By the Rt. Rev. George de Charms
(First lecture in a series of nine.)
The Nature and Importance of the Doctrine
"There are more arcana in the doctrine of reflection than in any other whatever." This arresting statement is found in number 733 of the Spiritual Diary by Emanuel Swedenborg. It seems to challenge the generally accepted view, for we have been prone to think of reflection as merely one form, among many, of mental activity. We would ordinarily place it in the same category as sensation, memory, imagination and thought. Why should it contain more arcana than any of these? Are there not other doctrines that are of even greater importance? Consider creation, redemption and glorification; or influx, providence and regeneration. Must these not have an even broader application than the doctrine of reflection?
However, when we analyze the teaching of the Writings on the subject of reflection, we learn that it has a universal application because it underlies all the other operations of the human mind. All consciousness depends upon it. Without it there can be no sensation, memory, imagination or thought. Without it the Lord could not have effected the glorification of His Human; nor could He have provided for the regeneration of man and the salvation of the human race. Not only does it contain the key to the understanding of all the conscious activities of the human mind, but it explains all the countless phenomena of the spiritual world. The life of man on earth is distinguished from that of angels and spirits solely by the fact that they have a distinctly different plane of reflection. Because of this, the inhabitants of one world can be completely unconscious of those in the other world, and at the same time can be in constant and intimate association with them. Without this association there could be no conscious life in either world. Open communication between the two worlds is made possible only by bringing both men and spirits temporarily into a state of reflection that is common to both.
Furthermore, the doctrine of reflection has never been revealed before in the entire history or the human race. The laws of reflection have indeed been operative from the beginning of time, but they have not been known. Men have enjoyed the benefits of their operation, and have taken them for granted without even trying to understand them. Just as the laws of gravity existed before the time of Newton, and those of electricity before Franklin began to investigate them, so the laws of reflection were operative before they were revealed in the Writings of the Lord's Second coming. They were unknown to the men of the Most Ancient Church who nevertheless had great heavenly wisdom. They were concealed from the men of the Ancient Church even in the days of its pristine glory. They could not be made known to those who belonged to the Jewish Church, nor even to Christians before the Lord had made His second coming. Only through the medium of one who could live consciously in both worlds at the same time, and who therefore could compare the two worlds and note how each was related to the other, could the laws of reflection be made known.
These laws are now laid open by the Lord because some understanding of them is vital to the establishment of the New Church. Indeed the whole suppose of the Lord's Advent was that His heavenly kingdom may be established on the earth. By this is meant a kingdom of heavenly uses in which men may have a greater measure of responsibility and a greater sense of participation than was ever possible before. Being enabled to perform spiritual uses, men can receive the Lord's life in greater fullness and with deeper enjoyment; wherefore the Lord said to His disciples: AI am come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly" (John 10:10). The ability to perform any use depends upon a knowledge and understanding of the laws that are applicable to it. Only the knowledge of spiritual laws can open the way to the performance of spiritual uses. The doctrine of reflection has been revealed to the end that men may be introduced to a whole new realm of spiritual uses, together with the joy of accomplishment that this makes possible.
But what do we mean by "reflection?" The root meaning of the word "reflect" is to bend back. It refers to the bending back of any force that strikes upon a resisting object. Thus light is reflected from a mirror, and heat waves are reflected from a pavement. Similarly in regard to the things of the mind. A stream of sense-impulses is passing through the mind every waking moment. Only when this stream is arrested at some point, that is, when one pays attention to it, is it "bent back" or "reflected." Then for the first time does it produce a conscious sensation. We are said to "look" at something because it "strikes our fancy." We perceive it as something that has an important relation to our life, as something that gives either pleasure or pain. For this reason we "take an interest" in it, and are said to "reflect upon it." Thousands of sense-impulses pass by unheeded; but whatever we reflect upon is perceived and felt. We become aware of it. The impulses to which we do not pay attention nevertheless make an impression upon the mind, and are stored up in the interior memory, producing there an unconscious background out of which new sensations may arise; but the mental world in which we live is made up of a selected strand of sense-impulses to which we gay attention, upon which we reflect, and of which therefore we become conscious.
The focus of attention varies with every one according to the love that is active in the mind at any particular time. For this reason the same experience will make a different impression upon different people. One will "see" what another passes by un-noticed. For this reason two people may derive from the same environment very different ideas, and thus may live in different mental worlds.
Not only human beings, but animals also can reflect. They instinctively pay attention to the things in their environment that have relation to their life. They recognize their own food, and distinguish it from whatever would be injurious to their health. They know how to avoid their enemies, and how to protect their young. They can remember and recall sensations or experiences that are important to their life. They seek what is needful, and avoid what is hurtful. All this they do spontaneously without knowing why. But they cannot reflect upon themselves; that is, upon what takes place within their own mind. They are impelled by a single love which is their whole life, and this love dictates all their conscious sensations.
Human beings, on the other hand, are capable of being influenced by various loves or affections. They therefore can see things differently at different times, or in different states of mind. While seeing an experience in one state of mind, they can still remember how it appeared under the influence of another affection. They can compare these two divergent impressions, and so can decide which they will retain as true, and which they will reject. Thus they can reflect, not only upon material objects, but also upon ideas, and can analyze the nature and quality of their own thoughts. Thus they have a plane of reflection that animals do not possess--a plane whereby they know themselves or become aware of the various loves by which they are moved at different times; and because of this they can choose the loves that are to qualify their life, and thus can determine their own character. In this ability lies the moral and spiritual freedom that distinguishes them from the animal creation and makes them human. That is what enables man to become aware of spiritual things, and thus to live in a spiritual world. It is the secret of his immortality.
All conscious life is the product of reflection, but human consciousness is the product of spiritual reflection; that is, reflection upon the nature and quality of human life itself, its origin, its inner content, its relation, not only to the world of material objects but also to love itself, and thus to God. Of this, man becomes aware from the teaching of the Word concerning God; that is, concerning the essential quality of love and wisdom. Of this no man would become aware merely by reflecting upon his own inner feelings. These appear to arise within himself. He perceives them only as to their effects. He cannot know, apart from the teaching of the Word, that they inflow from the Lord through the spiritual world, and thus through angels and spirits in that world. Their origin is not in man, but outside of him; and only when this is realized can man understand that they are not inevitable. Man has the power to determine which of them he will make his own, and which he will reject. This no one could possibly know except by reflection upon the teaching of the Word.
Man was endowed from creation with the faculty or spiritual reflection. As soon as man became capable of exercising this faculty, the human soul because immortal. Before this time it could hardly be said that "man" existed, except perhaps in potency. The foetus in the womb may be said to be "human" because of the human life in the seed that progressively builds the body of a potential man. But the foetus has no power of reflection, and therefore has no conscious life, either on earth or in the spiritual world. It is not the body, but the mind that makes the man. Without reflection there is no conscious mind, no awareness of life, no enjoyment of human qualities and attributes; that is, of love and wisdom which are the essential human.
These qualities can be acquired only after birth, and even then, only by slow degrees. Reflection begins with an infant by noticing most general sensations--the contrast between light and shade, outline and what lies beyond, rough and smooth, loud and soft, and so forth. This is the first plane of consciousness. Only after innumerable such sensations have been perceived and stored in the memory can the infant begin to recognize the relation of various sensations to one another, and so to discover "things." Then for the first time does the infant begin to picture things in the imagination, and identify these mental pictures with names. He begins to ask "what" things are, and to reflect upon the combinations of many isolated sensations. Later the young child discovers what things do, what they are for, and how they can be used. When he begins to reflect upon this he no longer is satisfied to discover things and call them by name. He wants a story about them. He wants to know what they do and why they do it. Here again is a new plane of reflection that opens before the child a vast new world to be explored. As he grows older he begins to recognize abstract ideas, qualities of immaterial or spiritual things, things moral and philosophical, thoughts, truths, and affections or loves. Such are the stages of mental growth from infancy to adult age, and for this reason reflection upon spiritual things is not possible in childhood.
The same law of mental development applies to the race. The first men achieved spiritual wisdom, but only by reflecting upon sensations. They perceived spiritual truths within the superficial appearances of nature, the shapes and colors of objects, the sounds of wind and wave, the contrast of light and darkness, of day and night. A study of what is involved in this kind of reflection would throw a flood of light upon the nature and mental quality of that most ancient wisdom, as contrasted with the wisdom that is common to man in modern times.
In the Ancient Church reflection was centered upon knowledges drawn from the Word, from which arose the science of correspondences. Theirs was a different kind of wisdom, concerning which, perhaps we can have a somewhat better idea because it is something we also can experience. Yet unlike ourselves, those ancient people had no regard to scientific facts, to historic accuracy, but only to a parable, a story with a meaning.
When the Lord came into the world, He introduced his disciples to still another plane of reflection; namely, of abstract ideas and their importance to man's spiritual life. He introduced not only the parable, but also the doctrinal sermon, and this became the chief focus of Christian worship. Such doctrine was the expression of a love, an affection, an emotion, rather than an intellectual understanding. That is why such irrational doctrines could be accepted on faith without understanding--the doctrine of a God in three persons, the doctrine of original sin and a vicarious atonement, the doctrine of the resurrection of the body, and many others.
Not until the second coming of the Lord could man be given to reflect even upon reflection itself, and thus to understand spiritual things rationally, and so "enter intellectually into the mysteries of faith." Again a whole new world is presented for exploration--a world of spiritual use, of participation with the Lord in His Divine work of salvation, together with a sense of accomplishment end enjoyment never possible before. Because this new plane of reflection is of such vital importance to the establishment of the New Church, we have been moved to search out from the Writings the doctrine of reflection which alone brings that plane within the reach of human minds, and opens up a limitless opportunity for the establishment, by gradual stages, of the Lord's promised kingdom on earth.