I am writing this post in response to some negative reactions by readers who don’t fully appreciate my challenging the notion of “doing good” in the world. I can well understand how most people would find nothing wrong with simple acts of goodness. Everyone can understand such a universal truth and positive rule in life.
So let me explain my concerns about “good deeds.”
It has to do with the unique details within the theological disclosures of Emanuel Swedenborg who went deep into the weeds of his own seemingly exemplary life. Doing good deeds and being useful to society can actually blind us from making deeper self-discoveries.
It is well known among those who study the vast writings of Emanuel Swedenborg that he first studied science and the natural world, then began to look within and study his inner or spiritual reality. As a result he eventually became a theologian and produced a complete systematic approach to religion that brought a new kind of rational accessibility to even the deepest mysteries if faith.
This transition was not just a move from the worldly sciences to spiritual topics. It involved his first looking mercilessly into the qualities of his own heart and mind. I find the period of his transition very enlightening for it illustrates how he personally approached the process of spiritual transformation. (If you read his account of this period you would have serious questions about the effectiveness of attending Sunday worship services for the primal purpose of eternal salvation.)
The first 35 years of Swedenborg’s adult life was filled with noble causes to help his countrymen as well as those of other countries. He created many useful inventions, played a role in Sweden’s government to help install beneficial laws for Swedish citizens, and most of all, worked indefatigably to advance knowledge and science throughout the world by personally publishing his new and unique discoveries on everything from anatomy and neuroscience to cosmology. He was a gifted man of great importance and usefulness to society. And he was a man of God—or so he thought.
During his transitional period, Swedenborg was to discover that in spite of his accomplishments he was no angel and profoundly flawed. As he looked within himself he began to question the quality of his goodness. Thanks to his personal notes, we learn that this was not an easy time in his life. It was a time when God’s moving closer into his life caused unflattering self-discoveries to bubble up through the surface of his corporeal life—deep, dark things which until then were protected from appearing before the eyes of the world through his living of an outwardly moral and noble life.
He records dreams, which mercilessly depicted his inner character flaws and negative leanings. These ignoble inclinations had to be rooted out before he could play an important theological role in the Lord God’s plan to create a new church—the New Jerusalem!
Most shocking to such a praised and distinguished thinker was his self-discovery that when the love of reward, prestige and the promise of honor were subtracted from his various activities and projects, his mind went dull and quickly lost interest. This experience taught him that his ego was intimately attached to—and energizing—all his acts of goodness!
This is a concept that many people miss who strive to do “good” in the world—even from a spiritual principle!
People generally believe that one simply becomes a better person by turning to goodness. However, goodness is not genuine goodness until one has personally “cleaned house.” This is why in his book True Christianity, Swedenborg seems to make an anti-intuitive statement concerning spiritual evolution and rebirth. He claimed that the first important steps in acquiring genuine goodness are: 1) sincere self-examination, 2) recognizing evil traits hiding within, 3) seeing these traits as sin, 4) openly confessing these discoveries honestly before the Lord God, 5) then asking for Divine help in resisting all the dirt that one digs up.
As painful and awful as this process may seem to one’s self-esteem, there is no other way to properly purify the human spirit—in order that goodness can manifest through innocence.
So Swedenborg discovered something truly unique (and more interior) during his efforts to exalt religious doctrine. Individuals who are being prepared by the Lord God for eternal life in heaven experience additional conflicts in which even their acts of goodness go through a process of further purification!
It is pathological to only seek comfort from one’s religion or church. This incomplete approach tends to anesthetize one into a false sense of relief. In truth, the opposite must happen once a person consciously decides to become a genuine participant in the Lord’s eternal plan.
Swedenborg was a much better man than I because he had the courage to face himself in ways that would be too horrifying for me to bear.
Unfortunately, if religious leaders take this “tough love” direction with their followers, most will find that they are creating a ruckus, lose their followers, or quickly get kicked out and onto the street. As a further depressing result from the fear of losing faithful members (at a time when church membership is shrinking) by abandoning “feel-good” ministries, these same leaders will eventually forget the precise steps that bring about true salvation and neglect to take these steps in their own lives as well.
The result is institutional spiritual “fluff.”