How Helen Keller (And I) Would Help the World

How I Would Help the WorldThere’s a scene in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe that I imagine most Swedenborgians can relate to.  It’s where Lucy is trying to convince her siblings that she really did visit Narnia, and they respond with various degrees of derision and condescending disbelief.  And of course they go into the wardrobe to try it out, and of course it’s just a wardrobe.

Of course this describes a universal human experience, and especially one believers in any religion go through when they try to express what they’ve seen and felt and known to be true.  But I do think Swedenborgians in particular – members of a group smaller than 100,000 worldwide, less than .002% of the world’s population – experience this acutely.  We’ve seen something in the Writings of Swedenborg, we’ve felt it, we know it’s true – but as far as almost everyone else is concerned (if they even know of his existence), Swedenborg was misguided at best, and Satanic or insane at worst.

What does that have to do with how Helen Keller (or I) would help the world?  I recently read Helen Keller’s book How I Would Help the World (featured this month at the Patheos Book Club).  The book itself consists of an introductory bio of Helen Keller, with particular focus on her relationship with Swedenborg’s Writings; an Appendix comparing Keller’s theology to passages from Swedenborg’s Writings; and in between, the main text, Keller’s essay, “How I Would Help the World,” originally published as an introduction to Swedenborg’s True Christian Religion.  And that essay, I think, expresses something like that feeling of Lucy’s: a pressing desire to share a world that few seem to believe exists.

What Keller would do to help the world would be to share the Writings of Swedenborg.  In her essay, she provides an excellent, brief overview of the essentials of New Church theology – that God is one, Divine Human; that He is the union of Divine Love and Divine Wisdom, resulting in Divine Use; and that all love, wisdom, and use with people are from Him.  She also stresses the vital point that these teachings are all drawn from the Bible.  But the thing that struck me the most was that passion and hope behind it: that people would be able to see the beautiful things in those books themselves that Keller saw.

A couple of excerpts (with my emphasis added):

The atmosphere Swedenborg creates absorbs me completely. His slightest phrase is significant to me.  There is an exquisitely quietening and soothing power in the thoughts of Swedenborg for people of my temperament.  I wish I might be able to radiate the spiritual illumination that came to me when I read with my own fingers Heaven and Hell. (381/689 in the Kindle version; sorry, I’m not sure about physical page numbers)

Were I but capable of interpreting to others one-half of the stimulating thoughts and noble sentiments that are buried in Swedenborg’s writings, I should help them more than I am ever likely to in any other way.  It would be such a joy to me if I might be the instrument of bringing Swedenborg to a world that is spiritually deaf and blind. (398/689)

No matter how well she could summarize the doctrines, as Keller saw it, there was no substitute for the joy and the light that came from reading the Writings themselves.  Keller expresses a burning desire to share even half of that with the world.  I think most Swedenborgians can relate.  We know there are treasures in these books, because we’ve experienced them; but it’s hard to communicate that to someone else.  We’re Lucy trying to convince our skeptical siblings that there really is a world inside the wardrobe.

The problem is, when we show them the books, when we press the books on our friends, for them it often turns out to be just a wardrobe.  The responses I’ve gotten range from, “There were some interesting ideas in there,” to, “I really didn’t get it,” to, “Yeah, most of that makes sense” – but without the passion I’d expect if someone really got it.  And there are plenty of other responses that people don’t usually tell me directly: Swedenborg was insane, Swedenborg was deceived by Satan.  But it’s rare that someone says, “Yes!  Exactly!  I see!”

Those moments do happen, and it’s one of the most thrilling things to talk to someone who does see it, who gets it.  It’s exciting to read an essay like “How I Would Change the World” because Keller is a kindred spirit – she understands!

It’s clear that Keller herself understands that not everyone who picks up a book of Swedenborg will see what she does in it.  But I like the way she puts it:

If people would only begin to read Swedenborg’s books with at first a little patience, they would soon be reading them for pure joy. (381/689)

And again a little later:

“The conclusion forces itself upon the mind of one who patiently reads his works through, that Swedenborg described a world which was as distinctly objective to him as the world we live in is to us.” (398/689)

The emphasis on patience is key.  I think some people read the Writings until they get to a confusing part, which they get stuck on, and or just give up on, putting the book down in confusion or boredom.  The advice to them: keep reading.  It’s amazing how often the exact questions you ask will be addressed just pages later.  If you’re in a boring part, keep going – maybe there’s something on the next page that will grab you.

I guess it’s clear that I’m feeling pretty Lucy-ish even writing this blog post.  It’s hard not to be when I know that I’ve seen what I’ve seen and felt what I’ve felt, and know that there’s an incredible well of truth there that the world has barely tapped into.  That desire to show people that, to get them to see what I’ve seen, is why I’m a minister.

The thing is, though – I’ve also been on the other side.  I’ve been Lucy’s skeptical siblings – and I know that being on that side’s not easy either.  When friends of mine tell me about 9-11 truth, for example, they very clearly see something, and they’re incredibly frustrated that the rest of the world (including me) can’t see what to them is as plain as day.  And yet, I still don’t see it, and I can’t pretend I do – and they don’t want me to pretend I do anyway.  I can look into it to some extent, but as much as I do I know it will never be enough – there will always be more evidence to digest, more studies to read.  We have to make priorities about what we spend our time on, and I’ve decided, for right or wrong, that I’m satisfied enough with the official explanation for 9-11 that I’m not going to spend a whole lot more time looking into it.  I acknowledge that I could be wrong.  I’ll still listen when my friends present evidence, and maybe I’ll be convinced at some point in the future.  But I’ve decided that my time would be better spent on other things than on digging deeper into the research.  It’s as simple as that – and yet, I completely understand their frustration.

But when it comes to the Writings, I’m Lucy.  I know what I’ve seen, I know it was real – and those few others who do end up seeing it as well make the effort to share these things completely worthwhile, as frustrating as it is sometimes.

All of this brings me a question for you, readers: when have you found yourself in Lucy’s situation?  When have you found yourself in the situation of Lucy’s siblings?  And (most interestingly to me) what do you do in those situations to try to interact with the person who sees something you don’t, or who doesn’t see something you do?

About Coleman Glenn
  • Sylvia

    When I’m trying to explain 4-dimensional geometry to people.

    • Coleman Glenn

      Come on Sylvia, everyone knows that nobody can actually picture 4-dimensional shapes. ;-)

  • Gene

    I think the New Church has a good message I just think that they way you convey it to other Christians and treat your fellow Christians in your delivery is lacking. I see things in my faith that others doing agree with and there was much wisdom and good in what Swedenborg had to say. I just wish you would use your message of love to help others who want to see what you see clearly instead of push them away and shun them. If you cant even agree to have a constructive arguement with someone of another faith who is actually studying Swedenborgs works and see how you turn others away then what good is sharing your faith. We all first and foremost have a personal relationship with our God. I personally have seen a love and vision that led me to the New Church. I was reaching out arms open and was told how wrong what I believed already was and not given time to learn and be accepted. This message of Good could reach so many more people if it was actually discussed with people on the level that we all are Children of God and not what you or I see is better or is the exact truth. We all feel like Lucy in Narnia sometimes I see things that others don’t see but I keep believing in them because that is my faith. That is God’s exacting love, His Kindness, Mercy, and the strength He put in my heart. I don’t let others cloud my faith but I also don’t try to tell others that what they believe is wrong because as a Christian I don’t know what is in their heart and their path may be different than mine. That is the perspective I have gained from dealing with the New Church.

    • Coleman Glenn

      Thanks for your reply, Gene. Sorry that you’ve had bad experiences trying to talk to New Church people about the New Church. Swedenborg’s Writings clearly teach that there’s good in all religions, and that people of different religions ought to treat each other with charity. That said, there’s also a lot in the Writings about false ideas in Protestantism and Catholicism, and I think that when New Church people talk about how their faith is different from other kinds of Christianity, it can come across as a personal attack. That doesn’t serve anyone; I’m right with you when you say that we should discuss these things with the attitude that we’re all children of God.

  • Gene

    The problem I have had with the way the New Church approach to talking to people is an experience that is not loving but one full of arrogance. It is the “Mine is Better Than Yours” or “Im Right and Your Wrong” Not I want to share with you how I love God and want you to partake of that with me. It was always. I will prove to you that I am right and your way is idiotic. No one wants to be part of a religion that comes off like that. That is why so many of our brothers and sisters in the world who are agnostic or atheist fail to find God. I think also in talking about a Human God that is what leads people to thinking that the New Church is hedonistic or will you say Satanic because humans are flawed. God was and is perfect in everyway. We are made in his image and when we reduce Him to that Human form and worship Him that way it seems that we make Him and His beautiful teachings flawed and inept. You could see how that would look to someone of a Protestant or Catholic background. Also because you don’t believe in the Immaculate Conception or the fact that you see Adam and Eve as a concept instead of two actual people I have noticed those in the New Church downplay other Christians in those respect. You write about false teachings but so many in the world believe this and just about 100,000 people you say in the world are in your tiny faith. How many faiths are in the world that believe they are right? How many sects, cults, and other splinter groups of Christianity formed because they didn’t like what the other was doing? It also seems that when others try to conflict what you are saying with scripture and with words from your own text about certain situations you make excuses and avoid the obvious. While agree to disagree is the way of love of most Christians a delivery that comes off like a personal attack is just that. You uses words in a certain way to basically tell others that what you believe is wrong and what I believe is right. You use metaphors and vernacular to hide how that you are not being passionate about your faith but telling others that their faith is not true. I read your blogs and sermons about evil, loving others, and how to leave a place where you have been all your life(metaphorically speaking). I find the best way to have an engaged discussion is study ones faith. Instead of hurling insults and acting like you are the only one in the room who loves God respect and love others who love God. Unite with them in prayer, in friendship, and in heart and soul. Love people for who they are. If someone comes to you open heart and open soul and wants to learn about The New Church then don’t turn them away and say that people don’t want to understand your religion because that is being hypocritical. Each and everyone of us has the power to help others find God. There is a path that suits each of us. When we are ready God leads and guides us to Him. When someone says they are called or is directed to God if you want others to respect your love and your direction to God dont put down their calling whether it be one of direct calling from God or a feeling in one’s heart. You don’t know what is in that person’s heart and to judge and belittle does us no good as a Christian family as a whole. I will just say this. I have a faith one that allows me to love all my fellow brothers and sisters in the world. I have a relationship with God that allows me not to put up boundaries and shun others because of our religious beliefs. I can love a Muslim, a New Church Member, A Mormon, A Catholic, and A Jew all of which I have. I have prayed with them all and showed them kindness and love because the call to love is that we are all human. I wish in the New Church’s endeavor to be different than other Churches they would look back and see that they are falling into the same tired Cliche that turns people away from more prominent religions. I am an outsider who has looked in and that is how I felt and was treated. I wish you all the best and God Bless

  • Pingback: Blog Reviews of How I Would Help the World | Swedenborg Foundation Press()