Wednesday, August 8, 1990

Location - FNCA 1990

Understandably, I often hear people express anxiety about the direction in which our world

is heading, and I suspect that I am not alone. There are times when I feel like a lonely

optimist, but when I look a little deeper, I think this is an oversimplification. I'm an

optimist only in regard to the future. Get me talking about the past, and I'm a pessimist.

I want to spend a little time discussing this in regard to the state of our society in

general, and then give the larger part of this talk to ways in which this relates to our

own individual processes of regeneration. The whole thing will be a kind of commentary on

Arcana Coelestia 8423:

Before anything is brought back into order, it is quite normal for it to be brought first

into a kind of confusion, a virtual chaos. In this way, things that fit together badly are

severed from each other; and when they have been severed, then the Lord arranges them in


Some of you may have seen my article entitled The Good Old Days in The Messenger recently.

It represents one specific application of an attitude toward history that I find necessary

as soon as we start to look beneath the surface. Until we do, we seem to have a tendency

to romanticize the past. "There were giants on the earth in those days."

Focusing on our own country, where do we look for "the good old days," when high moral

standards were taken for granted? When was the solid era before the permissiveness which

is often lamented? Well, things really started to fall apart in the sixties, with the

hippie culture. But the fifties were the rock and roll era--surely not the golden age.

The forties saw World War II, which was hardly idyllic. The thirties included the

depression years, and I doubt that we would want to turn the clock back to that time.

This brings us to the roaring twenties, with prohibition and speakeasies--almost a symbol

of decadence. They were preceded by the decade of the First World War.

It was in the first decade of this century that child labor reached its peak. To quote the

Encyclopedia Britannica, "In 1832, two-fifths of the factory workers in New England had

been children; and by 1870 the census had reported that 750,000 children between ten and

fifteen years of age were working throughout the country. Their number increased steadily

from 1870 to 1910." We might reflect on what this says about family values. These weren't

high school kids working at MacDonalds after school. There was a turn-of-the-century

photograph in The New York Times Magazine last winter. It was a picture of a miner, a

grimy figure complete with hard hat, pick, and briar pipe. He looked to be about seven or

eight years old.

So now we're back to the eighteen nineties; and here, because of an interest in the 1893

Parliament of World Religions, I have been doing some reading lately. Surely this was the

time when solid Victorian morality reached its zenith. Well, the guiding genius of the

Parliament was Charles Bonney, a Swedenborgian lawyer from Chicago. He felt that the

golden age was just around the corner, and that the world--and especially America--had

made tremendous progress on all fronts, including the religious.

As a lawyer, he was working diligently to clear up a few problems. He thought that juries

should not be appointed on the basis of political patronage. He thought that we ought to

start educational programs for immigrant laborers, and work them less than eighty hours a

week. He thought that saloons should be regulated in order to address the problem of

widespread teen-age drunkenness. If we look at the Parliament itself, we find accepted as

a matter of course assumptions of white American superiority which are profoundly

embarrassing. And it went without saying that the serious affairs of politics and

economics needed to be in male hands.

We have twenty-twenty hindsight, if we want to use it. We can look at the

eighteen-nineties and see the seeds of the troubles of the twentieth century. I would

suggest that the optimism represented in the Parliament rested firmly on a remarkable

ignorance of the depths of human self-centeredness, and that in good Swedenborgian terms,

what we have been seeing and still see is not the breakdown of old values but the

surfacing of evils that have been there all along.

"Before anything is brought back into order, it is quite normal for it to be brought first

into a kind of confusion, a virtual chaos. In this way, things that fit together badly are

severed from each other; and when they have been severed, then the Lord arranges them in

order." The morality of the Victorian era was all bound up with assumptions of

superiority. These things "fit badly together." When they are severed, one prop, one

crutch of morality is removed, and the result is confusion. The confusion gives us a

chance to rearrange things, to find better reasons for morality.

All the evidence says that we will not do this as long as we are comfortable. We have an

astounding capacity to ignore anything that does not directly affect us. We may wonder at

Bonney's optimism, knowing what we know, and I may criticize him for not recognizing the

deep roots of the problems he identified, but he remains an admirable figure. There were

not many people in the comfortable classes who took such initiatives for reform. As a man

of his own times, not ours, he was pointing toward steps that could be taken then, steps

that in fact were taken.

I could obviously develop this in far greater detail, but our focus this week is not

societal so much as personal. We are far closer to that focus than it may seem. I think

the point can be made by asking how many of you, if you really reflect on the issues you

have faced and the difficulties you have had to deal with, would like to turn the clock

back. Or I might ask how many of you feel that you used to be better people than you are

now. I suspect that every one of us can look back on particular incidents and be

embarrassed at characteristics we can see with such painful clarity that we wonder how we

could have failed to seem them at the time.

"Evil," according to Divine Providence 1832, "could not be taken away from anyone unless

it appeared" (cf. also Divine Providence 278). It is axiomatic with us that one of the

signs of progress in the process of regeneration is that we find ourselves facing deeper

evils. I recall talking with an elderly lady some years ago, one of those people we would

hold up as examples of the beauties of old age. She had just discovered that she really

didn't like people very much.

That feeling is part of every one of us. My mind goes back to my "first term" as president

of the Assembly, when I was doing the opening and closing of the facilities here. I would

really enjoy myself getting tents up, getting the waterfront ready, and especially

battling the old galvanized plumbing. I had a personal affection for the marvelous variety

of toilet tank mechanisms--the one in the Murdoch cabin especially is a work of art. It

ought to be part of a guided tour of the premises, and if it is ever replaced, I want it.

But as opening Saturday drew near, I would begin feeling tense. People are much harder to

deal with than plumbing. You can't take a wrench to personal problems. There are very few

times when you can say, "Well, that's fixed." There would be a sense of relief when

everybody had left, and I was faced with straightforward tasks that allowed me to enjoy a

sense of competence.

That, I would suggest, is the "normal" way of describing my attitude, of putting it in the

most understandable, the least distasteful light. What it overlooks is that galvanized

pipes can't give you a smile or a hug. Even the Murdoch toilet can't ask a question or

make a comment that gives a fresh glimpse of life. What it overlooks, that is, is the fact

that if I had appreciated and liked people as much as I assumed I did, there would have

been a mounting sense of anticipation as that Saturday drew nearer. There would have been

affirmative images coming spontaneously to mind, images of those dear folk who were

packing their bags and arranging to have their mail forwarded. Of course there are more

strenuous responsibilities involved in dealing with people than there are in dealing with

plumbing. There are also far deeper rewards.

As a number of you know, there came a time when my particular style of leadership became

inappropriate. That was one of those inescapable facts that was not at all easy to accept.

I don't want to make this talk into an autobiography of that particular passage of my

life; but as I return to talking in more general terms, I would like you to be aware that

this situation was characteristic of the way things were going for me overall, including

life at home and work for the church. I was discovering myself to be "inappropriate" in a

good many ways, and I was resisting the discovery.

"Before anything is brought back into order, it is quite normal for it to be brought first

into a kind of confusion, a virtual chaos. In this way, things that fit together badly are

severed from each other; and when they have been severed, then the Lord arranges them in

order." In adolescence, we move toward a measure of independence from our parents.

Previous to this, good behavior has been bound up with parental control. In the larger

scheme of things, these elements "fit badly together." They have to be severed, and this

brings us into a state of confusion, a virtual chaos. We are obliged to find more

appropriate reasons for behaving constructively.

The reasons we find are largely egocentric, but at least they are "our own." In the early

teens, we are hypersensitive to what other people think of us. From my own male point of

view, I wonder whether teenage girls have any idea of their omnipotence, of how

desperately boys need their acceptance and fear their rejection. There are stories I could

tell . . . and I suspect that there stories all of us could tell.

There is also a tendency for things to fall apart as the process of aging becomes

evident. The seeds for this are clear if we look back to the issues of adolescence. A

major motivation for all our efforts has been the desire for independence, a resolve to

stand on our own two feet. At our best, we want to be worthwhile members of the human

community. Mixed in with this is a desire for recognition, a desire to make our mark.

This does not "fit well together" with a truly angelic life for the simple reason that we

are not independent. As I stressed in my first talk this week, our selfhood is an

"appearance," in many ways an illusion. Throughout our early adult years, it is a

particularly precious illusion. We matter to ourselves a great deal, and we spend a lot of

time thinking about ourselves. Somewhere down inside, we are aware that we need to keep a

close watch on ourselves,that we cannot afford to let ourselves get out of control.

It is not easy to let go of an illusion that is dear to us and that has helped keep us on

the straight and narrow. It is scary to think that we may not be in control. We do not

want to admit that we are inadequate. We like to feel good about ourselves. What this

means is that we will not face the issues involved unless we become profoundly

uncomfortable. Or in doctrinal terms, when these motivations are separated from the

decisions involved in leading a heavenly life, the confusion seems total, and the chaos


As some of you know, in the overall schema of the spiritual story of Scripture, I would

identify this life passage with the prophets. If we think for a moment about those

extraordinary books in their Biblical context, they clearly represent a major change. We

move almost entirely out of the narrative mode. There is message after message, forceful

and overwhelmingly negative, with little sense of connectedness or progress.

Our theology tells us that there is a beautiful coherence and connectedness to this part

of the Bible under the surface, but it does not show us that coherence and connectedness.

Swedenborg draws an analogy with the process of fermentation, a process which seems

entirely random, but which is actually following a very precise procedure that will result

in a quite predictable chemical arrangement. One might think also of meteorology. On the

scale of personal observation, it is only roughly predictable; but with the aid of

satellites, we see larger patterns that begin to make sense. The more we understand the

many factors involved, the more we perceive the underlying order.

But to return to the prophets, I think it is important that we recognize and accept the

appearance of disconnectedness, of chaos. For now, it is enough simply to acknowledge that

there must be an underlying order. In our own life processes, we really need to experience

the confusion. Or to put it another way, there is a necessary correspondence of the

literal disconnectedness.

I have a mild little example from my own life that might help at this point. When I chose

the topic for my doctoral thesis, it was in a field where I was a relative beginner. I

spent the first year amassing piles and piles of information, without any clear sense of

direction. I learned a good deal about the vocabulary and syntax of the texts I was

working with, but had no idea what I was going to do with it all.

When the summer came, I filled a briefcase with notes, and headed for Maine knowing that I

had to sort through all this to see how everything fitted together. When I got back to

Harvard in the fall, I wiped the dust off the briefcase with a dismaying sense of guilt,

opened it, and took out a folder of notes. I opened it, looked at the first page in it,

and knew exactly where it belonged. That second year was a very productive one, and

brought the thesis into a clearly defined, well organized, and well documented state.

The simplest way to explain what happened during that first summer was that my

subconscious mind found the order that was actually there, under the surface confusion. I

suspect that it was a much more valid order than any that I might have worked out

consciously, that my conscious mind would have been more likely to impose the order I

preferred than to discover the order that was there. There was a real risk of being misled

by superficial similarities, of putting things together that did not belong together, and

then becoming unwilling to separate them again.

There is the same risk, I am sure, in trying to make order out of the chaotic periods of

regeneration. The very reason for the chaos is that we want to hang on to inappropriate

connections. If we try to follow a program, then the order we are most likely to impose is

precisely the order that needs to be broken up if a better order is to ensue. We need to

trust the Lord's leading more than that. We need to trust that there is a reason for the

chaos, a sense that we cannot perceive.

To relate this to my previous talk, the times of chaos are times when we need to

relinquish a certain measure of our control. We need to be active in regard to coping with

the problems that arise, true, but we need a kind of intellectual passivity, a willingness

to let the natural order of the process emerge. It is not so much an order that we can

figure out with our own mental powers as it is an order that we will be able to perceive

if we meet each situation as faithfully as we can. This perception will come in the Lord's

good time, not necessarily--or even probably--when we think it should.

The church could be a real help at such times, and will be if we do not fall into the trap

of thinking that we have to provide answers. If the order that I may try to impose on the

confusion is likely to be inappropriate, if the true order is subtly working away in my

spiritual depths, it would take a remarkable person indeed who could see that order from

the outside in any but the most rudimentary outlines.

What is needed more than the answers themselves is the assurance that the answers are

there, and that they will become clear in the Lord's good time if we persist in doing the

best we can with the issues of daily life. It is helpful to be told that this is, or can

be, a healthy process, that others have experienced it in their own way and have found

themselves bettered by it. It is helpful to have our attention turned to what we can do

about the chaos, away from the futile effort to organize it.

Perhaps it will help to be a little more specific. One of the necessary major themes of

early adulthood is being in control, taking charge of our own lives. As part of this

process, we learn a good deal about causes and their effects. We learn what it takes to

succeed in our enterprises, what attitudes and habits are productive, and what ones get us

into trouble. This creates and nourishes the illusion that we can control the future, that

we can "make happen" the things we want, and prevent the things we do not want.

Now our theology tells us that we can see the Lord's providence only after the fact. If we

could see it in advance, we would interfere with it. We think we know what is best for us,

and we are willing to work to attain it. If we were totally honest with ourselves, we

would admit that we think we know better than the Lord does what we really need. In fact,

when the sixth thing goes wrong on a particularly uncooperative day, one of the statements

that is most likely to come out is, "I don't need this." Perhaps, just perhaps, the Lord

is telling us that we do need it.

I can't recall anyone telling me before the fact about needing chaos and confusion. "I'm

getting the feeling that I'm on the right track, and have things pretty well in hand. I

think it's time I had the props knocked out from under me." I have heard people say things

like this after the fact. We can look back and see what it was in us, what it was in our

attitudes, that brought the crisis on.

We may not be able to see how the chaos worked. Maybe if we had kept a journal throughout

the period of chaos, and then went back and analyzed it, we would be able to get a

reasonably clear picture of the underlying order. That would take more time that I, for

one, would be willing to spend, but it might be a task that someone else would find

valuable; and if someone else did the work, I'd certainly be interested in reading the


I'd like to spend the rest of this talk being a little more specific about what we can do

in times of chaos. I think it is best to begin by emphasizing the absolute necessity of

"hanging in there" in our everyday life. Our usual motives for the faithful performance of

our tasks have been badly undermined, but the tasks still have to be done. Our usual

reasons for being considerate of other people have largely vanished, but we still have to

go through the motions even though we don't know why. It is to be hoped that much of our

constructive behavior has become habitual enough that it has a kind of momentum of its

own. For example, if we have consistently resisted impulses toward physical or verbal

violence, we are not likely to resort to such unfamiliar means even when things fall


If we can assume, then, that we do persist in responsible outward behavior, then we may

look at our deeper attitudes. I would first repeat that it helps to be reassured that

there is a constructive reason for all this, that there really is a light at the end of

the tunnel. Then I would suggest that we need to be asking a great many questions, and

even to be asking questions about our questions. What is going on, and why? What have I

done to deserve this? Why is this getting to me the way it is? Just what is it in me that

feels so threatened? Why am I incapable of putting all this behind me and getting on with

the business of living the way I used to? These are very general questions, which will

take much more specific forms in the minds of particular individuals.

Given the willingness to ask the questions, we then need the patience to wait for the

answers. As I've implied above, the most valid answers will be gifts rather than

achievements. That is, they will not be answers that we figure out by the skillful

application of our theology. They will be insights that come to us, insights that carry

conviction, that ring true.

They will have a definite relationship to our theology, though. While we will not find

them by looking them up in the books, we will find that once they are granted, the books

take on new meanings. We understand in a fresh and quite compelling way, for example, what

it means to resist evils "as if of ourselves." Such familiar terms as "good" and "truth"

become less abstract. Different things will jump out of the pages and seize our attention.

At first, this is likely to be an occasional experience, and more like a glimmer or a hint

than a flash of light or an answer. I am reminded of the little glimpses of hope that come

up from time to time in the midst of masses of prophetic denunciation. This means that we

would do well to be attentive to such moments. We may not be able to prolong them, but we

can at least notice and remember them so that they can be a source of encouragement.

Ultimately, if we do our part, the Lord will arrange things in a better order--a better

order than the previous one, and a better order than we could devise. It is absolutely

necessary that we allow the Lord to do this. That is why I have insisted that it is not

our task to find answers or to impose order. Chaos is profoundly distressing; and the

quickest way through it is to do our part and our part only, truly letting the Lord do

what only the Lord can do.

contact phil at for any problems or comments