Changing Altitude

Changing Altitude

Swedenborg has some very helpful things to say about the levels or altitudes of the human mind. He enumerates six altogether, corresponding to the three heavens and the three hells. While we are on earth our consciousness can switch from one level to another, like going up and down in an elevator from one floor to another in an apartment building; but as we grow older we get more or less settled in one particular level where we feel most at home; this when we die becomes the level of our home to eternity. The point I want to make now is that our impression of the events of everyday life can be very different, and our reaction to them will be different, according to the level or altitude from which we regard them.

This can be illustrated by the enormous difference in the view you get of the world if you are on the ground, in an airplane, or in a space ship. The first time I went up in an airplane was in 1923 when I flew from London to Amsterdam. That was a tremendous experience for an impressionable teenager. For one thing, all the hills and valleys which served as dividing lines or barriers between groups of people were now flattened out, and the broad outlines of the whole country began to appear: cities, towns and villages lying in proper relationship with one another. The channel of sea which separates France from England (or should I say, England from France?) now seemed very narrow indeed – scarcely an interruption. France, Belgium, Holland and Germany, all one! What a difference a higher viewpoint can make! Another thing that tremendously impressed me was to see the clouds from above. Probably you have had this experience and are aware of it as a parable of life. From below they appear to be dark and threatening; but seen from above they shine and glisten, reflecting the glory of God.

If the difference in perspective is so great from an airplane, how about a space ship? I have not yet been up in a space ship; but we have all seen the space view of our earth through the TV camera. The astronauts see it as a little ball floating in a vast area of empty space. Continents and seas are vaguely discernible through the veils of cloud, but all details have disappeared. It is just our little earth; and the astronauts have told us how cozy and inviting it looks from space – their “home planet.” That planet belongs to the whole human race, to all of us who are living together on it. Seeing it from this highest of all altitudes, one wonders why we should be hectically manufacturing weapons of destruction and doing all we can, apparently, to make it uninhabitable; why the members of this human family should be killing one another off, taking sides on the question as to whether property should be owned individually or collectively (capitalism versus communism). It would be difficult to explain such strange behavior to someone from another planet who had only seen our earth from the point of view of outer space.

In the Bible there are many examples of “seeing things from different altitudes”; for example, Moses on the mountain top receiving the ten Commandments from God while Aaron in the valley was organizing the worship of the golden calf; Zacchaeus climbing a sycamore tree to get a better view of Jesus; and Jesus and the three chosen disciples on the mount of Transfiguration while the rest of the disciples were trying in vain to cope with the lunatic child down in the valley. Remember also the Sermon on the Mount: “Seeing the multitude, Jesus went up into a mountain; and when He was set, His disciples came unto Him; and He opened His mouth and taught them.”

As I have said, so much depends on the level or altitude from which one is operating. And this certainly applies spiritually. By the ground level I mean the ordinary worldly standpoint: the level of materialism, of secular education, of making and spending money, of gadgetry. This is sometimes called “The American Way of Life,” but of course it is found in every country, even in Moscow and Peking! Maybe Americans have worked at it harder and more effectively than any other nation, so that the common man here today can enjoy a higher standard of living than even nobles and royalty could enjoy in past ages. For the first time in history the problem of food production has been solved for everyone. On the material level we are the heroes of a success story.

Unfortunately, however, we do not seem to be much happier as a result of this new prosperity and power. There probably never was a time when there was such tension, insecurity, anxiety and general unrest; so many nervous breakdowns, and even so much fear (though this seems strange in the most powerful nation on earth) ! Our art and music are depressing in the extreme; our theatre is morbid with a strong leaning toward mad-house scenes and sex perversion, and there is a universal feeling of hopelessness, and gloom, leading to so much frustration that our young people are going around smashing everything up, “just for kicks.” Loneliness and alienation in overcrowded cities produce alcoholism, drug addiction, smoking, over-eating, over-working, frantically rushing around. The reason for all these troubles is that we have made material prosperity an end in itself, instead of a means to the development of spiritual values. On the natural plane, love of self and love of the world operate, and this is quite all right in the early stages of our development. The child must love himself and must develop a sense of property. This inevitably leads to a certain amount of quarrelling in the nursery, which we can excuse on the grounds of immaturity. The trouble arises when people carry over their loves of self and the world into adult life; then the quarrels of the nursery become lawsuits and family feuds, endless bickering between married partners and between parents and children, and, on the international scale, wars cold and hot.

The whole purpose of life on earth is to learn to switch over from love of self and love of the world, which are natural, to love to the neighbor and love to the Lord, which are spiritual. If we are not achieving this switch-over we are simply wasting our lives. We may be doing fine in other respects, but we are wasting our lives. This gives us a clue to the paradox that people in the more affluent nations, like the U.S.A., Britain and Sweden, are apparently the most prone to a sense of insecurity and fear; it is because their selfhood and love of possessions are given so much opportunity to flourish unchecked. In the poorer regions of the world, people haven’t much time to worry about themselves and their own importance; they are too busy trying to get enough to eat. And since they possess so little, and have almost no control over their destinies, they find it comparatively easy to develop a trust in the Lord and his providential care. That is probably why there are so many more suicides, neurotics and scared people among the “have” nations than among the “have-nots,” whereas you would naturally expect it to be the other way round. Are the members of the “have” nations then in an impossible position? Of course not! If our characters develop in the way they ought to develop; that is to say, if we grow and mature in the way the Lord intends us to do, then we shall be much better off because of our superior worldly education and our freedom from material want. I believe that material prosperity, freedom from want, high educational qualifications, and plenty of leisure time, will be basic to the way of life characteristic of the New Age.

But we must rise up to a higher level of viewpoint and motivation. We must outgrow the tawdry pleasures of “things,” the excitements and stimulations of our old ground-level existence. Forget your own importance, your ego; cease to be anxious about your status, your rights, the image people have of you. Cease to be emotionally involved in your possessions, whether many or few. Once you lose the itch of praise and property you experience a release from all anxiety and fear. You are free of the nagging ache of shyness, self-consciousness and envy. You are free of the sick hurts of resentment that people “don’t appreciate you properly” or pass you by. You are free to do or say what your conscience dictates, regardless of unpopularity.

And if, eventually, you can rise yet higher, to the Lord’s own viewpoint, loving Him with heart, soul, mind and strength and seeking His kingdom, then you will achieve such security in Him that nothing the world can do will have any adverse effect upon you, not even torture or death itself. You will take up your cross and follow Him gladly to Calvary Hill – which is to be free indeed. The Lord will surround you with the redemptive power with which He overcame the hells, and you will be safe even from temptation. That is the seventh or Sabbath day of rest. Shall we have to give up our old life and commitments in the world? Not necessarily, though there will undoubtedly be marked changes. Many things which before were important to you and which you sought with all your heart, will henceforth cease to interest you. Other things will now interest you much more than they did, and these will yield you a far deeper and more enduring satisfaction than any of your old concerns could ever have done. Life will continue. Your daily routine will not necessarily change. But you will be changed.

Not only will you have different value judgments in your own life, but you will see things differently in the world around you. From your higher vantage point you will see good where others see nothing but evil; you will have hope where before you had despair. The crime in the streets of our cities, the clash between black and white, the labor unrest and the endless strikes … you begin to see these in their long-range implications, as the birth pangs of the New Age, as the crystallizing out of an entirely new kind of relationship between employer and employee, rich and poor, parents and children, and between the races, between the nations. Barriers are being broken down; mountains and hills are being laid low and valleys are being raised, as I observed in my first view from an airplane; and the most threatening clouds are seen to have a silver lining. The decline in religion is seen as a shifting around in preparation for an entirely new kind of religion, which will be much better than the old. Oh, the airplane view reveals so many unexpected and previously unobserved beauties; good in other people who had previously seemed hopeless; good in situations which had previously seemed wholly bad; hope and joy in place of misery and despair. And if we can but rise to the outer-space view, which takes everything into account: past, present and future, and the needs of all people, preparing them for eternal life . . . why, “God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.” It has to be, it cannot be otherwise with a God of infinite love, wisdom and power.

I will end with a slightly different version of my analogy of altitudes. Imagine you are someone living in the basement of a house, going in and out by the back door from a slummy alleyway full of garbage and filth and broken bottles. You are eating scrappy meals, because it hardly seems worthwhile making anything better, and life is rather shabby and sordid. Yet upstairs in the same house, on a higher floor, with the entrance in the front, your Father is regularly providing sumptuous banquets. There in His home the furnishing is exquisite, and everything is designed to promote serenity and refreshment of body and soul. You have the key to this upper apartment, and you are always welcome there. Why not go up? Why stay down below, eating husks?

The level of release is within you, the altitude of Christian love and of communion with the Lord. Rise up to this. Deepen down to this. Spread out to this. Life will take on glorious new dimensions. The kingdoms of this world will become the kingdoms of our Lord and of his Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever. And in this kingdom, in a higher ether, you will be secure and at peace.

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