Sunday, May 5, 1993

Location - Newtonville
Bible Verses - Genesis 3:1-21
Matthew 3:22-37

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.

Genesis 3:17f.

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

for ourselves.

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

radioactive wastes.

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

really matters.


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