SO WE LIVE FOREVER?
Friday, July 7, 1992
Some years ago, I was approached in a parking lot by a young man who wanted to interest me in some Eastern religion or other. His main pitch seemed to be that this religion could tell me what God did for fun. This didn¡¯t strike me as particularly useful information, and I went away wondering what kind of mind would be attracted by it. I still don¡¯t know, but I suspect that part of the attitude is the childish delight in knowing something other people don¡¯t know.
Our own church has not been immune to this delight. Until relatively recently, it was attached to our ¡°knowledge¡± about the inhabitants of other planets, but that has rather faded from view. It remains a risk in connection with our sense of knowing about life after death, and I want to use my time this morning talking about ways in which we may use or misuse this information.
Swedenborg makes it abundantly clear time after time that knowledge is not a guarantee of virtue. We do need knowledges in order to think and thereby to discern what is true and good (Arcana Coelestia 129, 1450f., 1453, 1548, 1802). However, if we use our information to prop up our sense of self-importance, this leads away from love for the Lord and the neighbor and closes our inner reaches. Swedenborg refers to the knowledges so used as ¡°empty knowledges¡± (ibid. 1563, 1600), and says that they are to be destroyed (ibid. 1489, 1492, 1499, 1581). He even makes the startling statement that ¡°the same knowledges are false for evil people because they are applied to evil ends and true for good people because they are applied to good¡± (ibid. 6917).
This means that this week¡¯s theme is not an entirely safe one. There is a risk that we may use the information to strengthen a sense that we are better than other people because we are privy to it, or that our church is better than other churches because it is better informed. The latter is perhaps the subtler distortion, since believing in the worth of the church seems less self-centered than believing in our own personal worth. However, our theology does describe the phenomenon of ¡°ego-extension¡± in its own terms. I quote from The New Jerusalem and its Heavenly Doctrine 66 and 67 (using Lee Woofenden¡¯s translation, with slight alterations of my own):
We are selfish when we have no consideration for other people or for the common good--and certainly not for the Lord--in anything we do. We think only of ourselves and our own. . . .
I say ¡°. . . ourselves and our own¡± because if we love ourselves, we also love our own. The people we think of as our own are our children and grandchildren, and in general, anyone who agrees with us. Loving these people is also loving ourselves, since we consider them to be an extension of ourselves, and we see ourselves in them.
It seems inescapably clear that ¡°anyone who agrees with us¡± may very well describe the way we see our church, or the way we want it to be. To the extent that we take its strengths and its failings personally, we have included it in our proprium--what we call our own, what we attribute to ourselves.
We have all known individuals in the church who were intensely anxious that everyone agree on matters of doctrine. There have been times at this camp when the mood in lecture and following discussion was that of a test of orthodoxy. It is probably natural and perhaps inevitable that a church with such theological riches should be prey to the Laodicean syndrome: ¡°Because you say, ¡®I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing¡¯ . . .¡± (Revelation 3:17).
No, the question is not how much truth we have, but what we do with it. This is forcefully symbolized by the Lord¡¯s counsel to the Laodiceans ¡°. . . to buy of me gold tried in the fire, so that you may be rich . . .¡± (Revelation 3:18). That is, there must be love, and that love must be proven by experience. Otherwise, we use our supposed possession of the truth to deceive ourselves about our need, and truth used for purposes of deception is truth falsified.
So much for general principles. Now I¡¯d like to look more closely at the use and misuse of knowledge specifically about heaven and hell. I would start with a premise, namely that by observing people¡¯s behavior, it is just about impossible to tell whether or not they believe in a life after death. As I wrote this, I wondered about the people who have had near-death experiences--these experiences seem to have made such an immense difference in their lives. But then I realized that there have been quite a lot of these folk around for quite some time, and until Raymond Moody¡¯s book, no one even suspected. Presumably those closest to them recognized that they had been changed by their ¡°close call,¡± but until people began to tell their stories, the rationale underlying that change was a mystery.
By their own testimony, survivors of near-death experiences tend to be less materialistic, more sensitive to what life is all about, more considerate of the well-being of others. However, there are people who have these characteristics who do not believe in a life after death. They seem simply to have the kind of honesty and insight that tells them some obvious facts--that people are not necessarily happier because they have material possessions, that the deepest happiness and peace of mind come primarily from healthy interpersonal relationships, and that therefore they need to be sensitive to other people¡¯s feelings.
Conversely, there are people who do believe in heaven and hell who are spectacularly insensitive. I think particularly of those who use the fear of hell and the promise of heaven to manipulate others into giving them their allegiance and their money. I think of those who believe that heaven is reserved only for those who agree with them, and who consign major portions of the human race to hell. I think of those who use the promise of heavenly reward as an excuse for not dealing with present inequities. Karl Marx may have been exaggerating when he described religion as the opiate of the masses, but there was certainly something there for him to exaggerate.
The obvious drift of all this is that we have information about life after deathwhich we can use well or badly, and looking at the way others have used similar information is useful only as it impels or enables us to be more responsible in our own living. So I want to spend the rest of my time this morning talking primarily about the appropriate use of the wealth of information we are offered. It seems to me that there are unique avenues of use and unique safeguards against misuse, if we will observe them.
I would start with a note in n. 426 of Heaven and Hell. ¡°There is no fixed length of time that people stay [in the World of Spirits]. Some people barely enter there before they are either borne into heaven or cast into hell.¡± People do not enter either heaven or hell until their indecisions have been resolved--until, in more traditional terms, their externals have been brought into accord with their internals, or conflicting tendencies have been moved out of their conscious wills and understandings. The sole purpose of the World of Spirits is this kind of inner resolution; and if some people do not spend any appreciable time in the World of Spirits, it can only be because the process of resolution has been carried to completion in this world.
This is important for our view of the relationship between this world and the next. It underscores the fallacy of saying, ¡°Well, surely I¡¯ll be able to take care of that in the other life, when things become clearer.¡± It says what is said also in many other ways, that the ¡°other life¡± is simply the inside of this one.
This is made particularly clear in paragraph 475 of True Christian Religion. Its heading reads, ¡°As long as we are living in this world, we are kept in a middle space between heaven and hell and therefore in a spiritual balance which is freedom of choice.¡± I quote in part from subsection 3 of the paragraph:
There is a great interspace between heaven and hell, which looks like a whole world to the people who are there. Evil breathes full force into it from hell, and good, also in full force, breathes into it from heaven . . . . As to our spirits, every one of us is in the middle of this interspace, for the sole purpose that we may enjoy freedom of choice.
Unconsciously, then, we are residents of that world. If we follow up on other statements, then we discover that we are not stationary in that geography. Our choices take us generally in the direction of heaven or in the direction of hell. Over a lifetime, we make up our own minds which we prefer, and we can make up our minds so thoroughly that we have no indecision left after we die.
This ought to raise a question in our minds. Is it fair that we may be, without even knowing it, making choices that will determine our well-being for eternity? Isn¡¯t this like being involved in a game without ever being told, without knowing what the rules are?
These questions lead us to take a second look at the nature of the world we live in, and perhaps to see that it is more peculiar than it seems. We are so used to it that we take for granted a great many things that do not make a lot of sense. The most obvious class of such things is the class of things that are not what they seem to be. I¡¯ve already asserted that we can¡¯t tell from people¡¯s behavior whether or not they believe in heaven and hell. It is hard to tell what people are thinking or how they are feeling. Right at this moment, in this room, there are all kinds of thoughts and feelings going on, and we are largely oblivious to them. We are capable of deceiving each other; we are capable of deceiving ourselves.
In the context of our theology, this kind of ¡°indeterminacy¡± is absolutely essential to our freedom. If we were presented with images of heaven as it actually is and of hell as it actually is, there would be no contest. I¡¯ll be giving more attention to this subject later in the week, so for now I will only mention than the light of hell is deceptive, making the ugly look attractive. Unless we were able to sustain this deception, hell would have no appeal to us at all.
As it is, we are perfectly able to find self-gratification attractive. We can feel the appeals of violence and of power. Then at other times, we can feel the appeal of compassion and understanding, and we regularly find ourselves choosing between them. As to the fairness of this process, at this point all I can do is to trust in the assurance that the Lord manages to provide everyone with enough information to make appropriate choices. This trust is strengthened by the observation that people in widely different circumstances seem to behave in ways that show awareness of the issues they are facing. When their behavior is blatantly self-seeking, that is, they show a need to rationalize it. This is a clear indication that at some level, they are aware that it is wrong. If at all possible, they try to dress it in more acceptable clothing. La Rochefoucauld said it best, to my way of thinking--¡±Hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue.¡± By the same token, when people act out of affection and understanding, they feel no such need.
I hasten to add that I am not talking about our following some particular, culturally determined, moral code. Bill is fond of talking about the conscientious headhunter as an illustration of the principle that we are called to do what we honestly believe is right, and that such honest beliefs vary from place to place and from time to time. Our ancestors saw nothing wrong in dumping their industrial wastes on the ground or into the water. A future generation will undoubtedly look at us and wonder that we saw nothing wrong in any number of things that we take for granted.
But we are not accountable to the standards of the year 2092. We are accountable to look as honestly as we can at our own circumstances, and to do the best we can within them. They provide us with a particular latitude, a latitude that is tailored to us. The freedom we have is a limited one--limited not only by our circumstances, but by our own abilities to perceive.
The next step is to recognize that our abilities to perceive are significantly affected by our willingness or our will to perceive. Swedenborg assigns a high priority to the ¡°affection for truth,¡± the desire to know and understand what is actually going on. That¡¯s all very well, but there is a great deal more going on than we can possibly take in. What we do perceive has a great deal to do with where we focus our attention, and this is where we come right back to Heaven and Hell. This is a book that can, if we let it, focus our attention on what is going on that has eternal consequences.
There is a subtle aspect to this that I am slowly coming to appreciate. We rarely realize, I think, that the word ¡°spiritual¡± means something to us that it does not mean to most people. Because of Swedenborg¡¯s many descriptions of the spiritual world, we tend to think of the spiritual world as a kind of enhanced version of this one. We think of it as solid, crisp, vivid, and lively. For most people, though, the word ¡°spiritual¡± has connotations of the ethereal. There is a sense of elusiveness and insubstantiality, and all too often, a sense of other-worldliness to the point of escapism.
If we take our theology seriously, we encounter a very down-to-earth kind of spirituality. The spiritual world is as solid as our own affections, and they are not at all easy to change. It is as clear and vivid as our own best and clearest thoughts--in fact, clearer and more vivid. For us, it is a world in which we are inwardly at home right now. Many of the survivors of near-death experiences testify to a very similar sense of the reality of spirit, and testify also to the difference it has made to them. Until we recognize that most people do not share this sense, we have a communications problem that we are not acknowledging and dealing with.
This matter of the present reality of spirit is also where the Marxist critique breaks down. We are not talking about ¡°pie in the sky bye and bye,¡± we are talking about nourishment in our minds and hearts here and now. The radical materialism of Marx¡¯s economic and political theory has finally demonstrated its poverty, after having done untold harm. I was surprised to discover that as early as 1866, Dostoevsky pointed directly to a central issue. In Crime and Punishment, Razumihin says,
Everything with them [the socialists] is ¡°the influence of environment,¡± and nothing else. Their favourite phrase! From which it follows that, if society is normally organized, all crime will cease at once, since there will be nothing to protest against and all men will become righteous in one instant. Human nature is not taken into account, it is excluded, it¡¯s not supposed to exist! (Fine Editions Press, p. 239)
The materialism of our own economic theory is certainly showing signs of inadequacy as well, though there is little evidence that we are ready to admit it. In Russia and her former satellites, economic disaster has struck, and there is a potent but confused conviction that spiritual values are essential to survival. We may hope and pray that it will not take disasters of similar proportions to lead us to the same conclusion.
But we need to do more than hope and pray. We ourselves need to take the reality of spirit with absolute seriousness and face what it does to our own individual and collective priorities. If, for example, the purpose of creation is a heaven from the human race, then the first and constant concern of our church must be the process of regeneration. In terms of Convention¡¯s statement of purpose, this means constant and overriding concern for the spiritual well-being of people. We may want the church to grow, but we have no right to invite anyone into membership unless we honestly believe that membership will be good for that specific individual¡¯s spiritual welfare. We cannot honestly believe that unless we ourselves are resolved to make that welfare a matter of our own attention and concern.
It seems to have been established beyond reasonable doubt that if a new visitor to church is called within twenty-four hours by a lay member of that church, the prospects of the visitor¡¯s eventually joining the church rise sharply. I would hazard the opinion that a major factor in this is the message the visitor receives that the church cares about him or her.
This leaves me with just one question--how true is this message? Obviously, there is some truth in it, because we are nice folk who care about others. But when we actually pick up the telephone to make the call, to what extent is it because of our interest in the visitor, and to what extent is it because we want the church to grow? In my ¡°best of all possible worlds,¡± we would make the call, but before we did so we would very carefully and prayerfully focus our attention on the well-being of the visitor. To the extent that we cannot do this, we are using an external technique that is empty of genuine spiritual content.
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours.
We do need to tend to external, material concerns. They are the stuff of our choices, the ¡°ultimates¡± that the Lord provides for us. They are also the ambiguities, the ¡°appearances¡± in which we can see good or evil, truth or falsity. If we do not bring our concerns down to the level of outward action, they remain theoretical only. But ¡°the world is too much with us¡± when we take it simply at face value, when it becomes the overriding reality, an end in itself. We ¡°lay waste our powers getting and spending¡± not simply when we get and spend--we all have to do that to some extent--but when we do so without regard for anything else.
This, I think, is a dangerous weakness in our own country at this juncture. Academically, there is a tendency for economics to be a separate field, in isolation from other fields of study. There is a perilous tendency to think that money behaves in particular ways, regardless of the hopes and dreams of the people who invented it, regardless of their goals and their principles. Let me quote Fritjof Capra (The Turning Point, pp. 188f.)
Present-day economics is characterized by the fragmentary and reductionist approach that typifies most social sciences. Economists generally fail to recognize that the economy is merely one aspect of a whole ecological and social fabric; a living system composed of human beings in continual interaction with one another and with their natural resources, most of which are, in turn, living organisms. The basic error of the social sciences is to divide this fabric into fragments, assumed to be ndepencent and to be dealt with in separate academic departments. Thus political scientists tend to neglect basic economic forces, while economists fail to incorporate social and political realties into their models.
Heaven and Hell says that we need to add something else to this ¡°ecology,¡± in fact, a whole other world. Until we take seriously the incredibly simple principle that ¡°you can¡¯t take it with you,¡± that we are first and foremost spiritual beings here and now, we will be vulnerable to the illusion that we can understand some particular external facet of our lives in isolation from all other facets. Perhaps the most spectacular example of the idiocy involved is the illusion of recent years that we can have a healthy economy if everyone is encouraged to get as much as possible out of it, and no one is concerned for what is being contributed to it.
If it does nothing else, Swedenborg¡¯s Heaven and Hell should convince us that our actual well-being, individual and collective, rests on far deeper causes than strictly monetary ones. We will have peace and prosperity to the extent that people actually understand and care about each other. We will never invent an economic or political system so clever that it outsmarts our own inclinations toward injustice. One of the Russians at the conference I attended recently (Alexei Kara-Murza) noted that every time someone tries to improve the system, it seems as though the ¡°indecent¡± people are first in line to take advantage of the changes. Another (Hieromonk Benjamin) said, ¡°Our leaders are still the same, but now they are playing democracy rather than communism.¡±
If Heaven and Hell is just a book about what is going to happen to us after we die, then it can all too easily become a distraction from the very process of getting there. If we see it as probing into what is going on now, under the surface, then it is an invaluable resource for the growth of more compassionate individuals in a more compassionate society.