WHAT YOU CAN'T SEE
DIVINE PROVIDENCE 175-191
Thursday, July 7, 1997
The last of the "laws" as such is the fifth, and reads as follows:
IT IS A LAW OF DIVINE PROVIDENCE THAT WE SHOULD NOT PERCEIVE OR FEEL ANYTHING OF THE
WORKING OF DIVINE PROVIDENCE, BUT THAT WE SHOULD NEVERTHELESS KNOW ABOUT IT AND
This proposition is treated under four subheadings. The first three present reasons
why this law is necessary, and the last deals with what might seem to be an
exception. I should like to deal with that last section first, because it will
clarify what we are talking about.
The heading reads,
We are allowed to see divine providence from behind but not face to face, and when we
are in a spiritual state and not in our natural one.
That is, we can sometimes look back and see that the Lord was working behind the
scenes. If we do, we will also realize that we were utterly unaware of that working
at the time. Suppose the situation involved a critical illness of someone dear to us,
and suppose we had been intensely involved in prayer, perhaps for that individual's
recovery, perhaps for her deliverance from pain, perhaps for her to have a sense of
the Lord's presence and care. All we could know was that the Lord was lovingly and
wisely in control. We didn't have a clue as to the actual divine strategy. When we
look back and see what it was, there is an element of discovery, even of surprise. In
a way, we can tell that it was providence at work because the strategy was so much
better than anything we had in mind. The Lord is actually smarter than we are.
Second, we can see the hand of providence only if we rise above our usual "natural"
state. There is a problem with the Johnny Appleseed song if we understand "the things
I need" to be things that give material satisfaction. We need also the hymn that
thanks the Lord
. . . that all our joy is touched with pain;
That shadows fall on brightest hours,
That thorns remain;
So that earth's bliss may be our guide,
And not our chain.
Your prayer was answered: the answer was "No." The Lord's providence is always
working for our good, always trying to lead us toward delight, but it may not seem
that way. Like me, you may have heard Arcana Coelestia 84784 misquoted: "They who are
in the stream of providence are continually being carried to things happy . . . ." It
is misquoted when it is used simply to describe the feeling we have when everything
is coming up roses. "I must be in the stream of providence, because even my mistakes
are working out beautifully." It is misquoted because it is cut short. We need the
whole concept, which is, "They who are in the stream of providence are continually
being carried to things happy, whatever may be the appearance of the means." When
everything is going wrong for us, when our mistakes come back to haunt us and our
best efforts go awry, providence is still trying to carry us toward things happy.
You'd never guess it from "the means," though, which is exactly what Arcana is
"We are allowed to see divine providence from behind but not face to face, and when
we are in a spiritual state and not in our natural one." Put these two prerequisites
together, and it says that we can see the workings of providence when we look back
and discover that we have learned something really, eternally worth knowing or that
we have been led to be more sensitive, more loving, or, more probably, both.
Having identified what we can see, we can turn to the main point of this section,
what we can't see. Let me start by listing some of the things that we can see about
the present, which will narrow the field considerably. We can see a lot of things
that are happening that are beyond our control. We can see that the economy is
performing well or badly, that our bank balance is healthy or stressed. We can see
that we are aging, that we may have this or that health problem. We can see that
particular people are moving closer to us or moving away from us both physically and
emotionally. We can see that our plans are working out or that they are not, that our
goals conflict with those of others, or coordinate with them. We can see all these
things, so they cannot be what this law is talking about.
Actually, we learn a lot from experience. A mainframe computer can calculate far
faster than the human brain can, but that is its only advantage. Ask it for Martha
Washington's telephone number and it will seaarch its entire memory before informing
you that it does not have that information. In general, it has no way of deciding
that particular items of information simply do not exist. The amount of information
we have access to is mind-boggling. Our minds are not boggled only because we take it
Because of all this information, we can interpret the signals our senses present to
our minds. We can look at a shifting pattern of colors, hear an intricate pattern of
sounds, and know that a friend is standing in front of us asking how things are going
for us. We can recognize that the friend has a cold, or is tired. We can look at
another shifting pattern of colors and hear another pattern of sounds and know that a
car has just pulled into the driveway.
We can perceive a lot more than that. We have learned to understand each other, to
sense each other's moods and motives. We can recognize each other's goals and have
fairly accurate ideas about what courses of action will prove rewarding and what ones
will not. Given a task to do, we can know what resources are necessary for it, know
where to look for them, know the steps we will have to follow. We can choose and
prepare ourselves for careers, respond to the unexpected-the skills we take for
granted are actually quite impressive. The amount we know, again, is immense.
Actually, Arcana Coelestia ¶ 69 tells us that this is part of the problem. We were
created, it says, to be able to talk with spirits and angels while still living in
our physical bodies. However, we have so immersed ourselves in physical and earthly
concerns that the way has become closed. As soon as those physical things recede,
though, the way is opened again.
This provides a kind of history of the first part of the fifth law, that we can
neither perceive nor feel the workings of providence. Within each one of us there is
a "celestial angel" who, according to Divine Providence ¶ 158, has a perception of
"the inflow of divine love and wisdom from the Lord." We are not conscious at that
level of our being because we are so completely absorbed in our awareness of the
physical world around us.
As if to confirm this, a number of people who have had relatively extended near-death
experiences report having seen what we might call the design of providence. They have
two things to say. First, it is perfect and beautiful beyond all description, and
second, they cannot remember anything factual about it. It is inaccessible, that is,
to the level of mind that deals with our world.
When Swedenborg talks about that inaccessibility, he uses two words. He says we can
neither "perceive" (percipere) nor "feel" (sentire) anything of the working of
The verb translated "perceive" is a compound of the verb meaning "to grasp." In fact,
Swedenborg fairly often uses the simple verb to describe the mental activity, just as
we may say "I couldn't quite grasp what he was trying to say." I recall noticing with
some pleasure that in his index to the Arcana, Swedenborg included one reference to
the simple verb under the heading of the compound one-including "grasp," that is,
under the heading "perceive."
The effect of this is to suggest that while we may suspect divine activity in the
events around us, we can never really get hold of it while it is happening. When we
turn our attention to it, we will find ourselves reaching for shadows, getting
contradictory messages or a string of "maybes."
The other verb, the one translated "feel," is the verb regularly used to describe the
function of our sense of touch. We use touch to assure ourselves of the reality of an
object. If we see an image and our hand can pass through it, we regard it as no more
than an optical illusion. "It isn't really there." If we do not "feel" the workings
of divine providence, we have no sense of their power. We do not feel the power of a
magnet until it comes close enough to a metal object to convert its force from
potential to kinetic.
In the language of correspondence, the two verbs cover the standard duality of love
and wisdom. What we "perceive" is the form of an object, and form relates to wisdom.
What we "feel" is the substance of an object, and substance relates to love. The
Lord's providence is infinitely wise and infinitely loving, infinitely subtle and
infinitely powerful. We do not grasp the wisdom, the subtlety, and we do not feel the
love, the power.
This is what lies behind the first reason given for the fifth law, namely
that if we did perceive and feel the working of divine providence, we would not act
from freedom according to reason, nor would we seem to do anything on our own. The
same thing would happen if we knew in advance what was going to happen.
What could we use as an analogy? Imagine asking for directions to the nearest
laundromat and being given a detailed map of planet earth. The sheer size of
providence would paralyze us. Swedenborg suggests this in the next section of Divine
Providence, the section that tells us that our own prudence is really nothing. He
explains that all our thoughts, which constitute our "prudence," stem from the
affections of our life's love. Those affections are known to the Lord alone, who
guides them through his divine providence. Further, "the Lord, through his divine
providence, arranges the affections of the whole human race into a single form, which
is a human form" (Divine Providence 191, 201).
Each one of us is a focal point in the emotional fabric of all humanity. Providence
is balancing the forces that act on us so precisely that our minute strength can
actually move us toward or away from heaven. In Heaven and Hell, Swedenborg uses the
image of two opposing forces. No matter how powerful they are, if they are evenly
balanced, the slightest force in either direction will have a measurable effect. We
might think of an immense scale with six million tons exactly balanced on each side.
In a frictionless environment, a feather on either side would tip the scales.
That will do, it seems, for the basic balance between heavenly and hellish
attractions. However, we are well aware that we rarely experience our choices in such
simplistic form. Usually, we are aware of a number of forces, each one with some
better and some worse features to it. Each of us has a number of roles-professional,
familial, social, political, ecclesiastical, and so on. If things get too complex, we
may have to drop some of the roles. What Swedenborg is telling us is that if we
caught a glimpse of the intricate ways in which we are interconnected on the
spiritual level, we would feel absolutely bewildered and helpless.
No, we are much more comfortable dealing with things on our own familiar little
scale. It may help to remind ourselves that our "windows on the world," our physical
senses, have definite frames. Our eyes pick up only part of the total spectrum of
light, our ears only part of the total range of sound frequencies. Extremely low
frequency sounds carry over immense distances, and I read in some nature book or
other that some species of bird flying north and south over the middle of the United
States can hear the surf on both coasts and navigate by the Doppler effect. Our own
senses filter out a tremendous amount of information. They reduce the complexity of
the world around us to manageable proportions. Computer technology can present a
soldier or a pilot with more information that the human mind can process, so part of
the design of military electronic hardware focuses on the simplification of displays.
Further, when we pay close attention to one sense, we pay less attention to others.
Physical discomfort makes it hard to listen to a lecture. If we become totally
absorbed in a conversation, we become unaware of what is going on around us. There is
a family story of an uncle of mine who was taken, against his will, to a classical
concert and who wound up enjoying it immensely because there was a distinctly
overweight man playing a tiny piccolo. Under other circumstances, the mannerisms of a
conductor might prove so distracting that it was hard to focus on the music.
If this is true of us on the physical level, what would it be like spiritually?
Imagine for a moment becoming vividly aware of what everyone in this room is thinking
and feeling right now. It would be like having everyone talking at once, but on a
mental rather than a physical level. Our own mental processes would be drowned out.
Our own feelings would be overwhelmed. We would be lost, disoriented. Or,
alternatively, if we could see a pattern that made sense out of the deluge of
information, we would simply be stunned. There is no precedent in our experience for
that kind of perception, that combination of detail and size, of intricacy and
Yet this is the world in which we are living spiritually. These are the forces acting
on us. We are living and moving, that is, in a spiritual geography, in the company of
spirits and angels. If we take the doctrine of influx with any seriousness at all, we
find it telling us that affections and thoughts are flowing into us from others, and
that our affections and thoughts are flowing out into them. Our claim that they are
"ours" is the essence of proprium, a possessiveness that we are supposed to leave
behind once it has performed its use.
One corollary of this is that our so-called "private thoughts" must actually have
consequences whether we act on them or not. This works both ways. Our affectionate
and supportive thoughts and feelings help, our hostile and possessive ones hurt. It
applies, we must presume, not just to our deliberate mental behavior-to our conscious
prayers for others, for example, or to our conscious thoughts about retribution-but
also to our habitual attitudes of mind and heart, to the ways we tend to feel and
think about each other. If they are acted out, of course they have visible effects;
but even if they are not acted out, they make a difference. We invite the spiritual
company of the good or of the evil, and the flow of their qualities does not stop at
our individual boundaries. This realm of interacting affections, we are told, is the
primary field in which the Lord's providence acts, and clearly, it is just as well.
We do not "perceive" or "feel" this working, but we are supposed to "know about" it
and to "acknowledge it"-two more verbs that are carefully chosen and that need to be
Most Latin words that have to do with knowing go back to one of two basic verbs.
There is gnoscere, which is used of direct, experiential knowledge, and there is
scire, which has to do with what we might call second-hand information. The simplest
example would be the knowledge of your neighborhood that you get from living in it
and the knowledge that you get from a map.
When Swedenborg says that we should "know about" the workings of the Lord's
providence, he uses scire. He says that we should be informed, that we should have
the kind of knowledge that we can get from a book about divine providence. Maps have
their limitations, but they are useful things to have around. They simplify and
schematize, they don't really look like the territory they represent, but once we
understand how they relate to that territory we can read them for the information we
When Swedenborg says that we should "acknowledge" the workings of the Lord's
providence, he uses the other kind of verb. He uses agnoscere, which the lexicon
defines as "to recognize, to acknowledge the existence of, to recognize as true." In
other words, this information is not to be taken lightly. It is to be taken to heart.
The image that comes to mind has to do with the aging process. We can hardly help
"knowing" that we are getting older. We do "know" that the death rate holds steady at
one hundred percent. There comes a time, though, when this information takes on
substance. It is not just something we know intellectually, it is something that has
an impact on us.
Even though we cannot grasp or feel providence at work within and around us, then, we
can both learn about it and take it seriously. That is, we can remind ourselves that
we perceive only a tiny bit of what is going on in and around us, and that all the
rest is under the control of one whose only feeling toward is is love.
The treatment of the fifth law goes on to explain why this ignorance is necessary. It
If we were to see divine providence clearly, we would intrude into the design and
style of its process and would distort and destroy it.
In a way, this is a theme that has been explored by science fiction writers with the
device of time travel. The well-meaning inventor goes back to a time when a decision
was made that has had disastrous consequences and tries to make things better. The
only story I can think of in which the inventor actually succeeds is Back to the
Future, and even in this comedy it is clear that "making things better" is by no
means as simple as it may seem. The obvious solution may very well have a dark side.
A professor who had spent much of his life in China before World War II told of an
agricultural program in which farmers were given irrigation pumps powered by gasoline
motors. These motors had cooling systems that worked by convection. There was a
radiator at each end, and the hoses between them carried the hot water from the top
of each to the bottom of the other. When something went wrong with a motor, the first
instinct of the farmers was to straighten out those hoses.
We indulge in a kind of mental time travel whenever we wish we could turn back the
clock. "If I had known then what I know now . . . ." Swedenborg is telling us that if
we had known then what we know now, we would have made different choices, and that
those choices would have led us into problems that we cannot imagine. We would have
thought we knew best, and we would have been wrong. We didn't know, the Lord did, and
the Lord's choice was the best one.
There is of course no way of proving this. We never know what would have happened if
some particular factor had been changed. In a way, we never know whether we have made
the very best choice because we never know everything that would have happened if we
had chosen differently. I am reminded of a time when I was coming home from the
school and the traffic on Route 128 came to a virtual standstill. There were a couple
of places where I could have turned off and taken back roads, but I figured that
there must have been an accident of some kind and that things would clear up soon
enough. It turned out that the accident was the overturning of a tank truck carrying
liquid asphalt and that all three lanes were impassable. Traffic was routed into one
line on the median strip. It took the better part of an hour for me to get past the
scene of the accident.
Obviously, if I had turned off, I would have saved a lot of time-if nothing else had
gone wrong. That, though, would definitely be a "temporal" issue, and providence is
concerned with "eternal" ones. That is, the Lord's attention was focused on my
attitude, on questions of patience and passivity and initiative, on what I needed to
learn about myself and my world, on how I actually used the time I was given. I have
no idea what would have been different in those respects if I had taken one of the
The most constructive stance we can take in any situation, then, is to drop any
pretensions to omniscience. It is to recognize the vastness of the unknown, and at
the same time to trust that we can know enough to get by if we try, and to believe
that trying is eminently worthwhile. That is, the vastness of the unknown should not
discourage us. Instead, it should beckon to us with the promise of wonderful things
to be discovered. There is no risk of boredom, even to eternity. Eternity is not long
enough to carry us beyond newness.
The third subheading in Swedenborg's treatment of the fifth law states,
If we saw divine providence clearly, we would either deny God or make ourselves God.
The reason is quite simple. If we were to see divine providence clearly, we would be
faced squarely with our own frailty. The necessary illusion that we are in control of
things would be directly threatened. We would have two ways of defending it. One
would be to deny the vision itself. "It's some kind of trick. I must have eaten too
much and had a bad dream. The sooner I forget it, the better." The other would be to
try to use the vision to advance our own interests. That, frankly, is what troubles
me most about Betty Eadie's book, Closer to the Light. While everyone else who has
glimpsed the beauty of the design insists that it is ineffable, she claims to tell us
how everything works, and what she tells us is suspiciously like her own theology.
What has been forfeited is the priceless gift of humility.
To summarize, admitting that we can neither grasp nor feel the workings of providence
disabuses us of any notion that we have all the answers. It introduces us to the
feeling that we have at best a tenuous hold on the shape of things, that we have no
cause to close our minds. Recognizing that we can know about providence and take that
knowledge to heart reassures us that the unknown vastness is actually taking better
care of us than we are taking of ourselves. Einstein once remarked that the one
crucial question was this: "Is the universe a friendly place or not?" Swedenborg's
presentation of the laws of divine providence is designed to convince us that, quite
literally, we have no idea how friendly it is.