Freedom and Love

As a kid I was known as someone who liked to argue.  I never thought so.  I just seemed to have a lot of opinions about things.  Anyway, when I got to high school, I found an acceptable way to be argumentative.  I was on the varsity debate team.  Actually, everyone who went out for debate was on the varsity team.  That was because it took four members to make a team.  Gives you an idea of how popular debate was.   

My position on the team was called batting cleanup.  I was fourth man, except half the team were girls.  But anyway, I was fourth, which meant I went last and mopped up, so to speak.  It was my job to drive home the team's position.  Hence the term batting cleanup. 

My teammates called me the anchor.  I was very proud of that designation until I discovered that they meant I was dead weight. 

Debate wasn't a popular extra curricular activity.   There were few of us in the debate club and no one ever came to hear us debate.  Not even our parents, as I recall.  I liked to think that was because the debates were always held on Saturday mornings.   I guess our folks preferred to sleep in their beds  rather than sleeping through our meets.

There were two reasons for its lack of popularity, I believe.  One was that it was the most nerve-wracking sport out there.  I would get so nervous before a debate that I'd be sick to my stomach and afterwards I always needed a shower more than after a basketball game.  Then there was the amount of preparation needed.  Playing on the basketball team required a two-hour practice every afternoon.  Debate required research into the wee hours of the morning, after our other homework was done.  A lot of high school students like to argue, but not many like it so much that they are willing to prepare like that for it.   

On top of all this, a judge wrapped up each debate by telling us we either won or lost, and giving us details about why.  It could be a very humbling experience. 

So after high school I didn't pursue it.  I kept on arguing whenever the opportunity presented itself, but only informally.  It was the sixties, Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War.   I didn't have to look far to find a good argument. 

What is arguing all about?  At its very basic roots it is about exercising our freedom of choice, isn't it?  What is that freedom of choice?  We take it for granted.  We are so used to choosing we don't even notice we are doing it most of the time.  Yet it is at the core of our humanity.  Without the ability to choose and everything that goes into that ability, we would simply be animals.   We would not be human and we would not be aware of being an individual except in the rudimentary way animals experience their selfhood.

Animals are like machines.  They are programmed to function a certain way and only that way.  They don't have to make choices, although at times it appears they are doing so.  But a predator doesn't kill unless it is hungry.  Animals that are prey have a sense of this.  I have seen videos taken on the plains of Africa showing antelope and other prey grazing within sight of a pride of lions.  Neither group of animals is paying any attention to the other.  But when the lions get hungry and begin to organize for a hunt, the antelope become alert to their actions and respond accordingly.  The antelope "know," so to speak, when the lions are dangerous to them and when they are not.

Human beings aren't programmed like this.  We respond to hunger, it's true, but we also choose to eat snacks even when we aren't hungry.   We even choose to eat snacks that are actually harmful to us.  For humans, once basic appetite is satisfied, we continue eating by choice.

People hunt for sport.  We also choose to smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol and use other drugs.  We choose to make war on each other, or commit murders.  We steal, lie, bear false witness, commit adultery.  As a species we break all of God's commandments.

We have free choice because God gave us free choice and throughout our history we have used that free choice to create the evil that exists.  So why did an omnipotent, omniscient, loving God decide to create a being that produces evil?   

The answer to that is that he didn't really have a choice.  Does that sound strange, even ridiculous?  Of course God has a choice in everything God does.  God is omnipotent and omniscient.  He can do anything and he knows everything. 

But God is God.  He says it.  I am that I am.  In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God and all things were made by him and through him and nothing was made without him.  He is and was and will be forever.  God is reality itself.  God's life is the only life that actually exists.  We are nothing but vessels into which he pours life.  That is why we live. 

So why would God create us if he knew our existing would lead to the existence of evil? 

This is one of those very complicated issues that Swedenborg explores at great length.  He does this because understanding it is essential to understanding why we are the way we are and what we need to do. 

So let's start at the beginning of this thorny question.  Why did God create us in the first place?  He did it because God is Love itself.  You have heard of and perhaps read about Divine Love and Wisdom.  Divine Wisdom comes from Divine Love.  Wisdom is not wise without love, because wisdom comes forth from and is made of love.  Without love wisdom is really nothing.  It has no substance.  Love is the substance in wisdom. 

This is not a figure of speech.  It is literally true.  In our service last week I read from Swedenborg's little book called The Lord that everything spiritual consists of a substance.  This substance is the spiritual equivalent of matter in our physical world.  They correspond.

Since everything is essentially made of the substance we call Love and since God is that love itself, God cannot help but love.  He doesn't have to do love.  He is love.  Love is innate in God.  It is God's essence. 

So because God is love he needs something to love.  This is an important point and one we don't normally seem to recognize. It is like God has a limit.  In a sense he does.  He cannot help but be loving because it is his essential nature.  If he didn't love, he wouldn't be God.  He cannot choose to stop loving any more than you could choose to be something other than a person in a physical body.  That's what you are.  Love is what God is.  So God is limited, or perhaps we should say, defined in this way.

Because this so-called limit exists in God's nature, he must have something to love.  If he didn't have something other than himself to love, he would be guilty of self-love and there cannot be a single trace of self-love in God.  So he has to create something to love, and that's us and this universe we live in.  God created it and saw that it was good and loved it. 

But God in his omniscience saw that in order to love us and be in a loving relationship with us, the loving had to be reciprocal.  Anyone who has been in a situation of unrequited love knows how unsatisfying, and even destructive, it can be.  Unrequited love eats away at the soul of the loving person.  We feel love as a frustration if it is not returned.  While our lack of love for the Lord does not destroy him, does not even reduce him in his essential self, it is something that saddens him.  In his love, which is also his mercy, he never gives up on us, but it hurts the Lord when we turn away. 

So why didn't he simply create us to always love him?  The answer is that if we didn't have the ability to choose to love him, it wouldn't be something that was truly ours and the relationship between us and God would be like that of a young child with a doll.  As long as the child is young and innocent, meaning ignorant, a doll can provide a satisfying relationship for the child.  But as the child grows older and realizes that the doll is really just an object, the imaginary relationship disappears.  In order to feel satisfied and loved, the child needs a relationship with a real person who loves in return.

God is not ignorant.  God knows everything.  For us to provide a satisfactory relationship of love for God, we have to be real individuals.  We can't be dolls. 

What makes us real in this sense is the fact that we have the ability to know and understand truth and to choose it.  We have the ability to learn about God and to choose to love God freely, without being compelled to do so.  

Swedenborg says that "every special gift the church has to offer that comes to us in freedom and that we freely accept stays with us; what comes to us in other ways does not."

In other words, only that which we freely acknowledge and believe becomes part of our true self.  Everything else dies with our physical body.  What we freely believe is part of our real person.  This is where the life the Lord pours into us exists in us, and the character we form there by our choices between good and evil determines the kind of person we become. 

The Lord is constantly showing us the way to become good, loving persons.  At every turn we have opportunities to learn what goodness is and to practice it, to make it our own and become goodness. 

We are to love God and our neighbor as our self.  This is the grand design by which everything works.   Let us choose to live so as to rise up one day as angels, capable of expressing the love to others that the Lord pours into us every moment of our lives.