Emmanuel Swedenborg (1688-19772) reported in one of his spiritual experiences (True Christian Religion No. 508) that he saw a magnificent temple, representing the New Church in the process of descending from heaven to earth. Over the gate to the temple, the words “nunc licet” (tr. “now allowed”) appeared. Swedenborg explains that the words “signified that now it is permitted to enter understandingly into the mysteries of faith.”
Archways in the Bryn Athyn Cathedral.
Swedenborg was a scientist before he was a religious revelator, in a period of tremendous change as the industrial revolution was just beginning. He approached his religious experiences with a scientist’s mind, writing detailed notes and making innumerable cross-references in an effort to be comprehensive and consistent. In this he was largely successful, although his writing is sometimes tedious and not always comprehensible. As to the veracity of his claims and the specificity of his descriptions, I place these questions in a special category as “neither verifiable nor disprovable.” God is infinite, and our attempts as finite human beings to articulate our relationship with the infinite is going to reflect our human limitations. Swedenborg was brilliant, a trained scientist and a thoroughly grounded scholar, but he was still a man of his times, grappling with the ineffability of God and Heaven.
“Nunc Licet” implies that spiritual faith is a matter for rational consideration, and that we can continue to improve our understanding of spiritual truth. This idea may be heretical to many religious institutions. Nevertheless, there are great thinkers in all religious and philosophical traditions that have contributed to an extensive body of writings offering us rational insights into matters of faith. Indeed, all religions have something to offer, in return for patient and open-minded inquiry into their core spiritual principals.
Paradoxically, one could spend many lifetimes exploring all of the spiritual writings now so easily accessible, and yet one might still be no closer to finding faith. This is because faith is not simply a rational process of evaluating ideas. Faith also requires that an idea be affirmed with conviction. This conviction requires an act of the will; it is a matter of the heart. And, as Bonnie Raitt declares in the song I Can’t Make You Love Me, “You can’t make your heart feel something it won’t.”
The rational mind cannot tell the heart what to feel. What motivates our hearts is love. Faith, then, is the result of a process by which one falls in love, not with a person, but with affections, feelings and ideas that one is exposed to and has the opportunity to explore.
Love directs our faith. In turn, faith guides our reason. If we have faith in the randomness of creation, we will see randomness. If we have faith in the purpose of creation, we will see purpose.
If we are not sure what to believe, then we benefit by suspending disbelief and exploring the liminal spaces, the gaps, in our experiences and our understanding. Seek the source of meaning in your life, and you may find a love that guides and binds. You may find faith.
Faith: a complex interaction of heart and mind, cognition and intuition.
My experience of a loving marriage to Wenda has been such a source of insight and meaning for me, but there are others: The innocent and gloriously spontaneous affection of a new baby; peak experiences of joy, awe and humility in nature; meditation on sacred texts or the teaching of sages; or the inner life of the mind and heart. These can all be sources of inspiration that can help us suspend our rational doubts and open up to convictions of faith from our hearts. Paradoxically, suspending doubts requires putting aside the rational self. Faith, when it comes, is not from the self, but is ultimately a gift.
I have faith that an infinite God created and sustains the natural world and all of its many and varied wonders. That creation involved a separation of the finite from the infinite, a distinction between nothingness and infinity. This primal creative act brought into being the natural world and the conscious human beings that study it using the tools of math and science. The empirical knowledge we have collected is true, but incomplete. It cannot explain the world’s origins, its purpose, or its meaning.
Swedenborg says that the fundamental purpose of the universe is the creation of a heaven of angels from the human race, and that the goal of heaven is perfection to eternity in loving, peaceful communion with God.
This reciprocal communion requires that we be born into the natural world with the gift of our soul and the free will to make our own choices. Like the faith and the love that grounds it, communion cannot be forced – it must be freely given. It is in the choosing that we make our relationship with God reciprocal.
We choose what voices to listen to, what words to read, and what experiences to pay attention to. We can choose whether to be open to new ideas, including spiritual ideas, or to reject them. We can choose to love only ourself and our material life, or to turn our love toward other people, to all of creation and, ultimately, to God. Those choices shape the trajectory of our lives, both in this world and for eternity.
Epilogue: What do you see?
I have done a fair amount of hiking over the years, and I always like to get to the top of a mountain and take in the view. I have wondered what it is about those views that are so compelling and awe-inspiring. The best explanation I can come up with is that mountain views (and sometimes ocean and lake views) bring us into a visual field that is more finely grained than the human eyes and brain are able to perceive. We are confronted with an image of infinity, incomprehensibly vast and beautiful. Whenever my wife and I reach a mountain viewpoint, we enjoy the vista and then offer a prayer of gratitude to the infinite God that created it, and a petition for peace and blessings to all who are in need.
View of the Lauterbrunnen Valley, Bernese Oberland.
For a download of the entire essay series as one publication: http://spiralinquiry.org/publications/
Episode 1 – Sources of Faith
Episode 2 – The Downward Spiral
Episode 3 – Minding the Gaps
Episode 4 – Peeling Back the Layers
Episode 5 – Love’s Embrace
Episode 6 – What is Meant to Be?
Episode 7 – Choose Wisely