These evidences of Swedenborg’s credibility, to which others might be added, are convincing to some, but beside the point for others. The people who first collected or observed them were people who already had read what Swedenborg wrote, believed it, and were looking for objective arguments to support their belief. Skeptical readers may admit that such data make Swedenborg believable, but fall short of proving that what he said is true.
That is not surprising, given the nature of knowledge and belief. It has been noted frequently that Thomas Aquinas’ proofs for the existence of God have never been disproven logically, but neither have they induced the conversion of a single person to belief in God. The inescapable lesson to be drawn from detailed observation of the process of coming to believe is that people will find reasons for believing what they want to believe—and they will not be convinced by any logical reasoning to believe anything against their will.
Still, we know that people do change their minds (aided, perhaps, by angels), and come to believe things that earlier they had doubted or denied. This often happens because people deeply long for what they know to hang together without contradiction, and this desire may overcome a reluctance to believe some particular thing when the evidence warrants. Reluctance can also be overcome when a new idea fits, as it were, in a space that had been blank in a person’s conception of reality. This is as true in scientific practice as it is in theology.
Countless people have experienced one or both of these compulsions to believe when they read Swedenborg. One woman, who was quite elderly when I met her in my youth, told of a highly compressed form of the experience. About 1900, she had been studying osteopathy (she later became a D.O.), and her husband was preparing for ministry in the Episcopal Church. The husband later became a Swedenbogian minister. However, when he first told his wife of his intention to leave the Episcopal Church and study Swedenborg, they argued so violently that they stopped speaking to each other. One night, after they had eaten together in silence and were reading at the cleared dining table under the best light in the house, he quit reading and—without speaking—went to bed, leaving his book open.
The woman finished the chapter she was reading in her book and then, as she reached across the table to turn out the light, caught sight of a passage in her husband’s book that attracted her to read a little more. The book was Swedenborg’s Heaven and Hell. She read it to the end, then started back at the beginning. Reading to the place she had started, and finished just in time to fix breakfast and announce to her husband that the silence and the argument were ended, for she was ready to become a Swedenborgian too.
She liked to relate how everything she read that momentous night impressed her as something she had suspected, or had hoped was true, but never had heard or read before. She had wanted to remain in the security and familiarity of the faith she had grown up with, but her desire to believe what she was reading was stronger.
The pull of an open book and the effect of a desire to believe have drawn people away from Swedenborg, as well as toward him. They once drew me away. Looking back from where I stand now, it does not seem that they led me astray so much as that they led me through a path to a better place—a place I might not have been able to reach in any other way. Both theory and experience convince me that angels stimulate the desire to believe, doing so at the right time, as considered from God’s perspective rather than from our own.
People who want to believe what Swedenborg described about angels in action will find that they can and that clear enough reasons to support that belief will emerge.
Angels in Action: What Swedenborg Saw and Heard