CAUTION: JUDGMENT IN PROCESS
Friday, July 7, 1998
Location - FNCA 1998
This morning I'd like to look at the significance of our doctrine of the Second
Coming for our understanding of present times and the implications of this for the
future. By way of introduction, though, I'd like not so much to review what I said
about the past in my first lecture as to highlight a theme that was mentioned but
perhaps not appropriately stressed.
We could call that theme "the primary reality of the spiritual world." Up till the
time of the Enlightenment, the world was a mysterious place, meaning a place full of
mystery. Things kept happening for no apparent reason. It was taken for granted that
the unseen forces behind such events were spiritual; so the very incomprehensibility
of the material world was experienced as proof of the reality and power of the
spirit. If it frequently happened that mothers developed lethal fevers shortly after
childbirth, this was clear evidence of the truth of the prophecy in Genesis that
after the expulsion from Eden childbirth would no longer be easy.
Once the mechanism of infection was discovered, though, and antiseptic conditions
were maintained throughout labor, delivery, and postpartum care, puerperal fever
ceased to be a problem. This was an immense boon to women, but where did it leave the
prophecy in Genesis? Further, did it mean that doctors now had power to overrule the
will of God? In countless ways, as human understanding of physical causation
increased, the world became less spiritually awesome. As we became more and more
conscious of the powers of science, we became less and less impressed with the power
of the spiritual realm and even the power of the Divine.
This was why Oetinger was so impressed at his first encounter with Swedenborg's
theological works. Oetinger was a devout and capable cleric who kept pace with the
surge of scientific discovery. If he were alive today, he would be a subscriber to
The Scientific American and would check out the books it recommended. He had read
books by one leading edge scientist in particular-Swedenborg and to have this
scientist then publish careful, empirical accounts of the spiritual world was quite
literally a godsend. Oetinger got himself into trouble with the Lutheran hierarchy
for insisting that Swedenborg was truly a prophet; and he took that risk because he
was appalled at the growing persuasiveness of scientific and philosophical
Radical materialism is still very much with us. On television not long ago, I caught
part of an interview with a doctor or psychologist who was quite sure that he could
duplicate near-death experiences by stimulating the brain with electrical impulses.
He had already succeeded in causing a kind of pleasant floating sensation. There
seemed absolutely no question whatever in his mind that everything had a physical
cause and a physical cause only. Matter was the only reality.
Until someone can show me the difference between a true concept and a false concept
on an EEG, though, I cannot feel obliged to accept radical materialism as "true" or
concepts of spiritual reality as "false." The fact is that materialism is
pathetically inadequate for the everyday business of living together. We make daily
use of concepts of truth and falsity, honesty and deceit, likes and dislikes,
positive and negative purposes, which cannot be weighed and measured. Sociology may
have come a long way toward predicting aggregate behavior, but individually we
continue to bewilder each other-and from time to time ourselves.
In fact, challenges to materialism are gaining rather than losing ground these days,
and this is happening on two very different fronts. On one front, the fastest growing
religious organizations are fundamentalist, with Christianity and Islam apparently
leading the way. On a very different front, interest in "spirituality" has
skyrocketed over the past few decades, with serious interest in meditation, ecology,
alternative healing practices, and channeling-sometimes, it seems, in almost
everything except Swedenborgianism.
One major reason for this surge is, to put it bluntly, the failure of materialism.
People look at the violence in the world around them, at the discontent and
depression within themselves, and subconsciously conclude that science does not have
all the answers. In sharp contrast with the optimistic mood of the eighteen-nineties,
there is a widespread suspicion that science is more part of the problem than it is
part of the solution. Many people, it seems, have a similar feeling about the
All this, I would suggest, makes a great deal of sense in the light of our doctrine
of the Second Coming. At the close of The Last Judgment, Swedenborg makes his one
major foray into the field of prediction.
The state of the world from now on will be much the same as it has been in the past,
since the immense change that has taken place in the spiritual world does not bring
out any change in the outward forms of the material world. There will still be
affairs of state, peace treaties, and wars and all the other events that are typical
of human society . . . . However, the state of the church will be different from now
on-different inwardly rather than outwardly. On the surface, there will still be
separate churches teaching their different doctrines, and there will still be the
same non-Christian religions. Inwardly, though, there will be a greater freedom of
thought concerning matters of faith because we have had a spiritual liberty restored
(The Last Judgment § 73.)
I would suggest that we are gradually, and predictably, moving beyond the boundary of
this prediction, that in keeping with the fundamental principle that the spiritual
world is the world of causes and the physical world the world of effects, the greater
spiritual freedom described in The Last Judgment is more and more having its
observable effects in the outward world.
One of the most obvious ways this is happening is in the free and rapid flow of
information. It is harder and harder for any government or any church to control the
flow of information to its people. The Soviet government made a massive effort to do
so, including strict control of the arts as well as of journalism, but it could not
erect walls against the flow of ideas from outside. The Achilles' heel of dialectical
materialism was in fact the moving of the spirit. The most strenuous efforts of
ourysses S. Grant? If the saloons of our eighteenth-century cities were full of
teen-agers, how many of them would have been drug addicts if they had had the chance?
Look at the boom towns of the early west or the gold rush and see what kind of
morality ruled when the restraints were relaxed.
Alternatively, we might look at what our doctrines have to say. Swedenborg is quite
Order cannot be kept in the world without having people in charge who watch over the
behavior of people whose actions a trying to figure out what has gone right, why the
"realists" were wrong. Otherwise, things may have to go wrong before we figure out
what works and what doesn't.
This does not mean that we gloss over the immense evils of the world we live in. It
means, in fact, that we take them even more seriously, seeing them not as the effects
of external circumstances but as images of the darker side of our own hearts. They
are not to be cured by any left-looking redistribution of wealth or any right-looking
imposition of controls, but only by fundmental changes of attitude. That is, they
reflect spiritual evils and require spiritual solutions. As long as materialist
assumptions rule, this need will be ignored, and as long as it is ignored, the
external problems will grow more acute. I find it intriguing, to say the least, that
the same people who say you cannot solve social problems by throwing money at them
say that you cannot solve military problems without throwing money at them.
In general, then, I would argue that our doctrine of the Second Coming and the Last
Judgment sets our present circumstances in a clear light, a light that may even be
encouraging. It strongly suggests that we are witnessing the working out of the last
judgment, that in fact we are participating in it. We are seeing how we behave when
the "external bonds" are removed, and have every reason to be encouraged by the fact
that the human race has not perished-not yet.
In a sense, the greatest ally we have on the side of heaven is the fact that the
evils that are emerging are so obviously ugly. More and more, I hear the excesses of
live television characterized as "tasteless," and I would suggest that this is very
much to the point. Evil is not evil because it is against some arbitrary divine laws.
Evil is against divine laws because it is bad for us. The parallel to loving the good
for its own sake is shunning the evil for its own sake-not because it is against the
law, because we will be caught and punished, but because it is squalid, ugly, and
To conclude, then, let me back up into the past for a running start and make one leap
into the future. The Enlightenment progressively took the mystery out of countless
everyday events, and in doing so shrunk the domain of the spirit to the vanishing
point. The response of the traditional church was to build higher and higher walls
around its ever diminishing domain of significance. The response of the Second Coming
was to allow the spirit of inquiry into that domain: "Now it is permitted to enter
intelligently into the mysteries of faith."
The success of science in its own realm has led to a growing reliance on its power
for solutions to all our problems, and it is becoming ever more obvious that this
reliance is misplaced. Science amplifies our power to do harm as well as our power to
do good. This amplification in turn tends to strip the masks off our evils. It may
have been easy to romanticize war when the images were of individuals on handsome
horses waving gleaming swords. It is not so easy to romanticize the mushroom cloud.
We still do not really want to hear the necessary truth that the roots of all these
evils are in our own hearts. We still want to believe that they can be solved by
legislation or appropriation, by economic or military strategies of one sort or
Gradually, though, step by step, failure by failure, these illusions are being
destroyed. There is yet to come some form of "bottoming out," some form of
recognition that the ultimate source of our troubles is beyond our reach. We do
indeed need a "higher power" to turn things around.
How far ahead this lies, I have no way of knowing. It will not happen unless we do
our own best. If we put our feet up and wait, we do invite destruction. We are called
rather to the fullest honesty of which we are capable, first of all concerning the
beams in our own eyes. We are called to look squarely at the inequities of our world
and to respond as best we can. We are called above all to look constantly for the
hand of the Lord who has come in time and whose providence is over this judgment
process, so that our own words and deeds may be in accord with his design, with
"divine order," and not contrary to it.