This page is a summary of Swedenborg’s life and teachings. For a more detailed biography (on another website) see here.
Please note that on the Search page if you want to see all of the Swedenborg quotes and not just the most pertinent (the default setting), check the ‘Include additional Swedenborg quotes’ box (this will usually at least double the number of Swedenborg quotes returned).
There are 4 sections:
a – a biography and a summary of his writings, plus links to sample extracts
b – alphabetical list of Key Subjects and terms with brief explanations, plus links to sample extracts
c – further considerations: objections, and appreciations
d – miscellaneous: includes similar ideas from other authors
Emanuel Swedenborg was born in Stockholm, Sweden, on January 29, 1688, son of Jesper Swedberg, a pastor in Sweden’s Lutheran state church. At the age of eleven he entered the University of Uppsala, completing his studies in 1709. He then traveled in London, Amsterdam and Paris, studying various sciences including geology, botany, zoology, and the mechanical sciences. After returning to Sweden he eventually got a position at the Board of Mines. Early published works (in Latin) include ‘Philosophical and Metallurgical Works’, and ‘Basic Principles of Nature’, followed by a series of books on anatomy. The latter particularly show his interest in finding a connection between the spiritual and physical worlds.
Beginning in 1743 Swedenborg started to experience intense dreams and visions at night. The opening of his spiritual vision during the day, in a state of full wakefulness, began in April 1745. One description of his experiences was recorded on 1748, 27th August (see). He published his first theological work, the first volume of the ‘Arcana Coelestia’ (‘Secrets of Heaven’), in 1749, the final volume appearing in 1756. After many other publications (at least 30 volumes), his last volume, ‘True Christianity’, was published in 1771. He passed away on March 29, 1772, in London, at the age of eighty-four. He was never married. Late in his life a heresy trial was begun against his writings, and his books were impounded, but this was finally dropped some years after his death. A New Church movement was founded in England in about 1787, and a US church was started in 1817. One estimate of the current membership of the various Swedenborg denominations is about 10,000.
Many people have been influenced by his work, including Immanuel Kant, William Blake, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry James, Carl Jung, Balzac, Helen Keller, D. T. Suzuki, W. B. Yeats; and – perhaps – you too.
Swedenborg lived right in the middle of the Enlightenment, and his writings apply the developing scientific method—logic and reasoning—to his primary subject matter, Christian teachings derived from the Bible. Wading through those interpretations, which include 12 volumes for Genesis and Exodus, and 6 for Revelations, is a reading marathon punctuated by his interesting personal experiences in the spiritual world. More of these are found in the four volumes of “Spiritual Experiences” (his diaries), and these are further laid out in his works on “Heaven and Hell” and “Divine Providence”. All these are based on direct personal talks and instruction from the various beings in the spiritual world, and include descriptions of the life and progress of spirits (the recently deceased) on their path towards becoming angels or devils, their interaction with people on earth, and their final abodes in heaven and hell. These are probably the most well known parts of his writings.
Less well known, but perhaps more important, are his cosmology and related theology. These are needed in order to understand his descriptions of the inner workings of human beings and their purpose in the universe. The Divine Essence itself is a triad of Love, Wisdom, and Use, with the first two at the center of every created thing, for instance taking the form of the will and understanding (in man), charity and faith (in religion), the heart and lungs (in the body), good and truth, being and existence, heat and light (in the sun), and so on. Wisdom is described as the form of Love, for love, on its own without anything loved, has no meaning; but even together these two have no real meaning until they are actualized in practice. The third part of his trinity is the Divine of Use, where love and wisdom participate in actuality, and together all three create the universe.
In other words, Being on its own is nothing unless it exists, and it becomes something real by existing. The same is true for loving and doing, or with willing and acting. For it is not possible to love and not do, or to will and not to act, for otherwise they would be non-existent. These pairings of will/understanding, good/truth, heat/light etc. occur throughout his writings and form the foundation for describing and explaining both material and substantial entities such as the heavens, earth and man, and intellectual ideas such as his biblical interpretations, and important processes such as reformation and regeneration.
He also correlates all universal functions and processes, on all levels, to the functions in the human body. So he describes the angelic and infernal societies (to which people are assigned after death) as having correspondences to parts of the body or the internal organs. The heavenly or hellish functions are spiritual, but correspond to the bodily. This is a key idea behind many of his biblical interpretations. For instance, birds in our world correspond to the thoughts of angels. This kind of thinking is similar to the esoteric Adam Kadmon in the Kabbalah, and in other systems, namely, the connection by correspondence, or analogy, between all the levels in the universe, where each level is a true image of God. On the largest scale he calls this the “Grand Man”.
On the theological side, Swedenborg is essentially a Christian writer, but his theology differs from that of the Protestants and Roman Catholics, conforming instead to the original Athanasian Creed of the 4th century, namely that there is a single God where the relationship between the Father and the Son is the same as that between the soul and the body in man, with the Spirit as the procedent from these two, this combination being just one Person (not the Three Persons of the traditional formula). And throughout his works there is a steady almost relentless emphasis on the basic Christian doctrines: love God and your neighbor, and the rest will follow.
He has many criticisms of current Christianity, not only regarding the Trinity but also on the understanding of faith and charity and erroneous interpretations of the Bible. Against the mainstream Protestantism (Calvin et al), his main objection is that they promulgate a “faith alone” without accompanying charitable works, but faith on its own is useless without works. But he also rejects Catholicism because it has developed a theology that places papal authority over God’s and puts too great an emphasis on the saints and apostles rather than purely on Jesus. Meanwhile, he tells us that his own biblical interpretations are based on direct instruction from the ‘Lord the Messiah’ (Jesus, when on earth).
But perhaps the most unique aspect in all of this is that his writings are the result of personal direct experience, and they are put forward in a lucid, sober, honest and rational way that inclines one to take them seriously. We also know that he himself was a clairvoyant—the event of the 1759 fire in Stockholm is the prime example—which adds weight to the truth of his other experiences. Not proof—this may not be possible—but still an incentive to go deeper.
His descriptions of the afterlife are for many the most interesting of his writings. In brief, after death we live in a spiritual body (see) and undergo several stages (see), including a kind of purgation (see), prior to a final assignment to heaven or hell based on our true inner being (see). The latter—punishment or torment in hell—is not necessarily eternal (see): the aim here is to only prevent a person from becoming more evil, reformation being at this point impossible.
Purgation: (see) The removal of all extraneous elements from the soul is needed to bring one’s will into accord with one’s understanding. In our earthly life we can see what is true and right but at the same time act in opposition to this understanding, but this discord is no longer viable after death: we must now act, speak, think and be exactly who we really are, with no deceits. Who we are is, in essence, what our will desires—what we love—which, after death, is now fixed, so all extraneous understanding or truths need to be removed to leave behind a unified person. Alternatively, after a good life lived without development of the understanding of religious or other truths, these are added to the person, again in order to regain the balance. This process or purgation may take many years, may be very painful, or could be short and mild, or even skipped, depending on the individual. And because our inner thoughts are now exposed to all—we are no longer able to lie externally about our true inner lives—this stage is unavoidable and necessary so that our future lives in heaven or hell are in harmony with other beings in the same societies.
Societies: (see) Both heaven and hell are arranged into societies of like-minded beings, with the overall arrangement being in the form of a Man (see below, Grand Man). Each person is his own love and can only live with people in a like love, and so a spirit ultimately finds the place where he is, as it were, in his own center, for those who are above him, who are below him, and who are around him on every side result in his being in that place, because there is a communication and inflow of similar affections. And it is from this harmony that the happiness of heaven is derived. Because our states are always changing the membership of the societies is also fluid. Moreover, even while on earth we are unconsciously linked to the societies with which we have an affinity. All this also applies to societies in hell, but there the affinities are ones of evil and falsehood, and consequently the mutual hatred between the beings there results in disharmony and torments.
Good and evil: The implication of the assignment to hell or heaven is that at our ‘core’ we are either good or evil, and that this is irreversible once we have died. This differs from our usual view of ourselves—that we are mixture of good and evil—which may be true of our earthly existence, but not, Swedenborg insists, of our inner essence, where we are either one or the other; and this is matched to the cosmological relation of heaven and hell: They are opposites, in exact equilibrium, like two men lying in opposite directions, or standing invertedly; that is, evil diminishes to zero at which point good begins; there is never a mixture. For ‘No one can serve two masters’ at the same time (see). The evil are those who love either themselves or the world above all things; as opposed to the good, who love either the neighbor or God. There is also a balance kept at all times between heaven and hell (each society in heaven is matched to an opposite one in hell (see)) which, poised as it were on a knife-edge in a dynamic equilibrium between good and evil, allows for us humans to have a true freedom of choice in the world (see) even though all our actions are determined by other beings (see later).
Change: Another important point: it is only during this earthly life that we can make fundamental changes to ourselves (see), that is, change our ‘love’ or ‘will’ towards evil or good (see Regeneration below). After death, however, there is still an eternal spiritual perfection (see). It is as if we can ascend or descend “vertically”, as it were, during our earthly lives, but then only perfect ourselves “horizontally” afterwards.
Beings: Males and females in life remain males and females after death (see). All the angels and devils were once human (see), and not just from this planet (see).
Activities: Far from just strumming harps the angels (and all in the afterlife, just like in the physical world) are occupied with uses (see), the activities (see) of which correspond with the uses and functions of the body (see), because heaven is itself in the form of a Divine Human, the Grand Man (see). The necessity for uses (ie. work) connects to the essence of God and the universe—that Love and Wisdom only have a reality when put into practice. Even those in hell are required to be of use (see).
Grand Man: In regard to the ‘Divine Human’ (or ‘Grand Man’), there are many places in his spiritual diaries where he refers to encountering spirits in various parts of the ‘body’—the cerebellum, the kidneys, the lungs and so on – where their activity is connected to the functions of these organs—understanding for the lungs, purification for the kidneys (see) and so on. Apart from this correspondence with the body, heaven also has different levels, celestial and spiritual (see), where there exists a ‘spiritual’ sun (see) whose heat and light correspond to love and wisdom. The influx from God flows through this sun and down through all the lower levels (see), and has its counterpart in the physical sun, which plays a corresponding role in nature. Below the heavens is the realm of spirits, the place that the recently deceased inhabit while it is determined to where they will be assigned. This realm corresponds to the stomach in that it is there that the body determines if the ‘food’ (spirit) is nourishing or not and then proceeds to break it down by removing the dross (equalizing the will and the understanding, subjectively experienced as purgation) and then assigning it to the blood where it is taken to its final destination (a specific part of heaven) (see). Those destined for hell are part of the excretions.
Hell: As regards evil and the hells, the origins of evil lie in man himself (see); but our thoughts, evil or good, do not originate with ourselves (see), and, in fact, all our actions and desires (apart from our freedom of choice) originate from the spiritual world (see) which accompanies us throughout our lives (see). We all inherit evil tendencies (see), but these are not imputed to us unless we assent to them and make them our own through intention and action (see). Moreover, in order to become good we must actually live a good life because good cannot, like an inheritance, be transferred to us from another (see) (eg. from Jesus, which contradicts some religious teachings). However, despite appearances, it is only God who really fights against evil (see) and, moreover, he may even use existing evil for good ends (see), even within the Christian church (see). Hell itself is really a fantasy because only God is real but those in hell deny God and believe themselves to be real (see); moreover, we in reality cast ourselves there (see), that is, it is voluntary. One way to understand this is that our love—our basic being—is attracted to persons like ourselves, whether good or evil, so we all gravitate naturally to the persons and environment that we are most happy with. And this might be in hell despite the torments that accompany that choice. In fact, punishments in hell are not to pay for past actions, but to prevent a person from becoming worse (see) and from carrying out one’s desires (which are always harmful to others); but otherwise one is still allowed one’s fantasies (see). In a sense we have already experienced a milder hell during life, for instance all our diseases have causes from the spiritual world, that is, hell, and result from overindulgences and sin (see).
Death: We have no (or little) intimation about life after death because the influx from the inner (spiritual) man does not penetrate the outer man (see). Death itself is merely a passing from one world to another (see) and may not even be noticed (see) because we carry with us the same desires and thoughts, and inhabit a spiritual body (see) in most respects the same as the earthly one. Swedenborg relates how he was allowed to experience the process of dying (see) (without actually dying). He also believes that we have just the one life and that apparent memories of past lives (reincarnations) are due to the action of spirits (see).
Soul: The soul is the life of man, while the spirit (mind) is the man himself (see). His spiritual body has the same senses and appetites but much sharper than in the world (see), and is still in human form. Swedenborg comments on how certain he is of this, but how unlikely it is that people will believe him (see), mainly due to the wiseacring of ‘the learned’. The latter (which includes most of us) think only from time and space and hence can only imagine an afterlife ‘somewhere in the ether’, as something airy or (the usual conclusion) in fact non-existent, just some feather-lite idea (see later on for more on this). But simple good people discard the theories of the educated and know (mainly through faith) that they will inhabit bodies after death (see). Moreover, it is possible for anyone to verify this and converse with the angels, as Swedenborg himself has done, and even talk with spirits from other worlds, but only if their faith and love are such that they can associate with beings at that level (see). In the distant past (before the ‘flood’), such interactions with the spiritual world were common, and he relates the history of how this ability degenerated parallel with the descent of the various ‘churches’ since Adam down to the current day (see).
Because justice in the afterlife is determined by our current life on earth, the more important parts of his writings address how we should live our lives while we have the time to change them for the better. Part of us—the mind—is immortal, because it partakes of the wisdom of God (see), of which we have some intimation although it is usually misplaced (see); for we are, in general, ignorant about the spiritual life (see) and, unlike the animals which have a complete instinct on how to live, we are all born into ignorance (see), which means that a necessary part of our lives should be to get to know ourselves (see). And although he recommends an inexplicably small (in my opinion) amount of time to the part played by self-reflection and repentance (see), there is much else that needs to be done in the process of regeneration (see). Each person is led differently on their own individual path (see); understanding and perceptions are needed here rather than superficial conviction (see); and attention to one’s intentions (see). The main mechanism that drives regeneration is the reception of truths, the acknowledgement of which opposes and reduces the pleasure taken in evil and falsity by strengthening conscience, which itself introduces an imperceptible but deeper pleasure (blessedness), which is preferred (in the end) to evil enjoyments (see). So the process is one of first reforming the understanding and then the will (see), the latter being the final aim but can only be achieved through the intellect, illustrating one meaning of the ‘first shall be last, and the last first’ (see). Although all this looks like our own work, all we are really doing is the preparations, similar to cultivating a garden, while God secretly does the real change (causing the seeds to germinate and grow) by inflowing into our will and love, in an undetectable way that is only noticed much later when we look back on how our state has changed (see). For Swedenborg, self-examination is the Christian religion (see), in particular using the understanding to know and fight against sin (see). Another way of expressing the aim of spiritual development is to try to ‘become as nothing’ in the sense of relinquishing one’s own desires and becoming an instrument that allows what is God’s to flow through (see). During this effort it is more important to refrain from evils than to compel oneself to do good, because the latter may be done from the love of oneself, rather than genuine love of the neighbor, but the former is always the right action (see). Swedenborg adds that despite the difficulties, getting to heaven may not be as difficult as one thinks (see)!
Appearances: One important aspect to this is seeing that one is not oneself the source of life, love or wisdom, but that all comes from God and only appears to come from oneself (see). Our lives are really a reaction to the reception of life from God (see), and we mistake this reaction as life coming from ourselves; in reality, we do not live, only God lives (see), and the apparent continuance of our lives is due to the perpetual inflow (or ‘influx’) of this life from God. It means we have to learn that appearances are deceptive (see). In fact, we are completely controlled by spirits (see). Providence also rules (see), not just in generals but also in details (see). But despite this, a seeming paradox, we still have freedom of choice (see). So we appear to live from ourselves, but at the same time see that everything comes from God. This acknowledgment of God, together with love and charity towards our neighbor (see), leads to conjunction with God (see) and the angelic life (see), which is one of mutual love (see), innocence (see) and peace (see).
Sin: It is believed (in Protestantism) that sin can be remitted ‘in a moment’, and that faith alone (without charity) is enough. But, according to Swedenborg, daily repentance is needed (see), not just in words but in one’s life, and this must be voluntary (see). This includes true acknowledgment of (‘sorrow for’) the evil within oneself; for it is only through this that it can be drawn out like a wound which heals only when opened (see). To be actual, sin needs to be intentional (see); and in abstaining from one kind one abstains from all, again due to the internal intention, so one cannot judge the matter by observing just the external life of a person (see). Even then, in every good action that we attribute to ourselves there is sin, even when one thinks that something is a gift from God, for that too—the thinking, which is from our own power—is a sin: difficult for us to believe, but strongly asserted by Swedenborg. In the end it is only when we are not reflecting from our own effort, when we are unaware of it, that the action is good; for ultimately only God is good (see). One sees here what the mystics say, that one is nothing and only God really is; and also how deep the process of regeneration needs to go into one’s life.
Temptations: An important part of the regeneration process is the undergoing of temptations (see), which is the process whereby one confronts the evil of one’s ‘love’. This results in a spiritual warfare, that is, one’s current understanding of how one should behave clashes with one’s actual behavior. At the endpoint, which may subjectively be a degree of despair, a hidden unobservable change occurs in one’s love which is transformed to match the understanding (see). It is only this kind of change that makes a true difference to one’s life and afterlife, because one’s chief ‘love’ has been modified, and this love is fundamentally who we are.
Who we are in reality: An important understanding here is that although we see ourselves as a combination of often contradictory loves and desires, for instance to get rich and also help out our neighbor, if we were to look more closely we would see one of these as most important and all the others as derivative (see). So the love of wealth may be deeper; or the apparent love of neighbor may be due to a desire to appear noble, that is, primarily from a love of one’s self. The processes of purgation and separation that occur after death are there to expose the true core, the true love, of the soul, because it is only from that one central love that one can truly be happy and oneself. A change in our usual understanding is needed here. As one descends through the heavens, heavenly love decreases until it reaches zero (see the Good and Evil section above). At that point self-love starts and hell begins. That is, there is never a mixture of the two, they are entirely separate and only meet tangentially. It is only our usual more muddled way of thinking that says we can have both some heavenly love (for one’s neighbor, for instance) and simultaneously love for riches and power. It looks like that, but we do not go clearly and deeply enough into ourselves to observe the actual arrangement. This separation of good and evil is why it is possible to assign a person to either heaven or hell.
Life’s direction: So are we intrinsically good or bad? How does Swedenborg see this? Only God is Good itself (and Life itself, and so on). As created beings, we are by necessity not good in ourselves, that is we are evil. The angels agree with this and also see themselves as fundamentally evil (see). One has to ask, then, where, or when, does one’s chief love start? Is it from heredity or upbringing? Perhaps it is that we all start off with evils, but somehow by acknowledging them, exposing them, and becoming more aware of ourselves, one’s evil loves can change? Or is it, by analogy with the heaven-hell structure, that we start with no ruling love and it gets built during life—but then, what determines our choices to go one way or another? Swedenborg says that our first state, on being born, is one of damnation because of what we inherit from our parents (see). But then providence will always direct us in the way of salvation, will always try to bend our lives towards the good, even when the resulting events are painful (see). Or perhaps it is ignorance, or ‘sleep’, that without any push to step back from the world and see what is happening, or to wake up, the default life is one towards hell, or at least one where one’s direction is determined by outside rather than inside forces. In the spiritual diaries he describes many people like this, who are easily swayed one way or the other. Intelligence and aim are needed.
Why no Inner Sight: As an aside, if one is wondering why we do not have this “inner sight” and direct access to the spirit world and all the information which is being passed to us indirectly via Swedenborg, all of which it seems would greatly help us to change ourselves, he says simply that it is because we would abuse this knowledge and hurt others. (This sentiment can be found in other authors too.) The more immediate reason is simply that we are looking ‘downwards’, that is away from heaven and are immersed in lower things. And when we are in this lower state, were heaven to still remain open to us ‘above’ and also to other spirits, there would then be no protection from spirits of like mind, who, with their newly acquired powers, would instantly attempt to kill us (see).
More possibility now: In regard to gaining more spiritual knowledge, Swedenborg adds something interesting relating to the times we live in: up to his lifetime, he says, the more secret doctrines (such as true biblical interpretation) were not available to the masses, but it is now allowable for people to delve deeper into matters of religion and faith. He links this to his witnessing of the Last Judgment (1757, in the spirit world (see)), which marks the turning point (in his view). But this also reflects the Enlightenment mind-set of his time, and is certainly also true in our times given the quantity of formerly esoteric teachings, both western and eastern, that are now available, plus the freedom to criticize and discuss any and all ideas without the (immediate) danger of being burnt at the stake.
Real love is always directed to what is not oneself—else it would be self-love—and this is true most especially of God. In a sense, this is the purpose of creation, whereby loving is from God, and being loved reciprocally resides in others in whom there is nothing of the Divine in itself. As Swedenborg puts it, “… upon the perception and knowledge of this mystery depends the perception and knowledge of all things pertaining to existence” (see). Consequently, for us, love “is our very life”, our inmost life and will which “… like the hidden current of a river, draws and bears us away”. Such as the love is, such is the life and the whole man, and this is the love which remains after death to eternity (see).
For created beings—us—he distinguishes several kinds of love (see):
SELF-LOVE (see) is the wishing well to one’s self alone, and to others only for the sake of self. Only one’s own reputation, honor and glory matter. One only loves certain other people, for instance one’s children, because they reflect oneself.
LOVE OF THE WORLD (see) is the desire for the riches and property of others by all means available, with no concern for the consequences to anyone else.
LOVE OF PARENTS TOWARD THEIR CHILDREN (see) exists in both the good and the evil, and is inferior to, but compatible with, the love between married partners. This is a natural love and is separate from the love of neighbor, mutual love, or conjugial love because one can love one’s children but not necessarily one’s partner.
LOVE OF NEIGHBOR (see) is a genuine well-wishing towards other people, a love from one’s inner self, not just external polite interactions for the sake of appearances only. This love leads to positive and helpful actions towards others, that is, to ‘charity’. It may also include punishment of criminals or one’s children with a view to reforming them.
CELESTIAL (MUTUAL, or HEAVENLY) LOVE (see) loves the neighbor more than oneself, and may include the love of parents, or friends, in that one may wish to suffer or even die for their sake. So one’s joy is in serving and sharing with others.
CONJUGIAL (MARRIAGE) LOVE (see) is the highest love and the fundamental of all mutual love. The tie of marriage love is higher because it is also the ‘love of preservation’ of the whole human race, and in a way mirrors God’s creation and preservation of the worlds. It is the union of two minds, that is, the union of the interiors of the persons, so not just an external and hence transitory union but a permanent and heavenly one. This can only happen in monogamous marriages (see). Moreover—and here it reveals the inner natures of man and woman, which are seen to be different, at least in emphasis—the love between spouses is different for each partner: the internal union from the female side is a conjunction of her will with the understanding of the male; and on the male side a conjunction of his understanding with the will of the female (see). This needs a little more explanation.
Marriage: God manifests as the triad of Love (or Good), Wisdom (or Truth) and Use (see), which is reflected in conjugial love. In man (the male), this wisdom can only develop if he has a love of growing wise. Swedenborg calls the wisdom derived from this love of growing wise the ‘truth of good’, or ‘truth grounded in good’. But once a man has acquired this wisdom and loves it in himself, or himself for its sake, he then forms a love of wisdom directly, which is the ‘good of truth’ or ‘good grounded in truth’. But this latter love can lead to self-conceit, or the love of one’s own intelligence. Hence it was provided from creation that this love should be taken out of the man and transferred to the woman (see). Whether or not this story (an interpretation of Genesis chapter 2) is put forward as an actual event or just as an allegory for showing the internal differences between the sexes, Swedenborg uses it to explain the different roles of men and women in society and between themselves. For instance, the love of the woman is constant, whereas that of the man fluctuates (see) and this leads to a certain difference in the behavior on the woman’s part (see). And, strictly speaking, it is from the woman that conjugial love originates, which is then transferred to the man (see). The same conjugial principle also prevails in all of creation and lies behind the duality seen in nature (see), the forms of which also reflect this difference between the loves of male and female.
LOVE OF SEX (see) We don’t want to miss out sexual love from the list. Although unmarried himself, Swedenborg has a fair bit to say about this. We share the same drive as with the animals and other life, but it is an external corporeal love only, and is (or can be) in a sense replaced by or developed into spiritual or conjugial love (see), which includes a friendship and confidence between the partners (see). The love of sex (for males) is not the origin of conjugial love but its first rudiment (see) and may be superseded as the relationship grows.
Eros in afterlife: The love of sex remains after death (see), but in heaven it is chaste and is a love of the spirit, which is not a physical (erotic) love but one of the heart and mind (see). Moreover, marriages in heaven are not for procreation of offspring, but for procreation of goods and truths (see), that is, ‘spiritual’ offspring. Meanwhile, for those who have led a promiscuous life and who never, as it were, graduated to conjugial love (the love of a specific person rather than a general love of sex (see)), the afterlife consequences are less pleasant and include punishments to remove this desire for sex isolated from love (see), which on its own undermines love.
Adultery: The opposite of conjugial love is adultery, which is the conjunction of evil and falsity. The love of adultery is equated with the love of evil (see). It should be noted that there are differences between true (confirmed) adultery and fornication (sex before marriage) or concubinage or an adultery which is repented of afterwards (see). Similarly prostitution is allowable as long as there is no real emotional involvement (see). People do not understand the hidden evils that lies within adultery, which is opposed to heaven and is hence, in the Bible, taken as an aspect of hell (see).
God: God is Love, Wisdom and Use in themselves (see), and consequently also Life in itself (see). God is infinite (see), and omnipotent within the order he has created, so he cannot, for instance, force a person to believe in him (see) or save a person from the evil consequences of their life (see). That is, God follows the Laws of Order that he created.
The primary triad is when Love through Wisdom comes into Use (existence), for love is nothing without wisdom and both are only abstract until they actually exist. So if love is formed for and into something through wisdom, then it actually exists (see). More simply, ‘love’ on its own has no meaning, it is only in the love of something that love comes to actually be, and the fundamental form is wisdom, so, in short, Wisdom is the form of Love. ‘Use’ here means actual existence, something with a purpose, for even though love needs wisdom, they both need to actually exist to have a true reality. In ordinary life this would mean not just loving one’s neighbor ‘in theory’, but also putting that into practice when the chance arises.
Man is made in the image of God (see) and can become a likeness of God (see) if he conducts his life by denying evil and promoting good. Despite all appearances, God is never wrathful nor the origin of any evils (see). God is also omnipresent (see) and outside of space and time (see). This latter needs more explanation.
Space and time: In the natural world, the outside world is fixed in that we all have the same experience of space, objects, movement and the general progression of time. So if there is a table in the middle of the room, everyone will see it in pretty much the same way. But nothing is fixed in the spiritual world, which is comprehensable only if we are able to remove space and time from our thought (see). Instead, things vary depending on the state of the person (spirit), which means that each person’s perceived surroundings will reflect who he is and what he loves and believes, and that he will attract only those things and experiences which he favors. So if he hates someone, that person will never come into his surroundings; if he desires to see someone, that person appears before him (see). And the buildings and natural surroundings will in a like manner reflect his inner state. Specifically, spaces reflect states of love (see), and time states of wisdom (see). So the times of day correspond to the states of the beings (see), where morning corresponds to a state of love, midday to one of light (truth, understanding), evening to light (understanding) in obscurity.
Conjunction and correspondence: These are important concepts and occur throughout the writings. Conjunction (or ‘marriage’) of good and truth is itself a universal principle (see) within creation (see); moreover, all things are a combination of good and truth in human form (see, see also the section on the Grand Man above). The universe was created in order to form a heaven of human beings and thereby a conjunction with the Creator (see). Within the created hierarchy (see) everything is connected (see) and has a use or purpose related to man (see); and there is a correspondence between higher and lower levels (see), where the latter are representative (see) of the higher, and are also the foundation because they are the external covering for the higher (see). This was known in ancient times but the knowledge was lost (see). There is also a close link between correspondence and the law of cause and effect (see more in the Key Subjects section below). Just as we can only look to another from what is our own in ourselves, so the divine – the infinite – can only look to the divine in another, that is, only regard another from what is his own in himself. Since the divine created everything from himself, there is, in a sense, the infinite ‘within’ the finite, and it is via this relationship that there is conjunction: as he puts it, “this infinite-from-him in finite beings can appear as if it were in them” (see).
Life: Life itself is a combination of understanding and will (see), and is constituted of goods and delights (see). From another angle, life is a series of mental images that result from the changing forms of a substance (see); or life can be seen as a movement (see) where all the parts are fluid and yielding, in contrast to, for instance, the inflexibility of old age (see). A person’s life is only fully exhibited in his actions, which result from his will and thought (see). In essence, life is love (see), and each person has a single ruling love with countless subordinate loves (see). (See also the section on Who we are in reality above.)
He has many criticisms of the current Christian churches, both Protestant and Catholic. Against the former he is most critical of the ‘faith alone’ teaching (see) derived from Luther (see) and his followers (Melancthon (see), Calvin (see)), with whom he converses in the spirit world. Man has two faculties—will and the understanding—which must be conjoined to make one a true man (see), that is, both faith and charity are required to be a whole person. Here ‘charity’ (see) includes doing one’s own work in ordinary life to the best of one’s ability and with the good of society in mind, so it is not necessarily just donating one’s time and money to some cause. He describes four kinds of faith: faith by knowledge, which is only in the memory, faith by understanding which gives a mental conviction (so it is still superficial), faith where conscience is also active (so it leads to action), and faith that controls our life and works together with charity (see). Moreover, charity must be given intelligently (see), that is, is given differently depending on the ‘good’ of the recipient. Prayers, sacraments and rituals also accomplish nothing unless accompanied by acknowledgement of our evils (repentance); and only that prayer which comes from the heart or conscience, and not from fear, counts (see). Protestants are also criticized for being averse to actual repentance, primarily due to their doctrine of faith-alone (see).
Swedenborg also believes that God must be ‘visible’, that is, conceived of as a Man in the mind, in order for there to be a conjunction between man and God (see). As he puts it, “faith directed towards an invisible God is actually blind, because the human mind does not see its God,” but “very different is a faith directed towards the Lord God the Savior, who by reason of his being God and Man may be both approached and seen in thought.” Understanding God as a Divine Man aids this conjunction, because one then has a definite concept to be joined, unlike the airy, wispy indeterminate idea we usually have: we need a concrete idea of God, that is, a mediator.
Both “churches”—Roman Catholicism and Protestantism—are seen as being at their end because both the love of doing goods, and the love of knowing truths, have been completely corrupted and turned into their opposites—a love of evil and a love of falsities (see). This process (“end” or “consummation”) has occurred several times in the past to previous churches going back to the Most Ancient church signified by Adam in the Bible. At the end times of each ‘church’ there is a Last Judgment (which occurs only in the spiritual world) for all current and prior members of that church, which restores the balance between the hells and the heavens. This was one of the main reasons for the incarnation of Jesus (see).
More criticisms: Quite a bit of current Christian doctrine is considered to be faulty:
a – Salvation actually requires a lifetime of work (see) not an instant act of mercy at the end of life;
b – Predestination is based on the false ideas of faith and is a pernicious doctrine (see);
c – On the true nature of Christ (see): for Swedenborg, Jesus is God and the Divine Man, who came, not as an interceder between a wrathful deity and sinful man (see), but in order to save the human race by subjugating the hells which were infesting man (see) and thereby reducing all things to order (see).
d – On regeneration (work on oneself leading to salvation) (see);
e – The resurrection (see);
f – On redemption (see);
Some of these are summarized here (see).
Catholicism: Against the Catholics he has additional criticisms:
a – The cult of the saints (see);
b – The bending of doctrine to retain the power of the Pope (see);
c – Papal fantasies about being Christ (see);
d – The true reasons for imposing celibacy (see);
e – False piety (see);
f – The nature of Mary, mother of Jesus (see).
g – How sins are remitted (see).
h – And he has a lesser view of the Apostles than the accepted Catholic teaching (see), especially regarding Peter (see) and Paul (see).
i – He also has much to say on the true meaning of the Last Judgment (see), which also describes the last days of a Church (of which there have been several on the earth) (see), and one judgment of which he experienced first-hand in 1757 (see).
j – The teachings on the Trinity: this is complicated enough (hypostases, persons, begetting, proceeding et al) that most people, despite what is confessed in the Athanasian creed, end up with the idea of there being three Gods which also, somehow, are just one God. Swedenborg says that this confusion has destroyed the fundamental idea that God is a man (see); and he replaces the ‘standard’ trinity with his own version, where Jesus—referred to in his writings as ‘the Lord’ or ‘God the Messiah’—is the central figure, and is the Divine Human, and is also the trine; that is to say, the Divine called the Father, and the Divine called the Son, and the proceeding Divine called the Holy Spirit constitute the trine, and this trine is one, because it is of one person (see), namely the Lord. This formulation retains the ‘three’, but puts the emphasis on what the older trinity called the Son, and makes God to be this Divine Human. And it is also fundamental (according to Swedenborg) for a Christian, in order to get to heaven, to receive this idea of God being the Divine Human and creator of the universe.
Other religions: He sees Islam as inferior to Christianity but still valid and necessary and also allots them a place in heaven (see). In general, religion requires an acknowledgement of God and a refraining from evil (see), and if a person carries these out, regardless of his religion, then he will go to heaven. Religions also degenerate and need renewal by the foundations of new ‘churches’ (see). He relates some ‘esoteric history’ regarding ancient religions (‘churches’) (see) and their members’ abilities and physical degeneration (see). He regards himself as living in a time at the start of a new church, which is based on the Bible and Jesus’ teachings, and whose doctrines include true repentance, regeneration, and faith together with active charity (see).
Bible: In religious writings, the Bible is of paramount importance, and is the Word of God (see), with many levels of meaning (see); but not all of the books within it have an internal sense (see). His interpretations of the Bible are extensive, and are the main ingredients of his 12-volume ‘Arcana Coelestia’ (‘Secrets of Heaven’, interpretations of Genesis and Exodus) and the 6-volume ‘Apocalypse Explained’ (interpretations of the Book of Revelations). These include the interpretation of the garden of Eden story (see), with multiple references to the ‘tree of knowledge’ (see) (belief that one lives from oneself rather than from God); Old Testament figures as representatives of churches (see); Noah’s ark (see); the double repetitions (see); who are the ‘poor’, ‘sick’ and ‘strangers’ (see); and many more.
Everything is material including thoughts and emotions (see). All the details of our lives are imprinted on our memory and are preserved in the afterlife (see), so nothing is truly lost. However, he distinguishes between natural and spiritual memories, the former being quiescent after death and not immediately accessible (see). Indeed, those who were learned in the world may end up quite stupid afterwards because they did not use their intelligence and memory to become more rational (see), that is, did not put their learning into practice and become more intelligent. He describes the physical structure of memory as consisting of little bundles cohering together according to how the person has connected them in his mind; and that they can be rearranged if he undergoes regeneration (see). He criticizes the misuse of memory and scientific study, blaming philosophy for ‘casting shadows on the mind’, and most of the other sciences as hindrances when they are not used to penetrate and confirm spiritual truths (see). The problem can be restated as using reason only to decide whether a thing is so or not, rather than to perceive that it is so (which is more intelligent) and then to develop the consequences and confirmations which lead to wisdom (see). But using science to support heavenly truths is encouraged (see) provided that one understands that it is impossible to know everything and that much has to simply be accepted just as it is without knowing how it is (see).
Body and Senses: The fundamental parts of the body are the heart and lungs, which correspond to the will and the understanding, and whose functioning illustrates how the two are intimately related and reliant on each other (see). All the activities of the body—blood circulation, digestion and so on—have a correspondence with things in the spiritual world. Swedenborg emphasizes that the senses—sight, hearing and so on—derive their activity from the spirit acting on and through the body and not the other way around (see), adding that the spirit’s senses are even more exquisite (see). There is an internal influx from God that uses the senses to serve as the means to experience the world and human society and thereby acquire intelligence and wisdom (see). This fallacy—that the external world is the active force which flows into us—is hard to overcome, based as it is on the false belief that the lower can flow into the higher, whereas the movement is always from the higher to the lower (see). All sensory perceptions signify spiritual things relating to the good of love and the truths of faith, such as smell signifying the perception of inner truth, taste the perception and affection of knowing and growing wise, and so on (see). The sense of touch is in a way common to all the senses, and is the sense proper to conjugial love, but he leaves further consideration of this subject ‘to lovers’ (see). Moreover, our whole external life (outer sensations and bodily pleasures) is described as a ‘sleep’ compared to the life of inner sensation (the mind, including the passions and imagination), which is also relatively a ‘sleep’ compared to the proper human inner life of the soul. But this too is a ‘sleep’ relative to Life itself which is God (see).KEY SUBJECTS
Actions, relation to intentions: our external actions when viewed by someone else are not unlike actions of a machine, but their life is derived from our internal life, that is, they are the outward forms of our inner thought and will. And it is the inner intention that distinguishes the good person from the evil.
Adultery: this undermines marriage love (‘conjugial love’), and because the conjugial principle is at the heart of heavenly love, it is regarded as a great evil. He distinguishes this from simple sexual activity, which may be more or less harmful depending on the emotional involvement. In biblical interpretations, adultery, as the opposite of conjugial love in that it undermines it, means the conjunction of evil and falsity.
Afterlife: after many years of experience in the spiritual world, including conversations with dead friends and historical figures, Swedenborg affirms categorically that we survive death. He also relates in detail the kind of life one leads there, and includes descriptions of the various heavens, hells and the intermediate middle world, which is where one ends up initially after death, which is inhabited by spirits (ie. us!), and where life consists in preparations for becoming either angels in heaven or devils and satans in hell.
Afterlife, activities, work, uses in: people are not idle in the afterlife! He relates how some newly arrived spirits, thinking that heaven is all play, feasting, and entertainment, are allowed to do this, but after three days they are utterly sick of it. Instead, each person has their own individual aptitude for a specific kind of work, which they do with great joy, as a contribution to the whole (see “Grand Man” below). This alternates, as it does in ordinary life, with rest and leisure. Life in heaven includes joyful work, work that one is entirely suited for and loves, which also happens—though not to so many—on earth. The actual activities are not clearly listed, but do include (taken directly from assorted quotes): Helping the newly arrived spirits, serving people on earth, administering the intermediate spirit world, teaching, judicial proceedings both in greater and lesser cases, mechanical arts. Probably, there are an infinite number of occupations, since each person is unique, and they must all be directed to the maintenance of the Grand Man, ie. all the worlds. Also, one suspects, many of the occupations would not be understood by us, but they must all correspond to the variety of jobs that we have on earth, since everything is connected.
Afterlife, beings in: all beings in the afterlife (angels, devils, spirits) lived first on earth or another planet. They all inhabit ‘substantial’ (spiritual) bodies, with similar abilities as on earth, and perform uses for the greater whole (‘Grand Man’). There is a correspondence between the different levels such that they all depend on each other, so all levels (from external material earth to the highest spiritual heaven) are related and needed.
Afterlife, belief in: simple people who do not worry about how survival after death is feasible are more likely to truly believe in an afterlife, in contrast with the ‘learned’ who usually think themselves into a corner grappling with where and how this can be. The problem lies mainly in our concept of time and space as referring to absolute entities, and to our perception of the physical world as ‘solid’. But both apply only to this level, and not to the spiritual world where states of mind replace time and space, and where the matter is ‘substantial’, a finer form of matter. Unfortunately, for many people clever opinions about the afterlife are more important than a genuine, humble belief.
Afterlife, bodily appearance in: because a harmony between one’s inner self and outer appearance is enforced in the afterlife, one’s bodily appearance may be unrecognizable to former acquaintances. In general, the outer form of a person depends on his inner state.
Afterlife, buildings in: as with all matter in the spirit world, things are composed of ‘substance’, whereas earthly things are ‘material’ though ultimately derived from the spiritual ‘substance’. The latter is alive, consequently buildings etc. are ‘real’ in contrast to architecture on earth which is ‘dead’.
Afterlife, children in: according to Swedenborg, one’s true being is a combination of intelligence, wisdom and love. So even if one dies as a child, one can be educated (in the spirit world) to become an adult. ‘Hereditary’ evil still remains and can still manifest itself, so working against this forms a part of the child’s education.
Afterlife, commanding others in: the ability to command others is retained if it is done from a love of neighbor, and those people who are used to obedience are also thereby accommodated. Those who love command for evil purposes are confined in hell.
Afterlife, compass points in: unlike the fixed physical attributes we are used to in this life, the compass points in the spirit world are relative and depend on the internal relation between the divine love and one’s own self-love.
Afterlife, earthly life's effects on: all memory is retained, all our good and evil acts, thoughts etc., but are quiescent, meaning that they are as if forgotten but can be revived if needed. So ‘forgiveness of sins’ is not a complete wiping out, more like a covering-over. It is one’s will, or ‘love’, one’s inner life, developed in the world, that determines one’s life after death and the kind of purgation undergone prior to assignment to heaven or hell. So outer pomp and glory in the world count as nothing.
Afterlife, fantasies in: newly arrived spirits imagine themselves, through a kind of mental projection, to still be in a physical body, and surrounded by possessions similar to those in their bodily life. In order to allow them to live sanely, such fantasies are slowly removed over time. Also, because only God is real, and those in hell deny God, their whole perceived existence is in a sense a fantasy.
Afterlife, finding one's place in: no one is denied heaven, but one’s being—the internal balance between good and evil within one—determines where one ends up. If one travels higher (to heaven) or lower (to hell) than one’s true level, which experiment is allowed during the intermediate spirit state, one feels as if one is dying or gasping for breath, and voluntarily returns to where one feels at home. Each one comes into his own ‘center’, which is defined by the beings around him (in a specific society), from whom there is an inflow of compatible affections.
Afterlife, friendship in: former friendships can fade away once the life of the true inner self starts to be lived in the afterlife, because it is the internal affections between beings that matter. But initially one meets and intermingles with former acquaintances as part of the process of exposing one’s inner life and love.
Afterlife, harmony enforced in: in stages, the inner and outer selves of a spirit are harmonized either by a removal of all the outer (superficial) qualities accumulated in the world, or by the addition of truths if the person is good but lacking in understanding. Although these removals are no longer active in the new life, and use of them is denied, they are nevertheless retained in a quiescent state and can be revived if needed. Also, one’s speech and interactions with other spirits must now be sincere—one must speak as one thinks internally—for any hypocrisy in this behavior is immediately obvious to all, because it is no longer possible to hide one’s inner life.
Afterlife, inner life exposed in: after death one’s formerly hidden inner life is completely exposed, and one can no longer behave contrary to this as one used to do in the world. This can cause much grief and shame but is a necessary step towards harmonizing one’s inner and outer life in preparation for finding one’s final placement in the afterlife.
Afterlife, justice in: each person’s life is examined as to his true inner good and truth, and is then sent to a society of spirits with the same kind of life.
Afterlife, marriage love in: couples who genuinely loved each other in the world are allowed to remain together (for eternity), while others are separated; adultery and whoredom are also allowed, in a sense, but are be accompanied by punishments and other restrictions (in hell). Single people who desired marriage are allowed to marry; others remain single. So in general all cases are considered and possible.
Afterlife, memory in: memory of one’s worldly life is not lost but is quiescent such that one cannot access it except when it is useful to do so. But loves and understandings derived from experiences are retained, as they form the basis for the new life. If one had fully accessible memory of the world, one would be weighed down by regrets or vanities, and could not then enjoy one’s new state. In the highest heaven there is no need of memory because the angels there have a direct perception of what is true and good and do not need to rely on thoughts or past experiences to decide an issue.
Afterlife, senses in: spirits also have the same senses, yet more acute. This is because our bodily sensation is originally derived from the spirit, and one is now in the spiritual (substantial) body.
Afterlife, societies in: each person has an inner attraction to other persons of like mind and love, and thus are formed the societies. These are not fixed but continually change to match the fluctuation of each person’s mind and loves. They exist in both heaven and hell. Persons on earth are also sometimes seen in these societies, that is, we may also unknowingly wander through them, but we are perceived by those in the afterlife as wrapped up in ourselves, that is, non-communicable. And we do not notice this connection because it lies in our will, which is usually hidden from us, rather than in our understanding.
Afterlife, space and time in: perceived changes in outside objects are reflections of the internal changes of state of a person’s mind, not a perception of fixed external objects as they are in the (physical) world. So being ‘far off’ from a person signifies a low affinity (or liking), and this can vary depending on changes in one’s own inner relationship to the same person. The very existence of an outside ‘object’ also depends on one’s inner state. The state of one’s life is reflected in the beauty or ugliness of one’s surroundings; and changes (times) reflect the qualities of and progressions in one’s life. So nothing is fixed by obeying some external law as we are used to in the world, all is determined by one’s inner state of being (one’s love).
Afterlife, spiritual progress in: in one’s worldly life one acquires memory and establishes a certain harmony between one’s inner and outer life, and it is this harmony that is retained after death. One may still undergo purgation of the external elements that do not agree with the internal (eg. knowledge that was never put into practice because not truly believed to be true), but what remains forms the ground out of which one’s new life is formed. Based on this ground one can grow and progress without end if one’s life is in heaven.
Despite the complexity of our inner lives and loves, Swedenborg states that each person has a single ‘ruling’ love, which is the essential love distilled out of the various degrees of love (or hate) that one has for oneself, one’s neighbor, the world, and God, and it is this love that is changed, developed, and attained in the earthly world. But—and this is the essential point—the degree of this love, that is, in a sense, the distance that this love has from the pure love God, is no longer changeable after death. But it can still be deepened, or perhaps better, widened infinitely. It is as if the height to which one can go is determined by one’s earthly life, but there is no limit to the breadth which one can reach after death.
Afterlife, stages in: immediately after death one arrives in the world of spirits where each person undergoes various stages of examination, purgation, punishment, trial periods with various angelic societies, or other individual means of refining the spirit down into its true essence, after which it is ready for entrance into either heaven or hell. This intermediate period can last any length of time or can be skipped entirely if one’s true nature is already apparent.
Aims, motives: our aims should be unselfish with no regard for reward, and done for the joy in the work itself and the knowledge that it is helping the larger whole.
Angels: the angels are very real and are the inhabitants of heaven (as opposed to devils or satans in hell, and spirits in the intermediate spirit world, all also real). They have human form in every respect (and all were originally people on planets) but are more perfect and beautiful.
Angels, guardian: rather traditionally, each person is assigned two angelic spirits (not angels, but destined to become so), to connect the person to heaven; and two evil spirits to connect him to hell. This double connection maintains an equilibrium such that the person in his choices can always exercise his free will.
Appearance, of life/action from oneself: although in appearance our internal decisions, desires and resultant actions look like they come ‘from ourselves’, Swedenborg says that this is an illusion, and that in fact everything, ‘life’ actually, comes from God. But there is a continual influx from God that sustains this ability to act as if from ourselves. This ‘acting from ourselves’ while acknowledging that all comes from God is a key part of the true relation of man to God.
Atmospheres: There are three things in God, the Divine of Love, the Divine of Wisdom, and the Divine of Use; and these three are presented in appearance outside the Sun of the spiritual world, as heat, light, and atmosphere respectively. From this “spiritual sun” the Divine proceeds by means of “spiritual atmospheres”, which, as they descend, increase in density by degrees, and at length become so compressed and so inert, that they are no longer atmospheres, but substances at rest, and in the natural world fixed substances, like those in the earth which are called matters.
Aura (halo), from persons or in nature: similar to the production of pheromones, both natural and spiritual bodies exude ‘spheres’ or ‘auras’ that indicate the internal state of the being, such as states of belief, repugnance, faith, desire, and so on. And these combine into a single aura around the various societies. Unknowingly, they also determine the nearness or repulsion between married couples in earthly life.
Bible, and Torah: this is referred to as the ‘Word’. The original comes from God but has different internal meanings depending on the four levels on which it is received. The outer level of the Word, on earth, is the foundation, as it were, that contains the inner meanings, and these are revealed depending on the spiritual development of the reader. It is also the connection between the earth and heaven, and the primary document of a ‘church’.
Bible, connects heaven and earth: bearing in mind that only love and truth (wisdom) actually exist, and that there must always be a connection between the different levels in the universe, in particular, between earthly existence and the angelic (and hellish) existences, there must be a means to carry this out, and this means is the Word (Bible). This works because it contains both outer and inner meanings, and so a conjunction is created between the outer (man’s mind on earth) and the inner (beings in the spiritual world).
Bible, interpretations of: the 12-volume ‘Arcana Coelestia’ is an interpretation of Genesis and Exodus, and the 6-volume ‘Apocalypse Explained’ explains ‘Revelation’, from which it is clear that Swedenborg put great value on the Bible and its interpretations. In general, passages have internal and external meanings, the latter as it were enclosing the internal, so the story, for instance in the first chapters of Genesis, is a way of tying together the inner meanings (in this case, aspects of the regeneration of man), and is not intended to relate a literal historical event. The story aids the memory, and encompasses and holds together the inner truths, which are the essential reason for its creation.
Bible, origins and purposes: there have been several versions of the Word (Bible), the newer ones replacing the older to partly conceal certain truths that were being misused. There is also mention of another extant version in East Asia, but none has so far been found (by archaeology). One main purpose of the Word is to form a conjunction between men on earth and the heavens, which is accomplished via the inner meanings contained within the literal external earthly sense.
Body, relation to spirit: the Absolute is seen as a triad of Love, Wisdom and Use; love corresponds with the heart (and cerebellum), wisdom with the lungs (and cerebrum). Moreover all the parts of the body, down to the minutest fiber and cell, have similar correspondences. And the form of heaven itself is the ‘Grand Man’. The ordinary (mortal) body does not live from itself but by the spirit, which survives death, with a similar but more perfect form. Much insight can be gained by noting this correspondence between the body and mind/spirit, for instance in illnesses.
Cause, effect and end in world and man: all events in the universe have a progression from ends (purposes) through causes into effects. Everything real is a result of these three; if there are only two (possible only in thought) then the event is non-existent: there must always be an effect. In our ordinary mind the three happen in progression (in time), but in the mind of God all three—Love, Wisdom and Use—are simultaneous. This relates to the ‘Law of Three’ found in many systems.
Church: every religion has a rise and decline (with a final ‘consummation’), when it is then replaced by a new religion. Each of these is a ‘church’, and each has internal and external aspects with a correspondence to heaven and the structure of man. That is it has ‘lungs’, a ‘heart’, and so on, corresponding to the spiritual and celestial heavens, or charity towards the neighbor, and the love of God and the neighbor. So a church has a similar ‘life’ to a person, with a soul and body, and a death. In the Word (Bible) these are referred to as ‘Adam’, ‘Enoch’, ‘Jacob’ etc. At any given time, in order for the human race to survive, there must always be an existing church on earth with an internal portion corresponding to the celestial heaven; that is, there must be some humans with a high enough spiritual development to be connected to heaven, which means that they have both love of neighbor and love of God.
A ‘representative’ church is one where the externals of worship are known by the practitioners to correspond to internal meanings, for instance worship on a mountain represents celestial love. The religion declines after this if it is forgotten that there is an internal meaning to the external rites, which is historically the case (according to Swedenborg) with the ancient churches, and the case today as well. Representation is a similar idea to correspondence between earth and heaven, body (or nature) and spirit, conjunction of man and God, that is, everything is linked together via inner meaning.
Conjunction, between God/man, good/truth, etc.: everything in creation is a conjunction, or marriage, of good and truth. This principle is most active in conjugial love (marriage); but it is the same between the heart and the lungs, will and action, light and the eye, and so on. In man, all is received from God, yet much appears to come from himself because he is free to choose; and it is this free acknowledgement of God that leads to a mutual conjunction between God and man, which is also the purpose of creation. In one sense mutual conjunction is the perfect match between the container and its contents. In creation, the three principles of Love, Wisdom and Use proceed immediately from the Absolute so that everything that exists is some combination of love and wisdom, or intellect and will, or good and truth, which successively combine into grosser forms to form the universe. It is the same principle that allows Swedenborg to say that everything is in human form (the Divine Human), because we too are a combination of love and wisdom.
Action and reaction are the cause of all conjunction, where the active agent is the influx of Divine Good and Truth into the will of man. If man, the reactive agent, is merely passive then the influences pass through and are dissipated, but if he is passive and also reactive, then a conjunction between the two is formed. The relation is the same as that between soul and body.
Correspondence, between nature and spirit: this is an important doctrine which Swedenborg claims to have been known to the ancients but then forgotten. Basically, everything on earth has a correspondence with the spiritual world, such as birds on earth corresponding to the thoughts of the angels. It is the same in the Word (Bible), each material thing has a spiritual correspondence which determines its meaning and contributes largely to the interpretation of scripture. ‘Universal nature is nothing else than a theater representative of the Lord’s kingdom.’ The chief correspondence is between the will/love with the heart, and the understanding with the lungs. One can also see here the likely origins of magic where some possibly illicit correspondences are set up in nature to procure some personal gain. That is, correspondences can be actual physical objects, not just the ideas of them, as for example certain foods which Swedenborg had to avoid if he wanted to converse with certain spirits because the food symbolized what is heavenly, which the evil spirits could not bear.
Creation, as hierarchy: from God down to the earth there consists a series of discrete levels according to the law of Degrees (see below), within which we receive influences (via ‘influx’) both indirect and direct from God. Angels, spirits, people inhabit all of these levels apart from the first two nearest God.
Creation, purpose of: man was created because heaven’s citizens come from mankind, and the angelic heaven is the final purpose of creation. Man was created to be a receptacle for the Divine (“in God’s image”).
Discernment, and spiritual insight: usually translated as ‘perception’, that is, direct cognition that a thing is true or not, by seeing the good or inner essence of it, as opposed to an indirect cognition which is to see the truth in it and thereby its inner worth, which is the function of conscience and the spiritual man. The celestial man sees via perception and has no need for logic or deduction because he sees the truth directly.
Form: if anything exists at all it is, or has, a form, which is the result of the ‘combination’ of Love and Wisdom, making a triad. This is also its ‘use’ (purpose). God is Form itself. Form is more perfect the more distinct its constituents are when combined together. This runs counter to our normal idea of perfection, where we expect all the constituents of a harmony to be similar not distinct. For the wise, however, ‘the indistinguishable is confusion’ whereas perfection is where ‘the elements entering into it are distinctly different and yet united’. So for an individual it means we are to become completely ourselves, our true (unique) inner selves, and thereby also to be able to better serve the greater whole.
Form, human, in all creation: every good and truth coming from God is in the human form, in the least and greatest parts; it is also the form of heaven. He says that this is hard to believe, but is clear ‘in the light of heaven’. Every single thing has human form because everything is created as a Trine (three-fold), including Man. All things are a specific blend of good and truth.
Freedom, and free will: the will is ‘free’ because man is always kept in equilibrium between heaven and hell. So even though our lives are determined—a whole series of causes precedes our perception of circumstances, plus the inner actions from conscience, memory and so on—one’s subjective perception is that there is always a choice, and this is due to always being kept in this dynamic balance between good and evil.
Friendship, for its own sake only: this is where one is friends with others because they entertain us, or there is a mutual interest, including spiritual beliefs, but where one does not love the person for their intrinsic good. Such people take away a person’s delight and appropriate it for themselves and consequently cannot live in heaven where one lives for others. [See Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics” for a similar description.)
God, as life itself: life (God) is the cause of all of nature, including the external man (body); nature in itself is dead. Meanwhile everything spiritual is alive because both the light and heat come directly from God. So the soul is alive, because it comes directly from God, but the body is not, its ‘life’ being secondary and dependent on the soul.
God, as love and wisdom: the Divine Essence itself is Love and Wisdom, and these two make one. It is the property of Love to will things, and of Wisdom to form them, and together to produce them as Uses (creation); so the primary triad is Love, Wisdom, Use, which is mirrored all the way down to ordinary external nature. Everything that exists is ‘good through truth’ into a use.
Good, relation to evil: good and evil are never mixed, but good may get less until it is absent, at which point the smallest evil begins and increases. So the image Swedenborg uses is of two men lying on the ground with their feet and heels touching, or like a man in the northern hemisphere ‘touching’ a man in the southern. With good and evil thus pushing against each other, touching but not mixing, a third force has full effect as if there were no opposition at all, and hence a man can be in freedom when choosing between opposing actions, between heaven and hell.
Good, relation to truth: good is everywhere the being of a thing, and truth is the manifestation therefrom. Good is the agent, and belongs to the will; and truth is the recipient, and belongs to the understanding; and therefore all truths are recipient vessels. As truths are that into which good flows, truths are what limit the inflow of good. This is because God, who is always desiring to enter into the will of man, and only enters via the will, is limited by the truths the man upholds. This shows us part of what we must do in life—search after genuine truths and put them into practice, that is, enter into the process regeneration (see Regeneration, new birth below).
Grand Man: the form of heaven is described as the ‘Grand Man’ (similar to Adam Kadmon, the Body of Christ, et al) and appears in the form of a Man. Each individual within this form is their own center, and each is also in the form of a Man, so the heavenly form is made up of continuous centers, cells, as it were, where each individual and the whole are both growing eternally.
Influx (influences), God to man: influx (influences) from God affect the whole man, that is, both the inner and outer man simultaneously, and are received depending on the form of the receiver (man, plants, animals, good, evil etc.). This influx is unceasing, proceeds in one direction only, from higher to lower, from God through the spiritual sun, and is both direct into the soul (from God) and indirect into the mind (via the heavens, hells, other spirits), and into the body (via the natural world), and is also what sustains all of creation. It is analogous to the flow of blood from the heart to the lungs.
Judgment, Last: Swedenborg has a different view about this than standard Christianity. The end of a ‘church’ comes when there is no longer any charity and faith in the religion, at which point there is a ‘consummation’ (in the afterlife, not on earth) where all the former members (from start to finish) are gathered, and there is a final separation of the good (to heaven) and evil (to hell), that is, a Last Judgment. This is similar to what happens to each person after death when there is an initial toleration of the evil among the good, but a later separation. So it is not a general conflagration on earth, but happens at the end of every church; and there have been two other ‘Last Judgments’ prior to the one witnessed by Swedenborg himself (in 1757).
Law of Degrees: this law is fundamental to understanding how the worlds work, and how we ourselves work. There are two kinds. The first is the degree of continuity and is quantitative, such as greater and smaller, like light to shade, heat to cold, larger and smaller masses. Most of us only think in this way (it is one basis of current science), and find the second more puzzling. The latter is made up of discrete levels, also described as ‘successive’, such as the makeup of a muscle with least fibers when put together making motor fibers, and these compounding to form a muscle; or a fruit with the skin, pulp and seed. The relation here is always one of end, cause, and effect; and each is a distinct component which when put together forms a whole. Moreover, everything without exception has both kinds of degrees.
There is an intimate link between successive degrees, the law of cause and effect, and the inner workings of correspondences, such as that between the spiritual and earthly worlds, or soul and body, Divine Wisdom (which is infinite) and man (finite). Although incommensurable in ordinary thought, they are conjoined via correspondences, and created (lower from higher) via cause and effect, and their relation is one of successive degrees. According to Swedenborg, this study was the main investigation of the most ancient churches (before the flood), and has since been lost, and, although now reintroduced (by him), clearly needs more and deeper study.
Laws, are different for animals: humans have two extra faculties: understanding and the ability to tell truth from falsehood; and will, which includes free choice to act for good or ill. Animals have knowledge (not understanding), with no internal thought, and affection (not will). At the same time, animals are born with a complete knowledge of how to live, whereas man is born into ignorance and has to learn everything.
Life, apparently from oneself: only God is Life in itself, with man merely as a recipient of life despite the appearance. The latter is connected to free will and how one uses the life given to one. It is similar with one’s actions, which also appear to be one’s own. Our life is a reaction to the Life from God.
Love (heart) as inmost life/will: at the very essence of a human is love, from which are derived his thought, understanding and wisdom, which are the forms of this love. The love has an infinite variety of forms, and each person is one unique variation. Love cannot exist on its own, it must always have a form to recognize itself in. In ordinary life we are a mixture of good and evil elements, all seemingly mixed up, but in our core there is this single love, unique to us only, and this is some variety of love-of-self or love-of-neighbor. One may be able to see this if one examines one’s inner motives, for instance when giving to charity: is it ‘to be seen of men’, to reduce one’s taxes, or to genuinely help another person? And so with all the other actions in life. Moreover, only doing is loving—it is only truly love when it is a part of one’s actual life.
Love, conjugial (marriage): Swedenborg extols conjugial love (or love in marriage) as the highest form of human love. It is a love where one wishes all good for the other person, even to the detriment of oneself. It produces offspring on earth, and consequently also populates heaven (and hell). The married partners are an image of the conjunction of love and wisdom, good and truth, in that the male represents understanding, and the female represents will, so the combination, seen as a single angel in heaven, is an image of the cosmos itself. For this reason he sees it as the fundamental of all love.
Mind: a person has two distinct faculties, will and understanding, which, when united, are called the mind. These two are also the receptacles of good and truth, love and faith. The will and the understanding also constitute the spirit of man. Soul, mind and body are related as end, cause and effect. Man’s interiors belonging to his understanding and will are in the spiritual world, while his exteriors which are proper to the bodily senses are in contact with the natural world. One usually hidden aspect of the relation between the will and understanding is that it is the will which governs what is agreeable to the understanding, and which prevents changing one’s mind, not the other way around.
Nature, as a reflection of spiritual world: this is an important aspect of the doctrine of ‘correspondences’ in which natural objects are representative of spiritual truths. In fact, all things, even the smallest, reflect something of and in, ultimately, God. Nature is a mirror, as are we. So the heat of the sun corresponds to love; its light to understanding. The human face presents in natural form the workings of the mind, his speech his understanding, his movements the will.
Outer, holds inner in order: just as the outer part of the body holds all the internal organs together, it is the same with willing (the end), thinking (cause) and doing (the effect), where the effect contains the other two and gives substance and actuality to what otherwise would be something nebulous (and in a sense not real). The outer is more ‘holy’ because it contains all the others. At the same time it necessarily reacts against the inner—so the skin, the outermost organ, reacts against the internal organs, thereby holding them together. Hence the need for nature, to act as the foundation or ‘skin’ holding the other levels ‘within’ it, as a foundation; and similarly, the literal sense of the Word (Bible) holds the inner spiritual meanings within it; and the natural mind reacts against the higher or interior minds, again because it ‘contains’ them. This gives an image of the universe: God as the center, each of the heavens in concentric circles ‘outside’, with nature, our world, at the outmost perimeter ‘holding it all together’.
Permission of Evil: due to man’s free will in choosing his actions, evil has to be permitted, even if it is only so that good can stand out when seen in the light of its opposite. Moreover, evil never comes directly from God despite—and Swedenborg emphasizes this!—all the apparent observations to the contrary. Instead, God ‘permits’ evil because without it no one can be reformed; that is, evil is foreseen by God, but not provided by him. Also, from the general laws of order it is established that every evil punishes itself (this is the ‘law of retaliation’), and thus that evil (in the long run) will erase itself. Evil ultimately comes from man as a result of him taking as real the appearance that it is from himself that he thinks, wills, speaks and acts, rather than acknowledging their true origins from God.
Profanation: this is when a truth is first believed and put into practice, but later denied and dropped from one’s life. This sequence brings about a conjunction between good with falsity, and truth with evil, that is, a man is in both heaven and hell at the same time (while on earth). This destroys one’s spiritual life, with the consequence that after one dies one ends up in the deeper hells. Profanation is ‘taking the name of God in vain’, a conversion into evil of what one knows to be true, brought about by the way one lives. So it is not an outright denial of God, or truth, with a matching life, but the acknowledgment of truth while living its opposite.
Proprium: each person has a fundamental or universal ruling principle within him, what he loves above all else, and this is called his proprium. It may be a love of wealth, of ruling over others, and so on.
Providence, also in details: the divine providence would have no effect if it were not in the details. This is counter to the common belief, even among those who believe in God, that there is some generalized divine involvement in earthly affairs, but from then on it is up to us. But even logically this does not make sense because the larger world is made up of the smaller, right down to the atom, and it is only through influences on the smaller that the whole is effected. Part of the difficulty in accepting this is the mind-boggling deduction that providence must therefore act on each particle in the universe. But that, apparently, is the case, and it is a reflection of the true meaning of God being Infinite.
Regeneration, new birth: A man is regenerated by learning truths, seeing that they are true, and then willing or loving them. Truth, in the light of the world, enters externally through the hearing and into the understanding; good, in the light of heaven, enters from God internally, and at the boundary line meets the truths where they conjoin. In this way a man’s life is inverted in that formerly he was lead by truths, but is now led by good, that is, he not only knows what is true but also wills to do it in practice, and it is the practice or ‘use’ that completes the regeneration process. This takes time and cannot be done in a moment. The main ‘tool’ is temptation in which a person is presented the knowledge of what is better while in desire for what is worse, and hence there is a battle. So regeneration needs a strong desire to change, and was rare amongst people of Swedenborg’s time (as he tells us), and our own too. As far as determining one’s future life, regeneration should be the most important part of one’s life because it is only through this process that one makes a fundamental change in oneself.
Remains (insinuated goods): Remains are every good and every truth with man, which lie stored up in his memories, and in his life. These are as it were hidden within a person until death when they are used to determine his happiness, depending on their quality. They are hidden because a person’s evils would extinguish or pervert them during life. So they are a reflection of who the person truly is, that is, their chief love, and so are unique to each person.
Soul: by the soul is meant the innermost self, and it is the recipient of life from God—so the body receives its life indirectly via the soul. After death it has the same senses as the body, and the same form. It is the inward human being.
Soul, as empty, nothing, or a vessel: if one loses all that is one’s ‘own’, one loses evils and all contrarieties to God and becomes a different person who desires only what is right and what is God’s will. In this sense one is a passive vessel acting as a servant of God, but this also brings the greatest happiness. Reaching this stage requires regeneration of one’s being.
Space and Time: in the spiritual world (or afterlife), spaces and times are not settled as they are on earth. Instead, the ‘external’ world reflects the internal affections and thoughts of a person, which are changeable, contrary to the fixed surroundings we have on earth. For instance one’s house reflects one’s self and its appearance will change depending on one’s state. And so with everything else. Another way of looking at it is that in themselves all the works of nature are ‘dead’ because they are not their own sources of life, but are made alive owing to the life that flows through them. Because of this ‘death’ they are not mutable and various according to the states of people’s affections and thoughts, as in the spiritual world, but are immutable and fixed, hence the spaces and times are also fixed.
It is only when we can remove from our thinking these natural concepts of space and time that we can start to comprehend how ‘heaven is within us’, how when we die we do not go anywhere in space (the soul does not move), how a deity can be omnipresent, and so on.
Substance, and matter: the word ‘substance’ is used specifically for the prime constituent of everything that is, and it is that substance which proceeds from the spiritual sun which in turn proceeds from God. Matter in the spiritual world or afterlife is composed of substance, whereas matter on earth is referred to as ‘material’, which is derived from substance but is grosser, that is, a more condensed form of substance.
Thought, relation to awareness: one’s ordinary intellectual efforts hinder the understanding of other beings who are observing one’s thoughts (in the spiritual world). Somehow the less attention Swedenborg gave to these thoughts, the clearer they were to others. (This is something one would have to experience to fully clarify!)
Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil: to eat of the Tree of Knowledge is to believe that one lives from oneself and not from God, that is, that one’s wisdom and goodness come from oneself. That is, it is self-love rather than love of God. There are other subtleties: if one does not think directly about something, but acts from memory or rules, this is also ‘evil’. So if one behaves according to the rules of manners rather than one’s true being, it is a pretense and evil. Action is needed from one’s true affection, rather than obedience to rules.
Use, or goal, end, purpose: one’s true life, also a true worship of God, is to perform one’s ordinary daily work as best one can, sincerely, honestly, and thus also serve the neighbor, society and country. Church-going, hearing sermons and so on may help one perform well but do not constitute the essential life. And it is the same in the afterlife, the performance of uses, ones that truly derive from what one really likes to do, are the activities of heaven and lead to the greatest happiness. Both love and wisdom on their own are only abstract ideas, but in use they become real (as a triad). Love cannot rest unless it is in work.
Will, relation to understanding: these two together are what we are in essence, the spirit of man (as Swedenborg puts it), where our true nature and quality depend on the nature and quality of our will. The understanding is the form of the will, in the same way that for God Wisdom is the Form of Love. The will is the end which causes the understanding to put into effect what it desires, and this is one’s life. The understanding, and accompanying intellectual activity, is what we employ in our outer activities, and which we assume is what is driving us to gain knowledge and determine our attitudes in life, but in reality it is the will that has the final say and is behind all our opinions and beliefs. The will is always either in good or evil, but the understanding can entertain both. This disunity is only a problem for those who undergo reformation and regeneration, when the conflicts in the understanding have to get resolved. Also, it is the job of the understanding to, as it were, defend the will, because the latter has no voice of its own; and it is the job for all of us to harmonize both in order to achieve a happy life. The conjunction of the two is who we are.
Vastation: external (superfluous) falsities and truths are removed in a process called ‘vastation’, in order that the person becomes harmonious with his new society. This process may be painful, may take a long time, it varies with each individual. From the evil are taken truths; from the good are taken falsities. See also “Afterlife, harmony enforced in” above.
For balance, at the end of this essay, I am adding a short list of some of the problems that western man, both atheist and religious, may have with Swedenborg’s ideas and assertions. Many of these also apply to esotericism in general.
a – the existence of a spiritual world. This is the main sticking point for most people—how could heaven and hell exist in such a tangible form, since it is not tangible to most of us. If there were a complete, logical, demonstrable way to prove this then—everything would be different! However, the topic “Where?” does try to address some aspects of this conundrum, essentially by asking, Where exactly do we think this world is?
b – life on other planets. I see this as a less important assertion (by Swedenborg); once one accepts a spiritual world, then the forms and environments that life can take and survive in may go far beyond those we are familiar with. Still, since we have been to the moon and not found any recognizable life forms, this sticking point still sticks. On the other hand, to be honest with ourselves, we do not know what life is, and only see it when it is there, and when it has left (at death). But what it was, is, in itself?
c – all comes from above downwards—Swedenborg’s term is ‘influx’—never from below upwards, eg. sensing: the understanding goes out to meet the incoming senses, not the senses producing understanding. This reminds one of the Greek description of how sight works (it goes out of the eye, not into it). The correct answer should be discernible by close observation (I am still not certain but keep looking!).
d – reduction of our loves to species of love of self, world, neighbor, or of God, which results in the assignment of spirits to heaven or hell: the scheme seems too simple, we are too complicated. But perhaps this objection can be resolved by a closer look into ourselves, seeing the intention behind our actions. In my own case I find that he is in fact right, but this only after a fair a bit of introspection and self-examination. If one does look within one will start to see where one’s inclinations truly stand, and that there is often a common intention behind many of one’s apparently unrelated actions. This includes observing one’s daydreams and other imaginations, and especially seeing how one positions oneself psychologically within these internal scenes relative to others.
e – the assumption of the origin (from God) of most of the Bible, even down to single words, with no corruption over the centuries due to copyist errors and so on. I can’t offer much on this—the subject is too large for a layman to pitch in. But personally I do hold the ordinary opinion that it seems very unlikely that even if the original sources were ‘from God’, the chance of them not being corrupted over time seems somewhat slim.
But regarding some of the content, I can relate this independently of any of my studies of Swedenborg. Particularly when reading any of the four Gospels, it seems to me that something else is going on behind the reading, as if another hidden part of oneself was also reading something deeper, but what it is receiving I have no idea. That is, there are depths beneath the literal words. This is compatible with Swedenborg’s correspondences between the ordinary and spiritual worlds, a hint that inner meanings are being stirred up in one, as it were, even though one has no consciousness of what they are. But I see no reason why this would happen only for parts of the Bible—other religious or non-religious works may also have this property. So it shows to me that in at least one case there is more going on, something worth pursuing further.
f – the nature of Jesus as laid out in the Trinitarian doctrines, and why a different view would assign one to hell (in Swedenborg’s view). But behind this, of course, there is the general atheistic objection, that there is no God to start with. So delving into the nature of Jesus has this initial, maybe insurmountable and much larger, hurdle to get over first. This kind of objection is certainly not confined to just Swedenborg’s writings, and so is not to be answered here. But going back to the nature of Jesus, there have been many opinions over the centuries, from the Docetic and gnostic “barely a man, mostly a God”, the church’s “God and Man and don’t argue about it”, to today’s “a really, really good guy but just a man”. I have to say, for myself, that we have someone here who was higher than ourselves in as many ways as one wants to take that, but the more important thing is to tackle the teachings and apply them to one’s life. The final decision as to who Jesus was can perhaps be deferred until one meets him, as many of the mystics and spiritual writers say they have done. The nature of Jesus is probably important if one needs faith to support one, but for the rest of us it will be, in the end, one’s own experiences and understandings gained in life that end up more significant than a final decision on this issue.
g – the law of degrees, correspondence and conjunction: we see matter, from a scientific viewpoint, as a continuous degree—from atoms up to galaxies—with the related assumption that the same laws of physics also apply from the very small up to the very large, with not even a vestige of the idea that there may be a law of ‘successive degree’. For instance we see the structure of a fruit, with its three layers—core, pulp seeds—as an incidental fact, not as a necessary consequence of a universal law. Similarly we recognize no physical laws that could apply to the ‘law of correspondence’ and the ‘conjunction between good and truth,’ and so on. All this is new to us, a different way of seeing the world, and there is a strong reluctance to take up this new viewpoint. Similarly with Swedenborg’s handling of cause and effect, how it is another aspect of the law of successive degree, and how it is used to explain the relationship between the spiritual and earthly worlds, also soul and body. There are too many new and doubtful things involved here. Generally speaking, we are too impressed by modern science and technology to want to re-establish it on different principles. But whereas ordinary science is strictly earthly, what Swedenborg is describing is the relations between the different worlds—earthly, spiritual—that is, positing a higher world beyond ordinary science. So perhaps his ideas could be additions, not replacements? Perhaps they could even resolve some ‘ordinary’ scientific issues?
To which must be added, perhaps helpful to those who have had the stamina to reach this point in this essay, in reply to the question, ‘What have you personally gained from Swedenborg?’, that is, apart from the huge amount of new knowledge on this world and the afterlife; and there are these:
1 – that we can only change in this life. In this life it is precisely because we do not get what we want that a change to our will, from evil to good (to put it simply), is possible. From his descriptions of the afterlife it is clear that there, there are no longer such obstructions to our desires, and hence there is no push to change ourselves in any basic way; it is only here, where there are problems and, especially, temptations, that fundamental change can be done. This is laid out in the extracts describing the process of regeneration.
2 – his description of what true change is, and how the process happens. It is something I have observed in myself over the years but could never fathom, but here is Swedenborg with his answer: at first it is truths (about the world, oneself, religions, God) that are discovered (by reading, talking, experiencing), that is, the intellectual avenues into one’s self, which are accumulated and later acknowledged to be true and then, finally, put into practice. And then much later, for no apparent reason, one’s emotional life—one’s ‘love’—is also seen (in retrospect) to have changed, with no direct work from oneself. This is what Swedenborg says, that we are aware of our understanding and can work to change this; and then once practiced this indirectly changes our will, our love. And he says that this change is done by God. Since it is not detectable as it happens, and is only seen after the fact, I have no direct observations on this process or on the Actor involved, but can still attest that change does indeed happen in this rather hidden way. Moreover, and here it gets paradoxical, he also says in another place that it is really the will that leads us on, not the intellect, despite what we observe. It is an example of the ‘the first [understanding] shall be last, the last [will] first,’ that is, the true order is love then wisdom, but the observed order is wisdom then love.
3 – that inner intentions are what matter, that is, those intentions, desires, aims that one has within oneself, regardless of what one tells or pretends to others ‘on the outside’. Although once stated like this it seems obvious, but for some people it can take a while for these internal states, that is, the knowledge of oneself, to become crystal clear.
4 – the whole area of the Law of Degrees, cause and effect, correspondence, conjunction—all of these are hiding a different way of seeing what is really going on down here on earth; and with work (hopefully) they may show reality more clearly. Having a positive attitude to Swedenborg’s ideas (who would have guessed that!) I see this as something to be pondered on, allowed to settle, with openness in the present and maybe with results in the future.
5 – that providence works in the details. That there is providence at all is already a problem for most people. But if there is, Swedenborg (and others) show clearly, logically, that it has to work in the details to be viable. And does it exist? When I observe my own life—and one can only vouch for one’s own life, really—I have seen, always after the fact, a direction, as if one is being pushed around, reluctantly, towards more self-knowledge and awareness. This observation contradicts all our ‘laws of chance’, randomness, and so on. But the key lies in applying the idea only to one’s own life, and seeing if it holds up just in one’s own life, that is, not jumping to someone else’s life and trying to decide anything from that. One can only see this (and it applies to many other things too) in one’s own life. So one cannot in fairness draw the conclusion that because it is true for me, it must be true for everyone else (even though we are all pretty much the same). Verification starts ‘at home’, and maybe never goes out of the house. But it is one’s own house, and that is the one we need to maintain.
6 – and another idea to simply allow in, without much attached cogitation: that the Absolute, God, or the Universe somehow works on everything simultaneously, and it is only our limited minds that have to see this as a cause and effect, in time. Everything simultaneously? It is too big for the mind to grasp, but holding it there, without rejection, perhaps this can open up new channels …
7 – the simple idea that doing one’s ordinary daily work honestly, to the best of one’s ability, with some awareness of its utility and contribution to society and not only to oneself: that this is a large part of the ‘good’ life. Something simple but deep, and not even religious in the ordinary sense of the term.MISCELLANEOUS
Swedenborg’s ideas and experiences are not exclusive to him alone and can be found in other authors. Unfortunately, during my travels through the literature, I pretty much neglected to note these down, so a more complete list lies in the future. For now, these are the few that I have recorded now that the aim to do this has surfaced:
Spiritual world: the natural and spiritual suns, from the Philokalia.
Permissions of evil: permissions of evil, from the Church Fathers (Paphnutius).
Correspondence of senses and spirit: correspondence of the physical senses to the spiritual (Philokalia).
Correspondence of worlds: correspondence of the spiritual and physical worlds (Kabbalah, Jacob Boehme et al).
Space and time: spaces and times reflect internal affections.
Fundamental change: fundamental change (to one’s “love”) possible only in physical life.
Influx from higher to lower: influx flows in only one direction, higher to lower, never the reverse.
Will and understanding: essence of man is made up of will and understanding.
Conjugial love greater than love of children: marriage (conjugial) love is higher than love of parents for children.