Saturday, May 5, 1992

Location - Convention 1991

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

order. [DIAGRAM]

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.

contact phil at for any problems or comments