Progressing from identity to behavior
From the Old Testament to the New Testament there is a progression from an emphasis on identity to an emphasis on what following the Lord is all about. Deuteronomy 7:6 describes the Children of Israel as a chosen people, apart from all others: “[T]he LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for Himself, a special treasure above all the peoples on the face of the earth.” Everyone is a special treasure to the Lord who loves Him, obeys Him, and loves other people, but the Children of Israel took these words literally.
In Luke, by contrast, the Lord expresses love even for people who don’t believe in Him, saying, “The Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them” (Luke 9:56). The teachings for the New Church point out that identity and precise beliefs are not the point. The Lord’s people are all those who love Him and love their neighbor, regardless of their religious identity. (see What is the New Church for more on this topic.) The Children of Israel were no better or worse than other nations; they simply represented everyone who follows the Lord.
Despite this fact, the followers of religion have tended to follow the Children of Israel’s example. The message has often been, “We are the elect. You are not.” Even the relativistic thinking of our postmodern era can fall into this mindset sometimes, scorning as close-minded everyone who fails to embrace its mindset.
Physical and spiritual health
Consider the parallels between the spiritual health of the world’s population and its physical health. The Bible often compares evil to disease. In True Christianity we read, “The sins which are retained in an unrepentant person may be compared with the various illnesses one suffers, and unless cures are applied… one may die of them” (True Christianity 524). Bad habits can be just as bad for our spiritual lives as illness is for our physical bodies.
Sadly, poor health and diseases are common world-wide. Western scientists believe they have knowledge and technology that would improve millions of lives if they could be spread worldwide. However, there are already plenty of healthy people, whether they have been exposed to Western knowledge or not. Nor are scientists necessarily any healthier than anyone else, despite the information they have.
If we think of medical knowledge as a religion, we can see the parallels. First of all, there is truth and falsity involved. It is important to insist on the truth and to get rid of mistaken ideas. People believe that a medical group with which they are affiliated has the right answers, but they would probably not assert, “We’re healthy, and you’re sick.” All people can be healthy, regardless of what they know or what group they are affiliated with, provided that they live a life consistent with the universal laws of healthy living known to everyone on earth: people need to eat, drink, sleep, rest, exercise, and so on.
The comparison here with people’s spiritual lives is not perfect, but the similarities illustrate an important point. No one would claim, “I’m healthy, and you’re sick” on the basis of being a reader of a medical journal. But people do make these kinds of claims with respect to the religion they belong to. Yet the principle is the same. No one is saved or condemned on the basis of being a member of any particular religious organization, but rather on the basis of their harmony with universal spiritual laws, which are about love of the Lord and love of the neighbor.
Salvation is about faith and charity
In True Christianity 391, we read the story of a conversation between an angel and someone who had recently died. The angel asked,
“‘Friend, what are you?’
‘I am a Christian of the Reformed Church,’ he replied.
The angel asked ‘What is your doctrine and so your religion?’
‘Faith and charity,’ he replied.
‘These,’ said the angel, ‘are two.’
‘They cannot be separated,’ the man replied.
‘What is faith?’ he asked.
‘Believing what the Word teaches,’ he replied.
‘What is charity?’
‘Doing what the Word teaches.’
‘Have you only believed these things or have you also done them?’
‘I have also done them,’ he replied.
The angel from heaven looked at him and said, ‘My friend, come with me and live with us.’”
On the basis of that brief conversation, the angel knows that the person belongs in heaven. The angel’s interest is not in the man’s denomination but that he believes and practices what the Lord teaches. The same is true of every person of every religion.
This is not to say that all people who live by what they believe will be saved. If what they believe is truly harmful it will lead them into unhappiness, not heaven. Rather, people who live good lives according to their religion and acknowledge something divine are saved. No one is free of misconceptions and false ideas, but people who are in harmony with heaven are able to see the truth when exposed to it.
Is the New Church a universal religion?
No one would claim good health on the basis of reading a medical journal. Still, a reader of that journal may have confidence that what the journal asserts is true. Its editors, while not claiming to have a corner on the health market, will not accept ideas they see as invalid.
The same could be said of the New Church. The Lord loves all people equally, and people from every denomination are saved. This does not mean that a group has no opinion about what is true and what is not. The teachings of the New Church are in fact highly critical of the direction that some versions of Christian doctrine and the behavior of some people in the Christian world have taken over the past millennium. The New Church teaches that ancient truths contained in the Bible have been lost and that they need to be found anew and spread worldwide. Just as modern health practices can improve millions of lives, the teachings of the New Church hold that these truths will someday bring spiritual peace.
Religion is about loving others
This does not mean that a congregation is an exclusive community. There is no thought that people in this church are saved and others are not. But this is often hard to distinguish from the very real belief, shared by all people who are enthusiastic about any cause: that it is enormously valuable, that it holds answers to the world’s problems, that it holds the key to eternal happiness for anyone who wants it.
Whenever people believe that something is right, there is the potential for the addition, “and you are wrong.” The only way to overcome this unhealthy attitude is to remember what religion is actually about: the love for others, looking down on no one. Life is about how you live, not what you believe. The purpose of belief is to teach you how to live. A life of kindness, usefulness, and integrity unites you to everyone around you and excludes no one.
The Rev. Jeremy Simons is pastor of the Bryn Athyn church. For more information, visit www.brynathynchurch.org or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.