Friday, December 12, 1999

In eighteenth century European monarchies, it was taken for granted that the church

legitimized the monarch and that the state supported the church-- British coinage still

informs us that Elizabeth is queen "by the grace of God" and is also "defender of the

faith." This mutually supportive relationship between church and state implied an equally

close link between theological irregularity and political sedition. When one of

Swedenborg's earliest followers, Dr. Gabriel Beyer, was accused of heresy for his

"Swedenborgianism," his defense included the observation that this theology would lead

people to be excellent citizens.[1] He took it as a matter of course that this was

important. If Dr. Beyer's theology challenged the foundations of a stable society, neither

the church nor the state could afford to tolerate it.

In fact, Swedenborg had been a full-time public servant. As a member of the College of

Mines--roughly the equivalent of our Department of the Interior--he had labored faithfully

and ably to modernize Sweden's mining and metallurgical industries, the principal

foundations of her prosperity and security. As a diligent member of the House of Lords, he

had displayed a particular determination to stabilize his country's currency,[2] and we

also have from his pen memoranda on foreign trade and foreign policy.[3]

Unquestionably, the onset of his spiritual experiences made an immense change in his

thinking and in his life, but Swedenborg's civic interest and commitment did not

disappear. While he eventually resigned from the College of Mines, he remained as active

as ever in the House of Lords. In 1771, just a year before his death, he dusted off a

memorandum on fiscal policy that he had written in 1722, updated and annotated it

copiously, and had it published.[4]

His interest in citizenship was deep, and comes out explicitly in his theology. It may

seem at times submerged in his exploration of the spiritual transformation of the

individual, but Swedenborg frequently steps back and calls attention to this larger


It is commonly said that we are all neighbors to ourselves--that is, that we look to our

own welfare first of all. The doctrine of charity teaches us how this works. We are our

own neighbors, true, but last of all rather than first of all. A higher priority is given

to others who are constructively engaged, and a still higher priority to the larger

community. The country ranks higher yet, the church even higher, until we come all the way

to the Lord's kingdom; and above them all--above everything--is the Lord.[5]

In fact, when he takes the widest view and talks about the purpose of creation itself, he

sees it to be spiritual community, "a heaven from the human race."[6]

It may be well to pause a moment and counter any thought that by putting the community

first Swedenborg is advocating the sacrifice of the individual. That is not what his

heaven is about, not at all.

Mutual love in heaven consists of loving the neighbor more than one's self, with the

result that the whole heaven presents itself as a kind of single individual. Through

mutual love from the Lord, all the individuals are bound together in community, which is

why the happiness of all is communicated to each one, and the happiness of each one to

all. The very form of heaven is of such a nature that each individual is like a kind of

center, particularly a center of happiness from everyone . . . .[7]

What comes immediately to mind is the irresistible lifting of spirits that comes in the

presence of people whose joy is spontaneous and overflowing. To place the welfare of the

community above that of the individual is to labor for the kind of community that cares

for its individual members. The community that does not offer this kind of care is more

Moloch than neighbor. LIke that fearful deity, it consumes rather than nurtures the


This may serve as general background, but it is still very general. Let us come abruptly

down to earth. Swedenborg's pragmatism comes to the fore in his frequent emphasis on

constructive living, on "uses."

By uses we mean not only the necessities of life . . . for one's self and one's own; but

also the good of our country, of the community, and of our fellow-citizen. Merchandising

is such a good when the love of it is the end, and money is a mediate, subservient love,

provided the businessman rejects fraud and dishonest devices, disaproving of them as


To be even more specific, St. Francis House is a day shelter for the homeless in downtown

Boston. It could not provide the services it does without the people who provide

electrical and telephone service, maintain the vans that pick up clothing, transport the

employees and volunteers, and the like. They in turn could not provide these services at

any reasonable price if their sole purpose were to support St. Francis House. There is an

intricate fabric of services, of "uses," which can be brought to focus on particular

needs. The system works--in this case, the homeless are served--to the extent that a great

many people simply try to do their particular jobs well.

This, I believe, is the kind of dynamic Swedenborg has in mind in statements such as the


No one is wise, or lives, for self alone. . . . To live for others is to do uses. Uses are

the bonds of society, which are as many in number as there are good uses; and uses are

infinite in number.[9]

"Doing uses" (usus facere) might well be translated "providing services." It is this

fabric of mutual service that is the essence of societal cohesion. At this point in

history, for example, I suspect that it is the strongest force inhibiting the secession of

Quebec from Canada. The hallmarks of a nation--an accepted governmental structure, a basic

uniform legal system, a single currency, and the freedom of movement within secure

borders--can all be understood as focusing on the maintenance of this fabric. Such

structures begin to become tyrannical when they lose this focus.

Swedenborgianism has tended to take from its theology an intense interest in the inner

processes of spirituality, yet as Wilson Van Dusen has observed, that theology at first

glance does not seem to offer a specific discipline for personal transformation.

Comparison with eastern religions makes this inescapably clear. I agree wholeheartedly

with Van Dusen, though, that if there is no specific discipline comparable to those of

Buddhism or the martial arts or Tai Chi, there is a path, namely the path of "uses."[10]

More than that, there is an element of Swedenborg's thought that would challenge exclusive

reliance on any merely spiritual discipline.

Some people think that living a life that leads to heaven--a life called "spiritual"--is

hard, because they have heard that you have to give up the world and strip yourself of all

"fleshly" desires and "live spiritually." . . . The reality is completely different. . . .

People who "live spiritually" in this fashion take on a mournful quality of life, one that

is not open to heavenly delight. . . . If we are to accept heavenly life, we must by all

means live in the world, involved in its dealings and affairs. Then, by living a moral and

civic life we are accepting spiritual life. . . . Living an inner life without living an

outward one at the same time is like living in a house without a foundation.[11]

It does indeed seem that a concern for spiritual growth can be in competition with a

concern for social justice. If it is, Swedenborg would say, both suffer. An incident from

the sixties, when I was in graduate school, comes vividly to mind. One of the departmental

secretaries went to a meeting to see what she could do for the civil rights movement. She

came back virtually in tears. She had gone up to one of the leaders (whose name I have

fortunately forgotten) and got the very clear message that little people like her were

simply an annoyance to the really important ones. Surely a movement for equality is deeply

flawed to the extent that it is fueled by that kind of self aggrandizement. We have every

reason to be wary when any cause, however just, discounts all other efforts but its own.

Conversely, I would argue that the weakest point in eastern spiritualities is to be found

in their tendency toward social and material inactivism, a tendency to accept one's lot in

life with a sense of karmic fatalism. Western "materialism," for all its excesses, exerts

a strong appeal in less developed and "more spiritual" countries. More importantly, the

whole idea of love to the neighbor rests on the assumption that our decisions make a

difference. We can make things better for those we care about. We do them a disservice if

all we do is help them accept their misfortunes gracefully.

Swedenborg, whose assumptions were shaped in part by the harsh climate of Scandanavia,

would have taken it for granted that passivity to one's circumstances was a shortcut to

oblivion. Surviving the winter required careful planning and preparation. Life itself was

a discipline. Further, survival demanded cooperation. Perhaps the nomadic Lapps could

claim some measure of self-sufficiency (though even for them, the cohesiveness of the

extended family was essential), but the higher the standard of living, the greater the

interdependence. Technological advance requires specialization, and specialists by

definition must rely on others to do the very necessary things outside their own

particular fields.

We are pressed from all sides toward the relatively simple conclusion that the only truly

good citizenship is dual citizenship. Civic responsibility will not be met squarely if the

inner motivation is essentially self-serving. Spiritual transformation will be illusory

unless it is grounded in the way we treat each other.

The last point I should like to make is probably the most difficult and controversial, but

I believe that it is central to any realistic notion of order. It is this: that we must

deal with issues of priority because reality itself is hierarchical. Spiritual concerns

include material ones in a way that is not reversible. This is implicit in a little phrase

from a passage cited above, "when . . . money is a mediate, subservient end." It comes out

even more startlingly in another passage:

"Good uses" are to provide the necessities of life for oneself and one's own. They include

wanting wealth for the sake of one's country and one's neighbor, whom wealthy people can

help in far more ways than poor people can. . . . These uses are good to the extent that

they have something divine within them, that is, to the extent that we focus on the divine

and on heaven and make them our good, with wealth as no more than a subservient good.[12]

There are times when social justice seems to assert that all virtue lies with the poor

and all vice with the rich. This rests, I would suggest, in a simplistic equation of

"poor" with "oppressed" and "rich" with "oppressor," an equation that breaks down

irreparably as soon as one asks what will happen to the poor if they do rise above their

poverty. Unless there is some incredibly fragile balance point in the middle, a point

which they will recognize and accept, they will simply move from being the oppressed to

being the oppressors. History would seem to indicate that this does happen, but not

always. Swedenborg offers a cogent and unfortunately lonely voice insisting that wealth

can be a means to good, but only if it is not regarded as an end in itself. This is a

prime instance in which the spiritual, a love for the neighbor, needs to rule over the

material, the desire for money.

When we focus more directly on power relationships between people, the same principle

holds true. Swedenborg would disagree completely with Gladstone's dictum that "power

corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely," if only on the grounds that God is

omnipotent and incorruptible. The Gospels advise that people who practice faithfulness or

unfaithfulness in things least will do the same in things greatest. It is not the amount

of power that is finally at issue, but its quality.

The best example that comes to mind is from choral singing. In terms simply of power, and

within the boundaries of the choral task, the director is a tyrant. Problems come when the

concerns of the director and those of the chorus part company. Then we have "power

struggles," win-lose situations. One director I loved dearly resigned when she discovered

that our community chorus really did not want the level of discipline she felt necessary.

In a sense, the power of the chorus came out ahead in that particular struggle, but it was

a case of honest divergence of goals and something had to give.

However, as long as the director's concerns are also those of the members of the chorus,

"tyranny" is a perfectly agreeable state of affairs. She is in a unique position, by

virtue of her training and her role, to discern what needs to be done, what needs to be

changed. There have been countless times when I wished that inattentive singers would

practice the discipline of submission to that ear and that judgment. The power can be

given willingly, accepted as a gift, and exercised within the terms of the grant, so to

speak. Without this kind of hierarchy, the chances of singing in concert are remote.

How does this transfer to the larger scene of the community or the nation? The difficulty

is that the goals of the chorus are relatively limited and definable, and the members'

commitment to it can therefore have equally definite boundaries. The goals of a community

or of a nation are far more elusive. Perhaps a capable poll might find some consensus in

very broad terms, but only at the cost of notable vagueness. The reality of the consensus

is suggested by the pragmatic durability of our government, the vagueness by its

apparently insatiable appetite for indecision.

In Swedenborgian terms, we might regard our nation as serving a "general use." If we were

to do this, though, we would have to look at the context in which that use was being

served, and our inexorable progress toward a global economy and a global information

community provides just such a context. Can we ask what use to the world we are as a

nation? The idealism of a century ago saw us as a bulwark of political and intellectual

freedom and therefore of scientific progress. It was a romantic ideal, in significant ways

at odds with realities, but at least it was an ideal. It has died, and what has replaced

it? Is the world better off because our nation exists? If so, in what ways?

The answers we find to these questions provide the framework in which more local and

ultimately more personal priorities are determined.

For every general use is composed of innumerable ones, which are called mediate,

administering, and subservient uses. All of them are [in heaven] coordinated and

subordinated according to Divine order, and taken together, they constitute and perfect

the general use, which is the common good.[13]

This is a statement about priorities in heaven. It is not necessarily an "other-worldly"

statement. To the extent that we are citizens of that realm, giving our attention and our

allegiance to "the general use which is the common good," our earthly citizenship has a

chance to be truly constructive. Conversely, only the practice of responsible citizenship

in this world awakens us to the beauty of heavenly community. Ultimately, it is either

dual citizenship, or no citizenship at all.


Rudolf L. Tafel, ed., Documents concerning the Life and Character of

Emanuel Swedenborg, 2 vols., bound as 3 (London: Swedenborg Society, 1875,

1877), Vol. , p. .

Cf. Emanuel Swedenborg, "Swedenborg's Modest Thoughts on the Deflation and

Inflation of Swedish Coinage," George F. Dole, ed., Studia Swedenborgiana,

Vol. 6, No. 2, (January 1987), pp. 7-21.

Cf. William Ross Woofenden, Swedenborg Researcher's Manual: A Research

Reference Manual for Writers of Academic Dissertations, and for Other

Scholars (Bryn Athyn, PA: Swedenborg Scientific Association, 1988), pp. 35,

44 for references.

Cf. ibid., p. 113, for the full reference.

Emanuel Swedenborg, Arcana Coelestia, the Heavenly Arcana contained in the

Holy Scripture or Word of the Lord unfolded, in Genesis and Exodus (12

volumes), (New York: Swedenborg Foundation, 1916). Reprints, ¶ 6933. As is

customary in Swedenborgian studies, references to his theological works are

not to pages but to paragraph numbers, which are uniform in all editions.

id., Angelic Wisdom about Divine Providence, William F. Wunsch, tr. (New

York: Swedenborg Foundation, 1963). Reprints. ¶ 272

id., Arcana Coelestia, ¶ 20572.

id., Divine Providence, ¶ 22011.

id., The Delights of Wisdom pertaining to Conjugial Love, after which

follow the Pleasures of Insanity pertaining to Scortatory Love, Samuel

Warren, tr., (New York: Swedenborg Foundation, 1915. Reprints.), ¶ 18.

Van Wilson Dusen, Uses: A Way of Personal Spiritual Growth (New York:

Swedenborg Foundation, 1978).

id., Heaven and its Wonders and Hell: From Things Heard and Seen, J. C.

Ager, tr., (New York: Swedenborg Foundation, 1900. Reprints), ¶ 528

ibid., ¶ 3612.

ibid., ¶ 392.

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