The Christian Age
The Pattern of Time VI
With the Christian Church we find ourselves well and truly into the time of written history, with plenty of material from Roman times to document the course of our story (not to mention the New Testament). So, as you can read it all elsewhere, it is arguably a waste of time to go on with my 'Five/six Age' series. Certainly what I can write in only two or three pages, will be a far less comprehensive impression of this age than I was able to give of earlier ages. So I think it best if I concentrate on one or two particular aspects of Christian Church history on which Swedenborg's Writings cast a different light, to that shown by conventional History. Controversial suggestions such as that the Christian Church began declining early in the 4th century, or that it ground to an end in the 18th.
Preparing the Ground
We also have more detailed information about the centuries prior to the Christian period (which are not covered in the Bible) and can see that there was a period of preparation paving the way for the establishment of that 'new' age. We are well aware of the Hebrew prophecies of the Old Testament, but the scene was also made ready in other ways, by other cultures. The dominant culture in the Middle East around this time was the Greek civilisation, spread by Alexander the Great's conquests. We all know that the New Testament was written in Greek, but it isn't always realised how strong Greek culture was in Jerusalem. For instance the architecture of Herod's Temple, where Our Lord preached, would have been Greek. The Greeks had been developing a new language with a more flexible grammar and extended vocabulary, suitable for drama, science and philosophy. So the apostles had the perfect means of expression for the message of the new revelation, and all the literate inhabitants of the Eastern Mediterranean would be able to read and understand it.
Politically, however, Rome dominated the scene. As we know from the Christmas Story in Luke, Caesar Augustus was ruling, and he well deserves his mention in the Bible, for after years of war and conflict he had established a period of peace that we now call the Pax Romana. This period was to last for several centuries, during which, the Christian Church could spread and become securely established.
So we find the three 'classical' cultures of our Western Civilisation laying down a foundation for the Church. And as it is often pointed out, at Our Lord's crucifixion the title 'The King of the Jews' was carved
in their three languages, Hebrew, Greek and Latin, as if to symbolise this fact. They are, of course immediately recognisable as corresponding to love, wisdom and power, or shall we say order, in this particular case.
A new age? But what new age?
So everything is ready for a new age, but we do have a problem. In the previous 'ages' we examined, the spiritual ages coincided with material ages. The beginning of the Ancient Church was accompanied by the Agricultural Revolution and the Jewish Church by the beginning of the Iron Age. The New Church too coincided with the Industrial Revolution, but what of the Christian Church? There was no great material change in our way of living in the 1st century AD. Nevertheless, in a way, the Christian Church was also a material change; it was a different sort of church.
Since the latter part of the Bronze Age, most religion had been integrated with nationality and government. If you were born a Jew, Persian, or whatever, you followed the religion of those nations, and with rare exceptions, such as that of the Pharaoh Akhenaten, kings faithfully maintained these religions. State, or race, and religion were interdependent. But now for the first time we begin to find religions setting up on their own, independent of race and politics; claiming to be on a plane above such things, to be truly spiritual in their outlook. And, Christianity was not the only instance of such a religion.
It is remarkable that just at the time that Isaiah began to make prophesies about the Our Lord's coming, Zarathustra in Persia, the Buddha in India and Confucius in China, were putting forward not dissimilar kinds of doctrines. These prophets lived in times of war but then in the 1st century AD came a time of peace, when Christianity began to take shape; as also did Zoroastrianism, Mahayana Buddhism and Confucianism. They all suddenly begin to expand outside the smaller groups of religious devotees with whom they had first taken root - later there was Islam. Hence my sub-title to this chapter 'The Age of Religions', as these other faiths also reflected the life of the new heavens. And to some extent this was reflected in the establishment of new Empires; the Parthian in Iraq and Persia; the Kushan in India; and the Han in China. Each of these powers, like Rome, kept the peace in their areas for the next two centuries, while these religions established themselves as Christianity was doing.
Historians can only remark on the coincidence, but we know that the wars before AD1 reflect the conflict inspired by the hells at the close of the Jewish (3rd Ancient) Heaven; while the peace after AD 30 resulted from the order established by Jesus in the spiritual world at the beginning of the Christian Heaven.
In his last incomplete work, the Coronis, Swedenborg says that each Church or Age went through periods corresponding to morning, noon, evening and night. Though vague in the case of other churches, he does say that the morning of the Christian Church only lasted a century, the noon period two and that from approximately 300 AD the Church started to go downhill. That is just when it became recognised as the official religion of the Roman Empire, and before it had even reached most of Western Europe. Looking at it from a Western European point of view, he is claiming that decay was endemic in our branches of the Church before it even started.
We should realise, however, that the Western European view may be somewhat biased. We now look on the Eastern Mediterranean countries as part of the third world, but then, before soil erosion had set in, they were the most prosperous, densely populated and cultured areas of the world. So any movement located there during those three centuries may well have been a major spiritual and material force. Indeed it must have been so to persuade the all powerful Roman Emperors to accept it as their official religion.
Alas we know very little about this early church. Western culture,, the only area where much historical research is carried on, sees little reason to study eastern Christianity and the academic authorities in that area are now dominated by Islam, so that there is little interest there either. But in any case there is no reason not to accept Swedenborg's view, indeed it is shared by a number of historians who feel that once the Church had to compromise with the official policies of the Empire it was bound to go downhill spiritually. Feminists also point out that although women had played an important part in the apostolic church, they were ignored after about 300 AD.
Nevertheless out of it all the Church had evolved and spread in all directions, not just westwards as we are taught to assume. For a while the Church grew in Jerusalem as a Jewish sect. Most early Christians were Jews so the Church spread wherever Jews were found. There were far more Jews in Babylon, or in Alexandria than Jerusalem. From Spain to India you could find their trading communities and Christian missionaries followed their migration, spreading the new religion; based of course on the Jewish Word.
The Christian Church was consolidated in Greece and, as the Orthodox Church, spread up into the Balkans and Russia. Christianity went northwards to Antioch, into Turkey to form the Armenian Church. It went Eastwards, as the Nestorian Church, through Babylon to Persia, India (where it is still alive as the
Malabar Church) and even reached China. One wonders if these Christians may not have had some influence on eastern religions. To the south, through the Jews of Alexandria, the Coptic Church was formed in Egypt and may well have been the most scholarly and well informed of all the branches. Within it the first monasteries evolved and the New Testament probably took shape. To the south the Ethiopian Church grew, and all along the then populous and fertile north coast of Africa the Church spread and flourished.
So the Western Church that dominates our history books was not all important, and perhaps it contributed less to the Christian Heavens than the Eastern Churches. Nevertheless it did have a unique and important part to play, because it was destined to form the 'remnant', from which a new church, the New Church was to grow. I think one can sense this quite early on its history in the 5th century, when the Pope commissioned Jerome to collect the various Hebrew and Greek writings the Church had been using until now and translate them into Latin. Thus was formed what we call the Bible, which, although it included the 'Apocrypha' which Luther and the Protestants later rejected, was basically the book that would become the best-seller of all time. A book that fifteen hundred years later, in the era of the New Church would be printed in millions, sent all round the globe and translated into every popular language.
For the time being, however, the newly handwritten Bible probably led a rather precarious life, existing in relatively few copies, kept in monasteries that were very much at the mercy of barbarians sweeping down from the north. Nevertheless many copies were preserved; possibly the most significant being those treasured by the monks of the Celtic Church, safe on unnoticed islands away from the vandal hordes. In time these Celts brought the Bible and its teachings back to Northern Europe, where Charlemagne and other Germanic Kings would establish Christianity, albeit in a diluted and polluted form, in the new and developing lands of Northern Europe.
Providence uses the decadent Church
The Roman Church had many weaknesses. Its Popes and leaders may have been power hungry; they may have lent spiritual respectability to numerous bloody wars and have burnt innumerable innocent souls who dared to question whether their authority was less than divine. Nevertheless it preserved an organisation that kept the Word and the Worship of the Lord alive, albeit in a somewhat confused form and alongside the idolatry of Mary and former pagan deities disguised as saints. But it was tempted to swell its riches and among other practices used hit on the idea of selling 'indulgences' by means of which the rich could purchase the forgiveness of their sins and so buy entrance to heaven. The transparent immorality the idea was more than the more honest of the clergy could accept and became the immediate cause of Luther's rebellion.
The Reformation of the North European Churches had much to commend it. Indulgences and similar practices were banned, the priesthood was pinged of materialism and priests were allowed to marry; if only to avoid the sexual temptations Roman clergy were openly lax about. Most significant, however, was the translation of the Bible into German, English, Dutch, Swedish etc. so that the Word could be read in a language that people understood. Services also were no longer held in Latin, so that lay people could form their own conclusions about religion. It was an important step towards the New Church when it would 'be permitted to enter intellectually into the things of Faith'.
In Luther's desire to abolish indulgences, however, he went too far and also claimed that 'works of charity', which were perhaps often done in an insincere and ostentatious manner, were as worthless as the money given for indulgences; that the only route to heaven was through 'faith' and belief. The intentions of the Lutherans were no doubt good, but they opened the way for falsities that were equally bad if not worse than those of Catholicism. The idea that one could get away with a life of evil as long as you believed, even to the extent of supporting the efficacy of 'death-bed repentances'.
Not only was the Church misusing its influence, however, but it was also loosing it, especially among the more intelligent and powerful - though this was not altogether a bad thing in the circumstances. Knowledge was growing in the time we call the enlightenment and people, not unlike Swedenborg, were finding it difficult to accept the falsified picture of God and Religion offered by the Churches. Such questioning was not unhealthy, but led to spiritual instability where a true understanding of truth was not available from the few teachers who still had some inkling of truth.
There were still honest and good people about, as stories such as Fielding's Tom Jones show, but the good and bad are very confused; the good mischievous and the evil hypocritically righteous. It reflected the state of the World of Spirits where simple spirits were in a state of contusion and hypocrites were organising 'false heavens' in which to recruit the confused.
Time for Change
The time had arrived when the Lord would again have to restructure the heavens, when he would free them to open up another level of our minds. The Christian Church corresponds to our adulthood when we come to think more seriously about religion and have to make more decisions about how to apply it - the stage when we feel less in awe of God and can accept him as our friend. If we pass through this stage successfully the Lord can lead us into the final stage of regeneration when friendship blossoms into fullness of complete understanding and love; the spiritual environment of the New Church; the beginning of which we will consider in the next article of this series. The last chapter of this 'pattern of time' which I hope is helping readers to make purposeful sense of the long and confused panorama of history.