Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned~--this happened so that the works of God could be made manifest in him. - John 9:3
The story of the man born blind suggests two messages for us in our own times, messages that are perhaps more closely related to each other than it might seem. The first is that we are all “born blind,” and the second is that the Lord’s providence looks ahead.
Late in his Arcana Coelestia (n. 10225), Swedenborg sketches four sequential states of our life process, as follows:
The first state is from birth to age five; this is a state of ignorance, and of innocence in that ignorance . . .
The second state is from age five to age twenty; this state is a state of instruction and information . . .
The third state is from age twenty to age sixty, and is a state of understanding . . .
The fourth or last state is from age sixty on, and is a state of wisdom, and of innocence in that wisdom . . . .
Clearly, we cannot take this with absolute literalism. Right at the beginning of Arcana Coelestia, Swedenborg presented a seven-stage outline of the life process, and noted that most people get hung up in the early stages. We cannot determine where we are in the process by looking at the calendar. What we have instead is an outline of a necessary sequence, with an indication of how it will unfold if everything goes as the Lord intends. That is, we begin in ignorance, spend the years of youth laying the foundations for understanding, develop that understanding through experience through the years of active adulthood, and ultimately~—in retirement, so to speak—arrive at wisdom, at a sound and generous grasp of what life is all about. The same section that outlines the four stages describes the last stage paradoxically as the ignorance of wisdom,” meaning that we realize that none of our knowledge is really our own, that it all comes from the Lord.
To help us understand the rationale behind the process, Swedenborg elsewhere points out that this is not how it works with animals (Cf. Heaven and Hell n. 202). Animals, he says, are born “into the order of their lives,” and therefore with much of the knowledge they need for their survival. Research into animal development since his time has qualified this somewhat, but it confirms the main point, namely that the learning that takes place is essentially a filling in of general patterns that are inborn.
We humans, though, are born “out of order,” with a tendency to be self-centered, that is. This means that if we were born also with a full supply of instinctual knowledge, all of that knowledge would be telling us that other people do not matter. We have to learn from others, especially from parents, who have learned that other people do matter. So we are born not full but empty, so to speak, and with an appetite.
The story in John adds one more important detail. “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.” Again, it would seem impossible to take this with rigid literalism. If this man and his parents were absolutely sinless, they would be on the path to divinity. They were ordinary human beings, and of course they had sinned. What Jesus is saying is that the blindness was not a punishment for their sins. This is the assumption that lay behind the disciples’ question.
Our theology argues vehemently against any doctrine of “original sin,” and yet insists that we are “born into evils of every kind.” What is the difference? One difference is immediate and essential. A standard reading of the doctrine of original sin is that we are born guilty, and that unbaptized babies are therefore shut out of heaven. This is a blatant form of the subtler attitude that our theology rejects, namely that our plight is our fault, or our parents’ fault. Swedenborg would have us stop blaming ourselves and recognize that all of us are in situations that are not of our own making. The effects of the past are very much with us, and we are absolutely powerless to change the past.
We can, though, change the hold that the past has on us. If we look around at the people we know, we can see the difference between people who cannot let go of the past and people who can. We can also see the difference between people who have learned from the past and people who have not. If we put the two contrasts together, it seems almost absurdly clear that we should look at the past and learn from it, and let go of it—that we should use it, and not let it use us.
This brings us to the second message from the story of the man born blind. His blindness, Jesus said, was not a punishment for past sins. It was part of a strategy for a brighter future—“so that the works of God could be made manifest in him.”
One of the little exercises I’ve started to try with our seminary students is to have one of them leave the classroom and bring back a book, looking backward the whole time. Physically, that is, we take it for granted that we have to look where we are going if we want to get there. We have to remember where we have been, and at times we may want to stop and look back, but when we are moving, it really does help to face forward.
Our Gospel story is telling us that the Lord’s providence looks forward. This man was not born blind because of something that he or his parents had done, because of something in the past, but with a view to the future. Our theology puts it even more strongly when it says that “Divine providence focuses on eternal issues, and on temporal issues only as they are in harmony with eternal ones” (Divine Providence n. 214). The Lord not only looks ahead, the Lord looks all the way ahead, all the way to eternity.
We really would not want it any other way. We would not want a God who said, “You broke this rule and this is your punishment, and I don’t care what effect it has on you.” We want a God who looks at what we have done and responds constructively, does whatever promises to have the best results.
If we are honest with ourselves, we have to confess that we sometimes need what we do not want, that “what promises to have the best results” may not be what fits in with our own plans. This is imaged in our Old Testament reading, in the statement that the gentile nations were left in the land “to test Israel.” It is put in striking terms. “And the anger of the Lord was hot against Israel; and he said, ‘Because this people has transgressed my covenant which I commanded their fathers and has not heeded my voice, I will not drive out from before them any more of the nations that Joshua left when he died, so that through them I may test Israel, whether they will keep the way of the Lord and walk in it, or not.’”
It is an intriguing picture. It presents the Lord as enraged by Israel’s transgressions, but as responding not by outright punishment—there are other occasions where there is swift and drastic punishment—but by leaving them in a situation where they have to choose. Even in the midst of rage, that is, this Lord seems to be looking ahead.
The rage is what Swedenborg again refers to as “an appearance of truth.” There are times when it feels as though the Lord is angry with us, and a Bible that did not recognize and picture this would be a Bible out of touch with the realities of our own hearts. It is all the more reassuring, once we recognize it, to find that the Lord is working for our best even when we have transgressed and even when we are overwhelmed with a sense of divine anger. How we feel about God does not change the way God feels about us.
The purpose of seeing “whether they would walk in the way of the Lord or not” points directly to what Swedenborg identifies as the primary purpose of the Lord’s providence, to enable us to act in freedom, according to reason (Divine Providence n. 71).
If we reflect, it is clear that our freedom depends on the possibility of things going wrong. If there were perfect, inevitable justice, if nothing unfair could ever happen to anyone, our decisions would be meaningless. On the one hand, nothing we did or tried to do would make any difference. On the other hand, any evil we did would bring instantaneous punishment, and it would not take very long before we were perfectly conditioned to behave very well indeed.
The question, then, is not “Does there need to be unfairness in our world,” but “How much unfairness do we need?” If we look around, we see the Lord’s answer. It seems to take at least the amount of suffering there is to wake us up to the importance of our decisions, to the urgency of the message of love of the neighbor. In fact, even the immense amount of suffering there is does not seems to have succeeded in getting the message across.
There is one more element in the message of our Scripture readings. If the Lord’s providence does look ahead, and if it focuses primarily on our freedom, this means that the good the Lord intends may not actually happen. The Lord may allow us to fail in order that we may learn to listen to the advice of others, for example, and we may refuse to learn the lesson. When we find ourselves asking, “Why did this happen to me,” we ourselves have a part to play in writing the answer. If we recognize simply that this happened to open a path before us, the question “Why did it happen?” becomes the question, “Lord, how am I to respond?”