Cursed is the ground for your sake; in sorrow you will eat of it all the days of your
life; thorns and thistles it will bring forth for you.
We do not take this statement literally. We regard the first eleven chapters of Genesis as
a kind of parable, whose primary intent is to tell us about our spiritual history. If we
stop to think about it for a moment, this makes a great deal of sense. With the
increasingly effective tools of science, we can find out more and more about the physical
origins of the universe, of our world, and of the world's inhabitants. It is far more
difficult for us to explore a subject that is much more timely and much more important,
the history of good and evil. In the view of our church, the Lord has given us abilities
to discover a great deal, and offers revelation only to tell us what we could not find out
This revelation, though, is of a particular character. In doctrinal terms, it is written
in the language of correspondences--in symbols. It does not force itself upon our minds,
but suggests itself, so that we can see as much or as little as we are ready and willing
to see. As anyone who has lived with the Bible will testify, the same image can keep
yielding fresh meaning year after year, as we grow in our ability to perceive.
When we talk about this "language of correspondences," we are not talking about some
arbitrary code. The physical story and the spiritual story are interrelated. Physical
light does for the eye what spiritual light does for the mind, for example. And even more
than that, physical light exists as a result of spiritual light. This world is a kind of
image of the spiritual world where we exist inwardly right now, and where we will live
consciously forever after death. This world is an image of the spiritual world because it
is a result of the spiritual world. The Lord's creative power flows into matter through
spirit, and the causes of everything we can see lie in the realm we cannot see. "Out of
the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks."
There is a passage in Swedenborg's Arcana Coelestia (¶ 7270) that has grown in
significance for me over the past few years. It reads as follows:
. . . there are connected stages from the First (that is, from 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. We can see from this that through these
stages there is a constant connection of all things with the First Reality. Inflow is
patterned by these stages, for 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
. . . .
There are points at which this touches our own common experience. Our minds can work much
faster than our physical tongues. We can envision in moments a process that takes our
bodies days or even years to realize. Mentally, we can be home in an instant--even at rush
What our theology is telling us, though, goes further than this. It is saying that all
physical matter, no matter how solid and static it may seem, is in the process of change.
Elementary physics distinguishes solids, liquids, and gases. Swedenborg is saying that the
so-called "solids" are in fact only the most viscous substances, the substances that
"flow" the most slowly. If we had a time-lapse movie of geologic events, with a frame
taken every thousand years or so, we would see mountains flowing to the sea, and new
mountains thrusting up. With our present technology, we can see the motion of vegetable
Our own "solid" bodies are constantly in process, constantly taking in matter and
excreting matter. According to a couple of sources I have read recently, the human
pancreas replaces most of its cells every twenty-four hours. Other organs replace
themselves at slower rates, with the bones the most stable of all, I presume, but there is
nothing physical, no bit of physical matter, that we can regard as a permanent part of our
identity. We seem to be forms through which matter is flowing at various rates, and the
"forms" seem not to be physical at all.
This brings us back to the matter of correspondence. The forms that govern the flow of
matter, that determine what physical entities exist and how they develop and interrelate,
are spiritual. What we see around us is in a way a picture painted by spirit out of some
rather sluggish and unresponsive stuff. It is spirit doing the best it can to portray
When the human will enters into the picture, this becomes obvious. We could take this
church building as an example. It deliberately represents the aspirations and the values
of those who planned and built it. If we know how to read it, it tells us a great deal
about them. Further, those of you who have been involved in its maintenance know that it
is not the solid, unchanging object that it seems to be. There are processes of change
going on constantly, processes that have to be counteracted if the building is to stay
"the same." Its maintenance represents the aspirations and values of those who maintain
Now let us apply this principle on a larger scale. If we think of this country as it was
before Europeans arrived and think of it the way it is now, we have a kind of image of the
aspirations and values of our nation. These are obviously very different from those of the
native Americans who are now such a marginal part of our nation. We have changed the
landscape in many places beyond recognition. We seem presently to have arrived at the
point where we threaten the very system that sustains our life, largely, I would suggest,
because we want to believe that we can do whatever we like and ignore the consequences.
We do not want to pay the price of discarding what we no longer use, whether that be
ordinary trash, phosphates from fertilizers, fluorocarbons from air conditioners, or
At the same time, there is a very attractive side to our efforts. It significant that much
of the rest of the world looks to us an example. The technology that enables us to
threaten our environment also enables us to do constructive things. On every level, we are
being freed from the necessity of doing things that machines can do better, and we are
therefore pressed to rethink what it is that human beings are for.
Gradually, bit by bit, we are remaking the world in our own image. As the centuries pass
and our technological powers increase, the pace of this remaking speeds up. As
communication technology in particular develops and spreads, we can see instantly what is
happening anywhere on our globe, and begin to get the broadest view ever of what it is
that we are doing to our world.
None of us will see the end of the story. We are programmed to die, if you will, and to
move in consciousness to a spiritual world where the same laws apply, but far more
obviously and immediately. The substance of that world, our theology tells us, is not so
sluggish as physical matter. It responds much more quickly to our thoughts and intentions,
so quickly in fact that our outward appearance will be a true image of our inner quality,
and the surroundings in which we live will be parables of our states of mind and heart.
On the spiritual level, then, our Old Testament reading could be literally true. In a
spiritual world, the disobedience of eating the forbidden fruit and the lame excuses for
it would result in a changed landscape. Grasping and ungenerous attitudes would bring
forth thorns and thistles just as surely as loving and thoughtful attitudes would bring
forth nourishing fruit. Swedenborg offers us countless stories that illustrate this
principle, with stark contrasts between the beauty of heavenly regions and the barrenness
and squalor of hellish ones.
One more point remains to be made. The sluggishness of matter enables us to deceive
ourselves. We do something selfish or generous, and the world around us does not change
noticeable. It is only gradually that we make a physical heaven or hell around us. As
individuals, though, we will continue after death with the values we adopt here, and in
the spiritual world the effects of these values will become immediate and obvious.
Surely, then, we should look as honestly as we can at the kind of world we are building.
Almost every day, it seems, we acquire some new ability that we can use for good or for
ill. Think of it for a moment--a century ago, the richest and most powerful man in the
world did not have a car, could not travel by air, could not know what was happening
across the ocean until weeks after the event. It would seem in fact that we have grown in
power to the extent that it is awfully hard to deceive ourselves about the kind of world
we are making. There is no place we can go to hide from the effects of our values.
Perhaps the Lord's subtle providence is leading us, not by making decisions for us, not by
guaranteeing right decisions, but by "speeding up the flow" so that the world around us
reflects the state of our souls more clearly and more quickly. In this respect, our world
is becoming more like the world we will live in after death--a world where we can see what