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Studying spiritual things can be frustrating, because it seems like there’s no way to determine what is true. How can you use the scientific method when you can’t observe the afterlife?
Eighteenth-century theologian Emanuel Swedenborg revealed that we do have one important tool for understanding spiritual things: our mind. In this episode, hosts Curtis Childs and Jonathan Rose show us how to weigh the truth of a spiritual idea with a “mental microscope.”
First, let’s take a look at the parts of a regular microscope.
What would be the spiritual counterpart to its objective lens, you ask? Well, it’s all about love.
If in the Church something is said to be true and yet it leads away from good, it should not be repeated, for it is not the truth. (Arcana Coelestia §6822)
As for what it takes to bring something into focus, we need to consider how a spiritual idea might be applied. Historically, every scientific breakthrough has led to new inventions that help people. So, too, should a spiritual concept be something that is not only practical but also beneficial.
God created the universe so that usefulness could exist. (Secrets of Heaven §2916:3, 4)
And to determine if a given spiritual idea comes from love and can be useful, we need to use rationality.
Does that feel right to you? Even if it does, you might realize that this method of evaluating spiritual concepts is itself a spiritual concept. So in order to avoid getting stuck in such a meta-moment, remember to simply approach spiritual ideas in the same way that you would any other ideas: just use reason.
Let’s dig deeper into each part of the spiritual microscope, starting with the love lens. According to Swedenborg:
We do need to care about facts and truth, but these must look to goodness as their purpose. When we keep our eye on goodness as a goal, we are able to see what follows from it; we are aware of the ramifications. That never happens unless goodness is the goal, unless it is dominant throughout the whole and all the individual parts. (Secrets of Heaven §5949:1, 3)
In order to know if something is good or not, we need to pay attention to its “ramifications“ on the whole, as good things lead to good things in the long term.
Since God measures the goodness of something based on whether it is useful, if it doesn’t lead to the good of everyone, then it can’t possibly be a genuine spiritual truth.
No matter where we’re born or what traditions we’re born into, the Lord ensures that we have some way of accessing the truth.
When people who are moved by truth for the sake of truth reach adulthood and can see things with their own understanding, they do not simply rest in the theological tenets of their church but check them carefully against the Word to see whether they are true. (White Horse §8)
How do we check for this truth? By approaching an idea not only from a perspective of higher love but also in such a way that we see how it affects others and the world—using both the love and application lenses.
The people who gain light [from the Word] are those with heavenly kinds of love, because such love embraces heavenly truth, soaks it up like a sponge, and spontaneously unites with it like soul and body. The people who are blind, on the other hand, are those with worldly kinds of love, because such love embraces falsity. . . . (Secrets of Heaven §9382:2)
So does the idea under examination help you alone or does it help others? Does it make you a more compassionate person? Where does love come into it? For more on these ideas, check out our episode “How to Love.“
Show writer Chelsea Odhner joins us for “Emanuel’s Smorgasbord”—a cooking show about how we refine our understanding of truth. We shouldn’t be convinced of a truth so quickly. Instead, we should use reason and doubt and keep an open mind so we can develop a good understanding and recognize all a truth has to offer. Chelsea demonstrates how this works by showing us the right way to make bread.
And we refine these ideas by using a little positive rationality.
Teachings about faith all come from divinity, which is infinitely far above human logic. The rational mind receives its goodness and truth from divinity. Divinity can enter into rationality, or logic, but not the reverse. Likewise the soul can enter into the body and shape it, but the body cannot enter into the soul. (Secrets of Heaven §2519)
But rationality cannot go unchecked—our egos can easily get in the way.
By using this mental microscope, we can look at any common piece of doctrine and determine its spiritual truth. Swedenborg, for instance, appeals to reason in looking at the question of whether Jesus died to appease an angry God or to reveal a path of spiritual regeneration.
For more on this question, check out the episode “Why Did Jesus Suffer and Die?“
So it’s important not to reject a truth without having tried to find the love in it. The path to truth is open-mindedness, even to truths or worldviews that are hard to swallow at first.
“Truth acquired on one’s own“ refers to deductions arrived at on one’s own from cherished assumptions and believed to be true, although they are not true. This is the kind of truth possessed by people who interpret the Word without receiving enlightenment. . . . A concept that has become part of a person’s faith must not be rejected (even if it is untrue) without full inspection. If it is rejected before then, the rudiments of the person’s spiritual life are wiped out. (Secrets of Heaven §9039)
- Take a spiritual idea from anywhere and put it on your slide. Stay open-minded!
- Then, look through the love lens. Does the idea lead toward good?
- Next, think it through using your rationality. Does the idea make sense? Is it logically consistent with the world you understand?
- Finally, consider the applications. How will the idea work in life?
Equipped with answers to these questions, you’ll be just a little closer to real spiritual truth.
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About Swedenborg & Life
In a lighthearted and interactive webcast format, host Curtis Childs from the Swedenborg Foundation and featured guests explore topics from Swedenborg’s eighteenth-century writings about his spiritual experiences and afterlife explorations and discuss how they relate to modern-day life and death.
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When we wake up in heaven, Swedenborg tells us, angels roll a covering from off of our left eye so that we can see everything in a spiritual light. The offTheLeftEye YouTube channel uses an array of educational and entertaining video formats to look at life and death through an uplifting spiritual lens.
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