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

that list.

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

century thought.

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.

contact phil at for any problems or comments