THOUGHTS ON SWEDENBORG'S LIFE
Sunday, February 2, 1992
Location - Bridgewater
There was a great deal of pleasure and benefit for me in working with Bob on the compact biography,
and we are both sorry we do not have the final product in hand to show you. To start with a very
general observation, Swedenborg is emerging for me as more of a believable human being--no less
remarkable in his abilities, no less led by the Lord, but led in ways that are more like the things we
experience. I have three examples in mind.
The first centers in his transition from scientist to seer, and involves developing a consistent
picture out of some relatively scattered clues. The picture that emerges looks like this. As
Swedenborg was working on anatomy, he began to have experiences of what is called "photism." That is,
when the resolution of a particular problem would occur to him, he would "see a kind of light in his
mind, which he interpreted as a sign that the solution was right. This was a relatively vague kind of
guidance, but he paid attention to it.
As a kind of next step in the process, he began to record and interpret his dreams. There is one small
indication that what prompted this was the simple fact that he had begun to remember his dreams. The
first several dreams are sort of "listed by title only," and this list was evidently compiled after
several nights of dreams that had been remembered but not recorded. Once he realized that his dreams
might be trying to tell him something, he jotted down notes about the earlier ones, and started
recording and pondering the new ones on a daily basis.
Wilson Van Dusen has done an excellent job of illuminating the spiritual process involved in these
dreams. We find Swedenborg wrestling with his sense of mission to some extent, but in large measure
facing two huge issues: his pride in his abilities and accomplishments, and the extent to which his
intellectualism left him emotionally flat. We find times of elation and depression, with a growing
sense of humility and a growing openness to feeling.
After about a year of this came the first major turning point, a vision of the Lord at Easter time in
Delft, Holland. He felt and saw himself cradled in the Lord's arms, and received the command to do as
he had promised. It was a shaking experience, and after he wrestled with his doubts about it, he
concluded that it was genuine. However, the instruction was not at all explicit, and he seems to have
groped for the direction he should take. It was apparently after this that the little work The Worship
and Love of God began to take shape. This is unique in his output--a kind of poetic, mythical look at
Almost exactly a year after the Delft vision, at Easter time in 1745, he had a second experience.
This took place in an inn in London, and marked both his specific commission and the beginning of his
open experiences of the spiritual world. Swedenborgian scholars have cast doubt on this experience
because he apparently made no note of it at the time. The only account of it comes to us at third
hand, from a report of a conversation he had with a friend late in his life.
However, there is compelling other evidence in The Word Explained, which he started writing later that
year. In one entry he mentions that he has been having these experiences for eight months. Shortly
after, he is even more specific, and says, ". . . I have now lived among those who are in Heaven for a
space of eight months . . . namely from the middle of April 1745, to the 29th of January, or the 9th
of February, 1746, except one month during which I was on my journey into Sweden, where I arrived on
the 19th day of August, old style" (W.E. 1003).
In other words, he did not just work along as scientist until the light suddenly dawned all at once.
He began to get little hints, and followed them as they led deeper and deeper into the issues he had
to face if he was to become the servant the Lord needed.
The second example follows closely from this first. In the late account of the London experience,
Swedenborg described his specific commission as being to disclose the spiritual sense of scripture. I
had not realized until Bob and I were working on this just how strong the evidence is that he
interpreted this quite narrowly, though I had begun to suspect it. The most compelling item comes from
an advertisement for the English translation of the Arcana Coelestia, where it is described as
intended to a treatment of the whole Bible. To this can be added the fact that on several occasion in
Arcana Coelestia itself, Swedenborg expresses his intent to deal with this or that matter when he gets
to Leviticus, or Joshua, or Judges. Add to this the fact that when he started to write Arcana
Coelestia, he had already drafted The Word Explained, which is all about the spiritual sense of
scripture, and is almost as massive as Arcana Coelestia itself. Add to this that he had brushed up on
his Hebrew and his Greek and compiled his own very substantial Bible index, which was no light task in
the days before filing cards. The one apparently "different" thing he did was the Spiritual Diary, his
day-to-day record of his visionary experiences; and these experiences were actually a primary source
for his new understanding of Scripture. Time after time, he gathered the meaning of a Biblical image
by discovering what angels were thinking about when they saw a horse or a tree.
It doesn't take much thought to discern a pattern here. That is, the first steps he took toward
fulfilling his commission centered very much in the Bible. The evidence indicated that when he sat
down to start the Arcana Coelestia, he fully expected to keep going until, God willing, he reached the
end of Revelation.
As we well know, he got only to the end of Exodus, and then turned to other, very different modes of
presentation. In fact, it is hard to imagine anything more different from Arcana Coelestia than Earths
in the Universe, Heaven and Hell is certainly much more in the popular vein as well.
I leave you to read the compact biography to see what we do with this shift. At the moment, I want to
look only at the background of this initial exclusive focus on the Bible. It is not only
understandable, but almost predictable on the grounds of his Lutheran upbringing, so let me back up a
Luther was profoundly distressed at the abuses of clerical power he saw in his church. These abuses
were sanctioned by church tradition, and had the authority of the Holy See behind them. There was no
way whatever Luther as a local priest could argue against this tradition on the basis simply of his
personal conviction. He needed an authority on his side, and he found it in Scripture. In consequence,
it was absolutely central to the Lutheran church that the Bible was the sole and ultimate authority in
matters of theology. Human reason, human experience, creedal formulations, church tradition, the
convictions of the clergy--all these had to be tested against the plain and obvious meaning of the
Bible. Swedenborg's father might question the orthodox interpretation of faith alone, but he could not
be a Lutheran clergyman if he had doubts on the principle of Scripture alone. Swedenborg could not
expect his theology to be taken seriously by the church if it rested its case on any other authority.
The third issue that became clearer to me involved the nature and purpose of Swedenborg's last
published work, True Christian Religion. Traditionally, this has been regarded as a final summary of
his theology. If it is, it is surprising that it has so little to say about heaven and hell, marriage,
and providence, which are surely important features of the theology. It is also surprising that it has
a whole chapter on "imputation," which is not a significant feature in his earlier works, at least
under that title. Most striking to me is the fact that he has a separate chapter on each of the three
"persons" of the trinity. His doctrine is not changing at all: the point is still that these three are
"*essentials" and not "people." However, I have found no precedent whatever in his earlier works for
this kind of separate treatment.
Bob Kirven dropped the first clue some years ago by noting that the outline of the work is not unlike
outlines of standard Lutheran theologies of the time. This began to fit into a larger picture with the
realization that as he was working on this project, he and his followers were being accused of heresy.
Could it be that the main purpose of True Christian Religion was to refute this charge?
If he were to make this attempt, he would have to base his arguments on authorities accepted by the
Lutheran church. He did so, even to the extent of an unprecedented use of the Epistles. Previously, he
had described them as useful books, but not part of "the Word." In preparation for the writing of True
Christian Religion, he indexed them in some detail, and in using them he even occasionally included
them as citations from "the Word."
He also took pains to argue that the classical creeds were valid if they were properly understood; and
of course, he based all his theological positions on ample quotations from the Bible. On this latter
point, it is particularly instructive to compare the first chapter of True Christian Religion with the
corresponding first chapter of Divine Love and Wisdom. They are saying many of the same things, but
the points in Divine Love and Wisdom are rested essentially on common sense and human experience, with
almost no citation of Scripture whatever. These very same points in True Christian Religion are
presented as conclusions from the literal sense of "the Word."
In other words, here as earlier I find Swedenborg having fairly specific and understandable purposes
in mind for the particular works he undertook to write. This has raised some objections from
individuals who see this as depreciating the Lord's role in the revelatory process, but for me these
objections rest in a false dichotomy. Everything we do is "as if of self," whether we realize it or
not. The Lord normally works through our own understandings and purposes, not against them. He does
not want us to become robots responsive only to his programming. He wants us to exercise and develop
our own best judgment, and works through those efforts toward ends which we may not fathom.
One individual protested a mention that Swedenborg apparently learned Hebrew at Uppsala from a
converted Jew and devoted Cabalist. Such an individual would surely have taught that there was hidden
meaning in the Old Testament, "even in the very letters," and that shapes of the letters themselves
were significant. To me this does not mean that when Swedenborg writes that the spiritual sense is to
be found "even in the very letters," he is merely echoing what he had been taught years before. It may
just as well mean that the Lord found in this teacher someone who would freely and willingly convey a
message to the young man.
When Swedenborg said that all his scientific training had been preparation for his task as revelator,
he clearly did not mean that he had known all along that he was being prepared and what he was being
prepared for. He means that the Lord's providence was working in ways which he would be able to see
only in retrospect. He was no exception to the principle that we are not allowed to see how providence
is working in the present. No, he had his own agendas throughout his life, and by following them
faithfully, and especially by heeding the clues from the Lord as they occurred, he was led to the role
with which we are most familiar. It was a role in which he continued to make decisions "as if of
himself," according to his best understanding of his commission. The Lord was no less present in that
process than in our own lives.