Swedenborg wrote before humanity had become a major ecological problem. By present-day
standards, the world was sparsely settled, and even in the most technologically advanced
countries, available resources so far exceeded consumption as to seem inexhaustible.
Nature still dwarfed us, and commanded our respect. It is only quite recently that we have
been able to entertain the notion that nature should respect us.
It should come as no surprise, then, that there is nothing specifically about ecology in
Swedenborg's writings. The surprise may be that there is so much that is indirectly
relevant. Our theology requires us to see ourselves as primarily spiritual beings, and it
turns out that when we take spiritual reality seriously, we become more rather than less
responsible citizens of our planet. I want to look today at a few statements from our
theology, some probably more familiar than others, with particular attention to their
implications for our treament of our environment.
I'd like to start with one which keeps growing in significance for me.
. . . there are connected stages from the First (that is, the Lord) all the way to the
last things, which are in humanity, and to the very last things which are in nature. The
last things in humanity, like those in nature, are relatively dark and therefore cold, and
are relatively general and therefore hazy. . . . the Divine-True that emanates directly
from the Divine-Good flows in by stages, and in its course, or at each new stage, it
becomes more general and therefore coarser and hazier, and it becomes slower, and
therefore more viscous and colder . . . .
(Arcana Coelestia 7270)
One thing this does for me is to disabuse me of any notion that spirit and matter are
absolutely different. There is a continuity as we move from the Lord down through the
heavens to the physical world we live in. The Lord is being represented on all levels--a
thought to which we'll return a little later. The world we see around us is full of such
We are familiar with the principle that in the spiritual world, our surroundings will
correspond to our states. Generally speaking, for example, the temperature around us will
be warmer as we are more loving, and the light will be brighter as we are more alert.
Swedenborg's stories about the other life are full of examples of landscapes that picture
the qualities of the people who inhabit them. People in evil states turn the Lord's inflow
into barrenness and ugliness.
What the passage just quoted implies is that the same principle is operative in the
physical world, but not nearly so obviously. The world of nature, relative to the
spiritual world, is general, coarse, and hazy, slow, viscous, and cold. It is, in other
words, relatively unresponsive, sluggish. When we succumb to greed, the landscape around
us does not change immediately; but if we persist in our greed, eventually it does. If we
live constructively, the world around us does not immediately become beautiful, but if we
persist, eventually it does. That is, the "laws of nature" are inexorable. Disregarding
them has long-term consequences. Cooperating with them has long-term benefits.
There is a kind of illustration of this general relationship in a passage which may be
more familiar, and may seem to have no connection with the subject.
. . . each of us, as long as we are living in our bodies, is spiritually in a community
with spirits, though we are unaware of it. . . . We are not visible in that community as
spirits while we are living in the world because at that point we are thinking in material
terms. However, people who think in ways abstracted from the physical are sometimes
visible in their communities because they are then in the spirit. When they are visible,
one can clearly tell them from the spirits there because they walk around sunk in silent
meditation. They do not look at other people, and in fact it seems as though they do not
see them. As soon as any spirit speaks to them, they disappear.
(Heaven and Hell 438)
This sounds awfully different from the world we live in, but if I put it together with the
first passage, the difference becomes one of degree only. The person is visible because
that is where his or her focus of attention is. The person must vanish, then, when that
focus returns to more earthly concerns. But what happens to the "spirit" that had been
visible? The spiritual body responds instantly to the change. Our physical bodies are
incredibly sluggish by comparison. They tend to stay where they are whether we want them
to or not.
But this leaves us still with an intriguing question. When these silent people vanish,
where do they go? They cannot simply cease to be. We still exist in our communities in the
World of Spirits, as we still exist on all the levels of our being from the inmost on
down. The only answer I can see is one that makes more and more sense to me as I reflect
on it. It is that when we vanish, when our attention returns to the physical world, then
in the spiritual world we become part of that landscape which also represents our
qualities. We are very much there, but not gathered into a focused form. The gathering is
done by our own consciousness.
Precisely the same thing is happening here and now, but matter is much more sluggish than
spirit. When our consciousness leaves our bodies for good, our bodies tend to become part
of the landscape again. In slightly more theological terms, it is our souls that are
holding us together.
Clearly, there are implications here for our relationship to the world of nature. It
begins to appear that the line between us and our environment is not a physical line at
all. In fact, we cannot really be defined as strictly physical beings. This comes up in
Alexander Solzhenitsyn's The First Circle. Most of the characters in the novel are
prisoners, and one of them, Gleb Nérzhin, is on his way to his first visit with his wife
in a year or more. He reflects,
In one of her letters Nadya had said: `When you come back . . .' But the horror was that
there was no going back. To return was impossible. After four years in the army and a
ten-year prison sentence there would probably not be a single cell of his body which was
the same. Although the man who came back would have the same surname as her husband, he
would be a different person and she would realize that her one and only, for whom she had
waited fourteen lonely years, was not this man at all--he no longer existed.
He is defining himself as a strictly physical entity, and it makes no sense. In fact, his
memories of his wife and his love for her are still strong. His sense of personal identity
is unchanged. But he is quite right--the physical person of fourteen years ago is no
longer there, no longer exists.
The physical replacement that has gone on has been a spectacularly orderly one--so orderly
that it has been practically imperceptible. He has continued to look like himself, with
only the "natural" changes wrought by time. And if we look for what is constant or what
maintains this constancy, we cannot find it on the physical level. We might try to see it
in his DNA, but this is subject to the same replacement laws as everything else. That is,
it keeps being replaced, and while what replaces it has the same pattern, that pattern
itself is not physical.
If we want a realistic image of us as physical beings, then, we need to see ourselves as
some kind of non-material form through which matter is constantly proceeding. We are
constantly ingesting and assimilating, constantly sorting out and excreting. [DIAGRAM]
What is physically "us" at any given moment is what is under the direct control of our
non-material form. In a sense, our souls are borrowing matter from the physical world to
accomplish their purposes. To quote another familiar passage,
All the rational life that seems to be in the body belongs to [the spirit], and none of it
belongs to the body. In fact, the body . . . is matter, and the matter proper to the body
is an addendum, almost like an attachment, to the spirit, so that the human spirit can
live its life and perform its uses in the natural world, where everything is material and
intrinsically devoid of life.
(Heaven and Hell 432)
So let's look a little more closely at the process by which we adopt matter from the
natural world, the process we call nourishment. With the exception of salt, water, and
some deliberate synthetics, everything we eat was alive once, and has had to die in order
to be assimilated to us. But that is not where the process started. If we think, for
example, about the carrot in yesterday's salad, we find that it started as a very small
seed, which had the miraculous capacity of organizing quite lifeless elements from the
soil into a rootlet and leaves that would continue to grow into a mature carrot. By the
basic law of all living organisms, the genetic blueprint of that carrot was in every cell
of the mature plant, but only in the seed was it environed in such a way that it would
reproduce itself under proper conditions.
The carrot is similar enough to us physically that much of it can be assimilated to our
bodies. In order for this to happen, though, it has to cease to be governed by its genetic
blueprint. It has to lose its identity, which is essentially the event we call dying.
Quite simply, it is a matter of becoming "disorganized," in order to become "reorganized,"
and it follows a basic principle stated very concisely in Arcana Coelestia 842.3:
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
In the case of our carrot, it is not a case of things having fit together "badly" so much
as a shift from a simpler to a more complex form of organization. The carrot organized the
inert elements of the soil and sunlight into a more complex form, and we organize the
results of that into a form far more complex still.
However, if that were all there were to it, we would face a dead end. The lower forms of
organization would keep getting processed into higher ones until ultimately there would be
nothing left but the highest, which would then have nothing left for their nourishment.
This does not happen, of course, because we excrete as well as assimilate, utimately
giving back to lifelessness all the matter we have temporarily enlivened. Our liquid
excretions are distilled by the sun, our solid ones become part of the earth, and plants
have a fresh supply of nutrients. Even the carbon dioxide we exhale nourishes them.
There is a nice illustration in Heaven and Hell (406) that we can profitably turn upside
I have sometimes talked with spirits newly arrived from this world about the state of
eternal life. I have noted that it is important to know who the Lord of this kingdom is,
what kind of government there is, and what the for of government is. It is like people in
our world arriving in a foreign country. The first requirement for them is to find out who
the king is and what he is like, and then many more facts about the kingdom.
As we begin to see ourselves as essentially spiritual beings, temporarily housed in
matter, then we can perhaps see the wisdom of acting like these tourists. Our first
requirement is to find out what the laws of physical nature are, in order to live with
them constructively. We are not citizens: we have no vote, no power to change the laws.
We are visitors, temporary residents. It would be nice for those who follow us if we would
at least leave the place in as good shape as we found it. Or as one French thinker
remarked, "We aren't inheriting the world from our ancestors, we're borrowing it from our
In somewhat the same vein, I would borrow a phrase from David Bohm, and say that, as
physical entities, we are nothing more than "relatively autonomous sub-totalities" of the
whole world of nature. We are temporary aggregations of matter, organized by our
particular purposes. Bohm uses a very nice comparison with a phenomenon in a river. Where
there is an underwater snag, there can be an apparently permanent ripple just downstream.
[DIAGRAM] The shape of that ripple has a kind of constancy, in spite of the fact that it
is not any particular quantity of water. It is a form through which water is constantly
flowing, a "relatively autonomous subtotality" of the entire flow, and it would not exist
if it were not for the flow. I would remind you of the importance in our theology of the
concept of "influx," which is simply a word for the phenomenon of "flowing into."
If we look for the roots of ecological abuse, surely one of the major ones is
possessiveness. We do not want simply to use resources for good purposes and then let go
of them. We want to hang on to them. Especially in this country, we tend to own far more
than we can use, and in fact our economic system, with its virtual deification of private
property, makes any other style of living almost impossible. To illustrate this, just
imagine that the Lord decided one day to give every individual exactly what he or she
could best use for that day--no more and no less. Walk down a suburban street are realize
that there is at least one lawnmower for every single lawn, and that each machine gets
used perhaps an hour or two a week. Multiply this by all the other artifacts that everyone
has to own, and that are idle most of the time, and you may get some idea of the scale of
possessiveness which we take for granted.
In the images I have been suggesting, possessiveness is essentially a desire to stop the
flow. It is to hang on to things when we are not actually using them. The very
sluggishness of matter makes a certain amount of this necessary, I suspect--we cannot
count on a lawnmower showing up when we free time and appropriate weather coincide for us.
I suspect, though, that as we look back with embarrassment on the blatant racial prejudice
of past generations, future generations will be embarrassed by our uncritical acceptance
of "private proper-ty" in the sense of absolute ownership without attendant responsibility
for effective use.
This possessiveness is closely related to another root of ecological folly--one sometimes
cherished even by ecologically sensitive people. I am referring to the supposed "ideal" of
self-sufficiency, which was dear to some of the homesteading types of the sixties, and
retains considerable appeal still. We hear calls, for example, for our country to become
self-sufficient in its energy needs.
This again goes against the fundamental fact that we are integral parts of a far larger
system. Ilya Prigogine received the Nobel Prize for his research into "dissipative
structures," showing that organized forms which communicate with their environment have a
distinct resistance to the law of entropy. Rather than tending to decline into a kind of
random uniformity, then tend to refine their organizations in response to challenges--to
be come more organized.
It is a repeated principle in our theology that ". . . nothing unconnected ever occurs,
and anything unconnected would instantly perish" (Arcana Coelestia 2556e). As the first
generation that has seen planet earth as a single whole, we are pressed to drop our
parochialism and to see ourselves, our nation, as a "relatively autonomous subtotality" in
the whole global system. Isolationism is a fundamental transgression against the principle
of the Universal Human. If the whole of heaven can be seen as a single person, then the
whole of humanity on this earth is surely designed to be such a single person.
And this is where I want to wind up, with some striking material from early in Heaven and
Hell that brings our individual lives and our global concerns very close together. In
paragraph 200, Swedenborg summarizes some earlier material, as follows:
The nature of heaven is the same in its largest and smallest versions (n. 72); each
community is a heaven in a smaller form, and each angel is a heaven in its smallest form
(nn. 51-58); as the whole heaven reflects a single person, so every community of heaven
reflects a person in a smaller form, and every angel does so in smallest form (nn. 59-77);
. . . All this is in keeping with heaven's form, which enables us to determine what it is
like in general terms.
This is the basis for the very familiar statement (Heaven and Hell 420e),
. . . everyone is born for heaven, and those people are accepted into heaven who accept
heaven into themselves in this world, while those who reject it are excluded.
This is not some arbitrary rule, but a simple fact of life. We cannot participate in a
heavenly community as long as we are unwilling to do the letting go, the sharing, which is
central to a heavenly life. We cannot be part of the flow if we want to stop the flow. We
cannot see what is necessary for a truly global community as long as we are trapped by our
own possessiveness. This "possessiveness" is in fact at the heart of "proprium"--what we
appropriate to ourselves or claim as our own.
The picture I have tried to present goes against appearances. I seem to be a solid and
stable physical entity, quite discrete from everything else. Making due allowances for the
sluggishness of matter, though, it is far more accurate for me to see myself as a ripple
in the flow, as a relatively autonomous subtotality in the global biosphere. Then perhaps
I can begin to see my possessiveness in proportion, recognize its absurdity, and live a
little more responsively to the design of this marvelous creation.