Swedenborg the Revelator
by Rev. Alfred Acton II
Swedenborg tells us that his being allowed to enter actively into the spiritual world was a miracle surpassing all miracles hitherto wrought by the Lord. We read, "The manifestation of the Lord, and intromission into the spiritual world, surpass all miracles" (Inv. 52) . But as we study the pages of this New Word we may well wonder why such spiritual sight is called a miracle at all. We read,
How can it be a miracle surpassing all miracles that Swedenborg did what God had created all men to do? Where is the miracle in fulfilling that which was of order from creation? Surely there was something different between what Swedenborg was doing as a revelator and that which was of Divine order from creation? This must especially be the case when we realize that the New Word attests that the order of creation was not destroyed with the fall of man and the beginning of evil. True, because people attended to what was natural, the way by which spirits talked with them was closed (AC 69) ; but although it was closed for the protection of man, it has in the past and is now from time to time opened. Men can speak with spirits. Other revelators were able to see things that actually took place in heaven, as for example John on the Isle of Patmos. Prophets were able to hear the voice of the Lord in heaven and recount His words. There must be more involved in Swedenborg's spiritual experience than in that of any others, if it truly constitutes a miracle surpassing all miracles. In fact there is, and as we come to understand what this is, we come to appreciate the power of our New Revelation more and more.
First note that the passage earlier cited, which seems to make Swedenborg's spiritual experiences one with those of others, is Number 722 of the Spiritual Diary, written on either February 10th or 11th in 1748; while the passage from the Invitation to the New Church, claiming his work as the greatest miracle of all, was penned after completion of The True Christian Religion in 1771 or thereabouts. By that time the full nature of the New Word was clear to Swedenborg. It was the advent of the Lord. He was not simply a reporter of spiritual events; he was a revelator, and the fact of his revelation was the most important miracle ever wrought by God. With the completion of Divine Revelation, the fact was clear; whereas at the outset of its writing, Swedenborg was still unsure. What was happening to him was wonderful, but still fit the mold of past experience.
What was the difference between Swedenborg's spiritual sight and that of all others? Why was Swedenborg a revelator rather than a reporter? How is it possible that Swedenborg can claim that he received nothing from any angel concerning the doctrines of the church, whereas the appearance is that he daily consulted with angels and received instruction from them? The New Churchman must find answers to these questions or be left with the thought that the New Word, like past revelation, contradicts itself in its letter. But to answer these questions we need to know much about the nature of communication between the two worlds and about the nature of revelation itself.
First, let me ask, was it necessary for Swedenborg to travel in heaven? Why couldn't the Lord have come down to earth rather than take a man up to Him? Why, in His Providence, did He prepare a scientist, a trained observer, to act as the medium of His New Word? What could be learned through this medium that could not otherwise be revealed?
Some simple answers present themselves. The doctrine of the Grand Man was given to Swedenborg solely because he was able to be in two worlds. Whenever spirits approached Swedenborg, they were seen by him in some fixed relationship to his body, whether in the head, or in front or behind and so forth. Moreover, they were able to excite pain or pleasure in some special part of his body, that part to which they were associated by correspondence. Through this medium of comparison between his physical body and the angels he was with, Swedenborg came to see that all angelic societies were organized as one man - a startling fact which once brought home makes it possible for us all to see how together we can respond to the Lord's love. God created a composite being in His own image which as one man can fulfill the purpose of creation - a return of Divine love. Without a revelator in both worlds at the same time, the beauty of this doctrine would have never found expression. Obviously, also; the reality of heaven and hell, as seen and heard by Swedenborg, could not have been openly presented to mankind unless the Lord had opened the way to spiritual sight. Also, the fact of marriage in heaven and its beauty needed firsthand testimony if men were to believe it. But, though these simple answers may satisfy some, still the question remains, why was this revelation a miracle surpassing all others?
That it was a miracle, attendant with much danger, is clear from revelation. Opening a way closed by natural men without complete Divine protection would have been most harmful, and perhaps even fatal. Spirits have the ability to do things to men who idly seek their presence, which should rightfully scare men from such attempts. Hear these words of revelation,
Many other passages, showing specific harm inflicted by spirits, could be added, but the danger seems already apparent - spirits can lead a person to suicide if he invites their presence.
Similar dangers faced Swedenborg. We know of one spirit who sought to have him stab himself with a knife, while another inspired him to throw himself under a carriage and may well have been able to inflict such harm had not the Lord given him special protection. Still other spirits inflicted other states of pain and disease upon him. As Swedenborg writes,
But when a lesson could be learned, the danger of pain was faced.
Because the danger attendant with spiritual travel was great, Swedenborg only gradually entered into it. In an early passage from the Arcana he notes that those whom he has seen in the world of spirits were seen in clear light, but those in the heaven of angelic spirits were seen more obscurely, and still more obscurely those in the heaven of angels, for as Swedenborg says, "the sight of my spirit has rarely been opened to me so far . . ." (AC 1972). Contrast this early passage with the sight of celestial angels from the innocent states of the Most Ancient Church recorded in Conjugial Love near the conclusion of Swedenborg's spiritual mission, and the point is clear. In like manner, the information which Swedenborg gathered about the new doctrines was also gradual. For example, he often says in the Diary, "I do not yet know" (SD 281, 1011, 2191, etc.). Also, in many instances he refers to something he has just learned from experience, for example, the state of the prophets (AC 6312). Yet despite this apparent instruction from angels, Swedenborg avers, as we noted, that nothing that pertained to the doctrines of the church comes from any angel, but from the Lord alone (TCR 779). Do we have here an unanswerable paradox? Of course not, but our answer can only come with thorough study.
What is a miracle? In what way did the act of opening Swedenborg's spiritual eyes constitute such a marvelous miracle? Why did this act surpass the plagues of Egypt, the healing powers of the Lord on earth, or, for that matter, His ability to rise from the dead? What did sight in heaven, experienced by Swedenborg, have that outshined such marvels?
I do not here have time to explain all previous miracles, nor am I necessarily prepared to do so. But in general we can say that most miracles involved either the use of spiritual sight, or a changed influx of the spiritual into the natural. For example, it is not surprising that men rise after death. All do. But that the Lord was seen by men after He rose was a miracle. Such sight was with the eyes of the spirit. We are taught clearly in the New Word that this was the fact, but it is also indicated from the New Testament itself. How else could the Lord have walked through a locked door than by entering with His spirit and then making that spirit visible? Miracles of healing, on the other hand, involve influx. The spiritual causes the natural to exist as it is. A change in the spiritual cause will necessarily change the natural effect. The Lord changed spiritual causes by ordering the hells, and so healed many natural ills. All other miracles performed by the Lord can be accounted for from these two causes. The miracles of the Old Testament have similar causes. The plagues in Egypt probably occurred by opening the eyes of many to the same spiritual phenomena; all saw the water turn to blood, but they saw with their spiritual eyes. So the devastation was not complete on earth. Note, however, that in all these miracles the sight remained fixed by natural light. Men saw as though they were on earth. Things of nature were the backdrop against which the events of spiritual reality were acted out.
Even in the days of the Most Ancient Church, men saw in this manner. Angels appeared to men in the home area of men. Men saw in natural light, the light of nature, rather than in spiritual light, the light of heaven. Remember how three angels came to Abraham to tell of Isaac's birth. Abraham didn't even know they were angels. They were able to eat the food Abraham brought out to them. Only when they announced who they were did Abraham realize they were angels. Angels can't eat natural food. Abraham had to have had the things of spirit so imposed upon the things of nature that he saw no difference in the food he offered the angels and the food he ate himself. He could not distinguish between things of spirit and things of nature, because he saw these things in natural light. Such is the nature of normal spiritual sight. Such sight and such media made possible the wonders recorded in revelation.
Swedenborg, at the beginning of his spiritual awareness, experienced a similar sight. While writing the draft of his work on the Five Senses, Swedenborg interrupts his train of thought to jot down these surprising words, "I saw a fly. It went away. I drew back." He then added, "It returned, I being unwilling, and I scarcely bore it" (492, 493). Apparently the sight of a fly strangely affected Swedenborg. Why? Apparently because the fly shouldn't have acted as it did. It shouldn't have appeared as it did. Apparently Swedenborg had seen the fly not with his natural eyes, but with his spiritual eyes. It was an actual representation of the learned discourse which he was at that time writing. The spiritual had imposed itself upon the natural page in such a way that the two could not be distinguished. The fly was real. It was seen in natural light, as a fly, but it wasn't natural. It was a spiritual thing seen in natural light. Such was the sight all men had hitherto experienced when contemplating the phenomena of the spiritual world. But with Swedenborg, a miracle of miracles was to follow. A new type of spiritual sight was to be his - a kind of sight which would knowledgeably distinguish things seen in spiritual light from things seen in natural light. He alone of all men was able to be with men and angels consciously at the same time and to know which was which. He alone was to be able to travel in the spiritual world using his spiritual eyes to see the things of that world in their own light. He alone was to become a mortal teacher of the immortal. Because he was the servant of God, he alone could become a revelator to angels. Angels didn't teach Swedenborg. He taught them - a thing which never before had happened in all creation. Indeed, the reversing of the process whereby all previous spiritual sight took place was a miracle surpassing all other miracles. The revelation of Divine truth by the medium of a man actually aware of spiritual light as such is worthy of our sincere admiration.
But let us examine the uniqueness of this fact as explained by Swedenborg himself. In associating with spirits, Swedenborg had both an interior and an exterior type of thought which made his work possible. The exterior thought was that which was active with the spirits, but the interior thought enabled him to. reflect upon the sources of his ideas and loves at that time, showing him that they were not his own. For this reason, he could be on a par with and even above the angels. He could teach as well as learn. He writes,
In addition to this double thought, Swedenborg also enjoyed two states while serving as revelator. He was with spirits as a spirit, and he was with them in his body so that they could see things of earth. By this means a comparison between the two worlds was possible - a comparison never before allowed. But whichever of these states prevailed, Swedenborg was not a revelator of visions. Whichever way he was with spirits, he was always in a state of wakefulness. Unlike all other revelators, he could understand that which he wrote as to its spirit, although, of course, his understanding of his Writings was limited in the same way any mortal's would be. The Word of the Second Advent is not limited to the understanding of its Revelator, although it is limited by that understanding.
In the state of the spirit, Swedenborg's material body was not seen by spirits. He writes,
Still, at times Swedenborg was recognized by spirits as being in a unique state.
We might wonder whether others in this world could recognize when Swedenborg was in conversation with spirits. We note in this respect that when he was much concerned with worldly things, spirits could not speak with him. From this it follows that in company with others he usually had no reflection upon spirits, and that so his intercourse with spirits was not ordinarily observable by others in this world. One example of this fact is given in the Arcana Coelestia, where Swedenborg speaks of playing a game of dice with friends here on earth, and also of being with spirits at that time who could tell him by the brightness of his appearance whether he would win or lose on any specific roll. Apparently no one around was aware of the spirits' presence (cf. AC 6494).
Knowing the unique nature of the revelation given through Swedenborg, and how his ability to converse with and teach angels affected this revelation, we might wonder when such revelation began. Swedenborg was introduced into heaven gradually. Does that mean that revelation was gradual? Is there an intermediate period in his spiritual experience which reflects this gradual introduction? When was the introduction complete? It seems safe to say that with the first published book of the New Word, that is, with the publication of the Arcana Coelestia, we have a beginning of open revelation. With this book, Swedenborg becomes a revelator. He is not still preparing for the use. But before this work was published, Swedenborg had already written of many spiritual experiences in both the Word Explained and the Spiritual Diary. Are these works part of the New Word? What was Swedenborg's state at their writing? Hear what Swedenborg says in the Word Explained,
This state is not the state which Swedenborg later enjoyed. His mind was still governed by spirits. So it seems fair to say that the writings of this period are not revelation. Nevertheless, they can be of much use as a source of spiritual facts.
As regards the general character of the Spiritual Diary, note Swedenborg's own opinion of his journal,
By this testimony we see that the state in which Swedenborg was above angels did not exist while he was writing the Diary. The work, then, becomes valuable to New Churchmen as a source of spiritual experiences and conversations with angels and is not quite the same as the published theological works. Nevertheless, because all travel in the spiritual world is via thought and since thought is an influx from the Lord - whether mediated by angels or not - it seems fair to note that although the leading was mediated by angels it still was unique. For this reason, Swedenborg's spiritual experiences in his journal can be said to be from the Lord for the unique purpose of later revelation. They enhance and illustrate that revelation. The Diary, then, becomes a source for information from which doctrine can be confirmed and established, not the sole source of doctrine itself.
It was only when Swedenborg had been fully introduced into the spiritual world, so that he could teach angels the Lord's Word, that his revelation began in fullness; only then was the miracle of miracles complete, and only then could the truth of that miracle proceed in fullness to men. That New Word is now with us, and as we begin to ponder on the infinite scope of its pages - the infinite truth therein - the real miracle of this revelation becomes clear. The awe of hearing God's voice openly declaring His truth is in fact a wonder of wonders for which men in all ages shall be truly thankful.
-The New Philosophy 1979; 82: 323-331