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Was the Divinely-inspired text within the Bible meant to be read literally or spiritually? Yes, there are two passionately-defended schools of thought. From our viewpoint, the Bible is full of symbolism and spiritual meaning just waiting to be revealed. You may not agree, but give us a chance to explain and you may see a new message arise from the Old Testament story of Noah’s Ark and the Flood. In this episode of Swedenborg and Life, host Curtis Childs and featured guests take us from the literal story about God destroying all of creation with a flood to a story about God’s still-ongoing efforts to provide us with an ark, thereby saving us from self-destruction.
A Common Parable
Coincidentally (or not-so-coincidentally), many cultures and faith traditions have parables that closely echo the Book of Genesis flood narrative. Professor of history Dr. Wendy Closterman joins the conversation to provide an overview of one such ancient parable. Dr. Closterman feels that the shared theme among these flood parables is a renewal of humanity and that it is just put into different contexts. These large collections of flood stories throughout the world just go to show that this concept is relevant to all humanity and not just those who believe in the Bible.
To set the stage for our exploration of the Noah and the Flood parable in the Book of Genesis, Curtis introduces us to this idea of “remnants”—a spiritual term Swedenborg used to describe the states of goodness and truths saved up in our hearts over time. These spiritual memories get us through both the good and bad times experienced in the physical world. Curtis contends that the common flood parables that have existed throughout history are all about how the spiritual remnants of humanity were almost destroyed by evil.
A remnant, or rather the Lord working by means of a remnant, is what allows a person to seem human, to learn what is good and true, to reflect on particular instances of it, and so to think and reason. This remnant alone has spiritual and heavenly life in it.—Secrets of Heaven §560
The Looming Annihilation
Through his spiritual explorations, Swedenborg believed Bible stories to have what he called an internal sense—with multiple layers of historical, psychological, spiritual, and personal meaning. To start with the historical sense, Curtis takes us back to the time of Noah when early humans lived in idyllic states of happiness and peace as described in Genesis 6:1–3. Curtis goes on to break down the symbolic inner layer of meaning contained within the text, describing how each of the characters represented the evil and corrupt mindsets that were starting to take hold of the human race at the time. Swedenborg pinpoints this as symbolic of the time in history when God stepped in to separate thoughts and feelings so that humans could use logic and reasoning to choose between good and evil.
In specific regard to the people of the church before the Flood, they conceived appalling delusions as time passed. The goodness and truth that belong to faith they merged so thoroughly with their foul desires that almost no trace of either was left to them. When they reached this point, they virtually suffocated themselves. A person lacking any remnant [of goodness or truth], after all, cannot survive. . .—Secrets of Heaven §560
In Genesis 6:6–8, it’s mentioned that God regretted what he created because of humanity’s corrupt tendencies; but Swedenborg says that this regret is symbolic of his mercy, which he explains in Secrets of Heaven §587. Curtis goes on to explain that Swedenborg does not believe the flood described in Genesis to be an act of God vengefully wiping out humanity; rather, Swedenborg saw the flood as a symbol of humanity’s evil cravings taking over the planet. God’s plan to save us from ourselves is characterized by a man named Noah. To save us (Noah) from the flood of evil, God had to teach us how to float through troubled waters.
How To Float
What was once a planet of heavenly consciousness and peace had become flooded with corruption and evil. To counteract evil and restore spiritual remnants in the hearts of humans, God invited us (Noah) to join him in a new way of life that separated thoughts and feelings so we can float above the waves of corruption and choose good over evil.
During his spiritual experiences, Swedenborg was given amazing insight into the symbolic meaning of several parts of the Noah and the Flood parable:
The Characters On The Ark
After The Flood
Swedenborg’s philosophy about the separation of thoughts and feelings—or what he called will and intellect—that occurred after the flood is summed up in this narrated excerpt from Secrets of Heaven §927.
As mentioned earlier in the episode, there are many ancient parables about floods that exist throughout many cultures and faith traditions. Swedenborg pointed out the spiritual and psychological meaning of the Bible’s flood story, but he wasn’t the only one to see such parallels. Our guest Dylan Odhner, a doctoral candidate in mythology and psychology, joins the conversation to talk about some of these universal flood stories and the seemingly infinite variety and number of consistencies between them. He feels that flood lesson stories are seen as punishment when taken literally; but when looked at through a spiritual lens, the stories actually represent the birth of consciousness.
Yes, the Noah parable speaks to humanity’s salvation through consciousness; but it also speaks to our own troubles, or floods, on a personal level.
Special guest Chelsea Odhner joins the conversation to share a personal, spiritual flood story. She recalls that after the loss of her mom as a child, she went through years of pain and suffering that resulted in harmful behaviors. After reading Swedenborg’s Divine Providence, she decided to create an ark for herself and start rebuilding the joy in her life. One night, after she had started the process of turning her life around, she had a vivid nightmare about a spider on her body and a damaged tree. When she woke up, she picked up Divine Providence to read where she had last left off and this was the passage she read:
At this point in the episode, Curtis takes viewers through each element of the Noah and the Flood story and offers a series of excerpts from Swedenborg’s writings that explain how the Bible story relates to our personal lives.
Fill The Earth
If Swedenborg is right, our struggles have the potential to free us from evil and negativity and restore goodness and truth. While challenging, struggles are a necessary part of life because they guide us through the process of spiritual regeneration. After the characters in the flood story in Genesis had survived the storm, God told them to go out and reproduce and multiply on the earth. Swedenborg says this represents how we’re all called to spread the good thoughts and feelings that arise within us after the evil and negative things that have touched our lives are wiped out.
When our trials are over, we experience a kind of wavering, and if our trials have been spiritual, it is a vacillation between truth and falsity, as can be seen clearly enough from the fact that trial is the beginning of regeneration. The whole process of rebirth exists in order for us to receive new life, or rather to receive life at all. It exists in order that from being non-human we may become human, or from being dead may become alive. So when our previous way of life, which was no better than animal life, breaks down in times of trouble, we cannot help faltering between truth and falsity after the trouble has passed. Truth belongs to the new life, falsity to the old. Unless the earlier way of life is destroyed and this uncertainty takes hold, spiritual seed cannot possibly be sown in us, since there is no soil for it. When disintegration of the prior life is complete, on the other hand, and such hesitation takes its place, we are left with almost no idea what is true or good. We are so unsure that we scarcely know whether anything is true. . . . Yet slowly, bit by bit, light begins to pierce the murk or darkness we live in.—Secrets of Heaven §848
Think about your happiest times and the thoughts and feelings you had during those experiences. Imagine them growing and multiplying forever. That’s the promise of the flood narrative in the Old Testament and the ideal picture Swedenborg has of the human mindset as it extends from life on earth into the next life in heaven.
Questions from Viewers
In the last segment, Curtis answers these questions from our viewers:
- Why did God need to speak in a complicated, indirect way? How will people learn the Bible with all this symbolism if the Bible is not what it really means? The Bible seems too abstract for anyone to really understand.
- So no matter how bad/evil you are, you will always have a good remnant? Even in those wicked times before the flood?
- One of Noah’s sons was cursed. Why and what was Swedenborg’s take?
- What about the giants after the flood?
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About Swedenborg and Life
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 in a lighthearted and interactive live webcast format.
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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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