One of the things Chad does is raise children. Here he shares an anecdote of hiking up a mountain with his kids. Through analogy, and reference to the work Divine Providence, Chad explores ideas about the Divine perspective when caring for His Human children. This essay comes across as humorous and light hearted while conveying satisfyingly grounded philosophical conclusions.. -Editor
Lately I have been thinking about the Lord as the Perfect Parent and Divine Providence as His consistent implementation of a flawless parenting philosophy based on the everlasting mercy of His Divine Love and Wisdom! I like this approach because it helps me think of Him in a more intimate way: He is the Person who has been in my life from the very beginning, making things work and loving me unconditionally—rather than my boss, or my coach, or my best buddy, or some of the other perfectly acceptable ways of thinking about God. What I like best about this concept of the Lord is that, being a parent myself, it helps me to understand the limited nature of my own freedom; recognize some of the ways that the Lord is raising me toward heaven; and accept that I cannot grow up to be an angel unless the Lord lets me learn from my own mistakes and the mistakes of others.
Maybe the Lord’s name, “Heavenly Father,” is just a traditional way of calling the Lord our “Perfect Parent.” If the Lord is our Perfect Parent, then Divine Providence—or the way the Lord governs His creation (Divine Providence 1)—is His Divine Approach to parenting us (note: unless stated otherwise, all following references are to Divine Providence). While the comparison between flawed human parenting and the Lord’s parenting of the human race is obviously not exact, there is a steady parallel: as parents, we bring children into the world and create a home for them with the purpose of leading them toward a useful and happy adulthood; similarly, the Lord creates each of us—and our surroundings—for the purpose of leading each of us to a useful and happy life in heaven (45). The goal is the same: help the child (or the childish person!) develop to a new and more genuine level of freedom.
In order to draw important doctrinal lessons from this comparison, we need to begin with a basic illustration of the parent/child relationship:
One day, without giving my children any real choice in the matter, I decide that they will climb a mountain! I feel confident that there is a perspective at the top of the mountain that will benefit them and I feel confident that the hike itself will teach them that there is satisfaction in overcoming challenges toward the achievement of a goal. I use my intimate knowledge of their personalities to prepare them mentally and emotionally for problems that I anticipate they will face during the hike. In general, they are excited about getting to the top, although they must take it completely on faith that it will be worth the work.
Keeping the long hike and the end-goal in mind, I pick up my two-year-old son and begin walking. But Dag, my son, insists on walking. I try to make him more comfortable in my arms, but he is stubborn and wiggles to the ground. That is okay with me, because the trip itself is just as important as the end-goal. As we ascend the mountain, the kids take turns complaining about how hard it is, and Ainsley, my daughter, doubts whether we will ever reach the top. They demand to take breaks and eat snacks. At other times they get excited by a mushroom, or an animal, or about how far they have come. They believe they are leading themselves up a mountain independently, having very little appreciation for the worn path on the ground, the nourishment in their bodies, or for my constant leadership and management of their safety.
In spite of warnings about roots and loose rocks, they occasionally trip and bump a knee or scrape an elbow. At other times, Dag walks toward a dangerous ledge and I calmly prevent him from plunging to his death. Ainsley picks a flower and gives it to Dag, who unceremoniously rips it to pieces. This makes Ainsley sad. At other times, Dag is sad because Ainsley will not wait for him. When they get sad, I comfort them. When they get tired and ask for help, I pick them up. At times, I carry both of them. When they think they can do it alone, they are allowed to try. Most importantly, when Ainsley gets stubborn and refuses to press on, I very cleverly remind her of the end-goal and say, “Alright. Mom and Dag and the baby can go to the top and you and I can go back and wait in the car.” Luckily for both of us, she always changes her mind.
As simple as it sounds, each element of this story helps me understand more personally how the Lord’s Providence works and how it relates to my freedom. Just in the setup, we see the all-encompassing governance of the Lord’s parenting. Aside from receiving our very life from Him, our entire journey is designed and managed by the Lord in every moment. My wife and I planned the hiking trip down to pretty specific details before ever telling our kids about it. We picked a mountain that has an accessible path (an achievable goal), we drove our kids to the bottom, Lizzy packed snacks and lunch and water in anticipation of their hunger, we picked a day with decent weather, we left early enough to make sure the round trip up and down would end before dark, etc. Apart from our planning, the hiking trip would not exist.
In the same way, our journey from ignorant selfishness to heavenly acknowledgment of the Lord’s life-giving power could not exist without His ceaseless guidance and management of every detail of creation—down to the very states of our minds (202). The Lord gives us the appearance of freedom and rationality—an appearance so strong that we have no choice but to act from that freedom according to that rationality (73). But this freedom and rationality are entirely limited. Compared to the true autonomous existence of the Lord’s Love and Wisdom, our freedom is as limited as the very limited freedom our children enjoy. Although they control their bodies and thoughts to a thrilling extent, we know that the bit of freedom a child experiences only exists in the context of the surroundings that her parents (and their community, and ultimately the Lord) provide for her. How can a child be free if his parents severely limit his actions (running into the road, etc.) and if he is utterly reliant on them? We need to recognize that we are in the same limited and dependent state of freedom in relation to the Lord’s omnipotence. If the Lord were not perfectly anticipating every detail of His unfolding creation, there would be no heaven, hell, or humanity (202:3).
But, while the Lord controls every detail of our existence, He also parents us according to strict and unchanging rules—one of which is that we should feel like we are leading ourselves (154; 203:4). This rule exists to protect the appearance of our freedom. If we knew how much of our life was in the Lord’s control (all of it), we would resist his Providence violently, and our humanity (the appearance of autonomy) would cease to exist (211:2). I could have just carried Dag—kicking and screaming—all the way up the mountain. After all, that was the end-goal, wasn’t it? Similarly, the Lord could have created us as angels in heaven and avoided all the trouble of hell, right? I’m lying to you (279:4; 338). My goal was never that my children merely be at the top of a mountain. Nor is the Lord’s goal simply to make heaven appear with the flick of a switch. The top of the mountain is wonderful, and it ultimates the value of the journey; but the purpose of any end-state is nothing without the means of achieving it (108). For the Lord to achieve His end-goal of a heaven from the human race, He has to lead us there while maintaining the appearance that we are leading ourselves there (154).
This means that we—like children—cannot help but sense that our prudence is everything, even though it is actually a compilation of everything we have been told—ultimately either evil lies from some proprium [a term Swedenborg uses to mean "what is one's own" or "selfhood" - Ed.] or angelic truths from the Lord (290). Just yesterday, Ainsley announced to our family: “Mom, Dad, I think I know better than our whole family.” My sister Winfrey came to a similar conclusion as a four-year-old when she told my father that she knew everything. “No, you don’t,” my Dad replied. “Okay,” said Winfrey, “then try to tell me something I don’t know.” It is cute when children confirm the appearance of their own prudence, but we do the exact same thing; and our doing so is actually the source of all the evil in the world (286). By abusing our rationality and freedom, we can freely choose to rationalize any evil and make it right. But thinking about the Lord as a Parent reminds me that he probably watches me rationalize evil with similar (and greater) love and wisdom to what I feel toward my children when they make mistakes. To help us avoid these mistakes, the Lord gives us perfect advice—general and specific—through His Word (154:3), and the basic message is pretty darn simple: try to figure out what is good and true and then try to live accordingly (179:2). After laying down all the particulars of hiking safety, I am giving my children the same simple sort of reminder on the mountain when I say, “Just be careful.” If my kids just remembered what I told them and thought about it the whole way up, they would never have a problem. We have the same simple job (233:7). But kids seldom do this, and neither do we. This makes for some pretty sad lessons on the way up the mountain.
As any parent knows, distinguishing between these valuable lessons and a potentially fatal mistake is not always easy. Since our job as parents is not as long term as the Lord’s, we tend to err on the side of caution. But since the Lord’s foresight and wisdom, as well as His loving mercy, are perfect, He can actually follow His rule and let us do absolutely any evil; as long as it serves the end-goal of a heaven from the human race. This means that the Lord permits evil only if it helps preserve our freedom, helps someone recognize the difference between good and evil, or helps someone overcome evil temptation (21).
Again, all evil comes from our mistaking appearances for reality. The true reality is Divine Love and Wisdom and the appearance is our freedom and rationality, our independence and prudence. Turning back to our parent/child analogy, we can illustrate this basic mistake and its consequences, while demonstrating how the Lord only permits evil that is useful in some way. In the hiking story, my children “erred” in a few specific ways: they complained, they tripped, they hurt each other’s feelings, and one of them tried to walk off a cliff. These all relate to different kinds of useful evils—all except one.
When we confirm the appearance of our own prudence, we are very likely to complain. We decide that things should go a certain way, and they almost never do. Maybe my Ainsley had convinced herself that the top of the mountain was just around the next turn; when the next stretch of path came into sight she no doubt became disappointed. I had warned her that it would be a long hike, so her disappointment could only come from creating false expectations for herself. We “freer” and “rationaler” adults do this to an even more ridiculous degree. But by experiencing this disappointment (a form of evil), we can learn to trust the Lord instead of our own prudence. Similar pain comes from failing to live our lives the way our religion teaches us to. Scraped knees are sad for a little kid, but addiction, failure, broken relationships, and self-loathing are really miserable. If we learn anything from these, it is that acknowledging the Lord and serving the neighbor are the source of happiness (321), rather than trusting our natural desires. The Lord only allows us to make these mistakes if they help someone get to heaven (234). Where the Lord does draw the line is in preventing profanation, or the mixing together of what is good and what is evil (227:2; 228, etc.). Since internal profanation destroys our very humanity, the Lord does not allow us to do it; from His perspective it would be like letting us walk off a cliff. This would break His parenting rule about preserving the appearance of our freedom and rationality. If we cease to exist, how can we feel free and rational? More importantly, how can we reach heaven by acknowledging the Lord and living a good life (325)?
So when we turn toward evils that do not contribute to heaven in some way, the Lord’s Providence gently turns us back toward the path. If we ask Him for help, we receive it. If we need nourishment, we have it. The Lord does all of this to achieve the final goal of leading us to heaven (234). But He cannot achieve his end-goal unless we can choose heaven from the apparent freedom and rationality He has given us. Thus we are allowed to confirm appearances and do evil. This guarantees that bad things will happen, and it guarantees the reality of hell. If Ainsley is to get to the top of the mountain feeling independent, she has to be allowed to choose not to go. So when she doubts whether we will ever get there and blames me for bringing her on such a hard trip (240), I have to be able to give her the real choice of turning back. For her, this would not be the end of the world. For us, this choice means that we miss out on all the joy that our Perfect Parent created us for and is leading us toward. But from the Lord’s infinite mercy, we are allowed to reject it and wait in the car feeling sorry for ourselves. While there is nothing I can think of that is more tragic or scary than hell, this perspective suggests that, from the Lord’s point of view, hell might not be so terrible. From His point of view, we may just be “missing out.”
So like any good parent, the Lord allows some pretty bad things to happen so that we can learn how to distinguish between reality and appearance. No child grows up without having the freedom to get a couple of scrapes, bruises, and hurt feelings. Likewise, no adult can achieve a state of heavenly connection with the Lord unless they recognize the difference between good and evil—between acknowledged reality and confirmed appearances—and change their life accordingly.