The idea that we can never come to any firm conclusions on whether or not something is true is a hallmark of our postmodern age. But apparently something of that attitude has existed for a bit longer than just the last few decades. The conversation recorded by Emanuel Swedenborg in this vision of the afterlife sounds eerily similar to quite a few conversation I’ve heard (OK, and participated in), particularly among the academically inclined. It was first published in the book Conjugial Love in 1768.
[The angels with me] took me to a cave which had steps leading down to a lower earth. We then descended and followed in the direction of the clamor, [voices shouting,] “Oh, how learned!” And suddenly we saw several hundred people standing in the same place, trampling the soil with their feet. Being astonished by this at first, I asked why they were standing together like that and stamping away at the soil. “At that rate they may use their feet to make a hole in the ground,” I said.
The angels chuckled at this and said, “They appear as standing there like that because on any subject they regard nothing as being so, but only consider whether it is and make it a matter of debate. So, since their thought goes no further, they appear only to tread and wear away the same patch of ground without making any progress.” …
Shortly afterwards I spoke with some of them and said, “I heard the clamor of the crowd around you, crying ‘Oh, how learned!’ Allow me to explore with you, therefore, some discussion on subjects which are matters of the highest learning.”
To which they replied, “Name any subject you please and we will give you an answer.”
So I asked, “What must be the nature of a person’s religion for him to be saved by it?”
In answer they said, “We need to divide this question into several parts, and we cannot give a reply before we come to a conclusion in regard to these. The first consideration must be whether there is anything to religion. Second, whether there is any salvation or not. Third, whether one religion is of any more avail than another. Fourth, whether there is a heaven and a hell. Fifth, whether there is any eternal life after death. And many other considerations besides.”
So I asked about the first, whether there is anything to religion. And they began to discuss it, advancing a number of arguments over whether there is any religion, and whether there is anything to what is called religion.
I then asked them to refer the question to the whole gathering, which they did. And the collective response was that the question as put required so much investigation that they could not resolve it by the end of the evening.“Could you resolve it in a year?” I asked.
And one of them said it could not be resolved in a hundred years.
“But meanwhile,” I said, “you are without religion.”
To which he replied, “Do we not have to show first whether there is any religion, and whether there is anything to what is called religion? If there is, religion must exist for the wise as well. If not, it must exist only for the common people. We all know that religion is said to be a tie that binds, but the question is, for whom? If only for the common people, then in essence there is nothing in it. If for the wise as well, then there is something in it.”
On hearing this I said to them, “You are not learned at all, because you can only speculate about whether a thing is so without settling it either way. Who can become learned without knowing anything for certain, and without making any progress towards it in the way that any person progresses, step by step, and so gradually into wisdom? Otherwise you do not lay so much as a fingernail on truths but remove them further and further out of sight.
“If you reason only about whether a thing is so, is that not like reasoning about the fit of a hat which is never tried on, or about the fit of a shoe which no one wears? What other consequence results but your not knowing whether anything is anything – including, indeed, whether there is any salvation, whether there is any eternal life after death, whether one religion is of any more avail than another, whether there is a heaven and a hell. You cannot have any thought about such things so long as you remain stuck at the first step and keep pounding away at the same piece of ground there without putting one foot in front of the other and moving forward.
“You had better take care that while your minds are standing outside the temple of judgment like that, they do not harden within and turn into pillars of salt, and you become the companions of Lot’s wife.”
So saying I turned and went, and in anger they hurled stones after me. And at that point they appeared to me like figures carved out of stone, having nothing of human reason in them.
I then asked the angels about their fate; and the angels said, “Their fate is to be let down into an abyss, and there into a wilderness, where they are forced to carry packs. Moreover, because they are then unable to utter anything from their reason, they prattle and talk nonsense; and from a distance there they look like donkeys bearing burdens.” (CL 232)