I will give you a new heart as well, and will put a new spirit within you; and I will take
the stony heart out of your body and will give you a heart of flesh.
Last Wednesday evening I gave a presentation on Swedenborg's life and thought to a kind of
study group at a Unitarian-Universalist church in Boston. I said, among other things, that
I found our theology affirming heart and mind and life--not saying "all you have to do is
love" or "all you have to do is believe" or "all you have to do is follow the rules."
Swedenborg calls us to the fullest possible emotional openness, the liveliest exercise of
intellect, and the most faithful acceptance of our societal responsibilities.
In the discussion that followed, one woman asked what guidance Swedenborg gave for the
development of emotional openness. She described herself as primarily an intellectual
person, and the question clearly came from a genuine concern.
I'm afraid I didn't respond very well. The two things I could come up with on the spur of
the moment were the concept of "uses" as the best means of regeneration, along the lines
sketched by Van Dusen, and Swedenborg's remark that we rarely take the big steps in our
spiritual process until things start to go wrong for us. But her question did start me
thinking. In a way, she was saying that she had a stony heart, and wanted a heart of
It is, or could be, a live topic these days. One of the watchwords of the human potential
and new age movements is, "Get in touch with your feelings." This is a notion easily
abused, a notion that can slip unobtrusively into becoming uncritical of our feelings or
uncontrolled in their expression. However, the fact that an idea can be misused is no
warrant for dismissing it out of hand. There is ample evidence that the feelings we are
not in touch with have a strong effect on our treatment of each other.
In one respect, our doctrines leave us in little doubt. After death, our whole personality
will resolve around our "ruling love." Anything we know that has not become rooted in that
love will be forgotten. Anything we are attached to that is contrary to that ruling love
will be sloughed off. Apparently brilliant intellects will become dull if the motivation
for learning has been self-glorification. Apparently slow minds will blossom into
brilliance if an individual has tried to live thoughtfully and responsibly.
We can deceive others about that ruling love; we can deceive ourselves. In ¶ 109 of Divine
Providence we find the following:
It does seem sometimes that the outer form of someone's thought is not of the same quality
as the inner. What is happening in such cases, though, is that the life's love [we might
also say the ruling love], with its surrounding inner loves, appoints a deputy to serve it
and charges it to stand watch with full caution to make sure that none of its own cravings
become apparent. Using the shrewdness of its chief, the life's love, then, this deputy
talks and acts in full accord with the laws of civil state, with rational moral
principles, and with the spiritual principles of the church. Not only that, it does so
with such ingenuity that no one sees what the inner person is like, what kind of person is
really talking and acting; and eventually there is such a complete facade that people like
this scarcely know that they are not what they seem to be.
Swedenborg is talking here about something more than a public mask. He is talking about a
whole public personality. It is possible, in this world at least, to become so governed by
the need for acceptance or approval that we lose touch completely with the very love that
is driving us. After death, we are told, the outer personalities will fade, quickly or
slowly depending on how tenaciously we cling to them. After death, though, our fundamental
choice will have been made. It will be too late to change our essential minds.
We do need to be careful here. There is a very useful principle that has found a simple
wording in the twelve step programs--"Fake it till you make it." This is what our
doctrines describe as a state in which truth rather than love takes the apparent lead, in
which we act the way we know we should in spite of the fact that we don't feel like doing
so. In a way, we do then put on an outer appearance that is contrary to our inner
The critical question, though, is not whether there is a discrepancy between our inner and
our outer selves. If there is no discrepancy whatever, there is no self control and there
will be no growth. There seem to be two critical questions: first, whether we are honest
with ourselves about the discrepancy, and second why we are causing it to exist. If we are
acting contrary to our inclinations out of a sense of responsibility and are conscious of
what we are doing, there is a healthy and creative tension between the inner and the
outer. If, on the other hand, we are trying not to control but simply to conceal our
antisocial intentions, this is spiritually destructive.
A couple of minutes ago, I referred to "a state in which truth rather than love takes the
apparent lead." There is an intriguing paragraph in Arcana Coelestia (¶ 3207) where
Swedenborg deals with "appearances of truth"--beliefs that may ultimately lead us to a
deeper understanding, beliefs that may lead us to discover that they are not exactly true.
He cites five examples, of which two are particularly relevant here.
II. People believe that the truth enables us to perceive what is good, because the truth
teaches, but this is an appearance. It is the good that enables the truth to perceive.
Good is actually the soul or life of truth. III. People believe that the truth leads us
into the good when we live according to what the truth teaches; but it is the good that is
flowing into the truth and leading us into itself.
In more contemporary language, what we learn does not change us unless at some level we
want it to. We can recognize some principle as intellectually persuasive or rationally
coherent or logically necessary--in the language of philosophy, as "valid"--and feel no
sense of allegiance to it whatever. But as soon as we find ourselves saying that it is
"true," there is an inescapable feeling that we ought to take it into account.
There are still two possible reasons for "taking it into account." We may do so because it
is to our advantage, out of "enlightened self-interest," or we may do so because of a
sense that whether it is to our advantage or not, it is simply right. There is a world of
difference between the two reasons. The second, and only the second, has an implicit
recognition of an order inherent in the nature of things, of a rightness that is
independent of our own preferences or opinions. This is not a rightness that we invent or
choose, it is a rightness that we perceive or discover. In short, the "order" has for us
the quality of divine order.
This is clearly what Swedenborg is talking about when he says repeatedly not simply that
we should "shun evils" but that we should shun them "as sins against God." Granted that
every culture will have its own rules, granted that every individual will have unique
perceptions, there is still a difference between ultimate good and ultimate evil that is
not of our making, that is not relative to our times or our places. Defining that
difference may not be simple, and living it is certainly not simple, but that does not
license us to deny its reality. Our theology points toward the union of love and wisdom in
act as the ultimate good and the union of malice and deceit in act as the ultimate evil.
We spend most of our lives somewhere between the two, in a realm where there are more
judgment calls than clear cut "either/ors," but we are not the inventors of the two basic
directions. The difference between a heart of stone and a heart of flesh is a given.
The biggest omission in my answer to the woman at the study group was probably not
reflecting Swedenborg's claim that we all do have a heart of flesh. The Lord's life is
flowing into each one of us at the center of our being, and if we were in touch with that
center, there would be love and light to spare. At that level, and at the levels directly
connected with it, we are emotionally alive. Scripture may speak in the language of
appearances of God "creating a clean heart within is," and our doctrines may speak of the
creation of "a new will in the understanding," but as the passage from Arcana Coelestia
indicates, nothing will happen unless the will is at some level already there.
It always is. One of the richest fields of research in the concordance to Swedenborg's
works is under the words "open" and "close." The life of charity, in this image, does not
so much give us a new heart as it does "open the interiors," allow the sensitivity that is
in there to come into our consciousness and affect our behavior. A self-centered life,
conversely, "closes off" these same interiors; but even in the worst demons in hell, we
are told, the inmost reaches are kept pure.
We may indeed think of "ourselves" as insensitive or unfeeling. It would be more accurate
to say that at the time, we are living in a relatively unfeeling part of our being. It is
perhaps sad but quite true that it often takes some misfortune to break through to the
more sensitive levels; and it is certainly hard, when we are in pain, to feel gratitude
that we are finally feeling something.
If this were the whole story, we would be best advised get right out there, to get busy
and seek out some misfortune. I trust it is obvious that this is not what we are called to
do. It may be coming at the problem of the origin of evil through the back door, but there
is enough misfortune in the world that some of it is likely to touch us even if we do our
level best to avoid it.
No, we are called to the simple and undramatic task of our daily best, trusting that the
Lord's providence is offering us what we need. If we try to be truly constructive
presences especially in the lives of those nearest us, we will find ourselves constantly
pressed toward deeper understanding and greater sensitivity--toward greater wisdom and
deeper love. Perhaps the first hint of a change will be that we start feeling bad about
In any case, all indications are that we are not wise enough to plan our own
transformation, not skilled enough to do our own heart transplants. In doctrinal terms,
our part is repentance and reformation of life--reflecting on the flaws in our treatment
of each other and doing our best to do better. Regeneration, the actual change of heart,
is a gift only the Lord can give, a gift that will come at its own proper time and pace.
Each of us does have, spiritually, a heart of flesh. That is what is prompting us to try
to understand just what we are here for, what is making us discontented with the people we
are. It is not a kindly world out there, though, and there are parts of us that
participate in the unkindness. We may not be wise enough to know when it is safe to open
the door to the tender heart within. The Lord does know, and all that divine love and
wisdom is bent to lead us, day by day, into the warmth and the light and the energy of
full humanity, the image and likeness of our Creator.