Studia Swedenborgiana

Vol. 13 December,  2003 Number 2 

Distinguishably One: A Wholeness Theologian's Response

by H. Roslyn Taylor

I GREATLY ENJOYED reading Kimberly Hinrichs's article, "Distinguishably One: Envisioning a Confluence of Feminist and Swedenborgian Theology."[1] Like Hinrichs, I am excited about the prospect of developing a Swedenborgian feminist theology that can bring together the shared core values of feminist theologies and the teachings contained in Swedenborg's theological writings. Such a confluence would bring power and eloquence to the ways Swedenborg is heard and appreciated in our culture at large. I believe that Hinrichs has made a valuable and substantial start in the task of bringing the two streams together. At the same time, I feel myself bracing for the reactions the work she proposes might receive. Despite intentions for restoration and healing, feminism and feminist thinking can carry negative connotations, especially in contexts where they pose a threat to existing comfortable and longstanding modes of being and thinking.

Hinrichs limits herself in this article to a consideration of Christian feminist theology, and particularly to the work of the mother of Christian feminist theology, Rosemary Radford Ruether. Considering the challenges inherent in the confluence she proposes, I concur that this is an appropriate place to begin. Echoing the sentiments that Ruether expressed in the most recent edition of her pioneering work, Sexism and God-Talk, we will have an enriched Swedenborgian feminist theology when we selectively incorporate what is valuable in the perspectives of a range of Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, Islamic, and other feminist theologians.[2]

Consistently throughout the article, Hinrichs hints at a further goal, the development of a theology that affirms the spiritual wholeness and equality of all people, male and female, European and non-European. It is this goal that has my true passion. Feminist theology is a necessary tributary that can feed the river of interpretations of Swedenborgian teachings that are affirming, redemptive and healing for all people. As we gain expertise in identifying and addressing the ways that traditional Swedenborgian theological interpretations have wounded women and women's spirituality, we will become better able to do the same for all the ways that our interpretations have limited people and potentially stunted their freedom and spiritual growth. North American Swedenborgians will become better able to see the ways we have considered our European heritage as normative, and have thereby potentially or actually harmed other peoples by not seeing our understanding of God's wisdom as being accommodated to our own cultural paradigms.

Hinrichs aptly quotes Rosemary Radford Ruether's support for the effort "to define journeys of growth into wholeness for women and men by which each can reclaim those lost parts of themselves that have been assigned to the other sex."[3] Terrence Real's powerful work in gender and relationships[4] has advanced the cause of exposing and healing the ways we have all been damaged in traditional Western culture. Real offers hope for restoring authentic selfhood and marriage relationships in ways that can embody the principles of conjugial love, and can be useful in reconstructing Swedenborgian theology, as Hinrichs is encouraging us to consider. Such issues in wholeness theology are discussed in the forthcoming book Healing Words: A Sampler of Wholeness Theology, soon to be published by authors in the Caritas movement.[5]

An important point is that it is not the realities of divine origin shown to Emanuel Swedenborg through the agency of inhabitants of the spiritual world that have harmed women and men. It is human limitation that has harmed us. Divine truth, embodying God's love, is redemptive for everyone and never harmful. The encoding of God's divine truth in sacred texts of any kind inherently poses epistemological dilemmas for people who are trying to find meaning applicable to their lives. One reality of the human condition is that human limitations cloud a vision of God's truth in both the prophet and the disciple.6 How do we discern what is cloud and what lies beyond the cloud? How do we as disciples discern what we are contributing to the cloud ourselves and what traces of cloud the prophet has left behind? We are left having to make the best interpretations we can of the often seemingly paradoxical realities God is showing us. We are left facing the challenges of entering "with understanding into the mysteries of faith"7 to the best of our ability.

It is the traditional interpretation of these spiritual realities, the best efforts of people who lived before us, that have given rise to the need for a confluence of Swedenborgian and feminist theologies. Interpretations of these teachings are sometimes not even recognized as interpretations but presented as lens-free, objective understandings of clear statements. The relative proximity in time and culture between Swedenborg's world view and ours has sometimes led Swedenborgians to apparently believe cultural context issues relevant to understanding the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures to be unnecessary for understanding and applying Swedenborgian teachings. My belief is that God has been guiding our development as a human family, working with us over time to preserve God's presence with us, so that we can now see more and more clearly the nature of God's wisdom, and can evolve into better ways to live in the image of God.[8] New insights and visions that come to us through the work of liberation and feminist theologians, especially when their core values seem consistent with Swedenborgian teachings, might represent ways that the Lord is guiding us "into all truth,"[9] transforming the perspectives of many different people in diverse religious contexts. When Hinrichs calls for a deconstruction of traditional Swedenborgian theology and a reconstruction of our theology in ways that are redemptive and promote wholeness, I do not understand her to be questioning the spiritual realities, but rather to be faulting the ways they have been handled in the past. I also do not hear her questioning whether the spiritual realities are of a divine origin, but rather opening up the question of how the divine showed those realities to Swedenborg as an 18thcentury Christian European man, and how the divine might show them to women and men today.[10]

The theological deconstruction and reconstruction that is at the heart of Hinrichs's envisioning was particularly captivating for me. I instantly remembered a rabbinical graduation and ordination ceremony I attended earlier this year. My friend graduated from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia, one of two institutions in the United States that train rabbis to serve congregations in the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation. I felt an overpowering emotional and spiritual solidarity with their mission to be committed to "the Reconstructionist conception of Judaism as an evolving religious civilization, and to the advancement of universal freedom, justice and teach Torah in its broadest foster the interdependence and harmonious relationships appropriate to godliness and human fulfillment."[11] I felt more at home with these Jewish people committed to reconstructing their tradition in ways that promote freedom, peace and interdependence, than I have felt in gatherings of Christians or Swedenborgians whose relentless grasp on traditional and oppressive theologies leaves me feeling spiritually strangled and alienated. Hinrichs's vision of a Swedenborgian reconstructionist effort inspired me in the same way as the vision of the Jewish Reconsructionists. It inspired me in the same way as the reconstructive efforts I already see in our tradition: contemporary worship services, marriage and family programs, collaborative worship planning, women in ordained and lay ministries, various gatherings and events for men's and women's spirituality, healing programs and services, family camps where fresh forms of worship and authentic sharing evolve. This is work that needs to be done if we are to do our part in bringing true freedom and peace in the new era on earth.

As to Hinrichs's analysis of issues and specific suggestions for reconstruction, I found myself nodding in agreement with most of what she wrote, grateful to be reading such a thorough, insightful assessment of "the barriers and opportunities within the Swedenborgian tradition toward building a Swedenborgian feminism" (Hinrichs, 3). Many of the issues on which she focused have been informally addressed by postings to the Caritas list-serve. Studia Swedenborgiana readers who would like to try out the discussion could contact

While I will not comment on each topic raised in the article, leaving detailed commentary to a time where reconstructionist Swedenborgian theology can be carefully developed, I would endorse especially Hinrichs's reflections on the need for including spiritual exegesis in a reconstructionist Swedenborgian biblical hermeneutic. This is a perspective that Swedenborgians are particularly graced to be able to bring to the feminist and wholeness theology movements. As Hinrichs points out, a prophetic reading of the literal sense of the Word is valuable for the proposed reconstruction, but readers of Swedenborg's theological writings are also given deeper ways to understand God's Word. Our challenge is to be able to hold multi-layered and sometimes paradoxically related biblical readings, not ignoring the prophetic meanings and the sometimes harsh misogynist texts, yet incorporating the correspondential meanings that are contained within. To do so requires that we are clear about the boundaries around each layer of meaning, including the ways that gender is used in the literal sense, the ways that cultural context may have guided the choice of words and imagery, and the universal application and implications of the spiritual meanings for men and women.

I also agreed, in Hinrichs's discussion of the heterosexism of the conjugial ideal, that we need to proceed "with extreme sensitivity and reflection" (Hinrichs, 15). I resonate with her affirmation of same-gender partnered people, single people, and people who are experiencing distress in their marriage relationships, as all are already individually "a true expression of God's creation" (Hinrichs, 14) which inherently includes the conjugial principle. In all those situations, the individual person is intrinsically a form of the divine union of goodness and wisdom.[12] He or she can also be working at some level on chaste true intimacy with another, which I see as an essential prerequisite for relationships that image the divine marriage. However, I do not believe that every Swedenborgian needs to claim the same perspective as I do. A reconstruction of traditional Swedenborgian theology includes, in my view, a place for the traditional interpretations for those who need them. There is a great need for new interpretations to stand firmly alongside the older ones and a great need for respect for everyone's freedom to love God's truths in the forms that are best accommodated to their current spiritual state. Ironically, it seems to me that traditional Swedenborgian theology often includes the notion that no other valid interpretations can exist, despite the responsibility of each person to come to their own lived understanding of God's revelations.[13]

Much as I appreciate Rev. Hinrichs's thorough groundwork for reconstructing our Swedenborgian tradition so that we may embrace true Swedenborgian theology itself (Hinrichs, 4), I would also suggest that Swedenborgian feminist theologians pay attention not only to the content of reconstruction, but also to the process. My involvement in the Caritas movement in the General Church has shown me that there is emotional work to be done along with the cognitive tasks of dialoging, examining, deconstructing and reconstructing. The emotional dimension of this work, for everyone affected by it, needs groundwork and support also.

People who are willing to risk losing what has been valued and valuable in their spiritual life to date, in the quest for more just and whole ways of living spiritually, face significant grief work. People who are being spiritually fed by the traditional forms of Swedenborgian theology and practice, and feel that their faith community has been unnecessarily challenged or altered also find themselves working through a grief process. There are also grief processes for all the members of the faith community as relationships change between community members, and between individuals and the community. A familiar, predictable religious environment evolves and changes, resulting in a need for griefwork for everyone. Swedenborgian feminist theologians could also consider the impact on the spiritual associations of the members of a faith community as reconstruction is underway, and the states of spiritual distress and consolation that might be occurring.

William Worden[14] has identified four general tasks for people undertaking griefwork. The tasks are to accept the reality of the loss, to work through the emotions that come up, to adapt to an altered environment, and to move forward into a new life that integrates the loss. I believe these tasks apply to both those who are involved in reconstructing, and those who are one way or another experiencing a loss or anticipated loss of their faith community. A Swedenborgian reconstructionist theology might consider practices that provide support for each other with sensitivity, as we deal with accepting the reality that we or others have been hurt by traditional Swedenborgian theological paradigms. There could be an effort to recognize that we or others are working through a sequence of emotions such as frustration, anger, fear, sadness, hope and joy. Difficult as it may be to deal with a person who is feeling angry or fearful in this process, or with our own anger and fear, we can learn to not condemn but instead accept and support the grieving. Finally, as the Swedenborgian faith communities within our denomination move on, reconstructionist theology might address ways to adapt in a constructive manner to a new evolution within our tradition. There could be support for being intentional about integrating losses and gifts into our lives as vital communities of faith and life: losses of either valued traditional Swedenborgian theology and practices, or of the safety of unchallenged theology, and gains in theological clarity, justice and wholeness.

Roslyn Taylor holds a Master of Arts in Religious Studies from the Academy of the New Church Theological School, and has completed a professional chaplaincy clinical training program. Her ministry includes working as adjunct staff in the Pastoral Care Department at the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center and facilitating a home church in Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania. She is married with four teenage children.

[1] Kimberly M. Hinrichs, "Distinguishably One: Envisioning a Confluence of Feminist and Swedenborgian Theology," Studia Swedenborgiana 13 no. 1 (June 2003).
[2] Rosemary Radford Ruether, Sexism and God-Talk (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993), xvi.
[3] Hinrichs, 17. The passage quoted is from Rosemary Radford Ruether, Woman and Redemption: A Theological History (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998), 9.
[4] Terrence Real, I Don't Want to Talk About It (New York: Scribner, 1997) and How Can I Get Through to You? (New York: Scribner, 2002).
[5] Caritas is a movement that started within the membership of the General Church of the New Jerusalem. It embraces people in all Swedenborgian branches who are interested in examining the issues and teachings that have contributed to the disempowerment of women, as well as the disconnection of men, within the Swedenborgian denomination as well as elsewhere. Further information about Healing Words or Caritas can be obtained from this writer ( or P.O. Box 620, Bryn Athyn, PA 19009).
[6] Emanuel Swedenborg, Arcana Coelestia, trans. J.F. Potts (West Chester, PA: Swedenborg Foundation, 1998; first published in Latin, 1747.56, London) §8106. Swedenborg wrote that even in states of "enlightenment or clear perception," there is "obscurity of truth."
[7] Emanuel Swedenborg, True Christian Religion, vol. 1 trans. John C. Ager (West Chester, PA: Swedenborg Foundation, 1996; first published 1771), §508. Swedenborg reported seeing in heaven a temple with the inscription "Now it is permitted," meaning that one is permitted to confirm the teachings of the New Church "by rational considerations," and also "by the Word."
[8] See Swedenborg, Arcana Coelestia §4706 about the successive church eras, and True Christian Religion §762 about the churches "pass(ing) through their ages like an individual" according to "divine order."
[9] John 16:13.
[10] Swedenborg, True Christian Religion §779. Swedenborg wrote that the Lord would "establish a new church by means of a man, who can receive the doctrines of this church with his understanding," which he received "from the Lord alone."
[11] Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Philadelphia, PA. Thirty-First Graduation Program 2003.
[12] Emanuel Swedenborg, The Delights of Wisdom Pertaining to Conjugial Love, trans. Samuel Warren (West Chester, PA: Swedenborg Foundation, 1998; first published in Latin, Amsterdam, 1768), §§85, 92.
[13] Emanuel Swedenborg, Apocalypse Explained, trans. John C. Ager (West Chester, PA: Swedenborg Foundation, 1997; first published in Latin, London, 1785.1789), §§815.9.
[14] William Worden, Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy (New York: Springer, 1991).