I have been baptized three times in my life: first into the Presbyterian Church when I was a baby wearing the baptismal gown worn by generations of Montgomerys, then into the Eastern Orthodox Church when I was a small child, and lastly, into the New Church when I was almost old enough to vote. The first baptism ushered me into “the faith of my fathers,” the second into the one that my father chose for himself as an adult, and the third into the church that I chose for myself when I was twenty years old. It’s been forty-one years since then. I’ve raised all four of my children in the church that I cherish, and then, like my father before me, I allowed my children the same right once they reached adulthood: to seek a new faith or to stay and probe deeper.
Many paths to heaven
I ardently believe that there are many paths to heaven. I love Swedenborg’s inclusivity, his assurance that there is a universal church, and that all religions that offer the following principles lead people to heaven. Belief in God allows God to be united to us and we with Him, and denial of God brings about severance. This belief and union depend on our living good lives: abstaining from evils because they are against our religion and therefore against God. These are the general principles of all religions, through which everyone can be saved, according to Divine Providence 325.
I was raised in the Eastern Orthodox Church, and I truly believe it can guide people spiritually. Why the New Church, then? That question was put to me a couple of years ago when I was visiting my parents in Texas. We attended the Sunday liturgy in a tiny Russian Orthodox church. I loved hearing the familiar, oh-so-lovely melodies of the Russian liturgy. After the service, I enjoyed an hour or so of fellowship with the tiny congregation. I was happily enjoying lunch, when the priest, a sincere convert to the church, asked me point blank:
“Why have you left the church?”
I smiled nervously, aware that all conversation had stopped. “I will always feel a deep love for the church of my childhood. I feel the Lord’s presence here as surely as in my own church.”
“But why the New Church? What can it possibly offer you that we don’t?”
I was acutely conscious that I was being asked there, in the presence of people who love their church, to pin down what it lacks–something I would never have dreamed of doing.
“Name one thing the Swedenborgians can give you that we can’t,” the priest persisted.
He was giving me no out. I thought a moment.
“The Bible. It has restored the Old Testament to me.”
“We can do that!”
“Of course you can . . . .” They were all listening. Will I offend them? Should I speak what I believe? Why must you push this? I wanted to ask the priest. I finally said,
“The Orthodox church taught me to revere the Bible, but not how to understand the thornier narratives in the Old Testament. Swedenborg’s works probe deep below the surface. Take for example the Battle of Ai. How could a merciful God command the Israelites to kill every man, woman, and child—even the animals?”
The priest nodded impatiently, as if to say, what does that matter? Jesus Christ is the fulfillment. What do we care about the old church? But he let me continue.
The Old Testament battles are our spiritual combats
“Through Swedenborg I discovered that the battles in the Old Testament are spiritual combats—battles that are fought within each of us. In the context of the story of Ai, if we think of men as evil ideas within us, women as the evil things we love, and children as the things that our ideas and loves produce, then it makes perfect sense for the Lord to command that we kill them all. He was not commanding the destruction of actual men, women and children at all, and that’s a very different reading from the literal one. That is a God that I can understand and love.”
“So you give the Bible your own interpretation.”
“No. I believe that the Lord revealed this hidden depth to Swedenborg.”
We were headed for a battle. Mercifully, his wife interrupted us with a smile and another helping of potato salad.
Back in my parents’ home, though, I continued an inner conversation with the priest, as if he were standing alongside me.
I know you meant well, I conceded. You were just trying to save a lost lamb!
I cannot go back to the lovely church of my childhood—not because it isn’t rich and true, for it is; not because it wouldn’t give me spiritual guidance—for it would. I cannot go back because…
From the window I caught sight of a ribbon of amber and orange: the sky aflame with the colors of an ebbing day. It was thought-stopping. I headed outside. Above me the great Texan sky spread itself into a limitless expanse, and I realized that for me to stay in the church of my childhood would be like watching the sunset through the confines of a window. With the Writings of Swedenborg, I sense my questing soul standing under the sky in all its vastness and wonder. That’s why I cannot go back.
Perhaps it’s a matter of scale. All Christian churches offer Biblical exegesis, but none on the scale of New Church teachings. All profess a belief in heaven, yet none offer the degree of detail found in Heaven and Hell or Secrets of Heaven. Through Swedenborg’s works I continue to see dark passages of the Bible illuminated with startling clarity. How could I go back to casting dark sayings into the abyss of holy mystery, now that I’ve heeded Swedenborg’s call to enter with understanding into those mysteries of faith? Nunc licet: “now it is permitted.” How can I go back to waiting for an apocalyptic Second Coming when I believe it is accomplished—not a physical event, but a spiritual one; a spiritualization of Christianity. In the words of Helen Keller, “I acknowledge my profound indebtedness to Emanuel Swedenborg for a richer interpretation of the Bible, a deeper understanding of the meaning of Christianity, and a precious sense of the divine presence in the world.”
The perspective that colors my worldview, whether we call it New Church or Swedenborgian, has come to color everything for me—the very fiber of my being. It guides my research as a literary scholar and teacher. I can mourn the death of a loved one like anyone else and suffer that loss deeply, yet I am bolstered by the conviction of that person’s continued life, a life of use and beauty that far surpasses this one—not some sequestered life of piety without charity, but a vibrant heaven where love is a life force, work a joy, and marriage its ultimate expression.
How many baptisms does a person need? As many as it takes to find one’s way toward the light.