Recently one of our lay-ministers, Pete Toot, asked the question why do we, or do we not need theology. Here is his sermon:
Good morning. Welcome to the New Church of Montgomery Sunday morning worship. As we will see as the service progresses, I have taken the liberty of selecting a somewhat contentious topic for today. The question for the day is, of what use is theology? I have asked that question to myself, and even out loud on several occasions, often enough that it became quite clear to me I didn’t know the answer.
So, what can I say to introduce this potentially heretical theme? For what if theology is useless? I do like theology. But…What IS the big deal about it? Why can’t I just be a good person, live a friendly, helpful, and generous life? You know, get along well with my neighbors and friends; help people out when the opportunity arises? Isn’t that all that is necessary? Why on earth do I have to know about the structure of heaven – apparently it has different regions and is peopled by communities of all sorts of different souls. But certainly, I will find that out soon enough – what good does it do me now?
Swedenborg speaks about correspondences. According to the writings everything in the natural world, what I see around me, exists because there is a corresponding spiritual something that connects it to, and sustains it from the spiritual realm that I don’t see around me. Is there some way that can help me lead a good life and make me a better person? Let’s assume there is a heaven, though it hasn’t been proven to me. Will knowledge about heaven help me get there, in the end? And, if there are good and rational answer to these questions, where do I go to find them? Who do I trust to give a straight answer?
To some extent I am quite sure theology is a head trip. We use that phrase “head-trip” derogatorily. But is a head trip a bad thing? Is it useful or just an engaging waste of time and energy?
It may have been a mistake to just dive in and ask the theologians. I started with Christian theologians and experts. The first thing I found out was that theology didn’t mean to some of them what it meant to me. Well, everyone does seem to start in the same place – with the source of the word from the Greek: theo means God and logy means knowledge, and theology is generally accepted to mean, literally “the study of the knowledge about God.” But then things get messy because people have preconceived ideas of God and where trustworthy knowledge can be gotten. According to some sources, perhaps the more narrowly-focused sources, ONLY Christianity can have a theology because only Christianity provides an objective revelation. And this can only be seen, dimly, by a God-given faith. Let me paraphrase that: their point is God revealed Himself to mankind through the life of Jesus Christ and the Bible, period. To know God best you must go to this one and only true source, which is mysterious, but which God gave us for just this reason. And since God is otherwise unknowable to human beings, it is only through faith we can arrive at any but the smallest understanding about God. Theology, they say, really means “faith seeking understanding”. What I got from the discourse, after some reflection, was that if one believes the Bible is the infallible Word of God with no contradictions, and is the only presentation of the Word of God, then other texts can offer only opinions, not valid knowledge of God, and therefore no theology can exist outside Christianity. Those who know me can appreciate that I rebelled at this, but we’ll see how it turns out.
I know that other religions claim to have revelations and their scholars are very clear that God is still way beyond what we can understand directly, so they rely on faith being involved in their understanding of the God these religions teach about. To be fair, there are also plenty of Christian sources which are not so rigid as to declare those of other religions incapable of seeking to understand God in their own way. Alas, after some mental wrestling with these ideas, I realized nothing in that discussion helped answer my question about usefulness.
Since I am starting from the premise that at the least, living a good life is important for spiritual health, I am looking for the ideas that religions’ authorities present about the differences between living a life of charity, and living a life as a student of religion.
I went to Judaism first. Swedenborg had some things to say about the nature of the Jewish church that would make one think theology is a really big deal there. I checked out some things Maimonides wrote in the Mishnah Torah back in 1180, one thing I found went like this…
“For it is said, ‘You shall strengthen the stranger and the dweller in your midst and live with him,’ that is to say, strengthen him until he needs no longer fall upon the mercy of the community or be in need.”
This sounds like an instruction to be charitable and lead a good life. Since in this quote I find the message saying to be good and generous, let’s now look to find the Misnah Torah saying anything specific or helpful about the use or need for any theological knowledge. I didn’t find that in my abbreviated search, but the Misnah Torah is mostly trying to describe how to understand and obey the Law. So let’s go back to the Old Testament itself. Again, we are looking for both instruction on leading a good life and on what usefulness comes from theology. Searching, I found many translations in English that never use the word “charity”, but I found in a Jewish Bible where the idea of charity is very clear, first in Isaiah:
“… learn to do good! Seek justice, relieve the oppressed, defend orphans, plead for the widow.”
and this in Daniel:
“… please take my advice: break with your sins by replacing them with acts of charity, and break with your crimes by showing mercy to the poor; this may extend the time of your prosperity.”
And I also got a lesson in Hebrew from which I learned that the Hebrew word for “charity” is often translated as “justice”, and that relative to charity, justice is done when those-who-have-enough give what they can to the poor, and the poor receive what they need so they also have enough. There are plenty of places in the Old Testament where justice is demanded. Nevertheless, in the Old Testament the encouragement to live a good and generous and just life are overshadowed by the requirements of being lawful and obedient. And obedience to the Law is not the same as understanding about God. Though it requires study to know the Law, that study seems not to be the same as the study of the nature of God. So is there such a demand there? In our reading this morning from Job we heard is a long passage about the fate of the wicked and what it is like where they live. I won’t repeat the reading here, most of which describes the terrible conditions of the wicked, except to say it ends with the line:
“Surely such is the dwelling of an evil man; such is the place of one who does not know God.”
It says that where the wicked are, one does not find those who know God. The implication is one better know God. But even here knowing God seems to mean knowing what the God of Abraham wants people to do. But not why God wants what He wants. In my search I did not find any place in the Old Testament where it says one should know about God. So I looked into the Kabbalah.
The Kabbalah is quite different. In a parable from one of the Kabbalah’s primary texts, the Bahir, Kabbalah is described as the path for those who seek to see the face of the King. It is generally understood there is an inner sense to the Bahir, so what does seek to see the face of the King mean? Briefly, the King means the Divine, the face is not a biological face, but means what is encountered when one approaches God. Kabbalah leads its student to see, that is understand, the nature of the Divine from studying the encounter of God, who is the Torah. This should sound familiar to anyone who has read the opening lines of John where he says:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
Understand God for what purpose? One purpose claimed is that it leads the individual to see that he is nothing without God, and that his ego is to be overcome so he can be a conduit for the will of God. Further, to see that the natural world is illusion relative to a deeper reality. So at last here we get some rational use for theology – it instructs us on how to put aside selfishness and is a tool for knowing ourselves in a new way. The word Kabbalah stems from the word for “receiving”, and relates to the receiving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai – but this is an active receiving, meaning a welcoming of God into a relationship through which one is invited to leave the self-centered-life for the people- or God-centered-life. OK, so that is a good start. The study of the Torah is a study of God in the world with us, which gives us a context for seeing ourselves acting in the world. So let’s count that as a yes vote for “theology is useful”. To me at least, to seek to see the face of the King sounds a lot like studying the knowledge about God.
So now let’s look at what Emanuel Swedenborg says. First we’ll see what he says about getting into heaven. Keep in mind, in his writings, he is trying to convince reformation theologians and clergy about the problems of seeking salvation based on faith alone, among other things. He describes at length the process by which we improve and develop spiritually and so become heaven-bound. He teaches that we do this by “shunning evils as sins”. If we follow this recipe, do we need to know about God? Do we need to know why it works? Is it that simple? Swedenborg also has something to say about what kind of people can get into heaven, and I’ll just share two readings here from Heaven and Hell. One relates to the heathen and the Christian; the other to the rich and the poor.
HH324. … This makes clear that at the present day the heathen come into heaven with less difficulty than Christians, according to the Lord’s words in Luke:
“Then shall they come from the east and the west, and from the north and the south, and shall recline in the kingdom of God. And behold, there are last who shall be first, and there are first who shall be last.” (Luke 13:29, 30).
HH 365. … The rich and the poor alike come into heaven, the one as easily as the other. The belief that the poor enter heaven easily and the rich with difficulty comes from not understanding the Word where the rich and the poor are mentioned. In the Word those that have an abundance of knowledges of good and truth, thus who are within the church where the Word is, are meant in the spiritual sense by the “rich;” while those who lack these knowledges, and yet desire them, thus who are outside of the church and where there is no Word, are meant by the “poor.”
Both of these are talking about the same thing! The difficulty some have getting into heaven stems from them being rich (in knowledge) or having been exposed to the Christian teachings prevalent in Swedenborg’s time. In other words, those with more access to theology have more problems. So does this say theology is better off avoided? Maybe for some. There are some key phrases in these readings I would point out. In the HH324 reading, note the phrase “at the present day”, whereby Swedenborg is describing the messed up theology of the Christian world he lived in. In the HH365 reading find the phrase “and yet desire them” – means those poor can be described as those who “seek the face of the King” – that is, those who live in accordance with some internal sense, conscious or not, about what motivates their behavior, about right and wrong in some objective sense. The heathen, like the poor, are less encumbered by having their attitudes towards proper living constantly undermined by unhealthy teachings nor are they regularly bombarded by a plethora of competing philosophies and belief systems such as you get in a modern culture. So now let’s look at the last Swedenborg reading, from New Jerusalem 51, where Swedenborg is speaking about the inner and outer self, and about knowledge.
FROM NEW JERUSALEM 51
“There are bodies of knowledge of an earthly nature that have to do with our civic condition and our civic life; … with our moral condition and our moral life; and … with our spiritual condition and our spiritual life. For clarity’s sake … I refer to knowledge [of an earthly nature] about our spiritual condition and our spiritual life as “spiritual knowledge,” which mainly consists of theological teachings. (Emphasis mine)
“It is important for us to become steeped in worldly and spiritual knowledge, because it is through this that we learn to think, then to understand what truth and goodness are, and eventually to be wise— that is, to live by what we have learned. Worldly and spiritual knowledge are basic things on which our life is built and founded—both our civic and our moral life as well as our spiritual life; but they need to be learned with the goal of living a useful life. Spiritual knowledge opens a pathway to the inner self and then joins the inner and the outer self together according to our usefulness. Our rationality is born by means of worldly and spiritual knowledge, yet it is not born through that knowledge itself, but through and according to our desire to put it to use. The inner self is opened and gradually perfected through worldly and spiritual knowledge if we seek good and useful goals, especially goals related to eternal life. Then spiritual insights from the [inner person] encounter the knowledge of worldly and spiritual things that is in the earthly [person] and adopt what is suitable. Then … the Lord, by means of our inner self, draws out, refines, and raises up what is useful for heavenly life, but information that is incompatible or conflicting is pushed aside and excluded. … Worldly and spiritual knowledge is gradually sown in our loves and takes up residence there. If we were born loving the Lord and loving our neighbor we would be born into all knowledge and understanding, but since we are born loving ourselves and the world we are born into total ignorance. Knowledge, intelligence, and wisdom are the offspring that are born of love for the Lord and love for our neighbor.”
“It is important for us to become steeped in worldly and spiritual knowledge, because it is through this that we learn to think, then to understand what truth and goodness are, and eventually to be wise— that is, to live by what we have learned.” So, here is a theological teaching that speaks about why theological teaching or for that matter any teaching about values is useful. If we are open to Swedenborg’s writings, we can hear the message that the acquiring of knowledge and testing it out — putting it to use that is — is necessary to engage our conscience. In other words, we can sense the rightness or wrongness of a new behavior in relation to past experiences. Putting it into use can let us see where our motivations are messed up (called repentance), and from there lead us to modify our behavior and attitudes (called reformation) such that the Lord can bring about the hoped-for changes in our will (called regeneration). I can accept that. I see myself as easily giving in to the temptation to remain unchanged (unrepentant I guess). Unless I force myself to step away from that easy path and search for hope that I can keep it up, I don’t make much progress. But I know I have made some progress, so the idea seems to work. At least for me.
The formula of shunning evils as sins that I mentioned earlier is not the same as being good and generous. It is more than that. We can be good and generous and still be motivated by selfish goals. Growing spiritually is different from behaving well. Shunning evils because they are painful or unpleasant, unfashionable, inconvenient, reflect poorly on our reputation, or adversely affect our net worth, does not mean shunning evils because they are sins. To see bad behavior as sinful we need an internal compass. Managing our behavior is a thinking process, a decision-making process, a choosing between options process. It takes engagement of the brain, application of our discernment. It takes awareness of the interaction and tension between motivation and behavior. And to the extent that we rely on a relationship with God to pull us along, that is, to give us strength to be changed in spite of our egotistic tendencies, we can build this relationship by learning about God. That is the usefulness of theology. It is also the usefulness of encountering God in other places besides scripture, whether that be in our dealings with other people, in observation of nature, or in messages we get through poetry or prose that speaks to us. We don’t typically count those encounters as theology – theology as a piece of coursework can be pretty dry. In the end, theology is still a tool – it does not save us. It is a tool for a behavior that not only embraces a good and generous life, but behavior that includes examination of our motivations. It is a tool that shows us where to find strength to step out into areas of vulnerability and discomfort for the sake of growing closer to God.
So my conclusion is that theology has a use. It is to make us think, lead us to understanding, help us become wise. It is the wisdom that combined with our selfless loves makes us more useful, that is more suited for heaven. Amen.