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

established churches.

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

to us.

(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.

contact phil at for any problems or comments