I realize the title of this post sounds strange. I thought so too after recently reading an article about William Blake titled The Christian Who Was a Church of One. It was written by Richard A. Rosengarten, in a Sightings publication from the UChicago Divinity School’s Martin Marty Center. Prof Rosengarten is an effective writer. I think he intended to emphasize his subject’s uniqueness. Remember, though, we’re all unique. No one is more unique than another (Latin unus = one). We all differ, absolutely, but some are farther from the norm than others, in good and bad ways, and so get more attention (in good and bad ways as well).
I believe we all come from the same origin which is the Infinite One. That means there will be no limit forever to how many souls can be created, each of whom is intended for the happiness of heaven. That’s the purpose of the Creator. So regardless of the conditions of our birth, genetics, heritage, surroundings, upbringing, and life experiences, there’s no limit to our development except our free choices. We can try to go with God, or go against him.
It’s natural to pay attention to worldly life. But it seems to me that people’s worldly concerns and interests have increased enormously in modern times, to the point where many deny any other world exists about which they might be interested and concerned – a spiritual world. But for people who still believe, it’s well to remember that this world is a mere blip on eternity. So there’s plenty of time to reach a state of mind that’s heavenly, if not in this world, then in the world to come.
I’ve been fascinated by Blake for many years. This painting – Good and Evil Angels Struggling for Posession of a Child – is the cover image of my 2016 book, Modern Or Moral. I also find Blake interesting because he was influenced by Emanuel Swedenborg (1688 to 1772), whose teachings I follow. Blake read the latter in English in the 1780s. He and his wife became founding members of a Swedenborg group in London. Sadly, he seems to have misunderstood and so to misrepresent Swedenborg’s teachings in his poetry and art work and eventually to reject them totally, heaping scorn on their author. This short article from the British Library gives an unbiased summary of the issue, with interesting illustrations. It takes a bit of scrolling.
Blake wrote two illustrated ‘Prophecies’ – America a Prophecy (1793) and Europe a Prophecy (1794). These weren’t intended to be prophetic in the sense of a prediction, but rather to give a ‘world-wise’, perceptive account of what was actually happening in those societies, which he correctly saw as bad. In terms of religion, he felt there wasn’t enough room given for what is earthly. (Obviously I disagree). The famous figure seen here is taken from the ‘Prophecy’ article above. The subject measuring earth with a compass is named ‘The Ancient of Days’ in his publication. He represents the mythical Urizen who separates light from darkness, and perceives and intuits wisely. (In other contexts, he may represent Law, which can be corrupt and takes away freedom.) Here he ‘takes the measure’ of earth, so he understands what is truly happening. By the way, Blake used the same figure to represent Newton, whom he admired.
By contrast, Blake’s religion makes Jesus represent the constant effort to improve the human lot – to bring Love and Freedom to the world. I don’t think Blake considered Jesus to be the High God’s incarnation. He rejected the common concept of the Creator as an all powerful Monarch, whom he likened to the Emperor Napoleon and his heirs. Beyond what’s in the Wikipedia article above, I can’t add anything useful about Blake’s ‘religion’ or ‘church’. The Web is full of opposing opinions about what his many publications tell us. Apparently his views changed in ambiguous ways – most importantly with regard to the character of men (Adam), the nature of women (Eve), the meaning and purpose of the serpent (Satan) and the ousting of them all from the garden.
I grew up in the atmosphere of Swedenborg’s teaching, in a small Pennsylvania community near Philadelphia. Its wealthy founders wanted a place for people to learn, live and promote Swedenborg’s teachings. So I was motivated to expand on Rosengarten’s theme – a Christian as a Church of One. My first thought was Jesus’ saying, ‘Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them’ (Matthew 18:20). Two or three are not one. I want to emphasize that ‘gathered together’ suggests a community, not isolation. And ‘In my name’ suggests doing what the Lord wills (in any community). Before being glorified and unified with God, Jesus himself said ‘Not my will, but thine be done’. Hopefully we can know the Lord’s will, but it’s more important that we live our faith by trying to help others – i.e., ‘Love Our Neighbor’. This is in Old and New Testament texts. Leviticus reports: “but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the LORD” (Lev 19:18). And Jesus teaches Love, in sayings, parables and always by example. Here is the Good Samaritan parable from BibleGateway.
In today’s electronic and Covid-ridden world, loving deeds might be done online, or by phone contact, or writing a letter or a book. In other words, trying to be charitable involves ‘reaching out’; it’s not a solo effort. Although it’s hard to believe anyone would be totally isolated (How could they live?), if she or he simply cannot do something loving, wanting to do so is enough – As Solomon says the Lord knows our motives: “then hear in heaven Your dwelling place, and forgive, and act, and give to everyone according to all his ways, whose heart You know (for You alone know the hearts of all the sons of men)” (1 Kings 8:39). Jesus says the same, in Revelation: “and all the churches will know that I am the One searching affections and hearts; and I will give to each of you according to your works” (Rev 2:23).
Having emphasized so much about community, I find there actually is an idea about a ‘Church of One’ to be found in Swedenborg’s writings too. Or perhaps it’s better to call it a ‘Heaven of One’, or a ‘Heaven in Miniature’. A church isn’t a building, or group of people, or even the organization they accept as authoritative. A church means the connection with God, which is heaven in the highest and best sense. I’ll take this up below, but first I should say something about Swedenborg’s teachings – a primer of sorts. I’m not qualified to teach his theology, nor do I want this to be a sales pitch, which might offend readers. For those interested, there are multiple ways to learn, such as this online list of resources
I feel confident to say a few things relevant to this post. There is only one God, the Creator and sustainer of everything. His nature is Love itself, and Wisdom itself. Every human lives to eternity, either close to, or distant from Him. No one can literally become ‘united’ or ‘one’ with God, or that person would be instantly obliterated (just as no one can get close to the sun without being fried). Swedenborg emphasized that the one God is the Lord God Jesus Christ. He points out two major errors of Christian thinking. (1) The Trinity is misunderstood because of the Nicene Council’s effort (at the behest of Emperor Constantine) to fight the heresy of Arius, who denied Christ’s divinity. The council chose to make Christ divine from eternity. In practice, that led ordinary believers to think and act as though there are 3 eternal divine beings – i.e. 3 gods – although the council was quick to say that that mustn’t be claimed. The Athanasian Creed (late 5th C) was an update of the Nicene Creed and more detailed. I picked 6 items I think are key to clarify Swedenborg’s issue about the Trinity:
“15. So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God;
16. And yet they are not three Gods, but one God.
17. So likewise the Father is Lord, the Son Lord, and the Holy Spirit Lord;
18. And yet they are not three Lords but one Lord.
19. For like as we are compelled by the Christian verity to acknowledge every Person by himself to be God and Lord;
20. So are we forbidden by the catholic religion to say; There are three Gods or three Lords.”
(2) The second error Swedenborg underscores is claiming that faith saves; some sects even claim any effort to understand will separate the believer from God. The most vile of these doctrines is predestination, developed by Calvin in France and Switzerland. He claimed God arbitrarily has chosen the few He will save (the elect), and the rest are condemned to eternal hell! It’s not surprising Calvin had to flee France. But I’m surprised that Geneva let him stay and even gain a following that continues.
The being or reality of God is Love. His manifestation is his relation to creation – both earthly and spiritual. There is a Divine Trinity IN God – not a trinity OF Gods. The Father is the ultimate Divine (called Jehovah in Jewish scripture); the Son is the approachable Human aspect of the Divine (i.e., the Glorified Lord); and the Holy Spirit is the way the Divine affects and connects with creation. These ‘doctrines’ can be found in Swedenborg’s most philosophical work, Divine Love and Wisdom. His Table of Contents to that work is here, in online searchable form, translated by Swedenborg scholar George Dole.
Swedenborg claimed to be a ‘servant of the Lord’. He was providentially chosen and prepared to reveal the true spiritual message – the deepest inner meaning – of The Word (or Scriptures), which include the ‘Old’ and ‘New’ Testaments. When I was 8, my parents gave me a leather copy of The Word. All the children in our school also received hand-embroidered book-marks at Christmas time, two of which are also in the picture. The Hebrew is D’var Yahweh (The Word of God). It was the center of our community. But these scriptures have been misunderstood, perverted or denied almost from the time of Christ’s first coming. In fact, the Scriptures themselves also include a prediction of his Second Coming, which has been totally misunderstood too. Here’s an 8 min. summary video by Dr. Jonathan Rose: Who Was Swedenborg?
There is a heaven and a hell, but the two can’t coexist in reality; they can only be joined in concept or imagination, which Blake had in abundance. Spiritually, in the end one or the other must be chosen. Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is totally against divine order, or even common belief, though it makes wonderful romantic art. There are places where Swedenborg describes experiencing ‘angelic’ people so completely committed to the Lord that each individual could be called a ‘church in miniature’, or a ‘microcosm’. This idea (though poorly understood) has existed from ancient times. Here is one place where Swedenborg discusses heaven in miniature, in his most popular work Heaven and Hell, translated by Dole.