9. Jesus Christ - Redeemer or Psychiatrist?
During the history of the Christian Church, the pendulum has swung back and forth between the extremes of theology on the one hand, and ethics on the other. By "theology" I mean a theoretical knowledge of God; an understanding of His nature, of the relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the Trinity, and of the Divine and the Human natures of Jesus; an understanding of the Redemption, and of how our Lord's conquest of the hells saved mankind. In short, theology deals with God's part in the process of salvation. By "ethics" I mean man's part in the work; what man must do to qualify for heaven; what is good and what is evil.
The ethical standpoint is undoubtedly the angle most apparent in the Gospels. Jesus said surprisingly little about theology. Most of what He did say comes in the Gospel of John, which was the last book to be written in the whole Bible and only appeared after the Christian Church had spread throughout the Roman Empire and had begun to crystallize. The most "theological" chapter of all is John 17, which is couched in the form of a dialogue between Jesus' infirm humanity and the Divinity within Him. "These words spake Jesus, and lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, Father, the hour is come; glorify thy son, that thy son may glorify thee." This is not instruction to the disciples; and as I read it I almost feel embarrassed, as if I were intruding, breaking into the privacy of a personal, agonized prayer.
In the earliest of the Gospels, Mark, we get nothing much even to indicate that Jesus was divine. There is no hint of the Virgin Birth, and, in the original form of Mark's Gospel, there is no account of His appearance to anyone after His death. (The earliest manuscripts end at Mark 16:8.) Matthew and Luke fill in these "theological" aspects of our Lord's life, but still far more stress is laid on His teachings. Jesus was telling His disciples how they must order their lives. "A new commandment I give unto you," He said. "The old law said such-and-such; I say this." Most of Matthew and Luke is an extended answer to the question of the rich young ruler: "Good Master, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Someone coming to the Gospels for the first time would be amazed at the richness of the ethical teachings of Jesus; and perhaps even more amazed at how little these teachings seem to have influenced his professed followers!
The apostle Paul had little or no knowledge of these teachings when he wrote his epistles, all of which were completed before the appearance of the Gospels. The epistles would stand more or less as they are, if Jesus had never given any teachings at all! Paul was at loggerheads with the disciples from the beginning. Most of what he eventually learned of the life and teachings of Jesus must have come to him through the researches of his beloved friend Luke, who himself received them at second or third hand. Paul owed his conversion to his traumatic experience on the road to Damascus, where he saw Jesus alive who had been crucified. It was our Lord's resurrection from the dead that) became of absorbing interest to Paul. In it he saw the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah who was to come: the "suffering-one" of Isaiah who should be sacrificed for the people like a lamb at the altar of burnt offerings. Then there was the point that Jesus had allowed Himself to be hung on a cross, which was a kind of tree; and, according to Hebrew law, a dead body must not be hung on a tree overnight (Deuteronomy 21:23). So, by accepting crucifixion, Jesus had, as it were, abrogated the Hebrew law, and had substituted "grace" for obedience to the law. A new religious era had been inaugurated, in which belief in Jesus had become the chief thing. Jesus had taken upon Himself the iniquities of us all, offering us forgiveness, cleansing and salvation. All we have to do now, according to Paul, is to accept the salvation freely offered to us through Jesus Christ.
You will see that this process had nothing whatever to do with ethical considerations; it was purely theological. Such ethical teaching as Paul does give has to do with how a Christian should live in a pagan society: whether he should eat meat which had been sacrificed to idols (the only meat available in the markets of most pagan cities); whether Christians should settle their disputes in the pagan law-courts; a slave's duty to his master, a wife's duty to her husband, a man's duty to the civil authorities. How should the Church deal with a back-slider? - with the fornicator and the fallen woman? There is much practical advice on the administration of the Christian establishment, which Paul himself had founded; but very little pure ethics.
The early Christians had the Epistles and the Gospels, and seem to have struck a fairly good balance between the two, though heathen ideas like the mortification of the flesh soon crept in and marred the beauty of the picture. But when the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, then theology became all-important, and ethics went out of the window! There was a vast ecclesiastical network, and all government officials had to subscribe to the orthodox beliefs, though it did not much matter how they lived. Heresy hunts became the order of the day, and great doctrinal controversies split the empire, first in one way, then in another. The followers of Arius and the followers of Athanasius fought like cats and dogs, the Arians believing that God was One, and therefore Christ was not fully divine; whereas the Athanasians held that Father, Son and Holy Ghost were three Persons of the Godhead who had existed together from eternity. Bloody battles were fought on this issue; there were assassinations and murders, and pious bishops were hounded into the desert to die miserably of exposure and thirst.
Later the church split between east and west, on the issue of whether the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father alone, or from the Father and from the Son. This resulted in the separation of the Greek Orthodox Church from the Roman Catholic Church which has persisted to this day. Then, in the sixth century came the monophysite heresy which split the Orthodox Church in two, north and south. The Monophysites of Egypt believed that Jesus had one nature only, a divine nature, whereas the Orthodox Church of Constantinople believed He had two natures, one human and one divine. This led to the riots which burnt Constantinople to the ground in the reign of Justinian, causing thousands of deaths.
Then, of course, we know about Luther's quarrel with the Pope of Rome who posed as the Vicar of Christ, and how the Protestants broke away from the Catholics; and for a long while the Catholics were torturing and killing the Protestants, and the Protestants were torturing and killing the Catholics, just depending on which side was in power at the time. And all, mind you! in the name of Christian Theology; all with the express purpose of keeping the faith of the Christian Church pure, according to the official interpretation at any given time and place. Since it was assumed that men were saved or damned solely on account of their doctrinal beliefs, torture was justified to force the heretic to say "yes" to a prepared formula; for this, it was supposed, would save him from an eternity of hell, which would be much worse than any torture of the body on earth.
How far the Church had drifted from our Lord's sweet gospel of love! "Judge not," Jesus said, "that ye be not judged; and condemn not, lest ye be condemned." "Blessed are ye, when men shall persecute you for my sake. Rejoice and be exceeding glad, for great is your reward in heaven." Taking the long view, we should pity the persecutors rather than their victims; for it is the unforgiving state of mind, condemnation, hatred, mercilessness and cruelty, that make hell; not the subscription to any particular form of theological belief.
Now in this New Age, it is scarcely surprising that the pendulum is swinging back again, away from theology to ethics. Few people have any interest, nowadays, in the niceties of doctrine. The whole stress today is on the human side of the process of salvation. In theological seminaries, where young men are preparing for the ministry, the main emphasis is no longer on theology, but on psychology, and many ministers become qualified psychiatrists. They turn to Jesus as the Master Psychiatrist and point out that the Sermon on the Mount contains the most wonderful teachings on psychiatry in existence. "Live according to the teachings of Jesus," they claim, "and all your mental sicknesses will disappear." The whole duty of the Church and its ministry, they believe, is to cure mental sicknesses in the ordinary man and woman. Was Jesus divine? They do not think it matters much, one way or the other. He came on earth to set us a perfect example of how God wants us to live. He also gave us a new set of commandments, which we must try to keep if we are to be His disciples. Always we must be asking ourselves: "What did Jesus say?" What did He say about sex? about war? about poverty and wealth? about race? about competition? about obedience to the secular authority? Even if Jesus didn't say anything in particular on some specific question, what can we infer was his attitude from the way in which He behaved?
Now, I think these young ministers have a point; Christianity must try to get back to the teachings of our Lord and Master. Paul himself was a Pharisee; and, although he broke away from Judaism, he inevitably carried something of the Pharisaical attitude into the new religion. And this attitude has persisted until today, so that many people take it for granted that Jesus taught that we must be "good churchmen," respectable, solemn, free of any suspicion of immorality, abiding by the customs and traditions of society, just as the Pharisees did in the time of Christ. Mavericks and non-conformers are disliked by the churches; if not actually thrown out, they are made to feel uncomfortable and unwanted. Yet, of course, Jesus Himself was by any standards a maverick and non-conformer, which was why He was put to death by the Pharisees. So I fear that the whole crust of the Church will have to break before the followers of Christ can get back to the Christian ethic.
How about those of us who subscribe to the doctrines of Swedenborg? Are we much different from the average Christian? Do we accept the theology of Swedenborg but not his ethics? What is the Swedenborgian Ethic? Well, of course, Swedenborg accepts the teachings of Jesus Christ as given in the Gospels. He includes the Gospels in his canon of the Word, but not the Epistles of Paul. Swedenborg was the first great teacher in modern times to say: "All religion has relation to life, and the life of religion is to do good," which is ethical. He was also unique in the fact that he placed so much importance on motive. You can do all the good in the world, serving your fellow man, working for peace and racial justice, and so on; but if your motive is selfish it will benefit you spiritually not at all. What you do must be inspired by Love to the Lord if it is to have spiritual value, and this involves an interest in theology. So with evils: it is no use shunning evils merely because you want to avoid punishment or scandal, or for health's sake. You must shun evils as sins against God if you are to be cleared of them and forgiven, and this also involves theology.
So we come to the main point I want to make on this subject: we need both theology and ethics! Without theology, ethics soon deteriorates into mere opportunism, because, without a motive of Love to the Lord, our actions tend to revolve around ourselves and our own advantage; and a self-centered ethic soon becomes no ethic at all. It is quite a serious question in the churches today: How long will the Christian ethic survive without the Christian theology? How long can we remain Christian after the "death of God" in our lives? Here the Swedenborgian should lead the world back to a simple but vital understanding of the Divine Human: the glorified Jesus Christ who is the One God, in whom are the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, - and who is with us always. Jesus was indeed the Divine Redeemer of our fallen race; He restored free will to the world, without which we should be lost souls. But, if we are to be saved, we must co-operate with Him in the process. This is a matter requiring constant vigilance, self-discipline and sincere inner probing, as well as outward obedience to our Lord's commandments of love. We cannot leave it all to Him, as used to be supposed. We cannot ride to heaven on His back; we must walk there with Him, hand-in-hand. Faith alone will not help us. Nor will Charity alone. That pendulum must stop swinging backwards and forwards, and settle somewhere in the middle. Only then can it be said that the New Age has fully dawned.
We need psychiatry in our churches. We need expert counselors who can meet with people individually, as Jesus did, and help them straighten out their lives. Psychiatry can help us see our evils and penetrate through to our motivation, and burst the bubbles of our illusions. It can help us love the Lord and our neighbor in a more sophisticated way and at greater depth. Psychiatry can be the servant of religion, and a very useful servant; but it must never be accepted as a substitute for religion. If Jesus had been only a teacher and psychiatrist, He would have been forgotten long ago. Nor would Christianity have survived. Christianity is a living religion today, because Jesus is alive today. We can choose the good and reject the evil, only because Jesus is our Redeemer. He is near you at this very moment, with hand outstretched, waiting for you to set forth with Him. It must be a cooperative effort. You must do your part faithfully and well, and He will do His part. And His part, though it is, in a sense, dependent on our part, is very much bigger than our part! Without Him we can do nothing at all.
Jesus said: "These things have I spoken unto you (this ethical teaching =I have given to you) that you might have life, and that you might have it more abundantly." "Abide in me and I in you. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, you will bring forth much fruit." "If you keep my commandments you shall abide in me." "Because I live, you shall live also."