God of Hi-Tech
August 24, 2003
O Lord, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O Lord. You hem me in--behind and before; you have laid your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain. . . .
For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be. How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand. When I awake, I am still with you.
(Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18)
Reading from Swedenborg
Why I, from being a man of learning, was chosen? Reply: It was in order that people may be taught and understand materially and rationally the spiritual things that are being revealed at this day, for spiritual truths have their correspondence with material truths. Spiritual truths are based on material truths, and owe their continued existence to them. . . . I was therefore introduced by the Lord first of all to the natural sciences; in this way I was prepared from 1710 to 1744--the year that heaven was opened to me. Everyone else is also led by means of material things towards spiritual ones, for humans are by birth material, by upbringing moral, and afterwards, by being born from the Lord, spiritual.(Letter to Oetinger, November 11, 1766)
Imagine a well-known Eastern guru who steps onto a DC-10 jet in Los Angeles in order to give a speech in New York City. His entourage accompanies him. One individual, the guru's personal publisher of the glossy magazine, Good Vibes, brings along his laptop computer with Quark Express on it so that he can do an in-transit interview with the guru and also create the feature layout the story replete with computer-generated images, all away from his workstation. Another staffer, the guru's personal secretary, has in tow his own computer, on which he is organizing the guru's complicated schedule down to the minute. A third individual, the guru's personal business manager, spends most of the trip on an airplane phone, trying to resolve urgent financial matters. Upon arriving on the other coast of the country a mere four hours and forty-five minutes later, Guru & Co. are whisked to an overflow auditorium rigged with a satellite feed for a cable network that will pipe in the guru's talk live to several dozen cities in the western states. Due to the guru's unusual soft speaking style, special care has been taken to install a state-of-the-art sound system to provide an audio quality for listeners as if their car were six inches from his lips--nice also for the audio cassette recordings that will sell in the many thousands. Finally, the guru delivers a trademark speech from his popular spiritual teachings: "The Simple Life: Becoming Free from Technology's Grip."
Technology has taken a rough rap on the knuckles from spiritual types since the beginning of the industrial revolution--from radical Reformation groups such as the Amish and Mennonites who believe a mechanized invention would mimic God, to the utopian communalists who believe pastoral simplicity would be heaven itself, to a countless variety of modern religious figures who articulate some version of fear, warning, and/or suspicion regarding the modern technological juggernaut. Yet with very few exceptions, would-be naysayers find themselves making concession after concession in their own lifestyles. Modern technology is a juggernaut, indeed.
I hope to promote this morning a theological perspective that will facilitate our living in these amazing times with spiritual eyes, that we might increasingly see with a perception possessing a keen moral sense, to be sure, but a perception that is nonetheless very alive to the way that modern technology can bring us into a heightened awareness of God's total nature.
Swedenborg is situated in theology as probably the foremost figure in history who achieved equal recognition for accomplishments in science and theology. As far as I am aware, Swedenborg stands in a company of four major scientist-theologians, the other three being Carl Jung and Albert Schweitzer (who were also physicians), and Teilhard de Chardin (also a paleontologist), none of whom had broad scientific knowledge, and none of whom published seriously in the hard sciences. If we include the pre-modern scientific period, we could toss in Paracelsus.
The point is that rarely has history produced a mind capable of traveling with the front rank into the deepest understandings of both material science and spiritual faith. Swedenborg's ultimate understanding of both became thoroughly interdependent, so that technology became inherently spiritual, and faith became inherently lawful and orderly. In a very real sense, Swedenborgian theology begins with an embrace of technology, not as a goal, but as a means and a by-product of divine expression.
Let's examine some common examples from our everyday life and see how they match up with Swedenborg's theology, which states that as the new age progresses, experiences in the natural world will more nearly mirror conditions of life in the spiritual world. Has this proven to be true?
Let's begin with an easy and very commonly cited example. Swedenborg describes life in the spiritual realms as existing in an environment where space is no impediment to communication. When angels wish to speak with another angel, no matter where they happen to be, they are instantly in the presence of that other, if the desire is mutual. In Swedenborg's day, no matter how much money you had or how much power was at your disposal, if you wanted to communicate with someone three thousand miles away, it took weeks. Now, with the advent of telecommunications, nearly anyone can speak nearly instantly with others who are continents away. Via technology, our freedom to communicate is more and more mirroring the freedom of thought and personality movement in the spiritual realms.
Let's take another. When we pass into the completely spiritual life, according to Swedenborg, we go through a sort of spiritual shaking-down process in which we gain a much more thorough sense of who we are spiritually. When our spiritual essence is clarified, we then migrate toward, and finally abide in, a community of souls deeply harmonious with our own. In the material world, we live by geography and are organized by all sorts of socioeconomic forces. Except for the advent of publishing, there had been little breakthrough in this during Swedenborg's day. But in the new age, many technologies are making inroads into the higher, spiritual realms. For instance, a knowledge of using radio frequencies has been developed, so that communities of spirit are created nearly every hour of the day. You can eavesdrop freely, moving along invisible frequencies on your radio, tapping into one alternate reality after another. Lock onto one frequency and suddenly you are mingling in an entire world of people spiritually communing together through jazz. Manipulate the technology a bit, and you are in the midst of a very different reality--the community of classical music lovers. And shift again to discover the nightly rapture of popular love songs in which one after another calls in their request for their special someone.
The same is now true in the newer realm of computer bulletin boards in which thousands of special communities are created. [Editor's note: This sermon was originally preached in 1994, before the Internet took over.] A major article has chronicled how addictive these communities have become for countless thousands who do not wish to log off from the community to which they feel deeply attached. Today technology is creating ways of being in immediate spiritual communion with like-minded souls that increasingly facilitate the inexorable migration to be among like-minded souls--a key feature of Swedenborg's spiritual world.
Yet another feature of spiritual realms to which we can look forward is an intensification of all things, whether of beauty or of hideousness, depending on what draws us and what we choose. Now, with the aid of hi-tech filming techniques, computer-aided editing, and ubiquitous access via cable and satellite, most people around the world routinely enter multi-sensory experiences of dazzling beauty or of warping desecrations. This material world, as beautiful as it is, is still but a pale experience compared to how things appear in the fully spiritual life, according to Swedenborg. I think he would have been quite fascinated to have been able to cruise through a video store and for $5 experience a multi-sensory explosion, creating scenes perhaps not far removed from much of what he experienced in his spiritual journeys.
We could continue comparing many more aspects of modern technology--its lasers, its microscopes, its holograms, its fissions and fusions--and note in each case a very certain way in which our life here in this natural world is becoming less heavy, less burdened by gravity, and more increasingly analogous to the freedom of the spiritual worlds. By my lights, Swedenborg's prophecy has become a reality: namely, that a pivotal new age was dawning in his day, of which he was a part; and that a chief by-product would be knowledge that create conditions of being in our natural world that would open us onto freedoms never enjoyed by earthlings before--knowledge that would relate our world more closely with those in spiritual realms.
This knowledge does not upstage the great moral truths of faith: the golden rule, the law of love, the ability to forgive, the desire to be useful. Technology, rather, serves as a facilitator; helps to create a more propitious environment in which to seek our spiritual destinies. The powerful effects of technology are not always helpful, to be sure--for the applications are made through human agency, sometimes profoundly influenced by God, but also generated by human greed and folly. But the knowledge itself is intrinsically good.
We are encouraged in Swedenborg's writings to trust the Lord's providence as the new age unfolds. We must not seek some blanket comfort by harking back to the past; any escape in that direction is illusory, I'm afraid. There is a much better way for the thoughtful seeker to live in this world and this age. If we have the vision to understand and the courage to acknowledge the higher ways of the spirit, we can be like new age mystics in our hi-tech juggernaut, marveling at the freedom to connect, to communicate, to commune, to experience; embracing the responsibility to use our knowledge and power helpfully, wisely, even lovingly; sensing the movement of God through it; and feeling something of the tug home--home to a spiritual state that is so free that we cannot even imagine wanting to be somewhere else.
All-knowing God, as we read of you in the ancient Scriptures, we may see you as a God of the past. We may think that with our technology, we have moved beyond that ages-old God. Yet you are also the God of the future. Even our most advanced technology is merely a crude attempt to achieve in this material world what you have already built into the spiritual world--and into our own spirits. We look to you, then, to guide us in the wise use of our science and technology in service to the realm of spirit. Amen.
Rev. Dr. James F. Lawrence