Rational Scientific Theories from Theism
EMANUEL SWEDENBORG: Visionary Savant in the Age of Reason
by Ernest Benz, translated from German by N. Goodrick-Clarke
Swedenborg Foundation 2002, 546pp, $24.95 h/b – ISBN 0-87785-195-6, http://www.swedenborg.com/
Book review by Ian Thompson, Sept 2002
We might naturally dismiss ideas over 200 years old as outdated and irrelevant for today, but this translation of a German 1948 biography of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) shows just how much we would be missing. This book explains the fascinating route taken by Swedenborg from a man of science following Newton, Locke and Descartes in the Age of Reason, to being a visionary and a seer who revised all the foundations of science, metaphysics and religion.
Swedenborg, from his youth until middle age, was a diligent follower of the new mechanical sciences, from geology and astronomy to speculating about the most microscopic motions of nature in terms which would not be out of place today. He became more interested in biology and psychology, and from the age of 45 he was increasing affected by psychical interruptions and minor visions. These culminated in 1744 with what he saw as a vocational call from God, according to which he was to explain the spiritual sense of scripture, coupled with an opening of his spiritual eye and vision into the spiritual world.
For the next 28 years he called himself a ‘dual citizen’ of the natural and spiritual worlds, and hence uniquely placed to explain the nature of each to the other. This resulted in his publishing over 22 volumes in which the now-spiritual visionary savant tried to explain the appearances and principles of spirituality to what was becoming a non-spiritual age. He did not engage in polemic or religious crusades, but saw his role as a scientist who had merely to publish in order that others may read and understand. He wanted to present ideas that would enable a religion based on understanding of what is true, and definitely not on any blind faith.
I can here only touch on those particular aspects of his ideas which are relevant to common concerns.
Many of us yearn to understand what is ‘beyond the physical’, and simultaneously hope that science will itself be extended to include this understanding. Swedenborg explains how the spiritual that is sought here is not itself physical, but is constituted by our very loves, affections, wisdom and ideas. The spiritual world is not another dimension or frequency or grade of the natural world, but is constituted by those loves themselves. The spiritual is thus not imaginary but substantial, not energy but formed of deep loves, and discretely related to the natural.
Many of us are dissatisfied with traditional religion. Swedenborg gives us the means to replace mystery and blind faith with (the possibility of) understanding and rational comprehension. He is particularly critical of Christian justification by faith, vicarious atonement, irrational trinities, and resurrection of physical bodies. He explains the general principles and detailed explanations of those religious ideas which should replace these errors. Some of us lean toward Eastern advaita philosophy, in which only the Divine is ultimately real and all else is eventually dissolved into illusion. Swedenborg explains, by contrast, how there is always something ‘fixed and permanent’ about natural actions which terminates and contains spiritual life. This explains how, after experiences of complete unity that appear to support advaita metaphysics, our individual life always returns. He provides a comprehensive framework of ‘discrete degrees and correspondences’ that always maintains dualist distinctions, while still explaining the details of the many interconnections that sustain the spiritual and natural worlds together.
Swedenborg writes of his experience of simulated dying, and these descriptions have been often taken up in comparisons of near-death experiences. Benz relates how he did not just see these introductory phases, but talked extensively to (and argued with!) all kinds of inhabitants in many parts of the spiritual world, both those recently arrived, and well-known and ordinary characters from the past. Swedenborg explains the reasons for the structure of what he sees, and how this follows from his previously presented general principles.
Science has on the whole ignored Swedenborg’s ideas, and in our new age he is sometimes criticised for writing ‘too much’ about heaven and hell (perhaps he thereby fails to allow readers to preserve their favourite prejudices?) Whether we regard his ideas as revelation from God, or as a source of interesting and possibly true ideas, we have still much to learn from this man and his writings if we have any interest in the nature of human spirit and body and their connection. This biography reminds us how Swedenborg provides a spirituality and religion for the scientifically prepared mind, in a way that does not destroy, demean or deny anything of spirit, divine or nature.