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Online works based on the Writings of Emanuel Swedenborg



by W.D. P.

Over the past several years we have received an increasing number of inquiries in regard to the sociological issues and problems of our day. The question which is usually asked is, "What is the position of the General Church in regard to such matters as divorce, abortion, alcohol, drugs, birth control, and homosexuality?" At the outset of this series, which will deal with the first three mentioned subjects, I would ask you to observe that the real question is not, "What is the position of the General Church?" but, "What do the Writings teach concerning these matters?" I say this because these matters cannot be determined by human opinion, that is, by creeds and councils. In all matters pertaining to the life of the church, our only recourse is to the Writings themselves, for we acknowledge no other authority. Further, it is to be observed that in turning to the Writings, every individual is to be left in freedom to act in accordance with his own understanding of what the Writings teach. Under no circumstances is the organized church, acting through the priesthood, or in any other way, to bind the conscience of the individual. It is with this in mind that we proceed this evening to the consideration of what the Writings teach in regard to divorce.

Unlike some of the other subjects mentioned above, the teaching of the Writings concerning divorce is both direct and specific, for we read in the work on Conjugial Love that, "Adultery is the cause of divorce." (CL 255) We are told the reason for this is that, "Marriages and adulteries are diametrically opposed to each other, and that, when opposites act upon opposites, the one destroys the other to the last spark of its life." (Ibid.) Lest there be any misunderstanding in regard to this teaching, the Writings clearly define what is meant by divorce. They say, "By divorce is meant the abolition of the conjugial covenant and thus plenary [full] separation and entire liberty thereafter to take another wife." (CL 468) To this they add the statement: "The one only cause of this total separation or divorce is whoredom, according to the Lord's precept in Matthew 19: 9." (Ibid.)

As readers of the Writings, we are fully aware that in many instances the spiritual sense of the Word breaks with the letter and, in so doing, provides a new understanding of what is involved in the sense of the letter. Were this not so, there would be no need for the spiritual sense. In this instance, however, the Writings support the sense of the letter in that there is no discrepancy between what is taught in the Writings in regard to divorce and what is taught in the New Testament. As stated in the Writings, "The one only cause of ... divorce is whoredom"; and as stated in Matthew, "Whosoever shall put away his wife except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery." (Matthew 19: 9)

To the modern mind this seems like hard doctrine which fails to take into account the numerous reasons why so many married partners find living together an intolerable situation. In answer to this, the Writings provide many reasons for separation but, except for adultery, not the spiritual right to take another partner. Concerning this the Writings say: "If internal affections which conjoin minds are not within . . . matrimonies, (they) are dissolved in the home. It is said in the home because it is between the partners privately. This comes to pass when the first fires, kindled at the time of betrothal and flaming at the time of the wedding, gradually cool down on account of a discrepancy in internal affections, and finally pass off into cold ... Nevertheless, in the world, matrimonies are to continue to the end of life. This is adduced in order to present more clearly before the reason the necessity, utility, and truth of the statement that where conjugial love is not genuine, it should yet be affected, that is, should seem as if it were genuine . . . Since, therefore, the covenant of marriage is a covenant for life, it follows that appearances of love and friendship between the partners are necessities." (CL 275, 276)

This teaching, as stated, stands in direct opposition to the permissive attitude toward marriage which prevails at this day. As in the Jewish Church at the time of the Advent, a man may put away his wife for almost any cause, the only difference being that whereas in the Jewish Church the wife had no rights under the law, in modern society what applies to the husband applies to the wife also. So it is that we are living at a time when marriages which were originally contracted in good faith can readily be dissolved on the initiative of either partner. One of the startling results of this relaxed attitude toward marriage is that in the United States and in some of the other so-called socially advanced countries, somewhat more than one third of the marriages which are contracted now end in divorce. This is a frightening statistic which has both spiritual and sociological implications. Yet in defense of the loosening of the bonds of marriage, the proponents of the "new morality" say, "If a husband and wife no longer find any delight in their marriage, why should they be bound by a legal contract which has no further claim to meaning?" This point of view is a far cry from the teaching of the Writings that despite the differences which arise between husband and wife, marriage in this world is to continue to the end of life because of the use it is intended to serve; that is, because it is the seminary of the human race and therefore of the angelic heavens. Thus it was that when the Pharisees inquired of the Lord, "Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for any cause?" He answered them, saying, "Have ye not read ... For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave unto his wife ... What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder." (Matthew 19: 3, 5)

Unlike all other contractual relationships, marriage is a Divine institution; that is to say, it is not merely an agreement between two persons of the opposite sex; it is a covenant between the Lord, on the one hand, and the husband and wife, on the other. When it is said, therefore, "That matrimonies once contracted are to continue to the end of life in the world," it is further stated, "That this is from Divine law; and being from this, it is also from rational law, and hence from civil law." (CL 276) We could note here that in making this statement, the Writings have reference to the civil law of Swedenborg's day. In both the Catholic and Protestant countries of that time, the civil law was derived from ecclesiastical law and, for the most part, adhered to the Scriptural injunction which forbade divorce for any cause save fornication. It is to be noted, however, that the civil law of the day extended its interpretation of adultery to include malicious desertion on the grounds that in situations where one partner willfully abandoned the other, fornication, although not always demonstrable, was in all probability involved.

We come then to the notable teaching of the Writings which, having first made the statement that, "The one only cause . . . of divorce is whoredom," then proceeds to add two further causes, namely manifest obscenities and malicious desertion. The reason given for this is that these two evils are said to belong to, or make one, with adultery. So we read: "Referable to the same cause (as adultery) are also manifest obscenities which banish modesty and fill and infest the house with shameful panderings, from which arises a scortatory shamelessness in which the whole mind is dissolved. To these causes add malicious desertion which involves whoredom and causes the wife to commit adultery, and thus to be put away." (CL 468) What we have here, then, are three causes for divorce; namely adultery, manifest obscenities, and malicious desertion, the two latter making one with the former in spirit if not in actual fact.

This passage has long been a subject of discussion within the New Church; neither can I say that I clearly understand what is involved. What is meant by "manifest obscenities which banish modesty" and by "shameful panderings from which arises scortatory shamelessness?" One thing, however, is certain: In a marriage in which one partner has become so debased that he or she openly delights in perversions of the conjugial, not only is there no possibility of establishing a conjugial relationship, there is not even the hope of presenting the appearance of a genuine marriage. I assume that in such instances, even as in adultery which is committed "from set purpose," "opposite acts upon opposite, and the one destroys the other to the last spark of its life." (CL 255)

In considering the third cause that is given for divorce, we would note that this too has been the subject of considerable discussion within the church. Is the act of desertion of itself sufficient cause for divorce? If so, what do the Writings mean when they specifically refer to an act of desertion, "which causes the wife to commit adultery and thus to be put away?" To understand this, we must bear in mind that prior to the inclusion in the civil law of desertion as a cause for divorce, the only way in which a man could divorce his wife was to bring evidence of adultery before the court. Even after the passage of the law, if a man deserted his wife and the wife did not sue for divorce, the man was not free to marry again. So it was that if the husband wished to be free of his wife in order that he might marry another woman, he would desert his wife and refuse support. Because of the social order of the day in which a woman had few rights and even fewer opportunities to earn an honorable living for herself and her family, many were forced into prostitution as the only means of survival. We are reminded here of Victor Hugo's novel, Les Miserables, in which he vividly describes the social injustices to which women were subjected at that day. We can understand, therefore, what is meant in the Writings by malicious desertion. The specific reference is to the husband who places his wife in a situation where she is forced into adultery, thus giving the husband a legal reason for putting her away.

In this age of easy divorce when either partner to a marriage can divorce the other for almost any cause, the teaching regarding malicious desertion does not seem to apply. Yet note that malicious desertion, as distinguished from desertion which is not characterized as malicious, involves the intent of putting away one's partner in order that one may be free to marry again. It was originally said to be malicious because at the time it was done with malice and cunning, but spiritually speaking, the term still applies if the purpose of the divorce is to free oneself from the bonds of matrimony in order that one may be at liberty to marry again. It is my understanding, therefore, that when one partner to a marriage divorces the other in order that he or she might marry another, the innocent partner, as in the case of adultery or manifest obscenities, is not only legally, but also spiritually, free to marry again. Note well that I say that this is my understanding of what the Writings teach in regard to divorce and, as such, it is not intended to bind the conscience of others nor to serve as a dictum for the church. In this, as in all matters of doctrine, the man of the church is to be a free man. We are well reminded here that where there is disagreement with the priest in regard to the interpretation of doctrine, let the individual go to the Writings and determine for himself what it is that they teach.

But in order to understand what is involved in divorce, we must first clearly understand what is involved in marriage. We are taught in the Word that marriage is a Divine institution; that is to say, it was instituted by God in the beginning. Thus it was that when the Pharisees inquired of the Lord as to whether it was lawful for a man to put away his wife for any cause, He answered them, saying, "Have ye not read, that He who made them at the beginning made them male and female, and said; for this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and they twain shall be one flesh . . . What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder." (Matthew 19: 5) The reference here is to Genesis 2: 24, where this statement in regard to marriage was originally made. But as the Word in its letter cannot be understood apart from the spiritual sense, we are taught in the Writings that the reason why marriage is a Divine institution is that in its origin it is the marriage of good and truth which flows into man from the Lord out of heaven. (CL 101, 121) Hence the familiar statement in the marriage service, "Marriage on earth descends from the marriage of good and truth in heaven, which in its inmost and supreme is the union of the Divine and the Human in the Lord. The marriage of conjugial love, which is between one man and one woman, is thus from the Lord Himself and is with angels and men according to their acknowledgment of the Lord in heart and life." (Liturgy, 1966 edition, p. 94)

Not only must we understand and acknowledge the origin of marriage, we must also perceive its purpose. Concerning this we read in the Writings that marriage is the seminary of the human race, and because it is the seminary of the human race, it is also the seminary of the Lord's kingdom in the heavens. It is because of this that we are told that marriage is holy and is therefore not to be violated in any manner. (CL 481) As already stated, therefore, marriage involves far more than a mutual agreement between a man and a woman who desire to live together in order that they may enjoy the privileges which properly belong to marriage. In itself marriage involves the essential covenant of the Lord with the church and the use which it serves is said to be, "more excellent than all the other uses of creation." (CL 143, 156, 305) With this thought in mind, we can begin to understand why it is that, except for those reasons for divorce which are given in the Writings, marriage is to be regarded as a covenant for life. (CL 276)

We are all mindful, however, that there are situations in which what is of order, and what is humanly possible, are not always compatible. Take, for example, a marriage in which one partner treats the other with cruelty or contempt or even with loathing; are these not also reasons for divorce? If they are, the Writings do not say so, but the Writings do provide a long list of reasons for separation and make it quite evident that where irreconcilable differences exist between partners, the husband and wife are not required to live together in the same house. Yet what if under these circumstances the husband refuses to support his wife and his family? Is the wife through necessity forced to return to her husband, or is she free to sue for divorce? All these and many more questions arise out of the complexities of human relationships, and how are they to be resolved? Again, I can only say that in such instances the New Church man's only recourse is to go to the Writings and, in so doing, search his own heart. If the reason for which one seeks a divorce is not prescribed in the Writings, what is proposed comes under the doctrine of permissions, which, if taken lightly, may lead to serious spiritual consequences as is evident from what the Writings have to say about self justification. But the doctrine of permissions, although pertinent to the subject of divorce, is equally applicable to all the sociological issues of our day, and will therefore be considered in our next class when we take up the subject of abortion.

-New Church Life 1974;94:155-160

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