The Nature of Spirit, and of the Spiritual World
If … you knew that you must sooner or later remove to some remote country, to spend the remainder of your life there, and that you might be called upon at any moment to go, you could not remain indifferent to the nature of the country, and to your own situation when you arrived there. You would lose no opportunity for personal inquiry; you would read every book you could procure that treated upon the subject; you would exhaust all the means in your power to learn where you were going, and what your condition would be when you had reached your new home. How, then, can any one who believes in the existence of a spiritual world, and who sees one after another of those whom they know and love - beings as dear to them as their own life - …passing away, and who knows that he or she must soon follow them; - how can a rational being, with such a belief, be indifferent to the nature of that world, and to the condition of its inhabitants? It is impossible to account for this general unconcern upon any other supposition than the prevalent opinion that nothing definite and certain can be known about it….
I propose to give the answer of the New Church to the following questions:
1. What is Spirit? I use the term spirit in the same sense I would use the corresponding term matter in the question, What is matter? This is a primary and important question, and upon its correct answer depends all distinct and true knowledge concerning the spiritual world.
Our doctrines teach us clearly and explicitly that spirit is a substance and must necessarily have a form. There are material substances and spiritual substances, entirely distinct from each other. Matter is not spirit, and spirit is not matter; but both are real substances. As this is a most important point, and one that is contrary to common opinion, it is worthy of as clear statement and elucidation as possible.
And, first, let us get a clear idea of what we mean by substance. I do not use the term in any metaphysical sense. I use it in the common meaning as that out of which, or from which, any being, existence, or entity is formed. Every material thing is made out of some material substance. The potter makes his vessels of the substance we call clay. The carpenter builds houses, and forms various material objects, out of the substance we call wood. Ice is formed from the substance we call water, and water from the substance we call gas. The earth itself is probably formed of a gaseous substance. The material body is organized of material substances of various kinds.
In the same sense, we mean that spirit is a substance, and that every spiritual existence is formed from some spiritual substance. All Christians acknowledge that angels are spirits; if they are, they are formed of spiritual substances. Human beings are a spirit as to one part of their nature, and that part is formed of spiritual substances. If there is a spiritual world distinct from the material world, that world and all things in it must be formed of spiritual substances. But if we are asked what a spiritual substance is in itself, we cannot tell. It is just as impossible, however, to form any idea of what a material substance is in itself. Who can tell what clay, or wood, or iron, or water, or gas, is in itself? Our knowledge of everything is limited by its relations to us; by its effects upon us. We are no more called upon to define what spirit is in itself than we are to define what matter is in itself. It is impossible to do either. It is no objection, therefore, to the doctrine that there are distinct spiritual substances, that we cannot define what they are in themselves. All that we can know of any substance, material or spiritual, is the necessary conditions of existence, and the qualities that inhere in it as their subject; and we can learn these qualities only from the relation of their subjects to us. The blind man can form no true idea of the nature of light, for it has no relation to him. He has no organism to be affected by it; but if you tell him that there is no luminous body, and no substance which is the subject of light, he can come to no other just conclusion than that there is no such existence or entity as light. We can say the same of spirit, though it is not appreciable by any of the senses.
We may now advance a step further and say that no existence is possible without a form. If there is any such existence, or being, or entity, as a spirit, it must have substance and form; for there can be no substance without a form. It is impossible for the mind to conceive of anything without form. Let any one try to conceive of such a material thing and he will see how absurd it is. The very idea of conception implies form. An idea is an image; an idea, then, is a form. Spirit as well as matter, therefore, must have substance and form for they are the two factors which are essential to any existence, or to the conception of any being or thing. Spirit is the correlative, not the negation, of matter.
Here is the point in which philosophers and Christians have made the mistake, fatal not only to all true knowledge, but to all knowledge of spirit. It has generally been assumed that the only way to arrive at a true idea of spirit was to regard it as the opposite of matter in every respect. They reason in this way. Matter has form, therefore spirit has none. Matter has substance, therefore spirit has none. In this way they deny to spirit all possible modes of existence. The Christian stops here and ends by simply affirming its existence, but denies that we can know anything more about it. But many push this destructive logic a step further and deny the existence of spirit altogether. And this is the logical result, for denial can never end in anything but negation and nothing. This is inevitable; and the Christian escapes this conclusion only by stopping before he reaches it. We must admit that there is a spiritual substance, and that this substance has form, or we must deny the existence of spirit altogether. No other conclusion is possible.
But to make the proof as strong and clear as possible, let us assume that there is a spiritual world, and that there are spiritual beings; but deny that there is a spiritual substance, and see to what absurdities it will lead us. What is a world? What is the meaning of the word, world? Has not the world form? Is it not made up of innumerable objects, all of which have form: all of which are composed of material substances? Suppose you take away from this world all its forms and substances would there be any world left? There would be nothing left. Is it not just as absurd to say that there is a spiritual world while you deny to it any substance or form? You would not hesitate a moment to pronounce a man foolish, or insane, who should deny that there could be any such material substance or form as wood, and then begin to describe a tree; or who should ridicule the possibility of the existence of water, and then proceed to expatiate on the nature and beauties of a river, or the grandeur of the ocean. But are not all those guilty of this absurdity who talk of heaven as a real place; who think of the Lord as seated on a throne, surrounded by saints and angels, dressed in white robes, wearing golden crowns, and playing on golden harps, and making "heaven's wide arches ring" with their hallelujahs; or writhing in the torments of hell, and filling the dreary abodes of the lost with lamentation and woe? Christians delight to sing:
and yet, according to the theory, they have no substance and no form. What kind of a field would that be which had no substance and no form? How could it be "drest in living green"? Christians often talk of meeting their friends and loved ones who have gone before. But how can two beings without form or substance, beings which are no beings, meet? How could they recognize each other? What can be more absurd than such an idea? Christians think of the Lord as seated on a throne, with the Redeemer at His right hand; and yet they declare in doctrine that "He is a being without body, parts, or passions," and think it derogatory to His nature to attribute to Him any form. But if He has no form and no substance He has no existence. Instead of gaining any worthy conception of Him by denying Him substance and form, they, doctrinally, annihilate Him. Into such difficulties, contradictions, and absurdities, the mind is led by trying to do that which is impossible. We conclude, therefore, that if spirit has any existence it must be a substance and have a form.
The mind has the power of conceiving of qualities without or abstracted from their subjects. But those qualities do not and cannot exist separate from their subjects. We can conceive of sweetness; but sweetness has no existence apart from some substance that is sweet. We can conceive of strength; but strength has no existence apart from some being or thing that exercises it. There is no abstract power. We can conceive of love, goodness, and truth, but they are not abstractions; they have no existence but in their subjects. But, because we can conceive of them without connecting them with any subject, men have been insensibly led to regard them as distinct and independent existences. In this way the mind and spirit, and all our intellectual qualities, have come to be regarded as abstractions without form or substance, and yet as real existences. But if we apply the same process of reasoning to the body or to any material thing, we shall see its absurdity at once. Take the power of steam, for example. We can conceive of the power abstracted from the steam itself. The engineer talks and reasons about its existence, nature, quality, and application, as though it was a distinct existence; and if the steam itself was not appreciable by any of the senses we might come to regard it as a distinct thing, without any substance or form. But we know that it is impossible to abstract the power from the steam, and say here is the power, and there is the steam. The power is the force with which the
steam expands. Where there is no steam there is no power. They cannot be separated in fact. The same principle applies to all qualities, mental and spiritual. There can be no thought, affection, goodness, or quality of any kind, without some subject in which these qualities reside; and those qualities cannot exist separate and distinct from their subjects. All qualities are essentially the forms, activities, and relations of their subjects. If there is no spiritual substance and form there can, therefore, be no spiritual qualities. While, therefore, we can see how the mind is led away to regard an abstraction as a reality and to conceive of it as existing without any form, we can see, at the same time, the utter impossibility of such an existence.
From whatever point of view we regard the subject, therefore, we come back to the conclusion that spirit must be a substance, and have a form. The doctrines of the New Church are, therefore, in harmony with analogy, necessity, and reason, in declaring that spirit is a substance, and has forms, qualities, modes, and established laws of existence relatively the same as matter.
2. Our second question is: What is the Spiritual World? Having established the truth that there must be a spiritual substance, if there is any distinct spiritual existence, everything necessary to constitute a distinct spiritual world and substantial spiritual beings follows as a necessary consequence. For if a material world can be formed out of material substances, surely it is not. illogical to infer that a spiritual world, composed of objects as numerous and various in quality, can be formed out of spiritual substances. Indeed, it would be quite absurd to infer the contrary.
Consequently, our doctrines teach us that spiritual substances bear the same relations to each, other that material substances do. They are solid, and fluid, and aeriform. The solids exist in every possible variety that material solids do. There are spiritual earths, rocks, and metals, as gold, silver, and iron, in every variety of quality and form. Indeed, there is a perfect mineral kingdom formed of spiritual substances. These substances are also organized into vegetable and animal forms. There is also, then, a vegetable and an animal kingdom, based upon the mineral kingdom, and bearing the same relations to it that the same kingdoms do to the mineral kingdom in this world. The spiritual earth is diversified with mountains, hills, valleys, rivers, and smaller streams, and out of this earth, grass and flowers, shrubs and trees of every kind, grow, relatively the same as in this world. Birds fly in the air, and animals walk upon the earth, and the spiritual beings who dwell there have their habitations, and gardens, and fields. They look out upon beautiful landscapes, and look up to the heavens above them. The earth is as solid and firm to their tread as this is to ours. And the spiritual objects are hard and soft, solid and fluid, cold and hot, light and heavy, rough and smooth, transparent and opaque, and of every conceivable form and color and quality, that objects have in this world. And there are many forms and qualities besides, that cannot exist in matter, because it is so gross and dead compared with spiritual substances.
Now it may be, and sometimes is, objected to this view of the spiritual world, that it is only materializing it; attributing to it those qualities which this world possesses; and instead of a spiritual world, by this process of reasoning, it is said, we only get another material world. This might be true, if spiritual substances and objects had no other qualities than material objects. But, as we shall see hereafter, they have many qualities impossible to material objects, and they are altogether superior, and pre-eminently excellent in every respect, in their forms, origin, and relations to the inhabitants who dwell in that world.
But let us suppose that there is a spiritual world, which has nothing in common with this world, not even substance and form, and see what will be the result. We can do nothing more than affirm that there is such a world; we can have no idea of it. We cannot conceive it under any form, or mode, for by the supposition it has none. It has no mountains, hills, earth, rivers; no sun, no light, no atmosphere; nothing in common with this world. What is it, then? Nothing. It is no world; for the very idea of a world presupposes substance and form and objects. Thus we cannot go beyond the simple affirmation of the existence of such a world. We cannot form any idea of it; for by the supposition it has no form, it has nothing in common with this world; and we even deny its existence by the very conditions of our affirmation. It is this absurdity of denying to the spiritual world every possible mode and form of existence, and then trying to conceive it or think upon it, that has resulted in such doubt and practical denial of its reality, and of the possibility of spirits being really human beings, having a complete human form. There can be no middle ground between the practical denial of any substantial spiritual world and the acknowledgment that it must be similar in general form and relations to this world. If we take any step beyond a simple affirmation of the existence of spirit under conditions of which we can know nothing, we must assert that it is a substance and form; and all that is necessary to constitute a world follows, by a logical necessity.
In affirming, therefore, that there are spiritual substances and forms, and a spiritual world similar to this in general appearance, though superior to it in every quality, we do no violence to any analogy, we contravene no law of reason. We act also in perfect accordance with revelation; for the whole Bible implies the reality and substantial nature of the spiritual world; and we come to a conclusion which we cannot possibly avoid, without violating all known laws of reason and existence.
Our answer to the Second Question, then, What is the Spiritual World? is this. It is a real world, composed of all the forms that are necessary to constitute a world. It is objective to the senses of those who dwell in it, and far more distinct, substantial, and real to them, than this world is to us. And yet it is not material, but is as distinct from every form of matter as the soul is from the body.
3. Having determined the possibility of a real spiritual world, our next question is, Where is that world? There is a common and very remarkable absurdity frequently taught upon this subject. There is the implied denial that there can be any real, spiritual world, and then an assertion that it is somewhere above us in the stars; or, it may be, in some central sun. I presume most persons think of heaven as above them, somewhere in the realms of space. But, if we should visit every planet and sun in the material universe, we should not find the spiritual world. We should be no nearer to it than we are now. If it is some central sun, it is material and not spiritual. If it is in any particular place in the realms of space, it must be material and not spiritual. Where, then, is it?
It is here; and it is everywhere around and within the material universe. We are in the spiritual world now, though we are not conscious of it. Our doctrines affirm that there are as many spiritual worlds as there are material worlds, and that the spiritual world corresponding to each planet is around it. So that every human being in any world can say, The spiritual world is here.
Why, then, it may be asked, can we not see it? I answer, we have the best of evidence that multitudes have seen it. Many instances are given in the Bible of persons who saw it while they were still in this world, and they have told us what they saw. In several instances recorded in the Bible it is distinctly said that the persons were "in the spirit," or had their "eyes opened." These could not have been their natural eyes, for they were open before. They must have been their spiritual eyes. For it requires a spiritual eye to see a spiritual object.
In our ordinary state, the spiritual senses are closed, and we have no consciousness from the senses of any world but the material. And a little reflection will show us, that it is wisely ordered that it is so. It would be impossible for us to perform our duties in this world, if we had constant, open vision of the spiritual world. We should be distracted, and our natural life destroyed by it.
But that it is possible for us to be in the spiritual world, and yet not be conscious of it, is evident from many analogous examples. Our unconsciousness of anything is no proof of its non-existence. The person who has become blind by the formation of a film over their eyes, is in a world of light the same as before, but not conscious of it, and he or she cannot be until their blindness is cured. They do not need to go anywhere to get into it. If a person should visit every planet and sun in the universe, they would be no nearer the world of light. It is all around them, like the atmosphere, but they can only be introduced into it by the removal of the veil which obstructs the light. Couch his eyes and he can see. The organism of the eye is the Divine method of introducing people into the world of light. In the same way a person may be in the spiritual world and not see it. The spiritual eye is veiled by the material. Its organization is too delicate to be acted upon directly by the gross forms of matter. It requires the delicate spiritual ethers to flow into its forms, and the dark veil of matter to be removed, before spiritual objects can be revealed to it.
It is the same with all the senses. In a perfectly sound sleep a person is as truly in the material world as he is in full wakefulness. But they have no consciousness of it. Change of place would give him no consciousness of the world. Place them under the open canopy of heaven, beneath all the splendor of the sun, or the magnificence and silent grandeur of the stars. Place them on a precipice, where the slightest motion would hurl him to destruction, and it is all the same. Wake them, and they are in the world without rising from their bed. Our spiritual senses are asleep, and we cannot see the spiritual world about us until they are awakened.
But it is not necessary for us to see it as it is in itself, to gain a certain knowledge of its universal presence. We never see any cause or power in its most interior forms - in its source. Who ever saw attraction except in the form of its effects? No person in this world ever saw, with the natural eye, a human being. No one but the materialist believes that the material body is the man himself, yet that is all we can see in this world. We see material features, colors, motions, changes. But we do not see the real human being. That dwells within, and can only manifest itself through the veil of the body. All that you see, or can see, is the material covering of the spiritual being. You know that the person is there, within. For the body cannot move itself. It is as helpless as any other earthly object, when man leaves it. Its wonderful organization does not give it life, any more than the multiplication of wheels gives a machine power. The organs of the body are nothing but instruments constructed by Infinite Wisdom, to enable the soul to accomplish its purposes in the material world.
But the person and his or her material body act together in such perfect harmony, as one, that we say we see the person him or her self, when we see the body. And it is proper we should, for we do see where person is and what he or she is doing. We know that the person is in the body, and that it is he or she that hears, and sees, and feels, and speaks, and acts, though we cannot see that person’s real self.
In the same way the spiritual world is present in the material world, maintains it in existence, and operates all the changes in it. The planets are carried around in their orbits by a spiritual force. We very properly call it attraction, but attraction is only the name of the effect. The real force is spiritual. Matter has no power in itself either to change its form or to retain it. A piece of iron or stone is held together by attraction, we say. Remove the attraction and it becomes fluid. Remove it to a still greater degree and it becomes aeriform, and we do not know where the process would end. All the forces which keep material bodies in their form are in their last analysis spiritual and Divine.
Matter has no form of its own. Every material form is cast into the mould of a spiritual form. There is no power inherent in matter to form itself into diamonds and granite; into grass, and blossoms, and fruit, and the innumerable beautiful objects of the vegetable kingdom. There is no quality in nitrogen, carbon, and phosphorus, to combine and assume the form of bones, muscles, and flesh. The whole animal kingdom is cast into the mould of the corresponding spiritual kingdom. And the spiritual forces which create and sustain it are constantly present and active. Indeed, the material world is a perpetual creation.
Wherever you see action, change, or growth, you may infer that spiritual forces are present, with just the same certainty, that you infer that man is in a material body, when you see it moving, and performing all the functions of life in this world. It is said that the changes and motions which are continually taking place in matter, are caused by the light and heat of the sun. This is true in one sense. Heat acts on a certain plane and to some extent. But it is a spiritual substance within the heat which causes the heat, and gives it its power; and while the heat, on the material plane, softens' and melts the hard forms of matter, and makes them pliant to finer influences, spiritual forces flow in and mould them into such forms as they are capable of assuming. The sun itself is created from the spiritual world, and its magnetic forces and ever-radiating heat are perpetually fed from it. The suns are the primary centers into which spiritual substances are gathered, and from which the material universe is created, and those substances continue to dwell within the magnetic auras and luminous ethers. Light, and heat, and magnetism are only the finer material coverings of spiritual substances, which give them all their force. They are the soft linings of grosser forms. Wherever there is matter there is spirit. Wherever there is a material world, there is a spiritual world. Wherever there is a germ, or plant, a blossom, or fruit, or any living thing, there is a rough cast of a spiritual form. It may be a very rude and imperfect outline of it, comparing with it only as the roughest sandstone with the fine organization of the living body, or the coarsest clay with the delicate petals of the blossom. But rough and coarse as it is, it was fashioned after a spiritual prototype, as the material body is molded into the form of the man who dwells within it. The elements of the earth have no more power of themselves to assume the forms of the mineral, vegetable, and animal kingdoms, than the food we eat has to assume the human form, or than the block of marble has to roll itself from the quarry and stand erect in the graceful beauty of a Venus or Apollo.
This every one acknowledges; but Christian and natural philosophers carry the cause only a few steps from the effect, and seem unwilling to admit that there can be any substantial thing beyond the limits of their own senses. But the doctrines of the New Church, with an inflexible logic, follow all real causes out of the material world, and in doing so, they look in the direction, though far in advance, of all scientific discovery. The logic is simple, and the steps plain. One of the essential properties of matter is inertia; its purest and most subtle forms have no more power, of themselves to act, than the sod or rock. Nor can these forces reside within, as original and self-sustaining causes in the form of laws. It is customary in common speech to attribute the power, which moves and moulds matter, to physical laws. But law has no more power in itself than matter; it is merely the order in which some real power acts. The planets are not kept in their orbits by the law of gravitation, but according to it. Strictly speaking, civil laws have no power. They are only the rule and method according to which men act. The preservation of the material universe, and all the changes and activities which take place in it, must be the effect of a cause which is not material, and that cause must be present to all the forms of matter and in them, in every particle; for a cause cannot act where it is not present. That cause cannot be material. It must of necessity, therefore, be spiritual.
Here we get another proof- that spirit is a substance. It is evident that there can be no abstract power. Power is the force with which something acts. That which moves and moulds the material world must be substantial. It must be able to grasp matter and wield it at will. The inconceivable and awful forces that sustain the material universe, and carry planets, and suns, and systems in their vast orbits, in such order and harmony, are spiritual, and are perpetually operating. The same forces sketch ferns in crystals of frost upon the window-pane, weave the green web of the leaf, knit the tough fiber of the oak, and mould the delicate and lovely forms of the lily and the rose. Out of the dead earth and crumbling stone; out of dews and rain-drops, and vernal airs, and sunbeams, they distil the delicious juices of innumerable delicate savors, and exhilarating wines, and present them to insect and worm; to animal and people, in the beautiful forms of the berry, the purple cups of the grape, and the golden bowls of the pear and the apple. Turn where you will, above, around, below, all the forms you see are spiritual forms, veiled in the thin disguise of matter; all sounds that fall upon the ear are spiritual harmonies, muffled and made discordant often by the imperfect material instruments through which they are sent to us. We are in that world now. It surrounds us, pervades us; its pulses beat through us, and give to us and to all things, form, motion, life.
I ask every intelligent mind if this is not a rational, and the only rational view of the subject? Does not all scientific discovery point in this direction? Science is resolving all physical force into heat. The next step must be the one the New Church has already taken - the acknowledgment that all force is spiritual. Thus the two worlds are present to each other, and are most intimately blended. Our answer to the third question, therefore, is: The spiritual world is here.
4. The last question, What is the relation of the spiritual world to this world? has been substantially answered already. In principle it is the relation of cause to effect. The spiritual world is more real and substantial than the natural world. It lies nearer to the first great Cause. This world was formed from it, and there is not a material object that has not a spiritual prototype.
Such, briefly, are the doctrines of the New Church upon this most interesting subject. In many respects they reverse the opinions commonly entertained. They give us a real spiritual world to think about, and to look forward to as our eternal home. The more they are examined the clearer their truth will become. From whatever side they are regarded, whether from science, from analogy, from reason or revelation, from human or the Divine nature, they will be found consistent with themselves, with the Sacred Scriptures, and in harmony with all we know of both worlds. They will satisfy the reason and content the heart.