“Any Sign of Intelligent Life?” -Rev. Jim Lawrence

An important part of sight-seeing in Berkeley is bumper-sticker gazing, and recently I smiled at “Make coffee, not war.” That could have been written by Swedenborg! Other fun ones include: 

“Women who seek only to be equal to men lack ambition.” 

“Compost—a rind is a terrible thing to waste.” 

“Extinct is forever.” 

“Good planets are hard to find.” 

“A system that robs Peter to pay Paul will always have Paul’s support.” 

And my favorite one: “We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”

One also commonly sees on the back of cars the Darwin fish, a retort to a particular perception of Christianity. You know what I’m referring to, right? In late antiquity when Christians were themselves an endangered species in the Roman persecutions, Christians devised secret signs of communication, the most common one being a sign of identity: a simple line drawing of a fish. The word for fish in Greek is IKTUS. It served as an acronym for Jesus Christ God’s Son and Savior. A number of years ago a Unitarian in Colorado developed the Darwin fish as a protest against the Christian Right promoting Creationism as science. So, he took the Jesus fish, which had become popular again as a moniker on the back of cars, and he gave it legs, and then through the middle of the fish he wrote the word “Evolve.” 

For many, the two fish seem diametrically opposed. In the minds of many, one fish stands for real science, and the other fish represents archaic belief systems. According to sociologists, the three biggest reasons why people in this country claim a disbelief in God are science, evil, and the lack of any perceived personal experience of God.  For many, all three of these—the challenge of science, the fact of evil, and the lack of direct experience of God—are interconnected. Maybe these are important questions for you, too.

Christian theology involves questions of science. For example, scripture says God came into human life uniquely: that is, through a virgin birth. That is what the Magi went to see: the incarnated God-Baby in the manger. We might take the gospel’s incarnation story literally; we might it figuratively; we might take it not at all, but for 1800 years, most Christians took it literally. That is, as the scientific revolution began driving many Christians toward a poetic-mythic interpretation, it drove an equally large number toward the door. For to claim that an historic human being who ate, slept, got cold, and bled warm red blood in dying had no biological father makes a science claim that needs some discussion for many of us. 

Not long ago another “Science vs. Religion” skirmish erupted over the so-called Intelligent Design theory of formation of the species, with the result that millions of Americans concluded that Christians believe in fairy tales instead of real science. Simply put, proponents of Intelligent Design suggest that some structures in nature are so complex that to get to them from natural selection is improbable and a better theory has a Creator helping the process along in a more direct fashion. The cheap form of this idea has God superseding natural laws, and I agree that this should not be taught in public schools as an alternative view to evolution. 

But there is a much more important idea in play here, and that is the question of whether nature itself makes a case for an intelligent design or not. This is not a question of whether God contravenes natural laws, but whether nature’s laws themselves make a case for an anterior force that we might call God.  In an old Irish joke some weary travelers stop to ask a white-haired local the way to get to their intended destination. The wizened figure thinks thoughtfully for a bit, puffs on his pipe, and then says, “If I wanted to get where you want to go, I wouldn’t start from here.”

Perhaps many would agree that nature is not the ideal starting place for discovering God, but in a scientific culture it is useful to take on the question in that form. Even an avowed agnostic like Stephen Hawking says that in his view the formation of the universe in the first phase after the Big Bang involved so many extreme mathematical improbabilities that it is hard to escape the speculation that it was planned. In a recent book on Einstein by Max Jammer, a colleague of his at Princeton, he remarks that Einstein commented so often on the positive implications for God in his studies on physics that he regarded Einstein as a theologian in disguise. 

But Darwin is not alone in finding nature itself to be an argument against God. Darwin had been headed for the ministry, but the longer he conducted his research, the more disturbed he became at the cruelty in nature. This involves that thorny theological issue of evil that stops so many from entertaining the idea of a God who is supposed to be all-loving, all-wise, and all-powerful. Horrific evil doesn’t square up with a loving God proposal for many, including Darwin. The ancients grappled with this matter, too, by the way. Gnostic groups in the second and third centuries grew fast with their view that evil and suffering proved the creator was either a bungler or the original under-achiever. The church developed the response that in the great contest between good and evil, our brushings with evil help us become good. That is, a good purpose and a good end exist in the design of a reality sphere where evil and love are contrasted. 

Swedenborg, one of those rare religious scientists who crossed over into theology as a primary vocational focus, saw God everywhere in the workings of nature, both in the macro-processes of the planetary system and in the micro-processes of the human body and even of sub-atomic matter (he said 200 years before Einstein that matter is essentially packaged energy). 

When he was fifty-five years old, Swedenborg experienced a spiritual upheaval that caused him to see nature and God questions in a new light in such a forceful way that he laid aside his productive science career to follow his new vision for a Christian theosophy.  And it wasn’t long before Swedenborg took aim at the traditional Christian dogma known as creatio ex nihilo: that God created the universe from nothing. From his new spiritual vantage point Swedenborg felt it was clear as day that the essential substance of the universe is love. God created the universe from God’s essence, from God-self (creatio ex Deus), from divine love (creatio ex amore). And for that very reason, nature contains guideposts that point back to its origins that reside in another dimension. 

Swedenborg’s most philosophical work, Divine Love and Wisdom, speaks at considerable length about how the natural world parallels and is created by this other dimension—the spiritual dimension. He writes, “If you look at the created universe with an eye to its design, it is so full of wisdom from love that you might say everything taken all together is wisdom itself. There are things without measure in such a pattern, both sequential and simultaneous, that taken all together they constitute a single entity. This is the only reason they can be held together and sustained forever.” [n.29] In another passages: “So full of Divine love and wisdom is the universe in both its greatest and its least aspects that it may be said to be Divine love and wisdom in an image.” [n.52] *

So, we might ask in gazing at a hibiscus in full bloom: is it an effective result of natural selection or evidence of the love of God? Or both? Botany grew, so to speak, on Swedenborg after his spiritual shift. Many know that Swedenborg kept one of the most renowned gardens of Stockholm, but what not as many know is that he decided to do this after about five years in his mystical states. He believed nothing portrayed the joys of spiritual life as does a well-designed garden. Today the government of Stockholm has recreated Swedenborg’s garden cottage and something of his garden and has made it into one of the most popular museum sites in the city, full of visitors every day.  

Jesus often used cultivation to illustrate the spiritual life. Our Markan reading today is a good example. In so many words Jesus is saying that “In times of spiritual separation from God it will seem as if the sun darkens, as if the moon no longer reflects light; as if stars are crashing down. But God will come again to you, if you are open to God. From the four winds and riding on mighty clouds, the Son of Man comes.” All nature images. Then Jesus keeps going: Learn a lesson from the fig tree. When you see the branch becoming tender, know that summer is coming. When our heart begins to soften to the invading spirit of love, God is coming again to us, is growing within us. After some difficult period—feeling far from God or feeling brutalized by some hard experience—knowing the ways of nature is to know that way of the inner life: turn toward the sun. Let God brings forth a new shoot.

This ultimately for Swedenborg is the best evidence of intelligent design: the genius of the human soul and the way we are made. Repeatedly, he claims the relational communion of love is the goal of creation. To have consciousness and conscience, freedom and rationality, to be able to suffer the pains of finitude and yet to grow in our time and in our measure: this magnificent evolution of love is the boundless accomplishment of creation. The genius of love offers the best evidence that there is an intelligent design behind creation.

And Swedenborg says further that because of the intelligent design of creation, we are always separated to some degree from God. Thus, God is always coming to us—not just in holy seasons and not just once every several millennia, but every day and every moment. If we commit to this proposition and strive to live it out daily, we will discover confirmations of God’s presence and of the beautiful design for our soul’s life on a regular basis. In other words, a right perspective will help shape our spiritual perception. 

For many, when they think of this creation, they think only dust and gases and empty space. But others sense more. 

*Swedenborg, Emanuel. Divine Love and Wisdom. Translated by George F. Dole. West Chester: Swedenborg Foundation, 2010.

Rev. Dr. James F. Lawrence has been an ordained minister in the Swedenborgian Church of North America for several decades, and has served in a variety of ministries. He currently serves as dean of the Center for Swedenborgian Studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA, where he is a core doctoral faculty member, as well as assistant professor of Christian Spirituality and Historical Studies at Pacific School of Religion.

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