“The earliest people, who were heavenly, did actually see everything they looked at on earth and in the world around them, but their thoughts were devoted to the heavenly or divine attribute it symbolized or represented. Vision was just a means." (Secrets of Heaven, 241)
According to Swedenborg, the earliest group of people to inhabit the world saw everything in it as a symbol that represented heavenly realities. When they saw a mountain, they didn't just see a large hunk of rock--they saw implicit in it a representation of mankind's coming-close to God. Likewise, he says that when this people saw bodies of water, they understood them to represent divine truth, and when they saw the sun they understood it as a representation of God Himself. In that respect, their attention didn't rest upon any concerned thing in itself; rather, they would see it as a window through which they could discern a unique aspect of God and Heaven. He even goes on to say that they understood the world through these symbols like we understand a person's vocal sounds through the meaning inherent in them, to the point where it likewise required no effort on their part.
Honestly, Swedenborg's claims are not that outlandish. The ethnologist Lucien Lévy-Bruhl and later Carl Jung made the well-known claim that primitive people (that is, cultures similar in kind to what we can assume that Swedenborg meant by the "earliest people") engage in what they call a "participation mystique" (mystic participation) with the objects, animals, and people around them. This essentially means that they don't divorce their inner psychic life from their life in the world--what goes on "inside" and what goes on "outside" completely overlap. Just as Swedenborg's first people "saw through" everything to the spiritual realities underlying them, Jung and Lévy-Bruhl claim that primitive humans see through every outside object to the symbolic processes occurring in either an individual or a collective soul.
Moreover, the fact that nearly all mythologies share in the same basic archetypes and images also provides support to Swedenborg's claim. Whether in tribal or more developed contexts, the sky god is almost always male and a father, and the earth goddess is almost always female and a mother (this even shows up in our language: the root for "matter" is "mater," as in "maternal"). And as Jung often pointed out, archetypes such as "the wise old man," "the hero," "the trickster," and "the Shadow" occur repeatedly not only in mythology, but also in literature and pop culture. Again and again, one sees the proliferation of these archetypal symbols in both our culture and those of others, and it gives the impression that Swedenborg's claim of our innate connection to a world of divine symbols may not be so crazy.
And Swedenborg claims exactly that: that our native heavenly world is an innately symbolic place, where a state of mind cannot occur without the projection of an image that corresponds to it. Moreover, that world "symbolizes with" ours, for Swedenborg repeatedly asserts that one draws closer to something in the spiritual world the more similar in state to it one becomes. And it is this divine faculty for symbolic association that his "earliest people" used to see through the physical world, for by doing so, they would come into contact with the heavenly reality that symbolically underlies them.
Nor is this symbolic perspective entirely alien to Mormon thought. Not only does Alma the Younger speak of people receiving God's image in their countenances (Alma 5:14) or Joseph Smith speak of "all things [having] their likeness, [...] that they may accord one with another--that which is earthly conforming to that which is heavenly" (D&C 128:13), but one can even understand the central concept of priesthood ordinances in such a symbolic way. According to this perspective, a priesthood ordinance such as the Sacrament is a symbolic manifestation of a heavenly reality, relating to that reality much in the same way that a spoken word does to its meaning. Christ's body and his sacrifice shine forth from "behind" the bread and water, and if we have but eyes to see, we can discern their manifest presence in the ritual sustenance.
Indeed, one could say that our emphasis on ritual ordinances actually invites us to see the world in symbolic terms. If there is something more to the Sacrament than a paltry meal, and if a priesthood blessing is more than just a bunch of sweaty palms, the world must be innately more than the common literal perception of it suggests. For just as an ordinance may convey divinity, nothing stops you from seeing a divine hand in an outwardly insignificant act of kindness by a stranger, or even from seeing the countenance of a dead family member in someone alive (as routinely happens when we do ordinances for the dead).
But the question arises: if we have become disconnected from our natural capacity to discern heavenly realities through the physical world, what can we do to get it back? The answer is very simple, and I can give it in one word: love. To echo The Little Prince's resounding maxim, the eyes are blind to higher spiritual realities, and one can only discern them with the heart. It is by cherishing, nurturing, protecting, and caring for the beloved that one can discern the spiritual realities exemplified through him or her. Indeed, one can say that by shedding the light of care upon this person, one "frees" the latent spiritual realities from their hiddenness within him or her, for love really is a process of unveiling the hidden spiritual potentialities within a person. Of course, it doesn't even have to be a person--I believe that animals too can be discerned in such a way, as anyone who has loved a pet will know.
Nor are even inanimate objects excluded from love's "freeing" effects. Just as one can find God in a piece of bread or a small cup of water, nothing prevents you from "seeing through" an everyday physical object to the spiritual realities latent within it. This, at least, makes sense of Joseph Smith's exhortation to:
"Let the mountains shout for joy, and all ye valleys cry aloud; and all ye seas and dry lands tell the wonders of your Eternal King! And ye rivers, and brooks, and rills, flow down with gladness. Let the woods and all the trees of the field praise the Lord; and ye solid rocks weep for joy!" (D&C 128:23)
In a very real sense, we can bring the inanimate to life through our attention and care for it. The French philosopher Gaston Bachelard says volumes on this subject in his work The Poetics of Space (link), where he speaks of how one's childhood home has a living character that, though lost, can come to life again through our feelings of intimacy and at-home-ness. In the same work, Bachelard pens these moving words about the freeing of the material world from its literal confinements:
"When insomnia, which is the philosopher's ailment, is increased through irritation caused by city noises, the hum of automobiles and trucks rumbling through the Place Maubert causes me to curse my city-dweller's fate, I can recover my calm by living the metaphors of the ocean. [...] If the hum of cars becomes more painful, I do my best to discover in it the roll of thunder, of a thunder that speaks to me and scolds me. And I feel sorry for myself. So there you are, unhappy philosopher, caught up again by the storm, by the storms of life! I dream an abstract-concrete daydream. My bed is a small boat lost at sea; that sudden whistling is the wind in the sails. On every side the air is filled with the sound of furious klaxoning. I talk to myself to give myself cheer: there now, your skiff is holding its own, you are safe in your stone boat. Sleep, in spite of the storm. Sleep in the storm. Sleep in your own courage, happy to be a man who is assailed by the wind and wave. And I fall asleep, lulled by the noise of Paris."
To me, the most unfortunate fault of modern humanity is its unwillingness to leave the literal perspective. For without a perspective that symbolizes meaning out of the literal world, that world will remain dead. But that is not its destiny. Out of the seemingly immovable world of parking lots and queues of people at the grocery store, we should instead discern a divine drama enacted at every moment and in every seeming insignificance. My desk is not just a chair--with my love and attention it becomes a throne or a cathedral pew. Likewise, in my friend's compassion I can see Christ Himself reaching out to the young woman caught in adultery, and in my significant other I may perhaps discern both her latent divine individuality (talked about in this post) and the feminine aspect of divinity (talked about in this post).
But there is more to be said. The scriptures speak of a time in the indefinite future when all things will return to their original state, uncorrupted by the accidents of this world. In this, the resurrection, the physical and the spiritual will completely coincide with each other. The spiritual and the physical then finally meet together as equal partners, ready to take their places side by side in the eternities. But how does this happen? The science of a resurrected world is not very clear, but Swedenborg gives us another perspective to consider: that just as the ancient peoples saw the heavenly realities through the world's seeming opacity, we are destined to do so again. Then Christ Himself will step out from behind his veil of shadows and reveal to us that He had always been there with us, for even now He says that "I am in your midst and ye cannot see me" (D&C 38:7). Then all the hosts of heaven will unveil themselves and fall upon our necks, just as we will fall upon theirs (Moses 7:63). Finally, the earth will reveal itself as what it always was for those who had eyes to see: a great Urim and Thummim, "a globe like a sea of glass and fire, where all things for [our] glory are manifest, past, present, and future" (D&C 130:7-9).
I look forward to that day, and I look forward to the miniature versions of it that happen every time I show love to a person, an animal, or even a cherished object. For this is our duty: to show love to God's creations, and, by doing so, setting them free to dance before us in the light of God.