Friday, April 25, 2014

Heavenly Fire

Hello all! This is going to be a short post, consisting only of my comparison of five quotations and a brief subsequent analysis. 

As you read them, pay attention to the ways (both obvious and not-so-obvious) that they are similar:

"Hear it all ye ends of the earth--all ye sinners, repent! Repent! Turn to God, for your religion won't save you, and you will be damned. I do not say how long, but those who sin against the Holy Ghost cannot be forgiven in this world or in the world to come; they shall die the second death. As they concoct scenes of bloodshed in this world, so they shall rise to that resurrection which is as the lake of fire and brimstone. Some shall rise to the everlasting burning of God, and some shall rise to the damnation of their own filthiness--as exquisite as the lake of fire and brimstone." -Joseph Smith, the King Follett Discourse

"If I accept the lowest in me, I lower a seed into the ground of Hell. The seed is invisibly small, but the tree of my life grows from it and conjoins the Below with the Above. At both ends there is fire and blazing embers. The Above is fiery and the Below is fiery. Between the unbearable fires grows your life. You hang between these two poles. In an immeasurably frightening movement thr stretched hanging welters up and down." Carl Jung, the Red Book

"Divine love and the divine truth that comes derives from it are like the sun's fire and the light that comes from it in our world. The love is like the sun's fire, and the derivative truth is like the light from that sun. By reason of correspondence, fire means love and light means the truth that comes from it." -Emanuel Swedenborg, Heaven and Hell, 13

“The student said, “What is love’s official duty in the nothing?” The teacher said, “This is love’s official duty: that it incessantly penetrates into the something, and when it can find a place in the something that stands silent, love takes the something and rejoices in it with its fire-flaming love more than the sun in the world. Love’s official charge is incessantly to kindle a fire in the something and burn up the something and hyperinflame itself with it." The student said, “Oh dear teacher, how shall I understand this?” The teacher said, “If it is the case that love were to kindle a fire in you, you would feel how it burns away your I-ness and how it greatly rejoices in your fire, so that you would rather permit yourself to be killed than to reenter your something. Furthermore, love’s flame is so great that it will not leave you. Even if it costs you your temporal life, love goes into death with you in its fire. Even if you enter into hell, love would shatter hell for your sake” -Jakob Boehme, The Life Beyond the Senses

"Our God also is a consuming fire. And if we, by love, become transformed into Him and burn as He burns, His fire will be our everlasting joy. But if we refuse His love and remain in the coldness of sin and opposition to Him and to other men then will His fire (by our own choice rather than His) become our everlasting enemy, and Love, instead of being our joy, will become our torment and our destruction." -Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation

As I came across these quotes one by one over the past year, I was startled by how similar the authors' symbolism was. In all five cases, these mystical thinkers symbolically associated God and Heaven with fire. What's more, three of the five explicitly identify this fire with love. Notwithstanding the beauty of this symbol, I can't help but wonder how all five of them came up with the same image. As far as I am aware (and please correct me if I'm wrong), the Bible never explicitly associates God with a flame, still less that flame with love. And apart from the Bible, I can't think of anything that all five of these thinkers would have read. 

I take this case as evidence that all five thinkers received some kind of revelation from God. And while Swedenborg would identify this revelation with his concept of "divine influx", and Jung would likely pin it down to joint influence from the "collective unconscious", I think we can all agree that they're talking about the same thing.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

A Swedenborgian Testimony of the Book of Mormon

As you all know, I've become quite enamored of Emanuel Swedenborg over the past year. As you all also know, he was a Swedish thinker from the 18th century who claimed that he had a direct line of communication with heaven, hell, and other parts of the spiritual world.

Unlike many people both within the Church and apart from it, I believe Swedenborg's claims wholeheartedly--his teachings not only display a highly developed philosophical sophistication, but they have also helped me develop as a person. Thus, if we take the Book of Mormon's claim that "all things which are good cometh of God" as true, it becomes unambiguously apparent that Swedenborg wan't lying. Because his works are good, and because they have caused good in me, I don't believe that anyone who participates in the Mormon belief system can justifiably doubt the truth of his works. That isn't to say that there aren't apparent inconsistencies between his teachings and those of the LDS church, though, for while the vast majority of his teachings are compatible with Mormon ones, there are a few places where the pieces don't seem to fit. But for this problem I appeal to Swedenborg himself, who taught:

"However numerous these truths of faith are and however divergent they appear,, they are united by the Lord who is the Word [...] The truths of faith are various and appear divergent to us. [...] Yet they are united in the Lord, and the Lord unites them in us, the way one vine unites many branches. The Lord connects scattered and divided truths into one form so that they present one picture and form one action." (True Christianity, 354)

He says that, however many apparent divergences there are between two bodies of truth, the fact that they are true ensures that God will unite them into something greater. So, despite the fact that Swedenborg taught a few things at odd with Mormon doctrine, I am confident that a "least common denominator" of sorts will come along to reconcile the two bodies. In fact, I've experienced the process happening already.

But that's not what's important. This is a very special post, because I'm going to do something that I don't think has ever been done before (please inform me if I'm wrong). You see, while I've talked ad nauseam about Swedenborg's compatibility with Mormon doctrine, I haven't ever used him to support it. But that's exactly what I'm going to do. Specifically, I'm going to use Swedenborg's own systems to show that the Book of Mormon's symbolism displays all the characteristics of what he would call an inspired text. By doing this, I hope to provide evidence for both the Book of Mormon's truth and Swedenborg's claim. For if two separate works independently come up with the same truths, they can't help but support each other.

To begin, consider this quotation:

"The Word has a spiritual core because it came down from the Lord Jehovah and passed through the angelic heavens. As the Word came down, the divinity itself, which was originally inexpressible and imperceptible, became adapted to the awareness of angels, and, further on, to the awareness of human beings. As a result the Word has a spiritual meaning that is present within its earthly meaning much the way our soul is present in us, the thoughts of our intellect are present in what we say, and the feelings of our will are present in what we do." (True Christianity, 193)

Swedenborg says that the Word we read in the scriptures is the result of divine truth descending from heaven and adapting itself to the minds of human beings. While he does not go very deeply into the process by which the inexpressible Word becomes scripture, he tells us that the "literal meaning" that comes out of it acts as a body to the soul that is the Word's "spiritual meaning". He explains later on that this spiritual meaning is hidden within every verse in the Bible. In fact, he says that "For all those who have formed the state of their mind from God, Sacred Scripture is like a mirror in which they see God, although each in a different way." (True Christianity, 6)

All the stories and images found in scripture signify an underlying spiritual meaning. What's more, he claimed that each image in scripture coheres more or less consistently to the facets of this meaning--the sun and its heat always signifies divine love, the sun's light always signifies divine truth, etc.. If we take Swedenborg at his word, one would expect these correspondences to apply to the Book of Mormon as well. But we don't immediately see how we could test this hypothesis, for you can only compare a set of symbols and meanings if you have them available for both texts (the Bible and the Book of Mormon). Fortunately, there is one place in the Book of Mormon that presents a rigorous interpretation of symbols--Nephi's vision of the Tree of Life. 

In fact, almost all of the symbolic interpretations that the angel gives Nephi correspond to those found in Swedenborg's writings. I'll now go through them one by one.

First, the Book of Mormon's passage about the Tree of Life:

"And the angel said unto me: Behold the Lamb of God, yea, even the Son of the Eternal Father! Knowest thou the meaning of the tree which thy father saw? And I answered him, saying: Yea, it is the love of God, which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of the children of men; wherefore, it is the most desirable above all things." (1 Nephi 11:21-22)

Now, take Swedenborg's interpretation:

“A tree symbolizes perception; a tree desirable in appearance, perception of truth, and a tree good for food, perception of goodness. The tree of lives symbolizes love and the faith it leads to; the tree of the knowledge of good and evil symbolizes faith based on evidence from the senses, that is, on secular knowledge.” (Secrets of Heaven 102)

Now the second Book of Mormon symbol:

"And it came to pass that I beheld that the rod of iron, which my father had seen, was the word of God [...]" (1 Nephi 11:25)

And Swedenborg's interpretation:

"Clearly iron symbolizes truth here. Truth is considered strong because nothing can resist it. So iron, which symbolizes truth, or the verities of faith, is said to crush and bruise, as in Daniel 2:33, 40. [...] An iron rod is the truth in the Lord's Word [...]" (Secrets of Heaven 426)

Now the third Book of Mormon symbol:

"And the large and spacious building, which thy father saw, is vain imaginations and the pride of the children of men." (1 Nephi 12:18)

And Swedenborg's interpretation:

"The fact that a tower is self-worship can be seen from the symbolism of a tower. Self-worship exists when we set ourselves up above others, so much so that we seek to be worshiped. As a result, self-love--which is conceit and pride--is called height, loftiness and elevation, and it is depicted by anything that is high up." (Secrets of Heaven 1306)

Now the fourth Book of Mormon symbol:

"And the mists of darkness are the temptations of the devil, which blindeth the eyes, and hardeneth the hearts of the children of men, and leadeth them away into broad roads, that they perish and are lost." (1 Nephi 12:17)

For this one Swedenborg gives an interpretation that, while it might seem divergent at the beginning, actually reflects a correspondence:

"By 'darkness' falsities are signified, because 'light' signifies truth; that 'darkness' signifies falsities, by which are evils, and 'thick darkness,' falsities from evils"

The reason that this correspondence is not as divergent as it appears is that Swedenborg considered truths as falsities to be the "foot soldiers" of good and evil. In the battle in our minds that make up temptations, we will be tempted not by feelings, but by falsities or seeming truths. For instance, suppose that in a situation where you were supposed to be fasting on a Fast Sunday, you get a thought in your head that says "It's OK if you skip it just once". Everyone has been in that type of situation, and everyone would identify it as a temptation. But what's crucial about it is that that thought is a seeming truth, a falsity that we must believe to be true in order to commit a sin. Hence, I cohere with Swedenborg's thinking when I say that, for him, temptations are falsities (see this post for a more extensive discussion of Swedenborg's treatment of temptation, if you don't believe me). 

Now, the fifth Book of Mormon symbolic interpretation:

"And the angel spake unto me, saying: Behold the fountain of filthy water which thy father saw; yea, even the river of which he spake; and the depths thereof are the depths of hell." (1 Nephi 12:16)

This one is a little more difficult, seeing as I can't find any place where Swedenborg talks about flowing water in such a negative sense. But if you take the word "depths" (a word found in the Bible in various places, referring to the depths of the ocean), we can get an idea of what he would have said:

"By the deep, and by the sea and the depths thereof are here signified the hells."

That's about all the major symbols there are in the text, but there are a few additional ones that go along with the ones mentioned above. For instance, if you consider the path that went along the iron rod:

"Words used to describe truth include way, path, road, street, and lane, because these lead to truth." (Secrets of Heaven 627)

What could be more appropriate, considering that the path guides us along the Word of God?

The only image I found that doesn't correspond with Swedenborg's interpretation is the following:

"The fountain of living waters [...] which waters are a representation of the love of God."

Swedenborg asserts, on the contrary, that a fountain of living waters refers to the Lord, the Word, or or to divine truth (the complement to divine love). But considering Swedenborg's assertion that all water represents some kind of truth, you could say that the idea of a fountain (the source of a river, like the four mentioned in Genesis) brings to mind his description of love as the "purpose" behind truth, which is always the "means" toward an end. But I don't want to push it too far.

Even if we take the fountain passage to be an exception, of the seven images found within the text: four of them correspond exactly, five of them correspond nicely (including the darkness/temptations passage) , and six of them roughly correspond (including the passage about the filthy river). Even taking it at its minimum, the fact that the majority of the symbols in the text correspond line-for-line with Swedenborg's interpretation is astounding. After all, I find it highly unlikely that Joseph Smith would have had the means, the know-how, or the time to read Swedenborg's multi-volume Arcana Coelestia (mostly where these interpretations are found). The books are enormous, and the fact that there are eight of them precludes the possibility that a country bumpkin like Joseph Smith could have delved deep enough to find the required references (he didn't have the luxury of control-F!).

So, from this situation three possibilities emerge: first, that neither Swedenborg nor Joseph Smith had a divine connection, and that the correspondences emerging here are just coincidences. But I find this happenstance too meaningful to explain by sheer happenstance. How many other things could Joseph Smith had interpreted the symbols to mean, after all? 

The second possibility is that Swedenborg and Joseph Smith got these symbols from a secular common source. Again, I find that highly unlikely. Though I have not done a complete pass-through of the Bible (not yet!), I find the specificity of these correspondences too eery to discount. Joseph Smith could have figured out that an iron rod stood for power to defeat evil (or something like that), but to associate it specifically with the Word of God--it defies all secular causal explanations.

Considering the sheer unlikelihood that Joseph Smith read the voluminous Arcana Coelestia, only one possibility remains: that both Joseph Smith and Emanuel Swedenborg had a special connection with God, and that they both received these symbols as a part of revelation. If two people stand on opposite sides of  the globe, and if one had no way of influencing the other, the only other option is something non-temporal and non-spatial (to use Swedenborg's terminology) binds them together. This is God, and I see both Swedenborg's works and the Book of Mormon as a glorious testimony that He lives and that He endows truth upon those who humbly seek him. 

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Why Mormonism is Awesome

Upon listening to some of the talks that have been given so far in General Conference, I suddenly feel compelled to tell you all what I love about my religion.

Mormonism can sometimes be difficult to believe in. Not only does it have some iffy spots in its history, but it is quite easy to perceive it as sexist, homophobic, and socially regressive. To many, the Church is little more than a joke--a system of doctrines and institutions, that, while established by a fraud, has been re-purposed to oppose progress and maintain the conservative milieu. 

However, the people who see the Church this way ignore the living reality that emanates from within it. While it is true that the LDS church seems hopelessly regressive by modern social standards, behind this tough exterior it contains it a brand of divine truth that I have not found anywhere else. This doctrinal take on reality is so powerful, so remarkably revolutionary that the fact more people don't know about it frustrates me beyond belief. 

So I will try to share this truth with you. In the course of a single blog post, I hope to paint at least a brief sketch of what makes the doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints so powerful. Don't think of this post as a testimony--rather, it is my attempt to summarize what has already been said, to see the overarching truth in so many established truths. And I think that the best way to begin this project is to examine the following quotation:

"Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness; and if ye shall deny yourselves of all ungodliness, and love God with all your might, mind and strength, then is his grace sufficient for you, that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ; and if by the grace of God ye are perfect in Christ, ye can in nowise deny the power of God. And again, if ye by the grace of God are perfect in Christ, and deny not his power, then are ye sanctified in Christ by the grace of God, through the shedding of the blood of Christ, which is in the covenant of the Father unto the remission of your sins, that ye become holy, without spot. And now I bid unto all, farewell. I soon go to rest in the paradise of God, until my spirit and body shall again reunite, and I am brought forth triumphant through the air, to meet you before the pleasing bar of the great Jehovah, the Eternal Judge of both quick and dead. Amen." (Moroni 10:32-34)

This quotation comes from the very end of the Book of Mormon, and it is arguably the most powerful few verses in the entire book. Not only is it astoundingly well-written, but it immediately strikes to the heart of those who read it. But why? Why is this passage so powerful? The answer seems to be this: these verses, unlike anything in pre-Mormon scripture, directly address the reader. Though long dead, in this passage Moroni speaks directly to you, wherever and whenever you happen to read them. Think of that! Though you might deride yourself as insignificant, these verses (and with them, the whole Book of Mormon) indicate that you can have a personal connection to the long-dead men of God. They are not gone--when you read the Book of Mormon, these ancient prophets, generals, and scribes take on a new life, addressing you as though they were standing right next to you. And this is the key to the whole mystery.

You see, the divine reality behind all of Mormonism's unique truths seems to be this: that you are connected to every person, place, artifact, and event, and that it is our destiny and our duty to unearth these connections by the grace of God's atonement. This is the linchpin, the truth that binds together everything wonderful about Mormonism into a staggering, awe-inspiring whole. For just as Moroni can come across the impassable ages to address us directly, no boundary is so absolute that God cannot bridge it with his atonement. 

You may not believe me at this point, so let me give some examples of how this principle manifests itself in Mormon doctrine:

  1. Our duty to do family history work is nothing less than an exhortation to commune with our ancestors across the boundaries of time and place. By doing saving ordinances in their place, we take time not only to remember our ancestors, but also to establish a connection with them. This causes the boundary between life and death to become thin. Just as Moroni spoke to us across so many years and miles, when we do these ordinances we can, in a sense, meet our ancestors. Though they may have lived centuries ago in a far off place, by doing their work we let them live again through us. By taking on their name, we let some of their identity become part of ours, just as some of our identity become a part of theirs.
  2. Nephi's exhortation to "liken the scriptures" unto yourself (1 Nephi 19:23) is more than mere moralizing. It is a metaphysical claim, saying that the author’s intended audience does not decide who the text is actually for. You see, artifacts are not dead--they are alive with meaning and interpretation. Though the work may have been composed millennia ago, and though anyone who wrote it may be long dead, there is absolutely nothing that prevents that text from being about you. This is not egotism; on the contrary, it is a profound affirmation of the idea that time and place do not put limits on meaning and connection. Meaning and connection are actually the primary facet of existence, and time and place only exist in a subservient relation to them. In any case, Mormonism's emphasis on searching for this personal application in scriptures and general conference talks is a profound manifestation of the principle that connection can be found anywhere and in anything. 
  3. The Mormon idea that you should develop a personal relationship with God is not only stunningly unique, but it is also a magnificent manifestation of just the principle I have been discussing. Unlike the mainstream Christian notion that the age of revelation is over, Mormon belief states that anyone and everyone can receive truths from God through a personal relationship with Him. By developing this relationship we can unearth a connection that exists between us and God, by which we find ourselves in Him, and find Him in ourselves.
  4. Inherent to the Mormon belief system is the idea that truth is never final or complete. We believe in continuing revelation from God, declaring that we will always have more to learn from Him about the nature of the world. Whether these truths come from science or revelation, and whether they come through a prophet or just another person, we believe that all truth is welcome, for it all comes from God. Moreover, this belief is a stunning affirmation of the aforementioned principle that all things are connected, for it says that we can find God wherever we look. No matter what the truth happens to be, by the very fact of its being true we can be sure that it is a mask hiding a connection with God.
  5. The doctrine that men and women are destined to be married to each other for eternity is a deep affirmation of the interconnection of all things. The male and the female quite possibly constitute the biggest boundary which we face as human beings, whether you think of them as the actual biological sexes or as the mental attitudes that roughly (but not entirely) correspond to them. The fact that men and women are separate from each other—that men don’t know what it’s like to be a woman, and women don’t know what it’s like to be a man—indicates a vast chasm that divides humanity from itself. This is a problem, and many people (such as, say, those involved in the feminist movement) do the best that they can to deal with the fallout from this division. But to me, one of the biggest pieces of the gospel’s good news is that atonement can bridge this gap, too. You see, just as we are spiritually dead when we are cut off from God, we are dead in a way when we are cut off from the other gender. But the atonement defeats death. By uncovering the invisible ties that bind men and women together, eternal marriage can help us discover the glorious good news that the woman is in the man, and that the man is in the woman, forever onward to infinity.
  6. Though the idea that men and women can become as God strikes many people as odd, it is actually a superb example of the idea that all things are connected. You see, the doctrine that you have godly potential affirms the idea that you are important in the eternal scheme of things. Joseph Smith once said that the notion of man's creation from nothing "lessens man in [his] estimation". Think of that--Joseph Smith once found an idea offensive because it lessened man! Think of all the self-effacing Catholic and Protestant writers who thought that God could only deign to shed his mercy upon his wretched creations, and compare it to the notion of a God who loved His children so much that He let them become like He is! It will then become brilliantly clear that Mormonism has been about the importance of mankind all along, for it says that it is God's work and glory to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man. What could be more glorious than this--to believe that God will give us the ability to exist as He does, to exist as truly all in all? Nothing really comes to mind.

Mormonism has taught me that I am connected to all things. The unique light that is my intelligence sheds its beams throughout the entirety of existence, dancing, refracting, and intermingling with other lights to create the masterpiece of an infinite spectrum. Or to use an old Buddhist metaphor, I am a drop of dew in an infinite spiderweb, and I reflect within myself the image of every other drop of dew, ad infinitum. Whether I find myself in my scriptures, in history, in seeming coincidences, in friends or family, or even in God, Mormonism has shown me again and again that the universe is not a system of insurmountable boundaries. It has taught and continues to teach me that God, through his atonement, binds everything together in a magnificent dance of light and truth. And that, dear reader, is why Mormonism is awesome.