Commentary

Charity

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

True Christian Religion #367

True Christian Religion (Chadwick translation)

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367. (iv) The person, however, who separates the Lord, charity and faith is not a form which can receive them, but rather one which destroys them.

Anyone who separates the Lord from charity and faith takes away life from them; charity and faith without life either are non-existent or are abortions. The Lord is life itself; see on this 358 above. Anyone who acknowledges the Lord and separates charity from Him, only acknowledges Him with the lips. His acknowledgment and confession are merely cold, lacking any faith; for they lack spiritual essence, since charity is the essence of faith. Anyone, however, who does charitable deeds and fails to acknowledge the Lord as being the God of heaven and earth, one with the Father, as He Himself teaches, can perform only deeds of natural charity, which do not contain everlasting life. People in the church know that all good which is essentially good comes from God, consequently from the Lord, who is the true God and everlasting life (1 John 5:20). The same is true of charity, since good and charity are one.

(References: True Christian Religion 358)


[2] Faith separated from charity is no faith, because faith is the light of a person's life, and charity is its heat. Therefore, if charity is separated from faith, the result is like separating heat from light. This causes a person's state to resemble the state of the world in winter, when everything above ground dies off. Charity and faith, if they are to be real charity and real faith, can no more be separated than the will and the understanding; if they are separated, the understanding is reduced to nothing, and the will soon follows. It is the same with charity and faith, because charity dwells in the will, and faith in the understanding.

[3] Separating charity from faith is like separating essence from form. The learned world is well aware that essence without form and form without essence are nothing, since essence cannot have any quality except from its form, nor is form any continuing entity except from its essence. Hence nothing can be predicated of either if they are separated one from the other. Charity is also the essence of faith, and faith is the form of charity, precisely as was said before, that good is the essence of truth and truth is the form of good.

[4] These two, good and truth, are in every single thing which comes into existence in essence. Since therefore charity relates to good, and faith to truth, they can be illustrated by comparisons with many features of the human body, and with many phenomena on earth. An exact comparison is with the respiration of the lungs and the systolic motion of the heart; for charity can no more be separated from faith than the heart can from the lungs. For if the heart-beat ceases, the respiration of the lungs ceases at once; and if the respiration of the lungs ceases, total unconsciousness supervenes, and inability to move any muscle, so that shortly afterwards the heart also stops and all trace of life vanishes. This comparison is exact, because the heart corresponds to the will and thus also to charity, and the respiration of the lungs to the understanding and thus also to faith. For, as stated above, charity dwells in the will and faith in the understanding; this and nothing else is the meaning of 'heart' and 'breath' in the Word.

[5] The separation of charity and faith also agrees exactly with the separation of blood and flesh. Blood separated from flesh is gore and turns into rotting blood; and flesh separated from blood becomes progressively rotten and breeds worms. 'Blood' too in the spiritual sense means the truth of wisdom and faith, and 'flesh' means the good of love and of charity. This meaning of blood was demonstrated in my Apocalypse Revealed, 379; and of flesh, 832.

(References: Apocalypse Revealed 379, 382)


[6] Charity and faith, for one or the other to be anything, can no more be separated than in the human body food and water, or bread and wine. For food or bread taken without water or wine merely distend the stomach and ruin it as undigested lumps, turning into rotting mud. Water or wine without food or bread also distend the stomach, as well as the vessels and passages, which being thus deprived of nutriment cause wasting in the body to the point of death. This comparison too fits, since 'food' and 'bread' in the spiritual sense mean the good of love and of charity, and 'water' and 'wine' mean the truth of wisdom and faith (see Apocalypse Revealed 50, 316, 778, 932),

(References: Apocalypse Revealed 50, 316, Apocalypse Revealed 778, 932)


[7] Charity combined with faith and faith combined in return with charity can be likened to the beauty of a girl's face coming from the mixture of red and white in it. This likeness too is exact, since love and the charity that comes from it in the spiritual world glows red with the fire of the sun there, and truth, and the faith that comes from it, shine white with the light of that sun. Charity separated from faith can therefore be likened to a face inflamed with spots, and faith separated from charity to the colourless face of a corpse. Faith separated from charity can also be likened to a paralysis down one side, known as hemiplegia, which, if it advances, proves fatal. It can also be likened to St Vitus' or Guy's dance, which attacks people bitten by a tarantula. The faculty of reason becomes like this, and like the victim dances madly, believing itself then to be alive, yet it is no more able to assemble rational thoughts together and think about spiritual truths, than when someone is lying in bed in the grip of a nightmare. These remarks are enough to demonstrate the two theses of this chapter, first, that faith without charity is no faith and charity without faith is no charity, and both are lifeless unless the Lord gives them life; and secondly, that the Lord, charity and faith make one, just as in a person life, will and understanding do, and if they are separated, each of them is destroyed, like a pearl collapsing into dust.

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From Swedenborg's Works

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True Christian Religion 392, 450

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Charity 1


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