How I Came to Believe in the New Church

(Note: this was originally written as a note on Facebook in response to a note left by my cousin Erica in response to a comment left by my mom on a different note by Erica)

This is one of the most fascinating questions in the world to me: how do people get to the point where they accept something as Divine Revelation? I think it’s one of those things that has a different answer for everyone.
And so, even though you didn’t ask for it, I’ll share my story of how it happened for me. (This is partly because I was reading my journal from late high school/ early college and I had forgotten just how much questioning I went through). I’m still trying to piece it all together, but this is basically what happened, I think:Towards the end of high school, I started to wonder what I really believed. I don’t know that I ever directly questioned the Writings – but I got to the point that I felt like the only reason I believed was that I had been raised in Bryn Athyn and it would be so devastating to me if I ever let go of the Writings. I wrote this in my journal on 6/26/02:

The real insurmountable fear, though, is in questioning the religion, I mean really questioning it, not questioning it in a cursory way while I completely accept it in my mind. I am more afraid of losing my religion than dying, I think. Bryn Athyn is bad that way; you grow to depend on the community, on your parents, on your friends, so that denying the religion would not be primarily a religious decision, but a social one; I’d be shunned by everything and everyone that I love. So I believe in the writings, but I have doubts, and I’m too scared to really confront those doubts.

After that, I think there were a few things that contributed to my trust in the Writings. They came from various places. First of all, I always had doubts because of Earths in the Universe. How could the things contained in that book possibly be true? I asked several ministers, and they all gave me several possibilities, but it wasn’t until I asked Andy Heilman that I got an answer that really changed how I saw things. He essentially quoted TCR, which says “Thought from the eye closes the understanding; thought from the understanding opens the eye.” The point, he said, was that FIRST you had to trust the Writings; THEN you tried to see how it was true. So what the actual explanation was wasn’t so important; what’s important is that God said it, so it’s true somehow. You can try to understand how it could possibly be true – and the explanation might be something radical – but there was no reason that external evidence should shake your faith.

It’s pretty obvious that this raises on objection: “But that only works if you’ve already accepted the Writings!” That’s true, so I suppose that whenever he said that I had already accepted the Writings in some way or another – although it was probably still mostly historical faith at that point. The point is that it made a big impact on me, because I’d never been told that the Writings advocated believing in Divine Revelation BEFORE reasoning from external evidence. I think to a lot of people that would be a turn-off: it seems like it’s telling you to turn off your brain, and it seems antithetical to the idea that there is no “blind faith” in the New Church. But I loved it. (Blind faith vs. believing in revelation above external evidence is still something I try to figure out. Short answer: “blind faith” means believing in something that doesn’t make sense, or believing something that you don’t understand. The first is shallow, the second is impossible. Believing that Divine Revelation is Divine Revelation simply because it says so and because you just BELIEVE is something different, although it takes a process to get to it. In fact, that process is what this note is about, and the tension between avoiding “blind faith” and believing something to be true apart from external evidence is one of the reasons that stories about how people come to accept something as Divine Revelation are so interesting to me. But I digress.).

I’m not sure when that was – probably some time during my freshman year of college. Another thing that made a big impact on me was philosophy class at college. I wrote this in my journal February of ’02:

I really like philosophy class. It’s really pushed me toward believing in the Writings, because I know what kinds of questions they were trying to answer and what problems they resolve. Before, it was like reading the answers to a test without reading the questions: you get all the information, but you’re not quite sure why it’s there or what it’s supposed to be about. Also, the fact that Swedenborg’s visions and ideas of another world aren’t all that “out there” is reassuring, although that’s probably a bad reason for believing in something.

The summer after my freshman year of college, though, is when I really started to get into the Writings. I think what inspired it in part was an off-hand comment that Scott Frazier made to someone and I overheard. He was basically saying that people shouldn’t use New Search so much or flip to random passages from the Word, but should just sit down and read sequentially. From that, I came up with an idea: I was going to try to treat the Writings like any other books – that is, instead of randomly looking up passages or reading a tiny bit at a time, I would sit down and read it for long periods of time, like I would with a novel, like I probably would if I came across the Writings for the first time in a book store.

I decided to start with True Christian Religion. During the summer after freshman year, I read through the first half of True Christian Religion. I was blown away. It answered so many of the nagging questions I’d had. The most powerful teaching of all was one of its main messages: anything good or true that a person does comes from God, not from the person; and anything evil or false comes from hell. For the first time, I could see how loving God and loving the neigbor were one and the same. And I could finally see how it was possible to do good without being conceited and in love with myself. It answered everything.

It was in the winter of my sophomore year of college that I actually said to myself, “I believe this, and nothing will shake my faith in this.” I was still reading through TCR, and still loving it. One day, a friend of mine dropped hints that he might attempt suicide. I went into his room and confronted him about it. It wasn’t something I would normally do. The whole story of that time is too long to tell, but basically for almost a month I was trying to keep my friend from committing suicide. And during that time, I felt the Lord acting through me. Not to say I became God or channelled God or anything – I made a heck of a lot of mistakes. But that sensation, that feeling, was more real than anything else I’ve ever experienced – and it fit perfectly with what I was reading about in True Christian Religion. I had no doubt; and I told myself that whatever else I took out of the experience, I had to remember how real that was.

So, that’s where I come from. After that I had a pretty dark time for about half a year, actually, where I became bitter and judgmental because I didn’t feel like my friends were good enough or religious enough. They were pretty hellish times, but I eventually came out of them, and my faith remained. During that time I started reading Arcana Coelestia, which reinforced my belief that faith in the Word simply because it’s the Word is stronger than faith in the Word for various reasons from external evidence. I made that the foundation, and now I’d just as soon doubt the existence of the physical world as doubt the truth of the Writings (not that I don’t occasionally experience times of doubt, but to the extent that belief is a choice, I know that I will always choose to believe).

That’s about the whole story. I think it’s the first time I’ve told it in its entirety, and it feels really good to be able to look back and see how I got where I am now. If anyone else is reading this, I’d love to hear their stories of how they got to where they spiritually are today.

[Note: I forgot to mention a couple of points in the first note.  First of all, I did not immediately come to the conclusion that the Writings were Divine revelation as soon as I realized that they were true.  Instead, I thought, “The Writings are true, and so I will believe whatever they claim about themselves.”  After some digging around, I was satisfied that they do indeed claim for themselves the status of Divine revelation.  Second, I did not mention that the primary reason that I continue to believe in the Writings is that I see more and more truth in them.  In other words, it’s not just belief because I’ve decided to believe – it’s belief because I see that it’s true, although the decision to believe is always there in the background.]
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About Coleman Glenn

I'm a New Church (Swedenborgian) minister and Patheos blogger (www.patheos.com/blogs/goodandtruth).
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