Belief without Faith
WELCOME TO TODAY'S SERVICE
February 22, 2009
Belief without Faith
Open your Bible
Light a candle
"I Saw the Light"
From the Bible:
The Narrow and Wide Gates
Belief without Faith
Feb. 22, 2009
The Experience of an Alcoholic
The alcoholic man had tried everything he could think of to stop drinking, but nothing had worked. One night, quite drunk, he wandered into the Calvary Mission, where a preacher invited people to give their souls to Jesus. The man jumped up and joined others at the railing.
Almost immediately, he felt his desire to drink lifting from him. He was able to walk home passing many bars, without stopping to drink. When he got home, he excitedly told his wife that he knew he had finally stopped drinking! His new-found faith would be enough.
After his wife left for work the next morning, he realized he needed a few drinks to get through the day. He kept drinking for several days, and then staggered to the hospital where he had dried out before. He was very discouraged; even suicidal.
A good friend, and fellow alcoholic, visited him and brought him a copy of William James, Varieties of Religious Experience.
William James was the son of Henry James, who became an avid convert to Swedenborg as a young man, and raised his children Swedenborgian. William had issues with his father, and wouldn’t claim his religion. However, his work as a psychologist focused on mystical experience, and seemed quite Swedenborgian in its viewpoint.
Bill wasn’t interested in reading, so his friend, Ebby left the book with him. That night Bill – Bill Wilson, our alcoholic – reached the absolute bottom of despair, and shouted out, “If there be a God, let him show himself.”
“Suddenly,” he later wrote, “my room blazed with an indescribable white light. I was seized with an ecstasy beyond description. Every joy I had known was weak by comparison. Then, seen in the mind’s eye, there was a mountain. I stood on its summit, where a great wind blew. A wind, not of air, but of spirit. In great, clean strength, it blew right through me. Then came the blazing thought, ‘you are a free man.’”
And Bill Wilson was, in fact, a free man at that moment. He never again had another drink, and was a primary inspiration for the founding of A.A.
We now might say that Bill had just experienced the first two steps. He admitted his powerlessness, and he came to believe in a power greater than himself.
But how had that happened? And why didn’t it happen before, such as when he gave his soul to Jesus at the mission a few days earlier?
Swedenborg on Faith
Perhaps the answer lies in what Swedenborg wrote about faith.
To Swedenborg, faith had to be part of love, to be in the heart; not just in the mind. Many people have a “faith” that is theirs because they were raised with it. They never question it, and they call it their faith. But, they haven’t experienced it with their heart; they have only absorbed it as words in the mind.
When Bill saw the light in his room, he was having a spiritual experience. It was not something he thought he ought to believe. It was his own true belief from the experience of his heart that night. And it changed his life forever.
How is it that Bill, Ebby, and others came to understand “belief” in that way?
We cannot know for sure, but it does seem that Swedenborg’s writings had an indirect influence on early A.A.
Carl Jung and A.A.
One of the earliest influences on the first members was Carl Jung.
In 1931, Roland H. discouraged by his inability to stop drinking, went to learn from Carl Jung in Zurich. He had a year of successful treatment, but as soon as he left, he drank again. He returned to Jung for treatment, but Jung told him that further treatment would be useless. He needed to have a true spiritual awakening, and he suggested a religious group. Roland became involved in the Oxford Group, out of which came most of the early AA members.
Roland passed the good news about a spiritual awakening on to his friend and fellow alcoholic, Ebby. Ebby also came to the Oxford Group, and learned there of a popular book many members were reading: The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James. It was the book he brought to Bill during his stay in his hospital.
Years Later, Bill Wilson wrote to Carl Jung:
“This concept of [of spiritual experience] proved to be the foundation of such success as Alcoholics Anonymous has since achieved. This has made conversion experience … available on almost a wholesale basis.” In his closing, Bill wrote: “…as you will now clearly see, this astonishing chain of events actually started long ago in your consulting room, and it was directly founded upon your own humility and deep perception.”
Carl Jung had read Swedenborg’s work during medical school, and had a spiritual psychology similar to Swedenborg’s.
William James and A.A.
William James, a professor at Harvard, was an early spokesperson for a spirituality that is personally lived and experienced.
William James wrote:
The simplest rudiment of mystical experience would seem to be that deepened sense of the significance of a maxim or formula which occasionally sweeps over one. “I’ve heard that said all my life,” we exclaim, “but I never realized its full meaning until now.” “...
First of all, then, I ask, What does the expression “mystical states of consciousness” mean? How do we part off mystical states from other states?
I simply propose to you four marks which, when an experience has them, may justify us in calling it mystical for the purpose of the present lectures.
Ineffability.–The handiest of the marks by which I classify a state of mind as mystical is negative. The subject of it immediately says that it defies expression, that no adequate report of its contents can be given in words. It follows from this that its quality must be directly experienced; it cannot be imparted or transferred to others.
Noetic quality.–Although so similar to states of feeling, mystical states seem to those who experience them to be also states of knowledge. They are states of insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect
Transiency.–Mystical states cannot be sustained for long. Except in rare instances, half an hour, or at most an hour or two, seems to be the limit beyond which they fade into the light of common day.
Passivity.–Although the oncoming of mystical states may be facilitated by preliminary voluntary operations, as by fixing the attention, or going through certain bodily performances, or in other ways which manuals of mysticism prescribe; yet when the characteristic sort of consciousness once has set in, the mystic feels as if his own will were in abeyance, and indeed sometimes as if he were grasped and held by a superior power.
James is writing about the knowing of spirit through experience, rather than the learning words about spirit without experience.
Our Own Experiences
As I grew up, I was given a faith tradition by my family and my church. It was our tradition, and I was to have “faith” that it was true. To even question its validity was to lack faith.
By college years, I had wandered away from that tradition, as it had nothing to attract me. However, when I learned to meditate, I came to have my own experience of a peace and love that had to be Divine.
This is what Swedenborg calls upon all of us to do. We need to open our hearts to Love, and to live our spirituality in our daily lives. We come to know God for ourselves. This “knowing” is not because someone tells us it is so. It is because we open our hearts and live our daily lives with Love.
A personal knowing of God is not always through a mystical experience – such as James wrote about and Bill experienced – it could be through opening our hearts to love.
Swedenborg talks about experience that comes into ones heart. It changes who you are; not the words that you utter. A life of faith without love is like sunlite without warmth.
That may be the deeper meaning to “came to believe.” Not in the sense of learning a creed. But in the William James sense of having a real experience; an encounter with the Divine.
Jung was right that it took such an encounter to bring an alcoholic to recovery.
The same is true for each of us everyday of our lives. God is not expecting us to come to accept some belief system in our minds; but an experience of the Divine in our hearts.
As Swedenborgians, we honor and respect the spiritual encounters we all have in our lives.
What are the experiences in your life that have formed your beliefs?
Lynda Randle and David Phelps
Now extinguish your candle
And close the Bible.
Go forth; knowing God in the sunlight of your heart.
Swedenborgian Community, 11 Highland Ave., Newtonville MA 02460, 207-985-8776