The Big Ideas

Av New Christian Bible Study Staff

A girl gazes into a lighted globe, showing the solar system.

Here we are in the 21st century. We know that the universe is an enormous place. We're just bursting with scientific knowledge. But how are we doing with the even-bigger ideas? Our human societies seem to be erasing them, or ignoring them - maybe we think we're too busy for them.

Here on the New Christian Bible Study site, we'll buck the trend. We want to explore the big ideas that give us a framework for living better lives. Here's a start on a list of big ideas from a New Christian perspective. For each idea, there is a footnote that lists some references in Swedenborg's theological works:

1. God exists. Just one God, who created and sustains the entire universe in all its dimensions, spiritual and physical. 1

2. God's essence is love itself. It's the force that drives everything. 2

3. God's essence comes into being, that is, it exists, in and through creation. 3

4. There are levels, or degrees, of creation - ranging from spiritual ones that we can't detect with our physical senses or sensors, to the level of the physical universe where most of our awareness is when we're alive here. 4

5. The created universe emanates from God, and it's sustained by God, but in an important way it is separate from God. He wants it to be separate, so that freedom can exist. 5

6. God operates from love through wisdom - willing good things, and understanding how to bring them about. 6

7. The physical level of creation exists to provide human beings with an opportunity to choose in freedom, with rationality, whether or not to acknowledge and cooperate with God. 7

8. God provides all people everywhere, regardless of their religion, the freedom to choose to live a life of love to God and to the neighbor. 8

9. God loves everyone. He knows that true happiness only comes when we're unselfish; when we're truly motivated by a love of the Lord which is grounded out in a love of the neighbor. He seeks to lead everyone, but will not force us to follow against our will. 9

10. God doesn't judge us. He tells us what's good, and what's evil, and flows into our minds to lead us towards good. However, we're free to reject his leading, and instead opt to love ourselves most. Day by day, we create habits of generosity or of selfishness, and live out a life in accordance with those habits. Those habits become the real "us", our ruling love. 10

11. Our physical bodies die eventually, but the spiritual part of our minds keeps going. It's been operating on a spiritual plane already, but our awareness shifts - so that we become fully aware of spiritual reality. 11


Från Swedenborgs verk


True Christian Religion #459

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459. I will add here the following accounts of experiences, of which this is the first,

I saw at a distance five schools, which were bathed in light of different colours, the first in flame-coloured light, the second in yellow, the third in brilliant white, the fourth in light mid-way between that of midday and that of evening, the fifth hardly visible at all, since it was as if placed in the shades of evening. On the roads I saw some people riding horses, some in carriages, and some on foot. Some of them were running or hurrying, and these were bound for the first school, the one surrounded by flame-coloured light. On seeing them I was seized and driven by a desire to go there and listen to the discussion, So I quickly prepared myself and joined the group which was hurrying to the first school, and I went in together with them. There was a large gathering to be seen there, some moving to the right and some to the left, to sit down on the benches round the walls. In front I saw a low platform, on which stood the person who had the duty of presiding; he had a staff in his hand, a hat on his head, and clothing tinged with the flame-coloured light of the school.

[2] When they were assembled, he raised his voice and said, 'Brethren, to-day's subject for discussion is: "What is charity?" Anyone of you may know that charity in its essence is spiritual, and in its exercise natural.'

At once someone on the first bench to the left, where those who had a reputation for wisdom were seated, got up and began to speak as follows. 'My opinion is that charity is morality with faith breathed into it.' He supported his opinion like this. 'Is there anyone who does not know that charity follows faith, as an attendant does her mistress? And that a person, if he has faith, carries out the law, and so charity, so spontaneously that he is unaware that it is the law and charity which he lives by. For if he did know and so acted, thinking at the same time of obtaining salvation on this account, he would sully his holy faith with his self (proprium) and thus maim its efficacy. Surely this is in accordance with the dogma of people in our country?' Here he looked at those sitting beside him, who included some clergy, and they nodded assent.

[3] 'Yet what is spontaneous charity but morality, something we are all taught from childhood? This is therefore essentially natural, but it becomes spiritual when faith is breathed into it. Can anyone tell by looking at the morality of their lives whether people have faith or not? Everyone lives a moral life, but only God, who puts in and seals faith, knows and can tell the difference. I hold therefore that charity is morality with faith breathed in, and this morality coming from faith is in its inmost productive of salvation; all other is not productive of salvation, because it aims at merit. So it is a waste of effort to mix charity and faith together, at least if they are linked from within and not attached from without. Mixing and linking them would be like putting the footman who stands at the back into the carriage with the bishop, or like bringing the door-keeper into the dining-room to sit at table with the lord.'

[4] Next someone on the first bench to the right got up and said: 'My opinion is that charity is piety with pity breathed into it, and I support this view by the consideration that nothing else but piety coming from humility of heart could propitiate God. Piety prays continually that God may grant faith and charity; and the Lord says:

Ask and it shall be granted you, Matthew 7:7.

And since it is granted, both faith and charity are contained in it. I say that charity is piety with pity breathed into it, because all devout piety is pitying. Piety moves a person's heart to groan, and what is this but pitying? Admittedly this goes once the prayer is said, but it returns when the prayer is repeated, and when it returns piety is in it and so piety is in charity. Our priests ascribe everything conducive to salvation to faith, and nothing to charity; what then remains except piety pityingly praying for both? When I read the Word, I could not help seeing that faith and charity were the two means to salvation; but when I consulted the ministers of the church, I was told that faith was the sole means, and charity was no use. Then it seemed to me as if I was at sea in a ship being tossed about between two reefs; so fearing shipwreck, I climbed into the lifeboat and sailed away. My lifeboat is piety; and what is more, piety is useful for all purposes.'

[5] He was followed by someone from the second bench on the right, who said: 'My opinion is that charity is doing good both to the upright and to the criminal. I support this view like this. What is charity but goodness of heart? A good heart wishes well to all, upright as well as criminal. The Lord said too that we should do kindnesses to our enemies. If therefore you take your charity away from anyone, does not charity then become to that extent non-existent, and thus you become like a man who has lost one leg and walks by hopping on the other? The criminal is just as much a human being as the upright man; charity looks on everyone as human, so if he is a criminal, what has that to do with me? Charity behaves like the heat of the sun, which gives life to both harmful as well as harmless animals, to wolves as much as to sheep. And it makes bad trees grow just as much as good ones, and thorns as much as vines.' On saying this he took in his hand a fresh grape, and said: 'Charity behaves like this grape; cut it open and all that is in it is lost.' Then he cut it open, and its contents were lost.

[6] After this speech someone else got up from the second bench on the left and said: 'My opinion is that charity means looking after one's relatives and friends in every way, and this is how I support it. Is there anyone who does not know that charity begins with oneself? Everyone is one's own neighbour. Charity therefore advances from itself through degrees of nearness, first to brothers and sisters, from them to nearer and more distant relatives, and so the advance of charity is limited by itself. Those outside the group are strangers, and strangers are not inwardly acknowledged, so they are estranged from the internal man. But blood-relations and other relatives are naturally linked to one; and habit, which is second nature, does the same for friends, so that they become the neighbour. Charity joins another person to oneself from within, and so from without. Those who are not joined from within should merely be termed companions.

'Surely all birds recognise their kindred, not by their plumage, but by their call; and when they are close, by the vital sphere spreading from their bodies. This affection for their kin which brings them together is called instinct in the case of birds, but the same affection in the case of human beings, when directed towards one's family and people, is the instinct of truly human nature. What is it that makes us kin but blood? This is what a person's mind, which is also his spirit, feels and, so to speak, scents. The essence of charity consists in this kindred feeling and the sympathy it induces. On the other hand, however, absence of kinship, which also gives rise to antipathy, is as it were the absence of blood and so of charity. Because habit is second nature, and this too makes a sort of kinship, it follows that charity includes doing good to friends. Does not anyone who has been at sea and puts in to a port and is told that it is a foreign country, where he does not recognise the languages and customs of its inhabitants, find himself as it were out of place and feel no pleasure in love towards them? But if he is told that it is his native land, and recognises the languages and customs of the inhabitants, he feels as it were at home, and then he feels pleasure from love, a pleasure which is also that of charity.'

[7] Next someone on the third bench to the right got up, and speaking in a loud voice said: 'My opinion is that charity is giving alms to the poor and helping the needy. There is no doubt that this is charity, because this is what the Divine Word teaches, and its dictates admit no rebuttal. Giving to the rich and those with ample resources is nothing but boastful vanity, devoid of charity but motivated by imagining a reward. In this there can be no real affection of love towards the neighbour, but only a spurious affection which is acceptable on earth, but not in the heavens. It is need and want therefore which call for assistance, since here the idea of reward is excluded. In the city where I live, where I know who are upright and who are wicked, I have observed that on seeing a poor man in the street all the upright stop and give him alms; but the wicked, catching sight of the poor man to one side, go past as if blind to the sight of him, and as if deaf to his voice. Does not everyone know that the upright have charity and the wicked do not? A person who gives to the poor and helps the needy is like a shepherd who leads his hungry and thirsty sheep to pasture and to water; but a person who only gives to the rich and affluent is like a person who worships tin gods, and presses food and drink on those who are suffering from overindulgence.'

[8] Next someone got up from the third bench on the left and said: 'My opinion is that charity is building hospices, hospitals, orphanages and hostels, and supporting them with donations. I support this view by the fact that such acts of kindness and assistance are public, and surpass by miles private acts. Charity as a result becomes richer and more full of goodness, because the good deeds are numerous, and the reward to be hoped for according to the promises contained in the Word becomes larger. For as anyone prepares the ground and sows, so shall he reap. Is not this giving to the poor and helping the needy on a larger scale? Is there anyone who does not by this aim at approval by the world, and at the same time hope for praise and humble, grateful thanks expressed by those who are so supported? Does not this lift up the heart, together with the affection which is called charity, right to its peak? Rich people who do not walk in the streets, but ride, cannot notice the beggars sitting by the walls on either side, and hand out small coins to them; but they make contributions to enterprises which are of advantage to many people at once. Lesser folk, however, who walk in the streets and do not possess such resources, do the other thing.'

[9] On hearing this another on the same bench suddenly shouted him down and said: 'Still the rich ought not to rate the munificence and excellence of their charity higher than the pittance one poor man gives another. For we know that everyone acts in a manner appropriate to his station, the king to his, the judge to his, the officer to his, the courtier to his. Charity regarded in essence does not depend upon the rank of the person and thus on the gift he can confer, but on the depth of affection which motivates the charitable act. Thus the footman who gives a small coin may bestow his gift in fuller charity than the lord who gives or bequeaths a fortune. This too is in accordance with this passage:

Jesus watched the rich throwing their offerings into the treasury, and saw too a poor widow throwing in two pennies. He said, Truly I tell you that this poor widow has contributed more than all the others, Luke 21:1-3.'

[10] After these someone got up from the fourth bench to the left, and spoke. 'My opinion,' he said, 'is that charity is endowing places of worship, and doing kindnesses to their ministers. I support this view by the fact that a person who does so has a holy purpose in mind and that is what motivates his acts; in addition he sanctifies his gifts. Charity demands this, because it is essentially holy. Is not all worship in churches holy? For the Lord says:

Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in their midst. [Matthew 18:20.]

Priests who are His servants conduct that worship. I deduce from this, that gifts which are given to priests and to churches are superior to those which are handed out to other people and for other purposes. Moreover, a minister has been given the authority to bless, by which he sanctifies the gifts. And afterwards nothing so much broadens and cheers the mind as seeing one's offerings as so many sanctuaries.'

[11] Then someone got up from the fourth bench to the right and said: 'My opinion is that charity is the Christian brotherhood of old; and I support that view by the fact that every church which worships the true God begins with charity, as did the Christian church of old. So since charity joins minds, and makes one out of many, they called themselves brethren, in Jesus Christ their God. Since they were then surrounded by barbarous nations who made them afraid, they held their property in common. In this they rejoiced together and with one mind, and at their meetings every day talked about the Lord God their Saviour, Jesus Christ; and at their lunches and dinners they discussed charity, and this was the source of their brotherhood. But after their time, when schisms began to arise, culminating in the heinous Arian heresy, which for many people did away with the idea of the divinity of the Lord's Human, charity went out of fashion and the brotherhood fell apart. It is true that all who in truth worship the Lord and keep His commandments are brothers (Matthew 23:8), but brothers in spirit. Since at the present time no one is recognisable for what he is in the spirit, there is no need for them to call one another brothers. A brotherhood based on faith alone, much less on faith in any other God than the Lord God the Saviour, is no brotherhood, because charity, which makes it a brotherhood, is lacking in that faith. So I deduce that charity was the Christian brotherhood of old, but this in time past, not now. Yet I prophesy that it will come again.' When he said this a flame-coloured light showed through an east window, and tinged his cheeks. The gathering was astonished to see this.

[12] Lastly someone got up from the fifth bench on the left and asked permission to add a contribution to what the last speaker had said. When this was granted, he said: 'My opinion is that charity is forgiving everyone his faults. I got this opinion from the way people are accustomed to speak on going to the Holy Supper; for some then say to their friends, "Forgive me any wrong I have done," thinking that by this they have fulfilled all the requirements of charity. But I thought to myself that this is merely a painted picture of charity, and not the real form of its essence. For this saying is uttered as much by those who do not forgive as by those who make no effort to acquire charity; and such people are not included among those mentioned in the prayer which the Lord Himself taught: "Father, forgive us our faults, just as we forgive those who wrong us." For faults are like ulcers, which, if they are not lanced and healed, form a collection of pus; and this infects the adjacent areas, and creeps around like a snake, turning blood everywhere into pus. It is much the same with faults against the neighbour; unless they are removed by repentance and by living in accordance with the Lord's commandments, they linger and become embedded. Those who without repenting only pray to God to forgive them their sins, are like the citizens of a city smitten with plague, who go to the governor and say, "Sir, heal us." The governor will tell them, "What do you mean, heal you? Go to the physician and find out the remedies, buy them from the chemist, use them, and you will be cured." So the Lord will say [to those] who beg for their sins to be forgiven without really repenting, "Open the Word, and read what I said in Isaiah:

Woe to the nation that sins, weighed down with iniquity. When you spread out your hands, I hide my eyes from you; even though you pray time and again, I do not hear. Wash yourselves, put away the wickedness of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good. And then your sins will be taken away and forgiven, Isaiah 1:4, 15-18."'

[13] When the speeches were over, I held up my hand and asked permission, although I was a stranger, to give my opinion. The presiding officer put this to the meeting, and when it was agreed, I spoke as follows: 'My opinion is that charity is acting in every deed and employment from a love of justice combined with judgment; but from love that has no other source than the Lord God the Saviour. All that I have heard from those sitting on the benches on the right and the left are well-known examples of charity. But as the presiding officer of this gathering said in his introductory remarks, charity is in its origin spiritual, but in what is derived from this it is natural. Natural charity, if inwardly it is spiritual, appears to the sight of angels transparent, like a diamond. But if inwardly it is not spiritual, but purely natural, it appears to the sight of angels pearly, like the eye of a boiled fish.

[14] 'It is not for me to say whether the well-known examples of charity, which you have brought forward one after another, are inspired by spiritual charity or not. But I can say what the spirituality in it must be, for them to be natural expressions of spiritual charity. Their spirituality consists in their being done from a love of justice combined with judgment, that is, in a person looking to see, when he does something charitable, whether he acts from justice; and it is judgment which allows him to see this. For a person can do harm by kindnesses, and do good by things that look like doing harm. For example, harm is done by kindnesses if anyone supplies a hard-up highwayman with the money to buy himself a sword, although in asking he will not say this is his intention. Or if anyone helps him break out of prison and shows him the way to the woods, saying to himself, "It is not my fault that he robs travellers; I helped a fellow human being." To take another example: if someone feeds an idler, and takes care he is not compelled to work, saying, "Come into a room in my house and lie in bed; why tire yourself out?" anyone doing this is fostering idleness, Or again, if anyone promotes relations and friends of bad character to high office, in which they can set on foot many kinds of mischief. Can anyone fail to see that charitable deeds of this sort are not motivated by any love of justice combined with judgment?

[15] 'On the other hand, a person may do a kindness by acts which look like wrong-doing; for instance, a judge who acquits a wrong-doer because he weeps, utters pious expressions and begs to have his offence overlooked, on the grounds that he is his neighbour. Yet the judge in fact acts charitably, when he imposes the sentence prescribed by law, for by so doing he prevents him from doing further wrong and harming the community, which is the neighbour in a superior degree; and he sees to it that such a judgment is not a cause of scandal. Is anyone unaware that it is for their own good that servants are chastised by their masters, and children by their parents, for doing wrong? It is much the same with those in hell, all of whom love to do wrong, being kept shut up in prison and punished when they act wickedly, a punishment permitted by the Lord to reform them. This happens because the Lord is justice itself, and does whatever He does as the result of judgment itself.

[16] 'These facts allow us to see clearly why it is that, as I said before, spiritual charity arises from a love of justice combined with judgment, but from love from no other source than the Lord God the Saviour. The reason is that all the good of charity is from the Lord; for He says:

He who remains in me and I in him brings forth much fruit, because without me you can do nothing, John 15:5.


He has all power in heaven and on earth, Matthew 28:18.

All love of justice combined with judgment has no other origin than the God of heaven, who is justice itself, and the source of all human powers of judgment (Jeremiah 23:5; 33:15).

[17] 'This leads to the conclusion that everything said about charity from the seats to right or left - that it is morality with faith breathed into it, piety with pity breathed into it, doing good to the upright and to the wicked, looking after one's relatives and friends in every way, giving to the poor and helping the needy, building hospitals and supporting them with gifts, endowing places of worship and doing kindnesses to their ministers, that it is the Christian brotherhood of old, or forgiving everyone his faults - all of these are splendid examples of charity, when they are done out of a love of justice combined with judgment. Otherwise they are not charity, but only like watercourses cut off from the spring that feeds them, and like branches torn from a tree. True charity consists in believing in the Lord, and acting fairly and righteously in every deed and employment. Anyone therefore who at the Lord's bidding loves justice and executes it with judgment is an image and likeness of charity.'

[18] This speech was greeted with the sort of silence typically kept by those who are led by the internal man to see and acknowledge that something is so, but do not yet do so in their external man; I could observe this from their faces. But I was then suddenly carried up out of their sight, for from being in the spirit I re-entered my material body. A natural person, being clothed in a material body, is invisible to any spiritual person, that is, any spirit or angel, and so are they to him.

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