Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The Last Temptation of Modern Life

I just came across this quote in Emanuel Swedenborg's Arcana Coelestia, Volume 4. It talks about something called "vastation," a kind of temptation, which is Swedenborg's word for the way the contents of our ego get emptied out:
[Vastation] is twofold; of one kind when a church altogether perishes, that is, when there is no longer any charity or faith, and when it is said to be "devastated" or "laid waste"; and of the other kind when they who are of the church are reduced to a state of ignorance, and also of temptation, in order that the evils and falsities with them may be separated and as it were dispersed. They who emerge from this kind of vastation are they who are specifically called the redeemed...
Swedenborg defined a church as any collective state of mind on earth. In that way, not only is Mormonism a church, but so is the New Age movement, atheism, or perhaps even the Doctor Who fandom. So when he says that a church can get "vastated," he means that these collective ways of relating to the world would get threatened. Remind you of anything?
Today, our modern secular, surface-oriented, self-congratulatory lifestyle (our "church") is getting vastated. As with all vastations and temptations, it is happening by way of the difficulties placed upon our way of life. Our materialistic lifestyle is getting unsustainable; the political process is deeply broken; violence has run amok. These difficulties are God's way of getting us to abandon our frankly sinful way of life. Through them, we can get out of that sin and become "the redeemed."
What is our sin? As with all sin, our transgressions are rooted in our belief that we have power to change things. We see ourselves as potentially all-powerful, and we feel compelled to filibuster, riot, or shoot up a nightclub to help the world become what it needs to be. This prideful attitude comes from something Swedenborg called the proprium, perhaps best translated as "what I call my own." But in reality, nothing is my own - I am just a site of passage for both the beyond-human forces that pass through me and God, the all-in-all. When we think we can change the world through our rioting or our Facebook ranting, we're attributing godhood to ourselves. And no matter our intentions in doing so, this is sin.
What does God want us to do? He wants us to stop fighting. He wants us to give up. Moreover, this giving up is inevitable. Like any temptation, the cultural temptation toward oppositional narcissism is put before us in such intensity to make it too painful for anyone to hold onto it. Like the practitioner of Zen meditation in full-lotus position who ends up relaxing her leg muscles out of necessity (I've been there), the oppositional nature of today's culture will eventually be too painful to bear. Enough riots and hatred will have happened that we will abandon our belief that things could ever get better. And it is at this point that the world will start to heal. 
When we give up the fight, we will stop trying to defeat evil and instead start producing good. Instead of ranting against the evils of a church on Facebook, we will offer kind words to those who have been hurt by it. Instead of trying to save the world by refusing to cooperate with our political opponents, we will reach across the aisle. And instead of rioting after a police shooting, we will instead follow the seemingly forgotten pattern of the 1960s civil rights activists and, one by one, say "I love you" to the policemen spraying us with fire hoses.
We need to give up. Then God - who is love - will step in. There is no other way.

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