Readings: Psalm 139:1-10, Heaven and Hell #265 (see below)
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Welcome to our fifth and final installment of our Lenten series Grounded: Goodness by Design. Today’s installment is titled TBD: An Exercise in Not Knowing. (TBD is of course, an abbreviation for the phrase To Be Determined).
Now, I’ll be the first to say that this makes me extremely uncomfortable! One of the foundational tenets of the Swedenborgian tradition is that faith is a belief in concepts that we understand. Swedenborg was very critical of what he called blind faith, a belief in mystery that we do not understand. Much of Christian history, especially before the scriptures were widely available, rested on those in authority telling people what they should believe, and that they should believe, regardless of whether any of it made sense to them. Swedenborg instead posited that rather than spiritual things being an inherent mystery, spiritual things are inherently understandable. He wrote:
It is, however, a common saying that no one can comprehend spiritual or theological matters because they transcend human understanding. Yet spiritual truths are as comprehensible as natural ones. And if they are not clearly understood, still, when they are heard, it falls within its scope of the intellect to perceive whether they are true or not. This is especially the case with people who have an affection for truths.(1)
I much prefer this vision of things. I have no interest in a relationship with a God who is all mystery. That kind of God seems unpredictable, capricious and entirely “other.” I don’t believe a loving God would set things up that way. A loving God would provide for a pathway for us to have a sense of place in the universe, as sense of knowing who and what God is, a sense of resonance for the way things are, a sense that there is enough likeness between God and human that there actually can be useful relationship.
However, Swedenborg also was clear that since we are not God, we will never be able to completely understand the infinity of God, the whole of God. There are limits to being human. God is everything and we are not. But, the main point is that we are not supposed to experience God’s transcendence as something that makes God impenetrable or inscrutable. God wants to be close to us, and closeness requires some level of resonance and understanding.
So, we are to love truth, and the understanding of truth, and the sensing of truth, while at the same time recognizing that there is always more to learn, that we are earthly and fallible and limited. We are not to grasp at certainty, as a bulwark for our ego and sense of superiority. Our understanding of truth is a gift to give us a sense of place and home, rather than something we should twist to serve power and ego.
In the practice of Lent, a time of reflection, openness and curiosity are very important. If we think we know what we will find out before we start, there is not much use to the process. So, we will end our Lenten series this year with a time of settling into the space of not knowing, of getting comfortable with recognizing there is much beyond us, and this is a good thing.
Now, this has some relationship to Buddhism (which is the theme of series) because it is a practice of Zen Buddhism to meditate upon statements called koans. (Koh-an) These statements are deliberately perplexing and paradoxical, but they are not designed to trap the mind but rather to free it, to invite the contemplating student to step outside of the dualistic framework that might be holding them back from spiritual progress. Sometimes this is called the Great Doubt or the Great Inquiry.
For us right now, I’m not going to appropriate the practice of koan meditation, because it is actually a highly developed and varied practice, and koans are given to students of Buddhism by trusted teachers at specific points in their spiritual development. This is not for me, in our space and context, to take on. But, I think we can be inspired by the intent of the koan, to introduce a pause, and an openness, in our thinking. We can accept the invitation to let go of the comfort that knowing the answer might provide.
So I invite you into a few moments of contemplation, with some passages from Swedenborg, a prelude perhaps to our time of communion, when we offer ourselves into the arms of God, into our journeys that are still before us. We will the meditation time with a prayer from the Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard du Chardin.
I invite you now to settle in your seat, take a deep breath, and close your eyes.
The Lord as He is in the heavens - that is, His Divine Good and Divine Truth there - is able to be represented, but not that which is Divine and His above the heavens, because this cannot fall within the range of what human minds or even angelic minds can grasp, since it is infinite.(2)
…the mind cannot have any grasp of things that are Divine or infinite except through those that are finite, of which humankind is able to have mental images. Without mental images formed from finite things, and especially images formed from things that exist within space and time, human beings cannot begin to comprehend Divine things, let alone the Infinite.(3)
The Divine fills every space of the universe, but is non-spatial.(4)
The Divine is in all time, and is timeless. (5)
The Divine is the same in the greatest and the smallest things. (6)
Sometimes, we cannot see the whole picture. As we move toward the end of the Lenten season, may we retain openness, curiosity, and a willingness to learn, but above all:
…trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through some stages of instability--
and that it may take a very long time.
And so I think it is with you;
your ideas mature gradually—let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today what time
and grace will make of you tomorrow.
Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete. (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ)
1 You have searched me, LORD, and you know me. 2 You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. 3 You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. 4 Before a word is on my tongue you, LORD, know it completely. 5 You hem me in behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me. 6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain. 7 Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? 8 If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. 9 If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, 10 even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. 11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” 12 even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.
Heaven and Hell 265
The nature of the wisdom of heaven's angels is almost beyond comprehension because it so transcends human wisdom that there are no means of comparison, and anything transcendent seems to be nothing at all. Still, there are a few overlooked means that can be used for description, means which until they are recognized seem like shadows in the mind and actually obscure the nature of the matter as it is in itself. Yet they are the kinds of things that can be known, and can be understood once they are known, if only the mind takes delight in them; for since delight arises from love, it has a light with it; and for people who love matters of divine and heavenly wisdom, that light radiates from heaven and provides them with enlightenment.
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