Commentary

 

Life on slippery slopes

     

By New Christian Bible Study Staff

Life offers up plenty of "slider-adjustment" challenges - slippery slopes, curves, and various continuums. They require a lot of judgment. Some - maybe most - have spiritual aspects. In every such challenge we face, we need to figure out where we want to set the slider, and then try to stick to it.

Here's a fairly non-controversial, example: Debt. It's easy to make the case that debt's a reasonable, useful thing. For example... I don't have enough money to buy this pickup truck outright, but over the next five years, I will be earning enough money to be able to pay for it gradually, and in the meantime I can use it, and that will enable me to do my job and earn that money. So, it's reasonable to borrow some money to buy the truck.

But there's a potentially slippery slope lurking in there. I might think... well, there are some options for the truck that I'd really like to have. If I borrow a little more, I can get them too. Or... well, we've been working hard, and deserve a nice vacation. We can't really afford it, but it will work out. I'll put in on my credit card. And then, before you know it, the debt's gotten pretty big, and it starts to "own" you. It didn't start out as a problem, or an evil thing, but now it's getting to be one.

You can imagine trying to draw a diagram of this. There's a slope, or curve, or continuum. At the top of the slope, there's the "never borrow" position. Towards the bottom of the slope, there's the "I'm doing really stupid things and I'm in way over my head and things are out of control" position.

Most people manage to take positions on the slope, and go up and down a little, but they don't keep sliding down. They borrow some money, buy cars or houses, and pay the loans on time. But it IS slippery, and some people lose their hold.

What are some other "slider-adjustments" that people have to cope with? How about alcohol? Some people are teetotalers. Some drink some alcohol sometimes, but it doesn't play an important role in their lives. And for some, it gets a grip on them, and they end up sliding down into deep trouble.

Drugs are similar. You might start by trying a little recreational marijuana, and maybe there's little or no harm done. Or you might end up habituated, wasted, demotivated, and down 10 IQ points. Or addicted to harder stuff and in huge trouble.

In other cases, you manage to adjust a slider and it makes improvements in your life. You work out a little more, and you lose some weight and your blood pressure goes down to normal. It's good! But even that can be taken to extremes.

It's hugely varied. There are sliders we need to set for work, and for leisure. And for hobbies. And for parenting. Health. Beauty. Strength. Learning. Sex. Competition. Fame. Power.

Some of them don't have "reasonable" tops; you can't have 100% work or 100% leisure. Some continuums have steep slopes, while others might be shaped like bell curves or valleys. Some (as with the core definition of a slippery slope) have small evil baked in from the very beginning, which wants to grow and consume. Some start out good, but can become evil if you take them to extremes. Some are very slippery.

As if that wasn't complicated enough, there's another layer: the sliders are interconnected. If you increase your exercise slider, are you going to decrease your parenting slider? Or your work slider? You can't ignore context or priorities.

So... how in the world are we supposed to operate, taking and holding our positions on all these slopes? It's an enormously complex set of challenges, and it seems to be part and parcel of being human. It's not an accident that we also just happen to have rational minds that can come to grips with this complexity. We can think and decide where to try to "be" on a slope by slope basis. We can learn as we go, and change our behaviors, and our slider-positions. It takes some perspective, and judgment, and discipline, but we have the ability to do it.

Think about the evolutionary aspects of it. Over a long period of time, homo sapiens have evolved. People who were particularly bad at handling some of the many slopes in life will have tended to die younger, or to have been less attractive mates. That's an encouraging thought, in a way. If you're reading this, it means you're a product of many, many generations of human development. Your genetic makeup has been getting tuned up for a long time! You're equipped to handle enormous complexity.

About those spiritual aspects to this need to take up positions on life's curves... they seem to be at the heart of "human-ness". We know, from archeology, that spirituality developed in human beings a long time ago - maybe 80,000 years ago or more. That suggests that spirituality is something that's helpful to us; it's a "fitness" for the task of being human. There's a case to be made that it helps us keep our footing on slippery slopes. If that's true, one would expect to find supporting evidence, and... there is some. Here are a few pieces:

1. Religion seems to correlate with happiness. See this recent Pew Research Center study.

2. 12-step programs seem to work well for people, when they ask for God's help in fighting addictions.

3. There are inspiring cases of faith in terrible circumstances, which have helped people. Think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Corrie ten Boom, Viktor Frankl, Louis Zamperini, Nelson Mandela, Helen Keller, and Abraham Lincoln... and many others.

If we look in the Bible, we'd hope to find some insights there, too. It's interesting; a search for "slippery" turns up several Bible passages. Here's one, in which, if you're trying - really trying - to be good, God can steady you on the slippery slope:

"Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart. But as for me, my feet were almost gone. My steps had nearly slipped.... For my soul was grieved. I was embittered in my heart. I was so senseless and ignorant. I was a brute beast before you. Nevertheless, I am continually with you. You have held my right hand. You will guide me with your counsel, and afterward receive me to glory." (Psalm 73:1-2, 21-24)

Here's a passage from another Psalm in much the same vein:

For Yahweh won't reject his people, neither will he forsake his inheritance. For judgment will return to righteousness. All the upright in heart shall follow it. Who will rise up for me against the wicked? Who will stand up for me against the evildoers? Unless Yahweh had been my help, my soul would have soon lived in silence. When I said, "My foot is slipping!" Your loving kindness, Yahweh, held me up. (Psalm 94:14-18)

The Lord doesn't want us to slip down into bad habits or bad places. His hand is extended to us. That's really important for us to know, and to believe.

How, though, should we develop good judgment for all the nuances - about where to set our sliders -- how should we develop that? We're given freedom to make spiritual decisions, and slide around all over the place. To help prevent disaster, we're also given rational minds that can think, observe, learn, put on the brakes, and override our lower drives. We can - in fact, we desperately need to - open our minds to spiritual truth.

When you boil it down, the whole "slider-adjustment" challenge is the human challenge. One of the best places in the whole Bible to learn about it is right at the beginning, in Genesis 1, 2, and 3. The story of creation is, symbolically, the story of a person's stages of spiritual development. The creation of Adam, and then of Eve, from Adam's rib, is the story of the development of our freedom, and the feeling of independence, which is still infused with innocence. The trees of the garden, and the animals and birds being named, represent knowledge about good and truth that our rational minds can use.

Here are links to those early Genesis chapters (and please refer to the chapter summaries for these): Genesis 1, 2

Here, too, are some links to sections in Swedenborg's works where he discusses the inner meaning of these chapters: Arcana Coelestia 73-80, and 131-136.

There's also an interesting passage in Swedenborg's "Divine Love and Wisdom", section 263, on how we can go downhill in a spiritual spiral, or gradually reform and be reborn, again, in a spiral.

For further reading, here are some other passages that bear on this subject: , Arcana Coelestia 205, 585, 2764, 3227, 3963, 10362; and Heaven and Hell 295, 547, 558, 580.

There's more to add to this, but we're going post it now, and append more thoughts later. If you, gentle reader, have thoughts to add, please send them along. Use the "Contact Us" link in the footer of this web page. Thank you!

From Swedenborg's Works

 

Heaven and Hell #558

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558 a. Further, to the extent that we are engaged in heavenly love - which is loving constructive and worthwhile activities and being moved by heartfelt pleasure when we provide them to our church, our country, the human community, and our fellow citizens - we are being led by the Lord because this is the love he is in and the love that comes from him. However, to the extent that we focus on love for ourselves - doing constructive and worthwhile things for our own sakes - we are leading ourselves; and to the extent that we lead ourselves, we are not being led by the Lord. Again, then, it follows that the more we love ourselves, the more we move away from the Divine and also from heaven.

Being led by self is being led by what we claim as our own, and what we claim as our own is nothing but evil. It is actually our evil heredity, which involves loving ourselves more than God and the world more than heaven. 1

We are completely absorbed in our self-image and therefore in our hereditary evil whenever we focus on ourselves in anything worthwhile we are doing, for we are focusing on ourselves and away from what is good and not on what is good and away from ourselves. So in the worthwhile activities we set up an image of ourselves and not an image of the Divine. I have been assured of this by experience as well. There are evil spirits who live halfway between the north and the west, underneath the heavens, who are particularly skilled at getting upright spirits involved in their self-image and therefore focused on various kinds of evil. They do this by getting them absorbed in thinking about themselves, either openly by words of praise and esteem or covertly by focusing their feelings exclusively on themselves. To the extent that they succeed, they turn the faces of the upright people away from heaven and also becloud their understanding, calling up evils from their self-concern.

558b. If you look at their origins and essences, you can see that love for oneself and love of one's neighbor are opposites. In people who are wrapped up in love for themselves, love of their neighbor begins from self. They claim that everyone is her or his own neighbor; and from this as a center they reach out to all who ally with them, with progressively less intensity depending on the love that unites the others with them. They regard people outside this group as worthless, and people who offer opposition to them and their evildoing they regard as enemies. It does not matter what they are actually like, whether they are wise or upright or honest or fair.

A spiritual love of their neighbor, though, begins with the Lord, and spreads out from him as its center to all who are united to him by love and faith. Its spread depends on the quality of their love and faith. 2

We can see from this that a love of our neighbor that begins with ourselves is the opposite of a love of our neighbor that begins with the Lord. The former comes from evil because it comes from what we claim as our own; while the latter comes from what is good because it comes from the Lord, who is good itself. We can also see that a love of our neighbor that comes from us and from our self-image is a physical love, while a love of our neighbor that comes from the Lord is heavenly.

In a word, when we are absorbed in love for ourselves it constitutes our head, and heavenly love constitutes the feet we stand on. If heavenly love does not serve us, we trample it underfoot. This is why people who are being thrown into hell look as though they are diving in headfirst, with their heads down and their feet toward heaven (see above, 548).

Footnotes:

1. The self-image that we get from our parents by heredity is nothing but condensed evil: Arcana Coelestia 210, 215, 731, 876, 987, 1047, 2307, 2318 [2308?], 3518, 3701, 3812, 8480, 8550, 10283-10284, 10286, 10731 [10732?]. Our self-centeredness involves loving ourselves more than God and the world more than heaven, and regarding our neighbor as nothing compared to ourselves except when it benefits us; so it is loving ourselves and is a love for oneself and for the world: 694, 731, 4317, 5660. From love for oneself and for the world when they are put first come all evils: 1307-1308, 1321, 1594, 1691, 3413, 7255, 7376, 7480 [7490?], 7488, 8318, 9335, 9348, 10038, 10742; which are contempt for others, hostility, hatred, vengefulness, savagery, and deceit: 6667, 7372 [7370?], 7374, 9348, 10038, 10742; and from these evils, everything false flows: 1047, 10283-10284, 10286.

2. People who do not know what loving their neighbor is think that everyone is their neighbor and that everyone who is in need ought to be helped: 6704.

They also believe that we are our own neighbor, and that love toward our neighbor therefore begins with us: 6933.

People who love themselves above all, who therefore are ruled by love for themselves, also begin their love for their neighbor with themselves: 8120 [6710?].

An explanation of the way in which we are our own neighbors: 6933-6938.

However, people who are Christians and who love God above all begin their love toward their neighbor with the Lord, because he is to be loved above all: 6706, 6711, 6819, 6824.

There are as many different kinds of neighbor as there are different kinds of good from the Lord, and good is to be done differently toward each individual depending on the quality of that individual's state, which is a matter of Christian prudence: 6707, 6709-6710 [6711?], 6818.

There are countless such differences; so the pre-Christian people, who knew what the neighbor is, sorted thoughtful acts into classes and gave them names that enabled them to know in what way one or another person was their neighbor and how they were to be helped prudently: 2417, 6629 [6628?], 6705, 7259-7262.

The doctrine in the pre-Christian churches was a doctrine of thoughtfulness toward one's neighbor, which was the source of their wisdom: 2417, 2385, 3419-3420, 4844, 6628 [6629?].

  
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Thanks to the Swedenborg Foundation for the permission to use this translation.


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