“When I even thought about two identical or equal beings, the angels were aghast”*
-Emanuel Swedenborg, Heaven and Hell §405
No two people are exactly the same. That may seem obvious. But when we think about Indigenous Peoples, or African-Canadians, or Lebanese, it may not seem so obvious. And then when we think about Muslims, or Sikhs, or Catholics, or Lutherans, again, it may not seem so obvious. I think that deep down inside, we want people to be like us, think like us, be us. That is a form of selfishness. And it is not only dangerous, it is sinful.
Let’s start at the top. Let’s start with God. We are created in the image and likeness of God. And God is infinite. That is why everybody is different. Each individual expresses a unique aspect of God. There’s the Carol aspect of God; there’s the Linda aspect of God; there’s the Barry aspect of God; there’s the Ardith aspect of God. There’s the African aspect of God, the Lebanese aspect of God, the Chinese aspect of God, the Russian aspect of God. And there is the Muslim aspect of God, the Jewish aspect of God, the Buddhist aspect of God, the Hindu aspect of God. When we see the world this way, we see God in everything, in everyone.
It takes self-confidence to look outside self and see God in others. When I was younger, I was very insecure. I wanted to educate others about Swedenborg because if they affirmed Swedenborg, they would be affirming me. I even handed out Swedenborg books to my graduate school professors. I don’t think any of them read the books I gave them. I wouldn’t if someone handed me a book I wasn’t particularly interested in. I no longer feel the need to educate everybody about Swedenborg. And with that religious self-confidence comes a wonderful benefit. I can appreciate the other, other religions.
I really enjoyed my time at the Edmonton Interfaith Centre. There I met Jews, Muslims, Indigenous, Buddhists, Catholics, United, Reformed, Coptic Christians, Ukrainian Orthodox, Sikhs, Zoroastrians, and more. First and foremost, we were united as friends. Friendship came first. Imagine an organization where Muslims and Jews met at the same table as friends. Imagine an interfaith organization that had a Swedenborgian as its president! And we shared our differing approaches to religion. I grew spiritually through the mutual sharing of religions. Instead of trying to make everybody into a Swedenborgian, I would say to myself, “Now that’s a good way of seeing God I hadn’t thought of.”
One striking experience was when we visited a Coptic church. Their sanctuary had several icons of saints on the walls. Not only that, the stints were martyrs. So the paintings were sort of gruesome as they depicted the way the saints died. Now as a Swedenborgian, I don’t believe in saints. In fact, I recall one member whispering to me that his Protestantism recoiled against all these icons of saints. But I didn’t have a problem with it. I kept an open mind to see the way they saw it. I even noticed a pamphlet that read, “I will merit heaven by my good deeds.” A cardinal Protestant doctrine is that claiming merit for good deeds defiles them with self interest. I never saw it stated as clearly as this before and now I knew what Swedenborg means when he denounces the concept of merit. But none of this offended me. I saw how they saw faith. And I learned another aspect of God, another way God is invoked.
Maybe these days my experiences with my Muslim friends is most significant. In a time when Muslim extremists are getting a lot of media coverage, it was instructive to have friends who are liberal, moderate Muslims. At a gathering of the National Council of the Churches of Christ, I recall talking with an Orthodox friend about Muslims. He was genuinely surprised to hear that there are liberal, moderate Muslims. In a time of war, refugees, and intolerance, the messages of Jesus and Isaiah are of particular import.
Listen to Isaiah! Really listen:
“Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say,
“The Lord will surely separate me from his people;
To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
who choose the things that please me
and hold fast my covenant,
I will give, in my house and within my walls,
a monument and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that shall not be cut off..”**
-Isaiah 56:3, 6-7
The first verse in this passage includes foreigners in God’s kingdom. However, it is not as sweeping as is the next verse. The first verse says that the foreigners need to be bound to worship of Yahweh. But listen to the second verses, “all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant—these I will bring to my holy mountain.” Keeping the Sabbath means revering God and all that God stands for. It means having a sense of reverence and a sense of the sacred. Holding fast to God’s covenant means following God’s ways. It means keeping the 10 Commandments. It means loving the neighbor. It means worshipping God. Everybody who does this will come to God’s holy mountain and will find joy. No matter what God they revere.
This openness to foreigners comes through in the story about Jesus. A woman from ther region of Tyre and Sidon, which is modern Lebanon, begs Jesus to heal her daughter. Jesus was a Jew from Israel. And at first, he objects to the woman because she is a foreigner. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” The woman persists and says that even dogs eat crumbs from the master’s table. Jesus exclaims that this foreign woman has great faith and he heals her daughter.
This is common in the Gospels. The Gospel writers often use foreigners and religiously unorthodox characters to teach Jews about God’s kingdom. We all know the story of the Good Samaritan. But we rarely reflect that the Samaritans were foreigners. Not only that, they had a different Bible than the Jews had. Not only that, the Samaritans worshipped on a different mountain than the Jews. The Jews worshipped on Mount Zion; the Samaritans worshipped on Mount Gerizim. So the Samaritans used a heretical Bible, they were a foreign race, and they worshipped on the wrong mountain. The Jews hated the Samaritans. Yet Jesus uses the Samaritans to show the Jews what love for the neighbor is.
Paul went even further. He said you don’t have to follow Jewish religion and rituals. Then he invited Greeks, Romans, Galatians, Macedonians, and all kinds of non-Jews into this new Jewish offshoot religion. There was great conflict between Paul and Peter about this, Peter being an observant Jew.
Swedenborg’s vision of heaven is a place of immense diversity. “there are infinite varieties in heaven—since no community and in fact no individual is just like any other” (HH §20). Both heaven and hell are comprised of variety, no one’s heaven or heavenly joy is the same as another’s,
“Almost all the people who arrive in the other life think that hell is the same for everyone and that heaven is the same for everyone, when in fact there are infinite variations and differences in each. Hell is never the same for any two people, nor is heaven. In the same way, no one of us, no spirit, and no angel is ever exactly like any other, even facially. When I even thought about two identical or equal beings, the angels were aghast.”
–Heaven and Hell §405
Swedenborg explains why this is the case philosophically. Perfection consists not in sameness. Perfection is variety that unites for the common good:
A form makes a unity more perfectly as its constituents are distinguishably different, and yet united. . . . Still, the truth is that a form is more perfect as its constituents are distinguishably different but still united in some particular way. In support of this, angels have cited the communities in the heavens. Taken all together, these communities make up the form of heaven. They have also cited the angels in each community, saying that the more clearly individual angels are on their own—are therefore free—and love the other members of their community on the basis of their own affection, in apparent freedom, the more perfect is the form of the community. ***
-Divine Providence §4
The true nature of love is not to love self, but to love others outside of self. Self-love is selfishness. Loving others is neighborly love. It’s a fact of life that no two people are the same. No two ideas are exactly alike. No two belief systems are the same. That’s the way things are. Real love is to accept this, in fact, embrace this. That is exactly why we are instructed to love the neighbor. Everybody is the neighbor. Foreign races, foreign nationalities, and foreign religions. God is so big no one person, no one race, no one belief system has it all. We can learn more about God by learning from foreigners. All who keep God’s covenant are invited to His holy mountain. He’s got the whole world in His hands!
*Swedenborg, Emanuel. Heaven and Hell. Translated by George F. Dole. West Chester: Swedenborg Foundation, 2000.
** New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
***Swedenborg, Emanuel. Divine Providence. Translated by George F. Dole. West Chester, PA: Swedenborg Foundation, 2010.
Rev. David Fekete, PhD, is pastor at the Church of the Holy City (Swedenborgian) in Edmonton, Alberta, and contributing editor of “Our Daily Bread” at spiritualquesters.org. His passions include literature, ecumenism, music and the arts, as well as interfaith dialogue.