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Sermons

Spiritual Physics

July 24, 2011

Bible Reading

O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens.
Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger.
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?
Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet,
all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

(Psalm 8)


“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

(Matthew 11:28-30)

Short Thought #1

Ian Barbour, a professor emeritus at Carlton College who held faculty positions in both religion and in science, technology, and culture, is widely regarded as the most influential shaper of the science and spirituality conversation in recent decades. He is especially known for his taxonomy identifying the four fundamental paradigms of the interface between science and religion:

Conflict: In this interface paradigm, each side sees the other as basically wrong-headed and not reliant upon a truth methodology that can be trusted. Conflict is especially in place in the creationism-versus-evolution argument, but can be seen in other ways historically in terms of a derisive view of the truth claims of the other side. The stories and contexts of Galileo, Darwin, Dawkins, and the Young Earth creationists characterize this stance.

Independence: Stephen Jay Gould is a significant voice for this stance, which sees each conversation as discrete from the others, addressing different issues entirely. Religion pursues morals, ethics, meaning, and purpose questions, whereas science investigates empirical analyses of the material world.

Dialogue: This perspective notes that science raises questions its methods cannot answer; religion seeks to address those questions. Each possesses resources with which to answer the question “What is?” and has contributions to share with one another through which each might be amply enriched.

Integration: This perspective asserts that there is enough overlap between each field’s endeavor for truth such that not only might a genuine search for truth in one illuminate the quest for truth in the other, but also an integration of knowledge systems from both realms could very well yield the superior approach to “what is?”

Historically, Swedenborgians have been integrationists, and so was I for the past twenty-five years. But during the last year, I have changed my sense of things on this issue and now put myself in the dialogue room. I don’t believe I know science well enough to be an integrationist, and I know of only one Swedenborgian scientist who is working hard to be in on this conversation. I feel more humility and restraint is needed from religious enthusiasts, because there is no integrity in spouting conclusions that you don’t actually understand. We should all care about the truth, whatever that proves to be. However, I feel I have contributions to make from the theology side, and I believe strongly in the subject area as a potential place for personal and collective spirituality. My contribution comes in the form of this sermon: taking some science precepts and trying to find the dialogue points with theology and spirituality as I understand it.

Here’s a question: Do you think what we learn in science relates at all to your spiritual life? Are understandings about the material universe pertinent to your inner spiritual world?

Sermon

More than Darwin, more than Einstein, Isaac Newton is viewed by historians as the thinker who forged the most significant paradigm shift in the way we understand the cosmos in which we find ourselves. Newtonian physics involved both the discovery of and considerable mastery over the great forces which govern the physical universe—forces which are invisible to the physical eye. And it is with Newtonian physics that we came to a deep understanding that the cosmos operates with precise laws and order—and not with divine caprice.

A year before Swedenborg was born, Newton published his Principia—often pegged as the most influential science book in Western history—a book which laid out the physics of the three great laws of motion which led to his universal law of gravity as well as the whole framework of Newtonian physics.

There is a popular story that while Newton was sitting under an apple tree an apple fell on his head and—voila!—he suddenly conceived the Universal Law of Gravitation. As in most such legends, this is almost certainly not true in its details, but the story contains elements of what actually happened.

Peter Ackroyd, who is the latest of several new biographers of Newton, believes that the Cambridge don did have one of those insight fusion moments while reflecting on the phenomenon of having watched an apple fall from the tree that produced it and land with a thud on the ground. He applied it to his second law of motion and concluded that there was only one explanation why the apple would accelerate in motion, and that is that some force was being applied to it. He was already thoroughly convinced that he had proven that motion only occurs through force. In a flash he realized that there is an unseen force—which he came to call gravity—that was acting upon the apple to cause its accelerated motion. And then he surmised that this unseen force had to have some extension in space in which it was operating, and it was clearly extending in space from at least as high as the tallest apple tree. But wait. That surely was crazy. You could go much higher on a cliff and drop an apple, and that force was being applied to it and causing an accelerated motion.

Next came Newton’s truly brilliant insight: if the force of gravity reaches to the top of the highest places in the world, might it not reach even farther; in particular, might it not reach all the way to the orbit of the moon? Then the orbit of the moon about Earth could be a consequence of the gravitational force, because the acceleration due to gravity could change the velocity of the moon in just such a way that it followed an orbit around Earth. He was right in a very fundamental way: there is an unseen force acting upon everything in the solar system. And the rest is science history. Now, one very important thing about Isaac Newton is that he was a deeply religious person, and he spent fully half of his literary output working on matters such as alchemy (which he pursued as a science of transforming the physical world into spiritual energies and forces) and on secret number codes in the Bible. Many scientists who abhor all religion tend to be embarrassed that the father of modern science had so many religious and spiritual ideas about the Big Picture, because such scientists think the real Big Picture is physical science itself, which began with Newtonian physics.

In a sense, the father of the Swedenborgian Church is the other side of a coin from Newton. Swedenborg was also a great natural scientist who also wrote extensively in religion, but in Swedenborg’s case, even though his contributions to natural science put him at the top of the class in Sweden’s history for discoveries and inventions, he is mostly known today for his religious writings.

Both of these two men, who lived at the same time, saw that there was something important in the idea that the laws of physical science might have a parallel in something like laws of spiritual science, and forgive me if I say that though Newton must be acknowledged as the father of physical science mastery, Swedenborg can quite legitimately be regarded as the father of spiritual science mastery. As a scientist who became a clairvoyant mystic, Swedenborg writes like no other theologian regarding the nature of the corresponding relationship between physical laws and spiritual laws. To be seriously playful or playfully serious, in the “dialogue” mode of conversation as a theologian and practitioner of Swedenborgian spirituality, I’d like to propose three Swedenborgian Laws of Spiritual Motion.

A Spiritual Gravity Acts Upon Our Souls Without Ceasing

Spiritual gravity is a process happening inside of us all the time, because we are unceasingly involved in forces of attraction. The center of our being is constantly withstanding a multitude, actually, of forces in the form of attractions and desires that exert a pull upon our will nonstop.

In a theosophy as old as time, Swedenborg sees the human soul as a place of a collision of values that are inherent in a growth process. Put more directly, he believes in good and evil, in heaven and hell, as forces that are every bit as real and as lawful as math and physics. The amount of unseen force would blow our minds if we could actually “see” it somehow as an illustration in action. But the fact is, we are feeling it, and we are so used to feeling it that for many people it is not something to be noticed. It is just life.

And Swedenborg might say, yes, it is indeed life—life, whose very essence is shaped through the forces of spiritual gravity as determined through our spiritual choice making, which is soul making, in our responses to these attractional forces operating upon us 24/7.

There’s good spiritual gravity, and there’s bad spiritual gravity, or upward spiritual force and downward spiritual force—or, to put it in the more common way, angels and demons tug at us all the day long. It is truly like spiritual isometrics. We build muscle or lose muscle strength due to how engaged we are willing to be with working against those forces that would suck us into lower-minded and lower-hearted actions, speech, and thought.

The Ten Commandments are essentially illustrations of positive and negative attractions. Envy, covetousness, adultery, murder, stealing: these are all broad categories of negative states of desiring, negative attractions. A tremendous emphasis is placed in Swedenborgian spiritual physics on squarely dealing with temptation toward negative attractions. Temptation is an old-fashioned word somewhat out of vogue, but its reality and essence is an ever-present feature of the human condition. In fact, temptation is the very gymnasium where we bring our hearts, minds, and souls into heavenly fitness. What force is fundamental in a gymnasium? Gravity. Gravity is what causes weight, and weight resistance is the primary dynamic or exercise.

Spiritual gravitational forces are exerted upon the essence of our being, of our consciousness constantly. We don’t have to produce all the force to succeed in the midst of these forces. All the power to do so will come from God, yet there is an absolutely crucial role of solidarity with our loves and attractions that connects or disconnects us with divine power. A Swedenborgian maxim is: “Pray as if it is all up to God, and work as if it is all up to you.” So become a gym rat, beloved, because it is a law of the cosmos that spiritual gravity is putting you in the weight room every day anyway.

Perception Alters the Gravitational Force in Spiritual Motion

Swedenborg himself laid tremendous emphasis on the power of the mind to alter our spiritual reality for the better, and a whole lot of Swedenborgian theology can be summarized in a bumper-sticker truncation that says, “Truth leads.” We are designed to be able to see farther than we can actualize, and that makes complete sense, doesn’t it? You have to be able to see where you need to head, right? We all can envision much higher spiritual integration than we are currently able to pull off, and that’s by design: our spiritual sight is always out ahead of our capability, and the actual sight of what is needed is intrinsic to our being able to begin conforming to that which we see. That’s why we look at models, teachers, exemplars.

This works for us in so many ways. Cognitive restructuring is a famous psychotherapeutic school of counseling that works on changing belief structures in order to change life experiences. In cognitive restructuring, we deconstruct fundamentally false ways of thinking and replace them with belief structures that empower effective living. For example, it is easy for us to develop flawed assumptions and conclusions about life from our early life experiences that we never confront and transform—such as feeling that we are unlovely and unlovable. It’s very common, and no one is likely to be completely free from this sort of fear along the way. Low self-esteem forms a real prison around our consciousness, however, and severely limits our ability to see our potentiality. In cognitive restructuring one works systematically and with intelligent intentionality to rebuild a functional positive self-esteem that dramatically changes one’s energy for life and ability to see creative ways of expressing one’s loves and talents effectively in both one’s personal and social worlds.

Other examples abound from the schools of positive thinking, or, as Robert Schuller liked to call it, “possibility thinking.” My favorite illustration of this involves yet another Swedenborgian colleague, George Dole, who ran in the first four-minute mile race back in the year of my birth, 1954. The four-minute mile is one of the most famous milestones in the annals of sport, and runners had been stalking it for many years. But a funny thing happened after Roger Bannister broke the record that day. Suddenly, within months, a couple of other runners broke the four-minute barrier, and soon lots of runners were hopping over it. Were runners all of a sudden going through an axial leap in physical ability? No, they were breaking a psychological barrier. Runners perceived that it could be done, and it altered their actual energies for it. We are so designed that changes in our mind can produce significant changes in our abilities and capacities.

Or, to put it in some playful Swedenborgianese, perception alters the gravitational force in spiritual motion.

In Spiritual Motion Greater Mass Produces Lesser Weight

A final nugget about spiritual gravity is that the more we receive of God’s life into our being, the more spiritual mass we have. Newton’s Second Law of Motion says that Force equals Mass times Acceleration. Swedenborgian spiritual physics declares a correspondential law that says the greater our spiritual mass becomes in relation to the infinite mass of God’s holy center, the more powerful the attraction—or force of gravity. That is why the burden becomes so light! It becomes less and less as if we are picking it up, and more and more as if we are being lifted up.

It is completely the opposite kind of gravity when we allow ourselves to be pulled toward God. Becoming inwardly conjoined in love for others and for the God in specific moments and situations is increasingly like being carried by some kind of current. We must make our efforts, yes, but then there is that miraculous uplifting force for which no lesser pleasure can substitute. I think that is what the Lord meant when he said, “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from Me . . . for My yoke is easy and My burden light” (Mt. 11:28-30). The more we build our spiritual muscle, the lighter we become in flowing with divine providence.

Let us listen to Swedenborg: “There is actually a sphere proceeding continually from the Divine, and filling the entire spiritual and natural worlds, which raises all toward heaven. It is like a strong current in the ocean which unobservedly draws a vessel. All who believe in the real presence of God and live according to true spiritual precepts enter into that current and are elevated” (True Christian Religion 652:3).

Short Thought #2

The number of people in history who have made contributions of celebrated distinction to both science and religion is very, very small—if the standard is not mere professional competence but historical significance such that the contributions in each sphere—science and religion—would make history books. Swedenborg abides among a tiny group of as few as three or four who have made such potent contributions in both spheres of discourse as to be recognized as historically noteworthy.

The principle that guided Swedenborg in his rather amazing journey of investigation, discovery, and interpretation was his search for what I like to call “deep causality.” It was the pursuit of deep causality that caused him to cross over from being primarily a natural scientist into becoming a theosopher. One example of how seeking deep causes leads to powerful insights is how he came to affirm a deep-cause principle he called contiguity to how our solar system was developed. Nearly all science philosophers in his day were caught up in the Cartesian split between material and immaterial realities, and nearly all of the big names, such as Descartes and Malebranche and Leibniz, believed in a compartmentalized cosmos and reality schema. Swedenborg, however, felt he could see that a deeper reality was likely true: that everything connected. He called this his principle of contiguity. With this as his guiding insight, Swedenborg became the first person to figure out that all the bodies of our solar system originated from the same mass—that the planets were separated long ago from the original solar mass. He was able to theorize the solar system as one dynamic unit because he had come to a deep causality principle that everything connects, and it simply then made sense to figure out how the planets connected to the sun and to each other. They all were part of an original solar mass. He was the first one to figure that out, and he struck upon it because he was focused on deep causes.

Short Thought #3

Swedenborg’s intensive anatomical research, especially on the brain, led to some historically significant discoveries, such as being the first to correctly deduce the function of the cerebrum and the first to correctly deduce that the brain undulates inside the skull in concert with the lungs, not with the heart beat, which had been the conventional position. In a recent book published by MIT Press called Brain, Vision, Memory: Tales in the History of Neuroscience, Princeton cognitive science scholar Professor Charles Gross presents Swedenborg as an unbelievably prescient intellect working in neuroscience 250 years ahead of his time. Herbert Benson of the Harvard Medical School, the author of the bestseller and classic work The Relaxation Response, confesses that Swedenborg understood the physiology of meditation two centuries ahead of his time. The fact that he also developed a raja yoga controlled breathing method of stilling the mind for concentration is not only another example of Swedenborg as a perceptive explorer of “deep causes” but also one that gave him greater capacities to perceive deep causes.

Rev. Dr. James F. Lawrence