When growing up in the church as a teenager, we learnt what was special about the New Church and its difference with the Old or first Christian Church. We learnt about the importance of the spiritual sense of the Word and the role of charity in our life of religion, that we were not saved by faith alone. We were also told that the “Social Gospel” or natural charity was not the way things were done in the New Church and that we had to practice spiritual charity – but nobody told us how!
What do the doctrines actually say?
The doctrines of the New Church do indeed have a lot to say about the spiritual aspects of charity and the importance of us being thoroughly acquainted with them if charity is practised to everyones benefit. In fact, they tell us that there is only one doctrine which is the doctrine of charity! However, they also teach us of the place and importance of natural charity which is in accordance with the literal sense of the Word. They also highlight the importance that, whether it be the practice of spiritual or natural charity, it should be done with discrimination and prudence. So we read in the New Jerusalem and its heavenly Doctrines:
The whole Doctrine of Charity is comprised under the duties towards the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, the bound in prison, who are spoken of by the Lord in Matt. 25:34-36.
The same names occur in the Word, for this reason, that the Word, which in itself is spiritual, in its ultimate might be natural; and that those who are in external worship might exercise charity towards those who are so called; and that those who are in internal worship might practise it towards those who are understood thereby spiritually; thus that the simple minded might understand and do the Word in simplicity and the wise, in wisdom; also that the simple minded by the external things of charity, might be introduced into its internal things. NJHD 107
Again in True Christian Religion;
The kindnesses of charity are giving to the poor and helping the needy, but with prudence.
A distinction must be drawn between the duties of charity and its kindnesses. By the duties of charity is meant the exercise of charity arising directly from charity itself; these chiefly have to do with oneʼs work. But by kindnesses we mean the secondary actions which go beyond the first group. They are called kindnesses, because we are free to do them as we choose; and when they are done, they are regarded by the recipients as nothing but kindnesses. They are distributed in accordance with the reasons and intentions the person who does them has in mind. It is generally believed that charity consists only in giving to the poor, helping the needy, taking care of widows and orphans, making donations to the building of hospices and hospitals, hostels and orphanages, and above all churches, and to their decoration and their income. But the majority of these are not the proper work of charity, but are additional to it.” TCR 425
Those kindnesses are in fact in many ways beneficial, particularly giving to the poor and to beggars. They are the means by which boys and girls, servants and maids, and generally speaking all simple folk are introduced to charity; These are the external acts that which lead people to absorb the functions of charity. They are its beginnings, and then like unripe fruit; and in the case of those who are later perfected by acquiring a proper knowledge of charity and faith , they become like ripe fruit. When this happens they look on their previous deed as performed out of simplicity of heart, and nothing more than duties. TCR 426
Natural Charity is the foundation!
What we need to note is that natural charity or charity practised in accordance with the literal sense of the Word is introductory or preparatory to a more internal and wiser understanding and activity. Those introductory truths which are the sense of the letter of the Word are represented by the Jordan which the Israelites had to cross in order to enter Canaan. So we too need to utilise such truths to enter the heavenly life of love to the Lord and love towards the neighbour. Without such truths we are in danger of striving to “ build a palace without a foundation, a palace in the air instead of on the ground” (Doctrine of Sacred Scripture 33) , something unachievable and unliveable!
These literal truths are for the use of children, for those who have not yet acquired an understanding about the spiritual sense of the Word, and for those who are primarily in a state of obedience. These are those who are said of in the Word as bearing fruit thirty fold.
The implications for children.
Unless this natural and preparatory level is acknowledged and developed the church will be and is seen as irrelevant to the suffering that is happening in the world about them! If the church is seen as irrelevant why should we expect our young people to stick around? And telling them that we need to spiritual about things is meaningless.
What we need to do is to acknowledge the feelings of pity and compassion and foster them through the practice of natural charity. Build on them! Donʼt negate them. Our children will stay with the church not because we make it entertaining but because it is meaningful! And they will have enjoyment and delight doing it.
Building a foundation.
The doctrines list the kinds of duties of charity that people may be drawn to generally summed up as the poor and needy. Whatever we sponsor our children or those who are in their earlier stages of spiritual development through, the project should be sustainable and achievable within the resources of the people involved. Also modern day settings and situations need to be considered. For example there may be not many widows you know of but there may be a womenʼs refuge or instead of orphans, foster children. Then there are things like helping with Red Cross or Austcare or sponsoring a child under a Christian aid scheme. I recently heard of a group of schoolchildren who fund-raised to get other children to a school camp and whose parents could not afford the fees to send them. The fund raisers said it felt great to help the other children. The important thing is, is to strive to be aware of other people who have a need often for things that we take for granted and to work for funds raised rather than giving from our excess.
Using prudence or making distinctions.
Christian prudence is concerned in examining well the quality of a person’s life, and practising charity in accordance with it. NJHD 85
A person who is in the introductory stage cannot distinguish things so well and would need help to act with discrimination. The basic principle is to avoid aiding and abetting wrong behaviour or being manipulated by untrue sob stories.
Laying down this foundation of natural charity which affects peopleʼs bodily life is a vital stage in the development of spiritual charity which affects peopleʼs spiritual life. Go for it!