The Importance of Context

Phew.  It’s been a busy summer.  Now that school has started up again and I’m starting to have a regular schedule, I plan to start blogging more again.

I’ve been researching in the Writings for a sermon on humility.  In my research I was reminded of a passage on humility that used to really bother me but that I’ve gradually come to love.  It’s Arcana Coelestia n. 1594.  It says,

But mutual love, which alone is heavenly, consists in a person’s not only saying of himself, but acknowledging and believing, that he is utterly unworthy, and that he is something vile and filthy, which the Lord from His infinite mercy continually withdraws and holds back from hell, into which the person continually strives, nay longs, to precipitate himself. His acknowledging and believing this, is because it is true; not that the Lord, or any angel, desires him to acknowledge and believe it for the sake of his submission; but that he may not exalt himself, seeing that he is even such; for this would be as if excrement should call itself pure gold, or a fly of the dunghill should say that it is a bird of paradise.

That’s pretty strong wording, and when I first read it it really made me uncomfortable, because it seemed to devalue human life.  I could understand the need for humility, but that passage seems to advocate self-loathing.

There are other places in the Writings that balance this teaching.  For example, one passage says,

The human spirit itself, or soul, is the interior person which lives after death. It is organic, for it is joined to the body so long as the person lives in the world. This interior person – that is, his soul or spirit – is not the internal person, but the internal man is within the interior when the latter has mutual love within it. The things that belong to the internal person are the Lord’s, so that one may say that the internal person is the Lord. Yet because the Lord grants an angel or person, so long as his life has mutual love in it, a heavenly proprium [literally, “own” or “what is one’s own”] so that he has no idea but that he does good from himself, an internal person is therefore attributed to a person as though it were his own.

That passage actually makes me uncomfortable for the opposite reason – it almost makes it sound like everyone is God.

The thing is, those are actually both the same passage – the second quote is from the next paragraph of the same passage in Arcana Coelestia, n. 1594.  Taken separately, either part of the passage can give a person the wrong idea.  Taken together, they provide what to me is one of the most beautiful teachings in the New Church.  A person needs to acknowledge that the good things with him do not belong to him AT ALL, that everything that is “his own” is “vile and filthy.”  But the reason for this is that only then – only when you’ve completely put aside any notion of worthiness on your part, and any idea that you are God – you can acknowledge that there are things within you that do not belong to you at all, and those things are God.  It’s a frightening (in a holy fear kind of way) and humbling thought that God dwells within you.  When I really am able to grasp it, I’m overwhelmed with both gratitude and a sense of unworthiness.  As I understand it, humility and gratitude, or humility and praise, are really two sides of the same thing: it’s acknowledging how small you are and how great God is.

Besides driving home to me what humility is really about, I think this passage is a good example of how important it is to take things in the Writings in context.  I’m going to get up on my soapbox a little and say that everyone should take at least one book of the Writings and read it through cover to cover as they would another book that they picked up from the bookstore.  The first time I did this was my freshman year of college with True Christian Religion, and that experience might have been the single biggest factor in me dedicating myself to the New Church.  Seeing the way all the truth in that book fit together – and made sense of my life – I knew (or at least trusted completely) that these books did not come from the mind of a man.

OK, I’ll get down off my soapbox.  But I really do think it’s helpful to read things from the Writings in context: in their immediate context, in the larger context of the book they’re in, and in the largest context of the Writings (and the Old and New Testaments) as a whole.


About Coleman Glenn

I'm a New Church (Swedenborgian) minister and Patheos blogger (
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7 Responses to The Importance of Context

  1. Alternatively you could get someone else to occasionally remind you of your worthlessness. It can be hard to do that one yourself. I know, I have tried. It bounces right off. I am just too cool.

    So anyway, while many New Church people will hesitate telling you about the “vile and filth” (as Swedenborg puts it) that you are full of, someone new to the church would have no problem with this. Like me. Anytime. Just let me know.

  2. Coleman Glenn says:

    Thanks Stephen. I remember learning in New Church history class about a group of New Church people in the early 19th century who formed a group dedicated to helping each other repent. They assisted one another by pointing out all the sins that they saw in each other. What a brilliant idea! For some reason the group didn’t last very long…

    • Derrick says:

      Not only do I agree with you that this teaching is one of the most beautiful and powerful teachings in the New Church (both parts together), but I also think this is the solution Martin Luther was searching for: how we can obey the Ten Commandments and not be meriting heaven. This number is the crux of a very crucial theological and soteriological problem.

    • Coleman, that’s a bit of history I didn’t know about. I wonder why the group failed. My guess is that it got to be too uncomfortable for the wrong reason. In men’s work we practice: “what I see in you that I see in me…” when giving judgments. So when I tell you about Coleman, I am really talking about myself. Coleman, did you talk with your younger brother Joel about SWET? You know there is a weekend coming up right next week, Sept 24? You should go, if you can…

  3. Mom says:

    um…so where does one get the TIME to read a whole book of the Writings straight through? (I know, I know, priorities….)

    Keep up the great work. I was familiar with the fly-on-the-dunghill passage but not the other part…..

  4. Dr Karen says:

    Yes, I think the importance of context in what we read is reflected in the passage itself and recognizing the context of what we think we are. Nothing is “ours” alone — it’s all dependent on contexts (our families; our communities; our faith; our friends…etc. etc.). This is also a connection for me to the notion of the Grand Man — to imagine that we have something somehow separate from the larger whole is arrogant / ignorant (or “vile and dirty”).

  5. mary says:

    Coleman…what I most appreciated about this piece was the contrast between the parts of the passage…and that context/big picture resolves it…thank for this!

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