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God and Creation

from H. Lj. Odhner, Creation. Doctrinal Essays.

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
- Genesis 1:1

"The first thing of the Church is the knowledge that there is a God and that He is to be worshipped. His first quality to be known is that He has created the universe and that the created universe subsists from Him."[1]

The first instruction given in the Divine Word is, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." This is the primary truth about God's quality, because in it everything else is involved. If this truth is sincerely received, all other truths will flow from it. Without it, all spiritual truth perishes. It is the first among the canons of the New Church, the first subject treated of in the True Christian Religion. It is necessary that we should know the Lord as the Creator of the world - of the heavens and of the earth - before we can learn to know Him as Creator of the new world of regenerate life which He is endeavoring to create within us....

As the Creator, the Lord comes to us in the years of tender infancy. The child is surrounded with gifts for which he has not labored. He is faced with the marvels of growth, of production. He finds his little world expanding into ever wider horizons. And there is within him the stirring seed of a rational mind, which asks, `Where did this thing come from? and that? Who made these things?'

Happy is the child who receives the true answer: ‘The Lord made them!' For this truth is immanent in the wonder of the child; this truth is the real, but unperceived source of the question! It prompted the awe in the child's mind. And the answer therefore leaves the mind of the little one at peace, with a sense of fulfillment and assurance. The soul's own prompting has been satisfied.

The truth that God has created all things, is the first fact of spiritual education. It connects all things of sense observation with the idea of the Lord, and thus keeps an avenue of influx open from the Lord into all the knowledges of the mind. It makes worship of Him full of meaning. It fits into the scheme of the infant's life, because to him love is that upon which he depends at all times, and love is the source of all good things, the maker and provider of everything of life. Love is what creates his world around him, and now he learns what the final source of these things is. He has a name for it - God. God created him and - everything! It does not matter how. The fact is enough.

The question ‘How?' comes later. And when it comes, the Word in its literal sense gives a sufficient answer to the child: "God said, Let there be light. And there was light . . . And God said, Let the earth bring forth the tender herb . . . And it was so . . ." The means and the modes are not important. The child strikes through, with the unspoilt logic of its nature, into the essentials, the power of the creative Word, the spoken will of God. And there is, in simplicity, in the child-like heart, something which loves magic, which loves to know that there are powers which exceed any understanding. If we ever, through much learning, lose that sense of the magic of things, we lose the essence of wisdom.

The creation story of Genesis conveys the essential truths about the mode of creation, by the use of symbolic pictures and in phrases of profound significance. Indeed, it conveys all the truth that can ever be known, for it contains the infinite truth in an ultimate form which reflects that truth to us so far as we are prepared to see it, but no further. It does not express these truths except in the barest generals, but it involves them all, as in a whole.

The origin of the Genesis account of the creation of the world in six days, lies in the remotest antiquity. Distorted and incomplete echoes of the same story are found in the mythological lore of many ancient nations. Even up to modern times Jews and Christians have insisted that the account is literally true; and Swedenborg, in his early treatises, also defended it against the scoffing of modern science, by explaining that while creation could not have occurred in so short a time, or in such exact order, yet the sacred text contains a true description of the progressive stages of the creative process as viewed from the earth and as couched in pictorial language, with the understanding that the ‘days' were in actuality epochs of uncertain duration.[1a]

The Arcana Coelestia nonetheless asks us to ponder on the particulars of the Genesis description, and to conclude "that the creation of the universe is not there meant!" Such particulars "may be known from common sense not to have been so," and can hardly be acknowledged to be possible "by any one who thinks interiorly."[2] The Writings do not deny that certain general truths about Creation are found in these early chapters of Genesis - nor do they claim that the idea of stages in the formation of the earth and its kingdoms is erroneous. But it is pointed out that the purpose of the Genesis story is a spiritual one - that it is "a history so framed as to contain within it heavenly and Divine things, and this according to the received manner in the ancient churches," since the custom of writing in symbolic and allegorical style about the things of the church was common amongst the people of antiquity.

Actually, or in a spiritual sense, the six days of creation describe the establishment of the Most Ancient Church. And since the spiritual stages by which this was done involved the states through which man passes in his reformation and regeneration, until the paradise of his mind is fully prepared and populated, these states also are described as a "creation" wrought by God when, out of the chaos and vastness of ignorance and cupidity, He labors to order man's mind.

Yet the child, and those who are in simple ignorance, cannot grasp what the Writings evolve out of the story of the six days; cannot as yet understand what is meant by the various details of spiritual creation. And for such, the Mosaic account is to be held believable and true - as it indeed is in all that matters. It is a holy ultimate for something far more vital than physical science. As the child's comprehension grows, explanations can be inserted which fill in the physical truths. The picture given is elastic, but the solemn words of the sacred text remain fixed in the mind, ready - not to be broken - but, when the time comes, to be seen as full of a truth far more marvelous than had been before imagined.

Thus gently, the two creations are distinguished one from the other, to be studied separately. Yet it will be seen that, although in point of view, and in use, they differ, yet each study casts an enriching light upon the other. Inwardly, the two creations have the same purpose, the same end; and have principles in common, laws which are universal in both. In each there is something which corresponds to something in the other. The same God creates both the universe and the regenerate mind of each human soul.

* * * * *

It is for this reason that the New Church has been given not only a doctrine concerning Regeneration, but a doctrine concerning the Creation of the universe. The child lives in a world of representations - and representative truth is sufficient for him. But when he enters the real and actual world, he needs to know it as it is. He needs to distinguish the natural from the spiritual, and must learn the nature and origin of each. His reason becomes active and he inquires into the relations of things, their connection and order, the modes of their actions, their forms and composition, their functions, their origins, how and why they came to be.

The maturing mind is not satisfied with blind faith. It must see how and why; it clamors for the experiences of seeing for itself. The reflecting youth accepts the facts that there is this great arena of natural and physical things around him, and that there is also an inner world of realities - spiritual things, of which he is also partly conscious, because they enter into his own imagination and thought. It is quite normal that his Reason should wish to survey all the possibilities as to the origins of these two worlds, before he can feel sure of his own place in the universe. And with the penetrating teachings of the Writings as a cicerone, he can fearlessly embark on such a voyage of exploration. They guide him safely through seas of absurdities into calm waters and into the rich harbors of faith.

The first assurance which the Writings give is that creation did occur. "It cannot be thought by anyone that the universe is from eternity, or that it is from nothing; and hence it cannot be denied that it was created, and by Some One . . ."[3] "It cannot be thought!" Yet there are those who deny creation; who point to the much amended "law" that matter - or rather mass, or rather the energy of which mass is the measure - is indestructible, and thence conclude that neither could it be created. There are also ancient religions which are founded on the assumption that while God was eternal, Matter also was eternal - both co-existing, as a positive and a negative force, the respective origins of a dualism of good and evil; or, that God was not a Creator, but a Former, a Potter who shaped the co-eternal clay into a universe; or else, that matter existed from eternity as an undistinguished chaos of many mixed elements, which - for some reason - were then separated and joined with their affinities to form the world, and this either from a latent force of their own, or from the prompting of a Divine Spirit.

But these are ideas - not completed thoughts. They evade the call of Reason which demands a cause for every effect. Imagination is not thought. The refusal to follow out the demands of the rational, and instead stop in the middle of a process of thought, is not thinking.

The Natural sees only from effects. The Rational looks for causes.[4] And because this is instinct in the rational mind, the common sense of men (i.e., the spontaneous intuition of the rational mind) has led men to acknowledge that the world must have its cause in an infinite Source.

Still there are those who stick in the idea that this creative source of all the things of space and time which we discern about us and which compose us, may be Nature; that is to say, that the particular things we know of are merely the changes of form which are assumed by the basic substance of Nature, and that that substance is eternal, or from eternity. But this still involves that a finite substance could be from eternity. It supposes that an infinity of space and an infinity of time can be predicated of Nature or of the finite. For eternity is an infinity, as regards time. Yet - the thought is impossible! For space and time, and even their spiritual equivalent, which is finite state, are the antitheses of infinity. Therefore we read in the Writings: "God from eternity can be thought about, but in no wise Nature from eternity; consequently the creation of the universe by God can be thought about, but in no wise creation from Nature.[5] "The world was created by God, not in time, but times were introduced by God with creation . . ."[6] "In the sight of God, there were no spaces or times before creation, but after it."[7]

If our thoughts are to be led by the Writings, we must be willing to accept the conditions which the Writings require. Sensual thinking - from mere appearances and from merely material realities - cannot reach where the Writings would have us follow. "Creation itself," they tell us, "cannot be brought within one's grasp unless space and time are removed from the thought."[8] "The eye beholds the universe, and the mind . . . concludes in the first place that it was created, and then wonders who created it. The mind that thinks from the eye comes to the conclusion that it was created by Nature; but the mind that does not think from the eye concludes that it is from God. The mind that takes a middle course, thinks that it is from a Being of which it has no idea, for it perceives that not anything is from nothing; but such a mind falls into Nature, because about the Infinite it has an idea of space, and concerning eternity it has an idea of time; these are interior-natural [men] ; while those who simply think of Nature as a creatrix, are external-natural. But those who, from religion, simply think of God that He is the Creator of the universe, are external spiritual men; while those who from religion think wisely of God as Creator of the universe, are interior spiritual men . . ."[9]

Those think wisely who realize that nothing of nature can be eternal, since space and time - by division into parts - are what take away infinity and eternity. Wise thought is thought which is not only rational, but interiorly rational. Such thought do angels and spirits have.[10]

In an early treatise on "The Infinite as the Final Cause of Creation," Swedenborg demonstrated that by analytical thought a man must necessarily arrive at the conclusion that the finite world owed its existence and thus its origin to the Infinite. But he also admitted that this was as far as the mere logic of the natural mind could carry one. The quality of this Infinite, he pointed out, could not be known without the aid of Revelation. It was not a mere Infinite of space or of matter; but an Infinite which must be grasped by thought purified of space, time, and material concepts. If these be removed from our ideas, the Writings show, the Infinite from which all things are created, can be seen as to its quality, which is the love and wisdom which the Divine revelations ascribe to God: the quality which is meant when God is called God-Man, the Divine Human.

At one extremity of the spiritual world, Swedenborg records, there sometimes appear two statues in monstrous human form - with their great jaws open. Spirits who - from ideas of space and time - think vain and foolish things concerning God from eternity seem to themselves to be devoured by those cavernous mouths. It is the representation of their own fantasies - the recoil of a reason threatened to be drawn into the impossible idea of infinite time![11]

For no idea of God the Creator or of His omnipresence and eternity can be had by any delirium about what God might have been doing before creation. In His sight there is no time, but all things are infinitely present. For Him there is no "before," or "after." We can only come to apprehend the Divine Infinite through the knowledge of His essence, which is Love itself and Wisdom itself. These have no time, are not in space. They are Life in its origin, Being, Reality itself. These terms convey but little to the mind if life is not measured in terms of love and wisdom. Yet in that volume of the Writings which treats especially of Creation, and which is called "Angelic Wisdom concerning the Divine Love and the Divine Wisdom," we are challenged with the following words: "Sum up all things you know and submit them to the intuition of your mind, and in some elevation of spirit search for what is the universal of all things, and you cannot conclude otherwise than that it is Love and Wisdom."[12] But the work goes further, and shows that the Divine love and the Divine wisdom are not a mere term or a something abstracted from a substance of which they are predicated, but that they are Substance itself, and Form itself, the only substance which is in and of itself.

It is God as Substance - infinite and absolute - that is the final Cause of creation, and thus the source of all created things. The Divine love and the Divine substance are identical, and are God-Man.

Now, in this idea of the Creator as God-Man, we find the child's belief, that the Lord made all things, restored. Not the belief that God, as a great Person of magical powers, walked about the universe and, by a command, fashioned one thing after another. But the concept of God-Man as the infinite Love and absolute Substance whence we derive all ideas of the human form; the concept of God-Man as the center and origin of all human things - the infinite prototype in whose limited, finite image and likeness man was to be formed.

The idea of creation would be impossible to us, if the infinite Source were pictured as a blank abstraction devoid of qualities and powers: it would then be like a vacuum - a purely negative concept. But Love alone can create; and Love gives of its own. It creates out of Its own Substance and lends of Its own qualities, although these can be but finitely reflected in Its creations. Therefore the Writings state that the Lord is called the Infinite not only because He is Esse and Existere in itself, but also because in Him are infinite things - or "infinities" - which we may see to be One, but which we can also distinguish. We are warned against speaking of these as "infinitely many" - for this partakes of limitations and parts. But we may not deny to God anything which in finite measure composes the frame of man - whose form is the image of God.[13] Thus the Eye of the Lord is upon them that fear Him; the Finger of God works wonders; His Feet stand in our holy places; His Voice reveals His secrets to the prophets. Each thing with Him is infinite; and all are One in His undivided perfection. "In God-Man infinite things are distinctly one."[14] In His infinite uses He regards only infinite and eternal ends.

God is Love. This is the reason for creation. The essence of love is to love others, not self. There is something called ‘love,' which loves only that which pleases one; as when one feels joy in another, but does not feel the joy of the other as joy in oneself. This is called ‘love,' but it is only self-love, and will eventually turn to hatred unless the other submits.[15] There can be no reciprocation in such love.

The Divine Love is not such. The Divine looks to others outside of itself, desires to be one with them, and to make them happy by the gifts which He bestows.[16] Here there is no desire to rule, but to give. The Infinite cannot give to itself, cannot love itself. Nor does Divine Love rest after creating inanimate nature, which cannot feel its happiness. Not until mankind was created - in the image of God and after His likeness - it is said, on the seventh day of creation, that God "rested" from all His work. All that had preceded was a preparation: the Divine Love is not received except in freedom: which is what makes man an image of God.

Yet there is nothing Divine in man, nothing of the essence of love in itself, or of the Infinite.[17] God's love must create others whose reciprocal love it can love; others, with whose free finite response it can conjoin itself. It cannot love itself in others.

Here, then, we see the reason of creation, and also the reason why nothing created can be Divine.[18]

But how can this be? How can the Infinite, out of its own Substance, form the finite such that it has nothing of the Divine in itself?

For note, that the finite has, in its esse or being, "nothing of God which is God." "That which is created in God from God is not continuous from Him."[19] It is still in the Divine, and the Divine is in it, since the Divine, being infinite, has no limits, and cannot be limited or excluded by the finite which it has produced. And the Divine is - even after creation - the only Substance in se. But there is a distinct break, a discrete step, between Infinite Substance and created things. Is it possible for man to conceive of this process? Is it allowable to reflect how it might have occurred?

Certainly we are not forbidden to try. Yet the responsibility is ours if we do so without removing from our minds those ideas of space and of time, of person and of matter, which lead the thought to a continuum of matter instead of to the Infinite of Divine Love.

* * * * *

The baffling problem of conceiving of the first creation, or "finition," by which God emitted of His substance to form the primitives of the universe, and at the same time avoiding the concept that what was thus produced from the Divine was Divine still, is called, in the Writings, a "Gordian knot.[20] Yet it is not such a knot except from the introduction of natural ideas from space and time; which leads to the idea of a Divine matter shaped into finite corpuscles in such a way that the mind is inclined to say that the created thing also is Divine. This is Pantheism. It is the endeavor to derive spatial substances directly from God's infinite substance, that is confusing. The angels use spiritual thought about creation; and by spiritual ideas it is clearly seen that what comes from God by creation or is produced by Him has nothing of the Divine in it, and is in no wise infinite. They see this - not by having any pictorial idea of the process of first finition - but from the necessities of the case. They see that thus alone could the Divine Love give of its own to others outside of itself.

In his philosophical treatise on "The Infinite," Swedenborg addressed himself to this problem of first finitions. In his Principia, to which this work was an adjunct, he had suggested that all nature, all material things, were but compositions and derivations of a type of primitive "simples" or first entities, which he described as vortex-like motions, or infinitesimal dynamic points; focal points of a conatus or endeavor by which the Creator can form the beginnings of nature. Except for these, there was nothing substantial in the entirety of nature. After assuming such primal entities, one could, he said, proceed by analogy and rational analysis, to account for all other substances, investigate their forms, and speculate on their motion and modes. But - he now writes - "All modes, and analogues of modes (and of such it is that analysis is formed), begin in the simple or primitive of nature, and not in the Infinite, in and from Whom nothing can be said to exist, or issue, immediately, by any mode which is intelligible to us in any geometrical, analogical, rational, or philosophical sense whatsoever."[21]

If this means anything, it means that the mode by which the first entity of geometrical and mechanical nature was formed out of its eventual source in the Infinite, is not to be explained by either geometry or natural rational arguments, or any kind of mechanical concepts.

When writing this, Swedenborg had not yet been introduced into the knowledge of the mediating world of causes which is the source of the creative "conatus." But a growing spiritual understanding of the media by which the Lord formed the first entity of nature, came to him as he was led by the Lord, through enlightenment from the Word and finally by his introduction into the spiritual world, to see that everything in the natural world has its cause in the spiritual. He then confessed that he had long meditated about creation, but in vain; but that after being admitted into the spiritual world he "perceived that it would be vain to conclude anything about the creation of the universe, unless it were first known that there are two worlds . . ."[22] Certain general teachings are indeed prefatory: "In every thing created, the greatest as well as the least, there are three [things], end, cause, and effect . . . In what is greatest, that is, in the universe, these three exist in the following order: in the Sun which is the first proceeding of Divine love and Divine wisdom, is the end of all things; in the spiritual world are the causes of all things; in the natural world are the effects of all things."[23] "Jehovah God, through the Sun in the midst of which He is, created the spiritual world; and through this, mediately, He created the natural world ."[24] "The origin and maintenance of spiritual things is from a Sun which is pure love . . . but the origin and maintenance of natural things is from a sun which is pure fire. That the latter is from the former, and both from God, follows of itself, as the posterior follows from the prior, and the prior from the First."[25] "All things that exist in the world of nature, atmospheric, aqueous, or earthy, as to every particle thereof, are effects produced by the spiritual as a cause . . ."26 "The natural draws its origin from the spiritual, and in its existence is nothing other than congeries congregated out of spiritual things."[27]

This conception of an intermediation by the spiritual world in the process of the creation of nature by God, does not (of itself) take away the problem of how to conceive of the first finition by which "God first finited His Infinity through substances emitted from Himself, from which stood forth His nearest compass, which makes the Sun of the spiritual world."[28] Neither does it explain how this spiritual world, by a process of further finition, gave origin to the substances of nature, which are of time and space, and thus in essence totally different. But it does show the order of creation, the complex character of the process. It demonstrates the true nature of the world, as a clothing of the substantial realities of the spiritual that wells forth from the bosom of the Divine Love.

* * * * *

The chapter on Creation in the True Christian Religion therefore lists some prerequisite knowledges:

"No one can obtain for himself a just idea concerning the creation of the universe, unless some universal knowledges, previously acquired, put the understanding into a state of perception; which knowledges are the following: I. That there are two worlds, the spiritual world in which angels and spirits are, and the natural world, in which men are.

II. That in each world there is a sun, and that the Sun of the spiritual world is pure love from Jehovah God who is in the midst of it; and that from that Sun proceed heat and light; and that the heat thence proceeding is in its essence love, and that the light thence proceeding in its essence is wisdom, and that those two affect the will and understanding of man, the heat his will, and the light his understanding; but that the sun of the natural world is pure fire, and that therefore the heat thence is dead, as in like manner the light; and that they serve for clothing and support for spiritual heat and light, that they may pass to man.

III. Then, that those two things which proceed from the Sun of the spiritual world, and thence all the things that exist there by means of them, are substantial, and are called spiritual; and that the two similar things which proceed from the sun of the natural world, and thence all the things which exist here by means of them, are material, and are called natural.

IV. That in each world there are three degrees, which are called degrees of altitude, and thence three regions, according to which the three angelic heavens are arranged, and according to which human minds are arranged, which thus correspond to the three angelic heavens; and that other things are arranged in like manner, both here and there.

V. That there is a correspondence between those things which are in the spiritual world and those things which are in the natural world.

VI. That there is an order into which all and everything in both worlds was created.

VII. That an idea concerning these things ought first of all to be obtained; and unless this be done, the human mind, from mere ignorance concerning them, may easily fall into the idea of the creation of the universe by nature, and say only from the authority of the church, that nature was created by God; but because it knows not how, if it inquires into it more interiorly, it falls headlong into naturalism, which denies God."[29]

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God and Creation

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