There’s a big emphasis in the Doctrine of the New Church on spiritual growth and regeneration as something that happens between the individual and God. For example, the chapter on repentance in True Christian Religion emphasizes the fact that it’s unnecessary to make confession before a priest. Similarly, there is an emphasis on internal worship rather than external, corporate worship, as in Arcana Coelestia:
All external worship is a formality of internal worship, for internal worship is the very essential; and to make worship consist of that which is formal, without that which is essential, is to make internal worship external. As for example, to hold that if one should live where there is no church, no preaching, no sacraments, no priesthood, he could not be saved, or could have no worship; when yet he can worship the Lord from what is internal. (§1175)
(Although that passage does immediately go on to say, “But it does not follow from this that there ought not to be external worship.”)
I think the intention behind this emphasis is to push back against a culture that made external aides to worship (the priesthood, etc.) the primary thing necessary for salvation. And I don’t think we should brush these teachings aside – it is vital that faith center around a personal commitment to follow the Lord regardless of what other people around us are doing or saying.
But I think this emphasis makes it easy for Swedenborgians to neglect a reality: sometimes we need help on our spiritual walks, not just from God, but also from other people. There are passages in New Church doctrine that do acknowledge this. In fact, even in the highest heaven, the less wise ask the wiser ones for help:
Government in the Lord’s celestial kingdom is called justice because all in that kingdom are in the good of love to the Lord from the Lord, and whatever is from that good is called justice. Government there belongs to the Lord alone. He leads them and teaches them in the affairs of life. The truths that are called truths of judgment are written on their hearts; everyone knows them, perceives them, and sees them; and in consequence matters of judgment there never come into question, but only matters of justice, which belong to the life. About these matters the less wise consult the more wise, and these consult the Lord and receive answers. (Heaven and Hell §214)
Other passages put it even more starkly – they say certain things are helpful for “the simple.” “Simple” there doesn’t mean mentally challenged, but it does mean less educated or less wise. Other passages talk about merely natural forms of spirituality as being less enlightened than more spiritual ones; for example, True Christian Religion §539 says,
Still it does no harm for one burdened in conscience to enumerate his sins before a minister of the church, in order to lighten his burden and obtain absolution; because he is thereby initiated into a habit of examining himself, and reflecting upon each day’s evils. But this kind of confession is natural, while that described above [i.e. confession before the Lord and prayer for assistance to change] is spiritual.
Here’s the thing I’m starting to learn, though (which should have been apparent ages ago, since it’s clearly taught in Scripture and in New Church doctrine): I can’t suddenly jump to a higher level of spirituality than the one I’m in. If I’m in a “natural” or “simple” or “less wise” state, I can look forward to a higher state, but it doesn’t do me any good to pretend I’ve already arrived. I need the humility to acknowledge that sometimes, I am natural and simple and not very wise at all. And from those places, I need all the help I can get.
I’m still not very good at asking for help. It’s good to be reminded that even the highest angels do so. And it’s good to remember that I’ll never get to the point where I’m so wise and so good that I don’t need anyone else’s help.
“It is genuine wisdom for a man to see from the light of heaven that what he knows, understands, and is wise in, is so little in comparison with what he does not know and understand, and in which he is not wise, as to be like a drop to the ocean, consequently as almost nothing.” (True Christian Religion §387)
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