Yes, our world seems to be mired in anxiety and fear; and civic discourse has degenerated to accusations, outright lies, and rhetoric. We hear calls to “drain the swamp,” but it never seems to happen. Perhaps we are looking at the situation from too narrow a perspective. It is not just our politicians who are lost in the marsh; it is our spiritual life, too. That’s the message of “What Swamps Teach us About Spiritual Life,” which appeared this week in Swedenborg Foundation’s Spirituality in Practice blog.
The original version was published in this forum as What We Can Learn From Swamps: Stagnation, Entrenchment and Spiritual Renewal. The essay explores the correspondence of swamps in nature with the problem of psychological stagnation and economic and political entrenchment. The common thread connecting our negative image of wetlands, psychological stagnation, and societal entrenchment is this: when purity and freshness, in the image of clean water, does not flow in our wetlands, our personal lives and our civic lives, these systems cease to thrive and start to decompose and decay. As Ezekiel said millennia ago:
But its swamps and marshes will not become fresh; they are to be left for salt. (Ezekiel 47:11)
The same is true of our spiritual lives. If we close ourselves off to spiritual ideas, and the possibility of having spiritual experiences, then our spiritual life will be deprived of sustenance and will decay.” Without the water of spiritual renewal, meaning and purpose will no longer be present in our lives.
“It all ends where it begins: with the water of truth that is the source of life.” (essay conclusion)
This essay is a companion to an earlier essay, also republished by the Swedenborg Foundation, What Can We Learn From Fire: Ecology, Economics and Spiritual Growth.
Parents, philosophers, theologians and educators for millennia have grappled with the challenge of teaching morality to young people. Many great thinkers have proposed theories, models, practices and programs designed to instill virtue, yet people young and old consistently fail to live up to the morals their elders promote. Microsoft recently experienced this phenomenon in relation to artificial intelligence. As reported in the New York Times, Microsoft launched a self-learning chatbot program named Tay, designed to emulate a 19-year old female, into the Twitter-sphere. Within 24 hours, the program had to be removed as it had been quickly corrupted by exposure to anti-moral attacks that turned Tay into a “sexist, Holacaust-denying supremacist” (according to The Week, April 8 at p.18). It turns out that the company your chatbot keeps is important to its moral development. True, the program is not really a sentient human and has no morals per se, but the social learning the incident demonstrates is a reminder of how powerful social influences can be on the impressionable. Moreover, while the influence of social networks, e.g. family and communities, on human moral development has always been apparent, modern technology powerfully amplifies these influences in ways that we may not appreciate.
I recently read a series of articles dealing with conscience and culture posted under the Questions for a Resilient Future project of the Center for Humans and Nature. At about the same time, I also read a briefing in The Week on the CRISPR technique that has vastly simplified gene editing – the headline is titled “Editing the human race.” (See also the post in this forum: “Engineering Better Babies” November 20, 2015.) CRISPR is one among many technologies that, by their very existence, test our collective conscience. (more…)