The popular view of an agnostic, I suppose, is of some poor devil who simply cannot make up his mind whether God exists, or not. Most dictionaries, however, tend to offer a more positive definition. Chambers, for example, holds that an agnostic is “one who holds that we know nothing of things beyond material phenomena.” He might, therefore fervently believe that God does indeed exist, but that we have no such evidence and that we are unlikely to find any – in this world, at any rate.
The term ‘agnostic’ (in contrast to ‘gnostic’) I find, was first used by T.H.Huxley in 1869, though there is mention of an inscription “To an unknown God” in the book of Acts 17,23. The term has also been used to include the more extreme view that knowledge in general can only be applied to what is available to the senses: everything else being irrelevant. Any agnostics found lurking in our churches would scarcely go that far. Others may feel pretty sure that God probably doesn’t exist, but are nevertheless quite prepared to be convinced otherwise.
When I contemplate the immensity of infinite space with its innumerable galaxies, I may find it impossible not to think that somebody must be in control. At the same time, it may also seem equally impossible to concede that anybody is in control. Whether that ‘body’ is masculine, feminine or neuter simply defies human imagination.
Most church-goers, of course, are not plagued with such ambivalent misgivings. They have presumably long ago been totally persuaded, or have persuaded themselves that God, in some shape or form, undoubtedly exists, if not in bodily shape then maybe in some other way.
In this latter case the agnostic’s problem may be somewhat diminished. I suspect that some dubious agnostics, who are also devout church-goers, may attend in the hope that Christian conviction may rub off on them, as it were by a process of osmosis. Such aspiration, I hasten to say, is by no means the same as what a true worshipper experiences as devotion. It can nevertheless be sincere and heartfelt.
However, our benighted agnostic may already have made up his mind that church-goers, though possibly on the right lines, are much too glib altogether. He will seek his evidence elsewhere – in the wonders of the natural world perhaps. Do they speak of God?
The world is full of remarkable things and contains great mysteries – but they prove nothing. Nature might, after all, well, have just happened – sort of emerged ever so slowly all by itself as Darwin and Dawkins eloquently suggest. Then there is the notion that maybe it all stands for something else. Perhaps our planet is a great treasure-chest full of symbols, all of which hold-hands and spell out some almighty ‘spiritual’ story. One day the divine story-teller himself will explain it all – that would surely clinch the matter.
Agnosticism is a perilous addiction, for which no cure is infallible: it requires excellent balance like learning to ride an unswerving holy bicycle: it is so easy to fall for a religious faith on one side or slide into atheism on the other. Such are the perils of uncertainty, the demands of honesty can make for a bumpy passage.
There are many perfectly good and virtuous reasons for regular church-going, not all of which are necessarily theological. A love of church music can be a powerful incentive, especially where there is a good organ and an impressive choir. Tradition and liturgy can impart great comfort in a changing – often threatening – world. The discussion of moral problems helps to stimulate the brain and maintain a caring social conscience. Some of us enjoy holy theatre, and are moved by ritual. Some like to keep up with the local news: the church may often be the best social club in town, and the incumbent an ever-present comfort in times of trouble. But, I wonder, though it is none of my business, may not some of these good people perhaps harbour the guilty secret that they are not always, absolutely certain that God exists?
Sitting on fences is never an easy stance to maintain, since it is, I suppose, an intellectual position without a great deal of support. A true religious faith, on the other hand, is altogether more heartfelt, arising from emotional springs deeply grounded in the human soul. The agnostic needs all the help he can get: fortunately, he gets along very happily with others of a like disposition.
Christian agnostics, being scarce and hard to identify, probably pose the greatest challenge and problem to the believer. But the mysteries of Incarnation are much too deep to fathom here.
I belong to a growing group of individuals who are seriously interested in trying to unify science and theology. Certainly, if God created the world, He knows what quantum physics is.
I am attempting to show in my next book, Proving God, that the scientific laws of the universe have their origins in God’s laws of Divine LOVE.
It will be beneficial to describe to you the current state of affairs, as simply as possible.
Physicists now believe that fundamental reality consists not of physical “stuff,” but of pure potentials, called quantum possibilities. These possibilities, or tendencies to exist, represent dynamics that do not fit into classical descriptions of motion. A quantum entity can be in many places at once, almost as though it were a non-physical wave representing a range of possibilities striving to find tangible physical existence.
So nature, at its fundamental level, is a world of striving and pure endeavor. The wonderment in all this is that when quantum potentials become real events in time and space, they create coherent and stable structures. These structures gain in complexity over ages and ages until nature has brought forth the human brain with all its intelligent functions and profound self-awareness.
Science refuses to see this process of moving from potentiality to actuality, from actuality to stable structure, from stable structure to complexity, from complexity to consciousness as purposeful. At the quantum level, they believe reality consists of irreducible chance. This is because science feels it must describe reality from physical principles only (naturalism). Scientists will even concede that if reality has emerged from a metaphysical principle, then the mystery of agency in the universe will not be considered a real scientific topic.
So science is not necessarily as concerned with truth as it is with finding materialistic models that will offer predictable and testable explanations.
Traditional religion, while believing that the universe has its origins in a metaphysical principle, still offers us little help here. Religion concerns itself with God’s laws of salvation and God’s covenant with humanity. Current theology offers few rational insights as to how the laws of salvation or spiritual evolution might be connected to physics. God simply creates one set of laws to run the physical universe and another set of laws to save our souls. This thinking is as equally wrong as scientific thinking.
The only way to unify science and religion is to find a similarity between physical nature and God’s nature. Dissimilarity points to imperfection. But if God is Infinite Love and Infinite wisdom, no imperfection can be predicated of God. Besides, the ubiquitous law that nature always proceeds in the most economical way requires a top-down causal link between God’s nature and physical nature. (Unless you favor deism and believe in an impersonal Creator.)
Since we have been discussing fundamental reality from both a scientific and theological perspective I would now like to jump into the mind of a child who sees reality as enchanted. We often see children drawing pictures where they put a “smile” on the face of the sun. Children see everything in the world as being “alive.” That is why children respond to stories where animals, trees, and even rocks can talk.
As Jesus pointed out, we must become more like little children. While this refers to the spiritual challenge of adults returning to a state of innocence, the Lord is not implying that we should also abandon intellectual pursuits. Getting to heaven is not a move away from an intellectual grasp of the ultimate reality, but to be enlightened by it.
A scientist sees fundamental reality as being dead. A child sees reality as fundamentally alive. Who is more enlightened?
If a living God is at the center of the universe then the universe must, at its very heart, be alive! This is why the laws of the universe are so bio-friendly. The laws of nature have emerged from, and are analogous to, God’s Divine Nature. This Divine Nature is Infinite LOVE!
Can the dynamics of LOVE represent an exact science? Yes!
As I stated above, physicists see fundamental reality as a striving, or propensity. Love is also a propensity and endeavor, but it is a conscious, living endeavor. Scientists also say that quantum possibilities “collapse” into stable forms of matter, which lead to greater complexity and ultimately to larger scales of organized systems (unities). Love also seeks to unify things in the same way nature pursues a course of self-organization.
In this century, humanity will come to understand that LOVE is the creative psychical force and ultimate formative substance of the world, and the reason why everything in the universe is non-spatially and non-temporally interconnected.
This is just a small taste of what I will be covering in my soon to be published book, Proving God.
Jesus was actually a double agent. All the time He was teaching, performing great miracles, and finally having to suffer on the cross, Jesus was also on a secret assignment from heaven.
This assignment was secret because it was kept hidden from our view. This secret part of His divine mission included dealing with special challenges both on earth and in the spiritual world. The Lord not only had to deal with disbelief and sin on an earthly plane, He had to directly confront the forces of evil coming from Hell.
Many Christian theologians believe that Christ took our sins upon Himself, gave his life as a ransom on the cross, appeased the Father through His death, and arose from the dead in order to broker a deal with the Father to remove our guilt—as long as we had the proper “faith.”
That is not how the Lord actually ransomed himself, or portrayed how He ultimately glorified the Father, and the Father, Him.
The Lord’s secret mission on earth can only be deciphered if one has access to the higher levels of meaning that are hidden within the literal words of Scripture. Thankfully, theologian Emanuel Swedenborg has provided us access to this rarefied knowledge.
You see, unbeknownst to most Christians, Jesus was actually Jehovah himself. The strategy of God taking on a human body was not just to provide the Romans with something solid to nail on the cross, but to strip hell of its power.
The forces of hell, while frightening, are still only finite forces. Nothing finite can ever challenge an Infinite God—unless God could take on a finite body giving hell a medium through which evil could attack. This required not only a physical body, it necessitated a body born of a woman. Hell attacks people through their inherited evils. Since God had no evil of His own, He needed to acquire humankind’s hereditary disposition towards evil by entering into the human gene pool.
The Lord did NOT gain “all power over flesh” by arising from death, but through a life on earth whereby He battled and successfully fought off all inclinations and sins of the flesh. It is this inner confrontation that is addressed within the deepest level of meaning contained within the literal words of Scripture.
This incarnation, furnished with real human genes, is how the Lord took the sins of humanity upon himself. The Lord conquered sin by resisting temptation from hell and subordinating his human essence to the will of the Father (the Lord’s heavenly essence) through a life of HUMILITY (called exinanition).
Crucifixion is designed for maximum humility. This was the Lord’s final and ultimate test of humiliation. If He had gotten off the cross to physically prove his authority and then demanded obedience, the flesh would have won. Jesus came into the world to serve us, not bring us to our knees through physical force. Giving up the physical force to compel people and sacrificing the human urge to dominate over others is what is meant by the Lord’s life being a ransom.
This battle between the Lord’s flesh and His divine spirit is even transparent in the literal words of Scripture describing Jesus’ agony in Gethsemane. Here is where the Lord is feeling so much pressure to go on with his deadly mission that he seeks a way out and begins sweating blood. Here, the big “squeeze” is being put on the Lord’s human nature. This is why Gethsemane means “olive press.”
By overcoming all these obstacles the Lord united His human essence (the Son) with His divine essence (the Father). In this “top-down” and “bottom-up” process, the Son glorified the Father and the Father glorified the Son. The Lord’s human was made fully divine.
But even this great event in history saved no one. The Lord came into the world to keep the possibility of salvation left open. Even traditional Christianity supports the notion that there is a caveat to salvation. A person is only saved if he or she has the proper “faith.” However, Swedenborg puts a different wrinkle on what constitutes proper faith. He maintained that only a faith conjoined with good works saves. Love is faith put into action. But this brings free will and human cooperation with God’s tenets into the equation of salvation.
Free will is given to men and women as a gift of God’s divine love. Love is meaningless without free will. And free will cannot be maintained unless a person can be kept in a balance between good and bad influences. The Lord appeared on earth at a time when human free will was being threatened by an overwhelming influence from Hell.
The Lord’s victory over the hells restored the cosmic balance between good and evil influences, and thus protected human free will.
The middle, the core, the essence of God is love. This divine love is the transcendent “stuff” that drives, creates, and sustains everything – all things that exist on all planes of existence.
Love wants to work, to flow, to create happiness. How does it do it? Through wisdom. The power of the divine love can be formed and ultimated by operating through divine wisdom.
There’s a marriage between the two – divine love and divine wisdom. Swedenborg refers to them in Latin terms, as the Esse and Existere, roughly translated in English as Essence and Existence.
This conjunction, or marriage, is at the very heart of it all. It is represented in the successive degrees of creation, down to the physical universe, and in life on earth. In our minds, there is love, and there is wisdom. If we unite our good loves to wise thinking, we’re then able to create happiness, too, each in our own unique way.
One question we’re asked frequently at the Swedenborg Foundation is, “Did Swedenborg say anything about reincarnation?”
In his writings, Swedenborg gives detailed descriptions of the afterlife—including heaven, hell, and the world of spirits in between—and the stages of development that a person’s mind and soul experience during life on earth and in the spiritual realms after death. He describes a linear process of spiritual growth in which people are born, live on earth, and then continue living and growing eternally in the afterlife.
None of this suggests that Swedenborg would be sympathetic to the idea of living multiple lifetimes on earth. And in fact, in one of his rare explicit references to reincarnation, he depicts a philosopher in the afterlife first arguing in favor of reincarnation and then, having been enlightened by the Lord, disavowing the notion as “insane” (True Christianity §79:6, 8). In True Christianity §171, Swedenborg goes even farther, comparing a particular belief about Jesus to “the absurd notion that someone’s soul can cross over into someone else.” (See the postscript to this article for more on how Swedenborg might have understood the concept of reincarnation.)
In Heaven and Hell §256, he offers an explanation for why it might appear that some people remember past lives:
Angels and spirits actually have memory just as we do. If a spirit were to talk with us from her or his own memory, then it would seem to us entirely as though the thoughts were our own, when they would really belong to the spirit. It is like remembering something that we have never seen or heard.
This is why some of the ancients were of the opinion that after some thousands of years they would return to their former life and all its deeds, and that they had in fact returned. They gathered this from the fact that sometimes a kind of memory would come up of things that they had never seen or heard. This happened because spirits had flowed from their own memory into the images of these people’s thoughts.
Clearly, Swedenborg wouldn’t have supported the idea of a person’s soul being reborn in another earthly body. However, when discussing the process of spiritual growth and rebirth, or regeneration, Swedenborg develops a complex model of how the soul travels through different spiritual states and how those states relate to each other. There are some striking parallels between Swedenborg’s descriptions of this process and Hindu teachings on reincarnation that suggest that maybe the two philosophies aren’t as far apart as they seem.
Hinduism is a religion of diverse beliefs and practices, but speaking very broadly, Hindus believe that we consist of a gross (physical) body and a subtle body. The subtle, or astral, body is defined in different ways by different sources, but it’s often divided into these common elements: the organs of perception, the organs of action, the vital breath (prana), the intellect or wisdom (buddhi), the mind (manas), and the ego (ahamkara). It is this subtle body that survives after death and goes to another spiritual world or plane of existence (loka). There are manylokas, usually divided into seven higher and seven lower; the higher ones are states of spiritual bliss, while the lower ones are states of spiritual suffering. People stay in these lokas until they have expended their good or bad karma, and then they are reborn on earth. This process repeats until a person is good or pure enough to achieve moksha, a release from the cycle of death and rebirth.
The following is a description from Sivaya Subramuniyaswami, a well-known American Hindu teacher, that appeared in the magazine Hinduism Today.
Life does not end at the death of the physical body. The body dies but the soul does not. It lives on in a counterpart of the physical body which is called the astral body. The astral body is made of astral matter and resides in a world not unlike this one, called the Devaloka or Second World. In other words, in order to perfect itself, to spiritually unfold and evolve, the soul lives on in another body after death, the astral body. At the right time, according to its karma, it is reborn into a flesh body. Thus the astral body, with the soul within it, enters a new physical body. This same cycle is repeated many times until the soul spiritually unfolds and reaches a certain state of perfection or mature evolution.
A belief in an afterlife that can offer states of joy for the good and suffering for the evil is common to many cultures. But Swedenborg describes in very similar terms to the Hindus the spirit that passes to the afterlife after our body dies: he emphasizes that we are in a human spiritual body after death (see especially Heaven and Hell §§453–454) and that our thoughts, memories, and spiritual senses remain with us (§§461–462). Like Sivaya Subramuniyaswami, Swedenborg describes the soul as living in the spiritual world and continuing to learn and perfect itself (§512).
Swedenborg also, significantly, makes distinctions between the soul (vital energy), the spirit, and the mind:
The soul is nothing more nor less than our life, while the spirit is the actual person, and the body is an earthly thing we carry around in the world. It is only an agent through which our spirit, the actual person, acts in a way that is adapted to the natural world. (Heaven and Hell §602)
Our earthly mind is made up of both spiritual substances and earthly substances. Our thinking results from the spiritual substances and not from the earthly substances. These latter substances fade away when we die, but the spiritual substances do not. So when we become spirits or angels after death, the same mind is still there in the form it had in the world. (Divine Love and Wisdom §257)
Where Hindu scriptures describe an ascending series of higher worlds that a spirit can inhabit (which in some branches are also interpreted as ascending states of consciousness), Swedenborg describes the world of spirits—a plane of existence close to earth but existing on a spiritual rather than a material level—with a series of three heavens above it. These three heavens could also be perceived in terms of being closer to or farther from the center, which is God. “It needs to be quite clear that it is the inner nature of angels that determines which heaven they are in,” Swedenborg writes. “The more the deeper levels [of their minds] have been opened, the more inward the heaven they are in” (Heaven and Hell §33).
But the path of spiritual growth is not a linear one. Hindu texts say that a person can just as easily be reborn in a lower loka as a higher one: if a person incurs bad karma by pursing worldly desires and ignoring their spiritual duties, he or she must live out a lifetime as a lower being in order to learn the lessons they need to move forward. “Life’s ultimate goal is not money, not clothes, not sex, not power, not food or any other of the instinctive needs,” writes Sivaya Subramuniyaswami. “These are natural pursuits, to be sure, but our real purpose on this earth is to know, to love and to serve God and the Gods.”
Swedenborg also describes the occasional step backward as part of an angel’s spiritual life. He says that angels occasionally experience states where their love of God diminishes and they may even fall into a depression. “[The angels] go on to say that the Lord does not produce these changes of their states, since the Lord as the sun is always flowing in with warmth and light, that is, with love and wisdom. Rather, they themselves are the cause, since they love their sense of self and this is constantly misleading them” (Heaven and Hell §158).
For Hindus, the end point of all incarnations is moksha, a word that has its roots in the idea of release or liberation. Again, within Hinduism there are many views of moksha, but the Hindu American Foundation defines it this way:
Moksha is characterized by the overcoming of spiritual ignorance; the complete elimination of material desires and attachments; the perfected ability to live in the present moment and experience absolute peace; and most importantly, the awakening of pure compassion towards all. Moksha also translates to liberation from the cycle of birth and rebirth (samsara). Someone may attain moksha during his or her lifetime or upon the death of his or her physical body.
Swedenborg describes the final state of regeneration in similar terms:
None but those who have experienced a state of peace can appreciate the nature of the peaceful tranquility that the outer self enjoys when there is an end to struggle, or to the disquiet of burning desires and misconceptions. That state is so joyful that it surpasses all our notions of joy. It is not simply an end to our struggles but a vibrancy welling up from deep-seated peace, affecting our outer being beyond the capacity of words to describe it. (Secrets of Heaven §92)
To be sure, there are significant differences between Hindu beliefs on reincarnation and Swedenborg’s concept of regeneration. But fundamentally, both systems describe a long and gradual process of self-directed spiritual development that has as its highest possible end state a release from material desires and a resulting state of deep peace and joy. Where Hinduism teaches that this process takes place through multiple rebirths on earth, Swedenborg sees our earthly life as a seed-state for a much longer and richer existence in the afterlife.
Postscript: Swedenborg’s Understanding of Reincarnation
Today, our ideas about reincarnation are largely shaped by eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism. Europeans were in regular contact with Asia during Swedenborg’s lifetime, and it’s possible that he was aware of these concepts from eastern philosophy. However, reincarnation was also a widely held belief in ancient Greece, and Swedenborg’s references to reincarnation suggest that this is what he was thinking of when describing this concept in his writings.
For example, in True Christianity §79:6, which contains Swedenborg’s recollection (“memorable occurrence”) of an experience in the spiritual world:
Another philosopher said, “I’ll grant you that the individual forms made out of ether in the highest realm were countless. Nevertheless the number of people born since the world was created has exceeded the number of forms. How then could there be enough of these ethereal forms? So I thought to myself that the souls that go out through people’s mouths when they die come back to the same people after several thousand years. The people go back, therefore, and live a similar life to the one they had before. As we know, many of the wise believe in reincarnation and things like that.”
The concept of an eternally begotten Son of God who later comes down and takes on a human manifestation is like the ancient nonsense about human souls created at the beginning of the world that enter bodies and become people. It is also like the absurd notion that someone’s soul can cross over into someone else.
The references in the above passages to “ethereal forms” that came into being at the time of creation and become the souls of human beings were most likely drawn from Swedenborg’s reading of Plato. Plato’s work The Myth of Ercontains his most extensive references to reincarnation, although he also mentions reincarnation in his works Phaedrus and Timaeus. While modern scholars question whether Plato himself believed in reincarnation, the concept of reincarnation reappears in both Greek and Roman literature up until the advent of Christianity
I think that God is loving, so some stories in the Bible make me do a double-take—“God said what?!”
The book of Genesis tells a story like that. God said to Abraham, “Take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering.” Abraham complies, takes Isaac and binds him on the altar, but at the last second the angel of the Lord intervenes and stops Abraham from killing his son (Genesis 22).
I imagine you might react like me—“Wait… What?!… No way! God would never ask for that—would He?” To be fair, part of the point of the story is that Abraham trusted God enough to do something that seemed like it would destroy everything for which he had worked, hoped and prayed. If God had asked for something less extreme, it wouldn’t have been a test of his faith. At least we can say that God never really intended that Isaac should actually be sacrificed. Still, that leaves us wondering whether God was lying to Abraham, and whether we should have such complete faith in a God who asks us to make such extreme sacrifices.
The Bible says that “God is Love” (1 John 4:8). True Christianity tells that, in reality, God cannot turn away from us or even look at us with a frown” (56). Still, we see people—even the innocent—suffering. Since earliest times people have assumed that God punishes us for displeasing Him, but the teachings of the New Church invite us to look more deeply at the Bible.
From earliest times people knew from prophecy that Divine Love would take on a human manifestation in the world, and that this Human would take on our challenges and give everything, even His life, to help us overcome evil. Eventually, though, this belief was twisted into the horrible idea that God could somehow be pleased with sacrificial murder of His Son, or with human sacrifice in general. That terrible belief was widespread in Abraham’s time, and Abraham could not grasp sacrifice in any other terms.
On a literal level, the Bible shows Abraham believing that God really wanted him to sacrifice his son Isaac. Yet elsewhere the Bible states that God did not desire nor command that kind of sacrifice. “Sacrifice and offering You did not desire…burnt offering and sin offering You have not required” (Psalm 40:6).
On a deeper level this story is telling us symbolically what love is like. Genuine love is sacrificial. We should never sacrifice our children though we may sacrifice for our children and help them learn to sacrifice compassionately for others. A mother may go hungry herself to give food to her starving child. A soldier may give his life to protect his country and a fireman may give his life to rescue people from a burning building. A person in love may overlook and forgive a thousand little injuries and failings, because love is compassionate and is willing to suffer in order to protect and provide for loved ones. “Greater love has no one than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).
While there is a growing movement to attempt to unify science and theology there is also a healthy fear on both sides of this important endeavor. Scientists do not want biblical faith to distort science. Theologians do not want science to distort biblical faith.
Since I belong to this new movement, I would like to provide some helpful suggestions.
The universe is not static. Everything is in process. But it is a process by which change creates constancy. For instance, all the wonderfully distinct organic processes and changes taking place in the human body maintain its integrity and stability. This dynamic of change creating constancy is called a system. All systems are subordinated and coordinated through successive and simultaneous order.
The universe is unified. Existence is relationship. Everything finds its distinctiveness through togetherness. This cosmic scheme seems worthy of a God of Love.
Does Holy Scripture portray such an ecological wisdom?
The faithful hold that God created the world with all its laws and processes—from the Word. Therefore, does the Bible contain the same divine “envisagement” as there is in the scheme of the created universe?
If so, what kind of proof can there be? Current Christian theology and doctrine is hopelessly inadequate for meeting such a profound challenge. Scripture seems to only offer us historical events, some of which are farfetched and require a suspension of the laws of physics.
This is the challenge I am taking up in my next book, Proving God.
Thanks to theologian Emanuel Swedenborg, we have the necessary material for showing that the Holy Word and science are indeed one! He maintained that the Holy Word transcended historical fact.
The Bible is a multi-level document that contains higher meanings abstracted from the literal sense of the words. In the same manner in which today’s scientists understand top-down causation, these higher levels of meaning flow down and terminate into the words of ordinary terrestrial language.
Without having access to these higher meanings, it is impossible to detect the universal patterning principles of process and order hidden within the narratives of Scripture. Scripture conveys the same repeating cycles in its stories that we find in the circular progression of time and the reproductive cycles of organic life.
For example, unless one has a knowledge of these higher meanings (called correspondences), there would be no intelligible means for understanding how the separation of the waters on “day two” of Genesis corresponds to Lot being separated from Abram, which also corresponds to discernment in human cognition, and, the breaking up of food stuffs in the process of biological digestion. Each of these examples represents a “step two” in the divine order of some whole-part process.
My upcoming book will make these things clear and show that the reason why the laws of nature are so bio-friendly is because they have emerged from the dynamics of the Lord God’s living Word.
Is there a “defining essence” in all this similitude of coherent and interrelated process?