INTRODUCING EMANUEL SWEDENBORG
Friday, December 12, 1999
My task this evening is to give an overview of the life and thought of the man behind this
Foundation, Emanuel Swedenborg. There is apparently some likelihood that the building we
are in was built in 1773, the year after his death (he was born in 1688), which gives me a
sense both of location in time and of connection--of picking up where he left off.
To provide a focus for this overview, I would highlight first of all his extraordinary
intellect and second his intense devotion to two causes--the religion of his upbringing
and the science of his university education. When he attended Uppsala University at the
beginning of the eighteenth century, Lutheran orthodoxy and Cartesian science were parting
company. This was a painful process, with clerics seeing the authority of the church
undermined and scientists seeing the church as the primary obstacle to freedom of inquiry.
It was a process that Swedenborg internalized.
His father, Jesper Swedberg, was a Lutheran clergyman with a good deal of evangelical
fire. Eventually he would become a bishop, in and out of hot water with the church for his
efforts to revise the hymnal along more pietistic and less orthodox lines. Theology was
apparently standard conversational fare at the dinner table. It is also significant that
the family had substantial interests in the mining industry, mining being the mainstay of
the Swedish economy.
Jesper was on the faculty at Uppsala when his son matriculated there at the age of eleven
(not all that unusual an event), but shortly thereafter he was made bishop of Skara and
moved to his new charge. Emanuel then moved in with his older sister and her new husband,
Erik Benzelius, who felt himself to be at the forefront of the Cartesian revolution and
who as university librarian was very much aware of the latest scientific publishing.
In one sense, it was a period of truce. Charles XI had decreed just a decade earlier that
science was not to make pronouncements on matters of doctrine and that the church was not
to restrict scientific inquiry. It was perhaps only this rudimentary compartmentalization
that enabled Swedenborg to pursue a scientific rather than a theological course of study
without causing a serious rift with his father. There is some evidence in his letters home
of tension between them.
Swedenborg graduated in 1709, and the following year he set out on an extended trip
abroad. At this time, England and the Continent were centers of scientific progress, and
Sweden was relatively behind the times. In London, Swedenborg studied Newton, worked with
the astronomer Flamsteed, and investigated Boyle's chemical experiments. Then he spend a
shorter time on the Continent, making diplomatic contacts and focusing to some extent on
mathematics. When he returned home, it was with a portfolio of mechanical inventions
including a submarine, an airplane, and a stove, and with dreams of founding an
observatory that would give Sweden a prominent place at least in the field of astronomy.
He returned home, though, at a low point in Sweden's history. The charismatic Charles XII
had made a spectacular attempt to extend the Swedish empire by conquest, and had met
disaster at the hands of Peter the Great. The cost of his campaigns had been ruinous and
Sweden's economy was in a shambles. There was no realistic chance of Swedenborg's
realizing his dream of an observatory. Ultimately he did find work as assistant to
Sweden's foremost inventor, Christopher Polhelm, and became what we would now call a civil
With the support of the king, he then was appointed to a non-salaried position on the
College of Mines--roughly the equivalent of the Department of the Interior--but apparently
he had not "paid his dues," and it would be some time before he was accepted. To improve
his qualifications, he toured the mining and smelting industries of Europe and published
what turned out to be a definitive work on metallurgy. There were separate volumes on iron
and copper, with an introductory volume laying philosophical foundations for physics and
chemistry. This first volume, known most briefly as The Principia, included both a
carefully worked out nebular hypothesis and a theory of matter as composed of patterned
His life seemed pretty much on course at this point. He was profoundly disappointed to be
still a bachelor after two courtships that had not worked out, but he was an accepted
member of the government at the cabinet level with an international reputation in the
field of metallurgy. There simply is not time to survey his various other explorations in
such areas as geology and crystallography. It may be worth mentioning that on his trips
abroad he made a practice of lodging with artisans and picking up their skills, which came
to include lens grinding, bookbinding, and cartography.
The next major turn of events came, perhaps not coincidentally, shortly after his father's
death. He began to use his spare time "in search of the soul." This was not an uncommon
pursuit, but his approach was distinctive. Rather than theorize, he chose to undertake a
very thorough study of human anatomy. If the body was indeed the kingdom of the soul, he
reasoned, then that is surely where we should look. He spent time in dissection rooms in
Paris, but eventually decided to rely more on the published results of other researchers
so that he might not be biased by his own first hand discoveries.
The result of this was two substantial volumes which included such significant discoveries
as the functions of the ductless glands and the localization of certain motor functions in
the cortex of the brain. At the end, though, he had to rely more on doctrine than on the
scalpel for his conclusions about the soul, and he regarded the whole massive work as
having failed in its primary purpose. Characteristically, he decided that he simply had
not been thorough enough, and set out to do it right the second time. Now he projected
eleven volumes, of which he actually published two, with substantial parts of others left
He apparently began on this massive project in 1741, at the age of fifty-three. As he
worked, he started to have experiences of "photism," mentally visible flashes of light or
flame that, he came to realize, signalled his having arrived at some particularly
significant insight. He began his "prologue" to the first volume of the new series by
describing a kind of inborn rational instinct for the truth, an assertion potentially at
odds with the strict empiricism he had previously insisted on. Perhaps because of this,
the book was regarded by some as fanciful. However, subsequent anatomical research has
discovered his insights to have been remarkably accurate.
He was on the verge of an immense and traumatic change. As he proceeded with the project,
the conviction grew that it simply was not going to succeed. He began at about this time
to record his dreams and to speculate on the guidance they offered, and in them we see a
man struggling with his intellectual pride, with his alienation from his feelings, and
with his distance from his childhood faith. On Easter weekend of 1744, this issued in a
Christ vision of uncommon power. After a year of further struggle, a second vision, again
at Easter time, left him with the conviction that he had been called to a new career.
The only account we have of this vision comes from the memoirs of one Carl Robsahm, a
friend of his later years, and is based on a conversation the two had not long before
Swedenborg's death. However, there is convincing evidence both for the date and for the
substantial accuracy of the account. One Catholic writer, Joseph von Görres, argued that
the prosaic nature of the event argued for its authenticity--a charlatan would have come
up with something more dramatic!
The event is worth sketching. It took place in a London inn where he was having dinner,
and began with the appearance of a shadowy figure in the corner who told him emphatically
not to eat so much. Later that night, he was awakened by the same figure, who identified
himself as the Lord Jesus Christ and informed him that he was being commissioned to
disclose the inner, spiritual meaning of the Bible. After this, he reported, heaven and
hell were opened to him, and from that time on until the closing days of his life he had
almost daily "waking visions" of the spiritual world including extended conversations with
angels and spirits.
He took his commission seriously, reviewing his university Hebrew and Greek and drafting
his own extensive index of Bible passages. He began writing a Bible commentary,
posthumously published in nine volumes as The Word Explained, but left it incomplete. It
needs to be added that for about the first year of this calling, he continued in his full
time job as assessor for the College of Mines, retiring only when a higher post was left
vacant and he was nominated to fill it. He mentions living with his friends in his country
and mingling in society as before, with no one around him aware of this other side of his
From 1749 to 1756, he published a multi-volume work known as Arcana Coelestia, whose full
title might be translated A Disclosure of the Heavenly Depths in Sacred Scripture or the
Word of the Lord. This proceeds verse by verse and often word by word through Genesis and
Exodus, interpreting the narrative as a kind of parable with levels of meaning dealing
with the spiritual history of humanity, the issues and course of the individual's
spiritual pilgrimage, and deepest of all, the story of the interaction between the divine
and the human sides of Jesus.
While he had begun with the explicit intent of covering the whole Bible, he changed course
after finishing Exodus and published in 1758 five works of a very different nature. One
was a very slender work, little more than a pamphlet, on the inhabitants of the planets.
Another, The New Jerusalem and Its Heavenly Doctrine, was a survey of the main points of
his theology organized in brief discussions of its commonest terms. A third--perhaps the
most startling--was a small work called The Last Judgment, in which he described having
witnessed this event in the spiritual world. A fourth, again more booklet than book, made
his case for the existence of deeper meaning in scripture, and the fifth, Heaven and Hell,
presented the nature of the spiritual world as he had experienced it. It seems clear that
he was trying to put his theology in the most accessible form possible, and in fact Heaven
and Hell has through the years been the most popular of his works.
On completion of these 1758 works, he returned to the task of Scripture commentary and
drafted about eighty-five percent of a commentary on the last book of the Bible, the Book
of Revelation. Knowing now that he would not be writing separate works on much of the rest
of Scripture, he did a great deal of gathering of related passages and sketching their
interpretation, and the resulting work, The Apocalypse Explained, proceeds at a very
leisurely pace and is more useful for reference than for consecutive reading.
There are differences of opinion about why he never completed this work. The fact is that
he left off in the middle of chapter nineteen, despite the fact that he had kept up with
the laborious task of preparing a fair copy to send to the printer. I find myself
wondering why in this instance he had not started publishing it serially, as he had done
with Arcana Coelestia.
In any case, in 1763 and 1764 he published another cluster of separate works. Four of
these were on specific theological topics: The Doctrine of the Lord, The Doctrine of
Sacred Scripture, The Doctrine of Life, and The Doctrine of Faith. One was a kind of
sequel to his little work on The Last Judgment, and two were companion volumes entitled
Divine Love and Wisdom and Divine Providence respectively, the first presenting his
metaphysics in its broadest and least sectarian form, and the second bringing this "down
to earth," in a sense, in an effort to reconcile his experience of the beauty of the
divine nature with his experience of a world full of violence and injustice.
Once these were complete, he again took up the task of writing a commentary on the Book of
Revelation and completed it in 1766, in much more concise form than that of his previous
His next project was a departure from previous policies in another direction and resulted
in his most controversial work, whose title has been variously translated as Marital Love,
Conjugial Love, Marriage Love, and most recently Love in Marriage. It is intriguing to see
him talking about the inner differences between the sexes on the basis of his encounters
with them in the spiritual world, and also to see a combination of a highly idealistic
view of marital fidelity and devotion on the one hand and a remarkably non-judgmental
attitude toward deviations from this ideal on the other.
This, incidentally, was the first of his theological works which was not published
anonymously. He styled himself simply as "Emanuel Swedenborg, a Swede" on the title page.
He had been known as the author of the other works for some time, largely because of
several startling public instances of clairvoyance.
The work on marriage was published in 1768, by which time Swedenborg was eighty years old.
He was to publish just three more works. One was a booklet under the title Soul-Body
Interaction, one a small and quite polemical critique of traditional Christian theology
called A Brief Exposition of the Teaching of the New Church, and the third the work that
has been seen as his final summary, True Christian Religion.
It has been my own contention, though, that this final work is less a summary than an
effort to demonstrate that this theology is truly Christian. Two of his earliest
followers, both clergymen, had been accused of heresy, and the ecclesiastical inquiry had
shifted focus from what these men themselves had written to the works of Swedenborg
himself. Perhaps there was a bit of his father's evangelical fire left in the old man, for
he entered into the fray with a will.
He was quite secure. The whole family had been ennobled when he was still a young man, and
as the eldest surviving son he had served all his life in the Riddarhus or House of
Nobles. He remained welcome in the royal court--in one of his letters to the king
concerning the issue of heresy, he mentions having discussed his theology with his
majesty--as well as in the homes of citizens of unimpeachable standing. In any case, an
initial negative judgment was appealed, and eventually, after Swedenborg's death, the
whole matter was allowed to die out without decisive resolution.
As I mentioned at the outset, Swedenborg died in 1772. This happened in London, and I
might mention that once he retired from the College of Mines, while he had settled into a
comfortable house in Stockholm and enjoyed his garden, he spent a good deal of time
abroad. It was far easier for him to publish in Amsterdam and London, where the presses
were not subject to ecclesiastical censorship, than in London. He was writing in Latin in
order to reach out beyond the confines of Sweden, so language was no problem. He had
published his larger scientific works in Dresden and Leipzig, both because of the superior
quality of the presses there and because this gave his works access to the larger learned
world of the Continent.
Obviously, this is a sketchy sprint through an extraordinarily full and productive life, a
life that wound up being more of the mind than of the body. I need to be equally sketchy
in offering an outline of his thought, and would preface this concluding section by
stressing that it will be quite false to his own style in one respect. He loved detail,
and loved seeing how broad general principles took on substance, concreteness, in
"particulars." His writing, to our contemporary mind, takes its time making its points,
looking at things from all sides and constantly reflecting on how they interconnect. I
need to be much more compact.
Let me start by saying that I find in Swedenborg a distinctive combination of Christian
devotion and ecumenicity. Perhaps I can express this most concisely by saying that he saw
in the figure of Jesus the most complete and perfect possible expression of a divinity
that was present everywhere, present in all religions on the face of the earth. It was not
difficult for me as a child to understand his statements that gentiles had an easier time
getting into heaven than Christians because they lived up to their religions more
His Christianity is essentially qualitative. By this I mean that he attributes no magical
power to the name of Jesus, but regards it as pointing to a quality of person which is
intrinsically heavenly. I find this quality most vividly described by people who have had
near death experiences and speak of the wonder of being understood with total transparency
and loved without condemnation or reserve. This, for me, is a very personal way of
encountering what Swedenborg describes as the union of love and wisdom, the essential
nature of the divine in whose image and likeness we ourselves have been created.
It does indeed seem that people who plumb the depths of their own being discover this kind
of oneness at the center. It seems equally undeniable that most of life is lived at a
level far removed from it. We find ourselves with divided minds, at war within ourselves,
and we find these inner wars issuing in violence and injustice on societal and global
scales. This violence and injustice are quite candidly portrayed in Scripture, which
Swedenborg sees not as a kind of legal anthology but as a story of conflict and change.
It begins with an ideal creation and describes in archetypal language how humanity
departed from that ideal. It goes on to tell of God's efforts to call us back to the ideal
and concludes with a vision of the restoration in the figure of the descent of the holy
city, of human community purified and perfected. The turning point in the larger story is
God's particular coming in the person of Jesus, at which point the focus of the story
shifts from the earthly kingdom to the kingdom of heaven.
A the Gospels demonstrate, though, there is nothing escapist or "otherworldly" about this
brand of spirituality. Swedenborg insists time and time again that the only secure
foundation for a spiritual life is a life of involvement in this world, a life of moral
integrity and civic accountability. He would also turn this image upside down and insist
that moral integrity and civic involvement are essentially hypocritical if they flow, as
they may, from egotistical motivations. For him, the cleansing of the heart happens in the
arena of social concern and is essential to the achievement of social justice. In one
sense, Jesus was a social activist, though efforts to portray him as a political reformer
have a tendency to founder on the Gospel testimony to his focus in parable and paradox.
That is, he was trying to transform human relationships by addressing the deepest well
springs of human community, by healing the hearts out of which, to use Biblical language,
both evil and good thoughts and actions proceed. He was laying the axe to the root of the
tree, attacking injustice at its source.
One of my own favorites among Swedenborg's broader generalizations is to be found in his
book Divine Providence. Very early in the work, he makes the statement that a form is
the more perfect as its constituent elements are distinguishably different, and yet
united. He saw beauty in diversity, in the differences between the sexes, for example, and
in the differences between religions. Heaven, he said, is far too vast and rich to be
peopled by the adherents of one religion only. True wisdom distinguishes subtle
differences with perfect clarity, and true love unites these differences into a harmonious
whole. The "realized" or regenerated human individual is fully alive emotionally and
intellectually and is therefore fully active and engaged socially. Again, while he sees
this quality as finally and definitively incarnate in the person of Jesus, he also sees it
as universally present at the depths of every religion. This is how Swedenborg would
understand the exclusivist statements that we find especially in John's Gospel, statements
about Jesus being the only path to the Father. Whatever language a particular theology may
use, only this union of love, wisdom, and action is truly and fully human.
Through a number of years of trying to discern and express what is distinctive about
Swedenborg's Christianity, it has gradually dawned on me that his years of paranormal
experience made a difference that is not obvious until it is pointed out. For most people,
that is, the word "spiritual" has connotations of "ethereal," of "other," and even of
"strange." For Swedenborg, the word points to what is quite familiar, substantial, and
normal. The lifelong Swedenborgian tends to pick up some of this uncommon overtone by
osmosis, I suspect, without realizing that it then constitutes a kind of obstacle to
communication. "Swedenborgian spirituality" does not feel esoteric.
Again, I find near death experiences shedding an intriguing light on this. The people
whose reports I have read and heard to not come back as evangelists for immortality or as
advocates of spiritualism. They come back with a conviction that they are spiritual beings
here and now, with a realization that there is profound spiritual meaning to their
physical lives and their present relationships. From a Swedenborgian point of view, all
that happens when we die is that we lose contact with the material world.
Matter, by comparison with spirit, is ambiguous. Physically strong people are not
necessarily spiritually strong; physically beautiful people do not necessarily have beauty
of character. Once we move beyond the realm of matter, once we move into direct
consciousness of our inner natures, the possibilities of deceptive appearances vanish.
Gradually or quickly, depending on our willingness or reluctance, we become outward images
of the inner qualities we have chosen to affirm. We are then attractive only to people of
like quality, and are attracted only to them.
This is Swedenborg's view of the judgment that awaits us after death. It is very simple,
and to my mind inescapably fair. If I find egotism beautiful, egotists will look beautiful
to me and I will join their company. If I find violence appealing, I will move toward the
society of the violent. If I am moved especially by compassion or by insight, I will be
drawn toward the company of compassionate or insightful souls. Antithetical "beauties"
gravitate away from each other, the self-centered into what can only be called hell, and
the loving into what can only be called heaven. It is a sorting out that is happening
within me now, and that will simply become manifest after my death.
I do not want to take more of your time riding my own assumptions about what you might
want to know. Let me open the floor to your thoughts. Questions, suggestions, or
rejoinders are equally welcome.
Emanuel Swedenborg, Principia rerum naturalium sive novorum tentaminum
phaenomena mundi elementaris philosophice explicandi (Dresden & Leipzig:
Friedrich Hekel, 1734). English translation, id., The Principia; or the
first principles of natural things, being new attempts toward a
philosophical explanation of the elementary world (London: W. Newbery,
1845-6), reprinted Bryn Athyn, PA: Swedenborg Scientific Association, 1976.
id., Oeconomia regni animalis in transactiones divisa: quarum haec prima,
de sanguine, ejus arteriis, venis, et corde agit: anatomice, physice, et
philosophice perlustrata. Cui accedit Introductio ad psychologiam
rationalem (Amsterdam: Francois Changuion, 1740), p.
Cf. Sigstedt, p. 172.
Cf. Wilson Van Dusen, Emanuel Swedenborg's Journal of Dreams (New York:
Swedenborg Foundation, 1986), for a very thoughtful contemporary commentary
on this dream journal.
Cf. Anders Hallengren, Carl Robsahm . . .
Emanuel Swedenborg, Angelic Wisdom about Divine Providence, William F.
Wunsch, tr. (New York: Swedenborg Foundation, 1963. Reprints).