Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Divine Love and Wisdom by Emanuel Swedenborg

I borrowed a book titled Divine Love and Wisdom written by the Swedish polymath Emanuel Swedenborg. According to the Wikipedia website, Emauel Swedenborg was a Swedish scientist, philosopher, theologian, revelator, and, in the eyes of some, Christian mystic. There is a short text in the translator’s preface of the book which goes, “In 1745, at the age of fifty-seven, Emanuel Swedenborg (1688 – 1772) had an experience that radically hanged the course of his life. Much later, he would describe it as a vision of Jesus Christ commissioning him to “open to people the spiritual meaning of Scripture” and initiating years of regular experiences of the spiritual world. Soon after this vision, he resigned from his post on the Swedish Board of Mines and spent the remainder of his years writing and publishing the theological works for which he is now best known.”

There is an entry titled “The Church of the New Jerusalem – Swedenborgianism” in Walter Martin’s The Kingdom of the Cult. Walter Martin critiques Swedenborg’s doctrines on the Holy Scriptures, the Trinity of God, vicarious atonement, and the destiny of man. He concluded at page 519 that “Swedenborg was far from being a Christian, and certainly was not a Christian theologian.” Personally, I am skeptical of people who profess particular stances in religious doctrines on the basis of personal divine revelation. Nevertheless, I am interested in what Swedenborg might have to say about the notion of divine love and wisdom.

I had come across the name of Emanuel Swedenborg in the past when I searched for IQ of famous people back when I was quite interested in the concept of psychometric assessment of intelligence. There are websites listing Swedenborg as having an IQ of 205, exceptionally way above the average of 100 on the IQ scale. I haven’t taken a proper IQ test before, but according to the free IQ test I took online, my IQ is rated at 134, which is deemed as gifted, but below the genius level. But I am not very sure about the credibility of these online IQ tests which I suspect give inflated scores to make its takers happy. I am not sure about how credible the IQ score assigned to these various famous figures like Swedenborg are credible when IQ test did not exist when these guys were alive. Moreover, I am not sure how useful an IQ test is in measuring intelligence. Some remarkably intelligent people who have taken the IQ tests did not fare exactly too well in their IQ score. The physics Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman was determined to score only 125 when he took the IQ test in high school, high, but only above average. Francis Crick, Nobel prize winner in medicine and co-discoverer of the structure of the DNA molecule with James Watson, scored only 115. William Shockley, Nobel Prize winner for physics for his part in the invention of the transistor was measured at 129. He later became a staunch advocate of eugenics, making controversial statements like proposing that individuals with IQs below 100 be paid to undergo voluntary sterilization. But these individuals have certainly achieved more intellectually and contributed more to humanity than any other people who claim to have higher IQ scores, especially those who apply to become Mensa members.

I found some of the contents discussed in the introduction of the book by Gregory R. Johnson interesting. I shall give the excerpts of the various passages below.

1. At page 24 – “Every account of creation must deal with the question, “Why did God choose to create the world rather than remain alone?” There are two basic answers to this question: God creates out of need or out of abundance. If God creates out of need, this implies that God alone is not perfect and self-sufficient and that the net amount of being and goodness is increased by the creation of the world. Expressed mathematically, God plus creation is greater than God alone. In the Hermetic tradition, for instance, God creates the world because he lacks self-consciousness. Self-consciousness can only come by the recognition of oneself in another who is capable of recognizing one in turn. God, therefore, must create another being who can know him. He cannot create another God, for a god is uncreated. But he can create a mortal being who is capable of knowing him. This is the human being. Once the human comes to know God, God comes to know himself and is complete. Creation is thus a circular process in which God goes out of himself and then returns to himself by beholding himself in the mirror of his creation. If on the other hand God creates out of abundance, this implies that God alone is perfect and does not need creation to augment his being and goodness. This means that all the goodness and being of the created world is a gift of God, that God shares his superabundant being and goodness by creating beings that can receive them. The created world has no being and goodness of its own. Therefore, in terms of being and goodness, God plus creation is not greater than God alone. There are different models for understanding creation out of abundance. Plotinus, for example, resists ascribing any human traits to his concept of the One from which all beings emanate. The One gives rise to the world simply as an expression of its infinite creative power (Plotinus Enneads 6:8). Christianity, by contrast, understands the creation of the world as an act of love, and not a selfish love that seeks something in return, but an unselfish love, a love that arises not out of neediness but out of the fullness of the soul (Sokolowski 1995, 31-40)”

Continuing – “Swedenborg’s account of creation is complex because it contains elements of both creation from need and creation from abundance. On the one hand, it is apparent throughout Divine Love and Wisdom, from the title on, that Swedenborg casts his account of creation in the Christian language of love. Yet his account of the workings of divine love quickly become expressed in the language of need. In ss47-49, under the proposition “Divine love and wisdom cannot fail to be and to be manifested in others that it has created,” Swedenborg argues that “the hallmark of love is not loving ourselves but loving others and being united to them through love.” Self-love is a matter of “feeling our joy in others…and not theirs in ourselves.” Swedenborg argues that by contrast unselfish love involves mutuality, that is, feeling our joy in others and feeling the joy of others in ourselves. “What is loving ourselves alone, really, and not loving someone else who loves us in return? This is more fragmentation than union. Love’s union depends on mutuality, and there is no mutuality within ourselves alone” (s48). Because God loves, and love requires mutuality, God must create an “other” to love. This other cannot be another God, for even if it were possible for God to create another God, the love that would exist between them would be more like self-love than love for one’s neighbor. Thus God requires the existence of finite beings – humans and angels- whom he can love and who can love him in return. In s170, Swedenborg claims that the ultimate goal of creation, the “eternal union of the Creator with the created universe,” cannot happen “unless there are subjects in which his divinity can be at home, so to speak, subjects in which it can dwell and abide.” Although Swedenborg speaks of God’s need of other beings to love and be loved by in return, his position does not ultimately reduce to creation out of lack or imperfection. God loves out of abundance, not out of lack. But once he loves, the nature of love requires beings who can reciprocate.”

I am not sure why God made creation. And I don’t think it is possible to analyze any being’s psychology definitively by reasoning alone to come to a conclusion on why that being does a certain thing. A god could easily have made creation out of his own amusement, boredom, or on a whimsy. But I suppose that it is reasonable to take our impression of how God is like from religious sources containing such description, and the bible contains description of God as a God of love, with such an expression of love being most magnificently and evidently displayed by the redemption of humanity from sins by God’s death on the cross. I think it is open for one to appraise though whether they believe that God is a God of love, and the problem of evil and suffering is a defeater of that proposition. Personally, I like the evangelical Christian conception of God as a loving Father, who is wise, all-powerful, all-knowing, yet someone whom you can treat like a friend. He is there to help you, guide you, and to pick you up where you fall.

2. On the goal of creation at page 28 – “Swedenborg’s account of creation can be depicted as a circle. God goes out of himself, creating the world out of his own substance. But God implants in creation a desire to circle back and return to himself. According to Swedenborg, the goal of creation is “that everything should return to the Creator and that there should be a union”; “The grand purpose, or the purpose of all elements of creation, is an eternal union of the Creator with the created universe”. This circular conception of creation is present in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, as well as in Neoplatonism and Hermeticism.”

I often hear Christians saying that God made creation for his glory, and that we are created to glorify God. But sometimes, I wonder why God would ever want, or need that glory from creation. I personally like the idea of God as a friend. But I don’t think or feel that God is really my friend, or someone who loves me. He seems very much impersonal to me such that what I pray for goes unanswered.

3. On why it is necessary for humans to have the illusion of autonomy when it comes to loving God at page 36 – “Swedenborg denies that “we ourselves climb up to God on our own power. It is done by the Lord” Our ability to ascend from one physical level to the next and one spiritual level to the next depends on our receptivity to divine love and wisdom. This receptivity is not, however, something we control. All created beings are, in themselves, dead and inert. All their vital and active powers are infused into them by God, who is the only intrinsically alive and active being. God is at work in our inmost thoughts and feelings, always guiding us toward him…We are unaware of this fact, because nothing seems more our own than our lives: “Angels, like us, simply feel as though they participate in love and wisdom on their own, and therefore that love and wisdom are theirs, their very own” (S115).

I suppose it is a contention whether free will exists, and what is its nature. Some theists tries to make an argument for free will on the basis that the soul exists, and is unconnected to any material form which is governed by deterministic natural laws. Some others would provide some sort of indeterministic natural laws like quantum theory to provide an explanation for free will. But it is interesting that Swedenborg here agrees on the view that free will is an illusion, much like the views taken by atheists who believe in a naturalistic worldview. Still, that illusion of autonomy is significant according to Swedenborg because it is necessary for an individual to have that illusion to be able to internalize that love for himself. And I would say that going by this line of argument, I see that a case for why notion of moral responsibility can arise even if free will doesn’t really exist. The illusion of free will itself creates that moral responsibility because the individual who chooses the evil action internalize that decision for himself, and that is the basis for moral judgment. But I have heard how Christian apologists like William Lane Craig argue that if the world was naturalistic, and there is no such thing as free will, then notions of moral responsibilities cannot exist.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

On a method for the appraisal of evidences for Christianity

A friend of mine provided quite some interesting insights about how to go about the question about whether God exists, and whether Christianity is the correct religion. He says that it is necessary for one to consider the broad framework of the arguments being presented for Christ, and not to over-focus on one aspect of the case for Christianity to the exclusion of other evidences being put forth for the case. The various components of the case theory for Christianity varies in strength. They are usually disputable on their own. For example, historicity of individual instances of the bible may be disputed. Divine revelation alone remains dubitable because of problems such as the difficulty of attributing the experience to the Christian God. However, when all the evidences are examined in totality, they present a very strong argument for the truth of the Christian religion.

An analogy he gave was about how evidence works in the court of law. There may be more than one way to supply evidence. Witness testimony may be one of them. The presence of articles, and motives of the suspect may be another. Now, the evaluation of a case is made on the preponderance of evidences. One aspect of the evidence may be weak, or even inimical to the case theory. But the appraisal of the case theory is strengthened when the various evidences are taken into consideration.

I was thinking that there may be something about case theory fitting the evidences that strengthens the case theory. And this is especially so if the evidences are discovered after the case theory had been formulated. There are cases of archeological findings that corroborates with the historical narrative of the bible. For example, the finding of Noah’s ark in turkey, or the discovery of the ancient dwelling place of a particular clan that was mentioned in the bible. Now, on its own, these examples remain disputable. It is not conclusive whether the structure that was discovered in Turkey really was Noah’s ark. Or it may not be conclusive whether the various findings about the historicity of Jesus are true. But when taken together and compared against the case theory of Christianity as provided by the narrative of the Bible, the strength of the evidences is enhanced, as well as the case theory itself.

I am not sure what historians think about such a method of evaluating evidences for history. And I wonder what the court of law thinks of such a philosophy behind the appraisal of evidences as well. I am wondering whether the evidence module that I am going to take in law school next semester would enlighten me more about how evidences should be weighted and evaluated.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Housing and insurance loopholes

A friend of mine who works in insurance recently got some certificate enabling him to provide legal consultation on certain matters. He was telling me about how it is possible to exploit certain legal loopholes in the housing and insurance industry. One example he gave was about how a person can own 2 HDB flats at the same time. This is a strategy, he says, that is necessary if one were to inherit a HDB flat from one’s parents when one already has a HDB flat for himself. Otherwise, under prevailing laws in Singapore regarding the ownership of HDB flats, it is necessary for the house owner to sell one of the HDB flat within a period of 6 months.
The strategy is to continually apply for extension of the period to hold onto the extra HDB flat. I think I remember him mentioning about how the owner can extend the period for up to 20 years. The application to extend however, requires the applicant to cite reasons for the extension. A good lawyer, he says, would be able to help the applicant extend his application for quite a long time.
Another example was on how a house owner living in a HDB flat can own a private house even if he had not reside in the HDB flat for the requisite 5 years. This, he says, requires the homeowner to incorporate a private limited company to buy the private house under the company’s holding. The incorporation of the company for this purpose can be done for quite a low cost of $11. Next, the owner makes himself the sole shareholder of the company, and appoint himself director of the company. He can vote to allocate rights to the private house on the basis of director’s benefits. The drawback however with this method is that the owner has to pay company taxes.
My friend mentioned something about a particular type of insurance that pays out the insured on the simple basis that the insured admits into a hospital for more than a week. He says that this can be exploited by some freeloaders, who check in to a hospital indefinitely after obtaining the insurance. In particular, these people would check into private hospitals which are profit-making, and which would not refuse admission on a needs-based basis. The payout from the insurance would cover the hospital cost, and have leftovers that the insured can keep. The insurance company would however be able to refuse to renew the insurance contract with the insured after the insurance expires at the end of the year.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Divine Providence

Today’s excerpt from Our Daily Bread features an entry titled Greedy Birds. The author describes her observation of how the hummingbirds she is feeding using a feeder would fight for positions at whatever place one of their neighbours is using. Knowing that all the feeding stations are equal, she shake her head at their greediness. But then it occurred to her that she is very much like those hummingbirds, that she often wanted the place that someone else has, even though she says she knows all good things come from the same source – God – and that his supply will never run out. The entry ends off with the quote “Resentment comes from looking at others; contentment comes from looking at God.”
I found the odb entry featuring the message about divine providence and being contented with one’s place in life comforting. I do like the message about divine providence in Christianity. In fact, one of my favourite verse in the bible is Matthews 6:26 – “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?
I like the message of divine providence because it gives me a sense of peace that I need not have to strive so hard in life in order to obtain the necessities for my living. And as of yet, I haven’t experienced such drastic circumstances of dire poverty and want as to cause me to deny this notion of divine providence in my life. I do have my parents to thank for that I might lead life comfortably without having to worry about such things. I am not sure about my job prospects though because I haven’t been doing too well in law school, and it does cause me some measure of concern about my future livelihood if I can’t function well in law. But right now, I am keeping that stoic demeanor regarding things in life, and keeping calm and moving on.

But what about those who do experience such difficult circumstances where they are unable to provide for themselves or for their families? When I help out as a volunteer at the Meet the People’s session in my neighbourhood, I do encounter individuals and families in Singapore who are in dire financial straits. Some of the residents go there to seek financial aid and food vouchers. There is a collecting point at the resident centre where the Meet the People’s session is held to dispense food items like rice and canned foods.
The most extreme case I have encountered at the Meet the People’s session thus far is an eccentric elderly man in his 60s, who talked about how he ate from a dustbin outside the supermarket containing decomposing vegetables for nearly a decade. He had few teeth left in his mouth, which he says is due to the effect of eating those decomposing vegetables. I was wondering whether he really had to resort to such means in order to feed himself. Could he himself, or anyone around him, have helped him better? The MP applied for financial assistance for the man with the community development council when he heard the case.
I guess it troubles me when I know of people experiencing difficult circumstances. Does divine providence hold true for these people? I guess if we do know about it, those of us who are well-off should do our best to help those less well-off. It’s a sort of empathy and charity of spirit that I believe Christianity preaches, and perhaps, divine providence works through human means.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Sunday Service – Catholic Mass about the keeping of protective artifacts

I went to a Catholic church for its mass service yesterday on Sunday. There were quite a lot of Filipinos at the service. They were going there in families, both men and women, with their children. I don’t see that many of them in other aspects of societal life in Singapore. I suppose the catholic mass is a rally for catholic-believing Fillipinos to gather.

There was an interesting room at an area in the church with the label ‘adoration room’ on the entrance door. In that room, there is a rather strange looking golden artifact encased in a glass panel and buried into the wall at the front of the room. There are two pews at the back of the room. I suppose Catholics may go to that room to pray. I am wondering what that artifact holds in significance for the Catholics.

The sermon given by the Catholic priest for the mass was an exhortation to the congregants to discard artifacts of other religions (especially those Taoist kinds) like amulets and good-luck charms. He was talking about how he was advising a congregant who keep such stuff to discard these things which he warns are artifacts with evil supernatural sources. However, the man was hesitant of throwing away these artifacts because he was afraid that he might not be protected against evil supernatural forces without them. The priest said he chided the man, telling him that his true protection comes from the Christian God. I was slightly amused when the priest said that in place of those amulets and charms, the man should keep Catholic artifacts like the rosary, picture of the saints, the crucifix etc. I am not sure whether that is any less superstitious with what the man began with.

This is probably the most charismatic sounding message that I have come across in a Catholic mass, with all these reference to the protective powers of various artifacts against supernatural evil forces. I have visited other Catholic Mass before, but the message was more mundane and simple, about things like how to live one’s life in a Christian like manner.  I suppose I can understand why the layman who the priest was talking about was hesitant on throwing away his Taoist artifacts. He probably believes that they had been effective in staving off evil spirits in his life, and he is unsure about whether Catholic artifacts would have similar efficacy. I am wondering though whether Christian doctrine supports this notion of carrying around Christian artifacts for protection against evil spirits. It’s not something that I hear in my own church, which is traditional Lutheran. At least from what I remember from a previous sermon by my church pastor, he advocates Christian artifacts, such as Christian entrance wall signs, to serve as a marker of identity for one’s Christian’s faith to visitors, and as reminders for one’s own Christian identity. I think the sermon message was regarding the Deuteronomy 6:8 verse which features the advice to have symbols of reminders in one’s Christian life.

It reminds me of a joke though that I once read about. In that joke, one guy was asking the other why he kept some weird amulet with him. The other guy replied that it helped keep the wild elephants away. The first guy remarked that he didn’t see any wild elephants around, to which the other guy quite smartingly replied that it shows that the amulet works. The point of that joke is that one cannot just prove causation from correlation. The fact that no wild elephants were around does not necessarily mean that the amulet was effective. It could simply be the case that there were no wild elephants to begin with. And I am sure that a skeptic, or an atheist, would remark the same about amulets or Christian artifacts in protecting against evil spirits. They don’t believe evil spirits exist in the first place.

I am also reminded of a scene I once came across when I watched the movie The Mummy starring Brendan Fraser. In that movie, there was this minor character who came face to face with the resurrected Mummy. As the Mummy was approaching him in a threatening manner, that character was comically taking out his religious artifacts one by one in his desperate bid to find the right one that would work against the Mummy. I don’t think the Christian cross worked on the Mummy!

I suppose I don’t rule out the existence of supernatural beings, even though I may have doubts about them. And since I have chosen to believe in the Christian God, I think it is subsidiary to this belief that I must believe that evil supernatural beings exists as well. But I am apprehensive of becoming superstitious about such things, to the extent of attributing almost everything to supernatural forces.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Desperate Housewives Pilot Episode – The inner world of women

I watched the pilot episode of Desperate Housewives. I haven’t watched the show before as I didn’t think that I would find the show interesting. I thought, what could be so interesting about the affairs of housewives? I had a glimpse of the show once when it appeared on television back when Desperate Housewives was a popular sitcom on television, and I was quite repulsed about what I saw in that episode, which was nearing its end. It showed a man who chose to leave his mother for a woman, and him telling his mother that he never intends to come back to visit his mother again, before he left the mother’s house to be in a romantic relationship with the woman. And the female narrator of the show was trying to portray the man’s action in a positive light of being courageous to choose his wife (or girlfriend?) over his mother, because the mother had supposedly been a very bad person who deserved such treatment from her son. I suspect that the show had been following the theme of the archetypal difficult mother-in-law before that such that the audience who have been following the show would have come in support of the son’s decision. But from a passing-by viewer like me, the son’s action seemed rather reprehensible. And I had qualms about whether the show was one of those so-called western shows promulgating loose liberal moral values that my Church community warns about.

Recently though, I have encountered some references to the show on blogs that I read. The authors of those blogs are Christian, and they do acknowledge the elements of liberal values that are portrayed in the show. But they also talk about the educational aspect of the show, and about the value of the show in portraying the intricacies of human psychologies and relationships. I actually enjoyed watching the pilot episode of Desperate Housewives. The characters, with their antics, and housewife schemes and politics, was an interesting watch. And I think it gives me a better picture of the concerns that affects women and the perspectives they hold on various affairs in their daily lives, although it would be good if I confer with female friends to hear their opinions regarding the portrayal of women in the show. From what I gather from the show, women have a lot more inner subtle thoughts in their dealing with people and issues than men, and they tend to take a more passive aggressive approach in dealing with relationships and problems rather than openly voicing out their sentiments and seeking a direct resolution.

For example, there is this character named Susan, played by Teri Hatcher, who is a divorced mother looking for love. She encountered this guy who works as a plumber at a funeral, and became interested in him. There is this other divorced woman in the neighbourhood who was competing with her. She is portrayed as the “predator of eligible bachelors” in the show, and has seduced pretty much all the men she previously encountered, including a church minister! Susan went over to the guy’s house one day, only to see that the other woman had got there first. In a presumptuous bid to get the man to come over to her place, she made the excuse that she had a clog in her pipes in her house (with whatever innuendo that may have been), and that she thought the guy could help her out since he was a plumber. The guy agreed, and told her he would be over in a while, which got her panicking because she had made those remarks in haste, and there was no actual plumbing problems. She immediately ran back to her house, and with her daughter from her previous marriage, began frenetically stuffing down things into the kitchen sink to clog it up.

Then there is this other character named Lynette, a former business woman turned stay-at-home mum of three children. She felt embarrassed when she encountered a former colleague at a supermarket. When the colleague asked her how she finds being a stay-at-home mother, she masked her true sentiments with a big smile on her face and her response that “it is the best job I ever had”.

Another of the desperate housewives is Bree. Her husband had revealed that he wanted to divorce her. While emotionally distraught, she stuck to her stoic demeanor to avoid betraying her emotions. She tried to kill her husband by adding onions to her husband’s salad dish, knowing that he is allergic to it.

The final character of the desperate housewives clique is Gabrielle, played by Eva Longoria, an ex-model whose unhappy marriage has had her beginning an affair with her 17-year-old gardener. Her husband wanted to fire the gardener because the lawn outside the house had not been mowed and he felt that the gardener had been lazy in not finishing his task of mowing the lawn. The real reason is that the gardener had been busy making love with his wife, Gabrielle every time he is at the house (which ought to get him fired as well!). Gabrielle saved the gardener from getting fired by telling her husband that he was having a wrong assessment of the height of the lawn as it was evening and that he could not see well as a result. When they were at a party where her husband was to make a business deal, she bribed the person serving alcohol, telling him to ensure her husband had a drink in hand throughout the entire evening. While her husband was distracted with the business dealing and inebriated by the booze, she went all the way back home to get out the lawn mower and mow the lawn herself, before going back to the party. The next morning, when her husband got up and went out of the house, and found the lawn perfectly mown, he appeared bemused, but went along his way to work probably in the belief that he had it wrong about the gardener. Gabrielle is shown looking atop from the balcony as her husband leaves for work with a repose demeanor to her, probably feeling satisfied at having managed and kept the crisis under tabs.

I like watching sitcom dramas like this because it gives me a way to understand how people view things and allow me to have an insider picture to the reasons why people behave in particular manners. I am not always able to understand people’s actions or infer the rationale behind their actions from observation alone. And I don’t want to be either too presumptuous or prejudicial with my inferences. But I fear being oblivious to people’s intentions as well, especially if they are bad ones, and to fall into their traps, or to treat people as friends when they may not share the same sentiment about me. What I like about Desperate Housewives is that it shows and explains the underlying rationale for why these women act the way they do, which may otherwise appear befuddling to an outside observer. I do notice some behaviors from girls in my life that puzzles me, and which causes me to speculate to no ends about why they behave in such manners. And I have encountered girls who use passive aggressive tactics against me. I hope I am intelligent enough to decipher their actions. For example, there was this girl whom I worked with for a company law group assignment who erased substantial portions of my part in a group assignment in order to meet the word count before submitting it to the professor for marking, much to my detriment, and she continues putting on a cordial expression when interacting with me, as if everything is amicable. I suppose I am very much averse towards confrontation, and it doesn’t help that I am sometimes less eloquent than these people in law school. But I think that I could help myself better by calling out their unethical actions and bringing a complaint against them to relevant authorities. One thing I have also learnt is that I could very much benefit by consulting female friends to seek advice about dealing with female people. I suppose it takes one to know one, and I mean that in a good way. I suppose I could do better with more close female friends whom I can consult. But there are some things in life where I suspect that like one of those guy characters in the Desperate Housewife show, I will be oblivious to some of the ways and schemes of a woman.

Search This Blog