In Its Bosom Spiritual

The Word in its bosom is spiritual. Descending from Jehavah the Lord, and passing through the angelic heavens, the Divine (in itself ineffable and imperseptible) became level wirh the perception of angels and finally the perception of man. Hence the Word was a spiritual sense, which is within the natural, just as the soul is in the body, or as thought is in speech, or volition in action. — True Christian Religion, Section 193

from The Gist of Swedenborg: The Light of Love and Truth

Can You Believe It? (Continued)

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

The Message (Continued)

They all have work to do, and periods of recreation, as well as other times for rest.  Their whole heavenly world is a continuation of everything in our physical world that is related to true and eternal things.  The relationship of clothes, houses, and so forth to true and eternal things is one in which the visible things represent the invisible ones in such a perfect and essential way that an angel’s home, clothes, possessions, and occupation project the deepest and most significant aspects of the angel’s character. 

The inherent relationship between people and spirits makes our spiritual companions the natural medium for God use in guiding, supporting, and assisting us in many ways.  Their power to help us is almost unlimited, within boundaries that God has set.  These restrictions preserve our human freedom of choice.  Within those bounds, spiritual help is available to us for the asking.  Angelic aid never is forced upon us, but always is there when we need and seek it.

As certain as he was about the power and accessibility of spiritual support, however, Swedenborg did not underestimate the difficulty of living on the battleground of life.  To call upon angelic reinforcement is not as easy in practice as it may seem, because the angels’ enemies have powerful means to keep us from seeking that help.  For one thing, our instinct for self-preservation is not only a springboard to selfishness, as mentioned earlier; it also becomes a deterrent to our belief in the reality of help for our particular situation.

From childhood’s schoolyard fights, through learning to drive defensively and to budget our resources, and countless other life experiences, we have learned to depend on our intelligence and strength to get through difficulties.  Long after we have accepted the principle that God and the angelic host are on our side, we continue to fall back on our instinctive self-reliance when the going gets tough.  The more successful we have been, the greater the pull toward self-sufficiency—and with it, the feeling of being alone and vulnerable.  Worst yet, “assurances” of spiritual assistance at such a time may leave us open to feelings of guilt and self-condemnation, because we are still in the situation from which prayer is supposed to have rescued us.

The course to take in a difficult situation is, first of all, to respect the difficulty (sometimes even danger) the situation presents, and second, to adopt an attitude that Swedenborg calls “as if.”  This approach, developed more fully in the next chapter, is to work (or fight, or whatever the situation demands) as if we alone were responsible for dealing with the problem before us, but at the same tine to pray for divine help, remembering that only God (directly or through angels) can make our ability sufficient to the challenge that we face.

Angels in Action: What Swedenborg Saw and Heard

The Message (Continued)

Swedenborg reported that angels and spirits have all the senses that humans have, raised to a much higher degree of sensitivity and they register on all five senses as being completely real and substantial.  Indeed, spirits who have died suddenly, without any mental preparation for their transition, may find themselves at first in circumstances so much like those of their physical life that it takes some time (what might seem to us as days or months, depending on their ability to adapt mentally) and sometimes some persuasion, for them to come to believe that they actually have died.  People who did not believe in life after death have a similar difficulty in accepting their demise.

Swedenborg met one such spirit.  He was both amazed, and apparently a little amused, at the unusual firmness of the spirit’s conviction that he was a physical person in the physical world, having no idea what a soul might be.  In an effort to convince him of the reality of his situation, Swedenborg pointed out that the spirit was not standing on the ground, but in the air a little above Swedenborg’s head.  Drawing attention to this discrepancy apparently convinced the skeptic, because Swedenborg tells how he “ran off” in terror, shouting, “I am a spirit! I am a spirit!”

Angels wear clothes, as people do on earth, each having a variety of garments from which to choose for different days and occasions.  Their clothing is not for warmth or for protection from anything like the inconvenient elements of our physical atmosphere.  Rather angels’ garments project something about the truths that they embody and their understanding or acceptance of their truth.

Angels live in houses, located in communities in such a way that everyone’s neighbors are those who share the same values and goals.  Each angel’s house related—in its size, the beauty of its design, its furnishings, and its garments—to the quality of good that the angel embodies.

Angels in Action: What Swedenborg Saw and Heard

The Message (Continued)

Closely related to Swedenborg’s assertion that all angels come from human life is his principle that we ourselves really are spirits, even while we live in our bodies.  In Heaven and Hell (433), he states the following:

Since everything that is alive in the body belongs strictly to the spirit (also everything that acts and senses as a result of life), none of it belonging to the body, it follows that the spirit is the actual person. 

From this experience in the spiritual world, Swedenborg learned that this fact of our essential spiritual nature makes it theoretically possible for us to converse with the angels and spirits who are around us and to share their experiences.  In fact, he says that this was common at the dawn of human history.  It no longer happens in the normal course of events because the human race has developed such a dominant tendency to care more about physical and worldly concerns than about spiritual ones.  When this attitude is reversed, however, individuals can become as aware of the presence of spirits and angels as they are of their physical companions.

Not only were spirits and angels once human beings, but they continue to look, sound, and feel like humans to themselves and to other spirits.  In Swedenborg’s time, at least—and there is not much reason to suppose things have changed greatly in this respect—spirits who had recently died were surprised to find that their appearance, their surroundings, and their inner feelings were much the same as before they died.  Some, of course, were surprised to find themselves in any condition, having been convinced that they would not exist at all after they had died.  Beside these, however, most of those who had expected some kind of life after death were surprised to find themselves with their human appearance—surprised especially that they, like those around them, and the gardens, houses, or whatever surroundings they saw, were so real, so unexpectedly solid and substantial.  Some expected to find themselves wispy, somehow vague, or ethereal.  Although Swedenborg does not mention it, many of them—influenced then as we are today by depictions of angels in medieval and modern art—were surprised to find themselves without wings, halos, white robes and standard-issue harps.  The self-selecting process that takes the place of the widely anticipated “Judgment” must have surprised many, as well.

Angels in Action: What Swedenborg Saw and Heard

The Message

Several themes are prominent in what Swedenborg wrote about angels.  It should be understood, however, that in his theological writing, considered as a whole, Swedenborg’s primary message is not focused specifically on angels.  He was much more concerned with the importance of loving God, serving one’s neighbor, and pursuing personal spiritual growth.  Swedenborg himself once wrote that if there is such a thing as Swedenborgianism, it would be the worship of the Lord Jesus Christ.  One of his biographers, Ernst Benz, wrote that Swedenborg’s basic message was “the same as the earliest form of the Gospel, ‘Repent! For the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.’”

However, it is phrased, the central focus of Swedenborg’s religious writings is an effort to communicate his revelation with the intent of changing his reader’s beliefs and way of life, with salvation as the goal.  Swedenborg conveys much of the substance of this message in accounts of angels and spirits whom he met and about whom he had a lot to say.

Probably Swedenborg’s most important teaching about angels is that they are not special creations apart from human life.  Angels and other spirits once were human beings living the life that all of us know on this earth or another in the universe.  Those whom we are most likely to encounter lived on this earth recently—within our lifetime—and within the culture we are most familiar with.  Most if not all biblical occurrences of the word “angel” describe a message from God, and it is tradition, not biblical authority, that describes them as special creations.

Angels in Action: What Swedenborg Saw and Heard

The Man (Continued)

From that night in 1745, until hid death in 1772, he had almost daily experiences of visiting heaven, hell, and the intermediate “state” he called “the world of spirits.”  He traveled through all these, conversed with angels and good and evil spirits whom he met there, and was given living demonstrations in his mind and body of various kinds of angelic and spiritual influences.

This continuing series of spiritual encounters provided fundamental data for his theological writings during those twenty-seven years, constituting thirty volumes in the standard English edition.  Information about angels and other spirits can be found throughout that body of work, but several sections within it are especially rich in this material.

One is a series of articles published between early chapters of his first and largest theological work, Arcana Coelestia, originally published in eight Latin volumes between 1749-1756.  This “inter-chapter material” is located between paragraphs 67 and 2893 (Swedenborg numbered all his paragraphs, so these references are uniform in all editions).  A second resource is the entire contents of what probably is Swedenborg’s all-time best seller, Heaven and Hell, first published in 1758.  The third is a series of account of spiritual experiences reported between the chapters of three of his works, Apocalypse Revealed, first published in 1766, Conjugal Love (1768), and True Christian Religion (1771), which stories are found under the heading of “Memorabilia” in some translations and “Memorable Relations” or just “Relations” in others.

Angels in Action: What Swedenborg Saw and Heard

The Man (Continued)

He felt himself charged by this visitation with a commission that he remembered as a Swedish phrase, “Nå så giör,” meaning roughly, “Do it!” but he recorded that he understood it to mean, “Do what you have promised.”  He spent several hours struggling with doubts: it would be a sin of pride to imagine himself visited by the Christ it it were only an illusion.  But would it not be a worse sin to deny the presence of the Lord if it were true?  Toward morning, he felt a sense of comfort, and eventually fell asleep, dreaming that his father, who had died a few years before, appeared to him with a sign of approval.

Waking on Tuesday morning, he recorded all this in his journal just as he recorded the dreams of other nights, except that he noted in the margin that this was a very important entry.  He shows no awareness of any parallels between his experience and the “direct calling” of others in the devotional tradition, including Zinzendorf and (later) Wesley.  About a year following the first visitation, after he had made some uncertain attempt to do as he believed he had been commanded, he received a more specific commission to publish for the world the inner meaning found in the Bible, a spiritual sense within the literal text.

Angels in Action: What Swedenborg Saw and Heard

The Man (Continued)

Still, Swedenborg was not immune to non-scientific influences.  While he was working on his physiological search for the soul, he closely observed his mental and emotional processes.  He noticed that when breathed only minimally—that is, he hypoventilated—he was able to concerntrate more productivity. Practicing this hypoventrilated thinking, he began to notice a “cheering light,” and “a little blue flame” in his mind’s eye, the flame appearing when he was on the right track or approaching a valid conclusion.

Also, while publishing the first volumes of his work on the soul, he began experiencing unusual mood swings and periods of having strange dreams.  Characteristically, he recorded all this in a journal, along with a record of what the dreams seemed to mean to him when he first awoke.  In doing so, he was the first modern scientific writer to keep a record of his dreams.  He appears to have been fully aware of psychic processes in his experience and to have treated them as rationally as he did the findings of dissectionists or any other data that he had at hand.

It is fair to say that Swedenborg was an accomplished and practical empiricist—aware of psychic developments within him, but solidly “in control” of himself as well.  At the time, Swedenborg was approaching what was to be a dramatic juncture in his life.

One day during Holy Week of 1744, Swedenborg picked up galley proofs from his printer in The Hague.  As was his custom, he traveled through nearby Dutch cities while he read them.  After attending Easter Services in Amsterdam, he traveled the next day to Delft.  He continued recording unusual dreams and noted on Sunday night that he felt especially unworthy of God’s loving grace.  On Monday afternoon, however, he was seized with a feeling of bliss.  Then, in the middle of the night, he woke to a violent trembling that threw him on the floor, where he found himself in the arms of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Angels in Action: What Swedenborg Saw and Heard

The Man (Continued)

Next, he began a scientific search for the soul. This was a popular intellectual quest during the heyday of the British and European Enlightenment, engaging such minds as Descartes, Leibniz, and Rousseau, among others.

Swedenborg’s approach was characteristics of his scientific and practical approach to life: considering the soul as cause or active agent and the physical body as its effect or area of action, he decided to search for the soul by analyzing the physical body.  He based his analysis on the still-developing technology of human dissection.  He had observed some of the leading dissectionists during his travels and had gained some experience in the field, so he considered doing his own dissections for his new project.  But he abandoned that approach, relying instead on published works , for the explicit reason that he found it harder to be objective about his own discoveries than about those of others, and he wanted his search for the soul to be carefully scientific.  He was proofreading galleys for the third volume of a work on the soul, which he had projected to right volumes, when suddenly his work was interrupted by a series of remarkable psychic events.

Before these events are described, however, we should emphasize what a practical man Swedenborg was.  When in his early twenties, he designed “a machine to fly in the air,” for which he computed the area-to-weight ratio necessary for a fixed-wing craft, provided a landing gear and a cockpit for a pilot—and allowed there might be a few broken bones if the design were ever implemented.  These are firsts in the history of aircraft design, but more importantly, they demonstrate a realistic and practical mind.  Although he engineered many technological advances that enhanced the economics of mining and smelting, his first inventions in this area were devices to ease the labor  and reduce the danger of mining.  His mineralogical works were milestones in the development of that science.

Moreover, the physiological analyses he performed in his search for the soul soundly anticipated acknowledged breakthroughs in the science of human reproduction by half a century.  Also, he correctly identified the function of the cerebral cortex and its pyramid cells more than a hundred years before these were recognized by the scientific community.  A 1910 study by Martin Ramstrom, a professor at the University of Uppsala, showed that Swedenborg had indeed based his analytical speculations on a valid reading of published dissection results (rather than “fudging” the evidence), and had drawn conclusions from them that were truly original (not “borrowed” from the original authors).  There is, in fact, every evidence that Swedenborg was a solid scientist, as well as a faithful and fiscally conservative member of Sweden’s parliament.

Angels in Action: What Swedenborg Saw and Heard