(Note: This post is an edited version of a paper written for an academic program at the University of Pretoria in South Africa. It was originally written for a professor who adheres to Liberation Theology. It is therefore addressed to people of that perspective. However, others may also find its challenge to Liberation Theologians thought-provoking. References for some quotations have been left in condensed academic format. For full publication information, see the bibliography at the end.)
Christianity as we know it today began in empire.
Yes, Christianity began with the birth of Jesus Christ within the Roman Empire two thousand years ago. But the Christianity that Jesus founded is not the Christianity that exists in the world today. Today’s Christianity began in the year 325 AD, in a city of the Roman Empire named Nicaea, under the tutelage of the Roman emperor Constantine I. This was when the God of the Bible began to be replaced by the imperial god—or rather, by an imperial Roman triumvirate of gods—that is worshiped by the vast bulk of Christians today.
Until that imperial god has been dethroned, all efforts to “decolonize” the minds of oppressed people in the Christian world, not to mention the minds of their oppressors, will be in vain. It is not possible to decolonize the minds of people who worship a god that was fashioned under the auspices of a brutal emperor for the purpose of justifying his campaign of conquest and the pacification of the conquered under his imperial rule.
The Constantinian captivity of Christianity
The above thoughts originated when my Swedenborgian theology encountered this passage in the book Children of the Waters of Meribah, by Allan Boesak (Boesak 2020):
Scholars have now come to identify what is called the “Great Tradition,” the tradition that seeks legitimacy for the way in which the dominant forces in ancient Israelite society, the wealthy, powerful and privileged, have laid claim upon the Torah. In opposition to this stands the “Little Tradition,” the tradition which calls upon the liberation tradition of the exodus, which knows and confesses God as the God of the exodus, that is, the God of liberation, freedom and justice, the God who sides not with the powerful but with the powerless and the wronged, the God who is the God of justice for the poor, the meek and the exploited. . . . This is the tradition of resistance against empire we find in the gospels and in Paul, and in the early Christian church before the Constantinian captivity of the Christian church and faith. (Boesak 2020, p. 15–16 emphasis added)
The result of the Roman emperor Constantine’s appropriation of Christianity for the purpose of building and maintaining his empire was Nicene Christianity. To this day, the vast bulk of Christian churches—Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant—remain under the iron grip of the imperial god of Nicaea.
Christianity becomes an imperial religion
Constantine’s conversion to Christianity began with a dream of victory on the battlefield, under the banner of the Christian God, against a rival to the imperial throne:
It was during the crisis of 312, therefore, at the time of the decisive engagement of the Milvian Bridge, that this idea received its sharpest definition. The emperor at a critical point in his career had a dream that could be interpreted in the light of his needs.
It demonstrated to him . . . what he had to do in order to vanquish his foes, and it identified, he believed, the divine power, capable of ensuring this outcome, as the God of Christianity. Constantine did what that power seemed to have told him to do in his dream, and victory followed. . . .
So he revered the Christian God, as a God of power, as the God of power. He was the God who had given Constantine power, and had enabled him, at the Milvian Bridge, to defeat Maxentius. (Grant 1994, p. 146–147, emphasis in the original)
For the specific content of the dream as reported by Christian historian Eusebius, a contemporary of Constantine, see Constantine the Great: The Man and His Times, by Michael Grant (Grant 1994), p. 139–140.
Subsequent Christian historians have usually recounted this dream, and the battlefield victory that followed it and sealed Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, as a wondrous event that led to the great rise and ascendancy of Christianity. It would be more accurate to recount this event as the beginning of the capture of Christianity by the imperial state. This was Constantine’s clear purpose in calling the First Council of Nicaea in 325 AD:
It is not certain who was selected as chairman of the Council—probably several persons in turn, including Ossius, were appointed to preside over its meetings. Yet it was to Constantine, who held such strong views about the subordination of church to state, that everyone looked. (Grant 1994, p. 172–173)
Henceforth, under the emperor’s tutelage, Christianity was to be a tool of the state in pacifying the people under a united Roman rule.
Subsequent scholars have viewed Constantine as theologically unsophisticated. For example:
If Constantine really hoped that his intervention might prove effective, it can only have been, once again, because he was more concerned about imperial unity, which he regarded as all-important, than about theological principles, which seemed to him so pettifogging and pedantic. (Grant 1994, p. 170)
And yet, the god that was created at Nicaea bears a striking resemblance to Roman imperial patterns of administration, and occasional overall rule, by triumvirate. It also bears a striking resemblance to the prior polytheism of Roman paganism, only now limited to just three gods (see the article “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” on this website).
The imperial trap laid at Nicaea
The First Council of Nicaea is widely documented as having been called to deal with the troubling heresy of Arianism. As suggested by the final quotation from Grant 1994 just above, in Constantine’s view, this and other doctrinal conflicts were threats to the unity he had intended to usher into the Roman Empire under the Christian God.
Yet in historical reality, the First Council of Nicaea represented a power struggle between the proponents of two conflicting heresies that had only recently been introduced into Christanity. One of those heresies, Arianism, would have led to the denial of Jesus’ divinity, putting an end to Christianity altogether. Jesus himself made belief in his divinity the foundation stone of the Christian Church:
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”
And they said, “Some say John the Baptist but others Elijah and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”
Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. (Matthew 16:13–20)
The “rock” on which Jesus would build his church was not Peter himself, as the Catholic Church maintains, but Peter’s declaration of faith: “You are the Messiah [or Christ], the Son of the living God.” If Arianism had prevailed, the cornerstone of the Christian church and faith would have been removed from its place, resulting in the rapid downfall and destruction of Christianity.
Unfortunately, in looking to the power of Rome for support and shelter, the opponents of Arianism fell right into the imperial trap that Constantine laid for them. From among the possible dogmas available to them that sought to resolve the much-debated issue of the nature and relationship of the Father and the Son in Christian theology, they settled upon the one most compatible with the Roman imperial rule under which they were now willingly living.
The Nicene hierarchy of gods
The newly forming dogma of the Trinity of Persons was the heresy on the other side of the power struggle engaged at Nicaea. Its development and adoption by this and subsequent Christian councils, and full codification in the Athanasian Creed, forestalled the death of Christianity by retaining a belief in Jesus’ divinity. But its adoption came at a heavy price. For key discussions in the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772) of these events and their destructive effect upon Christianity, see True Christianity #172–184, 636–639; Divine Providence #257, 262.
If we look at Christian history not only through the lens of theology, as Swedenborg most commonly did, but also through the lens of imperial politics, the picture becomes clear. At the same time Christianity became a state religion, it adopted a Roman imperial hierarchy of gods in the form of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.
Despite herculean attempts over many centuries to make one God out of these three, in conception and practice Nicene Christians picture them in their minds, and relate to them in practice, as three distinct personages, or gods (see True Christianity #172, and the article, “Is the Doctrine of the Trinity Polytheistic?” on this website).
And despite all the protestations of Nicene Christians that the three Persons of God are coequal, as pictured in their minds and as approached in prayer they form a distinct hierarchy of gods.
The mini-pantheon of the Trinity of Persons
God the Father is the supreme god, akin to the Roman god Jupiter or the Greek god Zeus. He is the source of the other two gods. He makes all the final decisions about the salvation and damnation of individual humans. Truly he is a god to be feared!
God the Son is the secondary god, both divine and human, akin to the Roman and Greek heroic figure of Hercules or Heracles. He serves as mediator between God the Father and humans on earth. It is to God the Son, commonly pictured in his incarnation as Jesus, that Christians appeal for mercy in the face of the justice and anger of the Father god, who would otherwise consign them to the eternal flames of hell.
God the Holy Spirit is the tertiary god, a messenger god akin to the Roman god Mercury or the Greek god Hermes. Once God the Father has granted mercy for the sake of his Son, God the Holy Spirit speedily carries the resulting sanctification and salvation to the people who are to receive this divine stay of the penalty of eternal death due to them for their sins.
In short, the miniature pantheon of three gods that began its takeover of Christianity under the watchful and approving eye of the Roman emperor Constantine was perfectly adapted to serve the human hierarchy of imperialism. All the branches and schisms of Nicene Christianity have historically depended upon this hierarchy of gods, their interactions, and the dogmas they make possible to support their campaigns of conquest and empire, and to justify the oppression of the nations and races they have conquered.
Nicene Christian imperialism
This is how we arrived at the situation described in Boesak 2020:
So it would indeed not matter whether in the various colonization conquests the colonized were overrun by Catholics or Lutherans, Calvinists or Anglicans, Baptists or Methodists. They would all be representatives of the nations of the rich North, empires that had as their goal the theft of land and people, oppression, slavery and genocide, all with the express intent of exploitation, deprivation and enrichment. Invasion and colonization went hand in hand with domination and subjugation, and the Christianization of subject peoples was unthinkable without the demonization of their culture and beliefs, that wide open door to the eradication of their history and their physical annihilation. Inasmuch as it had to do with doctrine it was purely incidental. (Boesak 2020, p. 4–5)
Catholics and Lutherans, Calvinists and Anglicans, Baptists and Methodists are all Nicene Christians. They all look to the Nicene hierarchy of gods, the head of which, God the Father, is the oppressive Emperor who would willingly consign all his subjects to death, so great is his so-called “justice” and his wrath at the human race. This is the emperor god who holds the power in his hand to crush and destroy all his subjects—and whose authority to do so cannot be questioned, on pain of death. This is the bloodthirsty god who would watch in approval as his own son was brutally murdered, accepting that murder as a substitute for the slaughter of all his subjects.
It is under the shelter of this imperial Roman hierarchy of gods that all the wars and atrocities and oppressions of the so-called Christian nations have been committed.
The doctrinal devolution of Christianity
It would take an entire book, if not an entire series of books, to trace the devolution of the Christian faith from the beautiful teachings of Jesus Christ to the beginning of the Constantinian captivity of the Christian church, and through the long and sordid history of “Christianity” that followed in its wake. It took many centuries to complete the destruction of the church that Jesus founded upon faith in his divinity and on the commandment to love one another as he has loved us. A brief synopsis will suffice for our current purposes.
After the enthronement of a Roman hierarchy of gods that began at Nicaea the year 325, institutional Christianity settled into a pattern of enhancing the wealth and power of its leaders at the expense of its adherents, very much in the pattern of emperors and their courts in relation to their subjects. The doctrines promulgated by these Christian elites naturally supported, or at least did not contradict, this arrangement of the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the divinely selected few.
Catholic satisfaction theory
Soon after the great East-West Schism of 1054 CE, the Western church (Roman Catholicism) took the next downward step doctrinally by originating, developing, and adopting the satisfaction theory of atonement. This harsh legalistic theory reversed and confounded all the efforts of the Apostle Paul to banish legalism from the Christian Church. Atonement now became a “forensic” matter in which God the Father accepted the death of his Son as a legal substitute for the death of all human sinners, provided that they acknowledge through “faith” that Christ had made this substitution for them.
The Nicene triumvirate of gods was essential to this bastardization of Christianity brought about by mating that triumvirate with human legal theories of the eleventh through thirteenth centuries, during which satisfaction theory was developed. Without an emperor god who wields the power of death over his subjects, and a mediating god who stands between the people and that imperially decreed death, the entire schema of satisfaction theory cannot work.
Protestant penal substitution theory
The Protestant Reformation did indeed banish some of the worst abuses of the Catholic Church under the banner of Christian imperialism. But it failed to lay the ax to the root of the tree. It retained from its Catholic mother both the Nicene hierarchy of gods and the oppressive legalisms of satisfaction theory. Indeed, within Protestantism, satisfaction theory devolved into the even more virulent penal substitution theory of atonement.
While it is somewhat difficult to trace the exact origins of penal substitution theory, it was a natural consequence of Martin Luther’s newly minted dogma of justification by faith alone. Under this theory, there is nothing at all that humans can do to contribute to or secure their salvation. They are at the absolute mercy of a bloodthirsty and imperial god who will accept only the death of his Son as payment for the sins of the people. The only thing the people can do is to prostrate themselves at the feet an angry Father god, pointing to his Son’s death and imploring his mercy.
At this point, the imperialism of the Nicene god had almost reached its zenith. Humans were reduced to “sinners in the hands of an angry God,” as encapsulated in the title of the famous and influential sermon by American preacher Jonathan Edwards.
But there was still one more downward step to be taken. That step was taken by John Calvin.
The imperial god of Calvin
In South Africa, we dealt decisively with the theology of apartheid. We reclaimed the Reformed tradition not simply as an adversary to be challenged or a burden to be resignedly carried; a lethal tool in the hands of Afrikaner Calvinists. (Boesak 2020, p. 8)
Perhaps the Reformed tradition can be salvaged. Perhaps John Calvin did write some good and beautiful things. But it was no accident that it was under the banner of Calvinism that Afrikaners in South Africa instituted and maintained the bloody imperialism of Apartheid for so many years. South African Liberation Theologian Simon S. Maimela paints the picture masterfully:
It is perhaps unfair to expect a different performance from our churches and White Christians, considering their hard experience of life in this country. Seeking resources to deal with the new situation, they fell back upon the tradition they knew—that of Paul, Augustine, Luther and Calvin. Unfortunately this tradition had the effect of distorting rather than clarifying White perceptions of what is truly human. For this theological tradition, from which they sought ethical guidelines, is itself notoriously pessimistic. It believes that through the Fall “man” is a totally depraved being who has had all his/her powers crippled. Humans are inherently bad and cannot perform good works. This tradition encourages the belief that humans in their creature-liness are trapped in depravity; they cannot act justly, creatively and responsibly and therefore cannot be relied upon for help. It is a tradition that often rebukes social activists for their optimism about human possibilities to change and to do good. It reminds humans of how low, useless, rotten and sinful they are, thereby cultivating a low self-esteem in people. In short, it is a tradition that never gives honour to people. Its goal is not to make humans feel good about themselves and others. Even less does it aim to teach people through preaching and counselling that our fellow humans can be trusted, can be regarded as friends who mean well by virtue of the fact that they have been commanded by God to care for, protect and love us. It cannot do this because it is a theological tradition that is “grounded in self-hate rather than in self-love and brother-love.” The result is that it produces people who are suspicious of themselves and others because nothing good dwells in man (cf. Rom 7:18–20). Once people believe that there is no good that they can do, it hardly comes as a surprise that White Christians, nurtured in this tradition, easily project on to their Black countrymen and women the capacity to hurt and destroy them, and therefore feel themselves justified in advocating the view of “man” that has just been outlined. I doubt whether any other group would have done any better. (Maimela 1981, p. 71–72)
As Maimela points out, seeing humans as totally depraved makes it very easy to view people of other races as dangerous savages who must be dominated and oppressed to avoid destruction at their hands. And what the doctrine of total depravity didn’t accomplish, the doctrine of double predestination did. After detailing the failings of Africans in the eyes of the “elect” Calvinist Christians who were busy colonizing the southern tip of Africa, Maimela says:
Finally, blacks made little progress in the road of Christian salvation. So the elect could only draw one conclusion, namely, that they were confronted by rejected people who were an example of the negative aspect of divine predestination. Seeing that the ‘‘blood of Ham” had not been overcome by baptism among the “heathen” Christians, it was concluded that blacks could not be equals with the so-called “born” white Christians. (Maimela 1997, p. 7)
To put it less delicately than Maimela does here, the Calvinist Afrikaners came to view blacks as among the people whom God had predestined to hell. And if God himself had decreed that their fate was to burn in the eternal fires of hell, why should they be given any consideration here on earth? Thus the imperialist oppression of Africans under Apartheid was justified in the name of the Calvinist version of the Nicene Christian god.
Whatever good and true things Calvin may have taught, his adoption of the doctrine of the total depravity of humans after the Fall, together with his insistence on the doctrine of double predestination, in which God had already decided before the act of Creation which humans would be saved and which would be damned, dealt the final deathblow to Christian faith and life.
Calvin had no excuse
I would like to extend to Calvin the ameliorating excuse that the Trinity of Persons was all he knew of, and that the doctrines dependent upon it were all that was available for him to draw on. But history will not allow it.
On October 27, 1553, Michael Servetus (c. 1511–1553) was burned at the stake in Calvinist Geneva for, among other things, the heresy of denying the Trinity. Though he was condemned by various religious authorities, including the French Inquisition and Martin Luther, it was John Calvin who doggedly pursued, and eventually achieved, Servetus’s execution. This was the culmination of a two-decades-long correspondence and conflict between the two men.
During that conflict, the abrasive Servetus had severely, and in detail, criticized Calvin’s key theological treatise, Institutes of the Christian Religion. Servetus had also sent Calvin an unfinished manuscript of his book The Restoration of Christianity, in which he rejected both the Nicene Trinity and the doctrine of predestination, thus further enraging Calvin against him. For an account of Servetus’s interactions with Calvin, and Servetus’s eventual arrest, trial, and death under Calvin’s auspices, see Servetus, Swedenborg and the nature of God, by Andrew M.T. Dibb (Dibb 2005), p. 52–64.
Based on this somewhat obscure bit of history, we know that Calvin had been presented with an alternate, non-trinitarian view of God that bore some similarity to Swedenborg’s later and more clearly developed doctrine of a Trinity of “essential components” (Latin: essentialia) in a single Person of God. However, Servetus’s hope of convincing Calvin of his heterodox view of God had been a futile one from the beginning. For reasons detailed above, Calvin could not have rejected the Trinity of Persons without repudiating his entire imperial conception of God as an absolute monarch who decided the fate of every person based on God’s own will and desire.
Calvin was firmly in the grip of the imperial god of Rome.
The necessity of dethroning the imperial god
The imperialist Roman god that had entered Christianity under Constantine continued to hold both Catholicism and Protestantism in its grip. It was the imperial god of Constantine and Calvin (and everyone in between) that made it possible for Calvinist “Christians” to institute and maintain the horrendous oppression of Apartheid.
Until that imperial Roman god is dethroned in the Christian world, the project of decolonizing the minds of people who have lived under “Christian” oppression will be incomplete. Until that god is dethroned, the worship of him will continue to provide cover for “Christian” racists to attack and oppress people in whose veins runs “the blood of Ham.” (Ham was Noah’s second son, the ancestor of the African peoples in the Hebrew Table of Nations.)
More critically, until that imperialist god is dethroned in the minds of the oppressed people, a belief in him will continue to weaken both their sense of their own integrity and their resistance to oppression. For Black Consciousness and Liberation Theology to fully achieve their goals, the minds of the oppressed, along with the Christian Church itself, must be freed from the Constantinian captivity of the Christian church and faith.
Doctrinally, this liberation must begin by laying the ax to the root of the tree: the Nicene hierarchy of gods that was ushered in under the watchful eye of the Roman emperor Constantine.
For the oppressed peoples of the world to rise up from their oppression and claim their full humanity and equality with all other races and nations on earth, the Nicene Trinity of Persons that usurped God’s throne among Christians starting in the year 325 must be toppled from that throne. Only then can the true God of Christianity return not only as “Master and Lord” (John 13:13, King James Version), but as friend (John 15:15) and as the good shepherd of all people, of all pastures, so that there can be one flock, and one shepherd (John 10:11–16).
Swedenborg rises to the task
Restoring the true God of Christianity to the throne of heaven was the task Emanuel Swedenborg set himself to accomplish starting in the mid-1740s, nearly two centuries after Servetus’s death. By that time, the Enlightenment had weakened the imperialist rapacity of the existing Christian churches sufficiently that Swedenborg was able to publish a far more detailed and radical rethinking of Christian theology than even Servetus had accomplished, while avoiding the fate that Servetus had suffered at the murderous hands of Calvin and his agents.
I would therefore like to present an account of Swedenborg’s non-Nicene, non-imperialist concept of the Christian God before re-engaging with the contentious “waters of Meribah.”
Swedenborg’s personal faith in “God with us”
Although Swedenborg’s theological writings, including his teachings about God, are composed in the literary style of an eighteenth-century European intellectual, his experience of God was anything but abstract and theoretical. During the night of April 6–7, 1744, the second night after the high Christian holiday of Easter, Swedenborg—who at that time was still a good Lutheran—had the first of a series of encounters with Jesus Christ. In the personal journal in which he had begun writing down and interpreting his dreams, he noted a series of spiritual struggles within himself. He was still in the midst of these struggles when he recorded this experience, here in the traditional, somewhat archaic published English translation of that journal:
I then fell into a sleep, and at about 12:00, 1:00, or 2:00 in the night, there came over me a strong shuddering from head to foot, with a thundering noise as if many winds beat together; which shook me; it was indescribable and prostrated me on my face. Then, at the time I was prostrated, at that very moment I was wide awake, and saw that I was cast down.
Wondered what it meant. And I spoke as if I were awake; but found nevertheless that the words were put into my mouth. “And oh! Almighty Jesus Christ, that thou, of thy so great mercy, deignest to come to so great a sinner. Make me worthy of thy grace.” I held together my hands, and prayed, and then came forth a hand, which squeezed my hands hard.
Straightway thereupon I continued my prayer, and said, “Thou hast promised to take to grace all sinners; thou canst nothing else than keep thy word.” At that same moment, I sat in his bosom, and saw him face to face; it was a face of holy mien, and in all it was indescribable, and he smiled so that I believe that his face had indeed been like this when he lived on earth. He spoke to me and asked if I had a clear bill of health. I answered, “Lord, thou knowest better than I.” ‘Well, do so,” said he; that is, as I found it in my mind to signify; love me in reality; or do what thou hast promised. God give me grace thereto; I found that it was not in my power. Wakened, with shudderings. (Swedenborg’s Journal of Dreams, 1743-1744, #52–54)
From this time forward, God was not a theory or a doctrine for Swedenborg, but his “best of friends,” as expressed in the opening line of a childhood hymn that had come to him in his dreams just a few nights earlier (see Swedenborg’s Journal of Dreams, 1743-1744, #37).
It was not long after this that Jesus appeared to him again, this time to change his life for good. At the command of the Lord (as Swedenborg called Jesus Christ), he was to leave behind his scientific and philosophical work, and labor in spiritual fields instead. To this end, he said, the Lord opened his spiritual eyes so that he could be fully conscious in the spiritual world while still living in this world. Still greater, the Lord would personally guide him from within as he wrote and published a new and deeper understanding of the Bible, Christianity, and the afterlife.
This personal experience of God and the spiritual world prompted Swedenborg, over a transitional period that lasted three or four years, to reject his previous Lutheran faith and its Nicene theological underpinnings, and publish an entirely different Christian theology that, he said, came “only from the Lord, while I was reading the Word” (True Christianity #779).
What Swedenborg experienced was not a God who was “three in Person, but one in essence,” according to the Nicene trinitarian formula. Rather, he experienced a God who was one both in Person and in essence. That God, he said, is the Lord God Jesus Christ (see True Christianity #638, 791), who is “God with us,” as expressed in Matthew 1:23.
The very essence and soul of everything in a comprehensive theology is the acknowledgment of God arising from a concept of him. Therefore it is necessary to begin with the oneness of God. (True Christianity #5)
Having encountered the one whom Thomas, after the Resurrection, addressed as “my Lord and my God” (John 20:28), Swedenborg could no longer accept the divided, hierarchical god of Nicene Christianity. As he read the Scriptures in his new state of enlightenment from the Lord, he did not find the Nicene god there. He did not find any Second Person of the Trinity, a Son born from eternity, being incarnated as Jesus Christ. Rather, he saw God—the one God—coming to earth as Jesus Christ.
God came to earth, Swedenborg said, in order to personally fight the battle of liberating humanity from slavery and oppression under the boot of the tyrannical empire of the Devil (which he saw as a personification of evil and hell) that had taken over the world and was dragging every human being down to eternal death.
For Swedenborg, there was no separate Person of God the Father who must be feared, nor was there a separate Person of God the Son who must be appealed to for protection against the justice and wrath of God the Father. Rather, Swedenborg experienced the Father as pure divine love, and the Son as the human expression of that divine love, which is the divine wisdom, spoken of in the opening chapter of the Gospel of John as “the Word.” He experienced the Holy Spirit as God’s infinite power, flowing from divine love, through divine wisdom, into all people who are willing to accept God’s love, wisdom, and power into themselves. These three are the “essential components” of God. They form Swedenborg’s Trinity, who is one both in person and in essence.
For Swedenborg, as Zechariah prophesied, the Lord was one, and his name one (see Zechariah 14:9). And the name of the Lord, the God of all the universe, was Jesus Christ.
In rejecting the Nicene Trinity, Swedenborg not only rejected dividing God into three Persons, but also its formula of a Son “begotten from eternity” and a Holy Spirit “proceeding from eternity.” As he carefully read the Scriptures over and over again, in their original languages, he did not see any Son or Holy Spirit in the Old Testament. Biblically, he saw these two coming into being in the New Testament. In more theological language, he said that the Son was born in time, not from eternity (see The Lord #19–20).
The Incarnation, Swedenborg said, was not an instance of some second Person of the Trinity being incarnated. Rather, it was the one and only Lord and God of the Old Testament, sometimes referred to there as “Father,” being incarnated. This was accomplished by the divine soul, which is God from eternity, taking on human flesh in the womb of Mary. Mary herself was not born without taint of sin, as in Catholic theology, but provided Jesus with a fallible human plane or battlefield where the Devil (meaning all the evil spirits in hell taken collectively) could attack him, and he could fight back against them from his divine soul within, which was the Father, and gain victory over the Devil.
In the process of defeating the Devil, the Lord also “glorified his humanity,” meaning he made his human self fully divine. He did this by gradually replacing the finite humanity that had come from his human mother with the divine substance of the Father. The passion of the Cross was Jesus’ last battle against the combined powers of evil, by which he achieved final victory, and also finished the process of glorifying his human side. When he rose from death, he was fully human and fully divine, having taken on a “divine humanity” that is now God’s own human presence with us. Christians know this divine human presence as Jesus Christ.
What I have written here is a very brief and streamlined account of a theology that Swedenborg published in great detail. For a much fuller and more organized account, including extensive supporting passages from the Bible, see the first three chapters of True Christianity.
Most importantly for this meeting of Swedenborgian theology with Liberation Theology and the Black Consciousness movement, Swedenborg’s God is not one in which an imperial Father arbitrarily imposes his will and his “justice,” much less his wrath, upon humans and even upon his own Son. Swedenborg’s God is one who comes personally down into the mud and the struggle of this earth. Swedenborg’s God is one who is not too proud to be born of a human woman, to be taken care of by broken and struggling human beings, to eat and drink with us, to walk with us, to fight alongside us. Swedenborg’s God is one who comes personally to fight the terrible, bloody battle against slavery to sin and oppression under the thumb of collective human evil.
Swedenborg’s God is the God who liberates us from the tyranny of evil and empire that has existed for so many centuries under the god of Constantine.
And now we are ready to re-engage in the struggle of Meribah.
Laying the ax to the root of the tree
The opening pages of Children of the Waters of Meribah, Chapter 1, “Poisoned Well or Waters of Life? Black Theology, Black Preaching, Scripture and the Challenges of Empire,” quote German theologian Helmut Gollwitzer and American theologian James Cone to the effect that neither the creedal deity of Nicaea and Chalcedon nor the Protestant Reformation had any effect whatsoever in restraining white Christians from imposing empire and oppression on the black people of the global South. (See Boesak 2020, p. 1–5.) Yet based on the statements quoted there, it is apparent that neither of these eminent theologians took this failure of Western Christian theology to enjoin its adherents to do Christ’s work of liberating the poor and oppressed as a reason to question the foundations of that theology, which is the Nicene god.
In his discussion of these realities, the author frankly admits that he and his fellow Liberation Theologians had not gone deep enough in their questioning of Christian imperialism. For example, he writes:
Although in South Africa we did take Gollwitzer seriously in our engagement with the perversion of the Reformed tradition exposited in the theology of apartheid we did not grasp the vast ramifications of the argument, as it pertains not just to white racism and its onslaught on black humanity, but white supremacy as an essential function of white, global Christian imperialism. We did not fully grasp, or engage the reality of empire, its all-encompassing reach, its power to capture, enslave, and exploit not just the entire cultural, political and socio-economic workings of our colonized societies, but its deadly attempt to nullify all that made us human, and worthy. (Boesak 2020, p. 4)
He then observes:
At the same time, from the earliest days, the Bible was, and had remained central in the lives, faith and struggles of black people suffering under Western, Christian imperial rule, and consequently, just as central in black theological thinking. (Boesak 2020, p. 5)
In the remainder of the book, the author questions and reinterprets various narratives in the Bible based on Black Liberation Theology, Feminist Theology, Womanist Theology, and other theologies of liberation. Yet from a Swedenborgian perspective, these excellent new branches of Christian theology are still drawing on roots that are immersed in the poisoned well of the imperial Nicene god.
The Nicene god is not the God of the Bible. And until liberation theologians of all stripes explicitly and decisively reject and dethrone the imperial Roman triumvirate of gods that has replaced the God of the Bible from the time of Constantine right up to the present, they will continue to hack at the theological branches of racism, colonialism, and oppression. They will never fell the old, gnarled tree that has grown out of the imperial god, and that continues to provide shelter for “Christian” bigotry, racism, and oppression.
Halfway measures will not do. Reformation is not sufficient. What is required is a theological revolution that can finally muster the spiritual power to defeat the imperial Nicene god. It is under the cover of this god that “Christian” racists and oppressors continue to wreak their havoc on the world. Only when their god is defeated and cast down from his throne in heaven will liberation come to the oppressed peoples of this world.
The god that Constantine enthroned to aid and justify his imperial ambitions must be dethroned. Anything short of this will lead only to further failure and frustration among liberation theologians. It is not possible to gain victory over imperialism when one is fighting under the banner of the imperialist god.
Reading the Bible for the liberating God
Continuing his theme of retrospection and reevaluation, the author goes on to say:
We searched the Bible for the black presence and the biblical narratives for inspiration for our struggles against racist intentions, but we failed to read the Bible to discover the prophetic nodes critical of empire and the ways of empire among subjected peoples. As a result, we were not fully equipped, in our theologizing and in our preaching, to engage the challenges of empire in our own times. (Boesak 2020, p. 4)
I do not mean to minimize the heroic struggles of so many marginalized and oppressed people, and their theological and scholarly leaders, against the weight of empire. Certainly there have been great victories along the way, one of which was the toppling of the Apartheid regime in South Africa.
And yet, a painful theme and thread has run through my readings in Black Consciousness and Black Liberation Theology during this academic year. That theme is the continued ascendancy of empire and oppression. Further, as perceived by liberation theologians and their sisters and brothers in the various struggles of liberation, the Bible itself can be read by imperialists, under their imperial god, as supporting and justifying empire. As the author observes, “The ‘burning bush’ narrative as exodus narrative leads inexorably to a patriarchal, violent, conquest narrative” (Boesak 2020, p. xxi).
Without an understanding of the true nature of the God behind that narrative, and how that God interacted with fallen humans throughout the Bible, it is just as easy to interpret the Bible in support of conquest and empire as it is to interpret it in opposition to conquest and empire.
The imperial god of Constantine and Nicaea gives strong theological cover for those “Christians” who interpret the Bible as justifying and supporting their oppression of people in whose veins “the blood of Ham” runs. After all, the Canaanites that the Israelites conquered, killed, and displaced are explicitly derived in a direct lineage from Ham. Who cares if painting all Africans with the same brush as Ham’s son Canaan is a sloppy, inaccurate reading of the carefully worded stories in the early chapters of Genesis? The principle that the Christian God condones the slaughter of people of another race can easily be generalized to all the races despised by these so-called Christians.
Nothing less than a radical re-reading of the Bible, in its original languages, in pursuit of the true nature of God will accomplish the biblical task to which the liberation theologians have set themselves. Anything less than this will keep them floating in the reeds of dueling interpretations of the harsh and difficult narratives of the Bible.
Lighting the way
A brief article such as this can in no way adequately provide such a reading of the Bible. Swedenborg spent nearly thirty years, and wrote some thirty volumes, in the effort. Even then he realized that he had barely scratched the surface of the depths within the Bible. This paper is meant more to suggest a direction than to illuminate the entire path.
And yet, these words in Psalm 18 do suggest a direction:
With the merciful you show yourself merciful; with the blameless man you show yourself blameless; with the purified you show yourself pure; and with the crooked you make yourself seem tortuous. For you save a humble people, but the haughty eyes you bring down. For it is you who light my lamp; the Lord my God lightens my darkness. For by you I can run against a troop, and by my God I can leap over a wall. This God—his way is perfect; the word of the Lord proves true; he is a shield for all those who take refuge in him. (Psalm 18:25–30, English Standard Version)
The opening lines of this stanza present God as a God who appears to people according to their own character. The first three lines are just as we would expect of a good and gracious God.
But then we read, “with the crooked you make yourself seem tortuous.”
It is hard to find a translation that does this line justice. The word here translated “you make yourself seem tortuous,” is a reflexive form of the Hebrew verb פָּתַל (pāṯal), which literally means “to twist.” It can refer to “anything tortuous and twisted.” In a different form, it is used to mean “wrestling,” as an activity in which one twists one’s body. The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon translates the line as “with the twisted thou dost deal tortuously” (but the word here translated “twisted” is an entirely different Hebrew word). See Brown, Driver, and Briggs 1996 under פָּתַל for the meanings given here.
The compact, incisive language of the Hebrew Bible here packs volumes of meaning into a single line. To people who are twisted, it says, God shows God’s self as twisted, tortuous, and an opponent in wrestling, recalling the story of Jacob wrestling with God in Genesis 32:22–32. This line, together with the three that precede it, provides the window through which we can see and understand the contradictory God of the Bible. That apparently contradictory nature, it tells us, is in reality due to the contradictory natures of the people to whom God appears at various times in the Bible. To those who are crooked, God makes God’s self appear tortuous and twisted.
This was the tortuous, twisted, and yes, imperial god that the Roman emperor Constantine, and the combative “Christian” leaders who looked to him for imperial support in their power struggles with their fellow Christians, saw when they created the imperial god of Nicaea.
But that imperial god is only a human appearance. It is not the true God of the Bible. Swedenborg looked past the dark clouds in which God appears twisted, tortuous, and even imperial, to the true God of pure love, wisdom, and liberating power that continues to shine far beyond the dark clouds that obscure God’s face among fallen and crooked human beings.
This is the God of love, wisdom, and power for accomplishing good that liberation theologians can look to for victory in their long and twisted wrestlings with the powers of imperialism and oppression.
For further reading:
- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
- Is the Doctrine of the Trinity Polytheistic?
- What Does it Mean that Jesus was “Glorified”?
- Who is God? Who is Jesus Christ? What about that Holy Spirit?
- A Swedenborgian in Dialog with Black Consciousness and Black Liberation Theology
- The Logic of Love: Why God became Jesus
(Note: it is standard practice to refer to passages in Swedenborg’s works by section numbers, which are uniform across all editions, rather than by page numbers. Bracketed dates are the date of original publication of that work. This website may earn commissions from links to books on Amazon contained in this post and its bibliography.)
Boesak, Allan (2020) Children of the Waters of Meribah: Black Liberation Theology, the Miriamic Tradition, and the Challenges of 21st Century Empire. Stellenbosch, South Africa: African Sun Media
Brown, Francis, S. R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs (1996) The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon. Reprint, with Strong’s numbering added. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.
Dibb, Andrew M.T. (2005) Servetus, Swedenborg and the nature of God. Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America
Grant, Michael (1994) Constantine the Great: The Man and His Times. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons
Maimela, Simon S. (1981) “Man in ‘White’ Theology” in Missionalia: Southern African Journal of Missiology. Menlo Park, South Africa: Missionalia
_____. (1997) “What is the Human Being from Biblical Perspective?” in Boleswa: Occasional Papers in Theology and Religion 1:6, Jerome T. Walsh, Ed. Gaborone: University of Botswana
Swedenborg, Emanuel (1986), C. Th. Odhner, Tr. Swedenborg’s Journal of Dreams, 1743-1744. Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania: Swedenborg Scientific Association
_____. (2003 ), George Dole, Tr. Divine Providence. West Chester, Pennsylvania: Swedenborg Foundation
_____. (2006–2012 ), Jonathan S. Rose, Tr., True Christianity. West Chester, Pennsylvania: Swedenborg Foundation
Woofenden, Lee (2013) “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” Published on the website Spiritual Insights for Everyday Life: https://leewoof.org/2013/08/05/father-son-and-holy-spirit/ (accessed June 21, 2022)
_____. (2016) “Is the Doctrine of the Trinity Polytheistic?” Published on the website Spiritual Insights for Everyday Life: https://leewoof.org/2016/07/05/is-the-doctrine-of-the-trinity-polytheistic/ (accessed June 21, 2022)
And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. (Matthew 16:13–20)
Jesus pointed out two members of the trinity in that verse you showed. himself and the Father.
The mistake is in thinking that these are two “members” of the Trinity, as if the Trinity consisted of three different people (which is the plain English way of saying “three Persons”).
There is a Trinity in God. But it is not a Trinity of Persons. It is a Trinity of parts of God, just as you and I have a “trinity” in us of soul, body, and actions. These are not “members” of us. They are parts of us.
For more on the real Trinity in God, please see:
Who is God? Who is Jesus Christ? What about that Holy Spirit?
Great explanation on the trinity Lee! I am one man. However, I am a child of God, a friend, a son, brother, cousin, uncle, father, grandfather, and now a great grandfather, but still one man.
Thanks. Glad you enjoyed it!
I should mention that the way of thinking about the Trinity that you mention is the basic idea of modalism, which is accepted neither by Nicene Christians nor by Swedenborgian Christians as an accurate description of how the Trinity works. Please see:
What is the difference between the Swedenborgian and Oneness Pentecostal doctrines of God?
Having said that, of course God does have many roles, which is why God has many names both in the Bible and in the other sacred literature and teachings of humanity all around the world. But from a Swedenborgian point of view, the entire Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, are present in all of God’s many roles, just as your soul, body, and actions are all involved in every one of the roles you play—child, friend, son, brother, and so on.
Oh, and congratulations on becoming a great-grandfather!
It’s ironic that “The Good Book” requires such in-depth interpretation and analysis by the learned. Further, for all practical purposes in our everyday lives, is it necessary for “God” to exist? Granted, it’s a concept that we can “put our finger on” to provide explanations for existential questions. However, it seems as though religion is more necessary than “God” as they provide ‘subjective concreteness’ in a way that mortal man is capable of understanding. And, religion serves man well providing beliefs that weigh more heavily upon us than truth.
If God is merely a theoretical, abstract concept, then obviously it is not necessary for God to exist. But if God actually does exist as a real, concrete being, then it’s a very different situation.
Good evening. I believe in a “Creating Life Force” to justify my existence. ‘It’ might be called by a variety of names including God. This life giving, energy source has substance and is, in and of itself, not abstract.
However, no one knows for certain the specifics that make up this ‘Force’. What is abstract is man’s’ concept of what it’s all about. One man’s concept might be more or less accurate than another but there’s no way to determine that. I have no doubt that you genuinely believe what you believe but the nature and substance of your beliefs, as well as all others in this regard, is abstract. Also, your beliefs serve a necessary and noble purpose in helping others comprehend the purpose of our existence but that does not remove those thoughts and ideas from the realm of abstraction.
Are you in the minds of everyone else who is now living or has ever lived upon the face of this earth? If not, how can you say with such certainty that “no one knows for certain the specifics that make up this ‘Force’”? Not everyone shares your agnosticism about the knowability of God. Not everyone has your certainty that God must be an abstract concept. Many, many people—Moses, Jacob, and Swedenborg among them—have testified to meeting God face-to-face in a way that is anything but unknowable and abstract.
Good morning. Again, I’m not saying that “God” is abstract. I’m saying that man’s’ concept of what God is, is abstract. Let me give an analogous example.
Ancient Egyptians, as well as other ancient cultures, could see the stars and Earth’s moon. Those celestial objects were real, objective. Not having facts/evidence to support these observations, a BELIEF system was developed by those with influence and intellect. The ensuing explanations were often given religious significance including the assignment of various Gods who were responsible for the changes observed by man from Earth. In many ways and for most Egyptians, these beliefs became “truths”. However, these beliefs were abstract in nature because they attempted to explain the unknown, I.e. the true nature of our planetary system.
Religious beliefs become convoluted yet also complex as those adhering to certain beliefs create and then expound on the reasons for their beliefs. As a spider weaves its intricate web with a dance like
performance, so to has religious explanations for our existence become more and more elaborate, especially Swendenborg’s.
There is good reason the phrase “religious BELIEFS” was coined and not “religious TRUTHS “.
If and when “The Truth” is revealed to man concerning God and man’s existence, I suspect it will be simple and straightforward. Truth doesn’t require an elaborate belief system to be convincing.
Lastly, as we both know and have discussed previously, many throughout history have claimed to have had a “face-to-face” with “God” although it should be noted it was the type of God these individuals were predisposed to encounter as heavily influenced by their upbringing, intellect and mental state.
I am curious why you have such a difficult time saying that you really don’t know the answers to what is really behind our existence. For some reason, you’re not satisfied with saying “these are my beliefs” and here are some other beliefs from others in this regard.
Perhaps you’re afraid that all of your hard work in seeking the truth will all be for naught? I’ve pointed out previously that this will not be the case as you’ve no doubt give solace to many through your efforts.
Sometimes, the hardest thing we can say is , “I don’t know. I genuinely don’t know for certain “.
Best wishes to you going forward!
And I, in turn, am curious why you have such a difficult time saying that the answers to what is really behind our existence are knowable, and that we do know the answers to these questions. Perhaps you are afraid that if you were to admit that the answers are knowable, and known, it would require you to think and live differently than you do now, in your current state of agnosticism?
Admitting that we don’t know is a virtue only if we actually don’t know. But if we do know, then saying we don’t know is a lie:
I commonly talk about “beliefs” because that is more palatable to people. But in my own mind, it is simply the truth. When I was younger, I had angst about it, and wondered if it was really true. Now that I am entering my elder years, I am entirely comfortable knowing the truth that makes us free.
This is not to say that I have the answers to all questions. I still have many questions for which I am seeking answers. But on the main outlines and the key patterns in my understanding of God, the spiritual world, and the material world, I no longer have any fears or doubts because that understanding has been with me as my constant companion for many years, and whatever my struggles have been, it has never failed me.
This is also why your invitation to uncertainty and agnosticism has no appeal to me.
Good morning. No doubt, one man’s existential beliefs are another man’s truth. It’s somewhat ironic that truth and facts are not biased and do not harm others although many religious beliefs do. All of us might be in for a rude awakening if God were to appear today and reveal the true nature and purpose of our existence. Of course, that’s not likely to happen so the next “best” thing is for each individual to adopt his/her beliefs as the truth and then go on. I understand what you write. I have no hesitation in believing that you believe you have discovered/uncovered the truth. However, I do believe there is some “truth” in not knowing certain things. “It’s better to be lost and know it than it is to be on the wrong path thinking you are right”. hk Perhaps both of us fall within the category below:
Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” His point was that only small-minded men refused to rethink their prior beliefs.
“God help us when we convince ourselves everything we’ve been taught and have self-discovered about God is the absolute truth”. hk
It’s even better not to be lost, and to be on the right path.
And God had not been dilatory in showing us the right path, even if many people have been dilatory about paying attention to God’s directions.
Your scenario for how the Egyptian gods came about represents the common belief among skeptics and atheists. But it is just that: a belief. There is no actual evidence to support it. It is pure conjecture and supposition cooked up in an attempt to explain the universal ancient beliefs in gods without admitting that God and spirit actually exist. If I were to put it in my usual terminology when speaking of similar beliefs among Christians, this idea is a human-invented belief that serves to support the materialistic religious perspective of skeptics and atheists.
Here is an alternate explanation for how the ancient gods came about, based, not on materialism and skepticism, but on the truth that God is real, that the spiritual realm is real, and that early humans had a knowledge and awareness of these things.
As represented symbolically in the Creation stories in Genesis, early humans, represented by “Adam” (a Hebrew word meaning “humankind”), had a direct and personal relationship with God. For example:
Do I take this literally? No. But it represents the state of early humans in relationship with God. God “walked in the garden” with them, and they spoke with God directly. These early humans could talk with God and the angels, and learn directly from them about God and spirit.
Unfortunately, as the generations passed these early humans turned away from that direct relationship with God and the angels, and turned toward a focus on the material things of this world instead. This is represented by their eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. They therefore gradually lost the ability to have open communication with the spiritual world, and became materialistic and earthly instead.
However, the earlier stories of God and heaven were passed down orally to succeeding generations, and were eventually written down. This is the origin of the mythical stories of the first chapters of Genesis.
One of the things those early people know was the “correspondential” relationship between the things of the spiritual realm and the things of the material realm. They knew how the nature of God was reflected in everything of nature. They therefore saw the sun, moon, and stars, mountains, rivers, and valleys, trees, plant, and animals, as images or metaphors expressing the nature of God. They incorporated this knowledge of the spiritual meaning of all the things of nature into their myths and stories, which they filled with deeper meanings that tell about our relationship with God.
But as later generations became more and more materialistic, they lost that early knowledge of the spiritual and divine symbolism of earthly things. They saw the statuary that their ancestors had made to represent spiritual and divine things, but they no longer knew what those images represented. However, they still had the religious urge carried down from their ancestors. So they began to worship the objects themselves, including natural objects such as the sun, moon, and stars, and made separate gods out of each of them.
As in the early stories of Genesis, early humans began monotheistic. They had had a direct relationship with God, whom they knew very well. Only later, after the Fall, did humans fall away from that early direct non-abstract relationship with God and the angels, and become superstitious, and later skeptical and atheistic, due to their materialism.
You have inherited that skeptical, atheistic human tradition. All of your arguments are based on that tradition, even though you do admit to the existence of some vague “Creating Life Force,” which you seem unwilling to describe or define. In reality, people who believe in such a “life force” instead of believing in God are simply believing in Nature as the “Creatrix” of all. They are materialists who paint a spiritual veneer on their materialism.
But that is not the original state of humankind.
Today, we can once again have a direct knowledge of God and relationship with God, if we open our spiritual self and our spiritual eyes and ears, and seek that relationship. There is no need for uncertainty and agnosticism. Everything we need to know to walk that path has been given to us in plain and unmistakable terms, many times over. For Christians, this has been given especially in the Bible and in the theological writings of Emanuel Swedenborg. This website is devoted to disseminating that knowledge to all people who have ears to hear it.
As always, an interesting post. I especially like the connection between the Trinity and a reduced Roman Pantheon although only one can be visualized so that might have been a harder sell back in the 4th century. And your narrative from Constantine to Catholic vs Protestant Atonement and then on to Calvin leaves out a few branches to relate to oppression of peoples unless you only intended to talk about South Africa and the US. You also leave out all of the other religious oppressors.
It’s clear that anyone can extract what they want to find in the Bible by suitable cherry picking to justify Loving themselves more than their Neighbor.
If your purpose was this message to ‘liberation theologians’:
“Nothing less than a radical re-reading of the Bible, in its original languages, in pursuit of the true nature of God will accomplish the biblical task to which the liberation theologians have set themselves. Anything less than this will keep them floating in the reeds of dueling interpretations of the harsh and difficult narratives of the Bible.”
I miss your point if it was to correct the Trinity and/or Calvin’s Double Predestination (both need correction) and if the audience of correction was the oppressors (might do some good) or oppressed(would do what?).
Thanks for your thoughts. Glad you enjoyed the article.
Covering all of the conflicting and oppressive religions and churches around the world would require an entire encyclopedia. In this article, I was only attempting to trace one of the major lineages. And since the paper was written for a South African university and professor, terminating in the Calvinism that was the religious tool of oppression in the Apartheid system seemed the most sensible course.
However, I also believe that Calvinism represents the low point of the destruction of Christian doctrine. It is the heir of many centuries of heresy and schism, starting with the Trinity of Persons and going through the satisfaction theory of atonement in Catholicism and its Protestant variation of penal substitution, together with the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone. Calvin took all of that falsification of Christian truth the last mile, such that doctrinally there was nothing left of biblical and Christian truth in Calvinism. (This does not mean that all followers of Calvin are evil people.)
The professor for whom the paper was written, who happens to be a minister of the South African Dutch Reformed Church (which is Calvinist), seemed not to be very impressed with my arguments. 😛
As for the audience, the oppressors are unlikely to listen to anything that would correct their viewpoint. They are oppressors precisely because they are not willing to listen to the spiritual truth of the Christian religion as originally taught by Jesus Christ. You can’t be an oppressor and love your enemies at the same time.
The intended audience of the paper was people who subscribe to Liberation Theology, but still accept the doctrinal formulas that began with Nicaea. Specifically, people who think they can liberate the minds and bodies of oppressed people from imperialism while still worshiping the imperial god under which all of that oppression has taken place. Attempting to liberate people from imperialism while still worshiping the imperial God is like attempting to liberate people from slavery to greed and wealth while still serving mammon oneself (see Matthew 6:24).
The mind must be liberated before the body can be liberated, or people will go right back to their servile and oppressed state. This is why, although I didn’t say so in my papers for University of Pretoria, I believe that the Black Consciousness movement was more critical to ending the oppression of Apartheid than all of the militant groups that did the fighting on the ground, and also more critical than Liberation Theology itself.
Thanks, that clarified your purpose a lot.
I don’t think I’m any kind of expert on American Black experience let alone South African. I’ve probably only read one book on American Black experience (Fault Lines: The Social Justice Movement and Evangelicalism’s Looming Catastrophe by Voddie Baucham Jr.) which was interesting but a single perspective. Domestically I suspect Black Theology is misguided by focusing on the wrong oppressor … especially today with the ‘systemic racism’ misdirection. I personally tend to find the government and the controlling ‘elite’ [actually better described as Evil] as the principal source of the ongoing domestic ‘oppression’ and don’t find the false Trinity idea as being terribly relevant. I have no idea what dynamic may be going on South Africa.
The Double Predestination falsehood seems to be something that best shores up the ‘elite’ oppressors except that most of our ‘elite’ are apostate from even that false religion so it’s hard to see how that shores up their oppression. I can see that if the oppressed believe their condition is foreordained by God that would demoralize and inhibit recognition of the true condition. If that is the root issue that needs fixing, then something I came across recently may be useful. I participate in a study group where I’m the resident heretic and ‘predestination’ has come up a couple of times. Most recently, I dug in a bit deeper on the Greek and found this interesting tidbit from BibleHub:
Usage: I foreordain, predetermine, mark out beforehand.
4309 proorízō (from 4253 /pró, “before” and 3724 /horízō, “establish boundaries, limits”) – properly, pre-horizon, pre-determine limits (boundaries) predestine.
[4309 (proorízō) occurs six times in the NT (eight in the writings of Paul). Since the root (3724 /horízō) already means “establish boundaries,” the added prefix (pro, “before”) makes 4309 (proorízō) “to pre-establish boundaries,” i.e. before creation.]
It has the usual ‘Usage’ words, but looking deeper I found ‘limits’ and ‘boundaries’. So, if ‘proorízō ‘ actually means fore-established limits and boundaries like the definition says and not omniscient detail (as one of my group believes) then God’s plan can be preestablished with enough Free Will latitude to make our actual decisions and actions significant. This then would be the correction to erase the demoralization of the oppressed.
It would seem that this might apply domestically. Again, I don’t have a feeling for anything in South Africa.
People’s concept of God resides at the core of their thinking, whether or not they are particularly religious. That is why people’s concept of God has such a great affect upon their life and actions.
It is true that some people are not particularly religious, and don’t think much about God. It is also true that some people are atheists who reject the idea of God altogether, or agnostics who generally don’t consider God to be particularly relevant to their lives. However, even such people will have something sitting on the “throne of God” in their own mind and heart. It might be themselves, in which case they are narcissists. It might be money, in which case they are driven by greed and acquisitiveness. It might be the good of humankind, in which case they are philanthropists in the broad sense of that word. And so on. Whatever love and goal people place at the center of their mind and heart, that is what will drive and direct them in everything they do.
For religious people, their specific concept of God resides in that central location in their mind or heart. That concept of God colors and directs everything they think, feel, and do.
This is why a false concept of God is so destructive, both for good people and for bad people. For bad people, it justifies and supports their actions in pursuit of personal wealth, power, pleasure, and so on. For good people, it tears them down and damages their sense of integrity and goodness in life.
As an example, consider the effect of believing that God the Father is a distinct Person of God who condemns humans for their sin due to the Father’s sense of justice, or even worse, due to the Father’s wrath and anger at sinful humans. For bad people, this can serve as a cover for all sorts of evil and oppressive behavior toward their fellow human beings—and has done so for many centuries during which a false Christianity has reigned in much of the world. For good people, it makes them feel that any pain, suffering, and oppression they are experiencing is a punishment from God due to their sins. Such people are therefore less likely to resist, and more likely to submit to, the aforementioned bad people who enjoy taking advantage of them in various ways for their own selfish purposes.
This is the “imperial god” that I am talking about in the above article. As long as that god reigns in the minds of oppressors and oppressed alike, there will be no healing from the religious side for any of the wrongs that people do to other people. It will be up to secular authorities to accomplish this, and they can only control behavior, not the minds and hearts from which the behavior comes.
I do believe that today’s trend toward agnosticism and atheism is part of the process of dethroning that false imperial god that has wreaked so much damage and destruction over the centuries in which the false Christianity that worships that god has reigned. False ideas, and especially false ideas about God, must be rejected before true ideas can take their place. It may take several generations of transition through secularism and rejection of traditional religion before that imperial god is finally dethroned in the popular mind.
Meanwhile, it continues to do its damage to everyone under its influence, often without the conscious awareness of the people who are subject to that damage. Even when people have rejected the church and religion they grew up in, the ideas and attitudes instilled in them by those churches and religions don’t necessarily die away. They are still buried under the surface in many non-religious people’s minds and hearts, and they continue to do their damage.
This damage can be undone only by bringing those false concepts of God out into the light, consciously and decisively rejecting them, and adopting better and truer ideas of God in their stead. Only then can the great damage and destruction done by the reign of the imperial god of Constantine and Calvin begin to be repaired.
For a related article on the positive side of this issue, please see:
God is Love . . . And That Makes All the Difference in the World
As for the current political climate related to issues of race, gender, and so on, I have purposely avoided that quagmire both because it is a quagmire and because I don’t think the solution to these issues is political. I therefore don’t choose to expend my time and energy in that arena. I believe the solutions are spiritual. That is where I focus my time and energy.
Again, thanks for your thoughtful reply and information. Obviously, there are many possible perspectives on these matters and what is more or less important in some peoples minds. I also agree about the quagmire but find it both interesting and frustrating to consider sources and solutions.
One question: In this passage:
“For bad people, it makes them feel that any pain, suffering, and oppression they are experiencing is a punishment from God due to their sins. Such people are therefore less likely to resist, and more likely to submit to, the aforementioned bad people who enjoy taking advantage of them in various ways for their own selfish purposes.”
shouldn’t the 2nd word be ‘good’?
Oops, yes, let me go fix that.
About the Greek word προορίζω (proorizō), commonly translated “predestine,” we can argue the exact definition of it, and certainly it’s useful to look at this word closely.
However, even more important is to realize that this word is used only four times in the New Testament, and each time it is used in reference to people being saved. It is never used of people being damned.
Here are the four places it is used, which come in two groups of two. In this translation (the NRSV) the first two instances are translated “predestined,” and the second two “destined”:
There are other passages that can be read as people being created for destruction, but they do not use the word “predestined,” and they can be read as having a different meaning, such as “prepared for,” given that that’s the choice that those people made.
Swedenborg is therefore on solid biblical ground when he declares in various wordings, in various places in his theological writings, “Sound reason tells us that everyone is predestined to heaven and no one to hell” (Divine Providence #330). In the few places where the Bible uses the word “predestination,” it is always for salvation, never for damnation.
Hi Lee thank you for your posts on Liberation theology, they are very insightful and helpful. When reading the last part of how God appears to different people based on their character, and the apparent difficulty with the twisted seeing God as torturous to the twisted soul I was reminded of the reference in James 1.23. It has been my view that we see God or the Word as a mirror which of course only shows us what is put in front of us. Our view of God is a subjective one, in my view. A person of twisted character will feel tortured in their soul therefore projecting onto God a picture of torturer. Not acknowledging what we are shown in the mirror may then give some the view God Himself is a torturer and allowing us to “Do God’s work” by subjugating and torturing others and by these acts perpetuate the suffering of the human race.
Thanks for your thoughts, and for your kind words. The reference to James 1:23 is particularly thought-provoking. It comes in the context of James telling us that we must “be doers of the word and not merely hearers who deceive themselves” (James 1:22). It is precisely people who are unwilling to “do the word,” meaning live according to the commandments of God, who see God as twisted and tortuous in their own twisted and tortuous image.
I posted a comment few days ago in one of your articles but i don’t know if it was not approved or i really don’t pressed the reply button correct since i can’t find it anywhere! 😅
Can you give me info about that? Thank you!
Thanks for the heads-up. I went on a little fishing expedition in the spam folder, and managed to hook that comment of yours and reel it back into the digital land of the living. You can now see it live here. Sorry about the false flagging of your comment. This is just one more example of why AI will never run the universe! 😐
I’m a bit slammed right now, but will respond to your comment within the next few days. Meanwhile, please don’t worry about asking too many questions. That’s the best way to learn! Besides, I enjoy answering questions and helping people find understanding and peace of mind.
Thank you very much!
I agree about the AI part too hehe. 😆
Thanks for this essay. I can understand that many would see Calivinism as part of a larger Constantinian and colonizing historical current. I do not think, though, the Swedenborg’s way forward is as compelling as presented here. For example, this passage enclosed in double brackets:
((The Incarnation, Swedenborg said, was not an instance of some second Person of the Trinity being incarnated. Rather, it was the one and only Lord and God of the Old Testament, sometimes referred to there as “Father,” being incarnated. This was accomplished by the divine soul, which is God from eternity, taking on human flesh in the womb of Mary. Mary herself was not born without taint of sin, as in Catholic theology, but provided Jesus with a fallible human plane or battlefield where the Devil (meaning all the evil spirits in hell taken collectively) could attack him, and he could fight back against them from his divine soul within, which was the Father, and gain victory over the Devil.
In the process of defeating the Devil, the Lord also “glorified his humanity,” meaning he made his human self fully divine. He did this by gradually replacing the finite humanity that had come from his human mother with the divine substance of the Father. The passion of the Cross was Jesus’ last battle against the combined powers of evil, by which he achieved final victory, and also finished the process of glorifying his human side. When he rose from death, he was fully human and fully divine, having taken on a “divine humanity” that is now God’s own human presence with us. Christians know this divine human presence as Jesus Christ.))
I notice that it contains phrasing and definitions that one would be hard pressed to find in the biblical writings. For example, “divine soul”, the definition of the Devil, that Jesus “glorified humanity” by defeating the Devil, that Jesus “gradually” replaced finite humanity with the divine substance of his father. The term, “substance” refering to God appears, not in the Bible, but in the creeds. So, perhaps Swedenborg is also influnced by them?
Ulimately, if I understand this paper correctly, we are called upon to affirm the pivotal dreams that Swedenborg had. If we do, everything else follows. But, then, what separates his authority from that of Mohammed, Joseph Smith, and other influencial leaders whose dreams were the bedrock of their new teachings?
Thanks for your thoughts and questions.
Of course, not everything Swedenborg wrote can be directly verified from the Bible, nor does he make that claim. Much of the more “advanced” theology he wrote was to provide greater understanding of how the things described in the Bible worked. However, the basics of his teachings—the ones that are actually necessary to believe and follow in order to be saved—are based on the plain, direct statements of the Bible in a way that the teachings of other Christian churches simply aren’t. See:
Swedenborg does not appeal to tradition or authority as Nicene Christian churches commonly do. Rather, he appeals to the Bible, reason, and experience. He advises people to believe something only if it passes biblical muster and makes sense to them. He specifically rejects believing things on the authority of other people, including the authority of ecclesiastical structures. And he never asks people to believe something just because he says so.
In short, we are not called upon to affirm Swedenborg based on his authority, but to affirm the truth based on the Bible and on our enlightened understanding of it. Swedenborg’s writings are meant to guide us in that process, not as an authority, but as a light to our path. For more on this, please see:
Do the Teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg take Precedence over the Bible?
I am aware that there are some Swedenborgians who have made Swedenborg’s writings into an authority. But this is contrary to what Swedenborg himself taught in those very writings.
Hello! I’m Slo and I’m 15 and I’m establishing a personal religion/spirituality for myself (for myself only-I do not want to convert people) and I have been influenced by your religion very much. I want to become a priest of my religion (in this case I would be called First Elder) and I need someone (who is a Swedenborgian) to ordain me. I was wondering if you could ordain me as a priest of my religion by saying a blessing for me in a comment here. It would be an honor if you did as we worship the same God.
Thanks for stopping by, and for your comment and request.
Honestly, if you are establishing a personal religion just for yourself, there is no need to be ordained as a priest. Priests are intermediaries between God and the people. If it’s just you, there is no one else to mediate for. Besides, Christians have no need for priests as intermediaries because they have a direct relationship with God in Jesus Christ. Please see:
Christianity is Dead. Long Live Christianity!
I would recommend that you think of yourself, not as a priest, but as a disciple of Christ.
Thank you for your comment! However, I still would like to be ordained by a Swedenborg minister as I will be proselytizing among my action figures and creating a church among them. I know they’re not alive but it’s a kind of game for me. Could you say a blessing for me/ordain me in a comment?
Sorry, no can do. To get ordained by a Swedenborgian minister, you’ll need to attend three or four years of seminary.
But have fun with your action figures!