Monday, June 16, 2014

Life Outside of Time and Space

Of all the ideas I've gleaned from the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg, none have struck me as deeply as his teachings about time and space. He taught that time and location do not work the same way in the spiritual world as they do here--instead of existing as the end-all, be-all of our existence, there they only function as an "appearance" of something deeper. This specifically means that spiritual time and place only appear as something that corresponds to someone's internal state. Or more simply--the more two people are internally similar, the closer they draw to each other in spiritual time and place. Two angels with a similar state of mind would therefore be closer to each other than two angels with discordant internal states, meaning that in the spiritual world we are grouped into communities according to how similar we are to each other (heaven and hell being the two largest such groups).

But there is a deep philosophical principle underlying these concepts, for by presenting the above ideas Swedenborg paints a picture of two possible relationships between place and state. While I established that the spiritual world favors the latter more than the former, in the physical world it is exactly the opposite--we are often never in the place or time that our seems to fit how we are inside. How often, after all, do we have to leave a vacation before we're ready? What about the annoyance of long-distance relationships and the necessary travel for them to work? Both situations are examples of how physical time and space are more fundamental here than how we are inside, and they both  illustrate how this world can make us feel "out of place".

As a matter of fact, one of the biggest arguments you could give for the existence of a spiritual world is that the physical world so often frustrates our desires. If we are just physical beings (as many people claim), why do the limitations of physicality frustrate us as much as they do? If physical evolution were the only force acting in our makeup, then it would seem far more biologically convenient for us not to get upset over, say, the death of a family member. But in reality, the reason we get upset over death is because it interrupts our timeless experience of love with the limitations of a finite lifespan. Thus, any anxiety we feel from endings in this life (whether spatial or temporal) is evidence that we are not made to fit a world that contains them (reference a very similar argument in President Uchtdorf's talk Grateful in Any Circumstances).

(As a side note, another argument you could give for the existence of Swedenborg's spiritual world is the existence of the Internet. For though he lived in a time where mail was the fastest form of communication, his description of the spiritual world featured things like a) the instantaneous communication of ideas with anyone else, b) the sharing of thoughts and knowledge with the totality of heaven, and c) the organization of people into communities based on what their members love. Each of these descriptions reflects our everyday experience of the Web, for the Internet is really a world whose geography is rooted in mental states. But this is precisely what you would expect of displaced spiritual beings given limitless technological power--to inadvertently recreate their native country within the foreign world of space and time.)

But there is a sense in which we can be free of the constraints of time and space even in this world. You see, both place/time and state are a part of our experience of the world, and we can choose which one we want to focus on more than the other. To focus on time and space at the expense of state is to fall under the constraint of sequence. By foregroundong places and events instead of emotions, we find ourselves restlessly seeking after whatever situation we think will make us happy. Whether it's the promise of a new possession or a new relationship, or whether it involves the end of something that we hate about our present situation, time and space entices us with the mirage of the "not yet". We seek after anything and everything that will lead us from our seemingly miserable circumstances, never stopping to consider that something new has never made anyone lastingly happy.

If we wish to become happy, it will not happen by a change in the physical world. When we foreground state, we accept whatever is given to us by the happenstance of time and space as only secondary in importance to the demands of one's internal state of being. The Mormon theologian Adam S. Miller expresses a very similar idea when he says:

"The givenness of life (and with it, the grace of Christ's atonement) appears to the degree that the present moment is received as unconditionally imposed without regard to how  one arrived there or where one is going. The atonement, as what gives life, is what calls us back to the living grace of the present moment."

We are here--we have never been and will never be anywhere else. As such, we will never find happiness there, for "there" only exists in the world of time and space. Peace will only come when we embrace our current state--if we seek after change (even spiritual change) in space and time, we will only end up on a wild goose chase. If we are going to really change, it will only come in what Miller calls the "everlasting fire of the present moment", or rather, independent of space and time.

When we are free of the constraint of sequence, we can truly have a taste of what life is like beyond the veil. Eternal life, not as everlasting time but as the kind of life that God lives, occurs when we disentangle ourselves from the bonds of attachment to the past and the future and, instead, see the eternal world of state beyond the world of place and time.

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