The Lord seems to choose the most unlikely and obscure people for his work on earth:
An old man goes on a journey and become Abraham, father of nations and three world religions.
A young shepherd boy no one knows becomes David, the greatest king of Israel.
A baby born in poverty grows up to become the Light of the World, the physical embodiment of the Divine love and wisdom for all humankind.
And so it goes…
... a fellow who rejects conventional life and talks to the animals instead becomes St. Francis; a little girl ends up in India, thousands of miles from home, and becomes Mother Theresa.
There’s a reason for all this and St.Paul says it best: God likes to make foolish the wisdom of the wise, i.e. to reveal the truth in ways that upset our small notions of what is true or right or possible. We human beings can become very arrogant about what we think we know, until God in his love for us opens up our entrenched ways of thinking with some surprising new way of seeing things.
And so it was with Emanuel Swedenborg, one of the greatest spiritual pioneers and revelators (bearer of a revelation) of modern times.
Here’s the story of the man whose writings inspired the founding of our “Swedenborgian” denomination and thus our church here in Kitchener.
Swedenborg, as the name might suggest, was Swedish and being of that nationality was therefore born into the Lutheran church. In fact he was born to a very prominent Lutheran bishop and his wife. The year was 1688 and the place was Stockholm.
The young Swedenborg was impacted by two major influences: the Christianity of his day and the “new science”. The Christian faith he inherited bore the imprint of an old, medieval worldview: human beings were born sinners and helpless in sin and only the atoning sacrifice of his Son kept a wrathful God the Father from wiping humanity from off the earth. As it was, the Father was planning the eventual end of his Creation in an orgy of blood and destruction (cf. the Book of Revelation) that would be a “final judgment” on all but a “chosen few” who would live with the Father in a new paradise.
It was a grim picture and not at all like that presented by the “new science” (Newton’s break-through work on physics was published in 1689, the year after Swedenborg’s birth). According to this, human beings weren’t brutish creatures mired in the vicious demands of their animal natures. Rather, they had been endowed by God (or nature or destiny) with reason and intelligence. We had the capacity (cf. Newton and others) to comprehend God’s own laws governing the workings of the universe. Moreover the discovery of these laws proved that God’s inherent nature was also orderly and rational, not capricious or filled with homicidal wrath. Humanity’s role, newly realized, was to act as rationally as the Creator, studying and applying God’s laws to create a wonderful new world for all his children.
It is easy to see from the above that the young Swedenborg found himself straddling a great divide. This difficult situation only became more acute as Swedenborg himself embarked on a brilliant career in science, becoming one of Europe’s leading engineers and inventors.
On the one hand, he still held to his Christian faith but just couldn’t accept its vision of a helplessly evil humanity or a wrathful, punishing God. On the other, he watched with dismay as other scientists and intellectuals of his day began to renounce belief in God altogether. Swedenborg lived during the so-called “Age of Reason” or “Age of Enlightenment” of the 1700’s but he would not make human reason his god.
This insistence that there was far more to reality than just what our five senses can detect or our minds can deduce, cost Swedenborg his place in the history books. Even in his own time, he became an increasingly isolated and controversial figure, viewed with suspicion by both traditional Christians on the one side and the new scientists and thinkers on the other.
As the years passed, Swedenborg experienced all this as an intense struggle within his own soul. At the very point at which he had become most famous and successful as a scientist he was searching most desperately to find God in this new world of science, technology and progress.
Swedenborg, brilliant as he was, could not find what – or who – he was looking for but that was when God stepped in, as only God can. In 1744 and again in 1745, when he was in his fifties, Swedenborg received life-changing visions of Jesus Christ.
As a result, he quickly put an end to his career as a scientist and instead began an intensive study of the Bible. The reason was simple: God had revealed to him a new mission for his life. Swedenborg was to record and explore the Lord’s deeper wisdom hidden within the literal meaning of the Bible and to supplement that knowledge with visits in the Spirit (visions) of heaven and the spiritual world itself.
This became his full-time work for the rest of his life. Outwardly, Swedenborg, a nobleman, remained active in the social, cultural and political life of his country. But inwardly almost every day it was a different story. Swedenborg would spend many hours in deep meditation, speaking with angels and spirits and in visions seeing everything the Lord gave him to see of the heavens and hells. In between these times, he would then also spend many more hours writing down what he had seen and learned.
The result was an extraordinary and powerful body of work, thirty volumes in the standard edition. They depict the spiritual truth that Swedenborg had so longed to find but could not discover or “prove” using scientific methods:
- that the spiritual dimension, beyond space and time, is the fundamental reality underlying and permeating all others, including our own
- that this reality is as real as our own here and that life continues there for all human beings (regardless of their religion or beliefs) in very real ways
- that there is no judgment there because God (however we may name or know God) is pure love, without wrath or punishment, and it’s this love and its wisdom which is the one animating and guiding force of the universe
- that we create our own judgment on ourselves by the way we choose to live, fostering more heavenly selves by accepting God’s love or more hellish selves by rejecting it
- that everything of this is beautifully explained in the divine wisdom revealed hidden within the literal meaning of the Bible, every word there corresponding to truths about the spiritual realm, ourselves and God.
What had been revealed to Swedenborg was a universe of light and love that embraced all humankind, a universe that made sense because it was grounded in the wisdom and love of God (for more information, see Our Beliefs). There was, and is, no conflict between faith and science (something which great scientists like Einstein have always known and which today’s scientific breakthroughs – e.g. the “new physics” – have demonstrated).
Few of Swedenborg’s contemporaries, however, wanted to hear about the spiritual world or God’s plan to make angels of the human race. They were busy going in another direction entirely, drunk as they were with promises of vast new powers made possible by science and technology. By the end of the 1700’s, the first openly atheistic intellectuals had appeared in the West, proclaiming a vision of unending human progress and plenty. We didn’t need God because we would become like gods, masters of the universe. It’s an old story.
Meanwhile, Swedenborg, now an old man, was increasingly mocked and ridiculed as a charlatan who spoke with spirits. In fact, those who dabbled in spiritualism and the occult have tried, both then and now, to make him into one of their own but Swedenborg himself strongly rejected such notions, saying they were dangerous and wrong.
Gentle and serene, he remained a patient defender of the revelation God had given him to the end, publishing his books and sending them out at his expense to all the church leaders who might receive them. Hounded in his native Sweden, he left for England and died there peacefully in 1772 at the age of 84.
But this was not the end of the story. You can read about the Swedenborgian Church that came into being after Swedenborg’s death and has become a worldwide movement. Or learn more about Our Beliefs, inspired by Swedenborg’s writings.