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

broadly relevant.

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.

contact phil at for any problems or comments