by Hanna Hyatt
Not much is worse than a bad batch of fruit. An apple can look all delightful and ready to be eaten on the outside, but on the inside it can be a mealy and squishy surprise. An avocado can look like it’s going to be the best thing to happen to the world of guacamole, but on the inside it can be all brown and rotten.
. . . bad apples . . .
. . . bad avocados . . .
What makes these things so bad? Sure, a fruity disappointment is one thing, but human beings are so quick to describe something as bad. From a theological standpoint, what makes something “bad”?
Everyone has ideas about the difference between a bad thing and a good thing. Emanuel Swedenborg discusses this often in his theological works, where he talks about the impact of God’s love and how people can feel heavenly happiness in their own lives. But before things can go from bad to good, he says, we have to understand what makes those two things different from a spiritual perspective.
Can an Apple Be Bad?
To be truly “bad,” Swedenborg says that beings must be free and able to choose rationally between things that will make them happy in good ways or bad ways. In this scenario, “bad” refers to things that are harmful to those around us (in Swedenborg’s theology, this is what evil means), but that we choose anyhow because it benefits us personally: selfishness, greed, riches—any love that serves the self more than other people.
Objects, however, can’t make that choice. A knife is great while it’s serving a constructive purpose. But when it’s used to harm someone, it is an awful weapon. Swedenborg says that objects cannot be inherently good or bad—they are good or bad depending on how people use them. People are the only things that can be good or bad, depending on the choices they make freely. Someone must decide, without being forced one way or another, to use something for good or bad ends—to either serve selfish loves or serve heavenly and neighbor-loving ones.
“Why, then, ‘tis none to you, for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” — William Shakespeare, Hamlet
“Bad Dog!” — Can Dogs be Bad?
Anyone who comes into contact with dogs knows that they make their own decisions—what their owner wants is not always as important as their own instincts. They see a squirrel, and they choose to either run after it and risk their fate to an owner-enforced consequence, or stay and miss the chance to catch that darn squirrel.
However, when a dog jumps up on the counter to eat some fresh-from-the-oven chicken pot pies (or twelve chocolate cupcakes, from personal experience), it’s hard to blame the cute little beast that just had a hankering for some food. Why is it so hard to blame them? Swedenborg writes that in order for one to truly be free to make a choice, they must also be rational.
Rationality is an important concept—it means that people are able to weigh decisions, looking at cost vs. benefit, taking in long-term effects, looking at impact on other areas of life, and being able to be more objective and look at the whole picture rather than just a snapshot. This is why some teenagers seem to make bad decisions. (“Don’t they ever think about the consequences of their decisions?!” says every parent in the history of teenagers.) People have to grow into their ability to consider options objectively and make decisions rationally. This is also why it’s hard to blame dogs for their decisions—they don’t have that rational, considerate type of brain.
Swedenborg asserts that human adults are the only beings that can look at situations and make entirely free and rational decisions. And even adults aren’t always reliable in the rational decisions department—look at most reality TV shows, where the rational brain tends to take a backseat to emotional outbursts. People are only human—prone to mistakes and assumptions. Dogs are not only not human, but tend to be prone to decisions that hurt the people (or squirrels) around them. They aren’t “bad,” just accident-prone, because they lack the rationality to make clear decisions.
“He’s the Bad Guy!” — What about People?
Humans: This is the hardest part, because it involves freedom, rationality, self-awareness, choice, and perspective.
To figure out if a choice is working toward bad things or good things, Swedenborg says that human beings must look at the effects of a decision on their life and the lives of the individuals around them. This means that if someone’s goal is to get their own way in everything, their version of happiness would be to control or manipulate others, to advance their careers at the expense of others, to make money without worrying about the effects their business decisions will have on others. Swedenborg would call these hellish types of happiness.
Now, Swedenborg recommends personal goals that lead toward heaven, as the negative goals lead more toward separation from God and heavenly joy. If someone’s goal is to be “good,” they have to look at the decisions they make and see if the effects are good—does the decision make other people happy? Does it make people happy in good ways, positive ways that lead toward that heavenly happiness we talked about earlier? Does it add positive things to life, or does it tear down positive things?
Whether we chose the negative ends or the positive ones, the cycle is a never-ending one of regeneration—looking for truth, bringing that truth into our life, deciding what our goals are, and making decisions that lead toward those goals. This involves lots of rational ideas, like self-examination and looking at the true happiness of the people around us. No easy task!
However, Swedenborg states again and again that this hard process has the potential for so much love and happiness. People are able to be much happier because they can choose with freedom and rationality and continue to build on their choices to grow closer and closer to God. They can grow to have more and more heavenly happiness (or evil delight), which means they have the potential to be united with the Lord.
Looking back, it’s easy to see that:
- Apples can’t be happy. They have no choice.
- Dogs can be happy, but they can’t rationally choose it. Happiness is a thing that happens to them, not a thing they create.
- People create happiness through freedom and rational decisions, leading them on a path towards their goals.