REASON, EXPERIENCE, AND SCRIPTURE - DIVINE PROVIDENCE ขา 156
Wednesday, July 7, 1997
Location - FNCA 1997
It's going to take me most of this lecture just to get to my title, which refers to a
paragraph early in Swedenborg's exposition of the fourth law of divine providence. I
want to set the stage by calling attention to a particular theme that I think is
central to the book Divine Providence and that helps understand the sequence in which
the laws are presented, and I'll deal with the sequence by following the theme
through the first three laws.
The theme I have in mind is the paradox of divine omnipotence and human freedom.
Divine Providence stands as a sequel to Divine Love and Wisdom, in which Swedenborg
presented the strongest case possible for divine omnipotence and omnipresence. This
sequel starts with the statement that divine providence is the government of the
Lord's divine love and wisdom-the regimen, the manner of exercising control. It
proceeds to identify the purpose of that providence as a heaven from the human race,
a statement whose implications could lead us far afield. It then states that there
are hitherto unknown laws of divine providence, which it proceeds to enumerate; and
the first of these laws is that we mortals should act from freedom according to
While Swedenborg does not say it in so many words, this first law both presents the
paradox and proposes a kind of resolution of it. The paradox itself is that absolute
divine omnipotence does not leave any power left over for us. It is presented quite
baldly in ¶ 144 of Soul-Body Interaction: "God alone acts: we only let ourselves be
acted on and react, to all appearances independently; but on a deeper level even this
is from God." Paragraphs 71ff. of Divine Providence tell us that this infinite power
is used first of all to provide us with something called "freedom."
In fact, freedom is as much a problem for the atheist as it is for the believer. What
we think of as the scientifically proven laws of cause and effect, rigorously
applied, lead to the philosophy known as determinism. Everything that happens is the
necessary result of past causes. The whole universe is proceeding on its mechanical
course, and there is no possibility of deviation. "All reason," someone once said,
"argues against free will."
The same anonymous individual went on to say, "and all experience argues for it."
"Hard determinists" will argue with you as though you had the freedom to change your
mind. They will give every appearance of having made rational decisions to arrive at
truth, in spite of the fact that their own theory insists that whetever we believe,
it is simply the product of past causes. Ultimately, hard determinism is utterly
amoral, since there can be no accountability, no responsibility, where there is no
Most of us actually have a strong and constant sense of freedom. We feel ourselves to
be presented with choices time after time. Our whole legal system is based on the
assumption that we are free agents, accountable for our actions, the main exception
being "insanity." Our ordinary days are full of little decisions. Someone asks us a
difficult question, and our minds run through various ways of answering it. Outing
Day is coming up, and we weigh various alternatives. The serving dishes are brought
to the table, and we decide what and how much we will take. This stands out
particularly in contrast with the relatively few people whose sense of freedom seems
weak or lacking. Some of them we call addicts, especially when some substance abuse
is involved. Others we call obsessives and compulsives, and we devise therapies for
them out of a conviction that something is seriously wrong in their functioning.
Of particular interest for us this morning might be the subcategory in which there is
a religious dimension to the obsession or compulsion. "God commanded it, I had no
choice." Our theology tells us that one of the features of hell is self-deification,
that evil tends naturally to claim that it is God. It also says again and again that
the purpose of evil is to enslave. "The love of dominion from the love of self" says
constantly that everything and everyone should be subject to my will, should serve my
interests. Given the simple proposition that evil is the opposite of good, we might
expect this. If the first law of a loving providence is that we should act from
freedom according to reason, then the first law of an evil providence would be that
we should act from compulsion and ask no questions. "God commanded it" is simply a
translation into hellish of the familiar and more accurate statement, "The devil made
me do it."
The first law of divine providence, then, insists that our freedom, whatever it is,
is one of the primary goals of the Lord's exercise of his infinite power. The paradox
may be resolved by a recognition that omnipotence wants us to be free, and is
perfectly capable of accomplishing whatever it wants.
The second law presses a little further into the paradox.
IT IS A LAW OF DIVINE PROVIDENCE THAT WE SHOULD, IN APPARENT INDEPENDENCE, REMOVE
EVILS AND SINS IN OUR OUTER PERSON, AND THAT IN THIS WAY AND NO OTHER THE LORD CAN
REMOVE EVILS IN THE INNER PERSON AND AT THE SAME TIME IN THE OUTER.
"In apparent independence" is my own choice of translation of the Latin phrase, sicut
a se, literally, "as if by ourselves," and the heart of the paradox is involved in
the little word sicut, "as if." Later in the book (¶¶ 191-213), Swedenborg will state
bluntly that our own prudence is nothing, that it only seems to be something, and
that it should seem to be something in spite of the fact the providence is really
everything. Now he is content to suggest this in two ways, first by the little "as
if," and second by stating that the Lord removes the evils in both the inner and the
outer person after having said that we must seem to remove the ones in the outer.
Readers of the Standard Edition may be familiar with the phrase "as if of
themselves," which will be found in Potts' Concordance (s.v. "as") translated "as if
from themselves," so a few words about the preposition may be apt even though they
may not be particularly welcome.
Let me start by saying that after twenty or so years of working with Swedenborg's
Latin, I still find myself looking up the preposition in. Prepositions are among the
most elusive words in Latin, just as they are in English. It is relatively easy to
define a common word like "house," a more specialized one like "astigmatism," or an
esoteric one like "apocope." Try defining "of." It's even harder than "the."
The preposition in the phrase we are talking about is a (before consonants), or ab
(before vowels-cf. English "a, an"). When it is used of physical situations, it means
"from, away from." When it is used of a person, with a passive verb, it denotes the
agent. The equivalent construction in English is a sentence like "This violin was
made by Stradivarius." If we transform this passive statement into an active one, we
have "Stradivarius made this violin." That is, the subject in the active sentence
equals the agent in the passive one.
It is this latter situation that must, I believe, be intended in sicut a se. If we
were to fill this out, to make a full phrase out of it, it would be sicut factum a
se, "as if done by [the] self." If we transformed this into the active, it would
read, "as if the self were doing it." The closest equivalent of a se might well be
"on our own," but this crosses the border into colloquialism, so at this point I
incline toward "in apparent independence" most of the time.
So having tended to a very difficult little word, let's get back to the easy big
ones, or if the urbane among you prefer, the "Big Easy" ones. We have come from the
first law, which focuses on our freedom, through the second, which labels that
freedom as an appearance, and arrive now at the third, which in this context is
IT IS A LAW OF DIVINE PROVIDENCE THAT WE SHOULD NOT BE COMPELLED BY EXTERNAL MEANS TO
THINK AND INTEND (THAT IS, THEN, TO BELIEVE AND LOVE) THINGS THAT HAVE TO DO WITH
RELIGION, BUT THAT WE SHOULD LEAD OURSELVES AND SOMETIMES COMPEL OURSELVES.
The "intrigue" may not be immediately apparent. It is simply suggested by bearing in
mind the theme of the paradoxical nature of our freedom. Swedenborg would be the last
to deny that our circumstances impose limitations on us. He has a nicely developed
doctrine of "restraints" both outer and inner. Early in the process of regeneration,
he says, we are restrained from wrong behavior to a large extent by "external bonds,"
by fears of the loss of reputation or status or profit (Cf. Arcana Coelestia ¶ 1011,
& Potts' Concordance s.v. "bind). He has also consistently labeled our freedom as an
appearance, stating that we should shun evils "as if" we were independent agents.
Now, though, he proceeds to say that providence works to make sure that whatever
limitations external circumstances may impose on us, they will not be allowed to make
our religious decisions for us.
It immediately becomes clear that he is not denying the obvious fact that, for
example, someone who has no contact whatever with Christianity is not really free to
become a Christian. Eighteenth century Sweden was just beginning to discover the
eastern world, and the power of the Lutheran church was essentially unchallenged. No,
what Swedenborg was talking about becomes clear in the first sentence after the
presentation of the law itself, "No one is reformed by miracles and signs, because
they compel." He is talking about our choices to turn toward heaven or toward hell,
which we can do no matter what our formal religion may be.
Given the primary purpose of providence as "a heaven from the human race," this
should probably come as no surprise. The purpose of providence is not the growth and
prosperity or even the survival of the Christian church except as that church proves
itself an essential agent in the formation of heaven. The freedom that providence
guards is not the "religious freedom" of our national political heritage, the freedom
to worship, but the freedom to care or not to care about our neighbor, the freedom to
put ourselves first or not. Providence makes sure that no one can compel us to be
selfish or to be thoughtful.
This brings us finally to the fourth law:
IT IS A LAW OF DIVINE PROVIDENCE THAT WE SHOULD BE LED AND TAUGHT BY THE LORD FROM
HEAVEN THROUGH THE WORD, [THROUGH] DOCTRINE AND PREACHING FROM IT-AND THIS TO ALL
APPEARANCES AS THOUGH WE WERE DOING IT OURSELVES.
Here, the critical phrase is sicut a semet, using, interestingly enough, an emphatic
form of the little pronoun for "self"-literally "as if by ourselves." The obvious
question is, "As if what by ourselves?" The answer is obvious once the question is
asked, namely "As if we were leading and teaching ourselves through the Word and
through doctrine and preaching from it." That is, a semet, "by ourselves," is
precisely parallel to a Domino, "by the Lord." Again, the Lord is really doing it,
but it is necessary that it seem that we are doing it ourselves.
For a slightly more detailed description of the situation, we could say that the Lord
provides that our external circumstances should present us with as much guidance as
we need and no more. The Word has been given and preserved as a lamp to our feet and
a light to our path (Ps. 119:105), which is a particularly apt image because while
the light enables us to see where the road forks, it does not tell us which path to
take. The function of the Word is not to make our decisions for us, but to enable us
to see what those decisions are and what they entail. This constitutes a beginning of
a definition of the "freedom" central to the first law.
This fourth law may be going a step further than the Psalmist by extending the
primary function of the Word to doctrine and preaching from it. These are supposed to
lead and teach in the same way. If, that is, the Word does not make our decisions for
us, but enables us to see what those decisions are and entail, then doctrine and
preaching from the Word should observe the same limitation.
A recent book on New Testament ethics agrees, I gather (Richard B. Hays, The Moral
Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics [New
York: Harper Collins, 199]). I have seen only a review of it, but apparently its main
thrust is that it is "historically naive" to look to the New Testament for behavioral
rules-to settle the argument between "pro-lifers" and "pro-choicers," for example, or
to decide on the propriety of ordaining women or gays. The New Testament, according
to this author, is primarily concerned with what we might call the development of
character, not with the listing of regulations. It reminds me of a conversation I had
with a woman who works for the Food and Drug Administration. She said that most of
their successful prosecutions had been on the simple basis of "intent to mislead."
Very few of them had been on the basis of violation of the detailed rules about
wording or size of type or placement of information.
The issue is not all that complex. No two situations are exactly alike. No rule can
be framed so that it precisely suits any two situations, let alone all situations.
Principles, on the other hand, apply much more broadly, and such personal qualities
as honesty and concern for other people are always better than self-deception and
delight in the suffering of others. Anyone can learn the rules of inclusive language
and follow them. All that "proves" is that the individual does not want to be
perceived as sexist. Far more important is the individual's integrity.
Or again, in the years of discussion that led up to Convention's decision to
authorize the ordination of women, our doctrines were searched from stem to stern.
They make no explicit statement. Nowhere, that is, does it say "It is wrong to ordain
women" or "It is appropriate to ordain women." There is the one statement in the
Spiritual Diary (¶ 5936) which is usually misquoted:
Women who think about religious things like men, and speak much about them; and still
more if they preach in meetings, lose their feminine nature . . .
Swedenborgians who have opposed the ordination of women on the grounds of this
passage have rarely if ever inquired into women's thought patterns or argued for the
prohibition of long conversations about religious matters.
To turn to another controversial subject, the only explicit attention to
homosexuality in the Bible is in the Levitical laws, and the simple fact is that we
take seriously the Levitical laws that we agree with and dismiss the rest without a
second thought. We do not advocate the death penalty for cursing father or mother.
It may be worth mentioning that Swedenborg recognized the dated nature of Old
Testament law. In Arcana Coelestia 93494, he takes the laws of Exodus 20-23 (the
so-called Covenant Code) and divides them into three categories. The first category
comprises the laws "which are absolutely (omnino) to be obeyed and done." The second
category comprises the laws "which may serve a use if one so wishes." The third
category comprises laws "which have been abrogated as far as usage is concerned
nowadays where the church exists." To give just a sample, the prohibition of labor on
the Sabbath is listed as optional, the death penalty for striking father or mother is
listed as mandatory, and most of the laws that are abrogated have to do with slavery.
You should be warned that if you check out this listing, Swedenborg apparently used
the verse numbers of his Schmidius Latin Bible, which vary somewhat from both
contemporary English translations and Hebrew editions. The main point, details apart,
is the recognition that some Biblical laws had become outdated by the middle of the
eighteenth century. It is entirely possible that more have become outdated by the
close of the twentieth.
Again, the word "abortion" does not occur in Scripture or the writings. In fact, the
closest thing to a direct reference to abortion in the Word is in connection with
Judas: "Woe to that man by whom the son of man is betrayed! It would have been better
for that man if he had never been born."
If we turn to less controversial subjects, we could of course multiply instances ad
infinitum. Scripture and doctrine have nothing explicit to say about automobiles or
speed limits or fast foods or computers or designer clothes or television codes or
children's allowances or racial quotas or tax laws or building codes or septic
systems or profit margins or Medicare reform or mountain bikes or nuclear power or
space exploration or big-time college football or Robert's Rules of Order or the
Chicago Manual of Style-in fact, if we were to look at the decisions we make day
after day, the little decisions that have such an immense cumulative effect on the
quality of our souls, we would find that very few indeed are covered by explicit
Scriptural or doctrinal "rules." This, I believe, we should keep clearly in mind when
we look at the import of this fourth law of providence, "that we should be led and
taught by the Lord from heaven through the Word, [through] doctrine and preaching
from it-and this to all appearances as though we were doing it ourselves." The
appearance that we are making our own decisions is absolutely essential. The effort
to compile and follow a book of external rules leads straight into the thickets of
legalism. It may masquerade as piety, but it actually constitutes an evasion of
responsibility. The problem with saying "The Bible told me to" is that it evades the
fact that I decided how to read and apply the Bible.
In characteristic fashion, Swedenborg proceeds to expound the fourth law through a
careful sequence of propositions. The first of these is "That we are led and taught
by the Lord alone," and he expands on this as follows:
This and everything that follows flows from all the principles that were presented in
my work on Divine Love and Wisdom-the ones about the Lord's divine love and wisdom in
Part I, the ones about the sun of the spiritual world and the sun of the natural
world in Part II, the ones about levels in Part III, the ones about the creation of
the universe in Part IV, and the ones about the creation of humanity in Part V.
In other words, if our minds are appropriately filled with the awareness of the
infinite presence of the Divine, we know that nothing else is of any real importance.
Of course, we are led and taught by the Lord alone.
The reason we are led and taught by the Lord alone is that we live from the Lord
alone, for the will of our life is led and the understanding of our life is taught.
But this goes against appearances. It does in fact seem to us that we live on our
own, though the truth is that we live from the Lord and not on our own.
Now, since as long as we are living in this world, we are not given a perceptible
sense that we are living from the Lord (because the appearance of independent life is
not taken away from us, since without it we would not be human), this needs to be
shown convincingly by reasons, which can then be supported by experience, and finally
(demum) by the Word (¶ 156).
It was this last sequence that planted the seed of this lecture. ". . . this needs to
be shown convincingly (evincendum est) by reasons, which can then be supported by
experience, and finally (italics mine) by the Word." This is quite contrary to the
procedures of Swedenborgian orthodoxy. Swedenborgian orthodoxy says that the first
thing you do is go to the Concordance. Then and only then do you appeal to reason or
experience. Otherwise, you risk falling into the trap of "self-intelligence." This
has been a standard accusation of "Swedenborgian fundamentalists" against anyone who
would challenge "the authority of the Writings."
Something very different is being said in this fourth law. We are being told that if
we exercise our reason, just as though we were doing it ourselves, and look at
experience, just as though we were doing it ourselves, and then reflect on Scripture,
just as though we were doing it ourselves, we can discover that through the whole
process we have been led and taught by the Lord. We do not resolve the paradox by
discounting one of its terms. We do not discover the Lord's leading by pretending
that we are not leading ourselves.
Swedenborg promptly follows the course he has prescribed. He first presents "reasons"
essentially rehearsing the basic points of Part I of Divine Love and Wisdom, then
appeals to experience in the form of his own extensive familiarity with the fact that
angels, especially angels of the highest heaven, perceive the inflow of life, and
finally quotes Scripture, mainly the Gospel of John, to the effect that the Lord is
life, and that apart from him we can do nothing.
It would, I believe, be contrary to the intent of our theology to regard this
sequence as a regulation to be followed. There may very well be times when the first
thing we need to do is to go to the concordance, whether it be Potts' concordance to
Swedenborg's writings or a concordance to the Bible. Even so, we are the ones who are
deciding what to look up. Concordances index words, not ideas, and it is not always
obvious what words to check in order to get information about an idea.
There may also be times when the first thing we need to do is to experience. That is,
sometimes if we wait until we have everything figured out before we act, we never
reach the point of action. We have to take the plunge and learn from it. "In an
angelic life," says Swedenborg at his most quotable, "there is a knowledge (cognitio)
of the way from walking in it, and a walking in the way from knowledge of it" (Divine
Providence ¶ 60).
In fact, of course, it is never a question of "what we do first." Life has already
started, and it is just a question of what we do next. There is no way back to square
one, not really. Perhaps we should regard ourselves as engaged in a kind of
"triologue," a conversation in which reason, experience, and Scripture all need to
have a significant voice, with "Scripture" extended by the wording of the fourth law
of providence to include doctrine and preaching derived from it.
The main point, though, is that we neither should nor can evade the overpowering
appearance that we are the ones who are doing the leading and teaching. That is the
way it looks and feels, and that is the way it must look and feel. At the same time,
and with as much intensity as we are capable of, we are to recognize that this is
only an appearance.
A kind of analogy comes to mind which may make this a bit more accessible. Let's say
you are working on a challenging project-it may be an effort to move to the next
level of needlework, it may be trying to get into computer programming, it may be
trying to add a full twist to a half gainer. It is necessary to lose all sense of
proportion, to give your whole attention to the task, as though nothing else
mattered. To engage in it with the feeling that it really isn't all that important is
to set yourself up for failure.
At the same time, in the back of your mind, you need to know exactly what you are
doing. Life as you know it will not come to an end if you make a mistake. There is a
larger world out there, and your unconsciousness of it is deliberate and controlled.
You can step outside the task and see it in perspective. You have not lost your sense
of proportion, you have simply put it on hold, presumably for good reason.
Our life itself, as we experience it, is the needlework or the computer task or the
half gainer. The hard fact is that only the Lord really has it in perspective, really
knows what is going on. Providence furnishes us with what we need no more and no