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 #392

True Christian Religion (Chadwick translation)

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After the chapter on faith, there follows one on charity, because faith and charity are linked like truth and good; and these two are linked like light and heat in springtime. This expression is used because spiritual light, the light radiated by the sun of the spiritual world, is in essence truth. Therefore, wherever truth is to be seen in that world, it shines with a radiance in proportion to its purity. Spiritual heat, which is also radiated by that sun, is in essence good. These statements have been made because charity and faith stand in the same relationship to each other as good and truth; and charity is all the good taken together a person does to his neighbour, and faith is all the truth taken together a person thinks about God and the things that are His.

[2] Since then the truth of faith is spiritual light, and the good of charity is spiritual heat, it follows that these two stand in the same relationship as the two things in the natural world which share these names. That is to say, when they are combined everything on earth flourishes, and in the same way when charity and faith are combined everything in the human mind flourishes, the only difference being that on earth the flowering is the result of natural heat and light, while in the human mind it is the result of spiritual heat and light. This flowering, being spiritual, is wisdom and intelligence. There is too a correspondence between the two, and for this reason the human mind, in which charity is linked with faith and faith with charity, is likened in the Word to a garden; and this is the meaning of the Garden of Eden, as was fully shown in ARCANA CAELESTIA (published in London).

[3] Furthermore it should be known that unless a discussion of charity follows that of faith, it is impossible to grasp what faith is, since, as the preceding chapter stated and showed, faith without charity is no faith, and charity without faith is no charity, and it is only the Lord who gives life to them both (355-361). It was also shown that the Lord, charity and faith make one, just as do life, the will and the understanding; and if they are separated, each of them is destroyed like a pearl collapsing into dust (362-367). Moreover charity and faith are together present in good deeds (373ff).

(References: True Christian Religion 373-378)

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Charity 1

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