Sunday, May 5, 1994

Location - Newtonville
Bible Verses - Genesis 1:20-10:31
Matthew 1:24-34

Look at the birds of the air. They do not sow, they do not reap, they do not gather the

harvest into barns, yet your heavenly father feeds them. Are you not much better than


Matthew 6:26

We have a tendency to identify civilization with science, and certainly the achievements

of science are impressive. All the same, from time to time the pressures of contemporary

living prompt questions. Are we really happier for all the so-called progress of the last

few centuries? The movie, The Gods Must Be Crazy looks at our life style through the stone

age eyes, so to speak, and leaves us wondering. Many of our more serious thinkers would

reject the whole concept of progress. In some ways, it seems that we what we gain in

technological power we lose by using that power to magnify our problems.

It is common in contemporary theology to trace many of our distinctively western problems

to the notion that we are divinely intended to rule. The words of Genesis about "having

dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living

thing that moves on the earth" are highlighted as a principal cause of our heedlessness.

We need to recognize, though, that it is only recently that these words have been used to

justify the attitude that nature is our servant. For millennia after this creation story

came into being, nature was God's agent, and we were to heed the messages that came

through the weather, through plagues of locusts or of lions. It seems to have been Francis

Bacon at the beginning of the seventeenth century who saw our task as to establish (or in

his view, to re-establish) the imperium hominis, the dominion of the human race. The true

aim of all science, he wrote, is "to endow the condition and life of man with new powers

or works," "to extend more widely the limits of the power and greatness of man"

(Encyclopedia Britannica, Vol. 1, p. 995b).

Science went on from this point to try to explain everything on the basis of what could be

measured, what could be quantified. Darwin did not see his contribution as the discovery

of the sequence of species. He was well aware that others had observed this. What he

offered as new was an explanation of the process that did not require any notions of

purpose or providence. The theory of random mutation and survival of the fittest had

nothing mystical about it, in his view. It was truly "scientific."

While the long history of development remains unquestioned in scientific circles, Darwin's

explanation has been found wholly inadequate. Lewis Thomas, who died only recently, is one

of the most articulate of a host of scientists who point in quite another direction. For

Thomas, we cannot explain what happened unless we assume an extraordinary tendency of

individual organisms to cooperate. He looks back particularly to the beginnings of life

and writes, "The modern cell is not the single entity we thought it was a few years ago.

It is an organism in its own right, a condominium, run by trustees" (The Fragile Species,

p. 22).

He continues,

If all this is true, as I believe it to be, the life of the earth is more intimately

connected than I used to think. . . . The world works. The whole earth is alive, all of a

piece, one living thing, a creature.

It breathes for us and for itself; and what is more, it regulates the breathing with

exquisite precision. The oxygen in the air is not placed there at random, any old way; it

is maintained at precisely the optimal concentration for the place to be livable. A few

percentage points more than the present level and the forests would burst into flames, a

few less and most life would strangle. It is held there, constant, by feedback loops of

information from the conjoined life of the planet. . . .

. . . except for our meddling, the earth is the most stable organism we can know about, a

complex system, a vast intelligence, turning in the warmth of the sun, running its

internal affairs with the hear infallibility of a huge computer. . . .

With so much more to learn, looking around, we should be more embarrassed than we are. We

are different, to be sure, but not so much because of our brains as because of our

discomfiture, mostly with each other. All the other parts of the earth's life seem to get

along, to fit in with each other, to accommodate, even to concede when the stakes are

high. They live off each other, devour each other, scramble for ecological niches, but

always within set limits, with something like restraint. It is a rough world, by some of

our standards, but not the winner-take-all game that it seemed to us awhile back. If we

look over our shoulders as far as we can see, all the way past trillions of other species

to those fossil stromatolites built by enormous communities of collaborating

microorganisms, we can see no evidence of meanness or vandalism in nature. It is, on

balance, an equable, generally amiable place, good-natured as we say.

We are the anomalies of the moment, the self-conscious children at the edge of the crowd,

unsure of our place, unwilling to join up, tending to grabbiness. . . .

But we are not as bad a lot as some of us say. I do not agree with this century's fashion

of running down the human species as a failed try, a doomed sport. At our worst, we may be

going through the early stages of a species' adolescence, and everyone remembers what that

is like. Growing up is hard times for an individual but sustained torment for a whole

species, especially one as brainy and nervous as ours. . . .

. . . It goes too far to say that we have genes for liking each other, but we tend in that

direction because of being a biologically social species. I am sure of that point: we are

more compulsively social, more interdependent and more inextricably attached to each other

than any of the celebrated social insects. We are not, I fear, even marginally so

committed to altruism as a way of life as the bees or ants, but at least we are able to

sense, instinctively, certain obligations to each other (ibid., pp. 22-26).

This is actually a kind of contemporary scientific elaboration of our text. If we look at

the birds, who have no technology, we find that century after century, they are fed. They

have their appropriate place in this intricate fabric of life. They contribute to it, and

it sustains them. Lewis Thomas has a marvelous ability to call our attention to a kind of

two-sidedness in this regard. On the one hand, birds are elements in a larger system,

keeping the insect population roughly stable, transporting seeds and pollen, being food

for larger predators. On the other hand, each bird in its own right is an extraordinarily

complex assemblage of organisms, depending for its life on cellular processes of

oxidization, for instance. If it were not for bacteria, Thomas points out, we could not

keep cows, since cattle cannot digest grasses until their intestinal bacteria have done

their part.

In fact, the more philosophically inclined scientists are not at all quick to rule out the

possibility of a Creator. Thomas points to "the plain fact that all the cells that

[descended from the first one], right up to our modern brain cells, carry the same strings

of DNA and work by essentially the same genetic code" (ibid., p. 20). He notes that "the

kingdom of bacteria had already learned, long before nucleated cells like ours came into

being, how to signal each other by chemical changes, inventing for this purpose molecules

like insulin and a brilliant array of the same peptides that I make use of today for

instructing my brain cells in proper behavior" (ibid.). Designed into those first cells,

designed even into the bacteria that preceded them, were the processes necessary for the

development of human beings. If things at that first level had been even slightly

different, we would not have happened.

Another scientist points to a very simple example. Things expand when they are heated and

shrink when they cool. The one exception to this is water, which expands when it freezes.

If water behaved the way it "should," there would be no life on our planet. When it froze,

as it would each winter, it would shrink. This would make it heavier than unfrozen water,

so it would sink. Bit by bit, this sinking ice would cover first lake floors and

ultimately the floor of the ocean, since the sun's warmth could not reach it in the

summer. The breeding ground of all life would be sterile, and the whole planet would be

stalled in a permanent ice age.

All this is quite at home in the context of our theology. Swedenborg insisted time after

time that there is a divinely instituted pattern, a divine order or design, that underlies

all reality, from galaxies to the smallest units of matter. He lived in the days of the

first microscopes--in fact, he learned lens grinding as a young man, and made himself

one--and spoke of the wonders of intelligent design that this new window disclosed.

Especially on the basis of his spiritual experience, he also stressed the

interconnectedness of all things. "Nothing unconnected over occurs," he wrote, "and

anything unconnected would instantly perish" (Arcana Coelestia 2556e). He described the

experience of a spirit who thought his own mind was unconnected with others. The

subconscious connections with other minds were cut off temporarily, and he became

infantile (Heaven and Hell, ขา 203).

The Gospels' way of expressing this principle is characteristically concrete. "Are not two

sparrows sold for a farthing? And not one of them shall fall on the ground without your

father" (Matthew 10:29). All things are connected in the direct sense that all are

together in the Lord's knowledge of them. The hairs of our heads are counted. Nothing is

so small as to be outside of the divine attention, and everything is therefore included in

the divine design of the universe.

Swedenborg would argue against Thomas' statement that what distinguishes us is not our

intelligence, but he would agree wholeheartedly that this is not all that distinguishes

us. "An animal," he wrote, "is born into the whole order of its life and into all the

knowledge of its natural love, but this is not true of us humans" (Divine Love and Wisdom,

ขา 267e). We are the only creatures who can choose to live contrary to the divine design,

and when we do so, we become "lower than the animals" (ibid., ขา 255). We are indeed

distinguished by our "discomfiture, mostly with each other," by our ability to find ways

not to get along with each other.

It is hard to overstate how different all this is from the Darwinian view. One view says

that the primal law is competition; the other says that the primal law is cooperation.

One law leads naturally to the assumption that each of us should get out there and compete

for survival. The other leads naturally to the assumption that each of us should get out

there and pitch in. If there is one major spiritual benefit of our technological progress,

it is the clarity with which it is demonstrating that following the competitive principle

to its logical conclusion will lead to the destruction of all life on our planet. Our

survival depends on our learning to cooperate. Cooperation is the number one item, then,

for our national security.

I should like to close with one of Swedenborg's little summaries, which I think gets very

directly to the heart of the matter.

1. Every unity in the heavens arises as a form of many elements joined together according

to a heavenly concord.

2. Love is spiritual union, the source of heavenly concord.

3. There must be a universal bond if the specifics are to be kept united.

4. The universal bond flows into specific bonds and constitutes them.

5. The universal bond is the Lord, therefore love from him and a consequent love for him.

6. The specific bonds are secondary, and are mutual love or compassion toward the neighbor

(Arcana Coelestia 9613). Amen.

contact phil at for any problems or comments