THE CASE FOR DETACHMENT
Library Edition Conference
Tuesday, March 3, 1994
The Swedenborg Foundation is considering a major undertaking that will require years to
complete--the publishing of what is tentatively referred to as "The Library Edition."
This is prompted by the fact that the Standard Edition becomes a little more archaic in
language and format with each passing decade, and by the fact that we seem to have a cadre
of capable translators and rising interest in the possibilities of new versions.
The approaches taken by recent translators vary. John Chadwick, John Elliot, David
Gladish, Bruce Rogers, Lee Woofenden, and I have all outlined our principles at one time
or another, and the resultant translations differ noticeably. While this is helpful in
suggesting a range of possibilities, it would seem evident that a Library Edition,
intended to be as definitive as possible, should be relatively uniform.
I would, however, resist the notion of any "Translator's Code" which mandated particular
renderings. This assumes that fidelity can be attained by a kind of word-for-word
consistency in the face of the very real possibility, capably argued by Bill Woofenden
among others, that items in Swedenborg's vocabulary had meaning ranges, that context
affects the meaning of individual words, and that there may be no single English word that
corresponds precisely to a given Latin one.
A more realistic policy, then, would be to set general standards which both translators
and consultants would agree to adhere to, knowing in advance that there will be latitude
for interpretation. Part of our task at the present meetings is to explore the boundaries
of that latitude. Is there a basic approach or philosophy shared by enough translators
that it makes sense to embark on this project?
It is the Foundation's intent that this new edition should be able to command the respect
of any university or seminary faculty. The conversations I have had with church members
concerning translation lead me to suspect that in the past we have tended to regard our
task as to translate for the believer. We have developed and adopted an in-house
vocabulary and style that have a certain intramural efficiency but which strike the
outsider as peculiar at best, as arcane jargon at worst. In turn, our own lack of
familiarity with the language of the rest of the theological world makes it difficult for
us to understand what is being said and thought outside our walls. I am not impressed with
our skill at recognizing congenial thought when it is couched in unfamiliar terms.
This kind of private language has its organizational advantages. It fosters a measure of
internal unity and marks us off from the rest of the world. It strengthens the sense of
"being at home" when we are among people for whom we do not have to translate everything,
and correspondingly strengthens the sense of being "not at home" among people who do not
share our vocabulary. There is a certain amount of risk to the church, then, in proposing
that we try to translate our theology into something more like the English of our
However, I believe that the risks of maintaining an in-house language are both
demonstrable and greater. We may object when we are listed among the cults, but in this
respect we have chosen to resemble them. From the outside, we may well look like a group
that has its secret passwords. It is easy to classify us and our Swedenborg with Christian
Scientists and their Mary Baker Eddy or Mormons and their Joseph Smith.
We reinforce this view to the extent that we reserve the study of Swedenborg to
Swedenborgians and to the extent that we resist seeing Swedenborg in the context of his
times. I have argued elsewhere that the doctrine of accommodation demands that there be a
human element in any revelation and that the apparent amount of that human element has no
bearing on the fact of revelation. Reverent attempts to minimize Swedenborg's contribution
to the writing process, at times to insist that even the science of the theological works
was infallibly revealed, have the effect of totally--and to my mind
deservedly--discrediting us in the academic world.
Perhaps the greatest liability of an in-house language, though, is that it all too readily
becomes a substitute for the hard work of actual understanding. We see this all around
us--if one can speak the jargon of any trade, half the battle of acceptance has been won.
Once one learns to speak with political correctness, one has gained a significant measure
of credibility. While we may deplore this when it happens outside our borders, there is
good reason to believe that we have our own internal standards of politically correct
vocabulary, including "conjugial," "discrete degrees," "ultimation," "truths and goods,"
"influx," "the spiritual sense," "glorification," "regeneration," and countless others
whose usage amounts to a membership card.
When I urge scholarly detachment, though, I am not doing so just as part of a public
relations campaign toward the academic community. I am doing so because I believe our own
theology requires us to enter intelligently into the mysteries of faith. It does so by
providing a framework in which we have nothing whatever to fear from detached
investigation. We can read Hans Helander's observations about Swedenborg's indebtedness to
Ovid without defensiveness. We can read about Wolff's doctrine of series and degrees with
nothing but interest. And we can share whatever we discover.
Allow me to digress a little, and to offer another bit of information about where I am
coming from. For reasons that need not concern us, I did my doctoral thesis on a
particular kind of Old Babylonian loan. The task was to be as precise as possible about
the meaning of the various clauses of extant contracts, and the central question under
dispute was whether the repayment was of principal plus interest or involved
profit-sharing. It was a challenge, both linguistically and imaginatively, to wring as
much information out of the texts as I could. I did not much care what answer emerged as
long as that answer was solidly based on the available evidence. The result was that when
I went into the meeting to defend my thesis, even with all the anxieties of the candidate,
I quite literally could not imagine a question that would cause problems.
One unplanned effect of this experience was to heighten my awareness of the extent to
which I do care about the answers I arrive at theologically and the effect this caring has
on my attitude toward the available evidence. The other unplanned effect was to heighten
my awareness of the connection between insecurity and defensiveness, and to urge me to
find that in our theology in which I could have such complete confidence that I would be
totally open to any evidence that might emerge.
This is a quest that is still going on. In the process, I have lost the need to defend any
number of propositions I was brought up with, including the Mosaic authorship of the
Pentateuch, the Davidic authorship of the Psalms, and the belief in inhabitants of our
moon, for example, with an ultimate sense of gain rather than of loss. The gain, to my
mind, is in seeing more clearly and more communicably the extent of the accommodation.
The gain is also in being able to listen to other views with genuine interest and
appreciation. Above all, the gain is in a sense of security.
The ideal Library Edition volume, under this construction, would represent an attempt to
convey as fully and accurately as possible what the Latin was trying to convey in its own
time and place. As I have noted previously, I am convinced that this means respecting
Swedenborg's authorial priorities, and that simplicity and directness were very high on
Further as regards choosing among various approaches, Lee Woofenden in particular has
highlighted the issue of translating for particular audiences, and that seems to me to
offer a useful avenue of approach. The effort to determine the modern equivalent of the
audience Swedenborg had in mind raises some interesting questions. Clearly, by writing in
Latin he addressed the educated world, but at a time well before expectations of universal
literacy. He seems to have had a kind of trickle-down theory, intending that the teaching
of theology would be changed, and that eventually this effect would reach the pews. We may
see such works as Earths in the Universe, The Last Judgment, and Heaven and Hell as
exceptions to this, but it would surely hold true for Arcana Coelestia, The Apocalypse
Revealed, and True Christian Religion.
If we put together this address to the educated and the high value given to simplicity, I
suspect we arrive in modern terms at something like the thoughtful graduate of an average
college. In the preliminary suggestions for standards of translation, I suggested a
magazine like The Smithsonian as a possible model for style--always intelligent, but never
This I would propose as a kind of floor below which the Library Edition should not
descend. This is a theology of sufficient intricacy and subtlety to require an
"intelligent" vocabulary. The ceiling is something else again. The ideal volume would bear
up under close and very capable scrutiny, which means a lot of work for us. The annotation
of these volumes should demonstrate awareness of the background of the ideas. In Divine
Love and Wisdom, for example, notes to ¶ 344 should not just identify Sloane and Folkes,
but should outline Swedenborg's familiarity with them and refer the reader to other
sources for further research. Echoes of Ovid or Wolff or Kemper or Luther should be noted.
I have occasionally run into resistance to calling attention to Swedenborg's indebtedness,
and I should like to note briefly where I am coming from theologically on this rather
basic matter. As far as I am concerned, the Lord dealt with Swedenborg within the
principles of providence, with the utmost care to safeguard his freedom and rationality.
Further, I would presume that the Lord operated not just from within, but through all the
details of Swedenborg's environment. I have--perhaps belatedly--become amazed that there
should be resistance to the notion that Beyer's request may have had something to do with
Swedenborg's completion of Marital Love, or to the suggestion that Johann Kemper's
Cabalism may have had something to do with the teaching that there is spiritual meaning in
the very letters of Scripture. To resist such notions is to say that the Lord does not
work through such means as a Beyer or a Kemper. In short, I find no warrant whatever in
our theology for maintaining that in this instance, the Lord's mercy worked apart from
means, or for assuming that attribution of means is equivalent to attribution of source.
A primary goal or sine qua non of the Library Edition, then, would be that no responsible
scholar in any relevant discipline could dismiss it as sectarian or poorly researched.
This obviously could not demand full professional mastery of all related fields; but to
take one example, this edition of True Christian Religion should be annotated by someone
who knows the basics of the history of Christian doctrine and can distinguish what Luther
himself taught from what post-Reformation Lutheran orthodoxy attributed to him. No passage
where Swedenborg treats of civil government or where there are assumptions about civil
government should be left without reference to Dan Goodenough's excellent paper from the
1988 symposium here. This could well mean that a translator would collaborate with others
in order to provide adequate annotation.
Let me put it this way. If we were to read a biography of Emerson which talked about his
fascination with the correspondence between the physical and the spiritual worlds but made
no mention of Swedenborg, we would question the competence or the fairness of the writer.
Our own competence and fairness are similarly suspect if we show ourselves oblivious to
the material which I am suggesting providence made available to Swedenborg for use in the
communication of the new theology.
Further, we should not uncritically accept Swedenborg's statements that particular ideas
are wholly new. They may have been wholly new to Lutheran orthodoxy and to his own
familial Pietism, but wherever there has been experience of the transcendent, there have
been kindred thoughts. What has been termed "the perennial philosophy" is a remarkably
persistent phenomenon, generation after generation; and in addition to being persistent,
it is in many ways strikingly consistent. If we believe that the Lord is always trying to
get through to us, perhaps we should not be too quick to insist that he succeeded only
once. If we accept a claim that an idea in this theology is completely original, all it
takes is one previous instance to undermine our credibility.
I am not aware of any evidence that Swedenborg read Böhme. However, I recall vaguely being
told that he had not read Plotinus, and being therefore startled to see a photocopy of the
title page of a Plotinus anthology with Em. Swedberg's autograph on it. No claim of
complete originality for the doctrine of a spiritual sense of Scripture should be made
without a solid familiarity with the history of Scripture interpretation, starting at
least with the Epistle to the Hebrews and including the gnostics, Origen, and Augustine.
The purpose is not to deny originality in the theological works, not at all. It is, so to
speak, to unmask pretenders to originality in order that the genuine may become apparent.
At the very least, it is to show ourselves willing to engage in this unmasking, not afraid
of its results.
A good scholarly edition is a doorway to further investigation. While I think it essential
that the annotation (and the bibliographies) of the particular volumes offer avenues of
research into the antecedents and circumstances of this theology, I think it might be both
legitimate and useful that this supportive material offer avenues of research into the
impact of the theology. The reader of Arcana Coelestia, for instance, might appreciate
discovering that we are well aware of Kant's reaction as expressed in his Dreams of a
Spirit Seer, and should be made aware of the solid and valuable insights into this
reaction provided by the work of Bob Kirven and Gottlieb Florschütz. The Library Edition
of Divine Love and Wisdom might be enhanced by reference to Blake's annotations to his
In general, I believe we can hope for some very useful material to emerge from the
American Academy of Religion meetings that Jane Williams-Hogan has managed to arrange. At
the Washington meetings last fall, both Gail Kienitz and Margaret
Kellow--non-Swedenborgian scholars--were emphatic in their insistence that scholarship has
been seriously remiss in its inattention to the impact of our theology on nineteenth
Let me offer just one little example. Given the intensity of Henry James Sr.'s engagement
with the writings and the extent to which his interests were matters of lively discussion
in the family circle, it seems inevitable that there should be some Swedenborgian input
into William James's pragmatism. I have been looking into a recent volume on William
James, one that focuses particularly on his recognition of the creative potential of
states of disorder or chaos. One word that has recurred in the first chapter is the word
"fermentation," and it is used in much the same sense as in Arcana Coelestia 7906. I
believe it entirely possible that James is one of those thinkers who expressed some very
congenial ideas, but that the "language barrier"--the gap between our traditional
vocabulary and his--has obscured this both for us and for Jamesian scholars.
"Fermentation" might be one little verbal clue to this relationship, precisely the kind of
clue an adventurous scholar loves to follow.
Or again, I recently read a book by a Kansas scholar, Maria Carlson, on Madame Blavatsky.
There are five quite suggestive references to Swedenborg in it, distinguishing him from
spiritualists, referring to his "refined speculative mysticism," and clearly inviting
further research. She is fully aware of the tensions in western thought between science
and religion and more aware than most of us of the strength of European idealist and
mystical interests running counter to Kantian thought. These interests caught the
attention of Russians alarmed at the secularization incident to their Westernization.
There is the whole world of Oetinger, Jung-Stilling, and Schelling to explore if we are to
move beyond simplistic near-caricatures of the "east versus west" or "secular versus
scientific" variety. Solov'ev's The Meaning of Love is an obvious candidate for
investigation in the light of Swedenborg's insistence on the primacy of voluntas. While I
must confess to some discomfort at its title, the Swedenborg and His Influence volume
represents an invaluable first step into a world of what we might call "Swedenborgian
unorthodoxy" or "nominal non-Swedenborgianism." Every glimpse I get indicates that it is a
vast and rich world indeed, and suggests the need for a Library Edition demonstrating
scholarly rather than parochial interests.
What is the purpose of all this? The Foundation is explicitly not an ecclesiastical body.
It does try to gain supporters for its purposes, but those purposes are relatively
narrowly defined. Its mission statement speaks of fostering an affirmative, adventurous,
and increasingly broad interest in the theological works. This is qualified by noting that
we look for this interest especially among people intent on applying spiritual principles
to their lives, but we do not engage in the devotional, pastoral, homiletic, or communal
activities which are characteristic of churches. "Membership" entails simply support of
what is first and foremost a publishing house.
What I am suggesting is that the philosophy of the Library Edition must be free of any
trace of evangelism. Readers of these volumes will find out for themselves that Swedenborg
claimed to have received the doctrines by revelation from the Lord and claimed to have
extensive open experience of heaven, hell, and the world of spirits. The reader has no
particular reason to be impressed by my own acceptance of these claims. My endorsement, in
these circumstances, is simply not germane--or if it is, it is germane simply as evidence
of my bias.
If the Library Edition is not evangelical, though, it may still be of genuine benefit to
our churches. The believing reader, the institutional Swedenborgian, may begin to feel at
home with a language that is intelligible outside our boundaries. This reader may also
gain the confidence that comes with more knowledge and appreciation of the theological
context in which we exist. The outside world may appear less alien.
Not least, the institutional reader may experience a sense of discovery, of new worlds to
explore. As I read our history, this strikes me as the essence of the energy of our
initial growth spurt. There was of course the feeling of having found the answers--"We
wander now no more where darkening errors lead, but truth by light divine explore, and
wonder while we read"--but this was coupled with the feeling Blake expressed so vividly of
the breaking of mind-forged manacles. The mind suddenly had room to expand and explore.
As this latter feeling fades, the sense of having found the answers crystallizes into
In summary, I would urge that we move as far as we can toward producing editions of the
theological works that can hold their own in the academic world, and this for several
reasons. This seems to be the audience toward which the Latin originals were addressed.
The effort to address it in its own terms will tend to break down a language barrier which
may be more of an impediment that we have realized. The effort to do so responsibly will
of necessity close off the shortcut provided by the ample supply of cognates and force us
to wrestle with lively questions of meaning. Academically responsible exploration of the
materials available to Swedenborg for the construction of the theological works will press
us toward clearer and clearer recognition of what is truly new about them and will deliver
us from untenable claims of originality. I see promise, that is, of renewed energy within
and among us and of livelier and more productive conversations with the world around us.