the friend online
21 April 2006

Reflections on Emanuel Swedenborg

The New Jerusalem Church

Following Liz Breckons' article My Faith/Your Faith this week, Judy Kirby found out more about Swedenborg for a special article on Your Friend

Swedenborg (1688 – 1772) was a Christian prophet in an age of burgeoning scientific discovery. He was a scientist, working as an assessor for the Swedish Board of mines, who became a philosopher and visionary after what could be described as a midlife crisis.

As a mathematician and also a medical researcher – he studied anatomy – he appears to have foreseen many discoveries in medicine, such as cellular structures in the brain, before the advent of microscopes.
In his fifties Swedenborg experienced 'a dark night' of the soul and thereafter embarked on a spiritual odyssey. He maintained a rational, scientific approach to his investigations but he turned from mathematics and physics to sacred scriptures and the soul. This made him a unique visionary – he was the man who married science and religion. He wrote: 'I have been elevated into the light, which sparkled like the light radiating from diamonds; and while I was kept in it I seemed to myself to be withdrawn from corporeal ideas and let into spiritual ideas.'
Swedenborg's descriptions of seeing angels and spirits from other worlds and his bizarre clairvoyant experiences, caused him to be labelled mad. The philosopher Kant said his biblical textual work Arcana Coelestia (Heavenly Secrets) was '8 quarto volumes of nonsense.' John Wesley was similarly dismissive of him.

But Swedenborg was working at the interface of spirit and matter and his ideas spread beyond theology into the wider world – especially in the Arts. His creative spirituality influenced William Blake among other artists, and also informed natural medicine (particularly homeoepathy).
Stephen Larsen, writing an introduction to a translation of Swedenborg's works, says: '..one may trace Swedenborg's influence into the New World and up the Hudson River with her visionary painters and into the spiritual communities both Quaker and Shaker, who kept spiritual diaries and painted their dreams and visions.'

Swedenborg and his followers experienced some accusations of heresy. This centres around the New Church's attitude to the Trinity. John O. Booth, a New Church minister, explains: 'Through the ages many theologians have tried to bring a more Biblical explanation of the Trinity, but were declared to be heretics…in the New Church we follow the example of Swedenborg and go direct to the Gospels, to what Jesus Himself said about His relationship to God, whom He called His Father. Now while Jesus was in the world he was the Son of God. He was able to demonstrate it in word and deed – and He actually said that what He did was the Father working from within Him.

'But Jesus was born of Mary and the fact that He was tempted showed that He inherited from her a truly human nature that could have been capable of actions which we would call selfish or evil. He conquered these temptations at every turn, because of the Divine within Him, as the soul is within the body….Instead of thinking of God as three persons, we worship Jesus Christ in His unity with God.'

The first half of Swedenborg's life was a study of the material universe and in his later years he explored the realm of spirit. This is what he said of the transformation: 'In Christendom to date, there is a thick fog about the existence of a spiritual world…To prevent ignorance of that world, and a consequent wavering faith about heaven and hell, from making such fools of us that we become materialistic atheists, the Lord has graciously opened the sight of my spirit. He has thus raised me into heaven and lowered me into hell, and has shown me visually what each is like.'

More information from The Swedenborg Society


Judy Kirby

Comments:

Ian Johnson, 03 May
Thanks for 'Reflections on Emanuel Swedenborg.' Some interesting points in it but is it fair to quote Kant's and Wesley's views without their justifications? I wonder how much of 'Arcana Caelestia' Kant had read to reach his expert conclusion that it was 'eight quarto volumes of nonsense.' Had he found the following, for instance?

Disagreement in matters of doctrine dioes not prevent a church from being united if only there is unanimity about wishing well and acting well.

People without compassion see nothing in their neighbours except what is wrong with them. Compassionate people are instead alert to everything in them that is good and true...

To be perceptive in spritual matters, we need to be absorbed in a desire for what is true, a constant longing to know what is true.

Someone who has been reborn is joyful when he acts according to conscience, but anxious when he is compelled to do or to think anything against conscience.

Certainly there are strange things in the book too, but plenty more of wisdom and beauty!



 


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Reflections on Emanuel Swedenborg
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