Transformational Fire in Nature, Society, and Spiritual Life

By George Gantz


Modern humans tend to be afraid of fire, as it can be such an uncontrollable and destructive force. At the same time, our modern comforts all depend on the energy of controlled fire; and we retain a romantic fascination with it, whether in the form of a cozy fire in the living room, a campfire in the woods, or a pyrotechnic display of fireworks on July 4th. Only rarely do we think about fire as a creative, inspirational, and transformational force. Yet that may be its ultimate, defining characteristic in nature, in society, and in spirituality.

Fire in Nature

My wife and I recently traveled in the Rocky Mountains in both Canada and the US, and we learned about some of the ecological lessons gleaned from attempts to “manage” the ecosystems of the national parks. For example, both park managers and the public made the judgment more than a hundred years ago that fire was bad for our national forests, and in turn they embarked on a broad program of fire suppression. More recently, experts have learned that this program had negative consequences for the entire ecosystem. Without the normal and periodic reduction of combustible materials through fire, these materials have accumulated, with the result being that the fires that do break out have become much more dangerous and destructive than those in prior centuries. In addition, the forest landscape has become less hospitable to certain species; and as a result, biological health and diversity have suffered. The lodgepole pine, for example, produces seeds that will only germinate after being subjected to fire. So, in this case, fire is required to renew and rejuvenate the forest. Moreover, the lack of fire is thought to be a contributing factor to the devastation wrought by beetles in western forests. Without the transformational effects of fire, lodgepole pine forests get older and decline. Many now seem to be dying.

In many forest management areas such as national parks, fire policy has changed in response to this understanding. In addition to some limited use of controlled fire, it is now common to let naturally occurring fires burn themselves out, except when settlements or other specific targets need to be protected. For residents or visitors in these areas, the new policies can be disconcerting, to say the least. In our travels, my wife and I saw some areas that had been burned out earlier that summer. The charred and blackened landscape was a horrifying and depressing sight—and yet some resurgence of green ground cover was already evident. We also saw areas that had been burned more than 25 years ago. While the old blackened sticks of pine trees were still pointing skyward (and to our minds were quite ugly), the undergrowth was lively and green.

The simple lesson is twofold: our expectations, which quite often are framed by our aesthetic feelings, do not always reveal what is best for the natural landscape; and our efforts to control that landscape by imposing our ideas about “what is best” can have disastrous consequences.

Fire in Society

The Schumpeter column in The Economist magazine on October 1, 2015 contained a short essay entitled “Capitalism and its discontents,” which noted that anti-capitalist sentiment has been rising in response to both positive and negative features of free market capitalism. It is easy to see the negative features: the accumulation of capital can lead to an accumulation of power, and the temptations of power are numerous. Such behaviors as the formation of cartels and monopolies, cronyism, excessive influence on politics and regulation, and manipulative or deceitful practices toward employees and consumers are all contrary to the public interest and common in capitalist systems. In addition to reducing the very positive public benefits that are gained from capitalism, these practices of power and manipulation contribute to a breakdown in the trust of the people and lead to anti-capitalist sentiment.

Yet free market capitalism also offers a solution to at least some of these problems. In a process referred to as “creative destruction,” creative innovations and the consequent birth of new products, services, and businesses can dismantle existing firms or industries that are undesirable, inflexible, or inefficient. So just as fire renews the lodgepole pine forest by allowing new seeds to germinate, creative destruction reinvigorates capitalist economies by bringing to life new products and increasing overall production. Problematic business interests must either evolve or get swept away by better and more productive enterprises.

While this is ultimately a creative process, such destruction is not without its casualties. Employees and owners involved in enterprises that fail or are restructured can experience loss and dislocation, in much the same way that wildlife may suffer as a consequence of fire. If the economic pain is diffuse and modest, though, it may be overshadowed by the positive benefits of innovation and growth. People who lose their jobs, for example, may quickly find another. However, if the pain is severe and sustained, it can lead to antipathy and a loss of trust in the capitalist process that caused it.

According to The Economist, this is the state of affairs throughout the world today. While creative destruction may have increased efficiency and introduced dynamic and vibrant firms and industries (e.g., Apple, Google, Skype, and Uber, among many others), those benefits have not been evenly distributed; and for many in the workplace, significant dislocations stubbornly persevere. When this is the case, most people do not distinguish between the good and bad features of capitalism; all of it is seen as bad. The Economist argues that the overall public benefit coming out of creative destruction far outweighs the bad; but it also warns that anti-capitalist sentiment needs to be taken seriously, as its impact in public policy can be potent.

Forest management practices born of our fear of fire were ultimately disastrous for the health of the forest. Similarly, government policies that seek to protect employees and employers from competition may seem to be reasonable but can in fact be highly counter-productive. Just as zealously protecting the forests from fire undermined the health of the ecosystem, shielding established businesses and existing labor patterns from the fire of creative destruction can undermine the natural cycle of destruction and renewal.

So in the case of the socioeconomic landscape, the long-term damage to the public interest may far outweigh the short-term benefits of saving existing jobs or protecting incumbent businesses and industries from competitive threats. Yet again, our efforts to control the outcome by imposing our ideas about “what is best” can be seriously mistaken.

Fire in Our Spirituality

In our personal lives, we may likewise become entrenched in inefficient patterns of thought or behavior that do not serve a good purpose. These patterns may persist due to fear, anger, or anxiety. We may hang onto them as perceived sources of stability and control. If this is the case, we may need to experience a personal transformation—a kind of creative destruction. Letting go of our illusions of stability and control may be painful and scary, but it is necessary for us to make a transition to a more dynamic, affirmative, and ultimately positive frame of mind.

Before we can learn what is true and be affected by what is good, the things that stand in the way and resist have to be put aside. The old self must die before the new self can be conceived. (Secrets of Heaven §18)

The very human experience of grief has these transformational qualities. It can be painful losing someone close to us, but that loss often heals into a profound sense of significance in our connection with the person taken from us.

Stories of life-changing transformations abound among cancer survivors or others who have been close to death; some will even describe the “destructive fire” as the best thing that ever happened to them. Such experiences can serve as a forceful reminder of the fragility of life, our lack of control, and the importance of feeling gratitude. For many, the experience led them to reevaluate their lives and allowed them to refocus on the things that were most important.

Swedenborg sheds light on such lessons, from a spiritual perspective. In the Bible, fire corresponds to the good that comes from God’s love. That love fills all of creation, seeking to sweep away evil and immorality and bring joy, peace, and gratitude. To benefit from this love, each of us is required to undertake a personal transformation, or regeneration, a turning away from self-love and the love of dominion toward the love of God and of one’s neighbor. This can be a very painful process. Swedenborg notes:

Ungodly individuals experience heavenly love in no other way than as a burning, consuming fire. For this reason, the Word describes the Lord as a consuming fire. (Secrets of Heaven §934:3)

A self-righteous person who seeks to hold onto his or her negative thoughts and emotions may experience love (particularly “tough love”) as critical and harsh. Have you ever noticed that when someone you love points out that you are behaving selfishly, you tend to feel scorched by this insightful truth? This is a painful lesson, but the capacity for self-reflection and resultant personal commitment to change that hopefully come out of this lesson are beneficial. In this sense, the spiritual fire can lead to the germination of new understanding and new behaviors and a renewing of our spiritual and moral life. Remember the lodgepole pines?

Moses was awestruck in the wilderness by the sight of a bush that was engulfed in flames but not burning up. Swedenborg unpacks this symbolic story to show that the fire is God’s transforming fire of love, a fire that does not truly cause destruction but instead offers spiritual renewal. The burning bush corresponds to a transforming vision for Moses’s life that he would not have come up with on his own. The tribes of Israel that he led through the wilderness experienced a similar vision at Mount Sinai:

The fire on Mount Sinai that represented the Lord’s love or mercy . . . was perceived by the people as a devouring fire, which is why they told Moses not to make them listen to Jehovah God’s voice or look at the huge fire or they would die . . . This is what the Lord’s love or mercy looks like to people inflamed with self-love and materialism. (Secrets of Heaven §934:3)

Fire in nature, in society, and in our spiritual lives presents an example of the principle of correspondence: in each instance, it represents the power of a higher beneficial purpose that can lead us through the pains of transition and reconstruction on the way to a more empowered life. What most often gets in the way, as we have seen, is our effort to control that process by imposing our ideas about “what is best.”

George Gantz is a writer and philosopher at Spiral Inquiry and directs the Swedenborg Center Concord (SCC), a non-denominational educational project supported by the New Church of Concord, Massachusetts, that seeks to integrate the knowledge of science with the wisdom of religion.


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