DIVINE PROVIDENCE AND ISSUES OF JUSTICE
Friday, March 3, 1991
As it was written, Divine Providence was the sequel to Divine Love and Wisdom--in fact,
Swedenborg tells of seeing the two (in reverse order!) as one book in the spiritual world
(The Apocalypse Revealed 875:15). With this in mind, we read it immediately after reading
Divine Love and Wisdom, and with that work in mind. This is warranted not only by the
sequence of composition, but by the fact that the first chapter of Divine Providence
provides an intentional bridge from the first to the second.
The most immediate use of the work, however, is to address questions raised by experiences
of unfairness in life, and if someone were to come to us wrestling with an actual question
of this kind, we would hardly say, "Well, first get your metaphysics straightened out, and
then we'll talk about life's unfairness." It may be perfectly true that if the essential
message of Divine Love and Wisdom had been internalized by the questioner, the answers
would be obvious; but that is not the point. The individual's horizon is filled with the
immediate problem. In fact, the problem is probably capable of expanding to fill any
horizon we might propose. In this case as always, we are well advised to start where the
What I want to do this morning, then, is to look at some ways in which basic concepts of
Divine Providence may impact our dealing with people who are faced with the experience of
unfairness. I am NOT, of course, proposing that we tell them to read the book. I am
proposing that it may be our task to interpret the generalities of the book as they are
relevant to concrete life situations.
One way or another, the individual is going to have to deal with that unfairness. One way
that has found increasing acceptance is through a belief in reincarnation, and this
explanation has much to recommend it. Basically, I would affirm its insistence that the
causes of unfairness may stretch far into the past, and that the purposes of the
unfairness may lie far in the future. My problems come when it begins to be taken
mechanically. The law of karma is that everything that happens to me is deserved. If the
conscious "I" has done nothing to deserve this misfortune, then I must have done something
wrong in a previous life. When I apply this principle to the battered infant, I am
repelled, because it seems to be denying the fact that evils are tolerated, that evils do
Another way of dealing with the unfairness is through cynicism. "Blessed are they who
expect the worst, for they are seldom disappointed." In part, I would suggest that they
are seldom disappointed because they lose the capacity to rejoice in the good when it does
happen. They have to be looking for the catch. Given a birthday pony, they know there has
to be shit in there somewhere. They become expert at the self-fulfilling prophecy, because
no matter how well things go for them at any given time, they know that this is temporary,
and that it would be naive to relax and enjoy it. The obvious fact that their misfortunes
are equally temporary is simply irrelevant.
A third way of dealing with unfairness is outright denial. I will turn my whole attention
to something else, I will anesthetize myself. A fourth way is self-righteousness, with an
attendant fixing of the blame "out there" somewhere. In each of these cases, any
significant connection between the misfortune and the self is obliterated from
consciousness, and the individual moves more and more into effective isolation from the
rest of the world. Self-righteousness, further, often leads to vengefulness. "Because I
have been treated unfairly, it is in the interests of justice that I inflict unfairness in
This is not an exhaustive catalog by any means, but it is a sampling of the alternatives
open to the individual faced with unfairness. To outline a Swedenborgian approach, I want
to pay initial attention to a very familiar statement: "Evils are tolerated for the sake
of the end, which is salvation" (Divine Providence 275ff.), but I want to start with an
apocope thereof, that is, by cutting off the last part. We must take seriously the
statement, "Evils are tolerated." They happen. There is unfairness. Life ain't fair, at
least not always. It is folly to rush immediately to a defense of the Lord's love and
wisdom as though the actual unfairness were not really significant.
I find it important, then, to pause and think at this point in the statement, to come to
grips with the actuality of the evil. Only then can I begin to realize the import of the
rest of the sentence--that there is a purpose, and that that purpose is "salvation."
Does this make a real difference? I can hear myself saying, "Who cares about salvation? I
want my child back." And this, I think, is where I need an inner tough-mindedness. There
are some answers I find compelling, but very hard to accept.
The first was beautifully illustrated Wednesday by Bob's story about wanting his dying and
unconscious father to be provided with an oxygen tent, and the doctor's question, "Who do
you want the tent for?" For whose welfare do I want the child back? Like many if not most
parents, I have had times when I wondered whether it was a good thing to collaborate in
bringing children into this world of ours. I have looked at them as infants and little
children, and feared for what they would have to face. Jesus is reported to have said, "It
would have been better for that man if he had never been born" (Matthew 26:24). "Evils are
tolerated" means that this life is not necessarily a blessing. Particularly if I believe
that the spiritual world is a world of perfect love and justice, I have no warrant to
assume that the child is now worse off than before. I am reminded of Screwtape's telling
Wormwood that he should work for his client's survival, because the later years would be
such promising ones for achieving damnation.
If I can come to grips with this, then what stands out in my manifesto is the phrase, "I
want." If I cannot localize the evil with any certainty in the death of the child, must I
then localize it in my own wants? Surely there is nothing wrong in longing for the
presence of the child. I would be inhuman if I did not feel this way.
Longing for the presence of the child, though, is an immensely broad category of feelings.
To the extent that I have treated the child as an extension of my own ego, there is
something wrong in it. In a sense, if I cannot grant the child its own right to die, I am
treating it as a means to my own gratification, which is essentially a hellish attitude.
I must therefore face the fact that "salvation" is not some far-off, abstract reward, but
a very immediate issue, a very real factor in my own sense of loss. When I say, "Who cares
about salvation? I want my child back," I am saying that I will be happy when
circumstances (or providence) fulfill my wishes. I am refusing to recognize my own crucial
role, refusing to face my own accountability.
I've deliberately shifted from the third to the first person in all this, because this is
not something we can simply lay on a bereaved person. I would suggest that it is rather
something we should be trying to facilitate in the other, and that we are not likely to be
able to do that very well if we have not at least started doing it within ourselves. A
great many of the tough choices we face involve letting go of something or someone we
would dearly like to retain, so there is no lack of material for the task.
Unless we ourselves have begun to learn to let go of what we cherish, there is a very real
risk that we will find ourselves being cruel, or at least being incapable of the level of
gentleness that is most facilitative of growth. Yes, there are ego-concerns in this
person's grief. Yes, I see signs of frustrated possessiveness, and I see that this
possessiveness is a major factor in the pain. But if that is all I see, then all I see is
an individual at fault. However, if I have been through this myself, even on a much
smaller scale, then I know that there is more to the person than that. There were inner
resources that helped bring me through, and there are inner resources in the other. I can
address those resources even when I cannot perceive them, and I can be looking for every
slightest hint of their presence. Above all, I know that growth is possible, and that
knowledge informs everything I do and say. "Salvation," which is essentially spiritual
growth or regeneration, is always a live option.
It also needs to be emphasized that the one who is doing the tolerating is the Lord. As
the whole doctrine of charity indicates, this is no warrant for a laissez-faire attitude
toward unfairness. Our sights are to be fixed on fairness in all our dealings with each
other, and we are not to sit back, watch things go wrong, and expect to see good somehow
blossom out of the wreckage. The closest thing to this "toleration" in our own dealings, I
suspect, is the wisdom of recognizing those times when it is folly to come to the rescue.
Our effort, like the Lord's, should be to help each other avoid evils rather than to help
each other avoid the consequences of our evils. It should be to discover fairness rather
than to invent or impose it.
This leads us to the chapter immediately preceding the one about the reason for the
toleration of evils. This chapter is an enumeration of some evils "by which merely natural
people confirm themselves in favor of nature against God, and in favor of human prudence
against divine providence" (Divine Providence 234ff.). I think I may be beginning to see
what is intended in this statement and others like it. The major premise of cartesian
science was that only the laws of physical causation were to be taken into account. This
began to dawn on me when I read the following footnote from Darwin:
In 1852 M. Naudin, a distinguished botanist, expressly stated, in an admirable paper on
the Origin of Species (`Revue Horticole,' p. 102; since partly republished in the
`Nouvelles Archives du Muséum,' tom. i, p. 171), his belief that species are formed in an
analogous manner as varieties are under cultivation; and the latter process he attributes
to man's power of selection. But he does not show how selection acts under nature. He
believes, like Dean Herbert, that species, when nascent, were more plastic than at
present. He lays weight on what he calls the principle of finality, "puissance
mystérieuse, indéterminée, fatalité pour les uns; pour les autres, volonté providentielle,
dont l'action incessante sur les êtres vivants détermine, à toutes les époques de
l'existence du monde, la forme, le volume, et la durée de chacun d'eux, en raison de sa
destinée dans l'ordre de choses dont il fait partie. C'est cette puissance qui harmonise
chaque membre à'ensemble, en l'appropriant áa fonction qu'il doit remplir dans l'organisme
géral de la nature, fonction qui est pour lui sa raison d'êe.'
In other words, Darwin saw his own major contribution not as a demonstration that species
had evolved (he mentions having named "thirty-four authors named in this Historical
Sketch, who believe in the modification of species, or at least disbelieve in separate
acts of creation"), but as the identification of the mechanism by which this had
happened. It was not necessary to resort to theories of some mysterious purpose behind it
all. Nature experimented blindly, and the experiments that worked were the ones that
survived. In Swedenborg's language, he was very deliberately confirming himself "in favor
of nature against God."
The crux of the matter is, I think, fairly simple. "Purpose" is non-material. In
Swedenborg's language, it is spiritual, and the "merely natural person" does not take it
into account. The "merely natural person" therefore denies the central premise of Divine
Providence, and indeed the central premise of the whole theology, namely that there is a
purpose to all this.
This may seem awfully theoretical in comparison to the situation of a bereaved individual,
but there is a principle involved which is directly relevant. To put it most simply,
Swedenborg's rationale for the occurrence of unfairness is utterly ineffective except as
there is some sense of the here-and-now reality of spirit. As long as "the spiritual" is
something shadowy and insubstantial, the answers offered in Divine Providence will be
Let me suggest a little mental exercise as a way of emphasizing this. Imagine that it is
three hundred and fifty years from now. You have been in heaven for quite a while now, and
someone comes to you from the World of Spirits. It turns out that this individual did her
doctoral thesis on your life, and is eager to find out what really happened. Now that you
know that your physical life was just a brief prelude, what would you say about 1990-91?
What would you pick out as important? I strongly suspect that there would be few if any
statements like, "That was the year my article was published," or "That was the year we
got a new car," and lots of statements like "That was when I came to one awareness or
another," and "That was when this particular aspect of my ego gave me the most trouble."
In Swedenborgian terms, to become more "spiritual" is to become more aware of the presence
and the power of our loves and thoughts. It is to become increasingly aware that these are
central to our sense of well-being, that we can find either contentment or distress in a
wide--though by no means infinite--range of circumstances.
This in turn brings me to the subject I want to treat at some length in closing. I have
used the word "unfairness" as a virtual synonym for "evil," and in doing so I have
consciously been reserving until now the closely allied word "injustice." If there is
general agreement that it is legitimate to say that "Unfairness is tolerated for the sake
of the end, which is salvation," is there similar agreement about saying "Injustice is
tolerated for the sake of the end, which is salvation"?
"Injustice" is an in-word these days, and in-words are always liable to abuse. All too
easily, they become slogans that disguise a multitude of discordant purposes, and when
that becomes evident, one vocabulary moves out and another moves in. While I want to use
it as it is commonly understood, to apply primarily to societal groups that are
politically and economically oppressed, I want to make it clear that I find this a
dangerous narrowing of meaning. I find injustice endemic to our world, not restricted to
any particular class. I see public school teachers as treated unjustly, likewise figures
very much in the public eye. I find white males treated unjustly, tyrranized by the rat
race and by destructive images of masculinity. I see doctors as oppressed by the
deification of their profession and successful politicians as oppressed by the rules of
the political game. In every instance, I see some individuals who manage to find
liberation, and it rarely if ever seems that "someone else" has liberated them. But again,
I am using "injustice" as it is commonly understood, as referring to the most blatant and
ugly forms of oppression.
"Injustice is tolerated for the sake of the end, which is salvation." As was stated in
connection with unfairness, this is not a warrant for a laissez-faire attitude toward
oppression. The one who is doing the "tolerating" is the Lord, who has not prevented and
does not prevent racism or sexism or economic exploitation.
There is a surprisingly immediate illustration of the wisdom of this policy, giving an
indication of a way in which we should follow it. I am thinking of the situations in many
of the Socialist Republics. Under communist control, civil order was maintained by threat
of force, and there was the surface appearance of unity. Now that the the effectiveness of
the force has been undermined, the area is seething with racial and ethnic divisiveness.
The symptoms had been dealt with so insistently that little if any attention had been paid
to the underlying causes.
One of the main strengths of a democracy is that it is very difficult to pass laws which
are alien to popular sentiment. The process by which civil rights legislation was passed,
for example, involved calling attention to the injustices and mobilizing popular support
for change. It did involve passing laws to intended to prevent blatant discrimination, by
force if necessary, but these laws did not pass until the public consciousness was ready
Again, then, we are not given a license for indifference to injustice. Rather, we are
cautioned against remedies which address the appearances of injustice only, and ignore the
causes. The clear course of wisdom is to refuse to be simply "natural people," and to try
as best we can to understand the deeper roots of the appearances. Then--probably still
making a good many mistakes along the way--we can work for changes of attitude and not
just changes of behavior.
This understanding must, by Swedenborgian definition, be informed by love. I continue to
be alarmed by the social action statement that "we stand with the oppressed against the
oppressor." The Gospels clearly instruct us to love our enemies, and when the Sermon on
the Mount explicitly enjoins us to pray for those who persecute us, I cannot believe that
this is intended to be pro forma, lip-service prayer. We are to have compassion for those
who persecute, to work and to pray for their change of heart. We are to try to understand
them, and this understanding too will be distorted if it is prompted by resentment, anger,
or in fact anything but love.
I trust that it is clear that a loving understanding is not blind to injustice or evils of
any kind. I am not talking about sweetness and light or rose-colored glasses. This goes
back to the tough love of AlAnon, to the question Bob's doctor asked him. Am I trying to
feel good about myself, or am I genuinely concerned with the welfare of this other
individual? If I am not genuinely concerned, I should probably butt out.
I want to close with a brief look at the treatment of the subject of war in Divine
Providence 251, because I find in it a nice example of a way in which Swedenborg's
language may lead us to regard as merely theoretical statements which have immediate
The main point of the paragraph is that people who worship themselves and nature in
preference to divine providence confirm their opinions when they think that wars are
tolerated, with all their human fatalities and all the looting that goes on. Swedenborg
immediately equates wars with murder, looting, violence, and cruelty, "which are
diametrically opposed to Christian compassion." That is, this is no romanticized view of
war, no lofty proclamation that God is on our side because we are just, or that it is
glorious and heroic to march off into battle. War is brutal and evil.
But unless such evils broke out, he says, we would not see them, would not admit that they
exist, and could not be brought to resist them. The wars described in the Bible were
symbolic of the states of the church--of the violence in human hearts. The wars in our own
times picture the same kinds of thing. Swedenborg even goes so far as to say that there
are modern equivalents of the Moabites and Ammonites, the Syrians and Philistines, the
Babylonians and Assyrians, though we do not know which is which. In some ways, I wish he
had not said this, since it might sound like an invitation to the kind of identification
game fundamentalists play with the book of Revelation.
What specifically may represent what is not the main point, as far as I am concerned. The
main point is that in the Persian Gulf, we saw what people are willing to do to each
other. The war broke out because we--including all the participants--were blind to the
subtler forms of violence and cruelty that were being perpetrated. For a while, we even
used the Ayatollah Khomeini to distract us from the tryanny of Saddam Hussein. We used the
violence of Yasir Arafat and Abu Nidal to distract us from the plight of ordinary
Palestinians. Currently, we are not finding it easy to face the brutality being practiced
in Kuwait by Kuwaitis, and we are demonstrating a brilliant ability to ignore the extent
to which our own energy gluttony has been a factor in the immense gap between the rich and
the poor in the oil-rich countries.
Each of these is an instance of a kind of violence which is low-key enough that we can
manage to ignore it if it serves our interests to do so. If we ignore in thoroughly and
long enough, it will find a form of self-expression which we cannot ignore. In a family
system, the child who acts up is likely to be seen as "the problem," when in fact this is
the individual who is taking the lead in manifesting a systemic problem. I have no
personal doubt that step one is to curb any directly violent, life-threatening behavior;
but after that, the systemic problems must be adressed. In Swedenborgian terms, we must
engage in the effort to understand what spiritual states this conflict is representing.
Otherwise, we are ignoring the providential purpose for which the violence was tolerated.
The Lord is sending us a message that all is not well within, and if we stop with imposing
external order, we effectively kill the messenger.er.
:Darwin, Charles, The Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection
or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life (New York:
Modern Library, n.d.), pp. 8f.