You do so much for me, thank you

In New Christian thought, “charity” has a significantly different meaning than in the common modern English definition. In Swedenborg's works "charity" is usually the English rendering of the Latin word "caritas", which is also the root of the verb “to care.” If we think of “charity” as “a state of caring,” we can start seeing what Swedenborg was trying to convey.

“Caring” does not necessarily have to be emotional. You can take care of someone you don’t like, you can take care of business or errands or duties that have little or no emotional content. Swedenborg would call these “acts of charity,” things done from a desire to be a good person. But the idea of “caring” can elevate, too: When you care about someone it involves real affection, and to care about an idea or mission implies a deep commitment - it is a feeling, an emotional state. The ultimate state of “caring,” of course, would be caring about all of humanity, wanting what’s best for everyone on the planet. This is what Swedenborg would call “true charity,” and it is marked by love - the love of others. Importantly, though, it can't be left as an abstraction; it needs to be grounded out in action.

Or as Swedenborg puts it in Arcana Coelestia 8033: “Charity is an inward affection consisting in a desire which springs from a person's heart to do good to the neighbour, which is the delight of his life.”

At all these levels, though, charity cannot act on its own. It needs tools.

Imagine, for instance, a young mother falling and breaking her leg. Her four-year-old might love her desperately, but cannot take care of her. A paramedic, meanwhile, might see her as just a case number, but will get her stabilized and delivered to a hospital. The difference, obviously, is knowledge. The paramedic has a bunch of tested, true ideas in her head that give her the capacity to care for the mother; the four-year-old does not.

That knowledge is actually part of what Swedenborg would call “faith,” though he’s referring to spiritual things rather than medical ones. In general, “faith” in Swedenborg’s works refers to not just belief in the Lord but also the things we accept as true because they come to us from the Lord and the Lord’s teachings. If we take them and apply them to life, we can do works of charity - we can use knowledge to take care of people and things, to actually do something good. For this reason, faith and charity are often linked in Swedenborgian theology.

And just like the idea of caring, these items of faith can elevate. “Thou shalt not murder” is a good low-level matter of faith, and should certainly be applied if we want to be charitable people. “Love thy neighbor as thyself” is a bit higher, a bit more internal, and will help us be charitable on a deeper level. The idea that by loving others we are loving the Lord will take us to a deeper place yet.

And perhaps most beautiful of all is what happens when we reach a state of true charity. If we work to be good because we want to serve the Lord, the Lord will eventually change our hearts, transforming us so that we delight in being good and delight in loving and helping others. At that stage the ideas of faith change from being the masters over our evil desires to being the servants of our good desires. From a loving desire to be good and serve others we will seek and use knowledge that lets us fulfill that mission.

(References: Arcana Coelestia 809, 916 [2], 1798 [2-5], 1799 [3-4], 1994, 8120; Charity 11, 40, 56, 90, 199; The New Jerusalem and its Heavenly Doctrine 121; True Christian Religion 367, 377, 392, 425, 450, 453, 576)

From Swedenborg's Works

Arcana Coelestia #916

Arcana Coelestia (Elliott translation)

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916. 'Every wild animal and every creeping thing means his goods, 'wild animal' goods belonging to the internal man, 'creeping things' goods belonging to the external, while 'every bird, and everything creeping over the earth' means truths, 'bird' truths belonging to the internal man, creeping thing over the earth' truths belonging to the external. This becomes clear from what has been stated and shown in the previous verse about 'wild animals', 'birds', and 'creeping things that creep'. That verse mentions 'creeping thing that creeps', for the two phrases -'creeping thing' and 'that which creeps' - meant both the good and the truth belonging to the external man. Since this verse forms a conclusion to what goes before it, these attributes of the Church, namely its truths and goods, are added. These also indicate the character of the Church, namely that it was a spiritual one, and that having become spiritual it was a Church where charity or good was the chief thing. This is why 'wild animal and creeping thing' are here mentioned first, and 'bird' and 'that which creeps' after that.

[2] It is called a spiritual Church when its actions spring from charity, that is, from the good of charity, but never when it claims to have faith independently of charity. In that case it is not even a Church. For what does faith teach but that which charity teaches? And what other purpose does the teaching of faith have but that what it teaches may be practised? Merely knowing and thinking what it teaches is ineffectual. It is only the practice of what it teaches that is effectual. Consequently the spiritual Church starts to be a Church, or what amounts to the same, the member of the Church starts to be a Church, when its actions spring from charity, the substance of what faith teaches. What is the purpose of a commandment? Not merely that a person may know but that he may live according to what is commanded. And when he does so he has the Lord's kingdom within him, for the Lord's kingdom consists solely in mutual love and resulting happiness.

[3] People who separate faith from charity and place salvation in faith apart from the good works of charity are 'Cainites' who slay brother Abel, that is, charity. They are like birds hovering around a corpse, for that kind of faith is like a bird, and a person devoid of charity like a corpse. And as is very well known in the Christian world they also acquire a false (spuria) conscience to the effect that they may live as the devil does, may hate and harass the neighbour, may go on committing adultery all through life, and nevertheless be saved. What can sound sweeter to a person's ears and more persuasive than the suggestion that he is able to be saved even though he lives like an utter brute? Even gentiles perceive that this is a falsehood, many of whom on seeing the way Christians live find their teaching abhorrent. This is clear also from the fact that nowhere else is the way people live more despicable than in the Christian world.

(References: Genesis 8:19)

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From Swedenborg's Works

Inbound References:

Arcana Coelestia 2027, 2034, 2116, 2442, 2913, 3121, 3324, 3451, 8093

The Last Judgment 39

The New Jerusalem and its Heavenly Doctrine 121, 246

References from Swedenborg's unpublished works:

Apocalypse Explained 104

Other New Christian Commentary

Charity 1

Beast 1

Thanks to the Swedenborg Society for the permission to use this translation.