AN INTRODUCTION TO DIVINE PROVIDENCE
Friday, January 1, 1991
What I am proposing to do this morning is a fairly sketchy survey of the background and
contents of Divine Providence. I hope this will help you in reading it, and especially
hope that it may suggest topics you would like to explore in a presentation of your own.
To begin with, the connection between Divine Providence and The Apocalypse Explained is
particularly clear. In the "continuations," this is one of the subjects treated explicitly
and at some length. Just to reinforce by repetition your awareness of my own hypothesis
about Swedenborg's failure to finish The Apocalypse Explained, I think the internal
evidence indicates that he became more and more distracted from his conscious task of
Scripture exegesis by other concerns, and that the main central distractions are
represented in Divine Love and Wisdom and Divine Providence. I would remind you that once
these were in print, he was able to do a very prompt and concentrated exegesis of the Book
One topic of some interest, then, would be a comparison of the treatment of divine
providence in the The Apocalypse Explained continuations and in Divine Providence. The
references for the former material are available from Potts' Concordance, s.v. "provide,"
and have been copied from there in footnote 1 below.
There is an equally clear connection between Divine Providence and Divine Love and Wisdom.
Divine Providence begins with the proposition that "Divine providence is the regimen of
divine love and divine wisdom," and there are numerous references in the first chapter to
the work of that name.
The need for a sequel to Divine Love and Wisdom seems to me to be obvious. In that work,
Swedenborg presents a metaphysic, a kind of spiritual cosmogony and cosmology. While I
would not number myself among those who regard metaphysics as "impractical," I am well
aware of being in a minority in this regard. But let me use an analogy.
The workings of the internal combustion engine follow from basic principles of
physics--combustion, conductivity, leverage, hydraulics, and the like. If you do not know
these principles, you have to learn a mass of unrelated facts in order to deal with an
engine. Further, unless the next engine you work on is identical to the first, you will
have to learn a whole new set of unrelated facts. If you know the principles, the facts
make much more sense and are easier to retain; and in many cases you can figure things out
I had a harpsichord teacher while I was in graduate school who had less mechanical
aptitude than anyone I have ever met. Quite literally, she could not figure out which way
to turn a screw. For a harpsichodist, this is a real liability, since harpsichords need
adjustment-"regulation"--whenever the weather changes. I wound up writing instructions for
her--"If the note is too soft, turn this screw in this direction. If the note is too loud,
turn this screw in this direction. If the note is plucking late, turn this threaded rod in
this direction," and so on. It was surprising how many of these rules were needed.
I think something like this was behind Swedenborg's sense of the need for Divine Love and
Wisdom. All the details about the spiritual sense, all the correspondences, all the
individual doctrines, would not hold together unless the most basic principles were clear.
They would be just a collection of unrelated facts.
But to pursue the analogy one step further, the principles of physics do not fix engines.
Knowing that a mixture of gasoline and air expands explosively when ignited does not tell
you which screw to turn which way when nothing happens. You have to figure out how that
principle is effected in this particular engine. How is the gas mixed with air and
conducted to the cylinders? How is the chamber sealed before ignition? How is the
electrical impulse supplied, timed, and delivered? How are the burned gases expelled?
There are only so many ways to do each of these things, and there will be basic
similarities among engines as a result, but there will be countless variations on these
One reason I like this analogy is that the principles of combustion, leverage, and the
like, are quite tidy, but what you see when you look under the hood isn't. Similarly, the
principles by which divine love and wisdom create and govern our world are tidy, but our
world is a mess. A lay person will look at an engine and be absolutely positive that it
makes no sense whatever. There is no reason for all those wires and bolts and belts and
round things and square things. The fact that it works is simply incomprehensible. On very
similar grounds--more emotional than rational--it is easy to look at our messy world and
say that it makes no sense. How can there be a loving God when you look at our wars and
Swedenborg's conviction was that in order to answer this, we have to face squarely the
evils that surround us. This is particularly clear when he gets to the "laws of
permission," and notes that "merely natural people" convince themselves that there is no
God or providence, and that human prudence is therefore everything, when they see what
actually happens in the world. We'll look at that a little more closely when we get there.
I would note at this point only that Divine Love and Wisdom does not spend much time
talking about evil.
The first step Swedenborg takes from Divine Love and Wisdom toward dealing with this
problem is to define the central purpose of divine providence as a "heaven from the human
race." This may seem like a truism, but I am becoming more and more impressed with its
cogency. Let me give an example.
My involvement in the planning for the Parliament of the World's Religions is currently
focused in a group dealing with questions of "human community." A couple of months ago, I
sent off a paper offering some Swedenborgian reflections on the subject, and this
particular principle turned out to be absolutely central. Let me quote me.
Central to Swedenborgian theology is the insistence that there is a purpose to creation,
namely that there should be a heaven from the human race, and for Swedenborg, heaven is
perfect human community. That is, it is not a static beatific vision or an eternal singing
of praises. It is a fabric of interpersonal activities wholly characterized by mutual
understanding and care.
Consequently, I cannot take the survival of the human race on our planet as an end in
itself. As the most destructive species on earth, with vastly greater capacities for
destruction than we have used, we should rather feel obliged to question our right to
exist, to answer the charge that the planet would be better off without us. We are given
the privilege (not the right) of existence for the purpose of human community, and to the
extent that we do not realize this purpose, we forfeit the privilege. It has become clear
since Hiroshima that there is no need that God impose this forfeit--we have become capable
of doing it ourselves.
I would add that this principle also provides us with a response to the Roman Catholic
position of opposition to birth control. Our purpose is not simply the propagation of the
species, but the propagation of angels. While I believe Swedenborg would wholly agree that
having children is a major purpose of marriage, it follows from this purpose of providence
that it is not so much the number of children that matters as their quality. Numbers do
make a difference.
Heaven becomes more perfect as more people enter it. This is because its form, which
governs all its societal patterns and communications, is the most perfect of all. In the
most perfect form, "more members" means a more complete focusing and agreement, and
therefore a more intimate and wholehearted union. The agreement and union are strengthened
by numbers because each new member comes in as a welcome intermediary between members
already present. Each new arrival strengthens the fabric and joins others more closely.
But numbers are clearly a liability if the quality is hellish. I am sometimes surprised
that in the debates about birth control I never hear quoted, "It would have better for
that man if he had never been born." It doesn't solve the problem, of course, but it does
show Jesus demanding that we not regard physical life as an and in itself. Again, I do not
see our species as having any absolute or unchallenged right to exist.
But we must move on apace, and Swedenborg does. The next section gives a corollary of
this, that providence focuses on the infinite and eternal in everything it does. Here I
would suggest that everything else--absolutely everything else--is a game. By "a game," I
mean an exercise or activity that takes place in a limited sphere, under special rules,
for a limited length of time. Once a game of Uno is over, its rules do not apply, and the
players may or may not regard the results as significant.
However, our behavior as human beings in the course of our games still matters. We are
making decisions not only about how to play our cards, so to speak, but about how to treat
the other players as human beings. We may be learning things about our own habits of mind
and heart. That is, there are "eternal and infinite issues" involved.
Matthew Fox's response to my question is a case in point. I mentioned our anxieties about
the survival of Convention. He spoke first of the "inbred tension between the mystic and
the institution." I would suggest that the mystic, in this instance, is the person in
touch with the infinite and eternal, and that the institution is a game. He went on to
" As an organization, from what I hear you saying, it's just a wonderful moment to be
at. You must as an organization be willing to die. . . . Now many of the women's
orders know they're dying, and they're moving as a result. They've entered into the
dying process, and therefore they're fully alive, and they're going to give birth to
something new. They're not going to die. They're going to die in their present
In other words, we are called to focus on the infinite and eternal in our concerns for the
institution. Like the human species, it has no absolute right to existence.
For the sake of time, I shall not go over the laws of providence that follow, but I do
want to pay particular attention to the first--"It is a law of divine providence that we
should act from freedom according to reason." I would first note that there is an implicit
connection between this law and the central them of Divine Love and Wisdom. In traditional
Swedenborgian terminology, freedom is a matter of the will or live, and rationality a
matter of the understanding or wisdom. These two "abilities," freedom and reason, are
therefore characteristic of the image of the Divine within us, the image that makes us
But I also find in this first law a cogent argument against any theology which would make
revelation into an unquestioned authority. If revelation comes from the Divine, as by
definition it must, then it must not only respect but foster our freedom and rationality.
There can be no element of compulsion in it.
This is not too difficult to see in the case of Scripture, since there are enough
ambiguities and contradictions in it to make authoritarian literalism a very strenuous
exercise indeed. It has not proved so easy to see in regard to Swedenborg's own works, at
least among those who take them seriously. There have been times when the fashion within
the church was to regard every statement as unquestionably true, and to regard any
questions as the product of "self-intelligence." I would hope, though, that the wisdom of
specific passages might prevail. There is, for example the following:
. . . no one should be instantly persuaded about the truth--that is, the truth should not
be instantly so confirmed that there is no doubt left. The reason is that truth inculcated
in this way is "second-hand" truth [verum persuasivum]--it has no stretch and no give. In
the other life, this kind of truth is portrayed as hard, impervious to the good that would
make it adaptable. This is why as soon as something true is presented by open experience
to good spirits in the other life, something opposite is presented soon thereafter, which
creates a doubt. So they are enabled to think and ponder whether it is true, and to gather
reasons and thereby lead the truth into their minds rationally. This gives their spiritual
sight an outreach in regard to this matter, even to its opposite.
Other laws focus on the "as if of self" principle, which is certainly worth exploring in
its own right, on the ineffectiveness of compulsion, on the value of Scripture and
doctrine, on the hiddenness of providence, and on the non-existence of human prudence.
This last is worth a few remarks. The statement is made without qualification--"Prudence
proper is nothing, and only appears to be something, as indeed it should. Divine
providence, because it extends to the smallest details, is universal."
I would first suggest that this is just another way of stating the "as if of self"
principle. We seem to be making our own decisions, and we should act as though we were,
but we should recognize that we are not. I would also connect this with a striking passage
from Marriage Love 315:11--"The soul is the human form, from which nothing whatever can be
taken away, to which nothing whatever can be added."
Now as those of you who have taken "Language and Reality" may be aware, I do not believe
we are capable of precise verbal descriptions of what goes on inside us. Even if we had
Swedenborg's familiarity with these processes, there would be more going on than we could
comprehend; and even if our comprehension were by some miracle perfect, our language would
not be adequate to convey it. So what we do is use images which select particular aspects
of those processes; and we may hope that we learn more and more to identify those aspects
which are most important.
If we put the nothingness of prudence together with the unchanging nature of the soul, it
would seem that our prudence is nothing because we never really change ourselves. What we
do is to choose the part of ourselves that we want to affirm and live in, so to speak.
The process of regeneration does not create new levels of being in us. It simply "opens"
levels that are already there, and Swedenborg is insistent that these levels are present
in every human being, even in those in the deepest hells. The part of our life that is not
a game, the part that touches on the infinite and eternal, is an inner trip through the
geography of our own psyche, looking for and choosing a place to settle down. Again, these
are images designed to highlight a particular aspect of a dynamic that is far more complex
than any single image could convey.
Swedenborg next returns to the principle that providence always focuses on the eternal
aspects of life. Here I would only note that this has direct implications for ministry.
Should the church raise money for a new carpet? There are various levels on which this
could be debated. The money could be spend on the food kitchen. But the provision of an
environment conducive to worship is not a bad or negligible thing, and no church is going
to spend its entire resources on social action. How much is enough, and how much is too
much or too little?
At this point, we are concerned primarily with temporal issues. The eternal issues have
much more to do with how the decision is make than in what the decision is. The "right"
decision may be made divisively, leaving anger and resentment in its train. The "wrong"
decision, made in all honesty and earnestness, may strengthen the fabric of the church,
may involve healing of relationships and genuine spiritual growth.
There is nothing necessarily "otherworldly" about this. On the very pragmatic level, if
the wrong decision is made for the right reasons, there will be a growth in the
willingness to recognize that the decision was wrong. If the right decision is made for
the wrong reasons, the chances of future right decisions are lessened. There is every
probability that next time around, the hidden agendas of anger and resentment will be
decisive, and that the merits of the case will be simply ammunition for a political
The next section states that we are not let more deeply into genuine faith and compassion
than we can sustain for the rest of our lives. This too has direct implications for
ministry. It is possible to develop leadership skills that stimulate people to do great
things. There are charismatic leaders, and they certainly have their uses. However, the
long-term test is what happens when those leaders depart the scene. Then it becomes clear
whether there was internal growth in the congregation, or simply borrowed energy and
excitement. A church may do "great things," and actually emerge weaker than before. This
will be in fact the case if the church has become more dependent on a charismatic leader,
and less aware confident of its own gifts.
The next sections deal specifically and directly with the problem of evil. Three main
points are made. First, the existence of evil does not disprove the existence of a loving
God. There is a every opportunity for nonsense on this point, incidentally. The usual
arguments along these lines point to evils of massive scope and depth--to wars, brutality,
and the like. Actually, from a rational point of view, the size is not an issue. If the
argument were valid at all, then the existence of a loving God would be disproved as
readily by a single unkind thought as by a nuclear holocaust. If the argument were valid,
that is, there would be no room for any evil in the world. The appeals to the egregious
are more emotional than rational.
The second point is that "evils are tolerated for the sake of a purpose--namely,
salvation." This is not a rationale for the origin of evil, but simply an explanation
of its continuance. It is here that we find the invaluable principles that evils cannot be
overcome unless they become visible. From a Swedenborgian point of view, that is, the
world is not necessarily
going to the dogs. It is far more likely that evils which have been excused or hidden for
centuries are surfacing in our times, and while that is surely daunting, it has its
encouraging side. As far as I am concerned, any dispassionate reading of history will
utterly destroy the illusion that things used to be better than they are now.
All I want to say about the next section, which affirms that providence cares for good and
evil people alike, is that it may well point to says to minister to people when they are
at their worst. We do have a tendency to feel threatened, either on our own behalf or on
that of our church. What we have in this section is the policy of someone who is not in
the least threatened, and someone with whom we are pledged to cooperate.
The closing sections make three significant points. First, if we are to be damned, we will
have to do it ourselves. That is one thing the Lord will not do for us. We do it primarily
by the device of "appropriation," which has a lot to do with proprium, appearances, the
unchanging soul, and the "as if of self" principle. Second, returning in a sense to the
first law of providence, the only predestination there is is a universal predestination to
heaven. As long as we are in this world, there is the possibility of change, of
repentance. And third, in rebuttal of some arguments which are more scholastic than
realistic, the Lord is incapable of violating the laws of providence. This is not because
the laws are greater than the Lord, but because they are descriptive of the nature of the
In summary, the book covers a lot of ground. I see it as making the bridge between what we
might call the mystical realities that govern everything and the world as we experience
it. There are certainly topics related to virtually any ministry one might envision, and I
hope our semester with Divine Providence will be a valuable one.
:cf. The Apocalypse Explained 1135:3, 1136:2, 1138. 1139, 1140,
1150:3, 1152:2, 1153:5, 1155:3, 1158:2, 1162:2, 1173:2, 1185:2, and 1199.
:. cf. Divine Love and Wisdom n. 329. On this reference system, cf. n
:The Last Judgment 12.
:Divine Providence 46.
:Matthew Fox on Seminary Education (Oct. 12, 1990), Eric Hoffman
transcript, pp. 7f.
:Arcana Coelestia 7298:2.
:Divine Providence 191.
:Divine Providence 275.