People around the world were shocked on June 12 as reports began to spread of the worst shooting in United States history: fifty people dead and fifty-three more wounded when a man opened fire in an Orlando LGBT nightclub.
Although the shooter claimed affiliation with the Islamic extremist group ISIS during a 911 phone call, subsequent revelations from his family and associates made it clear that this was a hate crime aimed at the LGBT community.
Faith communities across the world joined in denouncing the massacre as a heinous act, though the increasing diversity in sexuality and gender identifications has led to new challenges for many religious bodies.
How to address same-sex relationships is a particularly difficult question for some Swedenborgians, because spiritual marriage (marriage love or, in older translations, conjugial love) is one of the core principles of Swedenborg’s theology. Swedenborg wrote about marriage love as a spiritual bond in which two people join to the point that they seem to be a single person—when viewed through the lens of the spiritual world. He was careful to emphasize that this type of bond is rare on earth, occurring mostly in heaven. But he also described marriage exclusively as the joining of male and female, with masculine and feminine energies perpetually drawn into a complementary union with each other.
As with the Bible itself, whether Swedenborg’s writings speak to the topic of same-sex relationships is a contested issue. For example, when Swedenborg comments on the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, he says that “it appears as if the evil of the worst adultery was signified by ‘Sodom,’ [but] nevertheless in the internal sense nothing else that evil from the love of self is signified by it” (Secrets of Heaven2220). Some readers see “evil of the worst adultery” as a euphemistic reference to sodomy. Others point out that in this passage there is no explicit reference to same-sex activity or relationships, and that the focus of Swedenborg’s commentary is on the inner meaning of the story, which goes to problematic forms of self-love. Similarly, when commenting on the prohibitions on certain sexual practices in Leviticus 18, Swedenborg refers to the activities listed under the general label of “adultery.” Some readers point out that this biblical chapter includes a prohibition on same-sex activities. Other readers point to Swedenborg’s lack of commentary on the topic of same-sex relationships when discussing Leviticus 18 and the fact that his comments emphasize the spiritual issue of adulterating good with evil or truth with false ideas.
Some Swedenborgians feel that Swedenborg’s writings do not focus enough on the subject to be authoritative for contemporary same-sex civil and religious policies, and these same Swedenborgians are similarly persuaded regarding scripture. There are many who practice a Swedenborg-based spirituality who are not only accepting of the LGBT community but actively advocate on its behalf. One of the two largest New Church denominations in the United States both ordains openly gay individuals and allows ministers to officiate at same-sex marriages. On the other end of the spectrum, others within the New Church feel that Swedenborg’s writings on marriage love express a teaching that does not accommodate same-sex identities and relationships and that such teachings remain valid even as cultural attitudes change.
Regardless of how individuals respond to this issue, there’s no question that Swedenborg’s predominant theological theme is love. We are born to become angels, he reminds us constantly. From the moment we are born, we constantly grow; and if we follow the divine design, we continue to expand our love and wisdom throughout this lifetime and into the spiritual world.
The emphasis on love showed through clearly in the responses from New Church ministers to the tragedy (even as they illustrate the differences in approach):
The fact that these murders were committed in the name of some purported religious ideology, and that some fanatical Christians find them justified because of the sexual orientation of at least some of the victims simply cannot go unchallenged. There is no real religion in the world, least of all the New Church, that teaches hate or murder as a means to accomplish its ends.
I appeal, therefore, to all the members of our congregation, and to any who may chance to read this, that we hold all the men and women who were involved in that tragic event in our hearts with earnest compassion, and that we rededicate ourselves to the just and peaceful process of dialog about how we can live with tolerance of one another’s differences even as we remain strong and mutually supportive of our particular convictions.
In short, let us pray for the victims of this awful tragedy, and let us pray also for ourselves that we may learn from this and see the implications of any form of hatred in our own lives.
And from anther New Church minister:
As I scrolled through the names, the photos, and bios of those senselessly murdered at the Pulse in Orlando, the feelings of sorrow and loss were beyond words.
It is a painful reminder of the work that remains to be done in creating a culture which celebrates LGBTQ people and our loves. I almost wrote “fully accepts,” but acceptance and tolerance are not nearly enough. The love that can arise between two men or two women, or indeed, any two individuals regardless of sexual orientation or gender-identity is a blessing to us all and makes the world a better place. We can and we should celebrated love wherever it is found.
No child should have to grow up in a family, a community, or religious communion that shames or denigrates their emerging sexuality or gender identity. No one should have to seek out “safe places” to be themselves. If that day seems far away, all the more reason to take every opportunity to be part of the needed cultural transformation.
And while we cannot know what Swedenborg himself might have said if he were alive today, his writings overwhelmingly speak of the importance of a faith based on love:
In a broad sense, faith is everything the church teaches. A teaching devoid of love or charity, however, makes no part of the church’s core. A doctrine is merely a piece of knowledge, and knowledge is memorization. The worst people—even those in hell—can memorize. When a doctrine develops out of charity, though, or is imbued with charity, it does go to make up the inner core, because it is part of life. Life itself is the inner core of all worship, so whenever a doctrinal teaching rises out of a life of thoughtfulness, it is the kind of teaching that belongs to the faith meant here.
The idea that this faith is the kind that forms the inner core of religion can be seen from a single fact: anyone who lives a life of love for others knows everything there is to know about faith. If you wish, simply look at various doctrines to see what they teach and where they tend. Do they not all lead to love for our neighbor? So do they not all belong to the faith that comes from neighborly love? (Secrets of Heaven §1798:2)
Doctrine in itself does not make the outer shell; still less does it make the inner core, as noted above. The Lord does not differentiate religious movements by their doctrine, either, but by the way their members live what is taught. All doctrine—if it is true doctrine—looks to a life of love as its fundamental principle. What is the point of doctrine but to teach us how to be human? (Secrets of Heaven §1799:3)
A doctrinal view is united when everyone loves each other, or displays charity. Mutual love and charity bring such people together into one despite the variety among them, because it draws unity out of variety. (Secrets of Heaven §1285:3)
A living faith prepares us to be human; a vibrant love makes us so. (Secrets of Heaven §95)
One of the most beautiful things to see following the Orlando shooting was the outpouring of love and rejection of violence from people all over, no matter what their religious background. A year ago, we saw similar reactions to the racially motivated church shootings in Charleston, South Carolina, which sparked the Hate Won’t Win movement. More recently, the terrorist attacks on Paris prompted a moving response from the husband of one of the victims, who wrote, “I will not give you the gift of hating you.”
How can we keep that love flowing, as the memory of these events fades? How can we continue to respond to the hate with love?
For more thoughts on how to be loving toward other people—even if you don’t agree with them—you might be interested in two episodes of our weekly webcast Swedenborg and Life: “3 Simple Ways to Love Everyone” (or read the recap for a summary of the episode) and “How to Love” (recap). For a shorter take, see our blog posts “5 Ways to Experience Divine Love Today” and “Three Steps to Making Better Choices.”
You can also find more about the idea of unity through love, in the short clip “Many Religions, A Single Heart.”
For more on Swedenborg’s concept of marriage love, check out our blog post “Are Married Couples Still Married in the Afterlife?”; or, to go even deeper, watch “Spiritual Marriage” (recap)—another episode of our weekly webcast.