Week 2

Hi everyone —

First, just to share how much I appreciated the long thread of conversation that unfolded in last week’s Discussion Forum. Thanks to all who contributed: there were so many good insights, provocative statements, beautiful anecdotes and stories shared, that I found myself wishing there could be more ample space for unraveling the import of all that you had to say. We are off to a great start for “greening Swedenborg,” and I am so grateful to you all for your words.

Catherine wrapped up last week’s thread by asking if “a focus on Swedenborg’s influence on ecological thought will ultimately bring God back into the conversation,” and if “Swedenborg’s ideas are to become the basis for radical new theologies of ecology and the environment for next century?” Indeed, this is the question to grapple with. Much theology connected to modern-day environmentalism has embraced pantheism: the making of matter sacred, so that there is no (perceivedly problematic) division between mind/body, no “other world” beyond the transcendence located here in this one we smell and see and hear with our phenomenal senses. For the pantheist, God / the Divine is synonymous with the cosmos. However, Swedenborgian theology doesn’t easily fit into this space at all; “the sun is dead,” Swedenborg writes earlier in Divine Love and Wisdom, and all the natural life that springs from it is also “dead” — until it is seen as an emanation of divine love from God (writes Swedenborg), coming through the more interior spiritual world. We will be wrestling with moments like these later on in the course, when we examine some related excerpts from Swedenborg’s earlier Heaven and Hell.

But for now, for this week’s conversation, I’d like you to think about two particular questions:

1) First, after seeing the mini-documentary on Swedenborg by Cartwright and Jordan (under Minilecture for Week 2), and reading through parts of my chapter “Visionary Science,” what is something compelling about Swedenborg’s biography that strikes you? In particular, if we are to read this 18th century scientist/mystic/revelator through a green lens (someone prior to the advent of modern environmentalism and ecology, as we have discussed), what jumps out at you as relevant for us in the 21st century?

2) Secondly, I’d like you to practice doing some “green hermeneutics”, and approach the Divine Love and Wisdom excerpts with Catherine’s closing comment from last week’s thread in mind. What of this material might contribute to  “a basis for radical new theologies of ecology”? Why or why not?

13 responses to “Week 2

  1. Pingback: Discussion Forum now up for week 2… | Greening Swedenborg

  2. #2

    “The image itself is not seen when these things are viewed in their forms, it is seen only when they are viewed in respect to uses.” 322

    This was one sentence that stands out to me from the reading. Swedenborg details the function of all things that are in creation exist to create a heaven from the human race. It is only through freedom that we corrupt things and create evil functions (things that are not focused on that goal, which is the section right after the one we read this week). When we ask the question how does this (object) function to promote love and understanding in the world. We currently see nature in terms of the function it has for our use and manipulation to promote the goods of this world. What would our world be like if we could see it for the inner qualities of Love to the Lord that is their true creation?

    This brings me to my next bit o happiness. Swedenborg’s concept of atmospheres. We can look at others and even at history and understand how people are seeing with the best light they have, and yet when new light is presented, we must struggle to change. This means that we might be able to not demonize people who we don’t agree with, but seek the root core of love that should be present. Work on building bridges from the core principles rather than the surface issues. And who knows… the person we might disagree with could be more right.

    A new ethic about environmentalism is not just about the end Goal, but the way in which we get there. If we come up with a great ethic and use it as a hammer, we could be doing something wrong.

  3. catherinelauber

    Q1.
    What jumps out me most from Swedenborg’s biography, is the theme of active experience, action or Uses as in the quote Kevin used to introduce his comments. In Swedenborg’s scientific career he embodied his own belief in ‘knowledge through experience’. He was engaged with the life and times of his own world, working for the betterment of his country and engaging with the emerging ideas and cultures of the rest of the world. From this engagement he then found his own inspiration and pursued his passions and responsibilities along with his own ideas about life, nature, God, and the human in relation to all of that.
    In the 18th century there was a movement to a more mystical approach to viewing humankind and the universe. We can this idea underlying some of Swedenborg’s scientific work through his poetry and prose created from his own experience.
    Looking to the 21st century, there is a meme that we are all connected, and one with nature. The internet has brought the world together in ways we could only have dreamed of before. And even though we may not be experiencing life in other places directly, we have access to information, videos and images that show clearly what life is like all around the world. This will affect how we view the world and our place in it. If we follow Swedenborg’s example and engage with life at the cutting edge we can look beyond where the limits of knowledge and understanding have taken us so far. Questions about nature, environmentalism and ecology are equally bound up in questions about God, the universe and the human relationship to creation. A 21st century eco-view is going to have all of those elements present in order to be relevant for today.

  4. Whether Swedenborg set out to become a polymath or not, clearly he had an overwhelming passion to learn, to understand, to get inside of everything around him and truly KNOW it. Possibly if we, as a species, were in general more willing, more unafraid to do that, by this point in history we would have acquired the experience to truly see the big picture, and to understand how dependent we all are on each other and this planet we inhabit. His was such a far-sighted vision, not “just” spiritually, but “naturally,” too. I love that there’s an extinct species of whale named after him!

    If, as ES teaches we can see all of the universe, including ourselves and the planet we inhabit, as imbued with the Lord’s Divine Love & Wisdom (DLW), then we are all interrelated and “as one” even more so than science teaches us through the study of paleoanthropology. Though the term “ecology” hadn’t been coined in the 18th century, Swedenborg believed profoundly in the interactions between organisms and their environment, and clearly took it many steps further with his assertions that there is in fact a world of the spirit and that we, along with all of creation, exist in both worlds at the same time. ES’s views were radically holistic. If we are going to join him in that glorious radicalism and believe that all created things are “recipients of Divine Love and Divine Wisdom (307)” than we must accept that we live in wonderland, and are only aware of it from time to time . . . if ever. How might we put that belief into action more fully? In this world where cynicism gets all the headlines, and the reality of the suffering all around is visible on screen 24/7, we (I?) need all the spiritual nourishment we can get.

    My wonderful 33 year-old daughter is a self-described non-believer. I suggested the example of the feeings that arise when, for instance, visiting Toulumne Meadows in Yosemite National Park, and asked her how she would describe what I describe as spiritual nourishment. She spoke of “emotional nourishment,” an “emotional story-arc,” and declared that it was nearly a feeling of actual physical sustenance. How do we as Swedenborgians translate all of the essential spirituality of our relationship with the Lord, through the Lord’s creation, into terms that our more secular brothers and sisters aren’t distrustful of?

    I live in a rural area of California with a great deal of ranching in the culture, along with packing (mules/horses) some mining, etc. Twice I have seen a bumper sticker that says, “Burn it, mine it, cut it down.” The push-back to any view of the natural world that is holistic seems to me to be very strong. Thankfully, we also have a hearty Sierra Club branch, and lots of people who believe in the intrinsic value of the natural world. But there are even those who use the literal Word out of context to assert that this is God’s desire and original idea in creating the world in the first place (Gen 1:28). It’s exciting and daunting, all at the same time to consider how far we’ve come, and how far we have to go.

    I would like to hear some more about “atmospheres.” I found myself wondering what a newer translation of DLW would have used to express that idea, if anything?

    • I will admit that I read the NCE of DLW; however, the term and concept are preset in all the translations (n.310). It is possible the word was mentioned and I saw the concept, which is not fully developed in this reading. His concept of atmosphere and series and degrees are interrelated. Basically, the people or angles in the different states of regeneration or heavens can be categorized into larger groups. These larger groups are basically atmospheres. The ones closest to God are celestial, then spiritual, etc.

  5. Atmospheres are found throughout his writings, find the largest collection about them DLW Part 3 n.173-281

  6. From Jane Siebert:

    Q1 Like Catherine and Karen I was struck by the intensity with which Swedenborg pursued understanding the mines through personal exploration. I love the image of him down in the mines, poking and probing, examining and observing the rocks, crystals and ore. This rings true with his exploration earlier throughout London. I can see him checking out the acoustics in the whispering galleries and kissing the marble tomb, just as I imagine him using a pick axe to dig out samples in the mines and bring them to the surface for further exploration. In like manner he later examined the mind and inner world of the soul. That is why he had to personally travel to the spirit world rather than spirits come to him to tell him what was there. He had to experience it himself.

    I like Benz’s quote that the “inner link between Swedenborg’s scientific and visionary ways of looking at things is attested by the fact that a mystical image of humankind and a mystical theory of knowledge already underlay his scientific researches before conversion.”

    There are so many things that jump out of your book, Devin, but one more is Swedenborg’s lifelong set of questions – what is nature, what is divinity and who is man in relation to both? This to me sums up the quest of environmentalism and ecology and brings science and religion together.
    Q2 I struggled with the readings from DLW. One thing was a new thought for me, I don’t know how “green” it is. I was drawn to the difference between “use” as a noun and verb. It is a contrasting view to use or be used and to be of use. The first one uses up natural resources and the second preserves and continues them. In the first man is the user (dominion over) and the second man is in conjunction or correspondence with (care taker) the use. This is the difference between the two creation stories in Genesis.

  7. Great thread! Look forward to discussing some of these points in more depth later this afternoon with some of you. Kevin’s original post on atmospheres threw me at first — I thought maybe he was referring to the ways that Swedenborg talks about ether, elsewhere, and the ways that advancements in science made this 18th century idea about earthly air suspect, subsequently. I love the DLW section on atmospheres, too (and the related section on ‘auras’ is nifty as well).

    Catherine, I’d say most folks talk about the 18th century as one of disenchantment, of losing a mystical connection to nature: that science shows the material world to be just that — a bunch of random stuff, with nothing transcendent or purposeful behind it. This is the line that runs from Darwinian thought in the late 19th century into Richard Dawkins in the 21st, unweaving the rainbow. I love Karen’s anecdote (thanks for sharing) about her daughter’s experience of wonder in Yosemite, and the delicate ways we must translate between theology and a secular view, where that experience of nature is not spiritual, but an “emotional story arc.” I think this is one of the key questions: “How do we as Swedenborgians translate all of the essential spirituality of our relationship with the Lord, through the Lord’s creation, into terms that our more secular brothers and sisters aren’t distrustful of?”

    I have to run off to the next set of meetings, but one last thought — Jane’s comments @ Genesis evoke the classic debates over how one interprets and translates those seminal moments in our creation story. Dominion or stewardship? DLW echoes in a relevant way here:

    “The Lord grants all these gifts [of discernment, knowing about nature] upon our acknowledgement that everything physical also comes from the Lord and that we are simply like servants or stewards given responsibility for the Lord’s goods.” (no. 333, new century edition translation)

    How might the idea of stewardship (deeply resonant for many secular environmentalists) have inhering to it some concept of spirituality — that the earth, even our very selves that live on it, is not really our own?

  8. 1. Swedenborg’s Whale was the most surprising thing to me in Prof. Zuber’s biography; that and the strange relationship he had with King Charles XII. As modern readers of Swedenborg we are conscious of so much more outside of his ken (like deep geological time), and we are tempted to think of DNA when he writes of conatus. We know about germs, microorganisms and radiation: he didn’t. So it follows that what he describes in the spirit world is viewed through his 18th Century prejudices and sensibilities. But many people arrive at the same conclusions as Swedenborg about the nature of God and matter — so he was just describing what he saw, in his way.

    Swedenborg theology and philosphy permeate our modern culture, and it wasn’t the paltry number of Swedenborgians acting throughout history who caused this, but the advance of human understanding towards these rational truths that are self-evident. For me, these are not Swedenborgian ideas, they are trans-cultural truths that are expressed in a 18th Century form, by a man who learned how to make books (then the most advanced form of communication), and had some quirky ideas but generally was on the mark. So it is a hermaneutics of continuations, not disruptions. While the documentary film makes dramatic use of Swedenborg’s 1744 crisis (perhaps because it makes a better story). Prof. Zuber’s book emphasized the continuity with the evolving thought of his time.

    It was great to read a biography that puts Swedenborg so deeply into his historical context, and I look forward to the chapters dealing with his mystical years and his troubles with the Swedish authorities.

    2. A Green Hermanuetics might arise from 331: “Misuse of uses is also possible, but misuse does not do away with use, even as falsification of truth does not do away with truth except for those whop falsify it.”

    Fire and its byproducts were a God-send to people for many years: releasing trapped carbon into the atmosphere allowing the energy stored in the earth to be harvested. But now an abundance of CO2 in the atmosphere threatens global warming. Here a “Use” has been turned into a “Misuse.” Fire is still good, but when we misuse it the consequences are global. We need to compensate for the effects of our use so that it is not a mis-use.

  9. Let me say how much I appreciate everyone’s ideas. I feel like I’m sitting with a lovely serving of something delicious, and devouring it in large spoon fulls! Devin, I really enjoyed the new video bio on ES. I listened to it with a set of really good ear buds (my son’s); the music was wonderful, behind and all around me. Loved the images, and ALL.

  10. One new thing that struck me in the biographical chapter was Sweednborg’s interest in the Lapland shamans and their worldview (my own graduate work back in the 1970s was in anthropology). Most of the things I had read about ES had led me to think of him as extremely limited by a strict education in European “civilization” with his ideas about symbolism/correspondences being very European (including the influences of philosophers from Ancient Greece through the Enlightenment) aside from the Near Eastern concepts from the orthodox, accepted scriptures. It was good to see that he was well exposed to alternative, more naturalistic cultures and did not go along with the prevalent opinions that the Sami were “illiterate savages”.

    However, some of the things in “Divine Love and Wisdom” were somewhat disturbing to me, especially the idea that “the sun of the natural world is dead.” If so, can disruptions in the physical world (e.g. global warming, deforestation, the pollution of the atmosphere and the waters) really be fixed by physical interventions (and are they caused by physical acts anyway?)? Or is everything dependent upon changes of state on a different (spiritual) level? Can we save old-growth forests “merely” by raising consciousness, or will they be gone before we can make a “sea change” in the spiritual state if we do not take physical action?

    Karen’s anecdote about Tuolumne Meadows took me way back. My family hiked the high country from T.M. back in the early 1960s, and I haven’t been back since 1963, when I stood at the top of Half Dome. I wonder how much things have changed and how it will feel to experience the differences.

    Looking forward to tomorrow’s online discussion and hoping to see some of you at PCA next weekend!

  11. Swedenborg’s constant reiteration of the universe (microcosm/macrocosm), God and everything else as being imaged (holographically) as a “Divine Human” with inter-related elements and uses, evokes an image of Gaia, Earth, as a living, breathing organism, totally interconnected — such that if we damage the circulatory system, the composition of the atmosphere, etc. it/we will not survive (at least on the physical level). While emphasis on the natural world being only a correspondence to the “higher” spiritual world could lead some to devalue it (if not reject it completely), as many of the earlier dualistic philosophies (Gnosticism, Manichaeism, Catharism) seem to have done, I prefer/choose to see the natural world as totally infused by Spirit, and I hope that we will see more evidence of this outlook as we delve more deeply into Swedenborg’s writings.

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