Key Concepts in Swedenborg’s Theology: Immortality

Seeing spirit as substantial and structured, Swedenborg sees people as essentially spiritual beings whose bodies are primarily means of usefulness in a physical environment. For him, it is in fact preoccupation with the physical that blinds us to the reality of spirit. So on the one hand, progress toward oneness entails growing spiritual awareness, and on the other, death results primarily in a shift in the level of consciousness.

The choice after death is not necessarily instantaneous. Swedenborg describes a “World of Spirits” between heaven and hell, where the newly deceased gradually lose their ability to dissemble, and resolve any remaining indecisions. The only “judgment” we experience is our own—our free choice to care for each other, which is heaven, or to care only for ourselves, which is hell.


Key Concepts in Swedenborg’s Theology: Universality

To refer for a moment to the first paragraph of these “Key Concepts,” there is one respect in which the difference between Swedenborgian theology and traditional Christian theology emerges with no subtlety whatever. That is, Swedenborg insists that the Lord is effectively present all religions, with the result that “the good individuals” of all religions are saved. He speaks far more affirmatively, in fact, about non-Christians than about Christians. For him, a God who did not provide at least the means of salvation to everyone must be unloving, unwise, or ineffective.

Yet there is no hesitation in his insistence that the Incarnation of God in the person of Jesus was the turning point of all history, and that genuine Christianity is therefore the most perfect of all religions. Perhaps the most straightforward way to explain this apparent paradox is to state that in Christianity we see everywhere. It is a distortion of that religion itself to claim that salvation is for Christians alone.


Key Concepts in Swedenborg’s Theology: Correspondence

In the process of spiritual realization, the ambiguities of the world and of the Bible become increasingly resolved. The central concept in that resolution is the concept of “correspondence” or “responsiveness.” The Divine, as the source of all, works most directly through the spiritual realm into the physical; and while the divine nature is progressively obscured by the growing unresponsiveness of these successive realms, it is never obliterated.

Swedenborg therefore sees the physical world as the result of spiritual causes, a result that reflects those causes, albeit dimly at times. The growth of deeper consciousness brings an understanding of this relationship. Laws of nature are seen as reflections of spiritual laws; physical entities and events are seen as results and therefore images of spiritual ones.

The effort toward establishing an earthly kingdom is an appropriate prelude to the establishment of a heavenly one because the underlying principles are the same in each case. The instances are “distinguishable” in level, one being internal to the other, and “one” in principle.


Key Concepts in Swedenborg’s Theology: Revelation

It is axiomatic for Swedenborg that we cannot lift ourselves by our own bootstraps. If it seems that we can, it is because God is constantly providing us with the resources for change. In Swedenborg’s thought, rationality is a primary agent in this change, revelation is a primary form of divine aid, and the Bible is the central revelation. He finds the Bible to be essentially a parable, a literal story embodying a spiritual one. This conviction is so strong that he regards the heart of his mission as the disclosing of the spiritual meaning of Scripture.

He came to see the Bible not as a compendium of theological propositions or proof-texts, but as a coherent story. The process of growth noted under “Human Process” involves a lifelong task, which proceeds in an orderly fashion from more physical interests to more spiritual ones. The underlying order of that process is reflected in the biblical story under the primary image of the establishment of the kingdom of God. The literal story moves from an initial vague promise through many vicissitudes to the successful founding of an earthly empire. When this proves inadequate, the Incarnation translates the hope into one of a spiritual kingdom, the “kingdom of heaven,” which is at last prophetically realized in the descent of the Holy City.

In precisely analogous fashion, we can progress from our first vague childhood “dreams of glory” through experience to the establishment of self-identity; can realize the inadequacy of that outward appearance; and can become conscious participants in the vibrant world of spiritual love, wisdom, and activity.


Key Concepts in Swedenborg’s Theology: Human Process

From birth, we have moments of spontaneous empathy, but the more dominant mode of our sensitivity seems to be self-sensitivity. This entails a radically distorted view of reality, giving each individual the impression of being the only one with live feelings and thoughts. Our egocentricity has an Achilles’s heel that is specifically vulnerable to rationality because the thought that one is the only such being is rationally absurd.

A further consequence of this is that our feeling and our thought—our “love” and our “wisdom”—unlike God’s, are often in conflict. Sometimes, for example, we can see mentally what is good even when we do not feel it, and we have the freedom to follow that sight rather than the feelings. To the extent that we do so, we gradually become conscious of our latent “other-sensitivity.” In one of Swedenborg’s images, we open the way for the Lord’s presence within us to flow through into our consciousness. This results in increasing “oneness” within us as well as with others.

It must be stressed that this process of growth requires an active life in the world. The primary agent of change is constructive activity; and the disciplines of private study, self-examination, or meditation are effective only as they focus on such activity. Again, this is consistent with Swedenborg’s emphasis on wholeness: the individual is not fulfilled by neglecting an entire level of being.


Key Concepts in Swedenborg’s Theology: Love

Swedenborg sees love as the fundamental energy and substance of all human beings, with wisdom as its means. Ultimately, we will believe what we want (“love”) to believe and understand what we want to understand. Our purposes, rather than our knowledge, determine our character—we are our love.

Swedenborg distinguishes a hierarchy of loves: love of God as the Lord, love of others, love of the world, and love of self. All are necessary, and when they are in this order of priority, all are good. Love of self (or of the world) becomes harmful only when it dominates the higher loves rather than serving them. In practical terms, this means that Swedenborgian theology provides no warrant for asceticism or “renunciation of the world,” but rather calls us to care for our own well-being, and values all moments of genuine joy, whether physical or spiritual.

This affirmative stance is particularly clear in his treatment of marriage. He sees marriage as offering an opportunity for the most complete uniting of love and wisdom, so that the fully married couple is “distinguishably one” with no hint of domination by either one or the other. As the two become more and more one, each becomes more perfectly defined—the husband more a man, the wife more a woman.


Key Concepts in Swedenborg’s Theology: Our Humanity

Most of the time, however, we do not experience ourselves primarily as receptors of the Divine. We feel self-contained and self-sustaining. This appearance is God’s intentional gift of freedom and rationality, which are designed to enable us to accept the Divine willingly and which therefore are capable of being used to reject it.

The physical world is the arena in which we choose to accept or to reject. Its ambiguity is essential to this purpose, enabling us to convince ourselves that we are self-sustaining in fact, to focus on our distinguishability to the exclusion of our oneness. If we so choose, we voluntarily forfeit the unitive power of love and wisdom and thereby set ourselves against the fundamental nature of reality itself.

This rejection manifests itself in isolation and hostility, both internal and external. That is, we develop a delight in conflict with others, and our own loves and thoughts are in conflict with each other. Our satisfaction comes only at the expense of others, which is inherently unworkable.


Key Concepts in Swedenborg’s Theology: God

God is the absolute “distinguishable One,” both within and transcending all space and all time, by nature incapable of being less than wholly present. The fundamental nature of the universe is therefore coherent at all times and in all places: the same fundamental laws apply everywhere, as indeed science assumes, either intuitively or of necessity.

To help us grasp the nature of that infinite oneness, we may distinguish the primary features of infinite love, wisdom, and power

—love being ineffective without wisdom,

—wisdom inert without love, and

—power the wholly natural result of their oneness.

God is one in the essential sense that there is no conflict within the Divine: love does not bid one course of action, with wisdom counseling another. This is a qualitative monotheism, not simply a numerical one.

Love is intrinsically personal, and God is therefore the essential and only person, the definition of the human person. There is no other source of life, which is in its essence love.

We have been created not “out of nothing,” but quite literally “out of love,” since love is by nature self-giving and self-expressive. We are in that sense differentiated from the Divine but never separated (again “distinguishably one”); we are recipients of being rather than beings.

We differ from each other not in the presence of the Divine within us, but in our acceptance of or receptivity to the Divine.


Concerning the Holy Scripture or Word, in Which Are Stored up Divine Things, Which Are Open before Good Spirits and Angels (Continued)

It may seem a paradox, but still it is most true, that the angels understand the internal sense of the Word better and more fully when little boys and girls are reading it, than when it is read by adult persons who are not in the faith of charity. The cause has been told me, and is that little boys and girls are in a state of mutual love and innocence, and thus their most tender vessels are almost heavenly, and are simply capacities for receiving, which therefore can be disposed by the Lord; although this does not come to their perception, except by a certain delight suited to their genius.

It was said by the angels that the Word of the Lord is a dead letter; but that in him that reads it is vivified by the Lord according to the capacity of each one; and that it becomes living according to the life of his charity and his state of innocence, and this with inexpressible variety.

from Arcana Coelestia, Sections 1776

Concerning the Holy Scripture or Word, in Which Are Stored up Divine Things, Which Are Open before Good Spirits and Angels (Continued)

There are spirits who do not desire to hear anything about the interior things of the Word; and even should they understand them, they are still unwilling. They are chiefly those who have placed merit in works, and who therefore have done goods from the love of self and of the world, or for the sake of the rank or wealth to be gained for themselves, and the consequent reputation, thus not for the sake of the Lord’s kingdom. In the other life such desire more than others to enter heaven; but they remain outside of it; for they are unwilling to be imbued with the knowledges of truth, and thereby to be affected with good. They interpret the meaning of the Word from the letter according to their fancies, and by advancing whatever favors their cupidities with its approval.

Such were represented by an old woman who had a face not comely, but of even snowy paleness, with irregular features [cui inerant inordinata], which made her ugly. But those who admit and love the interior things of the Word, were represented by a girl in early maidenhood, or in the flower of youth, handsomely dressed, and adorned with garlands and heavenly ornaments.

I have conversed with certain spirits concerning the Word, saying that it has been necessary that of the Lord’s Divine Providence some revelation should come into existence, for a revelation or Word is the general recipient vessel of spiritual and celestial things, thus conjoining heaven and earth; and that without it they would have been disjoined, and the human race would have perished. And besides it is necessary that there should be heavenly truths somewhere, by which man may be instructed, because he was born for heavenly things, and, after the life of the body, ought to come among those who are heavenly; for the truths of faith are the laws of order in the kingdom in which he is to live forever.

from Arcana Coelestia, Sections 1774-1775