Thursday, July 14, 2011

What is The New Church?

In his Marriage of Heaven and Hell the Poet William Blake asks, “How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way, Is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your senses five?” Like so many others with a mystical bent, Blake sought to experience a world beyond the visible world known to our senses. In June of 1784, a group of intellectuals and spiritual seekers, seeking those same ends, gathered at Bell’s Book Store on South Third Street in Philadelphia to hear a lecture on “The Science of Correspondences.” Among those present were Benjamin Franklin and two other signers of the Declaration of Independence. The lecture explored the teachings of a scientist, mystic, and visionary named Emmanuel Swedenborg

Swedenborg, at the age of fifty-three, believed that he had received a visitation from the Lord Jesus Christ who opened to him the spiritual world. Not only did Swedenborg discover that everything in the visible world corresponds to a spiritual reality, the doctrine of correspondence, but the interior, hidden sense of the scriptures was also revealed to him. According to Swedenborg the last judgement occurred in the spiritual world in 1757, not on May 21 2011 as believed by some today. The last judgement was followed by the long promised second coming of Christ. The second  coming of Christ was not a physical event, but the spiritual revelation of the interior meaning of God’s Word (discussed above.) Swedenborg, in his book True Christian Religionone of many volumes of spiritual writings—spoke of a series of ecclesial dispensations, the Adamic, the Noahtic, the Israelitish, and the Christian Church of the apostles. Swedenborg believed the revelation he received to mark the beginning of a new dispensation, the coming of a true Christian faith that would be the culmination of all of God’s work in the past. Swedenborg believed that Saint John’s vision of the New Jerusalem corresponded to this heavenly church, and so he spoke of it as The Church of the New Jerusalem. The New Jerusalem Church would finally unite the true and good and establish true charity. His belief was that it would bring the sad divisions within the church to an end establishing a unity based on love of God and neighbor. Swedenborg never sought to institute any outward organization of the New Jerusalem Church himself.

An Anglican clergyman named John Clowes began to translate Swedenborg’s writings into English and distribute them in his native England. Clowes formed a society of fellow devotees of Swedenborg’s doctrine, but did not seek to break from the established church. Another believer in Swedenborg’s doctrine, Robert Hindmarsh, was the first to precipitate a break with the established church and form a separate body. It was James Glen, a convert to the New Church, who brought Swedenborg’s ideas to the United States. In fact Glen was the one who delivered the lecture at Bell’s Book Store in Philadelphia. 

Perhaps no one else was more influential in the spread of Swedenborg’s theology in the United States, however, than a missionary named John Chapman. Chapman planted several nurseries of apple trees all across the nation. He also sowed the seeds of Emmanuel Swedenborg’s heavenly doctrine through distributing his writing everywhere he went. Chapman is immortalized in American folklore as “Johnny Appleseed.” Helen Keller was another outspoken advocate for Swedenborg’s doctrine. Keller was influential in spreading Swedenborgian ideas in later years. It was the group that first met at Bell’s bookstore in Philadelphia, however, that would become the beginning of the New Church’s presence in America. On Christmas day in 1815 the group was formally organized as “The First New Jerusalem Society in Philadelphia.” A dispute arose over the authority of Swedenborg’s writings in 1889 which resulted in a schism. One group remained in Philadelphia while the other moved to their new headquarters in Bryn Athyn, founding the Academy of the New Church, and building the beautiful Bryn Athyn Cathedral. The Bryn Athyn group goes by the name, The General Church of the New Jerusalem or simply the New Church.

The New Church’s faith is based on the Bible as illuminated by the revelations of Emmanuel Swedenborg. The New Church, although sharing much in common, also differs from orthodox Christianity in several key areas. New Church theology rejects the orthodox idea of the trinity as three persons and instead speaks of God as one person, Jesus Christ. What are thought of as distinct persons within orthodox Christianity, are believed by the New Church to be three attributes of the same God, a kind of modalism. The Father is the invisible, divine soul, the Son the visible embodiment of that soul, and the Holy Spirit the truth that flows to all people from the divine soul. God is deeply personal and intricately involved in every area of our lives. The Bible, along with being a book of history, prophecies, etc also corresponds to Divine Truth, hidden in its symbolism. This Truth is consistent with reason and the external sense of the scriptures and can be used to help us live a life of usefulness to others. The Second Coming is the arrival of that spiritual vision within us. Angels are people who once lived lives like our own and chose a life of usefulness to others or charity, loving God and their neighbor. Every human being was created to be on a spiritual process preparing them for life in heaven. This process involves repentance from sin, prayer, avoiding evil, and living a new life. All people who strive to live a life of goodness, according to the truth within their own faith, will eventually reach Heaven.
 The New Church does not believe in a physical resurrection. They believe, that upon death, we will pass into the spiritual world where we will live a recognizably human life with the same gender, personality, and memories we had in this life. Swedenborg even taught that marriage will exist in heaven. Our conjugal relationships have the potential to last into eternity. Although Swedenborg rejected a the notion of a punitive God who damned souls, he did believe that we could resist God's love.  Hell is a place for those who have denied God and pursued lives of selfishness while heaven is a place where people joyfully serve one another in love.

I first visited Bryn Athyn on a glorious spring morning. I had Van Morrison’s Astrial Weeks on the radio. Morrison’s soulful, mystical music seemed the perfect soundtrack for a place with such a spiritual mystique about it. At the heart of Bryn Athyn is the astonishing Bryn Athyn Cathedral. I’ve never seen the great churches of Europe, but the Cathedral is among the most impressive houses of worship I’ve ever seen. The New Church presence in Bryn Athyn is ubiquitous, a kind of Salt Lake City for Swedenborgians (much smaller of coarse.) The concentration of New Church presence combined within a small town setting, gives one the impression of a very tight nit community. The people of the New Church are a very warm and friendly group. They are also very devout, committed to Jesus Christ, and dedicated to walking out their faith in a practical and loving way. I was there to meet Chuck Blair, the very earnest senior pastor of New Church Live, for lunch. Everywhere we went friendly members of Chuck’s Church greeted us. Chuck and I had been exchanging emails for quite awhile and he invited me out to talk face to face. He explained to me that his own take on New Church theology was that it was all about “eye level Christianity.” How are we living our faith here and now? Swedenborg taught about a God whose central attribute was love, a love so great that he came to live among us. He warned about the danger of separating faith from life. Swedenborg sought to reconnect the True (doctrine) and the Good (Charity.) In keeping with Swedenborg’s ideas, the vision of New Church Live is to be “a Monday morning church.” The focus is not just what happens on Sunday mornings but also on how the church’s members live out the gospel the rest of the week.

I also had the pleasure of worshiping at New Church Live on a Sunday. Chuck’s congregation is unique within the New Church. More traditional congregations, like the one who worships at the cathedral, have services very much reminiscent of a traditional Anglican service. There is a liturgy, a choir, hymns, and special vestments for the clergy. There are also readings from both the Old and New Testaments, the difference being that there is also a reading from the writings of Emmanuel Swedenborg. The Swedenborg reading is usually chosen to illuminate the other text. Also the New Testament readings do not include Acts or any of the epistles with the exception of Revelation. Although those books are held in esteem, they are not recognized as canonical or inspired in the same way. 
New Church Live is much different. Services are held in a performing arts center on the Campus of Bryn Athyn College. It is a casual and contemporary worship service similar to many evangelical churches. The staff, including greeters, AV techs, coffee servers etc all wear T-Shirts with the New Church Live logo emblazoned on the front. The church band sounds more like a bar band than your typical worship band. They tend to play secular, rock songs, but secular songs that have some kind of spiritual or religious content. On the Sunday that I visited, the band performed two reggae songs, one a Bob Marley tune and the other Jimmy Cliff’s wonderful interpretation of Psalm 137, By the Rivers of Babylon. They also played one of my favorite songs by one of my favorite artist, Bruce Cockburn’s All the Diamonds in This World. The music seems to be an effective way of connecting to people where they are. It is very accessible to a secular audience. Chuck has a very welcoming, accessible, and relational preaching style. The service opened with a sneak preview of the upcoming sermon series titled “Love Wins.” The series will look at some of the ideas discussed in Rob Bell’s new book of the same title. The controversial trailer made by Bell to promote the book was projected on the screen and appeared to have a very favorable reception. Chuck told me that he is a big admirer of Bell and other teachers often associated with the emerging church. Bell’s book has stirred up a lot of interest in the New Church. Chuck sent me a link for a podcast on Oprah Winfrey’s website by popular television personality and physician Dr. Oz, who is a New Church member and frequent attendee at New Church Live. Dr. Oz praised Bell’s book as highly compatible with New Church theology. 
This particular Sunday’s service was not part of the “Love Wins” series, however, but the final sermon in a series called “212.” The series is based on an illustration about the temperature at which water boils. At 211, water begins to bubble, but at 212 it begins to boil. The difference is a matter of one degree. Chuck presented the question of what it would take in our lives to have that extra bit that takes us from 211 to 212. The series worked out of the Biblical story of David, specifically his anointing by Samuel. This Sunday was focused on David’s well-known battle with Goliath. The exegesis of the scripture, in keeping with New Church principles, was allegorical. David could not defeat Goliath (read the obstacles in our own lives) by pretending to be someone he was not. Saul’s armor was ill fitting and heavy for David. Only by discovering his unique gifts, “God’s fingerprints,” symbolized by the five smooth stones, could David have victory. Like David, we should also discover God’s finger- prints within us, those strengths that are uniquely ours, and use them for the love of God and in usefulness to others. New Church theology teaches us to be angels in training, and angels always think in terms of opportunity to love God and others. With an angelic mindset, we must be constantly vigilant to find opportunities for useful service. We must not simply be content to allow God’s love to flow to us, but we must allow it to flow through us to those in need. If we try to keep the blessings of God for ourselves we will loose them. If we allow them to pass through us to others we will find that we are more truly blessed, because real blessing comes through being a blessing to others. The more we allow ourselves to be useful in this way, the more we will find opportunities to be useful opening up to us. It takes more energy to go from 211 to 212 than in does to reach 211. That one degree extra requires the hardest push and we can easily get caught in the middle and never allow our lives to reach their boiling point. Chuck quoted from author Seth Godin, who writes in his book Linchpin about being an indispensably person, someone who really makes a difference. According to Godin, real change “…depends on motivated human beings selflessly contributing unasked for gifts.” Chuck left us with these thoughts, being a person that really makes a difference in the world requires that we make that extra push to be a 212 person. He said, “We are asked to use our own initiative on God’s behalf.” The service ended with prayer and invitation for people to come forward if they wanted prayer from Chuck or the assistant pastor.
After the service I was invited to join Pastor Chuck and some others at Betucci’s for lunch and fellowship. I had the opportunity to talk to other people about their faith and the New Church. One individual who joined us was Dave Fuller a medical doctor who was writing a book about Swedenborg and Osteopathic medicine. Dave believes in integrating spiritual practices and alternative medicine with modern medical practices, and works out of Holy Redeemer Medical Offices. He was a fascinating person and very helpful as he was extremely knowledgeable about New Church history and theology. I also met an older couple that were converts to New Christianity from Catholicism. They spoke about how they never felt the spiritual nourishment they needed in any other church, and what an impact being a part of the New Church community has had on their lives and their relationship with God. What particularly attracted them was the openness and tolerance that the New Church has for other faiths. They first came to the church after their daughter planned to have her wedding in the Cathedral. Since then they have been very involved in the church both on Sunday mornings and also in midweek “Strength Groups.” Although their daughter’s engagement actually fell threw, they believe very strongly that God used those events to lead them to the New Church. Everyone I met was very friendly and extremely hospitable. They all encouraged me to come back another time. 

My experience with the New Church has been extremely positive. Although I take strong exception to much of their doctrine, I continue to be impressed by their sincerity of devotion. It is humbling to see a friendliness, generosity, piety, and zeal for service that is often lacking in the more orthodox among a group that we would label heretical. I feel that I have made real friendships, especially with Pastor Chuck Blair, and I look forward to continuing my dialogue with the New Church.

The Following in an interesting documentary film about Swedenborg: