In deciding what to believe sooner or later you come up against something that is greater than yourself. Toddlers make every effort to get their own way but eventually have to submit to parental authority. Young people test their limits climbing mountains or visiting wild places until forced to acknowledge their helplessness in meeting the untamed forces of nature. And older individuals who contemplate the decline in their bodily powers are obliged to admit their lives are finite and end in physical death.
In considering what to believe many get the feeling that something or other greater themselves must be behind their existence. A hidden force that is responsible for everything that goes on in their lives. A higher power which gives meaning to everything that is, the world and what happens in it.
Is this the spirit of humanity? Is it mother nature herself? Is it what religious people call God? How can you know what it is? And for that matter how do you make your mind what to believe about what is true about a range of deeper issues in life—what happens after death, the ethics of warfare, abortion, and euthanasia, or understanding the meaning of innocent suffering. There are a range of answers available, some of which seem to be more attractive than others. But just how do you decide?
In my opinion just as the eye sees things around us so the inner eye can perceive the reality behind the appearance. And so it’s no good relying on information available to the bodily senses to answer the deeper questions. If you happen to agree with me on this, don’t ask materialist science to discover what is beyond nature. For we can be misled by our bodily senses into thinking that what they show us is all there is.
I’m sure all scientists would admit that their scientific instruments cannot directly measure the origin of beauty, kindness, honesty, or justice. In other words although we notice the forms of life we cannot directly see the essence of life; even though we see ethical behaviour in human conduct, we cannot see the source of goodness itself or truth itself.
As human beings we all have the ability to think in abstract ways about what to believe freed from the impulses of our appetites and emotions and thus largely removed from what has been called ‘the lower degree of the mind.’ Accordingly, we are capable of understanding the deeper aspects of life by drawing on abstract ideas such as those found from extra-sensory perception, found in sacred writing, or found about God, that we have learned from parents, teachers, books and friends.
However, it can be asked whether spiritual knowledge about such abstract concepts can result in any kind of deep belief? Whatever our memory for such things, are we not quite capable of having a sudden enthusiasm and rushing carelessly into an impulsive decision – that is if we lack a heartfelt care about considering the consequences. Mere learning about spiritual matters is limited if it is something in the memory and not also in the heart.
No, I would suggest what is needed is what spiritual writers often refer to as inner enlightenment. Light needs to be thrown on spiritual knowledge if it is to become really meaningful. This deeper form of illumination is perceiving what to believe about what is really true from within rather than seeing from without. Not relying on what someone tells you but being moved by an inner spirit of hunger and thirst for answers. One consequence of this would be that reliance on what is said authoritatively by philosophical, religious or spiritual experts can only be a stepping-stone to receiving an enlightened understanding.
So how do you know what to believe result from inner enlightenment?
The trouble is you can get taken up by enthusiasm for some dramatic social cause or other compelling human activity which you invest with all your energy and even turn into a life pursuit. The ideals they represent can feel like they have illuminated your life. But can I suggest that when the activity has limited intrinsic goodness or limited rightness then it sooner or later will fail you especially if there is a hidden interest that motivates such as the desire for prestige, or social influence.
“Anyone at all who supposes that he has enlightenment is mistaken if he does not love to know truth for its own sake and for the sake of leading a good life.”
(E. Swedenborg, Heavenly Secrets, section 10551)
Nothing is as straightforward as we would like it to be. Deciding what to believe requires careful self-reflection. I would like to suggest that the art of attending to your inner spirit is a process requiring considerable concentration. Spiritual exercises such as prayer, meditation and contemplation are needed to pry us away from ordinary desires and connect us with a deeper will and purpose.
Copyright 2012 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems