THE SCIENCE OF CORRESPONDENCE
PROGRESS IN SPIRITUAL KNOWLEDGE
“I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now.”
Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth : . . .
and he will show you things to come.” — JOHN xvi. 12, 13.
IN these words our Lord teaches us a lesson which has a most important bearing upon the condition of the human mind which is unfavorable to all progress in knowledge. We are constantly tempted to mistake the limits of our knowledge for the limits of the truth. The more ignorant men are, the greater the temptation to do it. It requires some knowledge to discover our own ignorance. Scientific men were much more disposed in former times, when there was but little knowledge of nature, to be dogmatic, and to claim that they had reached the summit of knowledge and had explored all the secrets of nature, than they are now. We see the most remarkable exhibition of this tendency in the disposition to limit knowledge upon the most important subjects of human interest, to what has already been attained, to what was attained, we might say, centuries ago. The belief among Christians is almost universal that we have reached the limits of our knowledge of spiritual truth ; that no further progress is possible while we remain in this world ; that the doctrines of Christianity, as they are accepted and understood in the so-called evangelical churches, are absolute truths, which cannot be superseded, and from which no advance can be made. They are the limit of our possibilities. New facts may be discovered about them ; there may be new ways of stating them, new illustrations of their truth, but there can be no advance beyond them. They mark the farthest boundaries of our knowledge. So determinate and fixed is this belief that it has passed into a maxim, that ” what is true is not new, and what is new is not true.”
If it is true that no farther advance in spiritual knowledge is possible, it is well to know it, that we may not waste our energies in struggling against the inevitable, but may rest and try to content ourselves in the darkness and uncertainty of our present attainments. If it is not true, then we ought to know it, that, without fear of danger to our eternal interests, we may freely and fearlessly examine all questions relating to our spiritual nature, and use all the means in our power to advance into clearer light and higher attainments. The bare possibility that we can gain a clearer and more rational light upon all the great questions of man’s spiritual nature and destiny ought to be sufficient to stimulate us to the diligent use of all the means in our power to attain so important a result. Let us, then, examine the subject in the light of reason and revelation, and see what ground we have for believing that we can continually advance in spiritual knowledge, into clearer light and more certain attainments.
There is nothing in the present attainments In spiritual knowledge so complete and satisfactory as to lead to the conclusion that nothing more is desirable. On the contrary, the present state of religious thought proves directly the contrary. There has never been a time, since the truths of Christianity were first revealed, when there was so much difference of opinion with regard to them, and so little heartiness in their reception as stated in the dogmatic forms of the various churches, as there is now. The fundamental doctrines of Christianity as they have been held, which have been regarded as essential to salvation, are not taught with the clearness and distinctness and directness in any of the churches that they were formerly. The ministers themselves have not the undoubting faith in them which the ministers of former times had. The intelligent members of the church do not believe them in their naked and unmodified form as they were once believed. The doctrines formerly accepted are not now held with that unquestioning belief which a good Presbyterian lady once told me she had in the Bible. ” If the Bible had said that Jonah swallowed the whale instead of the whale swallowing Jonah,” she said, ” I would believe it.”
There is an uncertainty, a diversity of opinion upon what have been regarded as the fundamental doctrines of Christianity which is increasing rather than diminishing. The Trinity, the Atonement, the Resurrection, the nature of our own existence after Death, the Inspiration of the Bible,—questions which form the basis of all religious belief, are discussed with greater zeal than they ever were, and there is a greater variety of opinion upon these doctrines, among those who believe in them in some sense, than ever before. The opinions range through all shades from a merely nominal acceptance of the doctrines to that belief which admits of no doubt because it admits of no examination. Is it rational to suppose that this confusion of tongues, this variety of opinion and even contradiction of belief, this uncertainty and doubt upon questions which relate to man’s highest interests, is the best which man is capable of attaining? Is he forbidden to advance beyond the twilight and confusion of mere opinion ? It seems to be contrary to the nature of the human mind and the purposes of the Divine love and wisdom that it should be so. But if any one is disposed to deny that there is this diversity of opinion, and to assert that the fundamental doctrines of Christianity, as formally held by Christians, are generally accepted without any doubts as to their truth, it still holds that they go only a very little way in spiritual knowledge. It is acknowledged that the doctrines themselves are not and cannot be understood.
They are great mysteries which the human mind, in this life, cannot fathom. The Trinity is a mystery, and the more it is discussed and explored the greater the confusion. The Incarnation of God, and the manner in which He effected human redemption by assuming a human nature, is a mystery which, it is generally acknowledged, cannot be understood. The Resurrection is a mystery which must be simply accepted as a fact, but which cannot be explained. We are taught that we are to live forever, and at the same time we are told that we can have no certain knowledge of the modes and forms and nature of the life after death. These great facts are affirmed in the most positive manner, and just enough is taught about them to awaken interest and lead to their examination, and then we are told that they cannot be understood ; we must accept them by an act of faith. Suppose the doctrines are true, how little they have done for man !
Now, I ask, is it reasonable to suppose that the Lord intended this to be the extent of human attainment upon these great themes which relate to man’s highest interests? Does it accord with the nature of the human mind ? Is it consonant with His oft-repeated declaration in His Word that a true knowledge of God is of vital importance to man, that to know Him aright is life everlasting ? Does it seem to be consistent with the goodness and wisdom of God that He should tantalize us with expectations which He forbids us to realize, and give us problems impossible of solution, which rend the soul in its efforts to reach the unattainable ? What else does He leave in such a fragmentary and unsatisfactory condition ? It is like bringing the tree to leaf and bud, and arresting its progress before attaining the glory of blossom and the blessing of fruit ; it is causing hunger and thirst and providing no means to satisfy them ; it is giving to the material body the power of growing into the beauty of womanhood and the strength of manhood and withholding the means of growth, leaving it in helpless infancy, cursed by eternal feebleness ; it is endowing man with the power of perceiving a few rays of the morning twilight, and awakening in him the expectation of the coming sun, and then leaving him in that expectation while its coming is withheld. It is contrary to every principle of the human mind, and to all the Divine methods so far as we have any knowledge of them. We conclude, therefore, that the Lord never intended to arrest man’s progress in the knowledge of spiritual truth, and stay his footsteps on the threshold of knowledge, while the whole universe of truth lies waiting to be explored. But we are not left to conjecture or to our own reasoning upon this subject. The Lord has declared, as clearly as human language can express a truth, that it is the purpose of His heart to communicate His love and wisdom to men. He desires to communicate Himself. He gave the Word for this purpose. He came in the flesh to be a light to the world. He attributes every loss and sorrow to ignorance of Him, and every possible attainment and joy to a true knowledge of His nature and relations to men.
The words of our text are an explicit declaration of the fact that progress in spiritual knowledge is possible. “Ihave yet many things to say unto you.” We cannot suppose that these words applied to the disciples alone. They must be of universal application. They are as true of the highest angel as of the child just born. The Lord is infinite, man is finite. The Lord has a perfect knowledge of all causes in all their possible forms and relations and effects to eternity. He knows the influence of every affection, thought, and act upon our whole future, in all its combinations and its relations to every other thought and act and being. He sees the end from the beginning of every particular in our lives.
How little the wisest men know, even of natural forms and substances ! Our knowledge is limited almost entirely to appearances and to a few links in the chain of cause and effect. We know that when light flows into the eye we can see, but we do not know how such a force, flowing into such a form, produces such an effect. We know that the undulations of the air flowing into the ear cause hearing ; we know some facts about the relation of the air to the ear, but why its inflowing should produce the effect it does no one can tell. Great progress has been made in natural science during the last century, but the relation of the known to the unknown is no greater than the smallest fraction to the infinite. Swedenborg says that the wisest angels see that their knowledge, compared with what there is to be known, is so infinitesimal that they simply say they do not know anything.
Every finite intelligence, however great its advancement in knowledge,—and in the coming eternity that knowledge must be so great that we have no words to express it or power to conceive of it,—will stand upon the shore, while the ocean of truth stretches away into the infinite distance before it. The time can never come when the Lord will not have many things to say unto us. This idea, at the first view, may appear to be discouraging. Must we be learners forever? Shall we never get to the end of our lessons ? What is the use of learning if we can never reach the goal ? We know it to be true that the more we know the more we see there is to be known. The higher we rise, the wider the horizon. This should not discourage us, because the acquisition of knowledge upon every subject which interests us is a source of pleasure. Knowledge is also intellectual and spiritual power and wealth. People never complain because they have more chances of gaining power and riches. Every new truth enlarges man’s means and capacities for happiness. Why, then, should he desire to have the sources of truth, and his ability to gain it, exhausted ? The fact that they can never be exhausted, that the Lord will always have many things to say to us, is the hope and the assurance that the means of happinesswill never fail.
Limited knowledge does not necessarily imply false knowledge. If we know but little, that little may be true as far as it goes. When the school-boy has only learned that two and two- make four, he has not made much progress in the science of numbers, but he has learned something which he will never need to unlearn. So it is with regard to every subject of human knowledge. When we have learned the single truth that God is onein essence and person, we have not advanced very far in a knowledge of His attributes, but we have learned an absolute truth which we shall never find occasion to unlearn. It is as true for the highest angel as it is for the little child. Every new fact adds new clearness and interest to those we have already learned. For this reason our interest in learning and our happiness in gaining knowledge will continue to increase forever.
The fact, therefore, that the Lord has many things to say unto us, and will always have many things to say unto us, holds out to us the grandest hopes for the future. He will always have something new to tell us, and there will always be the zest and joy of learning from Him. He will always have many things to teach about the laws of our own nature, about our relations to others. He will always have many things to reveal to us concerning His own love and wisdom, and His infinite tenderness and care for us. He will always have many things to reveal to us concerning the excellence and beauty and grandeur of the world around us, and concerning His infinite wisdom in adapting it to human wants, and in making it a means of support and culture and happiness.
The instructed mind sees a multitude of substances and forces and beauties in the material world which no one saw a century ago ; and when we pass out of the twilight of this dead, material world into the brightness and the perfections of the substantial, living, spiritual world, He will show us innumerable things ineffably more beautiful and nicely adapted to all our wants, ministering to a higher culture and a more exquisite happiness. The reason is often asked why the Lord does not speak to us more plainly. The question is often put to New-Churchmen, why the Lord did not make known the truths of the New Church before, if they are so great an advance upon former knowledge upon spiritual subjects.Our Lord gives the answer to all these questions in the words, “But ye cannot bear them now.” The Lord reveals the truth to us as fast as we can bear it. What He can tell us is not limited by His knowledge or power or willingness to communicate, but by our ability to receive. The word translated “bear” may mean to understand.” I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot understand them now.” We have conclusive evidence in the Gospels that the disciples did not understand many things which our Lord spake to them. This is true of all disciples. It is true of natural and of spiritual knowledge. When a child takes its first lesson in mathematics, in its ignorance and innocence it might say to the teacher, “Tell me all about the whole science of numbers.” The teacher could only reply, ” I cannot do it.” “Why can you not do it ?” ” Because you cannot bear such knowledge now. Mathematics is a great and complicated science, and it requires much study and severe discipline of the mind to understand it. I will tell you about it as fast as you can bear it.”
If this is true of a natural science, how much more must it be true in relation to the great problems of man’s spiritual nature and destiny ! They lie above the senses and the appearances of nature ; they relate to interior and hidden things. Man’s progress in the knowledge of the outer world has been remarkably slow, though its phenomena have been continually present to the senses, and its forces have been continually offering themselves to his service, to fight his battles, bear his burdens, and do his work. The wind and the rain, the sun and the earth, were constantly whispering their secrets in his ear, but he could not hear their voice. How, then, could we expect that man could understand those higher truths which relate to his spiritual wants and destiny? If it was many thousands of years before man could discover the forces in steam, the existence and use of magnetism, and the nature of the substances which contain so many elements which contribute to his comfort and happiness, is it incredible that it should require an equal number of years before he could be prepared to receive interior spiritual truth ?
But the words “ye cannot bear them now” mean more than inability to understand : they mean indifference and hostihty to spiritual truth. There is an inherent repugnance in the natural mind to spiritual truth. It is more than ignorance, or incapacity, or indifference : it is hostility; it is opposition of nature. It is like the repugnance which we find in the material body to certain substances. We use this very term concerning them. We say we cannot bear the smell or taste or sight of them. The natural degree of the mind has fallen. All its tastes have become perverted. It looks downward and outward to material things. It does not act in harmony with the spiritual mind. It does not like to hear anything about a spiritual world. It cannot conceive of a distinctly spiritual existence. Something akin to nausea is excited by hearing about the spiritual sense of the Word.
When our Lord said to His disciples that He had many things to say unto them, He evidently did not mean that he had many more natural facts to teach them about Himself or His mission in this world, because He never did speak much more to them about these things. His meaning was more plain as He went on to say, ”But when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth. . . . He shall receive of mine and shall show it unto you.” He shall show you the spiritual meaning of the words which have been spoken unto you, for they are spirit and life. They could not bear their spiritual import then.
Many Christian people are in the same state now. They can talk about religion ; they can pray with fervor and sing with delight. But they cannot bear to think that the Bible has a spiritual meaning. The idea that the spiritual world is a substantial and really-existing world ; that man himself, as to his spirit, is in the human form and fully organized as a man seems absurd to them. The idea that the old, familiar Bible is luminous with infinite truth, and that they have drawn their doctrines and formed their opinions from the appearances of truth in the letter ; that their minds are veiled and overshadowed with the clouds of the letter, while the unveiled and glorious sun shines in clear radiance about them, they cannot bear. But when the spiritual truth, not the letter of it, but the Spirit of truth, comes,—and He will come when men will open their minds to receive Him,—He will show them many things which they never dreamed of before. He will show them things to come.
These things are not natural events that will occur in the church in after-times, as most commentators have supposed, but spiritual things. A new and more accurate knowledge of the Lord,—”He shall receive of mine, and show it unto you ;” a more accurate and a larger knowledge of our own nature and destiny. He will show you things to come in the spiritual world. He will reveal to you the laws of the spiritual universe, and show you how surpassingly beautiful and glorious it is. He will make real to you your eternal home, and lead you into it.
When the Spirit of truth begins to shine in our understandings, a new and glorious day is dawning upon us ; a sun is rising which will never set. As the mind opens to the reception of this light, it enlarges, and can receive more of the many things which the Lord has to say to us. It also improves in strength and quahty. It can receive higher truths, clearer light ; it has a more comprehensive and delicate capacity for reception ; it can receive larger and richer and more exquisite joys. It will continue to advance towards the Lord with constantly accelerating velocity ; its power of reception from the Lord will continue to increase, and yet the Lord will always have many things to say that are more glorious and that will fill the soul with a constantly deeper and more exquisite joy. May we be among the number of those who have clear eyes and listening ears and open hearts to receive the many things which the Lord has to say to us, and which His Spirit of truth is ever ready to show unto us.
Author: Chauncey Giles, From Progress in Spiritual Knowledge, 1895
BY THE REV. CHAUNCEY GILES
AMERICAN NEW-CHURCH TRACT AND PUBLICATION
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