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The Reality of the Spiritual World

by W. O.

WHAT IS REAL?

To the man whose mind is occupied exclusively with the things of the natural world, the spiritual world seems only imaginary, a "myth." The natural man in everyone doubts the reality of the spiritual world and life after death. Although everyone is living in the spiritual world as to his spirit, we are not conscious of the things which appear in the spiritual realm until after the death of the physical body. People report visions, of course, but these are not conclusive evidence of a spiritual reality since they might have been merely hallucinations.

We live in the natural world - this is where our consciousness is focused - and the testimony of our physical senses is very powerful. No matter how reasonable the existence of the spiritual world may be to us - no matter how convinced we may be abstractly or theoretically- we are subject to doubts. If this were not so, the findings of Dr. Moody, for instance, would not have such an impact on us. The experience of people who have been "clinically dead" and then revived is a strong confirmation of our belief in the spiritual world.

Such experiences, however, still are not proof that the spiritual world exists, since they can be accounted for in other ways than as glimpses into a real spiritual world. Perhaps these experiences are only the result of some trick the brain plays as it dies, although the nature of the reports makes it hard to see how this could be the case-for example, accurate reports by the subject of events which took place in another room of the hospital at the time his "death" occurred. Belief in "psychic phenomena" does not necessarily imply belief in a real spiritual world, in any case. Russian scientists have carried out extensive research in ESP, without, presumably, believing in the spiritual world and life after death. They assume thoughts are transferred from one person to another by some as yet unknown material process. Also, animals have been shown to have ESP, and yet they do not have an immortal soul as man does.

In the New Church, we are fortunate not to be dependent upon either blind faith or the experience of men. Instead, we have been given a rational revelation - truths about the spiritual world which have been revealed by the Lord in a form which satisfies the rational mind. The only source of genuine knowledge about the spiritual world, in fact, is Divine revelation. Science can never penetrate into spiritual reality.[1] The Writings describe the spiritual world "from things heard and seen" by Swedenborg, but they are not mere descriptions, for in them the Lord has given us explanations - the "how and why" of the spiritual world - so that we can not only know about it, but also understand it.

Evidence such as that collected by Dr. Moody simply serves to confirm what we know rationally from revelation to be true. Even in the realm of science, experiments are designed to confirm hypotheses based upon reason. Science seeks experimental proof for what reason says must be. The difference between science and religion, in this regard, is that science bases its hypotheses upon observable data, whereas religion bases its understanding of spiritual things upon revealed truth. And whereas science seeks to prove its hypotheses by means of controlled experiments involving detectable material substance, religion knows that spiritual truths are not subject to natural proof. We can, however, see spiritual order illustrated correspondentially in nature, provided the understanding has been enlightened through the Word. The Writings note that there are two foundations - not two sources - of truth: the Word and nature.[2]

Scientific proof of spiritual reality would be destructive of man's freedom, and, furthermore, those who would demand such proof, rather than trust in the Word, would not be convinced by it anyway. "Such especially are in the habit of saying, 'Make me see these things with the eye, or show me scientifically that it is so, and then I will believe.' And yet if they were to see, and if it were shown, they would not believe, because what is negative reigns universally."[3]

We might note, also, that many facts of science, although based upon observable data, are not themselves subject to sensual observation. Who has ever seen an atom, or the electrons, protons, and neutrons which compose it? Physical evidence for the existence of neutrinos (uncharged particles with a smaller mass than neutrons) was finally obtained-some neutrinos were "caught" and detected scientifically, although they cannot be seen with even the most powerful microscope, of course-but the neutrino was postulated years before. If scientists had not been reasonably certain of its existence, they would not have gone to such effort and ,expense to search for proof of its reality. To cite another example, Einstein proposed the theory of relativity before any physical evidence for it was obtained, and confirmation of it is still going on at present (by observing the effect of gravitational fields on light traveling from distant .stars). Relativity is still not absolutely proved, although recent space exploration has produced more evidence for it. This theory has in turn led scientists to postulate the existence of "black holes" in space. (According to Einstein's theory, a ray of light should possess mass, and when emitted by a star will be pulled back by the star's gravity. In the case of a supernova explosion, the matter of a star is squeezed into a very small volume with tremendous mass. Theoretically, the enormous force of gravity on its surface can be great enough to prevent any light from leaving the star, and it becomes invisible - a black hole in space). Scientists are certain that black holes exist, and in great numbers, but only recently have astronomers found even indirect evidence that at least one actually does exist.[4]

The point is that even science accepts as true the existence of things which have not been proved, but which are reasonable deductions. Similarly, we can say that the spiritual world is a "necessary postulate." It must exist, "based upon observable data." This data is not tangible in the sense of being perceptible or sensible by the natural senses (touch, sight, hearing, etc.), but it is tangible in the sense that it is "capable of being realized by the mind." (This is the second definition of "tangible" in Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary). The data we are interested in is, not how matter behaves, but how people behave.

The evident nature of man demands the existence of another dimension of life which animals do not have. (Note: the fact that many do not see it does not mean it is not evident. It was always evident that the earth must be round-a child today can give several pieces of evidence, such as the sight of a ship disappearing gradually over the horizon-and yet a few centuries ago even the most learned thought the earth was flat. That they could have known better is shown by the fact that some ancient peoples knew the earth was round many centuries before Columbus). This other dimension of life is what we call the soul or spirit.

It is clear that the physical body is not the person. Why, then, should the person cease to exist just because the physical body dies? It does not follow, unless we say that the personality is just a property of the physical body. It is hard to believe that even evolutionists really believe this.

Animals are governed their whole life by instinct. They never discipline themselves to serve a use. They do not reflect upon their experience or the nature of life and grow wise. They are neither moral nor immoral. What we can see of human nature, what we can observe and know of man's ability to love and understand, clearly separates him from the beasts. These human qualities are not properties of the material body, and it is unreasonable to think that at the height of his wisdom, after a lifetime of learning to serve uses for the sake of others, for the sake of ends higher than himself - after a lifetime of abstracting knowledge from experience and growing wise - that then the human being is extinguished when the body dies. Common perception prevents most people from believing that, even when they have no knowledge of the spiritual world.

We can see that man's life in this world is preparing him for spiritual life. The existence of a spiritual world, in which the spirit continues to live after the death of the physical body, is thus a necessary postulate, a "working hypothesis," a reasonable inference.

It is much more than this, of course. I have merely tried to show that it is as reasonable to believe in the spiritual world as it is for science to conclude the existence of material things which have not been proved. Reason does not reveal the spiritual world, but the revelation of the spiritual world is reasonable. That is, it is rational; we can understand it, and see the reasons for it.

As science investigates ever more deeply into the secrets of nature, the question of what constitutes reality becomes more imperative. Every new discovery raises many new questions. There is a growing awareness that reality is more complex than we can imagine. The hidden, inner world of nature is far vaster than the external world which appears before the senses. But the real inner world is the spiritual world; it is within the natural world as the soul in the body, or as a cause within an effect. It is more real, more wonderful and complex, than even the deepest secrets of nature which science has disclosed. As C. S. Lewis said, "the inside is bigger than the outside."

Because the internals of nature are so marvelous, some have imagined that ultimate reality resides there. The discovery of DNA, for instance, is said to have greatly increased man's understanding of the nature of life; and some scientists look forward to a day in the not-too-distant future when they will "create" life in a laboratory. But in fact, all that has been gained is a deeper knowledge of the intricate natural forms receptive of life from the Lord. Apart from Divine revelation, the discovery of DNA does not tell man anything at all about what life essentially is.

Creation is a one. The spiritual world and the material world are actually two parts of one whole; utterly distinct, yet making one by correspondence. The mysteries which are being discovered within matter can help us appreciate the wonder of the still deeper reality of the spiritual world, which exists on a discretely higher plane of life.

The more science learns about the material universe, the more we realize how limited our knowledge is. We can never "get to the bottom" of natural substance, much less arrive at a final understanding of spiritual substance. Therefore, our focus must be, not on some abstract idea of reality, but on use. Spiritual reality, like natural reality, is best defined in terms of use. The Rev. Hugo Odhner observed:

Swedenborg's interest was centered in the study, not of matter, which in itself is unknowable, but of the form which matter assumes; and, similarly, not of the substance of the spiritual realm, but of the forms which reveal its uses. Yet he never denied that where there is a form, it is the form of a substance.

Similarly, when his spiritual eyes were opened, it is the forms of spiritual existence that he investigates under Divine auspices.[5]

We can infer the existence of both spiritual substance and natural substance, Dr. Odhner pointed out, but in addition is it a matter of revelation. "Similarly, the knowledge of God as Divine substance can be drawn as an inference from the need for a final cause of creation, but only revelation can tell of the essence of God, or confirm that He is Divinely Human."[6]

In short, we can deduce that the spiritual world must exist, but only revelation can tell us the nature of its existence. Revelation confirms what reason tells us must be, and reason in turn confirms what revelation tells us is. This is assuming there is a well-ordered or spiritual rational, of course. And we must distinguish between consulting the rational as the source of truth, and consulting it for confirmation of truth. No spiritual truth comes from the rational, and the rational can confirm falsities as well as truths. It is a grave error to look to reason to be convinced of spiritual truth, but if there is an affection for truth and a willingness to believe what the Lord has revealed, then reason may usefully be consulted for confirmation, insofar as reason and scientifics are able to confirm.[7]

ESSENTIAL REALITY

"The Divine truth proceeding from the Lord is the veriest reality, and such a reality that all things have come forth from it, and all things subsist from it. . ."[8] Therefore, whether we are speaking of the natural world or the spiritual world-of human ideas or material objects-the degree to which anything is real depends upon how well it reflects essential reality. In the supreme sense, only God is real. He is the only self-existent reality. Everything else subsists or continually comes forth from Him. This is true of spiritual things as well as material ones; of ideas as well as material objects. Both are only more or less perfect images of the only essential reality, which is the Divine of the Lord. Every created thing - natural or spiritual - derives its existence from the Lord, who alone is absolutely real.

Unless the infinite God were the all, substance itself, and wisdom itself, man would not be anything, thus would be either nothing, or merely an idea of being, according to the visionaries called idealists . . . God created the universe and all things from Himself and not from nothing. It follows from this that every created thing, and especially man, and the love and wisdom in him, are something, and not merely ideas of being; for unless God were infinite there would not be any finite ... In a word, we are because God is.[9]

With these thoughts on the origin and nature of what constitutes reality in mind, let us examine some of the statements of the Writings concerning the reality of the spiritual world.

THE SPIRITUAL WORLD IS REAL

The Writings are quite definite in stating that the spiritual world is a real world-more real, in fact, than the material world-as in this striking passage:

The things (spirits) see and feel are not material but substantial from a spiritual origin; yet they are still real because they are from the same origin as the things of the world, with the sole difference that to those things which are in the natural world an accessory has been given from the sun of the world, as an overcovering whereby they are material, fixed, set, and measurable. But still . . . those things which are in the spiritual world are more real than those which are in the natural world; for the deadness which is added to the spiritual in nature does not make reality but diminishes it. . ."[10]

The Writings warn us against "idealists" who make nothing to be real, but all things only ideal, even man himself and the things of heaven." Again and again, the Writings emphasize that spiritual things are actual, real, and substantial. They derive their being from Divine Love and Wisdom, which are substance and form in itself, and in turn they (spiritual things) are the substantial realities from which material things derive their being. "Spiritual things are substantial, and natural things are material; and the latter have come forth, and subsist, from the former, as the posterior from the prior, or as the exterior from the interior."[12]

There is a persuasion which is strongly present in Eastern thought which denies the reality of the material world. There is also an extreme belief called "solipsism" which says that the only thing which exists or that can be known is self, or a man's own thought. And there is a tendency among many people to imagine that we can never have, any true knowledge about spiritual reality. Reality must always be something "higher" than man could ever grasp; the soul is only an idea or some kind of ether; God cannot be thought of as human, but only as an invisible power or "ground of being." But the fact is that the Lord has accommodated truth to man's mind, and there are true appearances of reality on every plane of life. Perfect and absolute reality is infinite and incomprehensible in itself, but the substances derived from this reality, or from the Lord, and clothed with spiritual or natural forms, do appear before man's mind. And these appearances are real. The material universe is real; the things that appear in the spiritual world are even more real; the love and wisdom which these things represent are more real yet; and the Divine Love and Wisdom which are the source of all things in both worlds are the most real.

The lot of one who had held the idea that all things are only fantasies, and that nothing is real, is described in the Arcana. This extreme "idealist" was seen sitting at a mill, as if grinding meal, with little mirrors at his sides.[13] The Writings also say that hypocrites are very prone to believe that nothing is real.[14] They are so accustomed to saying things they do not believe that they come to believe nothing to be true, and so come into fantasies.

We also read of the indignation spirits feel because men have no, conception of how real the life of spirits and angels is, when the fact is that they are "in the enjoyment of All good things as to all the senses, and this with an inmost perception of them." The same number describes how people who had recently come from the world, and held the idea that there would not be real things in the spiritual world, were shown the homes of angels, and were thus convinced that there were real things there.[15]

The Writings give the following concise definition of "real": "The real is distinguished from the not real in this - that the real is actually such as it appears, and that the not real is actually not such as it appears."[16] In, other words, there are two kinds of appearances: true appearances and false appearances. The things in heaven are true appearances; they actually are such as they appear to be. Hell, on the other hand, abounds in illusions. Devils as well as angels enjoy sense perception, but the devils are misled by their senses; the things that appear real to them are seen as I mere phantoms when looked at by angels. The devils appear as men to themselves, but as monsters in the light of heaven. "For in the light of heaven everything appears as it is in itself."[17]

Again, we are warned against the idea that all things are ideal, or only appearances, without substance:

When you enter the other life beware of being befooled, for evil spirits know how to conjure up illusions of many kinds before those who come fresh from the world, and if they cannot deceive them, they nevertheless thereby endeavor to persuade them that nothing is real, but that all things are ideal, even those which are in heaven.[18]

The point that the appearances in heaven are real is emphasized in Heaven and Hell 181, where it is noted that "the garments of angels do not merely appear as garments, but are real garments."

CONSTANCY IN THE SPIRITUAL WORLD

This statement about the garments of the angels makes the things in the spiritual world seem more fixed and permanent than we often think of them as being. The garments do not just disappear when the angels take them off, but are stored, cared for, and worn again. The garments do represent the states of the angels, and change in accordance with their changes of state, but the changes are not so fluid as to cause a sense of confusion, chaos or unreality. The scenery is not kaleidoscopic, with things shifting rapidly from one form to another and blinking in and out of existence.

Now it is true that things in the spiritual world, unlike things on the earth, are created or dissipated in a moment by the Lord.[16] Nevertheless, there is constancy in the spiritual world, because changes in the visible forms there are in accord with the states of the angels.

... these appearances vary according to differences of state in the minds of the spirits and angels there; thus times and spaces there conform to the affections of their wills, and the consequent thoughts of their understandings. But these appearances are real in that they are constant according to these states.[20]

There is no time and space in the spiritual world, only a progression of states. The angels attend to the present, and as their surroundings conform with their present state, their world must seem very stable. The things that appeared around them were different, during a previous state, but, because they are content under the Lord's Providence, their focus is on the present. They are not concerned about what came before or what will come next, and thus live in a perpetual present. The Divine Love and Wisdom do not change. Their reception of it varies as their state changes, but they look to the unchanging Divine, rather than the forms representative of their reception of it.[21]

. . . in the spiritual world all things are as it were fixed, as it were set, and as it were measurable; still they are not so in themselves, for they exist ... according to the states of the angels and remain according to the same, so that the states themselves and these things make one; wherefore also they are varied according as their states are varied. . . . But the spirits do not reflect upon these changes and variations . . . [22]

It is noted, also, that the angels know that the walkways they travel represent changes in their state, but they do not think about this fact.[23]

A world in which objects appear or disappear or change in a moment sounds unreal to us because we are used to living in surroundings which do not represent or conform to our spiritual states. In our world, only mirages shift about like this, and so it is hard to imagine a world in which real things act in such a way. But the essential difference is simply that the objects in the spiritual world are more closely connected with their spiritual causes. The same spiritual causes are the origin of the objects in the material world, which are more fixed and permanent because of the very fact that they are more removed from their spiritual origin.

REPRESENTATIVE BUT REAL

The fact that the things which appear in the spiritual world are representative does not at all mean that they are not real. All things of the visible, natural world also represent, on a lower plane of reality, the same Divine things which are imaged in the spiritual world.[24] The natural world is no less representative, only less perfectly representative.

"The universe is a theatre representative of the kingdom of the Lord; and this is a theatre representative of the Lord Himself."[25] The spiritual world is thus a distinct degree "nearer" essential reality, or the Divine. (Actually, of course, there is no ratio between the finite on any degree and the Infinite). The Divine is the origin of the spiritual world, and through the spiritual world, of the natural world. "The natural world exists and subsists from the spiritual world; when it is said the spiritual world, the Divine of the Lord which is there is meant . . ."[26] "Natural things exist from spiritual things as effects from their causes. Hence there is a correspondence of all things in the world with those things which are in heaven . . . ."[27]

The things seen in the spiritual world "are indeed representative, like the things sometimes seen by the prophets; but yet are so real that they who are in the other life hold them to be real, and the things which are in the world to be relatively unreal." [28]

Things in the spiritual world appear just as things do on earth. The two worlds appear so alike that men who have died can hardly believe that they are in another world.[29] But the things in the spiritual world are much more perfect, and there are many more forms of creation there than on the earth.[30]

Appearances in the spiritual world are real because they correspond to the thoughts and affections of the angels, who are real.

For in the heavens all appearances that exist are real, because they are correspondences; for the interiors belonging to the affections and thoughts therefrom of the angels, when they pass to the sight of their eyes, are clothed in such forms as are manifest in the heavens; they are called appearances because they are visible, and they are said to be correspondences and are real because they spring from creation.[31]

Commenting on this statement, Bishop de Charms wrote: "Note that they are not hallucinations, phantasmal projections from the minds of the angels, but substantial Divine creations picturing forth in correspondential forms exactly how the minds of the angels are affected by the inflowing Divine of the Lord."[32]

The things which exist in the spiritual world, then, are not less real because they are created as forms corresponding to angelic love and wisdom, for this love and wisdom are real and substantial. The forms they assume are as "solid" to the angels as matter is to our physical senses.. Certain spirits who doubted the existence of the spiritual world were told to believe the testimony of their own senses.[33]

The things seen in heaven are from a spiritual origin, but those seen in our world are from a material origin; and things from a spiritual origin affect the senses of the angels because their senses are spiritual, as those from a material origin .affect the senses of men because they are material. . . When the things pertaining to the wisdom of the angels and to their love descend into the lower sphere in which angels areas to their bodies and their bodily sensations they are manifested in such forms and types. These are correspondences.[34]

IMPORTANCE OF BELIEF

Belief in the reality of the spiritual world, and in life after death, is an essential element of our religion. The Writings often mention this belief, or the lack of it, as a sign of the state of faith with men. It could be called a touchstone of faith - not blind faith, but in the sense that belief in the spiritual world is bound up with our whole understanding of the nature of the Lord, of creation, and of man. (The case is similar as with the Virgin Birth. We do not make it a "test of faith" in the way fundamentalists do, but it is an essential part of the New Church doctrine of the Lord).

The Writings explain that the reason there is such ignorance concerning life after death is that people are so worldly minded. The delights of the loves of self and the world take away faith concerning life after death.[35]

Man is so created that he can be at the same time in both worlds, the natural and the spiritual. He is in the spiritual world as to his interiors, and the natural world as to his exteriors.[36] And man's interior is more real than his exterior.[37] This is why things in heaven are more real than the things of the natural world.[38]

The simple fact is that our society has faith in science, but not so much in Divine revelation. The evolution of man from apes - an unproved theory - is accepted as fact, while the spiritual world is regarded as imaginary. And yet there is far less reason (and not much more physical evidence) for believing that man descended from apes than for believing that he is a spiritual being who lives after death in the spiritual world. The Writings note that the learned, more than the simple, make man out to be merely an animal.[39] The new revelation was given because of the danger of this unbelief of the learned infecting also the simple, which has happened to a great degree.[40]

Again and again the Writings make the point that the lack of understanding people have about spiritual things is a result of their indifference to them, their preoccupation with the world. Part of the reason why the spiritual world seems unreal to men is that it is not seen to be a matter of any significance.[41]

The fact that we do not fully understand or comprehend the nature of the spiritual world does not mean we should not believe in it "for if nothing were believed except that which is apprehended, nothing would be believed respecting the things of interior nature; still less concerning the things that are of eternal life. Hence comes the insanity of our age."[42]

CONCLUSION

In the world, men often mistake the form for the reality, or the dead covering of material substance as the whole of reality. But anyone should be able to see how false this is. Anyone can see that a description of the cover, paper, and type style of a book tells nothing of its essence, that is, the ideas it contains. Anyone who reflects should be able to see that the real person is not the physical body, but the spirit. But for sensual men, ideals, loves, principles, and truths are considered less real than natural things, such as money, fame, and power in the world.

We can know that the spiritual world is real in the same way we can know conjugial love is real. And when conjugial love is known, the view of marriage as only a legal contract or physical union - the view so widely held in the world - is clearly seen to be far less real, essential, and substantial.

Certain spirits once spoke with Swedenborg and said the things provided by the Lord for the angels were fantasies, and said that they wanted money, as in the world, because that was real. Swedenborg was given to reply that he would gladly give up all his worldly possessions if he would be allowed to possess such "imaginary wealth" as the angels have. Their wealth was to use the gifts of the Lord in tranquility and innocence "this is their chiefest reality, because it conduces to their felicity."[43] We might say, then, that whatever the nature of the spiritual world, the happiness which the angels experience there is real, and all other realities are pale in comparison.

Swedenborg wrote "from things heard and seen." The Writings answer the objection that "no one has ever returned from the spiritual world to tell us about it."[44] But we do not just have to take Swedenborg's word for his experiences, for they only serve to illustrate and confirm the rational truths of the new revelation which the Lord has given, which we can see intellectually to be true. Swedenborg was able to be a "spiritual fisherman" - that is, to teach spiritual truths naturally, or in a way that could be grasped by the natural mind.[45]

Such a revelation is what is meant by "the rod of iron" with which the Lord would teach all nations.[46] It can "convince even the natural man, if he is willing to be convinced."[47]

Footnotes

1. HH 266; DLW 92; SD 3254: 2.
2. SD 5709, 5710.
3 AC 6015: 3.
4. Natural History Magazine, Jan., 1977, p. 83.
5. Philosophy and the New Church, New Church Life, 1953, p. 313.
6. Ibid.
7. Cf. AC 2538, 2588: 3; DLW 351.
8. AC 6880; cf. AC7004: 2; 8861 (e), 9410: 5.
9. DP 46.
10 AE 1218, italics added; cf, DLW 321; AC 3485; SD 4609, 5685-86.
11. Cf. DP 46; AC 196, 4623.
12. Can. God IV: 8,
13. AC 1510. 15 AC 1630, 1881.
14. SD 4353. 16 AC 4623.
17. HH 553: 4. 
18. AC 4623
19. Div. Wis. VII: 5 (2) ; TCR 78, 794; AE 1211
20. TCR 29.
21. Cf. Div. Wis. VII: 5.
22. AE 1218
23 SD 5646.
24. AC 2999-3002, 9272. 
25. AC 3483.
26. AC 10185. 
27. AC 8812.
28 AC 1116; cf. AC 3485; CL 207: 5.
29 HH 582, 483; AE 304: 2 ; Div. Wis. VII: 5.
30LJ post. 316-322; SD 6088; CLJ 37; TCR 794; AE 417; LJ 27; HH 176.
31 AE 553: 2, 704.
32New Philosophy, July, 1959, p. 79
33 SD 3058, 1718; CL 31: 2.
34 AE 926: 2; cf. DLW 91; HH 461; LJ post. 323
.
35 AC 6853: 2, 7490, 8944; DP 274.
36 HD 36; DLW 83; AC 6055.
37 SD 4609.
38 SD 5685.
39 AC 3747: 2.
40 HH 1.
41 AC 2540, 4018, 4286: 5, 4464: 4, 4583: 3, 6000: 3.
42 AC 1630.
43 SD 3448--49.
44 HH 1.
45 Int. 20.
46 AR 544.
47 SS 4.

 - New Church Life 1977;97:167-178

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