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THE NATURAL BASIS
OF
SPIRITUAL REALITY
 

 
CHAPTER I

NEW IDEAS IN ACCORDANCE WITH CHERISHED BELIEFS

1  All Christians, and many others, believe the world was created by God. The idea that creation is a continuing process is less widely held, but many people are familiar with the view that the world we see and touch is but the outer garment of a more real world of the spirit. Some who believe and feel that it is so do not have any definite and detailed theory as to how this garment is worn or as to how the inner reality expresses itself in the external things which impinge upon our senses. Others have adopted clear ideas; it has been said that the world of the spirit represents itself in nature (Stanley, 1977) and it does so in a consistent and orderly way. This means that the properties of one may be realistically illustrated by those of the other.

2. Thus it was that the Lord chose illustrations from nature to teach us about the kingdom of heaven. The obvious content of His teaching was limited to the capacity of His hearers. The less obvious content can be revealed in ever-increasing richness and detail as the human race (or at least part of it) increases in intelligence and wisdom. The work that follows will demonstrate that we are now in a position to learn much more detail about the world of the spirit; for if all the world of nature is a representation of the spiritual world, our scientific knowledge should enable us to appreciate more keenly the relation between the spiritual and the material. We will then be able to understand more clearly what has been revealed concerning spiritual things.

A knowledge of the relation between natural and spiritual things can be used to present spiritual truths clearly to the affirmative rational mind

3.The relation between natural and spiritual things is sometimes fairly obvious, as in most of the Lord's parables. However, once it is accepted that it is a consistent and orderly functional relationship rather than merely a matter of poetical imagery, it becomes possible to see more clearly what is involved in many doctrines of faith by means of our knowledge of the facts of nature in which spiritual truths are represented.

4. A simple example will make this clear. An important teaching is presented in the parable of the sower and the explanation of it (Matt. 13: 3-9, 18-23). It is possible, however, to go further by considering the role of water in the germination of seed and its subsequent growth. The Lord spoke of the water of life (John 4: 10, 14). Our knowledge of the growth of plants makes it clear that the seed He sows will not be fruitful unless the recipient approaches Him for that spiritual thing which corresponds to water. The natural knowledge behind this is not new; what is new is our understanding of what water does for the plant by dissolving nourishing materials out of the earth, carrying them throughout the plant and, in part,  combining with carbon dioxide in photosynthesis to produce the actual tissues of the growing plant. An account of the spiritual
counterparts of these things will, it is hoped, be presented later. It will show how the processes that go on in plants can be related to those in the mind of man during his spiritual growth. The correspondence between these two different living systems emphasizes the importance of love and wisdom, shows how the Lord is all-in-all, and at the same time indicates the importance of man's own free response. At present, however, we confine our attention to a general consideration of correspondences as a whole.

The relation between the spiritual and the natural is an orderly and consistent one of cause and effect

5. Science has advanced to its present state on the assumption that the laws of nature operate all the time and without any exceptions. Apparent exceptions have always pointed the way to further discoveries. Once it is accepted that spiritual things are within, it is easy to adopt the view, at least as a hypothesis, that they act in an orderly and consistent way to produce effects in the visible things of nature. It is important to emphasize that the orderly and consistent operation of spiritual things directs our attention for the time being away from unusual phenomena such as ghosts, poltergeists and other similar occurrences. Our hypothesis is that spiritual things do not occasionally make use of natural things independently present, but that all the natural things are produced and activated by the inflowing of spiritual things; thus, no flower blooms, no star glows, except as a result of spiritual entities acting according to established laws. This can be a matter of faith to those who prefer to make it so rather than to think more deeply, but for those who wish for confirmation, there is at least one place where happenings of this kind can actually be observed, and that is in man himself.
 

The actions of human beings illustrate the production of material effects by spiritual causes

6. In a man we have many spiritual forces which are things of the mind or spirit. Love is one example. Love makes a man's material body act in many ways in the material world. A spiritual thing causes natural things to happen. The relation between the spiritual cause or love and the natural effect or bodily action is a relation of consistent laws. The fact that the laws are very numerous and that their interplay is complex does not take away their consistency. Even the simple act of a loving father smiling at his child is governed by consistent laws, although it requires an interplay of many nerve impulses within the brain and between the brain and the face.

There is a discrete distinction between the spiritual and material. How they can still be related as cause and effect is illustrated by the action of nerves on muscles
 

7. It is important to emphasize at this point that we have just been thinking of two very different levels within a series of events following a single cause, the cause being love, the final event being a smile. The smile can be seen; the nerve impulses can be detected by scientific apparatus. The love can be inferred or deduced but not detected directly by any physical means. It is discretely different. Although it acts as a cause, it is distinct and separate. A physical image of the discrete difference can be seen in the relation between nerves and the muscles they activate. Although both are physical and both use proteins, enzymes, and other biochemical substances, they differ so markedly that one cannot pass gradually into another. Special "end plates" with special enzymes must be present to act as an interface. Of the more subtle interface between love and the brain we are as yet profoundly ignorant.

8. As with the brain, so with nature. We have a philosophy by which we can relate many things in nature to the spiritual things which we believe cause them, but as yet we do not know the mechanics of the interface. At present this is a small handicap, for we have only just begun to tackle the immense but fascinating task of relating the vast range of scientific knowledge to the newly available knowledge of spiritual things. (Of this last knowledge, more below.) The much smaller range of natural knowledge that has been with men for several thousand years has often (or even always) been more or less vaguely related to spiritual matters, as mentioned above in connection with parables. However, it can now be shown that the relationship that exists between the spiritual world and the natural can be observed in many other spheres: for example, in all the Divinely inspired books of the Bible, in Greek mythology, and even in common speech.

An example from common speech of the representation of an imponderable by a physical organ of the body. The extension of this representation to spiritual matters

9. It is quite usual to say we "see" when we mean we "understand." The eye, then, corresponds to the mind's ability to understand. The old saying of "an eye for an eye" (Exodus 21: 24) shows that anyone who tries to destroy the ability of another to understand by misleading him will himself be misled. The same words, however, can have a positive meaning which is also quite well-known, namely, that he who labors to encourage the understanding of others has his own understanding improved. A little thought shows that there is not, and cannot be, any end to this kind of interpretation. The eye sees by means of light. The Lord said, "I am the light of the world." Light comes from the sun. So! Moreover, as the eye corresponds to the understanding, so the anatomy and physiology of the eye can teach us much about the true function of our faculty of understanding. So we have much to think about, even if we cannot say how the Lord created the material universe or how the "light of the world" produces that huge atom bomb which is our source of physical light and energy.

It is possible to understand partially the causative relationship between spiritual and natural things although it is not possible to explain it in natural language
 

10. Although we cannot explain how love activates the brain to cause the face to smile, we still accept the causative relationship. It is the same with the relation between the natural and the spiritual. We may understand and accept even if we cannot explain. For a long time men have been able to see that there is a causative relationship only in general and have not realized that the general must fail if the particulars do not conform. Ignorance of both spiritual things and natural things has contributed to an inability to relate them to one another in detail. The belief in a detailed relationship becomes a conviction when certain lines of study are followed. The need for special study is made clear when one considers how impossible it would be to believe (did we not know it already) that a complex pattern of changing electric potentials on the interfaces of microscopic fibres (the nerves) in one being could produce a sign (the smile) that would give joy to another yards away (or even miles with the help of television). Even more so, were it not a matter of experience, we would find it quite beyond credence that a mere imponderable thing like the emotion of love could have the tremendous material consequences that often follow. It is, then, not surprising that we should need some preparation in order to appreciate a connection between the wonderful material universe and the even more wonderful universe of the spirit.

The spiritual and natural worlds are both vast and complex. A knowledge of both is required if their relationship is to be expounded, and this can only be achieved by a man whose mind is properly prepared so that it can receive Divine instruction concerning the meanings of spiritual experiences and of many other things.

11. The ordinary material world is so vast that a detailed knowledge of it is beyond the capacity of any one man. There is even more in the spiritual world of causes. So complex are both worlds that we might be forgiven for thinking that the connection between them is beyond the grasp of the merely natural man. However, if the Divine who made them both would vouchsafe a few hints, it might then be possible for man to see, or perhaps become vaguely aware of, the connection. But the Divine can do more. In His wisdom He always adapts His revelation to the man or society of men to whom it is made. Thus men can be made aware of many things they did not formerly know, if they are willing to be made aware, and if they are of such a character that the knowledge will not be misused. It is within the bounds of possibility for God to reveal a great deal  more about the expression of spiritual verities in natural and material objects and activities than the world is yet aware of.

12. But consider the requirements! We are not talking about a mere revelation of simple previously unknown facts, but about being able to understand subtle and complicated relationships that had not as yet entered the mind of any man. Take again the example of a smile. Even leaving out the more complex operation of the love itself we have a process in the brain and between the brain and the face that is quite difficult to comprehend.

13. To know how the brain activates the face to smile one must know a great deal about the brain itself, not only which parts are connected to the face, but how they are connected with one another and with other parts of the brain, including those where memory resides, and many other details. This is one side of the necessary knowledge. On the other side one must also know a great deal about the muscles and the face; what a nerve impulse is and how it can make a muscle contract or relax, which muscles are to act, and by how much. The eyes, too, will be involved, and more besides. To trace the smile back to the love would involve even greater understanding. This example shows that anyone who is to reveal the relation between spiritual and natural phenomena must understand the natural world of effects as well as the spiritual world through which the effects are produced. Thus a knowledge of both is required. This criterion was met by Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772). He was a Swedish scientist and engineer whose achievements caused him to be regarded very highly. He received many honors and was greatly respected by knowledgeable people of his day (Sigstedt,1952). He led a useful, practical life, but his chief interests were in fundamental causes, even when his attention was focussed on physics and "as his thought began to plumb ever deeper depths he left his contemporaries behind and was in turn neglected by them" (Stanley,1977). His deeper thought and his spiritual experiences took place, so he said, under Divine auspices, about which he was completely modest. His experiences and his knowledge enabled him not only to look into the spiritual world but to understand what he saw.

14. Many people have seen the spiritual world and some of their experiences are on record, for example, those of John (in Revelation), Paul (a very brief experience), the disciples, Ezekiel, and other prophets. These seers, however, knew little about the world of nature and almost nothing about the relation between it and the world of the spirit, so that they could not at all explain what they had seen. On the other hand, Swedenborg became expert in most branches of the science of his day (it was possible two hundred years ago!), but especially in anatomy and physics. "His prophetic insight into the fundamental nature of matter" can only be appreciated now, after two hundred years of experimental science. However, although these insights were nearer modern physics than Newton's, Swedenborg had no miraculous knowledge of future science, and his encyclopaedic knowledge of the spiritual world was related to selected natural knowledge of his time. His own "prophetic insights" were largely laid aside and knowledge that was already widely accepted among the educated was used. Some of that knowledge has been discredited; much of the rest has been superseded by more accurate and more detailed knowledge. How can a revelation linked with inadequate, outdated knowledge remain viable? It remains not only viable but increases in vigour, for the newer knowledge is more correct and therefore it forms an even better basis for spiritual truths, and shows more clearly than before the orderly links between the spiritual and the natural. (Of course, this claim can be substantiated only by detailed study such as that which follows in later chapters.)

A true revelation is more and more confirmed as scientific discovery progresses, providing the relationship between scientific fact and spiritual knowledge is known

15. The phoenix-like renewal mentioned above is only to be expected because the spiritual revelations were made more closely under the Divine auspices than the acquirement of natural knowledge by the world at large, which had necessarily to proceed at the pedestrian pace of experimental investigation. On the other hand, spiritual advancement, in general, had seemed to be going backwards; but when a knowledge of spiritual things was revealed the result was a tremendous leap forwards. A new revelation from God is sure to be in greater perfection than any merely natural knowledge. In such a case, an improvement in natural knowledge by two centuries of patient, painstaking experimental investigation should lead to a body of science more capable of supporting the spiritual revelation than was the knowledge it displaced. Because Swedenborg learned many things under Divine auspices, he was able to reveal the relationships between spiritual and natural things, i.e., to expound the theory of correspondences. Correspondences indicate the means of creation and provide the interpretation of the Divine Allegory, i.e., of the whole Word of God, as we have it in the Bible. In the view of many people, the work of Swedenborg in laying before us the inner meaning of the Scriptures was his most important task. It is particularly remarkable that the correspondences by which this was done are exactly those by which the material universe was created and continues. Thus it was that most of Swedenborg's effort was in interpreting the Word; yet so closely do the two facets of reality march together that neither can be studied without, inadvertently as it were, learning much about the other. Spiritual thought could not exist without the Word of God, and the natural basis would be pointless without a Spiritual superstructure. The concepts of spiritual matters which are necessary for understanding what follows are fully explained in those of Swedenborg's works written after he was called to his spiritual task. These works as a whole are called "The Writings." The full titles and the abbreviations of Swedenborg's works referred to herein are given in the List of Abbreviations, xiv; and in the Bibliography, p. 350.


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