An Economy Tour

Friday, April 4, 2001

Attribute - Misconceptions of Christianity


An Address to the SSR Trustees

27 April 2001

My assigned task is to offer some kind of overview of or introduction to Swedenborgian theology, and I should like to do so in a kind of narrative framework. My primary assumption is that in Swedenborg and his theological works we are presented with a particular intersection, or perhaps better, interaction, between divine and human initiatives. When this happens, things are likely to change; and in spite of the church's tendency to draw on the separate volumes indiscriminately, making no distinction between earlier and later works, I believe something was indeed happening over the course of the twenty-six years of their gestation and production.

What happened was not, apparently, any change in the basic theology as presented in the published volumes. That is why it is quite possible to cite them indiscriminately. The changes I will be highlighting are in emphasis, in style, and in mode of presentation; and the changes in style particularly have been obscured by the consistently reverent Latinity of our standard translations. But on to the story itself.

Swedenborg was raised in an intensely Lutheran household, and we need to back up very briefly to Luther himself to set the stage. Luther was passionately convinced that his Catholic church was in need of reformation and needed an authority in support of his values, an authority that could plausibly outrank the immense authority of the church herself. He found that authority in the Bible, in the Word of God; and his catchword was sola Scriptura" [Scripture alone.*"] Many people have spoken for God, but God has spoken to us directly only in the Word.

By Swedenborg's time, things had changed. Lutheranism itself was divided between those for whom nothing mattered more than doctrinal orthodoxy and the so-called Pietists, who argued for the supreme value of simple Christian living. At the same time, the spectacular achievements of empirical science fired the imagination of adventurous minds, and the explanatory power of materialistic determinism threatened to discount the whole theological enterprise as a relic of medieval superstition.

Enter Swedenborg, with a staggeringly brilliant mind and an intense and emotional commitment to Pietism and to science, a devotion to both sides of this duel to the death. His efforts to engage them constructively led him eventually to a scientific search for the soul; and it was when his massive intellect and exertion faced the fact of failure that two successive Christ visions, one in 1744 and one in 1745, inverted his approach. Instead of probing the world of matter to understand the world of spirit, he would explore the world of spirit to understand the world of matter.

He heard his commission initially in good Lutheran terms--to disclose the spiritual meaning of Scripture--and set about his task with a will. He got Hebrew and Greek under control and compiled his own exhaustive index of the Bible. He also began keeping a record of his paranormal experiences, his conversations with good and evil spirits; and he began drafting a commentary on the Bible. This runs to some six substantial volumes in English translation, under the editorial title, The Word Explained.

He himself left it incomplete and unpublished, though; and it takes no more than a cursory glance to see how different it is from the published works familiar to the church. He explores differences between current translations of Scripture, for example, and labors to make the creation account literally plausible.

When he finally broke into print four years after his second vision, it was with a different agenda and a new sense of assurance. The Word of God was one single parable with multiple levels of meaning. With an understanding of the basic way in which spirit informs and expresses itself in matter, the principle of correspondence, one could find within the biblical narrative the story of humanity's spiritual journey. Within that one could find the story of the spiritual journey of every individual--spiritually as well as materially, ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny--and within that again, on the highest level, the story of the process by which divinity transformed humanity in the person of Jesus, who was God incarnate.

Swedenborg began with the first verse of Genesis, and there is clear (though usually ignored) evidence that he planned to devote the remainder of his life to this specific project. The eight Latin volumes entitled Arcana Coelestia or Secrets of Heaven are incredibly rich with detailed insights into human nature and process, with the constant unifying theme of the subtle presence and power of a wholly beneficent and wise divinity. The call to Abram is God's call to us in early childhood. The struggles to become a nation are our own struggles for maturity and autonomy; and the very ugliness of the biblical wars testifies to the unceasingly patient efforts of the Lord to reach us where we are, even at our self-satisfied worst, and lead us one small step in the right direction. I need to mention in passing that for purposes of cross-reference, Swedenborg began and maintained an index to the whole work, a truly daunting task.

The first of these eight volumes was published in 1749, and the last, completing the treatment of Exodus, appeared in 1756. Then in 1758, five works of a very different nature appeared. The exegetical task seems to have been laid aside, and there is no explanation of this evident revision of Swedenborg's original commission. We are left to draw inferences from the works themselves.

The characteristics that point most clearly to their intent are, I believe, quite obvious. First of all, in comparison to Secrets of Heaven, they are short, ranging from a pamphlet of a few pages to an average-sized book. Second, they are topical rather than exegetical. Third, three of them focus on hot-button topics--heaven and hell, the last judgment, and life on other planets--and announce this in their titles. Fourth, all but one point the reader more or less explicitly toward Secrets of Heaven.

Let me begin with the most controversial, Other Planets(Earths in the Universe). It describes life on the moon and on the then known planets in our solar system (and a couple beyond), assigning to each a particular and distinctive culture. As the work progresses, though, it becomes less and less an interplanetary travelogue and more and more an exploration of theological principles, with the ultimate conclusion that the principles of a truly Christian theology are not only globally but also universally valid.

Heaven and Hell addresses the hopes of salvation and fears of damnation that had permeated Christendom for centuries, and does so with the radical message that it is ultimately we ourselves who make the choice. Heaven is simply what it is like to be loving and thoughtful, and hell is simply what it is like to be self-centered and grasping, and there is such a thing, as my father was fond of observing, as a hell of a good time. That is why some of us decide to settle there. The book is copiously annotated with references to Secrets of Heaven, clearly and carefully drawn from the index I mentioned earlier.

The White Horse is the pamphlet, simply a collection of concise extracts from Secrets of Heaven on the nature of the Word. I'll leave it to you to speculate on Swedenborg's intent in choosing such an enigmatic title.

The New Jerusalem and Its Heavenly Doctrine is arguably the only real overview of the theology that Swedenborg published. There is time today only to observe that it begins by saying that nothing is more important than knowing what is good and what is true and then defining neither, except to say what is probably the most searching and important thing, namely that they define each other. The good is what prompts us to see clearly, and the truth is what awakens us to the reality and nature of the good. Each brief chapter, with one exception, is followed by carefully selected and organized brief extracts from Secrets of Heaven, a rich resource we have too often ignored.

Lastly, the second most controversial of the 1758 works describes Swedenborg's witnessing of the last judgment in the spiritual world, a reorganizing of that world with the effect of our being afforded a new freedom of thought in spiritual matters. At the close of this little book, Swedenborg actually makes one prediction that proved quite accurate--that this event would make little perceptible difference in our material world.

With these works in print, Swedenborg turned back to the exegetical task, focusing on the Book of Revelation. Probably because he now accepted the fact that he was not going to carry out his initial program, this multi-volume work is uncommonly full of references to other books of the Bible. It was never finished, though, and was published only posthumously as The Book of Revelation Explained (The Apocalypse Explained).

There have been various theories as to why the work was left incomplete, but I will use the fact of limited time as an excuse for presenting only my own. In the course of his treatment of chapter fifteen, Swedenborg begins to insert paragraphs of consecutive topical theology. As the work progresses, these "continuations" grow in length, and the exegetical material shrinks. The whole focus of work is changing beyond recognition. The manifest purpose of interpreting the final book of the Word is being displaced, just as Swedenborg is approaching the climactic subject of the Holy City New Jerusalem.

So this work, like The Word Explained, was laid aside. In 1763 and 1764, Swedenborg published six books (or two, depending on the binder) that evidently took care of his new agenda. Four of these were entitled "Doctrines," dealing with the Lord, the Bible, life, and faith.

They seem clearly addressed to a Lutheran readership. The whole focus of The Doctrine of the Lord is on drawing that doctrine, with its emphasis on the unity of God as enveloping the trinity, from the literal sense of Scripture, as Lutheran principles require. The Doctrine of Sacred Scripture, surprisingly, stresses the importance of its literal meaning. The Doctrine of Life argues for the centrality of the Ten Commandments; and The Doctrine of Faith centers on an insistence that faith must be united to charity if it is to be genuine, that "faith separated from charity destroys the church and everything in it" (#69). This was the major issue between the orthodox Lutherans and the Pietists.

These relatively brief treatments were followed by the closely paired volumes Divine Love and Wisdom and Divine Providence. The first is a radical departure from just about everything that has preceded it (with the possible exception of Other Planets in the paucity of references to Scripture. The few references there are tend to use experience to illuminate the Bible rather than to cite the Bible as authority. The result is a book that could be addressed to a Buddhist or Hindu or Muslim or simply (and more probably) to an agnostic philosopher, as well as to a believing Christian with empirical leanings, a book that would in fact alarm any Christian of a literalist bent. It offers a view of infinite love and wisdom as the substance of all being, including our own, and carefully lays out the structures by which that infinite love-and-wisdom, which is profoundly one, issues in the multiplicity we take for granted and in the intricate processes by which we internalize that multiplicity.

Divine Providence then brings this down to the behavioral level, with much more anthropomorphic images of the ways in which the Lord makes heaven possible for us. It is in this work that the paradox of our apparent autonomy in the face of divine omnipotence is most squarely stated and faced. This is the paradox that lies behind centuries of debate about the relationship between faith and works, or between law and grace.

With this agenda attended to, Swedenborg turned back to the Book of Revelation and produced what is certainly his most disciplined work. In sharp contrast to his first effort, The Book of Revelation Unveiled (The Apocalypse Revealed) maintains an even focus throughout. The structure and treatment of the twenty-two chapters are strikingly uniform, and the work is internally cross-referenced with exceptional care.

The burden of the book is the decline of Catholicism into the supreme arrogance of claiming power over our souls and the decline of Protestantism into a sterile focus on orthodoxy. The treatment of the Holy City presents a vision of a coming new church which, to my mind, should give us pause about claiming that title for our own institutions. This "new church" will be heaven on earth.

It is in this work that something happens that I am coming to believe is of unrecognized importance. Swedenborg starts being the story-teller, appending to each chapter accounts of noteworthy experiences in the spiritual world. I'll return to this theme shortly.

The next published work, Marriage Love, is again different. The story-telling grows in proportion, for one thing, and this work more than any other focuses on human behavior. For that reason, it may be the most time-bound of the theological works. In its eighteenth-century context, though, it clearly represents an intense and closely argued effort to remove marriage from the economic sphere, with the woman seen primarily as a financial asset in the man's portfolio, to the spiritual sphere, with the distinctive gifts of the two complementing each other and with nothing more destructive of marriage than the effort of either to control the other.

The next work in the sequence we are following seems almost like an interlude. Soul-Body Interactionis a brief excursus into philosophy, so with some regret I will charge onward to my conclusion.

Toward the end of Swedenborg's life, two of his most devoted followers were accused of heresy, and Swedenborg himself was necessarily drawn into the fray. He opens his next-published work, which has the misleading title Summary (A Brief Exposition), with the following statement. ". . . I have come to a determination to bring to light the entire doctrine of that church in its fullness. But, as this is a work of some years, I have thought it advisable to draw up some sketch thereof . . . ." (Summary 1). The main substance of the book, though, is a sustained polemic against both Catholic and Protestant theologies. It is they that are really heretical. The only "summary" or "brief exposition*" is a single paragraph containing a list of chapter titles for the proposed major work.

That work appeared in 1771 under the title True Christianity (True Christian Religion). It is very clearly addressed to orthodox Lutherans, citing copiously both the traditional creeds and the New Testament epistles, which were central to the Lutheran canon but not at all to Swedenborg's. The book departs from the chapter list as proposed by converting a single opening chapter on God to an ingenious adaptation of the standard format for a Lutheran systematic theology. That format called for an opening chapter on the trinity, a chapter on each of the three persons, and a chapter on the unity of God. Swedenborg begins by stressing the unity and then, in a striking departure from his own previous practice, presents chapters on the three "persons," closing with a discussion of the trinity clearly designed to argue against any trace of tritheism.

While the work repeats many of the things said in Divine Love and Wisdom, it supports them not so much with arguments from reason and experience as with citations of Scripture; and because they were not matters of orthodox theology, it does not deal with such pivotal subjects as life after death, heaven, or hell, which were given three chapters in the original proposal.

In True Christianity, Swedenborg continues to be the story-teller--surely an unexpected feature in a systematic theology. My growing conviction is that he was beginning to realize that until the spiritual world became as real to his readers as it was to him, they would miss the heart of the message. In Divine Love and Wisdom #51) we are advised, "But please do not muddle your concepts with time and space, since to the extent that your concepts have time and space in them, you will not understand this." The stories take us into a world that is beyond space and time, surely in the hope that we will gradually feel at home there.

Let me conclude by a word about teaching all this. I know of no way other than a kind of "total immersion"--by confronting the texts (or allowing oneself to be confronted by them) as directly as possible. It is a real liability that they are accessible to most readers only in translation, for example. I would add that in my experience, there is a notably deeper engagement with theological issues after CPE. Swedenborg does say, after all, that the inner reaches of the mind are opened only by a life of charity, that is, by the way we understand and treat each other.

Some British scientist-philosopher is said to have remarked that he didn't feel he had really mastered a subject until he could write a children's book about it. We have a theology that can melt the heart and blow the mind, but I'm afraid it is a theology that is singularly lacking in shortcuts.

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