Evil in the Name of Religion

I don’t know about you, but for me it took the attacks in Paris to actually put some effort into learning about ISIS. I really haven’t cared too much about them because they felt like relatively few. The truth is, they are relatively few: there are 1,600,000,000 Muslims in the world, and only 31,500 active fighters in ISIS. So there really are not that many of them. They would only take the Sydney Cricket Ground to ⅔ capacity. In a world of 7 billion people, they are a minority of minorities. Yet they are acting out in evil ways, so who are they, and what do they want?

I came across an article titled, “What ISIS Really Wants,” written in The Atlantic magazine back in March of this year. It’s a long read, but if you really want to know more about ISIS, it lays out the logic for what we are seeing. For now, though, let’s start with some basics. As you may know, just as there are different Christian denominations, there are different Islamic sects. You’ve likely heard of Shias and Sunnis, and ISIS is a Shia organisation. This becomes an important piece of the puzzle as we find that the two sects differ on how a Caliph comes to power. The Caliph is essentially a Pope for Islam. The Sunnis say that the Caliph should be elected by the Muslim people. The Shias say that he should be chosen by God from a direct descendant of Muhammed.

In the case of ISIS, their leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has declared that he is a Caliph, and taken the name of Caliph Ibrahim and organised ISIS as a Caliphate, i.e. a fundamentalist Islamic government. They take the Koran literally and make every effort to do exactly as Mohammed did, 1400 years ago. This, as you might expect, includes waging holy wars, beheadings and all of the other unpleasant things that were done in the middle ages. ISIS is claiming to be a Caliphate, and, as such, Muslims are now obligated to join together and follow the rules set out in the Koran.

This affects foreign policy. Without a Caliphate, offensive jihad is an inapplicable concept. They must now start an “offensive jihad” where they forcibly expand into countries that are ruled by non-Muslims. One ISIS supporter says, “Hitherto, we were just defending ourselves.” But the waging of war to expand the caliphate is an essential duty of the Caliph. Further, he presents the laws of war under which the Islamic State operates as policies of mercy rather than of brutality. He claims the state has an obligation to terrorise its enemies—a holy order to scare the hell out of them with beheadings and crucifixions and enslavement of women and children, because “doing so hastens victory and avoids prolonged conflict.”

With this very basic understanding of ISIS, what I hear is that it is an organisation that is dedicated to controlling others and making themselves prominent in the name of religion. This isn’t exactly a new concept. Christians have a long history of doing this, too, but in fact it pre-dates Christianity and Judaism. It’s been around for a long, long time. While blame for the first sin is laid at the feet of Adam and Eve in the third chapter of Genesis, it only takes until chapter 11 for people to start manipulating others through the perversion of religion.

At the start of the chapter everything is fine, there’s one language and one speech. The deeper meaning is that, in regards to spirituality, everybody acknowledges that charity is of the highest priority and the essential of the life of the church (AC 1327). Just a few lines later we get this: “And they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.’” (Genesis 11:4) What was their motivation? Making a name for themselves. Not exactly what you would consider a good motivation. In fact, it is the love of self casting its long shadow over the minds of people and blotting out the light that is from God.

As an ancient observer, it would likely have been hard to see what was really going on because the Bible tells us that the worship they offered God looked perfectly fine to the eyes and ears. Their external actions were in line with everybody else. In the same way, the worship ISIS is offering Allah may be perfectly fine on an external level. However, the hearts of the people of Babel were set on the control of others and gaining power for themselves. This lust for power had no limits as evidenced by their desire to have their tower reach heaven so as to eventually overthrow God himself. While ISIS hasn’t made claims to want to overthrow God, they have certainly shown a desire for power and making others submit to their rule. I doubt that the desire to overthrow God can be far behind, because:

“By nature, self-love runs wild to the extent that its reins are loosened… It runs wild even to the extent of wanting to rule not only over the whole globe but even over all heaven and the Lord himself. It knows no bound or limit… We cannot fail to see this in people in power and kings who are not held back by any such restraints. They run wild and conquer as many territories and kingdoms as they can and aspire to boundless power and glory.” (HH 559)

Isn’t that exactly what we’re seeing with ISIS? They’re running wild trying to conquer as much territory as they can and aspiring to boundless power and glory. If you Google, “What does Allah want from me?” you won’t find ‘conquer as much territory as possible’ in the search results. It’s because that’s not what Allah wants, but it is what they want, so they do it in Allah’s name.

Yet despite the insanity of what they are doing, they have still attracted people to their cause. There’s a spiritual principle at play here: like attracts like. In the next life there is heaven and hell, where the good and evil are separated, and the New Church teaches that this separation is achieved through free will. We choose to be with people just like us, whether they are in heaven or in hell. Likewise, ISIS is providing a ‘come home’ beacon to all people who are of a like mindset. If what you want is to control the lives of others under the guise of saying this is true Sharia law, then ISIS is the place for you. The teachings of ISIS state that believers are required to live in a Caliphate if it is possible for them to do so, which is why people from Western democracies are joining the Caliphate on a one-way ticket. Apparently, in one ISIS propaganda video you’ll find a group of jihadists burning their French, British, and Australian passports.

Again this parallels the Tower of Babel story in that the people who wanted to build the tower separated themselves from everybody else. We’re taught that this is a natural separation because the holy cannot be with the profane (AC 1326). Evil people actually don’t like to be around good people. Likewise people who are profaning Islam, that is, mixing good external worship with evil internal motives, cannot be with those who are in the true worship of Allah. So perhaps the creation of ISIS isn’t just about mis-management of the the middle east, but rather that there is an even more powerful spiritual principle at play: that good and evil people just separate from each other naturally. The result is that we are now able to see the evil much more clearly, which will prevent people from being duped into taking on these beliefs.

In the end, we see that the Lord interfered and prevented the Tower of Babel from being built. When the Israelites were captives in Babylon, He brought them back. Eventually He will bring about an end to ISIS one way or another. He has been fighting for us against the love of self for a long, long time. He’s won this battle before, and He’ll win it again. After all, the Lord Jesus Christ reigns.

Substituting “Angels” for “Aliens”

It all started in 1968 when Erich von Däniken wrote his now classic book, Chariots of the Gods? Despite its sensational nature, the premise was simple enough: that aliens had visited Earth and influenced ancient civilizations. Not only that, but that there is evidence for this in the archaeological remains. Since the first edition of his book von Daniken has been promoting this message and has inspired others to agree and find even more evidence of ancient alien encounters. You won’t be surprised to hear that there is a fair bit of speculation around the Egyptian pyramids, after all, how could the ancients create such structures without the use of computers, cranes and other modern technology? They must have had help from above! I tend to agree, but think that it was help from angels and not from aliens.

The teachings for the New Church give us a big picture history of humanity. Essentially that, like recorded in other cultures, time can be separated into different ages. In Secrets of Heaven we are told that there is a “most ancient church” that equates with the dawn of humanity, and an “ancient church” that follows and ends with the story of Noah. The most ancients had an open connection to the hereafter, and we see that illustrated in the Adam and Eve story because God is walking in the garden with them. Because of this open connection, they had a clear understanding about the true nature of reality, and were rich in wisdom as a result.

After that time, God becomes more distant because humanity turned away from Him. God does talk to Noah, but not in the same way as with Adam and Eve. While there wasn’t literally a flood that wiped out humanity, the stories through the first 11 chapters of the Bible are written in a symbolic language that was passed down from the wisdom of their ancestors as well as communication with the spiritual realm. Secrets of Heaven puts it this way: “As the ancients had interaction with spirits and angels, they had no other speech than this, which was full of representatives, and in every expression of which there was a spiritual sense. The books of the ancients were also written in this way; for it was the study of their wisdom so to speak and so to write. (#3482)”

We get a couple of important points out of that quote: first that the ancients had contact with spirits and angels, and second that their wisdom consisted of expressing things in a spiritual way. Not surprisingly, Giorgio Tsoukalos, the publisher of Legendary Times magazine and a regular on the program “Ancient Aliens” reads the archaelogical evidence a bit differently. At the Dendera temple complex in Egypt there is a depiction on the wall that normal people think looks like a lotus flower in bloom and from the blossom is light coming out of it. Tsoukalos says that it is in fact a depiction of an ancient light bulb and that the Egyptians were given knowledge of electricity from the aliens. He goes on to say, that “Dendera… was the place where the knowledge of the light giving source was kept.” Well, I tend to agree with him on that! It’s just that the light giving source is God, not a light bulb. He should be able to see this for himself because he then says, “this knowledge was kept by the high priests who were the only ones privy to this type of information because Dendera was the special place where this knowledge was guarded and kept.” Yep, that sounds like a light bulb… priests are known for guarding the secrets of alien technology.

No! The knowledge being kept was the knowledge of how the natural world and the spiritual world are connected. “The wisdom of [ancient Egyptian] times was in fact based on the study of correspondences. That study gave them inner awareness and communication with the heavens. The people who knew the correspondences in that Word were called “the wise” and “the intelligent.” Later they were called “diviners” and “magi.” (Secrets of Heaven 279)” This is the kind of knowledge that would later enable some Egyptians to perform real magic. It also was preserved in “the east” and how the wise men of Christmas story knew how to find Jesus.

Beyond light bulbs, one of the main points of contention regarding the pyramids is the thousands of stone blocks that make up the outer shell. Archaeologists believe that it took 22 years to build the great pyramid, but some astute scholars note that if that was the case it would mean that they would have had to place a stone block every nine seconds! That’s pretty hard to do if you’re having to cut a stone out of a quarry, drag it across the desert and up the side of a large structure. However, there is a simpler explanation. In the early 80s one archaelogist proposed that the pyramids are actually made of ancient concrete. They found all the necessary materials nearby the pyramids and found that with papyrus a person could make the forms necessary to hold the liquid concrete in place. You could create the block in its place and over time the papyrus would disintegrate leaving the structure looking the way it does. But a story like that doesn’t keep you on the TV…

Egypt is not the only place the aliens allegedly visited though. Out in the desert of Peru the natives had such a connection with the gods, er, aliens, that they created artwork for them to enjoy. The designs are shallow lines made in the ground by removing the reddish pebbles and uncovering the whitish/grayish ground beneath. Hundreds are simple lines or geometric shapes; more than 70 are designs of animals such as birds, fish, llamas, jaguars, monkeys, or human figures. Other designs include shapes such as trees and flowers. The largest figures are over 200 meters across. Scholars differ in interpreting the purpose of the designs, but in general, they ascribe religious significance to them. That they do have religious significance makes sense and also falls in line with the idea that the ancients would have had connection with the spiritual realm. Alien theorists say that these drawings could only be enjoyed from above, and since humans couldn’t fly they must have been drawn for aliens… or for the angels that would visit them from above.

These theories have been out for many years, but just this year I came across one that I’d never heard before, namely that the universe is a computer game designed by aliens! British philosopher Nick Bostrom says he believes that the reality we perceive around us may be the product of a highly-advanced computer program, much like the plot of the Matrix movies. Dr. Bostrom proposed in a paper he wrote that an evolved race of aliens have imprisoned the human-race in what he refers to as a “digital imprisonment.” These aliens, or super-humans, are using virtual reality to simulate space and time, according to Bostrom. Amazingly he’s even got a leading NASA scientist giving him some backing.

He won’t get that from me though. I have no problem with the idea that aliens exist, and I’m even comfortable with the idea that they’ve visited, but I also think that aliens are getting more credit than they deserve. I could go on and on about this, but hopefully you get the idea and next time you hear some crazy story about how aliens have influenced our ancient past, just maybe think that it was angels giving us a helping hand and not the aliens.

The Value of Life

The Value of Life

Over the course of my life, I have heard from many people who have lost a loved one due to an unfortunate accident petition and clamour for some new safety regulation. Objectors will point to the added cost, which can take the form of the raising of prices to fit new technology – for example, it costs more to put air bags in cars, or it can be a regulatory cost in the sense that it will cost the government more to oversee and enforce the new regulation. No matter what the cost is, though, these proponents of safety will say, ‘Yes, but if just one life is saved it will all be worth it.’

Those of us who are not like the tin man and have a heart will nod our heads and think, ‘Yes, if it was my wife/husband/child/parent/loved one who was saved by this new rule, I would be willing to pay extra.’ It is hard to disagree. However, every now and again we are afforded opportunities to put a quantitative value on human life. Often this is done by our buying life insurance policies. We think about what we’d like our surviving family to receive to keep them financially comfortable, factor in the cost of a policy and come up with a rough approximation of what our life is ‘worth.’ Usually it is substantially less than the cost to add air bags or anti-lock brakes to every single car sold in the country.

More recently I read about another valuation of life. On 11 February the captain of the ill-fated Italian cruise liner Costa Concordia was sentenced to 16 years in prison after sinking the ship due to navigating it into an underwater rock that was off the prescribed course. The news agency that I saw reported that the 16 year sentence amounted to 6 months in prison for every life lost. According to the court, the sentence actually breaks down to ten years for multiple manslaughter, five years for causing the shipwreck, one year for abandoning the passengers, and one month for providing false information to port authorities. Using the court figures it comes down to 3.75 months of prison per life.

This seems like a pretty low value to human life, even though the accident was certainly not intentional and not deserving of the higher penalties associated with murder. It is certainly a far cry from the ‘if just one life is saved it will be worth it’ valuation that is so common. I wonder which is right. More specifically, I wonder if we over-value human life?

The Bible certainly takes a dim view of murder, no doubt. Murder is the first crime mentioned when Cain kills Abel in Genesis chapter 4. The punishment is swift and severe: ‘So now you are cursed from the earth, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you till the ground, it shall no longer yield its strength to you. A fugitive and a vagabond you shall be on the earth.’ (Gen 4:11, 12) It’s not the death penalty, but it is harsh and does reflect a high value on human life.

Similarly people have generally heard the Biblical quote, ‘An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’ (Exodus 21:24), which indicates taking a life for a life. If you don’t know the context of this quote you can walk away thinking that God instructs us to take a eye for an eye, or life for life. However, what God was doing was putting a restriction on retaliation. In ancient times people acted more like thugs than civilised people. You kill my brother, my family will kill all of your brothers! So the law came down saying, ‘No, you mustn’t wipe out somebody else’s family because one of yours was killed.’ Interestingly this the chapter just after the Lord gave the 10 Commandments, which of course includes ‘Thou shalt not murder’ (Exodus 20:13). The Lord considered murder to be evil enough that it made the list of 10 Commandments, but it seems that in chapter 21 He had to add the ‘eye for an eye’ to it because He was aware of the people’s tendency toward murderous rage.

Things take a different turn when we go to the New Testament, though. While there is still murder happening – Herod had the little boys killed – Jesus then raises the bar on the Old Testament teachings. ‘But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.’ (Matthew 5:39) Jesus goes on, saying, ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.’ (Matthew 5:43-45) Telling people to do good for those who have done bad to them is a big ask. It doesn’t mean that life is lightly valued, though, just that those who are wronged are asked to be the bigger person and deal with the situation as God would.

So it seems that life is greatly valued, right? I’m not entirely convinced. When I look at True Christianity where it examines the 10 Commandments, it goes down the same track that Jesus took in that it raises the bar as to what murder is. ‘In a broader earthly meaning, murdering includes hostility, hatred, and revenge, which involve longing for someone’s death. Murder lies hidden inside these feelings like an area that is still burning inside a piece of wood under the ashes. Hellfire is nothing else. This is why we say someone blazes with hatred or burns for revenge.’ (TC 309). This teaching comes across to me as a dire warning about what murderous thoughts do to the person who has them, and it is notable to me that it does not say, ‘Life is precious, so we shouldn’t destroy it.’

When I look around at the world I don’t see that the Lord has set up as His primary objective to preserve the earthly life of His people. There’s no way around it: He lets people die. Young people, old people, rich people, poor people, it doesn’t matter. Lots of people die before their time. When Jesus walked the world His priority wasn’t preventing preventable deaths. He didn’t go around handing out hard hats and steel-tipped boots. His goal was to keep us from eternal death by preserving our spiritual freedom. We read that ‘the Lord guards freedom in man as man guards the pupil of his eye’ (Divine Providence 97). This is what the Lord values! Spiritual freedom, which is the ability to freely choose whether we will do good or bad things. Earthly life? Well, yes, I’m sure it is valued, but not nearly as much.

This is why we really have to make our belief in the afterlife essential to our mental well-being. If we think this is all there is, it certainly makes our time here extremely valuable. If we think that we’ll live forever in a much nicer place, then maybe having our lives cut short by accident isn’t actually that big of a deal. Okay, I admit it, I’m sounding a bit like the tin man now: all cold and heartless. For me, this low valuation of earthly human life helps keep me feeling compassion for those who do acts of evil because I worry for their eternal souls, and I can still feel confident that the people who have suffered loss will be reunited with their loved ones in due time. God is asking us to not be like thugs and feel that need for revenge, because all will be made right in the end.

Jihadi Jake and Our Idea of God

It has been all over the news the last few weeks. Jake Bilardi, an 18 year old boy, born and raised in Melbourne, recently blew himself up in an attempted suicide attack after joining the terrorist organization ISIS. His attack failed in that nobody else was killed other than himself, but nevertheless people around the country and the world are wondering, “How could this happen? How could one of our own turn into such an extremist?”

Good questions. In a blog titled “Jihadis fill atheist void,” by Miranda Devine, she offers her explanation as to why. She writes:

“[Jake was the] youngest of six children in suburban Melbourne, Bilardi lost his father to divorce when he was nine, and his mother to cancer when he was 15. Brought up an atheist, highly intelligent, he had no anchors in his life at a time when he was seeking spiritual nourishment. He converted to Islam shortly after his mother died, before dropping out of school in August to run off to Syria and join Islamic State.”

She goes on to state that Jake’s atheist upbringing, compounded with the unstable family life, left his soul as “easy prey” to the ISIS people who were wanting to exploit it. I don’t know about you, but it doesn’t sound too far fetched to me. As teens we are all vulnerable. We do dumb things. We tend to see the world in black and white terms because we haven’t developed the ability to really see and understand the nuances of life.

What was also lacking for Jake, and for many people in the world, is a right idea of God. My experience with some atheists is that their disbelief in God is rooted in being unable to reconcile the world as they see it and the idea that there is a higher being orchestrating all of this. After all, if God’s so powerful and so loving, how come there is so much suffering? That’s usually the line I hear. Others reject God because of what they’re taught about Him. The mainstream Christian view of God is really pretty insane. God the Father, who is all love, needs His people to be punished so He can look upon them favorably. So to appease His anger for what people have done, He sends His Son to be murdered. Then God will be happy. Really? Somehow I don’t think I would be happier with a bunch of people because they murdered my only son.

Beyond making God out to be some sort of a vengeful maniac, this line of thinking attributes earthly ways and thoughts to God. Just because us Earthlings are so messed up in the head doesn’t mean that God is. At one point Swedenborg begs his readers, absolutely implores them, to think of their highest concept of goodness, justice and mercy, and apply those to their idea of God. Stop thinking that just because you’re vengeful and angry that God is too. He goes on to state in a few places that ultimately our concept of God is the single greatest determinant of where we end up in the next life. At first pass this seems a bit of an exaggeration. Surely what we do in our life has a greater bearing on our eternal destination that our view of God, right?

Well, I think what we are being taught is that one follows the other. If you think God is jerk, then we can be jerks too. So maybe instead of asking why Jake blew himself up and ask, “What was Jake’s idea of God?” We know that up to age 15 he was raised atheist, but after his mother passed away he was converted to Islam. We don’t know how his atheist upbringing effected him specifically, but we are taught that one of the effects of atheism is that it will close our minds to higher ways of thinking. Instead of thinking from higher principles we think from our own prudence. Perhaps this means we start to pursue our own priorities, ideas of justice, and mercy… or maybe we just forget about mercy altogether.

It does seem that mercy wasn’t a key component of Jake’s world view. He said, “After I became the ‘radical, terrorist’ I am today though, I woke up to the reality of these pigs and monkeys and accepted that there is nothing between us and them but the sword.” In some ways, we can relate to this line of thinking. As I alluded to earlier, if somebody kills my son there’s going to be a strong pull for retaliation on my part. When we see or hear about people who are truly and deeply evil, most of us are would not be too upset if their life was taken from this earth.

However, that is not what Jesus modeled for us. That is not the New Church view of God. We believe that God loves everybody, including evil people. He doesn’t want or wish for them to be evil, but He loves them nevertheless. If He didn’t love them, they would cease to exist. We would cease to love them and they would cease to exist, but that’s not what God would do. As Jesus walked the earth and the local population stopped loving Him, He still loved them. Even as they put Him on the cross and murdered Him, He still loved them. He loved them so that they, and well as you and me, could continue to exist. Mercy ruled. Mercy had priority over justice.

This isn’t how ISIS or any of the terrorists including Jake prioritize mercy. After beheading 21 Christian Egyptians an ISIS leader came out to say, “And we will conquer Rome, by Allah’s permission, the promise of our Prophet, peace be upon him.” Right there we see their idea of God: a God that wants to conquer. A God that wants the death of those who do not love Him and Him alone. There’s no mercy in that. That’s not the New Church view, and certainly not all Muslims see God in this way, but it is clear that Jake Bilardi did.

Did Moses Have Epilepsy?

Was it all just in your head? That’s the common question people have after having some sort of a spiritual experience. As it turns out, there are a lot of people who need to answer that question. According to a recent study about 50% of people say they’ve had some sort of an experience where they’ve encountered God, or touched some other dimension of reality. It can happen in various ways, whether by a vision, a voice, or a dream that is more than a dream and is somehow much more real. After having such an experience people always say, “It was REAL!” but skeptics question whether or not that “real” experience was just in their heads.

That’s exactly what Jeff Schimmel believes. The 49-year-old Los Angeles writer was raised in a Conservative Jewish home. But he never bought into God — until after he was touched by a being outside of himself. I read about Schimmel in an article by Barbara Bradley Hagerty, and he recounts to her the following:

“Yeah,” Schimmel says, “I was touched by a surgeon.”
About a 15 years ago, Schimmel had a benign tumor removed from his left temporal lobe. The surgery was a snap. But soon after that — unknown to him — he began to suffer mini-seizures. He’d hear conversations in his head. Sometimes the people around him would look slightly unreal, as if they were animated. Then came the visions. He remembers twice, lying in bed, he looked up at the ceiling and saw a swirl of blue and gold and green colors that gradually settled into a shape. He couldn’t figure out what it was.
“And then, like a flash, it dawned on me: ‘This is the Virgin Mary!’ ” he says. “And you know, it’s funny. I laughed about it, because why would the Virgin Mary appear to me, a Jewish guy, lying in bed looking at the ceiling? She could do much better.” Schimmel became fascinated with spirituality. He became more compassionate, less ambitious. And he wondered: Could his new outlook have to do with his brain? The next visit to his neurologist, he asked to see his most recent MRI.
“My left temporal lobe looked completely different from the way it did before the surgery,” he says. Gradually, it had become smaller, a different shape, covered with scar tissue. Those changes had sparked electrical firings in his brain. Schimmel’s doctor told him he had developed temporal lobe epilepsy — a disease that has fascinated doctors for centuries.
(Are Spiritual Encounters All In Your Head? Hagerty, May 2009)

The flaw in Schimmel’s thinking is that he assumes the brain creates life instead of receives life. If he believed, as is the case, that life came in from the outside, he could see that what has happened is merely a tuning of his antenna, so to speak. Just because the brain is now different, does not negate the reality of what he saw.

As you would imagine, he’s not the only one who had to struggle with the nature of reality. Back in the Cold War era, the US and USSR used to use psychic spies to go into underground military installations that couldn’t be photographed by spy satellites. At the outset, all of these psychic spies went through a rigorous selection process to identify the people who were the most gifted psychics. However, there was one who joined the group who was not a “natural” psychic. He’d been shot in the head. He was wearing a helmet at the time, and so while the bullet didn’t pierce the head, the impact certainly did something to his brain. After the incident he gained new psychic abilities and became a top remote viewer. Something had changed, but for him, it was clear that what he was experiencing wasn’t just in his head. What he was experiencing was verifiably real.

But lest you think this debate is merely a modern one, Hippocrates wrote a book about 2,500 years ago titled, “On the Sacred Disease.” Based on the descriptions of the disease he’s observed, we know that he’s writing about epilepsy. He comments on the “sacred” disease declaring that it is no more sacred than other diseases, but it gets called “sacred” because the ancients thought that sufferers were possessed by demons, or blessed with divine messages and visions. He stresses the importance of the disease having no relation with the divine whatsoever, but instead being purely of human origin, saying:

“Men regard its nature and cause as divine from ignorance and wonder because it is not at all like to other diseases…Men, being in want of the means of life, invent many and various things, and devise many contrivances for all other things and for this disease, in every phase of the disease, assigning the cause to a god…Neither truly do I count it a worthy opinion to hold that the body of man is polluted by God, the most impure by the most holy.”
(On the Sacred Disease, Hippocrates, 400 B.C.)

The implications of this are large. This text is regarded as a great turning point in medical history because it is the first time humanity shifts away from blaming God for disease. This is good. God doesn’t give us diseases. Yet it goes too far the other way by eliminating spirituality altogether. Using this text as our anchor, suddenly we must wonder if Paul really did hear Jesus on the road to Damascus, or was he experiencing an auditory hallucination? What about Joseph Smith and the two angels? Muhammad? Joan of Arc? And what about Moses and that burning bush? Maybe they were all just epileptic and seeing things through the eyes of a malfunctioning left temporal lobe?

One of the great hopes that the New Church promises is that in this new era that we live in, “the scientific, the rational, and the spiritual shall become one, and the scientific shall serve the rational, and both together shall serve the spiritual.” (True Christianity 200) It is a day that I can see coming as more and more studies explore the the connection between the interaction of our spirit with our body. One scientist, who has studied all of these brain scans, at least leaves the door open to spirituality. He was asked,

“Does the fact that we can track spiritual feelings in our temporal lobe mean that there’s nothing spiritual going on?”

“No,” he says simply. “Think about a man and woman who are in love,” he says. “They look at each other, and in all likelihood, something fires in their temporal lobes. However, does that negate the presence of true love between them? Of course not. When you get to spirituality, as a scientist I think it really becomes extremely difficult to say anything other than, ‘It’s possible.’ ”

Clearly not everybody agrees on the conclusions. That promised day when science and spirituality are one isn’t here yet because science fails to understand a basic reality: that we are receivers of life. It’s hard to draw proper conclusions when you have a flawed premise. Moses may have indeed had epilepsy, but that doesn’t matter to me. It doesn’t change that I believe what Moses experienced was real.

Depression and Suicide

No doubt that by the time you read this you’ve heard that actor and comedian Robin Williams took his own life on 11th of August. Apparently he had fallen into depression, something he dealt with most of his life. He was on a cocktail of medications to help, but in addition to his anti-depressants he was taking medications to combat early stage Parkinson’s disease which may have exacerbated his depression and led to the suicide. Some of his friends have speculated that he committed suicide because he used cycling as a means to keep him sober and out of alcohol addiction, and he was afraid that when Parkinson’s took away his ability to cycle he would fall back into alcoholism. Maybe it is some combination of both…we’ll never really know.
However, his passing does make it a good time to talk about suicide and depression. When we look through the Bible we can find many instances of people being depressed, and we can find examples of people wanting and actually committing suicide, so they are not problems that are exclusive to modern times. Recently I’ve preached on the subjects individually, and you can find the sermons on our webpage in the media section. But I think this is a really important subject, which is why I want to take some space here to write about some general teachings available to us in the New Church.
First off, let me say that there’s no reason to believe that people who commit suicide go to hell. That’s just not stated anywhere in the Bible or in any of Swedenborg’s Writings. I do think we can say suicide is “wrong” because we are upsetting the natural order of things. When a person is created, God does not intend for them to kill themselves. He intends for them to live a long life and die of old age in their sleep. It just doesn’t always work out that way. Yet despite a person upsetting the natural order of things, that one act does not condemn them to hell. Hell is for evil people. Hell is not for good people who do one evil thing.
A good general teaching on this comes from Secrets of Heaven. It essentially states that good spirits, i.e. people who have passed into the next life but have not yet made it to either heaven or hell, are not punished at all in the next life. In fact, even when good spirits do something bad, they’re given some slack:
But as regards good spirits, if perchance they speak or do evil, they are not punished, but pardoned, and also excused. For their end is not to speak or do evil, and they know that such things are excited in them by hell, so that they have not come to pass by their fault; and the same is also observed from their resistance, and afterward from their grief. (6559)
This general teaching provides comfort that a singular act such as suicide, or any evil for that matter, doesn’t condemn an otherwise good person.
While they are not destined to hell, there is reason to believe that a person who commits suicide is going to have some things to work out on the other side… and it might not be any fun. While in a depressed state we have spiritual associations that aren’t good, and we come to see and be with these associations when we transition into the next life. Swedenborg writes about this in his diary:
A certain one in the life of the body had committed suicide by stabbing himself with a knife, having been driven to desperation through depression, to which he had been driven by diabolical spirits. He came to me complaining that he was being miserably treated by evil spirits, and said that he was among the furies who were continually provoking him… He also seemed to me to have a knife in his hand which he wanted to drive into his breast. He labored hard with that knife, wanting to throw it away from himself but without success. For whatever happens in the last hour of death remains for a long time before it disappears, as I was told. (Spiritual Diary 1336, 1337)
This is a specific instance for one person, not a general teaching, so while this one person went through a process of being tormented by evil spirits for a time, we really shouldn’t make generalizations based off something written in Swedenborg’s diary. However, there are general teachings that say whatever inner problems we have in this life we will generally have to face in the next life… and it might not be pleasant dealing with them.
But what if you can’t deal with them here and now? I think all of Christianity teaches that life comes from the Lord, and that of ourselves we have no life of our own, rather we are receivers of life. At first pass it sounds like a pretty abstract teaching that isn’t particularly useful to us, but when considering depression or any mental illness we start to see why we are taught this. You see, if we are in fact just receivers of life, it does allow for the receiver to be broken. Think of it like this: your radio is a receiver of FM and AM signals. There is no music in the transistors, but when they function properly music is played through them. If however, some electronic part fails, the radio will cease to be a proper receiver of the signals, and a similar situation can occur in people. Something can be biologically wrong that essentially “tunes” us in to more negative frequencies. When this is the case, we’re not able to deal with our problems and change our ways. Here’s how it is written in Divine Providence:
The reason no one is reformed in a state of mental illness is that mental illness deprives us of rationality and therefore of the freedom to act rationally. The mind is sick and not healthy, and while a healthy mind is rational, a sick one is not. The illnesses are things like depression, imagined or illusory guilt, various kinds of hallucinations, mental anguish brought on by misfortunes, and mental anxiety and pain brought on by physical disorders. These are sometimes thought of as temptations, but they are not. Real temptations focus on spiritual issues, and during them the mind is in possession of its skills. The states I am talking about focus on earthly issues, and during them the mind goes mad. (#141)
This can be comforting in one way, because it is nice to be able to think that, “Yes, there is something wrong with me! It’s not my fault I feel lousy.”
There are however, other kinds of depression. There are what amounts to “spiritual” depression and a “natural” depression. The former has more to do with not living up to the kind of person you want to be and the inner fight and acknowledgement of failure can bring on depression. The “natural” depression is more about bad luck, misfortunes and worrying about other issues that don’t have to do with our spiritual life but are nonetheless unpleasant. With these kinds of depression the common problem is the spiritual company we keep. The more depressed we allow ourselves to get, the more depressing thoughts pour in. Even when miserable if we are able to keep our thinking positive we can retune ourselves to only be hearing the good, affirmative and assuring teachings that the Lord loves us, has a plan for us, and is taking us to a good end. We must suffer ourselves to hope, and if we’re good at it – which isn’t always easy – we, with the Lord’s help, can dig ourselves out of the pit of despair.

No doubt you’ve heard the news that Malaysian Airline flight MH17 was shot down by Russian separatists…298 people died as a result. The separatists claim it was an accident, because while they were trying to shoot down the aircraft, they didn’t realize it was a civilian airliner. Not much of an excuse I say. Last month I was writing about the need to curb our outrage over things like the death of Marius the giraffe, but feel free to have outrage over this! The challenge though, is to maintain our faith and larger beliefs about how the world works while in the process of denouncing the actions taken against innocent civilians.

We believe in God and yet wonder about the future promised in Isaiah, where God will rule over His people and, “Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4). There are plenty of people who certainly look forward to that time, when there will be no more war or even preparation for it. I do too, but I also want to acknowledge that we’re getting closer to that reality every day. I see this happening as Scripture tells us it would. Isaiah’s prophecies relate to the time of the last judgement, i.e. the book of Revelation. As mentioned before, the New Church believes that those prophecies have already occurred…which means that we are heading towards the promised time of no war. It’s been happening slowly, at least by our standards, but there actually is less and less war, and less and less violence in general. Yes, I’ve written about this before, and the news agencies are telling you the opposite, but today I come to you with some facts.

The facts come through Harvard professor Steven Pinker, author of the book, “The Angels of our Better Nature.” He writes that one such way of getting to the facts is through forensic archaeology. You can think of it as “CSI Paleolithic”. What proportion of prehistoric skeletons have signs of violent trauma, such as bashed-in skulls, decapitated skeletons, femurs with bronze arrowheads embedded in them, and mummies found with ropes around their necks? Here are 20 archaeological samples for which these analyses have been done. Plotted here are the percentage of deaths due to violent trauma. They range as high as 60 percent, and the average is a little bit more than 15 percent.pre historic deaths
Pinker goes on to say, “Let’s compare that rate with those of modern states, and let’s stack the deck against modernity by picking some of the most violent eras that we can think of. This is the United States and Europe in the 20th century. This is the entire world in the 20th century—and I’ve thrown in not only the wars, but also the genocides and the man-made famines. It’s about three percent, compared to the 15 percent rate in pre-state societies. And here is the world in the first decade of the 21st century. The bar in the graph would be less than a pixel, about a three one-hundredths of one percent.”

I think this is some pretty impressive data. Essentially, over the last 4,000 years, up until about 200 years ago, you were five times more likely to die from war than you are today. This downward trend relates to other areas of violence as well. God IS ruling, and while there is still war, there is a lot less of it.

It isn’t just death-by-war that has seen dramatic reductions, but also death by homicide. Believe it or not, homicide statistics are available going back to around the year 1200 and Pinker shows that “a contemporary Englishman has about a 50-fold less chance of being murdered than his compatriot in the Middle Ages…This is a phenomenon that is not restricted to England. It is true of every European country for which statistics are available.”

Judicial death has plummeted as well. He states, “In the United States in the 17th and 18th centuries, the death penalty was prescribed and used for theft, sodomy, bestiality, adultery, witchcraft, concealing birth, slave revolt, counterfeiting, and horse theft. We have statistics for capital punishment in the United States since colonial times. In the 17th century a majority of executions were for crimes other than homicide. In current times, the only crime that is punished by capital punishment other than homicide is conspiracy to commit homicide.” As a result, death by government punishment is WAY down.

So…death by war, death by murder and death by punishment are all sitting at the lowest levels the world has seen since maybe forever. Maybe things were better at the dawn of humanity, in the “Golden Age” but nevertheless it hasn’t been this good in thousands of years. Can you imagine living in a world that is five to fifty times more violent than what we live in today? This is perhaps why 16th century British philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote, “the life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”

For some reason, these days we seem to have a much rosier picture of the life of our ancestors. Maybe it is because we’ve romanticized medieval times with books, movies and festivals that depict the times in what seems to be reality but what is actually a fantasy. The reality is that since the fulfillment of the Revelation prophecies in the 1700s we are more peaceful and less violent than ever. Believe it or not.

The World Is Amazing and Nobody Is Happy

The World Is Amazing and Nobody Is Happy

Recently I came across a comedian, Louis CK, who was on a late night talk show and explaining to the host how, “The world is amazing and nobody is happy.” I posted a link to this on the Hurstville Facebook page, and encourage you to watch it. This guy is absolutely right. We go to the airport, complain when our flight is delayed by 30 minutes or an hour, totally forgetting that it really is amazing that we can travel coast to coast in about 5 hours. Even if you add in the time it takes to get to the airport, going through security, etc., you can make the Sydney to Perth trip in 8 hours. Amazing. Consider that 100 years ago that trip wasn’t something you did in a week, much less a third of a day.

Friends, we live in a luxurious, amazing world. Louis CK also reminds us that not long ago we had rotary phones! Remember those? I recall as a kid trying to call into the TV station to win a prize – first caller wins! When the phone number had a “9” in it, it seemed like it took an eternity for that dial to rotate around so I could dial the next number. What a joy it was when there was “1” in the number! Now people grumble because their mobile phone hits a dead spot and can’t find Google to look up the answer to who got kicked off last night’s episode of “The Block.” Yes, Louis CK is right, the world is amazing…and I think an awful lot of people are unhappy.

It would be easy to site this as evidence for the fact that “stuff” doesn’t bring happiness, but I’d wager that we are a happier world than folks of centuries past. Perhaps our happiness hasn’t increased at the rate our technology has. I think that’s Louis CK’s point. Technology has grown by leaps and bounds over the past 100 years, but I don’t think we can say our happiness has grown by leaps and bounds. Optimist that I am though, I do believe we are happier, yet there is no denying that there is plenty of unhappiness in the world.

This unhappiness really is, for the most part, pretty unnecessary. The world is not only amazing when it comes to technological wonders, but is also amazing when it comes to our moral and spiritual development. It isn’t perfect, I know, but I do believe that we’re on the right track. This belief that the world is getting better is actually one of the fundamental teachings of the New Church, but what I’ve found in my ministry, it is also the New Church teaching that I get the most disbelief on. People are willing to accept that there’s a deeper meaning to the Word, an afterlife that’s more about who you are than what religion you belong to, but believing that the world is getting better? A positive outlook about recent history and for the future? Not so fast.

But really, how could it not be so? If you believe that the prophecies from the book of Revelation came to pass hundreds of years ago, mustn’t the world be getting better? We’re told “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever” (Rev 11:15). Let’s go through this: you believe God is good, and that the kingdom of the world has become His…well then, how could the world be getting worse? It can’t.

I think part of what is happening is that people are regularly expanding what they are willing to be upset about. This isn’t all bad, but there reaches a point where we have to distinguish between something being “upsetting” and letting something spoil our happiness. Back in February there was a big deal over a giraffe named Marius that was killed in a Copenhagen zoo. The zoo belonged to a larger zoo association that has guidelines about breeding of animals, and had determined that Marius’ was unfit to breed with the other giraffes because he was too closely related to all the others. Zoo officials believed that castration was a worse fate than death and so decided that the humane thing to do was to kill Marius.

As the story made news cycles around the world, people around the world were outraged and some took it to extremes. Some were outraged to the point of sobbing as one celebrity wrote on her Facebook page: “Oh man, I’ve seen a lot of abuses in my life, but this baby Giraffe killing at the Copenhagen Zoo is overwhelming. I have to take a cry walk.” Really? Some took it much further and sent death threats to the zoo staff, including one person who called the zoo director in the middle of the night to tell him that he and his family deserved to die. Yikes!

Now, I don’t want to go down as seen to be wishing death on giraffes, but at the same time, getting outraged over the death of one giraffe in one zoo just seems a bit extreme. That we have the ability to get upset over it is in itself a luxury good. We live in an amazing world when we can get upset over stuff like this. Can you imagine what the public reaction would have been a few hundred years ago to the death of a giraffe? Nobody would have cared. Just one hundred years ago we were still experimenting on humans! Nobody was going to get outraged over a giraffe. This outrage extends to all lines of thinking, and can infect our line of thinking in regards to what we prioritize for our spiritual development and our church practices.

[There are people] who take a conscientious stand on issues that are not vitally
important. . . [who] burden the consciences of simple people. . . [who are] incapable of
paying any attention to reasons offered to them because they persisted in holding on
tenaciously to their own opinion. . . who become scrupulous about salvation, not only in
essential matters, but also in matters of form, and even in issues that make no difference
at all. (Secrets of Heaven #5386)

Exactly. Some people make big deals about issues that make no difference at all. Sure, it seems that the zoo could have found a better way to deal with Marius, but getting upset isn’t going to change anything. Yes, let’s make ethical decisions, and not be cruel to animals. It is actually a good sign that we care about these things, but we don’t need let them ruin our positive attitude and outlook. Yes, it is frustrating when the airplane is delayed, and when the cell phone hits a dead spot…I get frustrated when technology doesn’t work too. But I hope these kind of problems are ones that aren’t actually impacting the happiness of people, because we do live in an amazing world, one that has amazing technology which allows us the time and energy to try to make right even the smaller matters, a world that is getting better all the time, and we should all be very happy.

The Spiritual Railway

Last month, Norman Heldon wrote a short article for the newsletter that included poem titled, “The Spiritual Railway.” The poet compares the path to heaven to travelling on a train, and stresses that without repentance our journey will not be successful. Here’s the poem:
Repentance is the station then,
Where passengers are taken in….
God’s Word is the first engineer,
It points the way to heaven so clear
Through tunnels dark and dreary here
It does the way to glory steer,
God’s love the fire, His truth the steam.
All you who would glory to ride,
Must come to Christ, in Him abide.
In first, and second and third class,
Repentance, faith and holiness
You must the way to glory gain.
Or you with Christ will not remain.

I for one really really liked the imagery in the poem, and it is especially timely as we’ve just started learning and adding Josh Turner’s song, “Long Black Train” to our musical repertoire. While “Long Black Train” gives similar imagery, it is given in the opposite sense. Whereas “The Spiritual Railway” presents the railway as leading to God and repentance, “Long Black Train” presents the railway as one driven by the devil who tries to lure us in by appealing to our base desires. “That train is a beauty, making everybody stare, but its only destination is the middle of nowhere… Watch out brother for that long, black train.”

The Word similarly uses imagery and presents it a good light and its opposite sense. To the casual reader this can be quite confusing, but the answer to the meaning of the image can be found in the context that it is presented in. For example, water means “truth,” which makes sense when you consider that baptism is done with water. However, in the opposite sense water can mean false beliefs and understandings as evidenced by the great flood that wiped out humanity in the Noah’s Ark story. Humanity wasn’t wiped out by truth, but rather it drown in a sea of its own delusions.

Since the Word is describing our spiritual lives, it shouldn’t be surprising that we see this good/bad dichotomy in our dealings with others. Just about any action we do can be taken as good or bad depending on the intent behind it. Are we giving money to gain a person’s trust and confidence so we can use them later, or did we give them money to help out a friend in need? Same action, very different intent. Getting on a train likewise can look the same, but just be sure it isn’t the long black one.

Catching up with the times

It has been almost 2 years since the current Hurstville New Church site went live, and since then it has been tweaked, revised and grown to it’s current state. Now we’re adding a blog to it. For those of you who have been getting our newsletter, this probably won’t have much in the way of new information. The idea is to post the newsletter lead articles here so that they can be indexed by Google which will hopefully bring us in some more traffic. Will it work? I don’t know, but it is free and a relatively easy project to get running. Hope you enjoy it!