Commentary

 

A Church is Not a Building      

Ásólfsskálakirkja in Iceland.

The concept of a "church" in the Writings is both complex and beautifully organic, linked with teachings on the nature of the Lord and the resulting nature of mankind.

The Writings say that the Lord, in His essence - His actual substance - is perfect, infinite love, a love that powered creation, that is the ultimate source of reality, and that sustains reality constantly. That love is expressed in form as perfect, infinite wisdom, which gave form to creation and gives form to reality.

Deep stuff! You can read more about that elsewhere, but what matters here is that all of creation, from the smallest elements to the whole of the universe, reflects that same structure. It's present in nature itself, powered by the heat (love) and light (wisdom) of the sun. It's present in the essential forms of life, with plants (which are rooted; which change little; which are unfeeling; which are powered by light) representing elements of wisdom and animals (warm, feeling, mobile, ever-changing, powered by heat) representing forms of love. It's present in the near-universal division into male (wisdom) and female (love) aspects of plants and animals alike.

That structure is also in each of us. In common language we might call these our hearts and our minds - what we want and what we think. The Writings commonly talk of them as good (love; what we want in our hearts) and truth (wisdom; what we know in our minds) or as will (heart) and understanding (mind). Not only do these elements define us, they are also key to our spiritual fates. We can use them to accept the Lord's love, come into the good of life and ultimately go to heaven. We can also use them to reject the Lord's love and trot off to hell.

And there are further layers. The Writings say that all human societies are in human form, with functions analogous to the human body. This is true from small groups like families to large companies to entire nations and ultimately to both the entire human race in this world and the entirety of heaven in the next.

Among the most important human societies are, naturally, churches. Since the concept of a "church" is based on the human form, though, churches as referred to in the Writings can take many forms. At one end of the scale, any one person who has true ideas of right and wrong and lives by them is a church himself or herself. At the other end of the scale, all those in the whole world who believe in love of the neighbor – and act from that belief – collectively make up one church.

Many other varieties lie between those two extremes, but most references to "church" in the Writings mean the community of those who have the Word, know the Lord, and follow His commandments. These people have access to the best possible truth and deepest possible understanding about the nature of the Lord and what He wants from us.

Such a church plays a vital role: The Lord works through it to get ideas about being good into people's minds and the desire to be good into the inner recesses of their hearts, reaching far beyond that church itself to touch everyone in the world. In fact, the Writings say there is in essence a marriage between the Lord and the church, with the church in the role of the bride and wife, producing true ideas and good desires the way a wife produces children.

To protect this function, the Lord has made sure that throughout history (and a good bit of prehistory) there has always been a church filling this role.

The first of these was the Most Ancient Church, represented by Adam; it was inspired by love of the Lord. The second was the Ancient Church, represented by Noah; it was inspired by love of the neighbor and knowledge of the Lord. The third was the Israelitish Church, which had no interior love of good but preserved ideas of the Lord. The fourth was the primitive Christian church, which had a new, more direct understanding based on the Lord's teachings. The fifth, according to the Writings, is to be based on the deeper understanding offered through the Writings and their explanations of the Bible.

There is much more that could be said, but we'll just emphasize one other point:

We as individuals are who we are based on what we love, not what we know. We will go to heaven or to hell based on what we love, not what we know. Knowing, thinking and seeking truth are important things, but their purpose is to shape, guide and serve our loves; love is ultimately what matters. The Writings make it abundantly and repeatedly clear that it is the same with churches: They are ultimately based on love, not knowledge, on their determination to serve the neighbor, not their external forms of worship. And if churches share that common purpose of serving the neighbor then they are in essence one, with doctrinal variations being of little consequence.

(References: Apocalypse Revealed 533; Arcana Coelestia 407, 768, 1799 [3-4], 2048, 2853 [2-3], 2910, 2982, 3310, 3773, 3963 [2], 4292, 4672, 4723, 5826 [2-3], 6637, 6648, 8152, 9256 [4-5], 9276 [2]; Conjugial Love 116; Heaven and Hell 57; Teachings about the Sacred Scripture 99, 104; The Word 8)

From Swedenborg's Works

 

Arcana Coelestia #9276

Arcana Coelestia (Elliott translation)      

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9276. 'And whatever is left by them let the wild animal of the field eat' means being joined through them to those immersed in the delights that go with external truth. This is clear from the meaning of 'whatever is left by them', that is to say, by 'the needy of the people', as that which is left and so remains after them, but at this point that which is received through them since the subject is the Church's being joined to those who possess few truths, and also here being joined to those immersed in the delights that go with external truth (the Church is joined to the latter through the former, as will be seen below); from the meaning of 'eating' as communicating and being joined together, dealt with immediately above in 9275; and from the meaning of 'the wild animal of the field' as those immersed in the delights that go with external truth. For in the Word affections for truth and good are meant by 'beasts', affections for internal truth and good being meant by 'beasts belonging to the flock', and affections for external truth and good being meant by 'beasts belonging to the herd'. But 'wild animals' are the kinds of affections that are drawn towards most external truth; for these affections compared with internal ones are 'wild animals', since they are the affections that belong to the level of the senses, and are called lowly pleasures and delights. They are delights that go with truth and not so much with good, the reason for this being that the senses, which are in direct contact with the world through the body, derive scarcely anything from spiritual good; for bodily and worldly kinds of love reside especially on the sensory level.

Affections for truth and good are meant in the Word by 'beasts', see 45, 46, 142, 143, 246, 714, 715, 719, 776, 1823, 2180, 2781, 3218, 3519, 5198, 9090.

Affections for internal truth and good are meant by 'beasts belonging to the flock', and affections for external truth and good by 'beasts belonging to the herd', 5913, 8937, 9135.

The senses are in contact with the world, being the most external powers of the mind, 4009, 5077, 5089, 5094, 5125, 5128, 5767, 6183, 6201, 6310, 6311, 6313, 6315, 6318, 6564, 6598, 6612, 6614, 6622, 6624, 6844, 6845, 6948, 6949, 7442, 7693, 9212, 9216.

From all that is shown in these places one can see what the sensory level of a person's mind compared with more internal levels is like, namely like a wild animal.

(References: Arcana Coelestia 45-46, 142-143, 714-715, Arcana Coelestia 6310-6311, 6844-6845, 6948-6949)


[2] The present verse deals in the internal sense with those who are governed by the good of charity, then with those who possess few truths and still have a desire to receive instruction, and after that with those who are immersed in the delights that go with external truth. These three groups of people constitute the Church. Those governed by the good of charity constitute the internal part of the Church, whereas those who possess few truths and still wish to receive instruction, thus who derive from good an affection for truth, constitute the external part of the Church. But those immersed in the delights that go with external truth are the most external; they so to speak form the perimeter and enclose the Church.

[3] Heaven is joined to the human race, that is, the Lord coming by way of heaven is joined to it, through those who are governed by the good of charity, thus through the good of charity since the Lord is present within that good. For essentially that good is the Lord, because it emanates from Him. Through that good the Lord joins Himself to those who have an affection for truth; for the affection for truth is derived from good, and good emanates from the Lord, as has been stated. Through these people in turn the Lord is present with those immersed in the delights that go with external truth; for their delights spring for the most part from self-love and love of the world and derive little at all from spiritual good. Such is the manner in which heaven makes contact with people, that is, such is the manner in which the Lord coming by way of heaven makes contact with them; such therefore is the manner in which He is joined to them.

[4] That such is the manner in which the Lord makes contact with and is joined to the human race is clear from the consideration that the manner in which influx takes place with every member of the Church is such. The expression 'member of the Church' is used to mean one who is governed by the good of charity and consequently by the truths of faith received from the Lord; for charity from which faith springs is the Church itself present with a person, since charity and faith come from the Lord. The Lord flows into that good, which is the internal level of a person, then through that good into the affection for truth, which is his external level, and on through that affection into the delights that go with external truth, which are present on the most external levels.

[5] What applies to the individual member of the Church also applies to the Church as a whole, that is, to all collectively who constitute the Lord's Church. The reason why this should be so is that in the Lord's eyes the entire Church is like a human being; for the Lord's heaven, with which the Church acts as one, is in His eyes seen as one total human being, as becomes clear from what has been shown regarding heaven as the Grand Man at the ends of a number of the chapters explaining Genesis. This being so with the Church, the same is so with the individual member of the Church; for the individual member of the Church is a miniature heaven, Church, and Lord's kingdom.

[6] The Church also resembles an actual human being in this respect, that a person has two fountains of life, namely The Heart and The Lungs. It is well known that when human life begins the first part to develop is the heart and that the second is the lungs, and that from these two as fountains of life every other part of the body receives life. The heart of the Grand Man, that is, of heaven and the Church, is composed of those who are governed by love to the Lord and love towards the neighbour, and so, considered without reference to persons, consists in love of the Lord and love of the neighbour. But the lungs in the Grand Man, or heaven and the Church, are composed of those who are governed by charity towards the neighbour, which comes from the Lord, and from this by faith, and so, considered without reference to persons, consists in charity and faith coming from the Lord. The remaining organs and members in the Grand Man however are composed of those who are governed by external forms of good and external truths, and so, considered without reference to persons, consist in external forms of good and external truths, by means of which internal truths and forms of good can be brought in. Just as the heart, then, flows first into the lungs, and subsequently from itself through these into the organs and members of the body, so too the Lord flows through the good of love into internal truths, and through these into external truths and forms of good.

[7] From all this it may be seen that the existence of the Church on earth is absolutely vital, and that without the Church the human race would perish; for it would be like a person at the time of death, when the lungs and heart stop working. For this reason the Lord sees to it that there always exists on earth a Church in which the Lord has made Himself known through Divine Truth received from Him, such Divine Truth on our planet being the Word. Scarcely anyone at the present day believes that this is so, because no one believes that human life comes wholly from the Lord by way of heaven. For it is supposed that life exists innately in a person and can continue to do so without connection with heaven, that is, with the Lord through heaven. But that supposition is utterly false.

[8] All this now shows how to understand the idea of being joined through the good of charity to those who possess few truths and still have a desire to receive instruction, and being joined through them to those immersed in the delights that go with external truth, meant by the law about letting the land rest and letting it lie fallow in the seventh year, when the needy of their people would eat, and whatever was left by these the wild animal of the field would eat. But see what has been shown already regarding matters that are mentioned above:

In the Lord's eyes heaven is seen as one total human being and for this reason heaven is called the Grand Man, 1276, 2996, 2998, 3624-3649, 3741-3751, 4218-4228.

(References: Arcana Coelestia 3741-3750)


[9] The same applies to the Lord's Church, for the Lord's kingdom on earth is the Church, which acts as one with the Lord's kingdom in heaven, 4060, 7396, 9216.

The individual member of the Church has heaven and the Church within him, 1900, 1902, 3624-3631, 3634, 3884, 4292, 4523, 4524, 4625, 6013, 6057.

Those who are governed by love to the Lord and love towards the neighbour constitute the province of the heart in the Grand Man, and those who are governed by charity and from this by faith coming from the Lord constitute the province of the lungs, 3635, 3883-3896.

Human life flows in wholly from the Lord by way of heaven, 2536, 2706, 2886-2889, 2893, 3001, 3318, 3484, 3742, 3743, 4151, 5846, 5850, 5986, 6053-6058, 6189-6215, 6307-6327, 6466-6495, 6598-6626, 6982, 6985, 6996, 7004, 7055, 7056, 7058, 7147, 7270, 7343, 8321, 8685, 8701, 8717, 8728, 9110, 9111, 9216.

Heaven exists in connection with mankind, 9216.

Without the Church on earth the human race would perish, 468, 637, 2853, 4545.

(References: Arcana Coelestia 3742-3743, 4523-4524, Arcana Coelestia 6985-6996, 7055-7056, 9109-9110; Exodus 23:11)

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From Swedenborg's Works

Inbound References:

Arcana Coelestia 9400, 9496, 9613, 9632, 9818, 9835, 9961, 10147, 10157, 10219, 10359, 10545

Heaven and Hell 603

The New Jerusalem and its Heavenly Doctrine 246, 278


References from Swedenborg's unpublished works:

Apocalypse Explained 176, 946

Other New Christian Commentary

  Spiritual Topics:

A Church is Not a Building


Word or Phrase Explanations:

Heart


Glossary of Terms Used by Emanuel Swedenborg

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


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