How to Think Globally and Act Locally When it Comes to Religion
Recently in a Common Heart conversation (that will get posted in the next few weeks!) Akbar, a law student at UPenn who is Muslim, and I got to talking about interfaith awareness. In our religiously plural society, how do we bridge being at once content with our religious understanding and community and yet aware and accepting of others who have a different religious understanding and are part of a different community?
The thought occurred that we need to apply the adage, “Think globally, act locally” to religion. We can find community in a religious setting that is comfortable for us, but we need to have an awareness that our “global” spiritual community includes all humanity. Developing actual interfaith relationships is an important part of gaining this “global” perspective.
From my background, two ideas Swedenborg wrote about offer a foundation for this “Think globally, act locally” possibility. One is that God, who is divine love and divine wisdom in human form, makes revelation accessible to everyone no matter where they are born on the planet. “Revelation” is something that gives us the means of salvation—which is simply learning how and what it really means to live from love, in love, and for love. All religions can serve as avenues to loving others and living from a connection with divine love, which is a genuine spiritual life.
The other idea is the premise that we all have one creator, no matter our different religions. Think about it, can there be more than one infinite being? There is one God, one divinity, even if we call that divinity—or even different aspects of that divinity—by different names. Swedenborg lists some core qualities of this one God, using the name “Lord Jehovah,” in his work True Christianity 295:
“[T]he Lord Jehovah is infinite, immeasurable, and eternal; and omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent. He is the First and the Last; the Beginning and the End; the One who was, is, and will be. He is love itself and wisdom itself, or goodness itself and truth itself. Therefore he is life itself. He is the sole being; all things come from him.”
Yup, that pretty much covers it. Life itself.
How exactly does every religion serve as an avenue to a genuine spiritual life? Via the principles we are taught to live by. The basic principles contained within the ten commandments of the Abrahamic traditions exist in all cultures and religions. Or I could say, the basic principles within the Yamas and the Niyamas of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras exist in all cultures and religions. No matter your vantage point, we have access to principles to live by, and there is a deepening of our practice over time. First we live in outer alignment with them. Living in outer alignment with them leads us to living in inner alignment with them—in our own mind.
Writing in reference to the ten commandments, Swedenborg reframes this outer perspective as an inner one in the following way. This reframing could be applied to whatever “commandments” or principles are the main ones in your life:
“And keep my commandments symbolizes being open to believing what is true. This is consistent with commandments as being a symbol of truths we should believe. Keeping that truth symbolizes being receptive to it, since it must flow into us from the Lord in order for us to believe it and so that it can live within us. Truth can be learned and stored in our memory, but if we do not agree with it and act on it, it does not become living truth. On the other hand, if it is drawn from our memory and embedded in our will by intellectual activity, that is, if we intentionally make it part of our habits and activity, then it becomes living truth—truth that we believe. This is accomplished by the Lord when we stop doing evil.” (Arcana Coelestia 8881)
I keep a pretty clean record when it comes to living in outer alignment with the ten commandments (the ten commandments being the source of the core principles of love I was raised with). But as I’ve moved toward an inner practice, I recognize in myself that my compulsion to think and act selfishly comes from a mindset that actually doesn’t “believe what is true.” The part of me that falls into a need to control others, for example, does not believe that God actually has power in my life and the lives of others, leading all by providence every moment—a truth contained in the inner level of the commandments.
Thinking about the commandments as being “symbols of truths we should believe” rather than simple “thou shalt nots” gives them a fresh applicability to my spiritual life, as useful points of reference for examining thoughts that arise in my mind and helping me orient to divine love. If I notice thoughts and their accompanying feelings that are not in alignment with these truths, I apply principles of mindfulness: I bring awareness and compassion to the thoughts and feelings, and remind myself of the presence and perspective of divine love within.
Inspired by Arcana Coelestia 8881, I did an exercise of writing out the ten commandments as truths to be “open to believing.” I wonder if writing them this way lifts them to a level that resonates with the inner principles of other faiths. It would make sense to me that the deeper, or more inward we go into any teaching from a particular faith, the more we will be led to an expansive concept of that teaching. By “acting locally” and going deep into a practice of principles that feel like home to us, we can be brought to a sense of shared purpose “globally.”
Here are the ten commandments listed as truths to be “open to believing.” What if they were true? How would that affect your sense of life? If the term “the Lord” is alienating, try replacing it with whatever name for God you feel most comfortable with. If you do so, I’d love to know whether the statements ring true to your understanding of God from the principles of your faith or life. And if not, how are they off? How would you rephrase them? How would you phrase the inner truth of any principles you’ve been taught?
The Lord is divine love and divine wisdom in human form, fully accessible at all times, loving us.
The Lord has power.
The Lord is in charge; the Lord is the doer.
The Lord leads us with love and wisdom.
The Lord wills for us to live in harmony with people, supporting each other’s lives and joy.
The Lord wills to bless us through the union of love with wisdom in all our relationships and in all that we do.
The Lord will always provide us with what we need.
The Lord’s truth is always available to us in the reality of our lives.
The Lord loves YOU as YOU and created you.
The Lord has a special purpose for you to serve the greater whole and is leading you on that path always.