity to believe that without the nurture of religion, people will find their way to a life dedicated to others, and not themselves.  To believe that unbelievers have it in them to save themselves and the world around them, and to care.  Robert Frost puts it well, “Whether we have it in us to save ourselves unaided.”  It’s that “unaided” that gives me pause.  Without God, without religion, where does humanity find that power to save–save themselves, and the world?

I am one struggling to have faith in unbelief.

T S Eliot and the Absolute

In The Lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock, one theme is the interplay between self and other.  The narrator appears to be overpowered by the social forces with which he interacts.  He is “fixed in a formulated phrase,” “pinned and wriggling on the wall” by others.  His constant refrain–“Do I dare,” “How should I presume?”

But there is more than spinelessness at work here.  The narrator is on the verge of asking, “An overwhelming question.”  Some think that he is going to propose marriage.  But Eliot and the narrator are possessed of greater depth than nervousness about proposing.  The overwhelming question is, in fact, religious.  The fear is of bring up deep matters in a superficial environment.  How should I presume?  The narrator has “wept and fasted, wept and prayed.”  The narrator is about to break the complacency of a tea party,

Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question,
To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”—
If one, settling a pillow by her head,

Should say: “That is not what I meant at all. That is not it, at all.”

I recently wrote about being true to oneself regardless of social pressures to conform.  But I must confess that there are environments in which a person can’t be oneself, especially when one is particularly spiritual.  When one is in a superficial environment, one can’t really talk on a depth level.  It would not be received.  One would be ridiculed, ignored–as in Eliot’s poem–even be met with anger.  Try being a divinity student in a bar.  The social disjunct, the ridicule, the inappropriate context all make it nearly impossible to be spiritual in a secular environment, a secular world.  How should I presume?

Eliot himself was Prufrock.  He kept his Christianity to himself until his reputation was firmly established.  Then he converted to Anglo-Catholic Christianity publicly and wrote Four Quartets.  At that point his literary career became a bit suspect.  And much of his later work, like The Cocktail Party, is bland to the point of being insufferable.

But I am a fan of Eliot.  And as a Swedenborgian, I know what it is like to have a deep spirituality that one can’t speak of in most public venues.  I have expanded my social network to include an interfaith organization, an interdenominational Christian organization.  And in these environments I can be openly Swedenborgian and be well-received.  But in the blues club, in 12-step organizations, in casual environments I seem to need to keep it all inside.  It isn’t a matter of fear.  It is more a matter of good taste.  I would not abandon my Swedenborgianism, it’s just something others don’t care to hear about, and I respect the others with whom I socialize.  In Jacob’s dream, the angels ascended and descended the ladder–they didn’t stay always at the top.