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Personal Faith: Loving the Good

By Justin Synnestvedt [Chapter Fifteen from my book Modern Or Moral]

Morality needs religion


Throughout this essay, Ive tried to find reasons to think that ethics makes more sense philosophically
for a person who admits spirituality into her ideas about goodness discovering what it is, intending it and
living it than for one whose thoughts remain fixed on nature. By studying history, analyzing viewpoints,
and from experience, Im convinced that the modern western world, both in popular culture, and more
importantly in the intellectual thinking of scientists, professionals and academics, has move steadily toward
naturalism and away from spirituality. That is why the title is Modern Or Moral.
At the same time, Ive become convinced that spirituality cannot be effectively divorced from religion,
despite the efforts of Kant, James, Iris Murdoch and others weve looked at. However, faith-based religious
traditions too often appear to abandon rational thinking, so they are unappealing and unconvincing to people
of philosophical and intellectual temperament. My question now becomes, is it possible to join philosophical
ethics and religion in ways that satisfy reason? That is the topic for the present chapter, which will end this
essay. I believe Heidegger said something like, Philosophy begins with questions; religion begins with
answers. Another version of this is Philosophy is questions that may never be answered. Religion is
answers that may never be questioned.i The implication here is that the two ways of thinking are mutually
exclusive, but that need not be the case, as I hope to show.

Swedenborgs synthesis of scriptures and philosophy

I have long wondered if its possible to bring together both philosophical and biblical religions. The answer
depends on how strictly one defines philosophy and faith. If one thinks they are ways of finding truth, or
understanding reality, then they appear very separate. But religions, from the most primal and tribal, to the
most doctrinally developed and culturally widespread, are not primarily ways of finding truth or reality as
such even ultimate reality. They are ways of living that are thought to bring people into harmony with
whatever natural or spiritual beings govern their lives, and bring success to themselves and their
communities as a result. But, of course, the people who are living this way have beliefs about reality, which
they presume are true without question, unless they have reasons to doubt.
Philosophy too is a way of living. That was seen among the pre-Socratics, whose private groups of
followers could be called cults, and the dedication to this way of living has continued, at least as an ideal, to
the present time. Perhaps it is best expressed by Socrates claim that the unexamined life is not worth
living. Certainly philosophers emphasize the discovery of truth, but it wasnt just to satisfy curiosity; it was
because truth frees us, guides us to a fulfilling existence, and gives us an awareness of our place in the
universe. Plato saw truth seeking as the means to happiness, and as pleasing to the gods. Aristotle saw
developing our understanding as a moral obligation to fulfill our nature.
But what is truth, if philosophers way of life is to seek it? Ordinarily, people can speak about the truth,
as though it were a thing. But more careful thought suggests that truth (or falsity) attaches to what we say
not to the words we say, however, but to the ideas that are expressed in language, specifically in the form of
statements. Truth is a quality of what is said or thought. Of course language has many other uses than
expressing what is true; we can do things with words, as Austin and other linguistic analysts have shown
clearly. But ideas are mental (spiritual), and originate above nature, if those who would look for truth are
correct, as I have argued above. Even the emphasis of language in speaking truth is unfortunate, because the
Word as used in the biblical sense can have many meanings. Linguistic truth is only one of many
interconnected forms of truth, which all could be said, and have been said from the beginning, to flow from
and lead to their ultimate source, which for our purposes is divine.
Creation and the Word
John, the Christian evangelist, was a very philosophically oriented thinker. The beginning of his gospel
harks back to the beginning of the Jewish scripture, and presents it in very abstract and symbolic form.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was GodAll things were
made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was
the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it That
was the true Light which gives light to every man who comes into the world. He was in the world, and
the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him And the Word became flesh and
dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace
and truth (John 1:1-14).

According to Johns interpretation, the Word is Gods word to humans not so much the literal meanings as
the inner sense of biblical scripture. But the Word is also the appearance of God in the forms and order of the
natural world, and all creation which corresponds to God, and in which God can be seen. It is also God
taking on the human form and appearing to humans on earth, and more. Giving the word to humankind
implies giving humans a free choice, at the time they receive it, to accept or refuse, to believe or deny, to
obey or disobey. God doesnt make it happen, although it is the loving purpose of the creator that it should
happen. That is Gods intention, Swedenborg says, and providence is Gods way of bringing it about. Always
human freedom must be accommodated, in the working of providence.
The evangelist John was presenting a metaphysical or philosophical interpretation of scripture, and he
emphasizes the Word as spiritual truth and light. But his ideas start from faith, and are based on assumptions
about reality. The biblical religions accept on faith the view of reality that they take from their
interpretations of scriptural teachings. John, for one, was clearly interpreting what was said and done by
Jesus. Many texts in John do not have counterparts in the synoptic gospels: God is the Word (1:1 ff.); water
was turned into wine (2:1 ff.); God gave Jesus to the world, for their salvation (3:16 ff.); the Samaritan
woman was seeking the water of life (4:4 ff.); Jesus is the bread of life (6:22 ff.); no one could condemn the
woman taken in adultery (8:2 ff.); Jesus healed the man blind from birth (9:1 ff.); and Mary was told Touch
me not by Jesus ascending (20:17 ff.). Moreover, John speaks of signs, instead of miracles. He emphasizes
the Logos (or divine law), as well as light and vision. He underscores differences between Christianity and
Judaism. And he shows Jesus talking in lengthy explanations, rather than in pithy or even cryptic sayings.ii
Do these differences show that scripture must be interpreted that it has an inner meaning? That is
Swedenborgs contention. Later Christians, after the Apostles, have typically assumed that the teachings are
given them by God; so they dont dare to question them. By contrast, philosophical religions do question the
traditions, and in cases of conflict, accept those interpretations which make the most rational sense, while
according with principles that seem the most basic. In this sense, faith-based religions emphasize belief,
while philosophical religions emphasize understanding and reason.
If all religions, throughout the world, and in the West, are seen broadly as ways of finding a meaningful
life, there is much overlap. Some religions emphasize community ritual, others practice isolated
introspection, some concentrate on service, others seek possession by higher powers, or express instant
salvation or born-again enthusiasm. All these combine various degrees of observable communal activity, and
individual mental development.
If it were possible to synthesize the philosophical (eastern) and faith-based or biblical (western)
religions, it would accommodate the two basic mindsets or ways of thinking which ordinarily separate and
distinguish religions into two camps. That is, it would represent both reason (or intellect) and intention (or
will). These are the two aspects of every mind, which have been analyzed and critiqued since at least the
time of Plato and Aristotle. They seem to be mirrored by modern physiology of the brain, whose right and
left hemispheres are said to process things differently, and by the ancient notion of male and female
principles symbolized in pairing of gods and goddesses in Hinduism, and the Hermaphroditic art in Greece
and Rome. It may sound simplistic, but who can doubt that this union of opposites characterizes the way
people see the world? There seems to be a fundamental duality, in the structure of the universe, and in the
structure of minds, which are linked.
Relatedly, it seems to me that over time, every person typically develops a preferred way of thinking or
temperament that reflects this same duality, which we could say favors either reason (what is understood) or
feeling (what is loved and intended). This is at a deep level however, which is not the simple (and
questionable) idea that emotion dominates immature minds while rationality dominates mature minds. Some
recent developments in popular psychology have raised the idea of multiple intelligences. Although there
is an appeal to this view, I suggest that in the various ways of describing these intelligences, we still find
the same overarching duality of feeling and reason.iii
My own default mental state is wondering, and looking for knowledge through critical thought. But how
deep that goes, I cant truly say. In any case, Socrates dictum that the unexamined life is not worth living
rings very true to me. When it comes to religion, however, the philosophical approach is not enough. In the
first place, reason alone cant find satisfying answers to every question. Sometimes it isnt even reasonable to
continue looking for reasons; a wise reasoner will know when to act in the absence of knowledge, or will
realize that knowledge is impossible, and will be guided by belief, or practical demands. More importantly,
ones spiritual condition depends not only on what she believes to be true, but especially on her willing it,
and living it.
Clearly many people the majority I think are oriented to feeling at the superficial and immediate
level. That is their first response; it is a childs response. Belief, rather than reason, leads the thinking. But in
a religious context, belief and feeling are not enough. What one believes and cares about needs to be
informed and guided by truth, and that requires thought. Absent some effort to think and act rationally,
religious believers are at the mercy of leaders who manipulate their followers, and use them for selfish ends
of power and worldly benefit. This seems to be the history of most religions that I have studied. Orthodox
religious ideas often make no sense philosophically; they may even be inconsistent and contradictory.
For example, if its assumed (as is generally the case) that the divine creator is good, it follows that
Gods providence entails loving and appropriate means to accomplish its goals. God will work in wise and
lawful ways, showing people how to live rightly, while respecting their freedom to believe and choose what
they think will benefit them, and encouraging them to choose the path that leads that way. It may be the case
that Gods ways are ultimately inscrutable (mysterious), but surely humans can count on a wise providence
not to be self-contradictory, or arbitrary, or suggest that the divine One is composed of separate persons.
Moreover, if a person has no desire or intention to correct her life, or care about other people, it makes no
sense to think that Gods mercy could save her, as it were arbitrarily, regardless of how evil and self-centered
she might choose to be. How could such a person be happy by being placed in heaven, whose desires and
thoughts are contrary to heaven? It would cause suffering, to the good inhabitants, as well as to the evil
outsider. And if God simply changed the evil person into a good person, she would cease to be who she
really is. In such a case, what would be the point of a whole life of experience, learning and making choices
in the natural plane? Providence is not arbitrary or irrational. It is loving and uses wise means that are
consistent with its loving purpose. So a true religion does not reject reason, but encourages people to seek
truth, and test it with rationality. Reason is essential to a human mind, even if it can be subverted by evil
intentions, and become a tool for self-justification and wrong doing.
In my opinion, Swedenborgs thinking can provide a philosophically satisfying synthesis of eastern and
western world views, although to my knowledge he nowhere deals directly with the eastern philosophical
religions as such. (He nowhere makes any mention of Buddhism or Hinduism.) The first principle that is
common to biblical and philosophical religions is that all life is fundamentally spiritual. This is a direct and
repeated part of Swedenborgs interpretation of Christianity (and other religions). Against all appearances to
the contrary, nature does not flow into human minds, but spirit flows into nature. Even our so-called sense
experiences are also functions of inflow from the spiritual realm and ultimately from God. Secondly, again
against our natural inclination and desire to believe otherwise, ego or self is illusory. In every respect we are
receivers of life. Our thoughts and feelings do not originate with us. We are given the appearance of self,
because only those beliefs and desires (what we think and care about) are incorporated into our character
which are believed, confirmed and freely chosen. We would reject out of hand whatever we think is imposed
on us from without, as it were, against our will.
Swedenborg is not unique in believing humans are created, of course. What is unique, however, at least
in his time and culture, is his explanation of both the nature of God and of humans. Not only is our origin
spiritual (ultimately divine), but our essential humanness is in fact spiritual. Our essential nature is not a
function of nature, but of spirit. Indeed, our mental life, and our natural life as well, are essentially spiritual.
He says this adamantly, many places, because it is both hard to understand, and especially hard to believe.

All human feelings and thoughts arise from the divine love and wisdom that constitute the very essence
that is God. The feelings arise from divine love and the thoughts from divine wisdom. Further, every
single bit of our being is nothing but feeling and thought. These two are like the springs of everything
that is alive in us. They are the source of all our life experiences of delight and enchantment, the delight
from the prompting of our love and the enchantment from our consequent thought.
Since we have been created to be recipients, then, and since we are recipients to the extent that we
love God and are wise because of our love for God (that is, the extent to which we are moved by what
comes from God and think as a result of that feeling), it therefore follows that the divine essence, the
Creatress, is divine love and wisdom.iv

In his work Divine Providence (1763), Swedenborg shows that it is our commitment to the idea of self or ego
that makes us suffer. This is a doctrine that is fundamental to Buddhist and Hindu thought. If we realized that
bad thoughts and loves originate with spirits who reject God, and good thoughts and loves from spirits who
accept God, we would not take blame for the former nor credit for the latter, but permit ourselves to be led to
a higher orientation, and the happiness it entails.

Almost everyone believes that we think and intend autonomously and therefore talk and act
autonomously. Can we on our own believe anything else when the appearance is so convincing that it
scarcely differs at all from really thinking, intending, speaking, and acting autonomously? Yet this is
impossible. In Angelic Wisdom about Divine Love and Wisdom, I explained that there is only one life
and that we are life-receivers. I also explained that our volition is a receiver of love and our discernment
is a receiver of wisdom, and that these and nothing else are the life that we receive. Further, I explained
that by creation, and under divine providence constantly since then, life seems to be within us exactly as
though it belonged to us, as though it were ours, but that this is only the way it seems in order that we
may be receivers.v
Everything we adopt and justify becomes virtually a permanent part of us. If we believed that - as is
truly the case - everything good and true comes from the Lord and everything evil and false comes from
hell, then we would not claim the goodness as our own and make it self-serving or claim the evil as our
own and make ourselves guilty of it.vi

As Swedenborg points out, we normally believe our sensations flow into our thoughts through or from our
senses, but we deny that what we think and intend flows in; we are sure it originates in us. However, both are
matters of influx. The difference, however, is a function of the differences in the mental structures that are
formed to receive sense knowledge, and those which receive inner or spiritual sensations. Strange to say,
even our speech and actions could also be said not to be our creations.

Everything we think and intend is flowing into us, and since all speech flows from thought like an effect
from its cause, and all action similarly flows from volition, everything we say and do is flowing in as
well, albeit secondarily or indirectly. No one can deny that everything we see, hear, smell, taste, and feel
is flowing in. What about the things we think and intend, then? Can there be any difference except that
what flows in from the physical world flows in through our outer or physical sensory organs, while what
flows in from the spiritual world flows in through the organic substances of our inner senses or our
minds? In other words, just as the organs of our outer or physical senses are attuned to material objects,
the organic substances of our inner senses or our minds are receptive of spiritual objects.vii

The reason we deny that our thoughts and intentions come into our minds from elsewhere is they seem to be
immediate, rather than distant, as sensible things are perceived to be.

We say of what is physical that the beauty and pleasure in the eye are flowing in from the objects of
vision, and that the harmony and sweetness in the ear are flowing in from the instruments. What else is
true of the organic substances of our minds? We say that things are happening within these mental
substances but that things are flowing into our physical organs; but if we ask, "Why are we saying that
things are flowing in?" the only answer is that there seems to be a distance involved. Then if we ask,
"Why are we saying that things are happening inside?" the only answer is that there is no perceptible
distance involved. That is, it is the appearance of distance that inclines us to believe one thing about
what we think and feel, and something else about what we see and hear.
All this collapses, though, when we realize that spirit is not involved in distance the way the
material world is. Think of the sun and the moon or of Rome and Constantinople. Is there any distance
between them in your thought? There is none as long as the thought is not tied to the experiences we
have through sight and hearing. Then why do you convince yourself that what is good and true and what
is evil and false are within you, not flowing in, simply because there is no perceptible distance involved
in your thinking?viii
Self and the Fall
Our typical insistence on the reality of our ego is the source of all our spiritual troubles. As said before,
the realization of this counter intuitive fact is a foundational idea of Buddhism, and it is a primary theme in
Swedenborgs thought. It involves, if I understand correctly, what is meant by the story of the Fall, in the
biblical account of the Garden of Eden. Parents know from experience that children who insist on following
their own innate tendencies will suffer, although they think it is the source of their happiness. Like spiritual
children, adults who insist on following their egoistic sense of right and wrong will end up suffering. The
serpent in the garden the Father of Lies (John 8:44) is the deceptive belief that we should follow our
own lights, rather than trust the guidance of God, who knows better than we ourselves what will lead to our
happiness, and who loves us more than we can possibly love ourselves. Following our natural tendencies will
ultimately lead to spiritual death, because those tendencies are self-centered, and want to control others to do
our bidding. We end up hating those whose oppose us. This is the opposite of the life of genuine love that
leads to genuine happiness.
Now the serpent was more subtle than any of the creatures that God had made (Gen 3:1). The serpent
encouraged Eve to eat the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Clearly, this was a
symbolic tree obviously not an apple. The serpent symbolizes the very strong (indeed, unavoidable)
appearance that we are in charge of our lives, and that we should exercise our independence. Strangely, this
appearance is a gift of God. (As the text says, the serpent is one of the creatures that God has made.) But
this appearance of self can deceive us into thinking we are independent of God that we dont need God as a
guide. Ultimately, we can even put God out of our minds. The serpent is not evil, but subtle; it can make us
question what we previously accepted on childlike trust. The serpent as the illusion of self-sufficiency is
dangerous, but necessary. In its proper place, it is good. After all, it is one of Gods creatures, so it must be
good.ix
The orthodox religious view is that the serpent is the fallen angel Lucifer, who rebelled against God,
and took up residency among humans. That doctrine makes no sense at all. All angels, as Swedenborg points
out, were originally born on earth. Heaven from the human race is the purpose of creation. If angels were
created such, they would be directly aware of God, and so could not possibly choose freely to believe or not
believe in their creator. But that choice is the foundation of human nature, and is essential to allow humans to
choose to accept happiness as their own, or to reject it, with the sad consequence which follow alienation
from the source of happiness. So the goodness of the appearance of self the deceptive serpent lies in its
instrumentality to enable us to be truly human, and not robotic. As Swedenborg says (cited above), God
gives us this appearance in order that we may be receivers. This is vital to understand.
No one can receive something for another person. Even God cannot make us receive his gifts. If we did
not think we were receiving them on our own, we would reject them. They could not truly be ours. In terms
of valuing a gift, we have the power to decide. Eating the fruit means making it our own literally
incorporating it. If we insist on making a judgment that is better left to God, we will mislead ourselves, and
suffer. As said above, this mirrors Buddhist teachings. However, the traditional Buddhist emphasis on the
Divine as being everything leads to the idea that humans will become one with God, and their individuality
will disappear. This is a mistake. The biblical view of God maintains individuality the distinct separateness
between each person and the divine so that a love relation can be developed, together with the happiness
which increasing awareness of Gods love can bring to those who accept it.
Is there a purpose to nature, and to life?
This question is almost old as philosophy. Some say there is no inherent point, but we can impose value
on our own individual lives. Starting with Democritus (460370 BCE), a few years younger than Socrates
(who certainly spoke about purpose), there were those who claimed reality is only material i.e. atoms and
emptiness and matter has no purpose; it just is. If there are gods, they are also composed of matter.
Epicurus (341270 BCE), born a generation after Aristotle (who thought the divine law put purpose into
nature), believed the only purpose of life is given by individuals, who seek happiness naturally, but dont
naturally find it. They can, if guided by philosophical training, eliminate most causes of unhappiness, and
can learn to accept what is inevitable. He said the gods dont concern themselves with humans, so they are
not a threat to happiness; and death is the end of sensation, so any worry over punishment in the next life is
foolish and unnecessary. Even in speaking of gods as superior beings, its likely Epicurus thought of them as
the idealization of human aspiration. In any case, gods are neither creators, nor do they determine the point
of life.
Finally, on the side of life as pointless, Lucretius (9955 BCE) brought the thinking of the Greek
materialists, whom he favored, to a Roman audience. His famous book, On the nature of things, written at
the end of the Roman Republic (56 BCE), developed at great length the earlier materialist perspective for
people in the Latin speaking world. The rediscovery of his poem in the 14th century had a major impact on
Renaissance thought, helping to break the hold of Roman Catholicism on western Europe.x
Despite these few influential materialists, most of western (and eastern) culture and philosophy has held
that life and nature are purposeful. But in contemporary western culture, the materialist perspective is
becoming the characteristic way of conceiving reality, as I have tried to show. It suggests that everything
happens through a combination of relatively fixed laws, and various random, probabilistic accidents so-to-
speak. They are like the swerves of atoms, of which Democritus spoke. One such swerve would be the
change from non-living chemical combinations to living chemical combinations. But I believe that
naturalistic materialists are mistaken, and nature and everything in it, is purposeful.
The belief that everything which happens in life, and the larger question, whether life itself has a
purpose, is as old as written history and archeology can confirm, and continues in popular thinking, even
after the development of science and its effects on philosophical thought. But science has changed the way it
is discussed. For instance, deists in the 18th century appealed to a seemingly rational (i.e. predictable) order
of natural events as evidence for a purposeful designer, in the analogy of a divine watchmaker. William Paley
(17431805) is a famous advocate of this thought. The poet Alexander Pope (16881774) expressed this idea
in his Essay on Man, for an earlier generation. He spoke of a great chain of being, ordered into a hierarchy
of goods, at least as it comes from its creator. Whatever is, is right, was the last line of his poem. This idea
echoed thoughts of the German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz (16461716). Equally famous thinkers of
Popes day ridiculed that idea as naively optimistic. Voltaires Candide illustrates the realistic viewpoint.
He thought the evidence proved a flawed and often disorderly nature. He was particularly affected by the
disastrous earthquake in his day that occurred in Lisbon, in 1755, on All Saints Day.
Hume and others easily refuted the so-called arguments from design to prove a creator, since design
itself is not observable. We dont know the purpose or intention of the author of nature, or even that there is
such an author. We cant call natures order rational either, even though it is generally predictable. Rationality
can only be discovered when outcomes and actions are compared to purpose, and that cannot be seen in
nature. Even the fact of predictability is not a proof of rationality. Predictability may simply be a function of
law, and proves nothing about any intention. Indeed, were not even sure nature is lawful. That may just be
the way we read our experiences of nature.
So whether nature and life are purposeful can only be a matter of belief, not proof. I choose to believe it.
However, I think the meaning of purpose, which comes from the divine creator, is typically misunderstood.
Gods purpose is not to warrant that bad things never happen to good people. Such a purpose would be
unachievable, if one counts human freedom into the calculation of good and evil. As Ive argued, it must be
counted. Nonetheless, what does occur naturally, including even the worst disasters, plagues and
environmental degradation, need not be thought to destroy the opportunities for spiritual growth and the
ultimate happiness of whatever people are affected by these events. Thats not to say they were put there by
God to test people. That is not a picture of a loving providence. Furthermore, it seems unquestionable that
most of the worlds woes are caused by humans, not by non-human natural occurrences (which insurance
companies ironically call acts of God, to relieve them from compensating customers for losses).
Purpose comes into the discussion, as it relates to what God is or is not able to do. It sounds quaint to
suggest it, against the thinking characteristic of our times, but it is quite reasonable to believe there is a
purpose for the whole cosmos the natural and spiritual universe (the visible and the invisible). This purpose
belongs to the divine source of everything; it is the creation of a heaven from the human race, in which the
endless number of people who have lived and will ever live, can mirror and receive the infinite forms of the
divine love, and be happy to eternity, fulfilling their unique parts in the whole. This is what Swedenborg
claims, in many places.

The ultimate purpose of creation is a heaven from the human race. I have explained in Heaven and Hell
(published in London in 1758) and earlier in the present work that heaven is made up solely of
individuals who have been born on earth, and since these are the only inhabitants of heaven, it follows
that the ultimate purpose of creation is a heaven from the human race.xi
The working of divine providence for our salvation starts with our birth and lasts to the end of our life
and then on to eternity. I have already explained that a heaven from the human race is the purpose of the
creation of the universe and that in its working and progress this purpose is the divine provision for our
salvation. I have also explained that all the things outside us, all the things that are useful to us, are
secondary purposes of creation. In summary, these are all the members of the three kingdoms: animal,
plant, and mineral. If these all constantly function according to the laws of the divine design established
at the very beginning of creation, then surely the primary purpose of creation, the salvation of the human
race, must constantly function according to its laws, which are the laws of divine providence.xii

Where do we come from? Where are we going?

As frequently stated above, it seems that many people dont really know what is morally right, and so are
unable to make independent critical moral choices in their private or public lives. This suggests that our
society somewhere lost its moral compass. Is there any evidence for that?
The ages of mankind
Its common, especially in traditional cultures, and especially among the elderly, to find critics
bemoaning the sorry state of their societies. What have we come to? Golden Ages are mentioned, in
Confucius, Plato, the biblical book of Daniel, and other places. But at the same time, by contrast, we hear of
seemingly historic reports from ancient cultures e.g. Egypt under the pharaohs, Greece in Platos time and
Confucius China describing how bad things have become, that young people have lost all respect for their
elders, and are irresponsible, selfish pleasure seekers. I read such reports forty years ago, for example, a
Letter from an Egyptian secretary that an agent of the Pharaoh who was working in the countryside sent to
his supervisor in the capital. Such documents support the belief that modern societies are not degenerating.
There has always been a generation gap that makes it appear that they are.
As it turns out, the so-called letter from an Egyptian secretary as well as some of Platos alleged critical
comments about his society, may simply be fabrications.xiii No one knows the author or time of these quotes,
which were widely circulated in the sixties, for reasons that are not hard to guess. I for one believed them,
which supports what Ive been saying; its hard to break the habit of believing a claim because we want it to
be true. But the truth here is probably closer to what one historian of the 19th century Elizabeth Sewell
stated in 1862: Disrespect to elders is entirely an invention of modern days.xiv
A century before Sewell offered her more orthodox evaluation, Swedenborg was writing about the
character of various epochs in human history. He claimed there was indeed a Golden Age, followed by a
Silver, Bronze, Iron and Iron-mixed-with-clay age (as told by the biblical prophet Daniel). Its not clear
what these descriptions refer to, although they do resemble the historical technological developments that
anthropologist use to mark the changes in in civilizations, after the stone age. In his work True Christianity
(1771), Swedenborg suggests these terms symbolize the slow spiritual decline of humankind, as the
knowledge of, and relation to God have changed.xv If that is true, then the advancements in technology are
inversely related to spiritual thinking of humans. Whether there is a causal relation between the two is an
interesting question, which I cannot answer.
Now whether or not such beliefs and quotations from ancient authors are spurious or based on reality,
its important to realize that people tend to take as evidence whatever supports their world view.
Objectivity is extremely difficult to develop, but not, I think, impossible. Traditional societies are typically
agricultural; reasonably enough, they value experience as the best guide for success. Elders are revered,
because they have the greatest experience. Confucian societies accord more status to people as they get older,
up to and even past the point of death. One might literally say to a sixty-year-old Korean, Why, you dont
look a day under seventy! thinking to compliment her. We cant imagine this happening in technological
America, where youth is imitated, and age is treated like disease, rather than valued.
The modern age
In contrast to traditionalists are those whose world view welcomes change, in the belief that the future
can and will be better than the present, and indeed, that the present is markedly better than the past. Much of
this optimistic assessment no doubt stems from confidence in science and technology. Progressives are apt
to judge advances more in terms of material comfort and convenience than in what might be called spiritual
values. But there are religious thinkers who also take a positive perspective about social development.
Teilhard de Chardin is famous and radical among these. A Jesuit priest and paleontologist, who embraced
evolution, he also held that humans are on a trajectory toward ultimate union with God.xvi
In addition, modern capitalism and science have altered traditional viewpoints radically and often
negatively. Traditions work against change, whereas capitalism demands change. It succeeds by finding what
is new and different cheaper production techniques, improved products, expanded markets, more effective
sales campaigns, etc. Often politicians on the right wing promote both conservative social traditions and
free market capitalism, which wants minimal governmental intervention for either economic or social
ends. They typically emphasize what are called family values, which means two parent families, children
within marriage, women at home. They disparage alternative life styles, abortion, and undocumented
immigration; and they bemoan programs (especially public ones) that encourage welfare (takers instead of
makers). But these criticisms seem inconsistent even hypocritical since many of the non-traditional
ways of life are direct effects of capitalism at work. Without due societal oversight, the trend has been toward
lower wages, decreased social support programs, inferior public education, unemployment caused by sending
jobs overseas, greater inequality of wealth, and increased indebtedness.
In recent times, say since 1970, the loudest advocates for free market enterprise, with the least
government control, have been those who dont actually participate in competitive enterprises, but are
beneficiaries of a manipulated, speculative and overdeveloped financial system they have led.xvii Leaders in
the so-called FIRE sector of the economy (Financials, Insurance and Real Estate) cheat their shareholders,
put their own institutions at risk, and threaten the economy as a whole, but nonetheless manage to receive
increasingly disproportionate personal wealth, and to escape government intervention. These are the
oligarchs, who are not makers, as their public image would have it, but owners (rentiers is the older
disparaging term). Their financial success (and others steadily increasing indebtedness) comes from
manipulating the governmental and financial systems, with little regard for what happens to the economy at
large, or what are the destructive social consequences. This is possible because of their influence over media,
and political institutions, which insure that laws regarding oversight, taxation, privacy, political
contributions, off-shore investments, etc., work in their favor. Jeffrey Winters Oligarchy (2011) is a
thorough study of this topic.xviii
Are we progressing or regressing or neither?
In our western society, those who believe in Golden Ages, and see a moral decline, live side by side with
those who believe in a generally positive trajectory into the future. One might conclude that its only a
question of the viewpoint of the critic, and cant be proven objectively. Perhaps ordinary people are both
optimistic and pessimistic. They want to believe in a happy future for themselves, but they often take a
negative view of those around them, in order to think well of themselves by comparison. As Shakespeare put
it, cynically, The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.xix
A third group, among whom I count myself, believe that neither a positive nor a negative development is
ever inevitable, but that human societies and epochs all have their rise and fall. They are cyclical.
Historically speaking, some have been long and others relatively short. And so it will be in future. In all these
cycles, there is an initial period of inception and growth, leading to a mature and fruitful condition. This is
followed by weakening commitment, fatigue and eventual death. It is like the four seasons of a year, or the
four periods of a day, or the four normal life stages of plants, animals and humans.xx
I hasten to add that the criteria for assessing such cyclical growth or decay are primarily mental and
social constructs, rather than physiological or environmental facts. In other words, these cyclical epochs are
measured in ideational (or spiritual), rather than material (or worldly) terms; so they cant easily be assessed,
nor will I attempt it. As mentioned above, Swedenborg did so convincingly in 1771, in his last work. G. K
Chesterton did so in his day, a century ago, in Whats Wrong With the World? He summarized his book in this
clever statement: The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult, and
left untried.xxi
According to the cyclical view of human existence, seeds of a new cycle lie dormant in the old, which
can initiate growth, once the old society is dead and out of the way. Human nature is neither good nor bad,
but changeable through a lifetime of choices. We have looked at choice in several places above, showing its
problematic nature. So the rise and fall of such cyclical ages is not at fixed intervals or of fixed duration.
Given the reasonable belief in the kind of providence Swedenborg describes, its possible to think that no
matter how grossly corrupt and self-destructive any age may become, there will always be a continuation of
humanity somewhere in the physical universe i.e. on the natural plane. But obviously this claim can only
be a matter of faith.

Religious Roots of Moral Principles

One of the most adamant and outspoken of materialist atheists in recent years is Christopher Dawkins, a
respected evolutionary biologist at Oxford. His book, The God Delusion, suggests that God is not the creator
of the universe, but the creation of immature and insecure minds.

There is something infantile in the presumption that somebody else has a responsibility to give your life
meaning and point The truly adult view, by contrast, is that our life is as meaningful, as full and as
wonderful as we choose to make it.xxii

More importantly, Dawkins argues that advocates of orthodox religions are immoral, to the extent that they
brainwash their children to believe as they believe, before they have reached enough maturity to decide for
themselves what is true. This idea has validity, on the surface; however, it cant be an indictment of religious
education in general. First, adults have various approaches to teaching children about their beliefs. These will
depend on the stages of mental maturity of both the child and the teacher. Indoctrination can be by
example, by instruction, or by compulsion, in various combinations. Secondly, all education, whether about
facts, or about values, involves the same question about freedom of belief at various stages of growth. The
issue of the approach to moral education was examined earlier, in comparing and contrasting Swedenborg
and Kant.
Universal Human Rights
The idea I do dispute is Dawkins claim that ordinary citizens know what is right or wrong without
religion, because the basic moral principles of modern western culture have been developed over time with
thought and practice. I disagree for several reasons. First, he is presenting a relativist viewpoint; moral values
do not develop over time, although the understanding of them may wax or wane. Secondly, if he is speaking
of ordinary moral rules, such as those expressed in the biblical Decalogue, these have been common to
religious societies around the world since long before the advent of secular states. And if he is speaking of
principles of justice as found in secular states in the West, they too can be seen to derive from religious ideas.
The latter point is well argued by Charles Taber, in his 2002 article, In the Image of God: The Gospel and
Human Rights. Taber speaks first about the concept of human rights, which historically is a modern
invention, in the revolutionary period of England, France, and America. At no time has that concept come
even close to being universally applied, in any society, including our own. Secondly, he shows that the basis
of this concept is Jesus idea of accepting all people as equally valuable.

The idea that some people have some rights is extremely ancient and widespread. But where did the idea
of universal, panhuman, and nondiscriminatory rights arise in the first place? The historical record is
clear: it arose fairly recently in the West. There is not a whisper of any such notion anywhere else in the
world outside the West before the late colonial era, at which time the subject peoples in the colonies,
tutored in the traditions of their exploiters, began to lay claim to the rights those traditions espoused.
What influences did the West experience that the rest of the world did not experience in the same
way or to the same degree for so many centuries? I can think of three possible candidates: the ancient
Athenians, the Hebrew Scriptures, and the Gospel of Jesus Christxxiii

Taber analyzes Hebrew, Athenian and Christian writings, and concludes that only Jesus teachings and
actions illustrate the concept that all humans are of equal dignity. I agree that Jesus clearly illustrated this
principle. But I think that the same idea is inherent, if not obvious, at the beginning of the Hebrew scriptures.
It is not evident in the later writings of Jewish history, after God designates Abraham to be the father of a
chosen people (Gen 12:1-3). But the first chapter of Genesis shows clearly that Gods creation is designed
for the equal benefit of all humans. So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he
created them; male and female he created them (Gen 1:27). The Hebrew word translated as mankind in
this text is adam, which means human. The whole of creation was for the sake of humankind not for any
particular race, nation, religion, class, age or gender.
It will no doubt be pointed out, correctly, that from Genesis chapter 2 onward, men and women are
distinguished in the religious laws, and indeed, after the Fall, God seems to put Eve in a subservient role to
her husband. Your desire shall be to your husband, and he shall rule over you (Gen 3:16). And after
Abraham is called, Jews are presented as superior to gentiles, and all the usual social distinctions apply in
Israel as apply in most other societies around it. Even so, I think the spirit of the creation story stands out as a
symbolic presentation of Gods love for every person. This love, which is more clearly mirrored in Jesus
teachings, is the unifying character of the divine one, who is equally concerned for all humans, and provides
for the welfare of every person, whatever might be her social condition, gender, or even belief regarding the
existence of God. Love is the essence of religious purity; it is also the essence of genuine morality. The
Golden Rule is an expression of that guiding principle. It helps us to view everyone as equal, at least in the
ideal, whether or not we feel that way. Treat others as you would want to be treated i.e. lovingly.
Religious societies and secular law
Sharia Law
Taber, in the article noted above, cites Abdullahi An-Naim, in support of his views about universal
rights. An-Naim says, [R]ights as rights to be accorded to every human being by virtue of being human is
of very recent theoretical origin, and remains largely unrealized in practice. Born in Sudan (1946) An-
Naim is a professor of law at Emory University, and an expert in international and Sharia law. His scholarly
work Islam and the Secular State (2012) is a comparative study of several historical efforts of liberal Muslim
rulers (in India, Indonesia, and Turkey) to bring their societies into accord with principles of equal treatment
and equal representation under law. He advocates the establishment of constitutional governments in
religious states, which give equal voice to all parties, regardless of religion, and protect certain persons from
persecution, regardless of majority desires. He shows that the popular idea of Sharia prevalent throughout the
Muslim world is an abuse of the spirit and letter of the Quran.
An-Naim was moved by, and now represents, the reform thinking of Mahmoud Muhammad Taha, his
older fellow Sudanese citizen and tutor, who was executed in 1983 on charges of apostasy, by the rigid
Islamist regime in Khartoum, under President Al-Nimeiri, a military dictator, who was later ousted by more
democratic forces. Tahas The Second Message of Islam (1967) was translated into English by An-Naim,
after Tahas death. It shows that so-called Sharia law represents a second revelation, given in Medina, to
accommodate a population of Jews and infidels, who were unruly, and lived by the sword. The earlier
doctrines, revealed at Mecca, expressed more general, and humane, doctrines, which recognized all peoples,
and represented womens interest more favorably. Tahas work has never caught on, as it opposes Sharia,
which is thoroughly and passionate embraced by most Sunna sects.xxiv
An-Naim speaks as a Muslim to other Muslims, rather than as a westerner trying to criticize non-
western political structures.xxv His thinking would be helpful, if his audience in Muslim countries were not
too caught up in anger and emotion, and manipulated by their leaders, to pay attention. His problem is
similar to what is happening to public discourse, and debates about law-making in the West. Citizens are
manipulated into opposing camps, and become extreme and unthinking, by forces and for reasons they fail to
understand. His most recent work, The Future of Sharia, is described as even more radical than Tahas
work.xxvi
Issues in the UN over traditional (non-western) values
In 2010, The United Nations High Commission on Human Rights (UNHCHR) hosted a workshop in
Geneva on traditional values and human rights, which was becoming a worldwide issue. Some of the
questions at that meeting, and the differing viewpoints they represent, are discussed by Dr. Obiajulu
Nnamuchi, in a scholarly study for the Kent-Chicago Law school in 2013.xxvii Representatives from Russia,
India, Saudi Arabia, China and other nations said that traditional values in each area were deeply influential
on the meaning of human rights, and that therefore there should be an on-going dialog about which ideas to
hold to. Nnamuchi reports on the conflict.

The major Western powers at the workshop the United States and the European Union veered in a
different direction. The United States representative was troubled by the notion of traditional values as
a relevant factor in human rights promotion and protection. The concept of traditional values is alien
to human rights and could detrimentally impact the observance of the universal principles already
endorsed by international human rights law. There is no universally agreed definition of the term
traditional values and this renders the concept so vague and imprecise as to be capable of being used
to legitimize human rights abuses. For these reasons, the United States would continue to support extant
framework and oppose attempts to use allegiance to traditional values as a subterfuge for violation of
human rights law. Similarly, Belgium (representing the European Union) was critical of the notion of
traditional values due to what it characterizes as its negative connotation, susceptibility to broad
interpretation, and likelihood of undermining the principles enshrined in international human rights
instruments. Only when traditional values are enriching of human rights do they deserve some
consideration, otherwise they should be discarded.xxviii

As an example, many advocates from African nations describe the idea of rights in cultural terms. African
society is traditionally community oriented. It is claimed that the notion of duty needs to be added to the
claims about rights. The whole emphasis of western values is on the individual; African values are based on
the group. But western values are based, it is argued, on Judeo-Christian religious thinking, which makes the
claim for independent, universal rights of individuals seems somehow inconsistent. Nnamuchi continues,

African ethics, no doubt, is boldly communitarian. The basic social unit in an African society is the
community whose good, as conceived by them, incorporates those of its individual members. In African
ontology, a person or personhood is defined in terms of affinity to family, clan, village and so forth, to
which the individual owes his existence. This affinity or relationship not only gives individuals their
identities but also structures their very existence. Noted African philosopher John Mbiti explains:
Only in terms of other people does the individual become conscious of his own being, his own
duties, his privileges and responsibilities towards himself and towards other people. When he suffers, he
does not suffer alone but with his corporate group: when he rejoices, he rejoices not alone but with his
kinsmen, his neighbours and his relatives . . . Whatever happens to the individual happens to the whole
group, and whatever happens to the whole group happens to the individual. The individual can only say:
I am, because we are; and since we are therefore I am. This is the cardinal point in the understanding of
the African view of man.xxix
This means, in essence, that traditional Africans typically think of societal needs as definitive of
their being and existence.xxx
International law
Obviously, the conflicts spoken of above are strongly felt on all sides. Its well to remember that the
concept of rights is a concept in law. Most generally, rights are defined by those who make the laws, and
these lawmakers obligate themselves to guarantee those rights, or at least not to violate them. Without some
guarantor, in the form of governmental power which resides with the people in democratic states rights
are empty demands or simply wishes. When the United Nations speaks about human rights, it is speaking
as a collection of states who, in some sense, have agreed to put themselves in accord with the conventions
and agreements their representatives make in general assembly, often frustrated by lack of compliance, or
intervention by nations which hold special status.
Talk about universal rights began in earnest with the American Declaration of Independence:

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands
which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate
and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the
opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by
their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of
Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just
powers from the consent of the governed, ...xxxi

Notice that according to this declaration, both individuals (all men), and nations (powers of the earth)
are said to have rights. It is said that both the laws of nature, and the laws of God who creates nature provide
these rights. This is presented as a matter of both religious belief, and self-evident truth. So the confusion
among traditional religious notions of human rights and the western secularized version of these rights is
understandable. There is, I think, no way of getting around the current conflict except for the members to
recognize and accept that the United Nations is a secular, constitutional legal organization not a divinely
given law and its members therefore need to agree, for practical purposes, on the rights they will afford to
member states and their citizens, and work to see that they arent violated.
To give a controversial example, think of female circumcision. People around the world, east and west,
are divided over the fact that young women in some African states at puberty are expected to undergo a ritual
genital surgical alteration, which differs from community to community. One form or another of this ritual is
widespread in Sudan, Mali, Ethiopia and Somalia. Just naming the ritual is a problematic exercise in political
correctness. I have seen it described as female circumcision, female genital ritual (FGR), female genital
mutilation (FGM) and female genital cutting.
Regardless of the questions about the rights of girls and women in regard to this ritual, there is the
question of health risks involved. For decades, this has been of concern to the World Health Organization,
which is an agency of the United Nations. In 1997, a joint report of the UN agencies WHO, UNICEF and
UNFPA (Fund for Population Activities) published a joint finding, recommending against this practice, and
renewed the effort in 2012.xxxii
Whether or not controversial practices put western views of rights at odds with those of traditional
societies, its clear to me that the questions of cultural and ethical relativity are at work here, about which we
have spoken above. I have argued frequently in this study that all the issues of ethics and societal values are
best solved by taking a spiritual perspective that ultimately rests on religious beliefs. Still, such beliefs can be
examined rationally, and subjected to philosophical argument. In the present case, where human rights are
being linked to traditional values, it seems to me that the most general expression of what is right and good
rests with the idea that God is good, and God is love. I think this could work in practice for people of every
faith and every system of cultural values, if the thought of how love presents itself in action were kept in
mind. If, on the other hand, societies around the world continue to favor their particular cultural practices,
and give them a covering of religiosity, imposed by authorities, for the benefit of the authorities, there is little
reason to expect a happy outcome. All these questions have been multiplied a thousand fold in the 21st
century with the increase of violence and terrorism in many parts of the world, and the violent and terrifying
reaction of those who talk and behave as if hate can be conquered by hate in return.
i The latter was quoted from an anonymous source in Daniel Dennetts (2006). Breaking the Spell:
Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (New York: Viking Penguin, 2006), p. 17.

ii For a good summary of these differences, and commentary about them, see Wikipedia, Gospel
harmony.

iii See, e.g., Howard Gardner Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, (New York: Basic
Books, 1983), and criticisms of the same.

iv Swedenborg, Divine Love and Wisdom #33 (Dole transl). Swedenborg uses the new Latin term
Creatrix (Creatress) here.

v Swedenborg, Divine Providence #308, emphasis added.

vi Divine Providence #s 309/3; 309/4.

vii Divine Providence #308/2, emphasis added.

viii Divine Providence #310/ 2, emphasis added.

ix See Justin Synnestvedt, Creation and the Fall at Scribd.com.

x See Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (N.Y.: W. W. Norton, 2011) for
a history of the discovery and influence of this banned book.

xi Swedenborg, Divine Providence #323.1.

xii Divine Providence #332.1.

xiii In F. R. Shapiro, ed., Yale Book of Quotations, under Socrates, a spurious quote of Socrates is
described, allegedly supported by an ancient Egyptian papyrus.

xiv Elisabeth M. Sewell, Ancient History of Egypt, Assyria and Babylonia, Kessinger Legacy
Reprints, 1862.
xv Swedenborg, True Christianity, Ch. 14.

xvi Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man (Paris: Editions de Seuil 1955), English
editions 1959.

xvii For a good overview of the financial forces in the past half century, see Michael Hudson, The
Slow Crash, in NakedCapitalism, June 25, 2016.

xviii See Jeffrey A. Winters, Oligarchy (N.Y: Cambridge, 2011). See also Matt Taibbi, Secrets and
Lies of the Bailout, Rolling Stone, Jan 17, 2013; William Black, Two Sentences that Explain the
Crisis and How Easy It Was to Avoid, in NewEconomicPerspectives, July 9, 2013; and L. R. Wray,
Its Official. Too Big to Fail is Alive and Well, in NewEconomicPerspectives, August 16, 2014.
NakedCapitalism.com, edited by Yves Smith (pen name for Susan Webber), and
NewEconomicPerspectives.org, edited by Stephanie Kelton and others, are two blog sites that regularly
explain macroeconomic aspects of Modern Money Theory, and their application to fiscal policies,
financial business, and economic trends in the U.S. and around the world.

xix Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act 3, scene 2.

xx For example, see Swedenborg, True Christianity #762.

xxi G. K. Chesterton, Whats Wrong with the World? 1910.

xxii Christopher Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 2006).

xxiii Charles R. Taber, In the Image of God: The Gospel and Human Rights, International Bulletin of
Missionary Research, July 2002.

xxiv Mahmoud Mohamed Taha, The Second Message of Islam, An-Naim translation (Syracuse, N.Y.:
Syracuse U. Press, 1996).

xxv Abdullahi An-Naim, Islam and the secular State: Negotiating the Future of Sharia (Cambridge,
MA: Harvard University Press, 2008).

xxvi For a fine summary of reform efforts in Sudan, see George Packer, The Moderate Martyr, The
New Yorker, Sept 11, 2006.
xxvii Dr. Obiajulu Nnamuchi, Toward a new human rights paradigm: integrating hitherto neglected
traditional values into the corpus of human rights and the legitimacy question, in Chicago-Kent
Journal of International and Comparative Law, Vol 14 (2013), 24-85.

xxviii Nnamuchi, p. 31.

xxix John S. Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy (1969, p. 108.

xxx Nnamuchi, p. 48.

xxxi Opening lines of the Declaration of Independence (emphasis added).

xxxii See the WHO Fact Sheet on Female Genital Mutilation, Feb 2012. For a critique of the way
FGM affects the thinking of western medical professionals, see also Kirsten Bell, Genital Cutting and
Western Discourses on Sexuality, in Medical Anthropology Quarterly, Vol 19 #2 (June 2005) 125
-148.