2 Spirits and Men
“What is man that Thou art mindful of him?” Psalm 8:4
Faith and Superstition
The ages preceding the dawn of the New Church were steeped in superstition. Every graveyard was peopled with spectres. The Devil made his appointments with witches and wizards, and ministers of the church solemnly cooperated with panicky magistrates to prevent unlawful intercourse with spirits. Diseases were often treated by exorcism—by driving the obsessing demons away.
Today most of us sneer at superstitions. And when we of the New Church nevertheless proclaim our faith in the proximity and influence of the spirit-world, there are those who sneer at us.
But true faith is a very different thing from superstition. Superstition wishes to assign to the supernatural all unknown causes of natural happenings and evades reasonable explanations. It lacks authority. It creates fear rather than understanding. It advances elusive claims to special sanctity or unusual enlightenment which some will capitalize for their own gain or repute. It leads not towards freedom and charity and social progress, but to a slavery to forms and castes, and often engenders distrust and persecution.
Superstition does not draw its origin from Divine revelation, but is conceived from human anxieties and undue ambitions while it is mothered by ignorance. It is not satisfied with the revealed knowledge and shows a lack of faith in the Lord’s omnipotent laws.
But over against Superstition stands Skepticism, which proudly spurns admitting the existence of any invisible factors in life except the purely physical. Not unlike a company of physicians of whom Swedenborg speaks in one of his memorable relations, and who claimed to have cured the pains of conscience by mustard-plasters and cupping-glasses, many skeptics now explain all unusual mental states as mere symptoms of digestive disorders, wrong diet, or glandular deficiencies, and deny any other cause for crime than physical appetites and social maladjustments.2
A rational faith in the interdependence of the inhabitants of the spiritual world and those of the natural, and in the normal but unconscious communion of spirits and men, stands free from both superstition and skepticism. Such a rational faith is derived solely from Divine revelation. Yet it is also founded on the primary testimony of man’s own consciousness —that he is essentially a spiritual being, a free thinking mind, although he is clothed by a body of carefully selected material substances which in many ways limit the expression of his mental powers. Nor can any authentic experience upset our faith in the continual operation of the spiritual world—the proper world of human minds and living forces—into the world of nature. Without any hesitation we can postulate, and challenge any one to disprove, that life does not inhere in matter but inflows from an inner source. Indeed it is beyond the scope of science ever to deny that—ultimately—matter is derived from life.
The mode by which the Lord created the universe is a subject far afield from our present discussion. Still it must be premised that the spiritual can act upon the natural, that the mind can be present in the body, and that there can be an influx of the life of spirits into men living on earth. And this because the world of matter is created and sustained by the Lord mediately through the spiritual world.3 The natural originates from the spiritual, as an effect is produced from its cause.4 The material world is therefore an “open world” which constantly receives a formative influx from the spiritual world. It is the spiritual world which—as the soul of the mechanical universe—imposes patterns and forms and at length moulds material substances to its own purposes, imaging its own forms in the forms of living organisms, whether plants or men. Only when the necessity of this is seen and acknowledged, can our faith in the existence of the spiritual world become rational.
Faith, to be rational, must be calm. It must not be based in hysteria or upon passing moods, or on the testimony of purely exceptional and questionable phenomena; nor on research conducted in darkened chambers. Faith must see the operation of the soul upon the body and of spiritual things upon natural, not as a mechanical process or as a transfer of energy from one physical realm to another, but as the bestowal of the qualities of life upon visible things of nature, which, so far as their own substance and motions are concerned, are dead. Such a bestowal of qualities takes place, we conceive, by what the Writings call “influx.” The spiritual does not act upon matter as do physical forces; instead, it bestows qualities.
When the Writings expound the doctrine that the life of God is mediated for human minds by the spiritual world, or by the spirits and angels there, they are not discussing the currents of natural energy which fashion corpuscular matter and course through the bodies of men, but the transmission of human qualities—of good and evil—qualities which make the natural activities of one man vastly different from those of another; different throughout, different in intention, different in mode, different in effect. The things of dead, elemental nature have attributes, dimensions, conditions, motions. But in a strict sense, nature has no qualities, no “states” of life. Its only state is one of death. Its only quality is its inertia, its lack of any power to change its state. All appearance of life in nature is borrowed from the spiritual world. In plants and in animals we see something added that is not of nature, something which gives an appearance not of blind motion but of purposeful change—a conatus or endeavor, an appearance of aspiration, will, and freedom.
In man, this freedom becomes self-conscious. He is sensitive to the qualities of life. He is subject to various states and attitudes, and feels that he can to an extent determine them. He can choose between right and wrong. He cannot change his natural environment of a sudden, although this also will yield somewhat to his will. But in the inner realm of his spirit he feels himself above the conditions of nature, feels himself part of a free world in which he can will and think as he pleases; and for what he does in that world he feels responsibility.
But even in his mind man is not utterly free. His natural mind is built up out of elements drawn from heredity and from education, from early impressions and unconscious influences. Is he solely accountable for all the changes within his mind— all the suggestions and impulses of his inner world? If he were, would it not be a terrible responsibility—beyond his power to bear ? One moment of impulse could determine his entire spiritual destiny—one decision might send him into anguish forever—if that were so! And if thus determined, he would no longer be free to change his general state.
Even spiritual freedom is therefore governed most carefully by the Lord. The Lord leads man gently into his freedom. Even the spirit of man has to be surrounded by restraining conditions and circumstances. Its freedom has to be limited to a few things, tested. Its bounds have to be let out gradually, his states have to change by degrees.
Therefore it is provided, that man’s spirit should be surrounded with attendant spirits, good and evil, through whom the influx of life may be accommodated so that his choice and his responsibility can be particularized and limited to his capacity at each moment. It is of Divine mercy that this is so; otherwise man could never be saved, but he would plunge himself into hell with the first evil choice. Instead of being at once introduced into the responsibility for his whole spiritual destiny, he is therefore gradually introduced into a choice between particular states, or between the delights offered by particular spirits, good and evil. He is not made responsible for the state of his whole mind at once.
This, then, is the explanation of the many shifting and contradictory states of a man. He is held in an equilibrium between good spirits and evil spirits. He is given his chance to change his general state, by countless particular opportunities of choice. His spiritual freedom is doled out to him “piecemeal,” and from his moments of choice, a series of free decisions, his character is built up and gradually matures, and becomes able to enter an ever wider choice, a more intelligent freedom.
This is, of course, illustrated by the gradual way in which one acquires freedom in natural affairs in youth and adult age. Parents, teachers, masters or employers will give the youth more freedom, more autonomy, so far as he can be trusted to understand what he is actually committing himself to. But when it is seen that he does not yet have any real insight into a situation or into the consequences of his actions, but is blinded by prejudice or simply borne away by impulsive desires, so far his freedom is—if possible—prudently withheld by wise governors.
The spirit of man is therefore free and responsible only when he realizes the spiritual situation in which he is, and feels himself free to choose. In order that this may be the case, the Lord so orders the lives of men and spirits, that men should not sensibly feel the presence of spirits, or their influx into his mind. If we felt our will as the will of another prompting us we would not feel free—whether the prompting were good or evil. Yet at the same time, if we were never able to know how the case actually is, we would not be able to realize the nature of our choice. From doctrine we are therefore taught about the functions of the spirits who are with us; so that we may see the importance of our choice, the inward nature of our responsibility, the fact that in our consent or resistance to various states, suggestions, desires, and moods, we are in fact turning either towards heaven or towards hell.
Man’s Dependence on Spirits
It is therefore revealed as a truth in the Gospel, that man can do nothing except it be given him from above. And this general truth is in the Writings filled in with infinite particulars which show that man cannot lift hand or foot or think the least idea from his own will or understanding: for his will and understanding are vessels responsive to the spheres of spirits and angels. Swedenborg, in order that he might be instructed, was brought into a state in which he perceived the operation of spirits, yet—by a miracle—was at the same time not deprived of freedom.5 He then received “the clearest experimental proof that all human thought, will, and action are directed determinatively by the Messiah alone”; that there was “not even the least of thought that did not sensibly inflow” from spirits who were themselves also “ruled as passive powers” by the Lord. The spirits sensibly ruled the very movements of his body; convincing him that what appears to be our own deeds is the doing—or rather the willing—of spirits.6 Yet a man is free so far as he can decide what spirits shall attend him!
Spirits who use man as a subject in this manner are not aware that they are with man. Such a spirit “knows so little of the man that he is not even aware that the man is anything distinct from himself.” Man is thus nothing in the eyes of spirits. And if they knew him—as they did Swedenborg— they might chide him with “being nothing” or at best an inanimate machine. Meanwhile the man all the time supposes himself to be living and thinking and the spirits to be “nothing!”7
In his Diary Swedenborg tells that, despite the fact that he could not make the least little motion of his body from himself, yet at the same time there was insinuated into him a faculty of choice in whatever he did. Spirits then supposed (hat he might have acted otherwise. But it was shown them that as a matter of fact the circumstances and the spiritual influxes had conspired and led Swedenborg to what he had (afterwards) decided to do; and also that they themselves had effected nothing from themselves but were subjects of other spirits and societies in an unending chain. It then seemed to these spirits that, if so, they were “nothing”; and they were unwilling to admit this. But Swedenborg insisted that this was indeed true; still, it was enough for them that they seemed to themselves to be able to think, speak, and act as from themselves, and to be their own. What more did they want?8
Surprisingly, Swedenborg instructed some spirits that only when they acknowledge that they are nothing, can they begin to be something. Nor was it enough to know or say that one is nothing; one must believe it.9 “Such is the equilibrium of all in the universal heaven, that one is moved by another, thinks from another, as if in a chain; so that not the least thing can [occur from itself]; thus the universe is ruled by the Lord, and indeed with no difficulty !”10
But when some spirits were unable to tolerate the expression “that they were nothing,” the seer consoled them by saying that “they are always something, but that something is from the Lord.”11 And it is the same with man: “Unless the Lord saw the man to be something,” the whole world of spirits would see him as nothing—or as an inanimate thing. He is “something—not a mere idea of being !”12 And this something is something of reception. Man cannot control the experiences that come to him: but he can receive or reject, react affirmatively or negatively. Heaven consists in every one regarding himself as nothing.13 The celestials know this. They know that to attribute anything to themselves, except reception, is of evil. No doubt this is involved in the Lord’s saying: “Your speech shall be Yea, yea, Nay, nay; whatsoever is more than these, cometh of evil!”
The Non-appropriation of Evil
Evil has no power over one who in sincerity of faith believes himself to be nothing !14
How vitally important and practically effective this truth of faith is, may be judged from the doctrine which describes how evil enters into man. Evil is continually infused by unclean spirits into man’s thoughts, and is as constantly dispelled by the angels. This does not actually harm man.
“Not that which enters the mouth defileth a man,” but that which proceedeth from the heart! It is by detention in the thought and by consent and afterwards by act and enjoyment that evil enters into the will.15 If so, it is appropriated to man—imputed to him as his. But the reason that it is appropriated to a man is that the man believes and persuades himself that he thinks and does this from himself. He identifies himself with it—and so takes sides with the evil. Believing that it is his own, all his self-pride upholds it and defends it.
The evil was not produced by man! Evil spirits—the whole network of hell—produced it, infused it, and subtly made man to feel as if he did it from himself. “If man believed as the case really is, then evil would not be appropriated to him, but good from the Lord would be appropriated to him; for then, immediately when evil flows in, he would think that it was from evil spirits with him; and when he thought this angels would avert and reject it. For the influx of angels is into that which a man knows and believes and not into what man does not know and does not believe.”16
If an evil is appropriated it can be removed only by the arduous and long road of self-examination and of actual repentance. But here we are shown an easier way! Shown how to shun evils before they become man’s own or before they become actual or confirmed; shown how faith defends men from evil! And if a man really believes that the good that prompts him inflows from the Lord through heaven, he is thereby freed from any self-righteous reflection on his own act—a thought which would poison the good which he has received and turn it into the evil of merit and the pride and the contempt of others that follow in its wake.
The knowledge and belief that all our affections, emotions, and moods are the actual results of the presence of spirits, good or evil, must become a watchman who must never shimmer. This faith—that good inflows from heaven and that evil inflows from hell, and that man, except for reception, is “nothing”—must be firmly fixed in definite knowledge. And to the New Church the knowledge is given in a vast body of information about spirits of all types and classes. From the instruction given in the Writings we may perhaps also gather information as to how to say “Nay, nay” to the spirits who produce various evil moods that captivate us; as to how we can to some extent modify or change these states into which we fall—or rather withdraw from them by degrees.
Choice versus Freedom
Man’s spirit is free. Yet it is bound up with the states of the men and spirits around him. No one can deny that our thoughts and affections are influenced by the men of the society with which we are associated in the world’s work and pleasures. Even the church undergoes its cycles of common states, its temptations, its progression in which all take part. Even angelic societies whose uses are intertwined by marvelous modes experience common states, recurrent mornings, noons, and evenings; for each angel is a center for the influx of all others.17
Man’s spirit is free, but never independent! It cannot alter its general spiritual environment by any sudden decision, any more than a man in the world can change the face of nature. The speed of the growth of the mind and of the progression of a man’s spirit is not measured by the fixed time which is associated on earth with the clock and the calendar and the orbit of the planets. Yet spiritual states have their durations—require a preparation and a gradual growth, have their own cycles, rhythms, and climaxes which cannot be circumvented. And the development of the state of one spirit often waits upon that of another, for it depends upon the progressions of the society of which he is a part.
How men’s spirits are affected by the spirits who live in the world of spirits is seen from the state before the coming of the Lord, when no flesh could have been saved unless the spirits of that world had been reduced into order. And history repeats itself. For Swedenborg notes that in his day the, whole world of spirits had become evil, and therefore it could not but be that mankind should become worse through the nearer influx of hell. The good inflowing from the Lord availed less and less, until man could hardly be bent to any genuine good.18
A general judgment then became inevitable; and it took place in the world of spirits in the year 1757.19 Its result was to restore spiritual freedom. Men and spirits had been in spiritual captivity—had been in states which they could not alter or change. The progression of their spiritual life of reformation and regeneration had been arrested because they had been intricately entangled with evil spirits from whom they had no power to separate.
It is not to be thought that men living before the last judgment did not have free agency in spiritual things. All men have free choice, then as now. In the issues which they discerned from time to time they had their choice. But freedom implies more than choice. It implies that one should be free to follow out one’s choice, to progress according to the choice, and find and enter into the delights of his ruling love. Interiorly, all salvable spirits in this world and in the “lower earth” of the other life had made a choice of good as over against evil. Yet they were so much a part of the perverted world of spirits that they could not shake off their infesters who stole their delight in spiritual good and truth, insinuated unhappiness, destroyed cooperation, induced obscurity and confusion as to what was right and wrong, and prevented them from finding their way to heaven—or to the true uses of heavenly life.
The freedom to progress requires an ability to perceive interior truths. It was this new freedom that was “restored” when the Lord ordered the world of spirits by His redemptive work.20 The ordering was done by separating the spirits there according to their various qualities, so that spirits in different spiritual states might be seen in contrast, in their true colors, or—in the light of heaven.
The light of Divine truth which brought about the judgment and reduced the spiritual world into order is still present in that world; and that Divine light is spreading also into this world of ours, through the teachings of the Writings of the New Church. It is the same light. It passes “not through spaces, like the light of the world, but through the affections and perceptions of truth.”21 It affects, and tends to distinguish and order, the spirits who are with us. We would surmise that it also orders the things which go on—subconsciously—within man’s thinking; and thus ensures the free operation of the rational faculty with men, for good or for evil. But consciously and directly it reaches us in the Writings. The teaching is, therefore, that after the last judgment (when the group of spirits which the Apocalypse calls “the Dragon” was cast down), “there was light in the world of spirits. . . . A similar light also then arose with men in the world, from which they have a new enlightenment.”22
The Writings are shedding a new light on all the states through which men pass on earth. They also disclose the character of the spirits who are responsible for our moods of sadness, temptation, melancholy, enthusiasm, rashness, confusion. They give us a knowledge by which to judge wisely how far we can resist such states, and how far they should be left to the Divine providence. It is our purpose to consider this new approach to a rational and spiritual life thus opened to the New Church. But before we enter upon this task it is necessary to recount the perils which attend any mortal effort to break open the gates of the unseen world.
New book: Starting Science from God.
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