The Origin And Nature Of Life
“I am the way, the truth, and the life.” John xiv. 6
The subject to which I invite your attention this evening is the most profound and important that can be offered to human investigation. It relates to first causes, to the origin of creation and of human existence, and embraces all its substances, forces, and activities. It has engaged the attention of the scientists and philosophers of all ages, the profoundest thinkers and the wisest and best men of all religions. It is as old as the human race, and yet it comes up in every age for a new hearing. An unusual interest is awakened in it, at the present time, by the scientists who are seeking to penetrate the mysteries of the universe and solve the problems of creation.
Many theories have been advocated with zeal and ability, only to give place to others. For a time it was believed that the secret had been discovered. Dr. Bastian thought he had demonstrated that life was self-originating. But more careful experiments showed that he was mistaken, and the old enigma remained unsolved. The scientist has not been able to penetrate the mystery of life. It is believed by those who are acquainted with the writings of the New Church that they contain important disclosures. upon this subject, which present it in a new light, and help to solve its mystery so far as it can be comprehended by the finite mind. These disclosures are-in full accordance with what the Lord Himself has revealed in the Sacred Scriptures, and with all true science. I invite your attention to a brief statement of what our doctrines teach upon the origin and nature of life, and to some illustrations which may help us to see their reasonableness and ground in the nature of things.
By the origin of life I mean life as it-appears in the creation, in plants, animals, and men, and not in its primary source. In this latter sense it has no origin. It is in its essential nature untreatable and consequently has no beginning. This is the affirmation of the Lord Himself. The name of the Supreme Being means existence in itself. When asked His name He replied, I am the I am.” That is the meaning of the word Jehovah. He not merely lives; He is life itself. He has life in Himself. He does not receive it; He does not originate it; He is it. This cannot be said of any created being or thing. The plant and the animal have life, but they are not life. Human beings have life, but they are not life itself. Life can be given to all organized forms, and it can be taken away from them. We live and move and have our being in the Lord. Life cannot be created and deposited in plant, animal, or man, and remain as an independent and self-sustaining power. It can be communicated and received, but not retained when cut off from its source.
This is a most important fact which can be easily understood, and one which throws a flood of light upon our relations to the Lord, and upon many profound problems of human life. We can give and receive solid and fluid substances, leave them in the possession of others, and withhold all connection with them. We can receive a mineral, a sum of money, a flower, or a fruit, and it will remain in our hands after the giver has departed. But light cannot be given and held in that way. It does not remain after the source, the luminous body, is removed. ‘The light which fills this room and seems steady and permanent cannot be retained when the source from which it originates is extinguished. Heat is of the same nature. Remove the source from which it ,emanates and all warmth soon ceases to exist. Annihilate the sun and the earth would soon be enveloped darkness and frost. Light and heat must be constantly given. They cannot be retained as a permanent possession. They are a form of sub- stance in motion. Motion is one of their factors. Consequently when the motion rests light and heat cease. A more familiar example of this method of creation is sound, one of the factors of which, as every school-boy knows, is the motion of the form of substance we call the atmosphere. The sound dies when the motion ceases. So it is with life. It is not a commodity that can be gained and stored up and used when occasion requires, as we can lay up food or money. It is the activity of a substance, and consequently must be a constant gift, and it must be constantly received. It is a stream, a river, from its uncreated and infinite fountain, the Lord; and when the current ceases life in the recipient becomes extinct. Life therefore cannot be created, it can only be communicated. The Lord is life. All created beings are forms capable of receiving life. But life itself being from its essential nature uncreatable has no origin.
Let us, then, proceed to answer the question, What is life? This is a question which, according to general opinion, it is impossible to answer. But life is no more incomprehensible than a stone or a plant. We do not know what anything is in itself. All our knowledge of material things or of human beings, of mind and matter, is gained and limited by their influence upon us; by experience either our own or that of others. The most ignorant persons know something of the nature of heat and cold. They see their effects on all things in nature, and feel them in their own persons. They know that heat is a force which moves matter to action. It causes growth in plants; it changes solids to liquids, and liquids to gases. It warms, and when its action is intense, it consumes and destroys. We know what light is by its effects. This is all we know or can know about any substance or- force.
In the same way we know what life is by its effects. It causes seeds to grow into plants and trees, and plants and trees to put forth leaves, to blossom and bear fruit after their kind. A child knows that a dead vine will not grow and bear fruit however carefully it may be cultivated and rich the soil. We see the nature of life in higher and more various forms in animals and men. We feel its power in ourselves. We have a clearer and fuller and more various knowledge of life than we have of a stone or plant, of light and heat, or of any material force or object. It is a force. Heat is a force; but life is a much greater and finer power. Heat moves to action; life does the same, but in far higher and more various forms.
It may be asked how we know that life causes the effects we attribute to it. The answer is evident. In the same way we know that heat will melt ice and iron, change water to steam, and solids to gas. We know it by observation and experience. We know the one just as well as we do the other. That life is a force, the cause of all action in plants, animals, and men, is evident to the senses.
This is the simplest, the essential, and the universal quality of life. We must be careful, however, to distinguish effects from causes. A common idea of life is that it is the result of organization, or the effect of the action of material forms. But the truth is directly the reverse. Life organizes the plant and animal and moves them to action and manifests itself by means of them. To attribute life to the organic forms by which it is manifested, is as absurd as it would be to claim that the power of steam was derived from the engine, and was clue to the perfection of the machinery which it sets in motion. Life, as we shall see, is modified by organization, but it is not the result of it. It is, here that the materialistic theory of evolution fails. It puts effects in the place of causes, and in this way reverses the whole order of the creation. When organizations are formed, life is manifested, and it is taken for granted that the life is the product of the organization. This is as unphilosophical and absurd as it would be to assert that the cart moved the horse, or that the engine created the steam, or that the earth gave light and heat to the sun. It involves the absurdity of attributing to the tool the power and skill that wields it, and of making creation the author of the Creator.
I have said that the simplest and universal conception of life is that of force; it is the supreme, underived, self-existing, self-acting, universal, omnipotent power. If it is pure power it must be a self-acting substance. Power is not an abstraction. It is the energy with which substance in some form acts. Life is substance in motion in its highest and, perfect form. There can be no force distinct and separate from substance. We can conceive of power apart from any substance, but it exists only in its subject. The power of steam exists only in steam; it cannot be separated from it. It is the force with which steam expands. It is the action of the for of substance we call steam. The power of wind and wave is the force with which they move; the power of men and animals resides in their organization, and has no existence apart from them. We conclude, therefore, that life must be substance; it must be the primary, self-existent, and self-acting substance from which all the worlds and all things are created. The universe was not created out of nothing; it was created by life and out of the substance of life. It has its origin in God who is substance and life. Here we are brought again face to face with the universal order which reigns in the universe. Life cannot be created, but it can create and sustain by the constant communication of its power. It cannot create itself. It cannot give to the forms which it creates an existence independent of itself. If it could the creation would be life; it would be God. This is pantheism.
If God creates all things from Himself, the natural and superficial inference is that creation must be a part of God. But this by no means necessarily -follows. We have abundant examples with which we are all familiar, that one thing may be created from other things and out of their substance and yet be no part of them, and differ from them in – form and qualities. Water is created by the combination of oxygen and hydrogen gases; but it is unlike them in substance and possesses entirely distinct qualities. A grape is created by substances derived for the most part from the vine. But it differs in form, organization, and qualities from the vine which bore it. When we eat a cluster of delicious grapes we are not eating a grape-vine. The earth, the scientists truly tell us, was created from substances derived from the sun; but the assertion that the earth was a part of the sun would be regarded. as absurd. So there is a distinct cleavage and an impassable gulf between the creature and the Creator. All created things and beings are forms having no life in themselves, but capable of receiving it. Men and, angels are not God; they have no underived independent life. They are simply forms capable of receiving life from Him and being constantly blessed by it. This is the ineradicable distinction between the creature and the Creator. This is the gulf which never can be passed.
Let us again take our stand in the Divine nature as revealed in the Sacred Scriptures, and regard life as it exists and is manifested in another form. God is love and wisdom. God is life. In Him is life, and the life was the light of men. Love is therefore life. God is love. But much more is meant by this simple affirmation than that God is capable of loving. He is not only capable of exercising the affection of love, but He is love itself. What is love? How would you define it? Is it merely a sentiment? Is it nothing more than a pleasurable emotion, the effect of a thought, a look, or the conscious presence of another” It is vastly more than any or all of its effects. It is not an abstraction; it is not a feeling; it is not an emotion that comes and goes. Love is substance and power in their essence and origin. Love is the substance of the Divine Being. It is another name for life; it is life. It contains within itself the promise and potency of the whole creation; of all that is not God. As a Divine and a self-existing substance it contains within itself the power to create all finite substances from itself, and out of them to organize all forms and imbue them with life. Loving is love in action; emotion is the effect of the power of love, as the motion of an engine is due to the power of steam. The delights which flow from love are the effects of its power, and as distinct from love itself as the sensation of warmth is the effect of heat and distinct from it. Love contains within its substance a plastic moulding power which constantly operates to create everything in its own image and likeness and give to it the capacity of receiving itself. It is the nature of unperverted love to give itself to others, and to help others to receive it. God being love itself, created all human beings for the purpose of giving Himself to them, and He created everything in the material universe to be an instrument and means of doing it.
If you ask me how I know this, I answer, I know it as I know that it is of the nature of light to illuminate, of heat to give itself to other bodies. I know it from the nature of love as it is manifested in history, and in universal and personal experience. Does not a mother’s love move her to protect her child and provide for its wants” The purer and more ardent the love, the more energetic and devoted the parent will be to minister to all the wants and secure the happiness of his offspring. Love of home will incite to constant labor; love of country will lead to the surrender of property and, if need be, to the peril of life. Love of the Church and of the Lord, when it is the dominant motive, will lead to giving up all things and following Him. What we are willing to give and to give up is the test of our love. “Greater love bath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” If such is the nature of human love, weak and imperfect as it is, what must be the nature of the Divine love” If love impels men to use all the means at their command to effect its purposes, will not the Lord whose love is infinite, do the same thing” The supposition that He could do otherwise would be contrary to the nature of love and universal experience. “It is the nature of love,” says Swedenborg, “to give its own to become another’s own.” We know, therefore, as well as we can know anything, that if God is pure, infinite love, He could not refrain from. communicating it to others, and from providing the most ample and the best possible means of giving it in the largest measures and the highest forms. Love, therefore, may be regarded as the most perfect embodiment and exhibition of the qualities of life.
Life being infinite in substance and power, its forms and qualities are infinite; ,that is, there is no limit to the substances it can create, the forms it can assume, and the qualities it can reveal. In general there are three kinds of substances entirely unlike
and distinct from each other. There is a Divine substance, a spiritual substance, and a material substance which we call matter. Divine substance is life in itself, uncreated and underived. It is the substance of the Divine Being. Spiritual substance is of a lower order. It is created from the Divine. It is the substance of which our minds or spirits are organized. It is the substance of which the spiritual world is created. Material substance we are more familiar with. It is the matter of which the earth and the material universe is formed, and has its origin in the sun. We know that material substance exists in a great variety of forms, as solids, fluids, gases, atmospheres, ethers, and auras. Nature has three kingdoms – the mineral, the vegetable, and the animal. The lowest, the mineral, is destitute of life. It is only capable of motion. It is unorganized, and its particles have no definite and essential relations to each other but contact, like the grains of sand and drops of water. In this condition they cannot receive and become forms of life. They can only serve as materials for life to build itself a body, a house to dwell in and an instrument to reveal its nature. Life can only show itself in organic forms. We find, therefore, in the vegetable kingdom the first indications of life in its lowest qualities. It appears as order, as growth according to immutable laws. It selects from mineral and mould, from air and water and light, with unerring precision the substances that will serve its purpose, and weaves them with infinite skill that is above all finite comprehension into grass and vines, shrubs and trees; clothes them with leaves, adorns them with blossoms, and distils from their gross elements delicious juices and nourishing substances, and embodies them in fruits each after its kind. In this kingdom of nature we see life in its means, methods, and results. It unveils its mysterious face and gives us glimpses of its nature. We can see that it is a quality of its nature to organize, to reduce chaotic elements to order, and establish relations between them, and bring the various substances which stand apart into mutual service. Is not that an important and significant quality of life? Does it not give us a hint of love and wisdom” We see it forming the plant into food for animals and men, and moulding them into a diversified and glorious beauty to cultivate the taste, charm the fancy, and win the affections. We see life giving to each plant its own form, its own beauty, its own qualities, and its own use? Is not that a mark of wisdom” a token of love” an evidence that the Lord; who is love, regards the good of His children in all His works? Is He not providing food for the fowls of the air, which have neither storehouse nor barn”
But life can give only hints and faint outlines of its nature in these coarse elements of matter. It can give beauty to the rose and lily, grandeur to the oak and pine, and provision for the sustenance of man and beast, to corn and the fruit-bearing tree. But it cannot bestow upon them a consciousness of their own life, a knowledge of the use they are serving, and the power to rejoice in the warmth and glory of the sun, and to drink pleasure from dew and rain. It requires a purer and higher form of substance to receive and manifest these higher forms of life.
A basis and support having been provided for a higher form of life, the animal kingdom is now created. Spiritual substances also are employed, which can receive the influx of life and manifest the more excellent qualities of its nature. To the animal is given a more complex and delicate organization. It is endowed with sensation. It can see and hear and feel. It is endowed with a degree of freedom. Instead of being fixed immovably in the earth, its roots are turned within itself. It has the power of locomotion; it can know something of its relations to the earth, to other animals, and to man. It is capable of association with its kind, and can render a more or less voluntary service to man.
In this kingdom life reveals its nature in clearer characters, in higher and more varied forms. It shows that it is of its nature to feel, to know, to associate with others, to enjoy, and to bring many material substances into its own service. Consider instinct, for a moment, as one of the qualities of life. There is given to every insect, fowl, and animal a specific and perfect knowledge. It is limited to-its own wants. Its range is narrow and it cannot be extended; but it is perfect within its limits. It is given round and complete at once. Here we can see that it is a quality of life to give every form it can create, a full and perfect measure of power according to its capacity to receive. It may be a small measure; it may be a measure which cannot be enlarged; but it is adequate to the wants of the recipient. Here is love in a higher form. Here is wisdom in specific and perfect measure. Does it not demonstrate that it is the essential nature of life to give itself to others in good measure pressed down and running over” Does it not prophesy to us that so farm we come into a true order and become pure and perfect forms of life, that the Divine promise will be fulfilled, “Ye may ask what ye will and it shall be done unto you”? I might speak of the use of animals to man for food, for clothing, to bear his burdens, to delight him with their beauty and affection animal. He has animal instincts, desires, passions, tastes, habits, powers, in a word, an animal nature. He possesses not merely the special faculties of one animal. The qualities of all animals are embodied in him. Plants and animals are special forms and qualities of life, all of which are combined in every human being. But within and above these he has a distinct plane of faculties organized of spiritual substances capable of receiving life in spiritual forms, and of discerning its distinctly spiritual faculties. In this degree of his nature he is not subject to the limitations of time and space. He can’ pass instantly from the present to the past; he can visit all climes and all worlds, while in the body he remains at home. Mountains and oceans and the vast spaces which lie between planets and suns, offer no obstacle to his thoughts. He can be everywhere present within the limits of his knowledge.
He has the power of rational thought and affection. He can see ideas and principles in their true forms and relations, can gain a knowledge of their nature and use, and from the heights of this knowledge he can look down upon his inferior mind. He can restrain and guide his thoughts, and provide means for extending his knowledge, a faculty which. the animal does not possess. He can see higher truths and finer qualities and more complex and varied uses in nature. He has power to bring rock, and plant, and animal into his service. This is one of the higher qualities of life. It creates and organizes all things and uses them as instruments to effect its purposes.
As life is infinite it cannot weaken its power or diminish its substance by creating and giving itself to others. This quality is distinctly revealed in man, and is the best evidence and surety of his immortality. The human mind or spirit, though created and consequently finite and only a form receptive of life, is of such a nature that its capacities can be indefinitely enlarged and perfected. Unlike a material substance it is not diminished by giving its own to others. If we give a sum of money, a morsel of food, or any material substance to another, we diminish our store by the amount we part with; but it is not so with any spiritual possession. We cannot part with a truth or au affection. We may give our love to others continually and still retain it. We may communicate our thoughts and, if possible, every truth we possess, without diminishing our store of knowledge. Nay, more, our love is increased by giving; our thoughts and our joys are multiplied by sharing them with others. We keep all that we give, and our own treasures of love and wisdom are multiplied and enriched by drawing from them for the benefit of others. Does not this quality of the mind clearly demonstrate the impossibility of its annihilation” Does it not insure the immortality of man?
But it possesses another quality which is directly opposite to those possessed by any material form, and one which gives another proof of its indestructibility. Its capacity for the reception of life never can be filled. It is a fact certified by observation and universal experience, that the more there is put into the mind the more capacious it becomes. It is not filled up and its capacity diminished by what it receives, like a material vessel. On the contrary, it is enlarged by it. Every new, idea or truth gained becomes a new vessel for the reception of more truth and a new means of gaining it. Every faculty of the mind be, comes enlarged and strengthened, and gains a finer, a more delicate power, a keener sense, and a more comprehensive grasp by every truth learned and every affection exercised. Where, then, can we assign any limits to its capacity to receive life in the qualities of love and the forms of truth” We cannot draw any lines around it and say, Thus far can we go and no farther. The human spirit was created to receive life from the Lord in conscious forms and in ever-increasing measures. All it acquires it retains, and all it retains adds to its capacity to receive. As life cannot be created, so it cannot be destroyed. The material forms, which it creates can be destroyed, but the human form organized of spiritual substances cannot. This assures not only our immortality, but the possibility of endless progress.
Time prevents me from mentioning only one more quality of life. But it is one of such transcendent excellence that it will fitly crown our view of it. Life is the source of personality, and it is of its nature to give to everything a form of its own, and to man, who is the highest form of life, a personality which he can never lose, but which will become more distinct as he advances in perfection, and capacity to receive life in higher and more excellent qualities. Materialism teaches that when the body dies man ceases to exist as an individual, like a plant that turns to dust, and only gains his immortality by his influence on the race. The doctrine of the Hindoo is that man is re-absorbed into the Divine substance from which he was created, and becomes an unconscious part of the Divine, as the dead tree decays and is resolved into its original elements.
But as man is immortal and his capacities are capable of indefinite expansion and perfectibility, he will preserve his identity and individuality. Instead of being merged into humanity, he will become more distinctly himself. The lines and features which distinguish his form from other human beings, in.- stead of fading out, will become more distinct. They will become clearer and finer and more individualized. The qualities of his affections and the power of his intellectual faculties will not shade off and blend with the peculiar forms of other beings. A man will become more distinctly masculine in every form and feature and in every quality of his mind; and a woman will become more distinctly feminine in every feature and quality of affection and thought. The more distinctly every human being becomes himself, the more perfect will be the unity in heavenly societies; the richer and more varied its charms, and the deeper and more exquisite its delights.
I have been able to give only the most general outline of this doctrine of the origin and nature of life. The succeeding lectures will fill it up and round it out more distinctly. But the more critically and sharply it is scrutinized, the more clearly it will be seen to be in accordance with all human observation that extends beneath the appearances of the senses, with personal experience, and the trend of human knowledge. Especially it will be seen to be in full harmony with all that the Lord has revealed to us in the Sacred Scriptures of the origin and nature of life. It holds out to man complete assurance of the preservation of his identity and the continuity of his being, and the most glorious hopes for the perfectibility of his nature, the increase of his knowledge and power, and the attainment of happiness which will continue to increase in fullness of joy and exquisite blessedness forever.