SWEDENBORG THE ACTIVIST - Part I
Friday, March 3, 1992
Location - FNCA 1985
I want to talk this morning about a dimension of Swedenborg's life that I believe we have
tended to ignore. For understandable reasons, we are so impressed with the meaning of his
theology for us that we do not appreciate him as a man who was concerned with the world in
which he lived. The evidence of that care is plentiful, and we seem to be vaguely aware of
it. I doubt that we give it the attention it merits, or integrate it into our overall
picture of the man and his mission.
Before looking at this evidence, however, I want to set this effort in context. There has
been a distinct tendency within organized Swedenborgianism to minimize Swedenborg's
contribution to the theological works, in order to defend their status as the Lord's work,
as revelation. The theology itself, however, insists that revelation is always
accommodated to its recipients. In every revelation, then, there is a human component as
well as a divine one. How much human and how much divine does not seem to be a matter of
primary importance. The Ten Commandments were written by the finger of God, while Luke
claims to be writing his gospel because he has "a perfect understanding of all things from
the very first," and yet both are part of the Word.
It seems obvious, though, that it may be important to draw the line between the human and
the divine components where it is-- not to attribute to mortals the very words of God, nor
to attribute to God the words of mortals, so to speak. It seems important that, if there
is a distinctly eighteenth-century clothing for the divine message given us in the
writings, we have the clarity of understanding to recognize the fact, and do not, in
effect, deify Swedenborg or his times.
A second introductory point is equally straightforward, and we can use this present
lecture to illustrate it. It is conceivable that two hundred years from now someone will
read this manuscript. I am not writing to them. To be perfectly candid, I do not care
about them, simply because I do not know them. What I am saying is addressed to people I
do know and care about, and only as it touches on universal principles will it be more
I am suggesting this morning that Swedenborg's situation was not totally different. Yes,
he did have a very special admission to the realm of spiritual light. I am coming to
believe, however, that his immediate concern was for the relevance of that light to the
world he knew, and not to some world two hundred years beyond his view. You will bear in
mind that he made only the broadest and most general comments about what was to come. He
was not a prophet in the sense of a predictor of future events.
This, to me, is a sign of spiritual health. Again looking to our own theology, there is
little warrant for a faith that removes us from concern from those closest to us, that
takes us out of the world we live in. The relevance of the theological works for the
twentieth century must not be at the cost of their relevance to the eighteenth century.
It must rest on their foundation in universal principles, and be strengthened rather than
weakened by discovering that those principles were directly applicable and directly
applied to the world Swedenborg knew.
Looking at this dimension of Swedenborg's life, then, I want to begin where the evidence
begins to be adequate, namely with his young manhood. The resources for his childhood and
youth are more scanty, and not accessible enough for me to have attended to in the time
After Swedenborg graduated from Uppsala, he marked time for about a year, waiting for the
opportunity to travel abroad. Such travel was a virtual necessity for an ambitious young
Swede, since Sweden itself was a relatively backward country. The major minds of the
century were on the Continent and in England. The growing edge of exploration and
discovery was there. It was a little like growing up in a rural area of our own country in
our own time. One knows about things that are happening in the major cities or in the
major universities, but if one wants to be an active part of these events, one has to go
Swedenborg went abroad in 1710, at the age of twenty-two, and he took full advantage of
the opportunities that his status offered. In fact, he stayed away so long that his
father, who held the purse strings, began to press for his return. This forced Swedenborg
to take stock of his qualifications, and on his return journey he stopped in Rostock
before crollege itself, and took advantage of provisions in his commission to work as an
assistant to Christopher Polhem, Sweden's foremost engineer.
This was actually more appropriate for the credentials he had chosen to develop, since the
routine work of the College of Mines involved the legal more than the technological
aspects of the mining industry. He began dealing with very down-to-earth problems,
designing machinery to meet specific needs.
His own professional goals, however, apparently centered in the College of Mines, for as
soon as the opportunity offered itself, he was off to the Continent again, but with a
difference. The first time, he had followed his own wide-ranging interests, exploring
languages, astronomy, crafts, and mathematics as well as mechanics. Now he set out to
learn all he could about metals and mining, with the result that, at the close of his tour
in 1722, at the age of thirty-four, he was ready to publish definitive works in his chosen
field. He knew more about metallurgy, from theoretical chemistry to techniques of
smelting, than anyone else.
The surprise, the harbinger of things to come, was the prefatory volume to this work. We
know it as The Principia (actually part of the title of the whole work), and it is can
stand in its own right as a significant work in philosophy, theoretical physics, and their
relationship. While the second two volumes were directly pertinent to Swedenborg's
interest in the mining industry, this first volume addresses a deeper social concern. The
world-view of the eighteenth century was a battleground between essentially materialistic
science and essentially dogmatic religion, and the choice between materialism and dogma is
a choice between losers. *4The Principia*5 introduces spirituality to science and
scientific methodology to religion. This, incidentally, is something the Socinians were
trying to do within the formal framework of Christian theology, but their efforts were
tending to bring the materialism into religion along with the scientific methodology.
He had another interest as well. The family had been ennobled, and Swedenborg, as the
eldest (surviving) son took his seat in the Swedish Parliament. During this tour abroad,
he made it a point to visit with diplomats and high government officials whenever and
wherever he could. As a result, he became familiar with the various interests and points
of view then current outside of Sweden, and gathered the information necessary for the
formulation of an effective foreign policy.
When Swedenborg returned to Sweden this time, it was on his own schedule. He had
accomplished the specific task he had undertaken, and was ready to present himself again
to the College of Mines. This time he succeeded, and from then until a year or so after
his spiritual commission, he held a regular job.
It is important to realize that this job was no sinecure. Sweden's primary industry was
mining. It was the mainstay of her economy. There was an immense amount of paperwork
involved, there wermportant. It was particularly easy for a group of noblemen meeting in
board rooms to treat "the labor force" statistically, and to count injuries and deaths as
part of the cost of doing business. They should be kept within econimically sound limits,
of course: that was just good business sense. Swedenborg used his mechanical ingenuity to
design machinery that would, so to speak, take its share of the risk, and insisted that
safety standards be observed.
Even more conspicuous during this period of his life is his concern for his country's
welfare. He took his legislative position seriously. His travels had broadened his outlook
beyond the confines of Swedish provincialism, and he had a keen sense of ways in which
Sweden could become a prosperous member of the larger European community. He was dismayed
at the king's propensity for ruinous wars, resisted the elitist and impractical desire of
some to give high priority to the mining of precious metals, designed means to stop the
tendency of the wealthy to mortgage their futures, and in general did all he could to set
Sweden on a sound and peaceable economic and political course.
This active involvement in external affairs did not, however, signal an end of his concern
for deeper matters. His mind continued to work on philosophical and religious questions,
and he came to believe that the basic problem, the split between science and religion,
could best be approached in microcosm, so to speak-- by studying the human body
scientifically with the explicit purpose of discovering the soul. This was the focus of
his next trip abroad, and the issue was that work known unfortunately as The Economy of
the Animal Kingdom, published in 1740, when he was fifty-two.
Three brief obsevations about this work may be in order. First, it was very well received
and reviewed in prestigious Continental scientific journals. Second, while it seemed to
represent work in a field quite different from his earlier work on metallurgy and mining,
it can be seen as a kind of a sequel to the introduction to that work. Third, during the
course of his work on The Economy, Swedenborg began to experience instances of "photism"--
he found his deeper insights confirmed by flashes of non-physical light.
The Economy is a remarkable work on human anatomy, but it failed in its primary purpose.
When it came to the actual description of the human soul, Swedenborg had to fall back on
traditional church teaching. This teaching took a different cast from its unusual context,
to be sure, but it was still dogma at heart, and Swedenborg was not content with it.
He went off to the Continent again and started over on the same project, explaining in his
preface that he had tried once and failed, attributing his failure to impatience. He
simply had not been thorough enough, and this time he was going to do the job right. He
was to publish three volumes of this "second effort" in 1744 and 1745, and they would be
the last of his strictly scientific publications.
They were not well reviewed, and the reason may be evident from the same preface just
mentioned. His methodology had been changed. He was now trusting his "feel" for the truth,
and was defending a willingness to go beyond the bounds of strictly rational deduction.
There was such an abundance of factual information that one wonders how a reviewer could
describe the work as "full of figments of the imagination and silly trifles," but the
departure from strict scientific method was a radical one.
In fact, Swedenborg was entering a period of turmoil. The drafting of The Economy includes
the year of the Journal of Dreams. The precise sequence is a little obscure, but it seems
to run about like this. For at least a year, he recorded his dreams, interpreting them as
offering guidance for his work. On an Easter night in 1744, in Delft, he had a Christ
vision which left him with a profound conviction of his own unworthiness. The next year
was one of conscious inner struggle with his own pride, aggravated by the fact that he had
a good deal to take pride in.
There is, further, a strongly Lutheran cast to this struggle. He interprets one of his
dreams, for example, as teaching him that faith should replace reason. He comes close to
the Calvinist position that God's grace is everything and his own decisions nothing. He
writes that he is the worst of sinners, and despairs of his own salvation.
It is highly significant, I am convinced, that he continued his work on The Animal Kingdom
with undiminished diligence, and equally significant that he undertook a startlingly
different work, which we know as The Worship and Love of God. The first part of this was
published in London in 1745, and it was there, on an Easter Monday, that his second major
spiritual breadthrough occurred. We know of it only through the account of Carl Robsahm, a
friend. Swedenborg described it late in his life to Robsahm as an explicit call to the
task of explaining the spiritual mearitual experiences, which sometimes occurred while he
was in the company of his colleagues. Then there was the recording of these experiences
and the preparation of material for publication.
Looking first at his regular job on the College of Mines, we may remember that his first
effort at acceptance some thirty-two years ago had been unsuccessful, and that he had
worked hard to gain his first toehold. Now, a few months after this latest return to work,
the head of the College announced his retirement, IT>>motif of the early entries in The
Spiritual Diary is the discovery that, to choose a representative phrasing, "Heavenly
spirits have so ruled the actions of the whole body that I went wherever they willed"
(S.D. 1149). The change is in the sense of security, the lack of anxiety. Swedenborg is no
longer plunged into despair for his own salvation, no longer driven to see himself as the
worst of sinners.
As to the third strand, he was as yet undecided as to just what he should publish and in
what form. He was studying Hebrew and Greek, and was writing that massive work sometimes
called Adversaria and better titled The Word Explained. It rivals the Arcana in size, but
he never published it. There is clear evidence in it that he was groping for the best way
to present this newfound enlightenment. His theology still has some strong traditional
elements-- we find Eve, for example, being tempted by a pre-existent Satan-- and He really
did not know whether to publish his spiritual experiences or not.
One final note, and that will be it for today. When Swedenborg was offered the position of
Councillor, or head, of the College of Mines, he had a decision to make. It is my own
reading that he took the offer seriously, took the demands of the office seriously, and
realized that it would require more of his time. Whatever the reason, he took the occasion
to request retirement from the College at half salary, which request was granted with
regret. When we resume in my next lecture, then it will be with Swedenborg working full
time to understand and fulfil his mission as revelator.