By the Rev. Robert McCluskey
Excerpted from Our
When issues come up such as heaven and hell, life after
death, and the second coming, the discussion often leads to the ideas of
reincarnation and karma. The finality of death seems, for many, to be
complemented by a profound sense of doubt concerning their final state. And for
many of these people, the Christian view of a heaven or hell awaiting us based
on our character is a "hard teaching." They are sensitive to the
injustice and suffering in the world, to the real difficulties people face as
they seek to live a life worthy of heaven. There is a fear that we may not
"get it" before we die; that we will lose out...and then what?
Reincarnationists express the need for a second chance to get it right - to
reach enlightenment and understanding so that we can get off the wheel of karma
There is a vague hope of compensation for harm done to us,
and an equally vague fear of payback for harm done by us. There is an underlying
sense that perfection is possible, that full enlightenment can remove the doubt
and ambiguity of life. Even more, such concerns suggest the possibility of
perfection in the sense of having it all, of having greater power and control
over external matters, of being invulnerable to the suffering of life.
Such fear and doubt can be expressed in several ways. Those
who advocate withdrawal form the world ultimately believe that life is
intrinsically painful, vain, and evil. Such thinking is a holdover from ancient
ascetic traditions, especially Gnosticism. It continues in our day in the form
of monasteries, cults, and various militia groups, many of which are involved
with rather grim forms of millennialism. The concern that one might some day get
off the wheel of karma implies that nonexistence is better than existence.
Better to not be born; but if you are, you best hope is to cease to exist as an
individual, a sentient being. Finally, the concern that we need enough chances
to "get it right," whatever that means, suggests the possibility that
we might some day exist without pain or the possibility or suffering and risk.
The Bible seems to confirm our fears. We read that unless our
righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, we will never enter
the kingdom of heaven. Instead, we are to be holy like God; perfect, as our
Father in heaven is perfect. This is indeed an awesome and even frightening
challenge. Can it really mean what it says? Swedenborg seems to add to our
anxiety when he writes in Heaven and Hell that after death, it is not
possible to alter the nature of our ruling love - our "chief feature,"
as Gurdijeff calls it. "As a tree falls, so shall it lie"
We can begin to address these concerns, as we often do, by
contrasting the natural, external understanding of perfection with a spiritual,
internal understanding. From a natural perspective, perfection involves
competence, autonomy, independence, power. It involves the approval of others to
validate our perfection. It also involves the tendency to be critical and
disapproving of imperfection in others. Natural perfection involves the idea of
enlightenment, in the sense of a complete understanding of our lives; it
involves intelligence and cleverness. In short, our natural perspective gives
us an image of self-perfection in which our different faculties and abilities
are brought to their highest state.
From a spiritual perspective, though, things are quite
different. Here perfection involves selflessly reflecting God's presence in our
lives. It involves charity and service to others; it requires us to be fair and
impartial, resisting the prejudices and stereotypes of the ego. It involves an
acceptance of imperfection. In short, a spiritual perspective gives us an image
not of self-perfection, but of self-transformation, in which our will and
understanding are freed from the domination of the ego, and brought into unity
and service to God's love and wisdom. As Antoine de Saint Exupéry put it,
"Perfection is finally attained, not when there is no longer anything to
add, but when there is no longer anything to take away - when a body has been
stripped down to its nakedness."
I now want to look briefly at four aspects of spiritual
perfection; process, inwardness, compassion, and unity.
Swedenborg writes that animals are born into the
"science," or knowledge, of their lives, but that human beings are
born an infinite potential - an ability to love and a desire to
learn. Our imperfections in the context of our natural being are the flip side
of our infinite potential for inner, spiritual growth. Further, he writes:
|There is no definite point of time at which anyone's
regeneration is complete, so that a person could say, "I am now
perfect." For there are an unlimited number of states of evil and
falsity in everyone...People who have been regenerated in the life of
the body, and in whose lives faith in the Lord and charity toward the
neighbor have been present, are continually being perfected in the next
life...For the perfecting of a person can never be complete. (Arcana
Coelestia #894, 3200).
Our spiritual perfection is not a state we are to attain,
but a process in which we participate at all times, to eternity. It is called
life. In this way, we see that because growth and struggle are part of life,
they are also a part of our spiritual "perfection."
"The more interior a state is, the more perfect it
is, and the more exterior, the more imperfect" (Arcana Colestia #9648).
"All perfection increases towards the interiors; and all perfection is from
good - that is, through good from the Lord" (Arcana Coelestia
#10258.1). And "interior things are nearer to the Divine" (Heaven and
What effort we spend on trying to realize perfection in the
world - to bring heaven to earth, as we understand heaven! But God alone
is inmost and most perfect. By contrast, people, the world of nature, and the
ego - our self-image - are increasingly outward and imperfect aspects of our
lives. They are imprecise and rough-edged, often contrary to our will and
desires. We experience this imperfection as ambiguous and threatening; we are
never sure; we always doubt. We long and look for certainty and understanding in
the outer dimensions of our lives, but can never find it. We strive for
perfection, but can never achieve it.
God alone is inmost and perfect. By aligning ourselves with
what is inmost in ourselves, we can share in spiritual perfection. It is our
inner selves, the quality of our love and understanding, that can be perfected.
And within that realm, those concerns and ideas that most clearly reflect God's
love and wisdom can be most perfected. To seek perfection in this world requires
that we play fast and loose with our values and beliefs, conforming ourselves to
external standards. But to seek the perfection of our spiritual selves requires
that we become flexible and unattached to this world, conforming our life to
internal standards. To be internally centered, we must be externally flexible.
Also, to be inwardly perfect is to abandon the need to judge
our lives by external standards. It is to share in the life of God, impartial
and unbiased, no longer judging ourselves or others by appearances, but by the
light of God's truth within us - a truth that is at the same time loving,
caring, and compassionate.
The church [Swedenborgian] teaches that "perfection
of life does not consists in thought; but in the perception of truth from the
light of truth" (True Christian Religion #42). Our perfection, our
salvation from what ails us, does not lie in our intelligence, but in our
openness to truth itself. That is, it is not truth but love that
saves us. It is not enlightenment, but compassion that frees us from fear and
uncertainty. There is no final exam awaiting us at the end of our earthly lives;
on the unambiguous experience of what we love and understand, of what we care
about and believe. In fact, if you are looking for enlightenment and
understanding, you must first develop a genuine sense of concern and caring for
others. There can be no truth without a will for good. It is the desire for
compassion that leads us to the light of truth, not the reverse. Or, as
Swedenborg puts it, "It appears as if truth perfects good; yet it is good
that perfects truth" (Arcana Coelestia, #3207.5).
Finally, on the relationship between perfection and our
unity with the Lord, we read this:
|The Lord said, "Unless your righteousness exceeds
that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of
heaven" (Matthew 5:10). The "righteousness that exceeds that
of the scribes and Pharisees" means the interior righteousness in
which a person is when that person is in the Lord. That such a person is
in the Lord is taught by the Lord himself in John: "I have given
them the glory that you have given me, that they may be one even as we
are one, I in them and you in my, that they may be perfected into
one...that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I
in them" (John 17:22, 23,26). From this it is evident that they are
"perfect" when the Lord is in them and they are in the Lord.
These are the ones who are called "the pure in heart who will see
God" and also "perfect as is their heavenly Father"
(Matthew 5:8, 48). (Doctrine of Life, #84)
How good do you have to be? Not very! It is true that as a
tree falls, so shall it lie. But it is also true that all that is required of us
is that we fall in the direction of God. What we are supposed to "get"
is actually quite simple: we can't be perfect by ourselves, or according to our
own standards of perfection. Rather, being perfect is simply choosing to live in
unity with God. It is letting go of the illusion of perfection so that we
may grasp the perfect reality. Spiritual perfection is an inward process of
unity with God, and compassion toward our neighbor.
Aristotle defined virtue or perfection as correct
functioning. If a bird's function is to fly, and it does fly, then it is
virtuous. And since he defined a human being as a rational animal, virtue or
perfection consisted in the ability to think and act according to reason. We can
elaborate on this slightly. If we are defined, not as rational animals, but as
spiritual beings, recipient vessels of God's love and truth, then our virtue or
perfection lies in being and doing just that: receiving God's word and will into
our lives. How can we possibly be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect? By
being the best we can be, just as God is the best God can be.
The possibility of tremendous change, of a life-transforming
experience, of a new sense of freedom and power and understanding, is possible
for us. But not through spaceships, bigger brains, secret knowledge, better
technology, or going around this cruel world for God knows how many times until
we "get it right." New life awaits us, even now. All that is required
of us is that we open ourselves to God's influence, accept the forgiveness of
love, receive the light of truth, and to the best of our ability - no more and
no less - reflect and embody the spirit of God that calls to us from within our
hearts and from his Word.
Robert McCluskey is pastor of the New Church of New York
City, and a representative of the Swedenborgian Church to the National Council