By Kevin K. Baxter
Imagine if you will, a puzzle scattered about a table. Easy puzzles have obviously differently-shaped big pieces with distinctive colors, while harder puzzles have smaller pieces with less detail and unclear color differentiations. This difficulty is where both the fun and the frustration are found.
Now imagine that you get a puzzle that is the size of the earth with all the variances of color and shapes. You open the box lid and spill the pieces on to your incredibly large table, but instead of sorting out the corner pieces and lining up gradients of color and shape you instantly know where each piece belongs.
A smile is a good example of a correspondence. The smile is not happiness or joy itself, but is linked to happiness or joy. It is a muscular reaction that breaks through the veil.
This analogy might, to some degree, tell us what life was like for the members of what Swedenborg called the Most Ancient Church, and also what heaven is like for the angels. In this state of true vision, a person is not fooled by the masks, gradients, or distortions of perception or deception. Over time, humanity has fallen away from the understanding of the pieces of physical puzzle -- that is, of course, until Swedenborg opened the Word through unlocking the forgotten science of correspondences.
What are correspondences? Are they more than arbitrary allegory and symbolism? While some debate the issue, the New Church says yes. A very clear example is the face. A face corresponds to the affections (will) or thoughts of the mind (understanding). A happy face is generally worn by a happy person. The face is not the happiness itself, rather, it is the vessel embodies the happiness of our soul.
As we all know, people learn to “keep a stiff upper lip” by “putting on a happy face,” even when they don’t feel like it. This mean that the face no longer corresponds to the internal state the person is feeling. Does this example, then, disprove the concept of correspondences? No. Correspondences are not static, but rather contextual and dynamic. So, as the nature of true intent of the face changes, so does the correspondence that goes along with it. The smiling face takes on a meaning of deception and falsity.
Over the next couple of newsletters, I will be using the science/art of correspondences to illustrate a technique one can apply in understanding Swedenborg’s approach. All too often, we Swedenborgians apply correspondences as if they were strict definitions or mathematical formulas, when in fact they are much, much more. The more one learns how correspondences are used, the more of the Bible and existence itself is opened into a dynamic, complex, and amazing world.
“We gain from nature the impressions which give us our only distinct idea of spiritual things.” - William L. Worcester
Now we will forge ahead in our exploration of correspondences. Let us keep in mind, however, that correspondences are dynamic. The meaning of a correspondence is not static, nor is it a simple game of “substitute this for that” that unlocks the deeper meaning of an appearance. Correspondences change depending on their role in a biblical story. They are more art than science.
Our first case study in the artful science of correspondences will come, not surprisingly, from scripture. I will use a paraphrased version of the story of David and Goliath (1 Samuel 17) as an example. The story goes like this:
The army of Israel was facing off against the army of the Philistines. Rather than have the two armies battle it out, Goliath, a huge, well armed, champion of the Philistines, challenged the army of Saul to send out its best warrior to fight him one-on-one. The stakes were simple and high: to the victor would go the spoils, which in this case would be the servitude of the losing nation’s people. The people of Israel were afraid.
It just so happened, on that day, the shepherd boy David was dropping off some supplies for his brothers in the Israelite army when he heard the announcement. He asked why nobody had risen to the challenge, and was chastised for it.
After telling Saul that defeating Goliath was no more difficult than defeating the bears or the lions that attacked him in the field, David, refusing any armor, picked up his staff “and chose five smooth stones from the wadi (river bed), and put them in his shepherd’s bag, in the pouch; his sling was in his hand, and he drew near the Philistine” (1 Sam 17:40).
After some witty banter, the two charged at each other. David slung one of his stones right into Goliath’s forehead, killing him, and became the victor.
Swedenborg tells us that Philistines correspond to believing in God, but not loving the neighbor. Armies, in general, correspond to the doctrines or teachings of the church—those troops assembled to engage in spiritual struggle. The armies of Israel represent the true teachings of the church, whereas the armies of the Philistines are false teachings of a church.
These correspondences reveal that the inner sense of the passage is about the conflict between real truth and empty or false truth. The Israelite soldiers (true teachings) are frightened of the well-practiced Goliath (one who is in truths without good, which is falsity). In other words, Goliath knows his facts about religious doctrines and can use them six ways to Sunday, but he does not actually love the Lord or the neighbor. David represents the love and the wisdom of the Lord—goodness and truth conjoined. And David’s five smooth stones, with their hard edges washed away, represent the literal biblical truth that has been cleansed and refined by the living, spiritual truth which flows from the Word (the water in the river bed).
I like the David and Goliath story because it provides us with several examples of the way in which correspondences are dynamic, both responding to and revealing the meaning of a story. One example of this lively quality of correspondences is found in the two armies which face off at the start of the story. We can see how the specific correspondence of an “army” changes, depending on exactly whose army it is. In biblical correspondences, whatever aids the people of Israel has a good correspondence, while anything that opposes the good of Israel receives a negative correspondence.
The correspondential significance of the stones/rocks in this story is, like the armies, also defined by their context
Generally, rocks correspond to biblical teachings, but the quality of truth or falsity of the teachings can vary depending on how they are used. Compare the rocks meant for the stoning punishment of the adulterous woman (John 8: 1-5) to the stones in the David and Goliath story. The stones in these two stories signify opposite things: the stones in the former case signify falsity, and in the latter, truth. In both cases, the stones serve as weapons—implements that kill or harm. In each case, however, the character and the intentions of the stone-throwers shift the meaning.
We saw above that, in the David and Goliath story, the stones are cleansed by water (spiritual truth) and are used to defend Israel (truth), so that they signify purified truths against falsities. The stones intended for the woman caught in adultery, on the other hand, would have been used for misguided punishment (note that the Lord, in this story, does not question the woman’s guilt, but also does not condemn her). These stones, then, signify misusing the truths of the church to condemn and/or hurt someone.
I hope that this little exploration has shown that the artful science of correspondences is far from cut and dried – that, in fact, correspondences both give and receive meaning depending on their place in a story or situation. In the next article, I will use this system to examine the correspondences outside of a biblical source.
Correspondences do not arise in a theoretical vacuum; rather, they exist in relationship to the context of their application. In the previous article in this series, we examined how this works with examples from the Word, using the story of David and Goliath as well as the Gospel story of the woman caught in adultery. In this and the following articles, we will apply Swedenborg’s notion of correspondences to the things we experience in our own lives.
Life, as we all know, is different from a written story. Stories and narratives have the interpretive advantage of being, usually, already complete: they have a beginning, a middle, and an end which the reader can discover. While our life’s journey may have a beginning, middle, and end, we do not know what or when or why that end will be—in fact, we do not even know precisely where we are in our own life narrative. We are in the middle of our own stories, and we have only a general and occasional sense of the particularities of God’s providence. We cannot simply apply given correspondences to any situation outside of a completed narrative, because we do not fully understand the circumstances or the relationship a particular thing might truly have to the ultimate story of one’s life. Correspondences are not a prescriptive model for us to follow or a magic key to the meaning of particular objects and events. Rather, they are an exercise in the prayerful examination of one’s life.
I would like to start by examining the correspondence of light. We generally say that light corresponds to truth, except when the light overpowers us (meaning there is more truth than good)—then it is falsity. Recently, I was walking around town and realized how many different types of lights there are in our world: flashlights, street lights, stop lights, house lights, festive holiday lights, party lights, etc. While the list goes on, I must stop somewhere. I believe my list of lights will give us an interesting diversity of the various types of lights in our world.
Flashlights or torches (as many other English-speaking countries refer to them) have a fairly straightforward correspondence. Like other lights, their function is to dispel darkness, but in contrast to an overhead light or lamplight, the beam from a flashlight is focused light. With a flashlight, we illuminate only the darkness we want to illuminate. While they light the path before us, flashlights also leave much that is not illuminated. Correspondentially speaking, flashlights might denote the selection, and thus the control, of truth, and the possibility of our focusing the light of that truth in an incomplete way. The focused light from a flashlight is similar to studying in a way that compartmentalizes and categorizes knowledge—useful for identifying things, but also vulnerable to error because of its narrow focus. So, we could say that a flashlight, or the light from it, corresponds to the truths and falsities derived from human systematic approaches to knowledge, depending on how we utilize them.
Street lights may be compared to the biblical notion of stars. Stars in ancient and even in modern times are used for navigation. This is why they correspond to doctrines, rules we live by to navigate through our lives. Street lights function in a similar way, but with a pretty significant difference. Unlike stars, street lights do not orient you to your direction or your place in the world; instead, they light an already constructed path. They keep you on a course you have already designated. Street lights may correspond to rules and guiding principles that are more natural than spiritual.
Stop lights, as well as other warning lights, serve a very different purpose from the lights to which we normally ascribe the concept of truth. Strictly speaking, these lights do not exist to dispel darkness. What, then, could their correspondence be? Stop lights are communication tools that we mutually agree upon as a society, which help people get where we are going without running into someone else. Stop lights might be the priorities or principles that help us consider who has right-of-way when people’s journeys intersect.
House lights come in several different forms. We have lights that help us see street addresses or monitor our property, but we also have the lights that illuminate our rooms. Houses or dwellings can correspond to both the truths and goods by which the home owner lives, as well as the perpetual presence of the Lord or the hells. Since we are talking about our home, and not the Lord’s house, we will use the prior definition. These lights might be the truths or falsities we use to understand the truths and goods we have adopted. Possibly, these room lights might correspond to our understandings or rationalizations of our spiritual state—our soul’s dwelling-place. House lights that illuminate our addresses could be the truths or falsities we illuminate about ourselves for passersby and the people who are trying to know us better.
Festive Holiday Lights are very interesting as well. Like stop lights, these lights generally do not exist primarily for the purpose of dispelling darkness. These are generally “ornamental” lights. These lights are easily categorized into the same area as jewelry and other decorations. To better understand the possible correspondence of holiday lights, we need to know the purpose of the decorations. If I decorate my house to show superiority over my neighbors, the lights’ correspondence might be about the Lord existing in our externals, yet not being present in our internals (truths of the church without love). On the other hand, holiday lights that are displayed out of pleasure and joy in the season might correspond to particular truths of the church that are particularly special—illuminating—to us.
Party Lights are some of the most peculiar lights one can examine correspondentially. When I talk about party lights, I refer to lights used intentionally to distort our perceptions, such as black lights, strobe lights, colored lights, etc. While these lights focus on unusual spectrums or frequencies of light, I do not believe that they are inherently malicious or fallacious in their correspondence. Black lights and other alternative spectrum lights are used by police to collect evidence, as well as for fun—in bowling alleys, for example, black lights and strobe lights can create a spooky or zany environment for special bowling events. Party lights might correspond to truths that can help us see the world in a different way. While not suited for illuminating the basic tasks of daily life, they can aid us in seeing things we would not ordinarily see. On the more hellish side, these lights can intentionally distort or reality for the sole purpose of our self-aggrandizement or selfishness, or can be used to confuse other people.
These examples are just the tip of the iceberg when we think about all the different types of lights that surround us. Just for fun, try picking a type of light that I have not talked about here. Ask yourself:
What is the primary purpose of this light?
How does it help or hurt a person on their spiritual journey?
What are both the positive and negative uses of the light?
How could this light be used to honor the Lord or express love of the neighbor?
How could it be used to increase a person’s selfishness or inhibit our growth?
All light dispels darkness; however, that is not the primary purpose of all the lights in our lives. As we contemplate the various spiritual forces shaping us, we must remember that we really cannot definitively know the correspondential meaning of objects and people around us. Nor can we use correspondences to diagnose other person’s spiritual state or the state of their regenerative journey. We can, however, take heart, for anything that helps us live a life in which love of the Lord or love of the neighbor is our primary focus or goal has us facing in the right direction.