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We all have a pretty clear idea of what “natural” means – it includes anything having to do with nature, the physical reality we live in, and extends to the impulses we have that arise from the natural world. So it’s natural for the sun to shine, for water to flow and for plants to grow. It’s natural for us to want food, water and shelter. And it’s natural for us to want want sex, wealth, children, respect, control over ourselves and even control over others – all things that serve the natural goals of surviving and passing on our genetics. In the modern world that extends to desires for success in our jobs, for physical attractiveness, for the ability to compete for a respected place in the world, and other basic urges.
If you think about it, most of those urges are ones shared by animals, and those that aren’t are extensions of desires animals do have. For instance, an animal would not desire a promotion at work, but they do desire enhanced social status and access to resources, which is a more general expression of the same thing.
That’s one way Swedenborg uses the term “natural” – it distinguishes the physical reality we’re aware of from the spiritual reality we’re not aware of. And he says that within that physical reality, we are pretty close to being animals, driven by basic urges and instinct. But Swedenborg also says that the human mind is a spiritual organ, that within our minds we can rise above nature to see things in spiritual light. That’s how we can perceive a better possibility for ourselves as spiritual beings, and can decide to act contrary to our urges and instincts in pursuit of more exalted goals – things that animals can’t do.
But Swedenborg also uses the word “natural” to identify the lowest level of spiritual reality, and the lowest level of heaven. Angels of the natural heaven love to understand what the Lord wants and to do it, and love each other equally to themselves. Their orientation is toward outward action, putting deeper ideas from other sources into play. The same could be said of the natural level we all have in our minds: That’s where the deeper spiritual concepts get translated into specific ideas that can be put into action. It’s also where gather natural knowledge – scientific knowledge and other ideas arising from the natural world – so that it can be used in our spiritual thoughts.