Seeing The Future
Hugh L. Odhner
It is a commonplace of doctrine that man is not allowed to know the future. If he knew with assurance what events were coming on the marrow, or what the next year would have in store for him; or still more, if he knew beforehand what his eternal lot was to be, he would lose all incentive to use his human faculties. Either he would quail with fear, petrified by the anticipation of misfortune, or he would be lulled into a security that made any effort of his own seem unnecessary and vain. He would be deprived of all delight. He would seem to be a slave of circumstance, and all his actions would become a dull and vacant routine. For it is of the essence of every man's life to act as if the future depended on him, as indeed it does.
It would be folly to think of the future as if it were a fixed mold of events, or a pattern of absolute necessities that leave no room for the free choices of man. (AC 6487, SD min. 4692) For the Lord provides innumerable contingencies or alternatives among which man can choose. The fact of freedom rules out the idea of necessity. The Lord's government is a framework of Divine laws - and it is as such that we may view the future. Nothing will ever happen that is opposed to these unchanging laws; for what is contrary to the laws of God is impossible. Yet what is seldom realized to the full is that all these laws have respect first of all to human freedom and thus include laws of permission, laws that permit evil; while at the same time no evil or disaster is ever permitted which takes away the spiritual freedom or the individual responsibility of any man. The wickedness of man may temporarily delay the exercise of such freedom; but eventually each human soul will stand before the Lord and be seen in the light of spiritual truth - seen as to the choice he himself has made in states of utter freedom and according to his reason.
Since the immortal fabric of the spirit can be woven only in states of freedom it is therefore denied to man to know the future. Still, the prophet heard the Lord say: "Behold, the former things are come to pass, and new things do I declare; before they spring forth I make you to hear them." What could these words mean but that there are ways by which man may know future things? We learn from doctrine that "everyone is allowed to form conclusions about the future from his rational; and in this . . . the reason is in its proper life" (DP 179). What would human life be if man were not allowed continually to look forward to uses and delights to come, to knowledge yet to be gained? How could we survive if we did not by our reason anticipate the needs of the future and prepare against its looming dangers? Surely every task of today, if it is to be of use, looks to eternity! We must plant for coming generations, and store our harvests, rather than waste what is not of immediate need.
That is the function of human reason, without which man would be lower than the beasts. For animals can rely on instincts which lead them to provide for coming needs, instincts which man lacks. Instead of instinct - which would foreordain his entire life - man is given reason, that he may vision the future and yet be free. It is when his reason is not enlightened, when it is obscured and led astray by merely natural and corporeal affections, that his vision of the future becomes contorted and erroneous.
What is it, then, that man's reason is able to see when it contemplates the unknown future? It cannot see with absolute certainty any individual events. The behavior even of material things is predictable only on the basis of past performances, or statistical calculations; and may vary owing to unknown factors. And among these factors must be counted human freedom, which contradicts necessity.
Nor can reason foresee the progress of spiritual events with any absolute assurance. We can judge of the course and order of spiritual states only from the past, and only so far as we have learned to view the past in the light of the laws of Providence disclosed in Divine revelation. "For to reveal hidden things and to open future things belongs to God alone" (AC 5331). Even the angels do not know things to come: "The Lord alone knows them and he to whom He deigns to reveal them" (SD 2271).
What man can know of the future, even if his rational is enlightened, is confined to the laws which govern the course of spiritual and natural life. It is that man may come to know these laws that the Creator endowed him with a reason by which he could order his experience into systematic knowledge; and gave him, through prophets and seers, a body of Divine revelation to provide him with a field of spiritual experiences from which he might draw a knowledge of spiritual laws.
The entire Word of God is a revelation of these eternal laws and thus an opening of future things. "New things do I declare," saith the Lord. "Before they spring forth I make you to hear them." What in the future is more important to know than the laws and purposes of God and the conditions on which the end of creation can be achieved? And this is what the spirit of the Word reveals.
Yet in its letter the Word seems to give more specific prophecies of the future! And throughout the world there are many pious men who observe the signs of these troublous times and point to the predictions of, the Apocalypse; thinking that we are now in the days when the sixth angel will pour out his vial of God's wrath, and the spirits of devils; working miracles, will go forth unto the kings of the whole world to gather them to battle in a last Armageddon (Revelation 16: 12-14). And others, believing that the day of doom is even nearer, cite the prophecy that Satan should be loosed from his prison, and go out to deceive the nations in the four quarters of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them together to battle, the number of whom is as the sand of the sea; and should compass the camp of the saints about, only to be destroyed by fire from heaven (Ibid., 20: 7-9).
Throughout the history of Christendom, whenever natural disasters, wars, and social upheavals have so suggested, Christians have applied such predictions to their own time, and have quaked in fear of the approaching end of the world. Nor is it realized among those who hold the Scriptures as holy, except within the New Church, that prophecy is never literally fulfilled or so intended; but that its symbolic form as historical prediction is meant only to hint at the spiritual laws of God - eternal laws of judgment and salvation, the applications of which are for every age, for every individual. Prophecies do not wait upon time, but are fulfilled wherever states have ripened for judgment.
Because the Lord, in various ways, reveals these laws of spiritual life, of reformation and regeneration, and also the laws of spiritual judgment which concern the decline of the churches, the corruption of religion, and its inevitable consequences, He can say, as in the text: "Behold, the former things are come to pass, and new things do I declare; before. they. spring forth I make you to hear them." For to the wise the past reveals the future. They see the spiritual logic, the internal justice, that lie behind events. They see the mercy and leading of Providence and know that "nothing is permitted except for the end that some good may come out of it" (AC 6489).
We stand on the eve of another earthly year; uncertain as to what circumstances may attend it, what may be demanded of us, what duties may call, what trials or joys, setbacks or victories, may come. We know that much that will happen of good or ill has roots in the past. Much good, for other men have labored and we are entered into their labors; much evil, for the past was shaped by the free choice of men, and the cumulative results of their neglects and our own failures will surely catch up with us. It is of the Lord's mercy that we cannot know ahead the good and the evil that are to come, except by the surmise of reason and the experience of the past, "Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof." The Lord gives men strength for the tasks of the day, even as we pray Him to give us each day our daily bread. And if we knew the blessings of tomorrow, we would not value them aright.
But this we know from reason as well as revelation: that behind the turmoils of nations which mark the course of history there runs unbroken the serene stream of Divine Providence. Behind the noise of arms, the show of force, the rise and fall of vaunted theories, and the competitions of economic life with its contrasts of wealth and poverty, of struggle and security, there breathes the real life of mankind with its familiar story of simple joys and earnest endeavors, of kindliness and neighborly help; the story of love, of birth, of innocence, and of tender parental care, repeated in unending generations which all in turn display the same yearnings to explore and embrace the gifts of life and employ their human faculties to reach the greater freedom of reasoned conduct. The triumph of the conqueror is brief. At length it is the meek that will inherit the earth.
The fundamental natural loves which proceed from the Lord as universal spheres of procreation and protection, and which the Lord instills in every man, lead back the erring race from the precipice of self-destruction. They modify crime and hold ambition within bounds. They allow reason to be restored after impatient passion has had its day, and they help to rebuild the ruins. They furnish that unquenchable flame of hope, which is the essence of reason's own delight as it looks at the new possibilities of a future in which the bowers of love can again be furnished in peaceful enterprise.
But natural love can do no more than preserve the bare externals of society. For, again and again, it becomes the tool of evil. What it can not gain by right it seeks to possess by force. It is the place of the rational mind to plan and provide for the uses of the future. But when self-love beclouds one's reason it magnifies the importance of one's own plans arid resolves, and confuses what is in itself a matter of indifference with what is essential. Self-love stubbornly insists on its own fixed ideas. If it cannot have its own way, it raves insanely against Providence. And in His wisdom the Lord may then permit, as a lesser evil, the thing on which man insists; knowing that man can learn his folly only through failure (SD 2176).
The man of the church must therefore examine his plans in the light of the indications of Providence. And the chief sign of the approval of Providence is that what he proposes is in concord with the doctrine of charity and can be achieved with justice and good judgment, and does not deprive others of their legitimate uses or their spiritual freedom. For "what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?"
Only so - by spiritual love - can the kingdom of heaven be established on earth. The wars and conflicts that affect the church are the combats of spiritual temptation, fought out in the privacy of each man's heart. It is on the outcome of such temptations with those who are of the Lord's specific church on earth that the quality of the future depends; not alone of the church, but of all mankind.
For the church, through its unconscious offices in the spiritual world, is the guardian and dispenser of the revealed truth whereby the Lord in His Divine Human judges and purifies the world of spirits and controls the destinies of men. And to the church it is therefore given to know the spiritual goals to which the Lord is leading; to see the future with the eyes of faith and reason; and to hear the Lord in the sacred Writings declare new things before they spring forth.
-New Church Life 1952;72: 3-7