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Guiding Fictions

February 10, 2013

Bible Reading

Then Jesus said to those Judeans who believed him, “If you continue in my word, then you are my disciples indeed; and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”

They answered him, “We are Abraham’s descendants, and have never been in bondage to anyone. How can you say, ‘You will be made free’?”

Jesus answered them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, whoever commits sin is a slave of sin. And a slave does not abide in the house forever, but a son abides forever. Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed.”

(John 8:31-36)

Reading from Swedenborg

Most people believe that the enlightened ones are those who are able to reason about what is good and true, or about what is evil and false, and that the measure of their enlightenment increases in direct proportion to their growing ability to speak about those things with greater precision and accuracy, and at the same time to back up what they say with many facts, and also to make their assertions ring true by the use of comparisons drawn mainly from sensory evidence and by the use of other convincing ways of presentation. These reasoners, however, in spite of all their mental and perceptive ability, are incapable of being enlightened at all.

Two different kinds of mental and perceptive ability exist. The first comes from the light of heaven, the second from an illusory light. Both kinds look the same in outward form, but are entirely different in inward form. That which comes from the light of heaven exists within good—that is, it exists with people who are governed by good. By virtue of that good they are able to see what is true, and to know—clear as daylight— whether something is right or not. But the kind that comes from illusory light exists within evil—that is, with people who are governed by evil. The reason they are able to reason about the things mentioned is that they do have a capacity to know them, but no desire to practice them. This is a situation in which, as anyone can see, no enlightenment is present.

(Arcana Coelestia #4214.2)


I have been intrigued by a phrase from Alfred Adler, a Viennese psychiatrist and one of Freud’s early associates. Somewhere in his writings Adler speaks of “our guiding fiction,” and he goes on to speak of it as “our own idiosyncratic sense of what a hero is and what we must do to become one.” I find the phrase suggestive, whether I use it quite as Adler intended it or not. It may well relate to his concept of the superiority complex; but it can be used in a broader sense. And it can be used in the plural as well as the singular. There may well be one dominant fiction by which a person lives. On the other hand there may be several. And it may be that the existence of such dominant fictions explains something Jesus said. Speaking to those Judeans who believed in him, Jesus said, “If you continue in my word, then you are my disciples indeed; and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”

It is some of the fictions by which we live that muck up our lives. In faithfulness to Jesus Christ, the light comes that frees us. However, Swedenborg would use the word “falsities” rather than the word “fictions,” and remind us that our enslavement is to these falsities. In the Arcana, he actually says that “the light of heaven . . . is reflected [by which he means ‘not received’] . . . with those who are in principles of falsity” (Arcana Coelestia #4214).

What are some of these fictions or falsities? And how do they harm us?

I’m sure most of us are familiar with the three temptations Jesus faced in the wilderness. Each is an example of the choice between living (or trying to live) by a fiction, or living by the truth.

Jesus has not eaten for forty days, the passage tells us. He feels hungry. Satan tempts him to use divine power to meet human need, ignoring the natural order of things. But this is not the way God meets the natural needs of other people. The Son of Man must not let it be different for himself. He must live by the truth that God promises us sustenance for our inner self, not for the body. Human beings have turned away from God in rejection because they have counted on help on the natural plane, guided by a fiction, and it has not come.

Jesus’ next temptation, an offer of power from Satan, is usually understood as the temptation to use external means, such as force, to bring in the kingdom. Jesus chooses to remain loyal to the power of God, which is the power of love, and reject the fiction that force can be used to accomplish spiritual ends.

Finally, Satan tempts Jesus by challenging him to cast himself down from the top of the temple, counting on God to rescue him by angelic agency in accordance with Biblical promises. Jesus refuses to do so, knowing that it is a fiction that people can be won over to God by signs and wonders. And he persists in obedience to the truth, for later in his ministry the scribes and Pharisees tell him plainly, “Teacher, we would see a sign from you”; to which he answers, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign; and there shall no sign be given it but the sign of the prophet Jonah; for as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so shall the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:38-40).

Jesus surely would have failed in his mission had he let himself be guided by any of the three fictions with which Satan tempted him.

The fictions successfully faced by Jesus may not be fictions we are likely to face, though people have counted on God for meeting their physical needs, used external power to try to accomplish spiritual ends, and expected God to give them clear signs by which to follow the narrow path through the strait gate. And the results have more often than not been tragic. But there are other guiding fictions that lead people astray.

There are the guiding fictions that are introduced by the little conjunction “if.” For example, there is this one quoted by Adler. “If I did not suffer from stage fright, what could I not do?” Such a fiction can prevent us from ever finding out what we can or cannot do and from entering upon the use God intended for us. It is a relative of the fiction by which the man in Jesus’ parable excused himself after having buried his master’s talent in the ground.

How many people live unfulfilled lives guided by the fiction, “I will be happy if . . . “: “I will be happy if John/Jane will marry me. I will be happy if we can move to an exclusive suburb. I will be happy if I have a lot of money. I will be happy if only we are elected to the country club.” Do they know the truth about happiness?

Listen to what Adler has to say about another fiction:

Someone says, “If I were not so lazy, I could be president.” . . . They hold a high opinion of themselves and take the view that they could accomplish much on the useful side of life. This is lying, of course. It’s fiction, but we all know that mankind is very often satisfied with fiction. And this is especially true of persons who lack courage. They content themselves quite well with fiction. They do not feel very strong, and so they always make detours—they always want to escape difficulties. Through this escape, through this avoiding of battle, they get a feeling of being much stronger than they really are.

What does such a fiction do to their possibility of growth?

Sometimes it is not “if” that characterizes our guiding fiction. Sometimes it is “but.” Adler notes, “We always meet persons who say, ‘I would do this in this way,’ ‘I would take that job,’ ‘I would fight that man, . . . but . . . !’” Of such people Adler says, “We must make them understand that they are capable of facing difficulties and solving the problems of life.”

I must confess, though, that Adler does not tell us how to do this. And I’m sure it is rarely easy. Swedenborg states that “falsities can never be taken away from a person who is unwilling” (Apocalypse Revealed #101). And in another work he adds, “Falsities cannot be cast out except by combats from truths. . . . Those who believe falsities will perish by falsities” (Apocalypse Explained #131a.2, 131b.17). We will need the power of God to effect the change.

I say nothing new when I say that a major method for religious growth is self-examination. However, it may be that some of us have not thought to ask ourselves: What is my guiding fiction? Or, if I have no guiding fiction, what fictions may be influencing my life in a negative way? How am I deceiving myself about myself? How am I coloring my world to justify or excuse not doing the best that I know? How would the truth that makes people free change my seeing?


O God of Truth, show us, we pray, any illusion there may be in the principles by which we guide our lives. For we are aware that as much as we may have endeavored to let the truth be our guide, we have inevitably mixed some of our own human error in with the genuine truth that comes from you.

It is so easy to see the faults in the thinking and actions of others. We ask you to give us eyes to see our own faults more clearly than those of others. We ask this, not so that we may condemn ourselves, but so that we will allow you to correct our minds and our hearts, and set us on a truer path. Amen.

Rev. Edwin Capon