By the Rev. Robert McCluskey
Excerpted from Our Daily Bread

    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 and suffering.

    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" (Ecclesiastes 11:3).

    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 Hell #34).

    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 of Churches.

As The Deer

As the deer panteth for the water,
So my soul longeth after Thee
You alone are my heart's desire,
And I long to worship Thee.

You alone are my strength, my shield;
To You along may my spirit yield.
You alone are my heart's desire,
And I long to worship Thee.

You're my friend and You are my brother
Even though You are a King.
I love You more than any other
So much more than anything.

You alone are my strength, my shield;
To You along may my spirit yield.
You alone are my heart's desire,
And I long to worship Thee.

I want You more than gold or silver,
Only You can satisfy.
You along are the real joy giver
And the apple of my eye.

You alone are my strength, my shield;
To You along may my spirit yield.
You alone are my heart's desire,
And I long to worship Thee.

By Martin Nystrom

© 1986 Maranatha! Music