Swedenborg Study.com

Online works based on the Writings of Emanuel Swedenborg


Angelic Methods of Instruction:
A Survey of Memorabilia

by Rev. Daniel Goodenough

… As ideas about education ferment among us, the question arises, how do angels teach?

We are familiar with some methods open to them which are unavailable to us. Their use of representations in teaching both children and adults,[1] the spotting of maidens' clothes to signify spiritual blemishes,[2] and many other educational techniques in the other world give the angels some real advantages over [us]… on earth! Perhaps we may learn from such representatives…. Christmas Tableaux have seemed to be a highly effective way of teaching, and some would cite pageants and other dramatizations of religious subjects. Use of visual ultimates would seem to rest not only upon angelic example, but also upon a very solid doctrinal basis - the extensive teachings about natural, even sensual ideas as a necessary foundation for spiritual ideas.[3]

The purpose of this study, however, is to examine particularly those methods of instruction used in the other world which may shed light upon our own instructional efforts. While there is preaching in all the heavens, surprisingly few examples are given in the Writings of preaching during worship. Our focus will rather be on instruction outside of worship.

I claim no great expertise in the memorabilia, many volumes of which I simply did not have time to study. I surveyed the teaching methods rather in all the memorabilia in the True Christian Religion, Conjugial Love, Apocalypse Revealed, Brief Exposition, and the two volumes of Posthumous Theological Works. While there were many duplicates, I found over 130 different memorabilia. (More than one third of the True Christian Religion consists of memorabilia.) I am indebted also to a collection of passages on education circulated in the Academy Religion Department by the Rev. Mark Carlson.…

Methods of instruction may seen a rather mundane and external subject, and relatively unimportant to our essential uses…. Some may question the use of the memorabilia in developing principles about teaching. [However, t]he sheer bulk in pages of descriptions of Swedenborg's spiritual experiences suggests that this material is meant to be used.... The Writings themselves give considerable emphasis to the memorabilia.

"The fact that I converse in the spiritual world with angels and spirits, and that I have described the states of heaven and hell, and the life after death; and further, the fact that there has been disclosed to me the spiritual sense of the Word; besides many other things - is worth more than all these miracles... These are evidences that this has been granted for the sake of the New Church, which is the crown of all the churches, and which will endure forever. Being in the spiritual world, seeing the wonderful things of heaven, and the miserable things of hell; and being there in the very light of the Lord in which are the angels, surpasses all miracles." [4]

Elsewhere Swedenborg wrote that the memorabilia "were in the place of miracles; and ... without them men would not know the quality of the book..." [5] Moreover, the fact is that the angels are excellent teachers, and not only their ideas but their methods as well seem to put into practice the doctrines given in the Writings.

An Intellectual Experience

Perhaps the most striking feature of learning in the other world is that it is an intense intellectual experience. With rare exceptions angels and good and evil spirits care deeply about the ideas they face. Good and evil alike are eager to learn new ideas, even disagreeable new ideas, they are eager to discuss and debate them, they are eager to explain at length why an idea they do not like is wrong. They spend very little time beating around the bush, but like to get straight to the intellectual point. They pay little attention to the person of the speaker, but care enormously about whether his ideas are of value or not.

Moreover, when they speak, they usually present very thoughtful and involved ideas. Even in heated debate there is little speaking off the top of the head, but expression of deep and well considered ideas. Sometimes the angels explain a point briefly, sometimes they hold forth at considerable length to elucidate a difficult idea, but always the thrust is to make manifest the true ideas relevant to the subject. (I assume that when an angelic speech is translated into many words in the Writings, this reflects a complicated spiritual idea presented by the angel; when an angelic speech is translated into few words in the Writings, this usually seems to mean a relatively simple, uninvolved idea presented by the angel. Thus there would seem to be sort of a rough correspondence between length on paper of an idea, and its spiritual complexity; something of the same is true of our writing and thinking in this world.) The sheer volume and fullness of angelic instruction in ideas is memorable.

Of course spirits' remarkable facility with ideas stems largely from the loss of the natural body and the great increase of the perceptive powers enjoyed after death. Even so, their preoccupation with ideas is remarkable. Both good and evil seem to care more about what ideas are true, about what ideas are false, and about understanding ideas, than about nearly anything else. Their ideas are their life and they struggle for the right ideas precisely because they understand that ideas have consequences and meaning in life. Even deeply abstract ideas matter to them, although on the whole somewhat less to the evil than to the good. Of course the evil reject true ideas and spew forth falsities which they call truths; but with few exceptions they care as much as the good about having ideas which to them are true. Spirits' awareness that all ideas have practical consequences probably explains why they are so ready to discuss and debate. Most spirits seem readier to object and argue about ideas than we on earth. Those on earth who believe ideas are irrelevant would seem to be in for a rude awakening in the other world. It will be a strong intellectual experience.

The methods of instruction used are of great diversity, as we shall see. Lengthy speeches, short speeches, discussions, questions and answers, debates, contests and other techniques are used, but always the focus is on learning and seeing true ideas. Generals are taught first, then particulars.[6] Sometimes rewards are given out for wisdom, yet these do not seem to matter a great deal to spirits; spirits seem to care a great deal more about reaching a satisfactory intellectual conclusion than about getting rewards.

While spirits and angels usually argue forcefully against ideas they disagree with, angels do not force anyone's opinion and allow falsities to judge themselves. They do not punish evil-sayers, although frequently from their truths the evil judge themselves. Good spirits sooner or later see the truth of the angels' ideas, and evil spirits sooner or later separate themselves from the truth. One spiritual angel disarmingly admitted to Swedenborg that his wisdom seemed arcane and mystical to some, but not "to us."[7] The truth, he implied, speaks for itself.

Angels also respect the freedom of their listeners. Rather than throwing out their opponents, they patiently listen to them and then carefully and fully explain what the truth is. Evil spirits, in contrast, cannot tolerate dissent and they frequently rage against and throw out their intellectual opponents. Evil spirits are very careful about whom they let into their assemblies, and often restrict the free speech of those who disagree. Guards frequently bar the gates of the assemblies of the evil, and even sitting in such a gathering must be a scary experience. The evil seem more willing to listen to others, however, when they are not all collected together.

Angels, however, seldom keep out anyone from assemblies of listeners in the world of spirits. Heaven is restricted, but not gatherings below heaven. One possible exception seems to be that where the sphere of conjugial love is active, unchaste spirits are refused admittance. This is apparently because all spirits are so readily attracted when the subject of discussion is conjugial love, and provision needs to be made to protect chaste spirits and the overall sphere.[8] Swedenborg himself once had to undergo searching scrutiny before being admitted to congratulate a new bride and groom.[9]

In other cases, however, the angels seem almost shockingly permissive. One foul-mouthed spirit blasphemed marriage and bragged about his adulteries till other spirits rebuked him. But an angel used a novel method of silencing him - he invited him to come and see heaven for himself: "I will show you in a living way what heaven is, and what hell (is).…"[10]  Profane falsity answered disarmingly, even gently, by an invitation to explore the truth for oneself. The blasphemer had only shouted the louder when rebuked by the bystanders, but from patient instruction his eyes were opened. Many other instances occur where angels tolerate negative ideas, but argue patiently, firmly against them, always respecting their adversary's freedom and inviting him to explore the truth for himself.[11]  This serves not only for instruction but also for judgment of the evil. That evil and falsity judge themselves when exposed to the truth, seems to be a principle universally applied.

The angels' willingness to allow falsity to be expressed verbally is especially remarkable in view of the great prevalence of numerous bystanders who listen intently to the various debates that go on. Bystanders are very often present, but they seem not to be harmed by false ideas, provided they also hear the truth. Bystanders say little themselves, but they listen well and learn a great deal. How many people are bystanders is seldom clear, but the general impression is of quite large numbers. Perhaps this suggests that in many human discussions, the majority are satisfied to listen and learn in silence. Certainly many spirits seem to be able to learn without themselves being involved in discussion. Or often bystanders will say nothing for a long time, and then in chorus they affirm some truth which they have come to see during a long discussion. Swedenborg himself learned an enormous amount as a silent bystander. Once he prayed to the Lord to talk with certain spirits, and then when they appeared he was entirely silent as the spirits talked among themselves.[12]  Bystanders are anything but indifferent; they are thinking rather than speaking, and when they do occasionally speak it is clear they have been intent on the subject from the beginning; they sometimes understand the truth more clearly than the speakers. In general they each understand the subject according to their own loves.[13]  The applications to teaching on earth would seem obvious.[14]

Angels, then, do not try to force learning on anyone. They present the truth and allow everyone to see or reject it at his own pace, from his own love. It is probably the same principle of the freedom of the learner that lies behind another very common tool of instruction - learning from experience. Spirits, like Swedenborg, and like people on earth, learn an enormous amount from experience. But it is significant that in the memorabilia, when experience results in learning, it is nearly always accompanied by instruction from angels. As a matter of fact, experience seems to be instructive primarily with good spirits. The evil seem to learn little from experience, primarily because they do not heed the instruction that accompanies it. Some spirits can not even learn from experience that they have died!

Experiences, then, are of enormous value in instruction, but not by themselves. A great many pages are devoted to the spiritual experiences that Swedenborg and others witnessed, precisely because of this learning value. Very often an experience precedes direct instruction, and then angels explain what the experience really was about to spirits whose interests have been perked. At least as frequent is instruction followed by experiences, which then confirm and illustrate the lessons of instruction. Thus experiences serve to arouse interest, to confirm teachings, and to illustrate them by living examples. In the memorabilia they seem to be not a mere adjunct of learning, but an essential element. Experiences enable spirits to see the truth for themselves - yet not apart from the accompanying careful direct instruction.

Some spiritual experiences seem to be dangerous, and there seems to be little the angels can do to protect the evil from these dangers.[15] The good often seem to be protected by good from within, when they witness dangerous happenings, but this is not always so. Angels are usually close to the good, and this helps to protect them and to enlighten them in the meaning of the experience. The enlightenment of truth seems to be the principle means of protection during negative experiences. Protection of the good involves not an overt external defense, but the very real power of the light of truth.

This light of truth is apparently what continually protects Swedenborg himself, although sometimes he must also be accompanied by angels for his protection. Warnings are sometimes given Swedenborg about experiences. Once he and two angels were warned to approach some evil spirits "from the east, lest we should enter the mist of their delusion, and have our understanding and at the same time our sight beclouded."[16] Once he is told to wait for angels to accompany and enlighten him before visiting the "0 how learned" crowd.[17] An angel prepares him with instruction before he is allowed to visit conjugial partners of the Golden Age, and in lesser degrees before he visits the good Silver, Copper and Iron Ages. When, however, he visits the evil age of iron mixed with miry clay, the accompanying angel offers considerably more instruction and explanation than previously.[18] Good by itself, then, seems not to protect, but good accompanied by truth. Swedenborg's own care about protection should show us that negative experiences can be dangerous, but if the light of truth is conjoined in man with a love of good, they need not be feared and are in fact instructive. (This of course does not apply to any evil experience.)

The reason for this usefulness seems to lie in the value of seeing contrasts. The showing of contrasts is so common in angelic instruction that any number of memorabilia could illustrate it. Probably the best known example is the visit to the imaginary heavens, at the beginning of Conjugial Love. The contrast to good is usually presented not by the angels directly, but by the learner himself witnessing some evil. Similarly our own presentations about actual evil that contrasts with good seem to be much less convincing to our listeners than their own witnessing of evil - provided their experience is accompanied by instruction in the truth. One reason for contrasts is so that the truth may stand out more clearly from its opposite. Moreover, contrasts encourage people to think more rationally and deeply, so that while they are working out their doubts, the truth extends itself to other ideas and becomes pliant to good. "Hence it is that as soon as in the other life any truth is presented before good spirits by a manifest experience, there is soon afterward presented something opposite which causes doubt."[19] Without sight of contrasts, truth tends to become hard, cold, persuasive, and devoid of relation to other truths. "All perception of a thing is according to reflection bearing on the distinctions that come from contrasts...."[20]

The angels constantly use contrasts by utilizing their learners' own experiences with evil. Our learners here on earth hardly seem devoid of experience with evil, and I wonder if we might not make more use of them, for contrasts, than we do. So common is this method that it may be said that the angels just do not teach without it. Even those who die as infants are educated by means of contrasts.[21]

Equally common, of course, is the use of the Word - not as a method, but as source of light, as authority, and as fountain of truths. The angels continually cite Scripture - which seems to be written on their memories much more permanently than upon ours. The evil pay little heed to the Word, and the angels use it much more frequently with the well-disposed than with the negative. Thus the angels do not use the Word so much to prove points (although this is sometimes done) as to show the truth. In one particularly interesting example, with apparently well-disposed spirits who disbelieved the Word has a spiritual sense, the angels brought forward an enormous number of passages from the, natural sense that simply were incomprehensible without the spiritual sense. After facing these passages, the spirits were convinced. Then the angels taught them how to learn from the Word.[22] Similarly, a major theme running throughout angelic instruction is that people should go to the Word to receive eternal life - that is, the angels do not merely use the Word themselves; they encourage everyone to do so and they teach how.

The frequent use of the Word ultimates the law of Divine Providence that people should be led and taught by the Lord from heaven by means of the Word, and from doctrine and preaching from the Word, and this to all appearances as of himself.[23] To be taught from the Word is to be taught by the Lord Himself. People are "taught immediately from Him when this is done from the Word. This is the arcanum of arcana of angelic wisdom."[24] Such a central truth is not neglected by the angels and must not be on earth. Like the angels, we may serve as means, but all true teaching is done by the Lord - provided that His Word is used. The angels know that unless they teach from the Word, the Lord will not teach their learners.

The explanation of this law of Providence shows the important role played by man's own reflection. And so we find it in the other world. Sometimes conversation or instruction simply ceases for reflection. (How useful this could be on earth!) During one heated debate, an angelic spirit simply stopped talking, looked around, saw his listeners' hesitation, and then continued on at length.[25] In an assembly of solefidians Swedenborg once suddenly interrupted proceedings and in a loud voice asked two questions and waited. After a short silence they rejected his thinking, and he then replied at length.[26] Another time he asked some solefidian preachers whether they wished to bring on themselves the curse of Judas. They apparently could say nothing and left to think and discuss by themselves[27] (another effective example is given in CL 355, 356). The most striking instance of the importance of reflection is the case of the English writer whom the angels challenged on faith alone. They told him to inquire and see if faith could ever produce charity. The writer meditated along these lines every day for a year, seeking always to reason charity as a product of faith, and in the end he was convinced that this could not be done.[28] His real learning came from reflection, though this was preceded by instruction.

Reflection is usually unseen by others, but it plays an enormous part in human instruction in both worlds. There is abundant doctrine why this is so, and many pages would be needed to do this subject justice. One general reason for the importance of reflection is that knowledge of a truth is not an understanding of it. Once Swedenborg wondered why almost no Christians understood a certain essential truth, although they very well knew and verbally acknowledged it. Yet "They have never understood it. The reason is that they have not given it any thought…."[29] Accordingly people are urged to form "for themselves" ideas concerning the things they learn; "for without an idea, nothing remains in the memory otherwise than as an empty thing. Consequently things are added thereto, and fill up the idea of the thing, from other knowledges.... The confirmation of the idea itself by many things causes not only that it sticks in the memory, so that it can be called forth into the thought, but also that faith can be insinuated into it."[30] In other words, people cannot just learn; they must think about what they know or, the Writings make abundantly plain, they retain nothing. "By ‘learning' is signified to perceive interiorly in oneself that it is so, which is to understand, and so to receive and acknowledge; he who learns otherwise learns and does not learn, because he does not retain."[31] Therefore a person is told they must "ponder over" the truths they learn from the Word, or else they are not part of them.[32]…. The angels frequently seem aware that their instruction is only the beginning of real learning, and that their hearers must do a lot of thinking before they understand.

There is an important reason why this is so, and again we have time only to summarize the most essential teachings. The understanding teaches the will, but the will leads the understanding.[33] When, according to the law of Divine Providence, the Lord teaches people by means of the Word, the as-of-self element is present through a person’s own reflection; for in reflection good in people leads the understanding to see truths.[34] "For the Lord does not openly teach anyone truths, but through good leads to the thinking of what is true, and unknown to the man He also inspires the perception and consequent choice that such a thing is true because the Word so declares... Thus the Lord adapts truths according to the reception of good by each person..."[35]

Good is the only ground in which the seed of truth will grow, and it grows as a person thinks. Without good, a person is simply unteachable, because however much they learn, they will not, from their own thinking, be led to understand the truth. "The person who is acquainted with all the goods and truths that can possibly be known, and does not shun evils, knows nothing; for their evils absorb the goods and truths and cast them out...."[36] A person in evil simply cannot know anything true because of their inability to be led to enlightenment during reflection. It is a hard but necessary saying, growing out of the fact that a person is their love. But "when a person shuns evils as sins they daily learn what a good work is... . Cease, therefore, from asking in thyself, ‘What are the good works that I must do, or what good must I do to receive eternal life?' Only cease from evils as sins and look to the Lord and the Lord will teach and lead you."[37] No instruction can succeed unless it relies upon the Lord's leading from good to truth in reflection. "No one is ever instructed by means of truths but by means of the affections of truth; for truths apart from affection do indeed come to the ear as sound, but do not enter into the memory; that which causes them to enter into the memory and to abide with it, is affection."[38]

Masters of Accommodation

Angelic instruction, then, while an intensely intellectual experience, by no means ignores the affectional side of a person. Accommodation to individuals' states does not mean, for the angels, an appeal to the affections apart from the understanding. The truth is not watered down, and the angels are unafraid to teach truths which they know will seem incredible or perhaps very cruel at first hearing. Thus their appeal to their hearers' affections is usually not obvious, but it is not the less real for being subtle. Their accommodation seems principally to consist of presenting the particular truth which relates to the hearer's state, and in such a way that the hearer can understand it. They are willing to accept their hearers' diverse states, including evil states, as a beginning, but then they seek to instill understandable truth which can improve those states. They are, of course, in clear perception of the states of spirits, and their awareness of the states they face seems to determine how they go about presenting truth. Thus the angels do continually appeal to affections, and most exquisitely so, but always leading by truths to truths. We, of course, cannot perceive our hearers' states with anything like the angels' exquisite sense, but the principle of awareness of a hearer's state seems so essential to angelic instruction that it would seem to be a pre-requisite for any successful teaching.

The doctrine of accommodation is extensive:

"Although the doctrine of faith is in itself ... above all human and even angelic comprehension, it has nevertheless been dictated in the Word according to a person’s comprehension, in a rational manner. The case herein is the same as it is with a parent who is teaching their little boys and girls: when they are teaching, they set forth everything in accordance with their genius, although they themselves thinks from what is more interior or higher; otherwise it would be teaching without their learning, or like casting seed upon a rock. The case is also the same with the angels who in the other life instruct the simple in heart: although these angels are in celestial and spiritual wisdom, yet they do not hold themselves above the comprehension of those whom they teach, but speak in simplicity with them, yet rising by degrees as these are instructed, for if they were to speak from angelic wisdom, the simple would comprehend nothing at all, and thus would not be led to the truths and goods of faith."[39]

"Everyone is taught according to the understanding appropriate to their own love; what is taught beyond this does not remain." [40] "The person who by investigations has not acquired for themselves some idea concerning these things, receives but a faint idea, if any, from description; for a person receives only so much from others as they either have of their own, or acquires for themselves by looking into the matter in themselves; all the rest passes away."[41] "Without an idea from what they know and feel in themselves, a person cannot think...."[42] "A religion that is not accommodated is not received."[43]

The angels' awareness of their hearers' states is reflected beautifully in their application of the principle just quoted from AC 2533 - they frequently begin with easy doses of doctrine, allow it to be absorbed, and then by degrees present more and deeper material, as the listener's understanding is enlightened and their interest activated. (TCR 623 is an excellent example.) It is interesting how often instruction begins with short speeches interspersed with discussion, and then develops into longer and involved speeches by the angels. Swedenborg often instructs spirits in this way. (TCR 280, for example.) Long conclusions are as common as short, cautious, gentle introductions. When a hard saying is presented, it is usually (not always) preceded by discussions, various experiences, and other preparatory instruction. Free response is always allowed and very often encouraged, but seldom demanded.

In contrast Martin Luther demonstrates how not to teach. In the other world he was given a house in the central hall of which

he set up a kind of throne, somewhat elevated, where he took his seat. Those who came to listen to him, ...he arranged in groups. He assigned to places nearest himself those who were most favorable to his opinions, and to places behind them those who were less favorable. He then spoke continuously, but occasionally allowed questions, for the purpose of resuming the thread of his discourse from some new point.[44]

Sounds rather boring, and instruction usually is boring if the teacher is more interested in their own ideas than in the response they are evoking. The angels are intensely interested in true ideas, but they seem to be not less interested in their learners' responses. (TCR 623 again illustrates this well.) Accommodation is, after all, the outgrowth of love, and from their love angels cannot but do everything possible that their learners may receive truths with affection.

Some, however, apparently have little interest in ideas. TCR 185 describes Swedenborg's visit to a snowy region where a preacher praised the beauties of solefidian mysteries. No one understood anything but they all thought the sermon excellent. When Swedenborg sought to carry on an argument with the priest, he was not even answered, and everyone went home intoxicated with paradoxical mysteries. Similarly he could not really discuss ideas with the Quakers, who believed the Holy Spirit taught them directly." From the memorabilia it would appear that indifference to doctrinal ideas is fairly rare, as most spirits are affirmative or negative to specific ideas, but not indifferent. But where indifference to ideas reigns, there seems to be little that anyone can do even to spark an argument. The causes of indifference seem to be evils of life, the belief that faith cannot be understood, and the belief that truth flows in from within apart from knowledges learned from without.[46] Of course, it is possible that there are vastly more indifferent spirits than appear in the memorabilia. Societies of exterior friendship are said to be very numerous and their members also seem to be bored with any significant ideas.[47]

More common than indifference is the negative attitude. Here the angels show their charity above all by compelling no one, but respecting everyone's freedom of thought. "Compulsion does not reform, because it inroots nothing...."[48] "What is received in a state of compulsion does not remain but is dissipated."[49] "Compulsion in things of a holy nature is dangerous...."[50] The angels meet negative attitudes rather by calm, patient instruction in the truth. Often they instruct at considerable length when it is perfectly obvious their adversaries will reject the truth. It sounds like non-accommodation, but in fact their instruction gives evil spirits a chance to judge themselves, and it also serves to enlighten interested bystanders who might otherwise remain confused.

Sometimes negative attitudes need more than plain instruction. It is common for angels first to lead spirits out of disorder, then to instruct them in the truth.[51] An angry, self-assured group of clergymen were told by Swedenborg to learn the laws of Divine order and they would see their faith was a Gordian knot in a desert. This added fuel to the flames, till a voice from heaven simply told them to restrain themselves and first hear what order is. They then settled down and were instructed.[52] Another time an angel told some spirits, in the course of lengthy instruction, that they would not be able to understand unless they reversed their state. Then he concluded by listing briefly all the beautiful things he was not going to tell them, presumably till their attitude improved. This resulted in at least a temporary reversal of state.[53] After patiently hearing a torrent of falsities, the angels told some evil spirits that they were sensual because they were evil. "We therefore excuse you." But the angels also made plain to them that they must be removed from evil or they could not see the truth. This temporarily occurred and conversation proceeded.[54] Some Moslems, negative to Christianity because of false Christian dogmas, first were shown the falsity of those dogmas, then they became receptive and were taught.[55] Accommodation then is not a watering down of the truth,[56] but a careful, sensitive selection of the particular truths that meet the potential learners' problems and doubts. While evil and falsity stand in the way, they are met by truths, wisely chosen from awareness of human states.

The angels' concern for their learners' affections is perhaps best illustrated by the very frequent use of questions. Sometimes the angels question, sometimes the learners question, but one purpose always seems to be to arouse and maintain interest. One period of instruction was introduced by some angels inviting, "Let us have an exchange of speech by questions and answers; for where a subject is taken in solely from hearing, the perception of that subject does indeed flow in, but unless the hearer think of it from himself and ask questions, it does not remain."[57] The principle here seems to be that in all Divine worship "people should first will, desire and pray, and the Lord then answer, inform and do; otherwise people do not receive anything Divine... . The Lord gives them to ask, and what to ask; therefore the Lord knows it beforehand; but still the Lord wills that people should ask first, to the end that they may do it as from themselves, and thus that it should be appropriated to them...."[58] Similarly, when it is desired to strengthen someone's affection, it is customary to refuse him at first in order that he may urge again, from deeper affection.[59] So do teachers in both worlds, by questions, pauses and occasional demurrals, encourage learners' affections to be stimulated.

The use of questions by the angels is extremely common. Discussion often results, which is instructive for the good and generally useless for the evil. (The evil never really learn anything.) The good learn a lot from discussion, but the discussion is usually guided by angels and accompanied by or mixed in with instruction. Discussion is sometimes almost conversational; sometimes it involves long speeches and formal replies. For example, after the angels said, "Let us have an exchange of speech by questions and answers," there resulted lengthy and deep questions followed by lengthy and involved replies by the angels, with very little real discussion. Questions and discussions are used in a great variety of ways, the constant apparently being the desire to develop interest and response. With the good, discussion is nearly always informative and successful. With the evil, it seems to serve little use but judgment.

Questions are especially important at the beginning of instruction. A great many times Swedenborg was taught after first having a question. The angels seem to be particularly sensitive to states at the beginning of their meetings with potential learners, and they are extremely careful in how they accommodate in introducing new ideas. (Two good examples are in TCR 385, 748) When he once received an unusual reaction to his thinking from two angels, Swedenborg paused to ask them where they were from. After they briefly explained their personal background, he was able to accommodate the truth to them more sensitively.[60] A great many examples could be adduced to illustrate the value of questions and answers in accommodation, especially at the outset of instruction.

One common use of questions is to ask spirits for their ideas on a subject before instructing them. When some celebrated philosophers asked Swedenborg his views on creation he replied, "Do you first tell me what you think." After making considerable foolish response, the learned were eventually open to hearing the truth, at least temporarily.[61] Some angels visiting a school first questioned the students and then instructed them in the meaning of their replies.[62] When Swedenborg saw a representation, an angel first asked if he knew what it meant; Swedenborg replied, "Partly," and the angel then taught him at length.[63] Newcomers to the spiritual world are often asked "what they think of the life after death." The angels hear out their silly replies before saying, "Welcome, we will show you something new, that you have not known...." Then they teach them.[64] And angels will listen, with smiling countenance, to ridiculous replies about some subjects two or three times before asking spirits if they believe those things from faith of heart, from historical faith of tradition, or from indulgence of the imagination. When the expected outrage ensues, the angels courteously answer, "It does no harm for you to believe thus, but that it is not so, you shall hereafter be instructed." Interest, instruction, conversation and learning result.[65]

It may seem insensitive, but in fact such an approach gives learners to feel their beliefs are not being ignored; then their self-confidence is abruptly shaken and their interest is peaked. The success of this method must be as much from its unexpectedness as from its argument. Surprises are rather common when angels approach spirits in falsity. Surprise itself does not teach, but it arouses interest; it is hard to be bored when you are surprised.

Occasionally the questions and replies preceding instruction involve elaborate assemblies, division into separate groups, serious meditation and discussion on a difficult subject, and carefully developed answers. These answers are likely to be all wrong. Very clearly the angels' purpose in posing questions in this way is to have the learners themselves face the complexity of the problem at hand and realize they need to be instructed. When instruction follows, it is well received by the good; the evil may separate themselves.[66] In other words, the questions and discussion often are used not so much to get right answers, but to arouse a desire for the truth. At other times an angel may pose a question and then answer it themselves.[67] (For other examples of angels asking for their hearers' ideas before they instruct, see TCR 16, 160, 731 ff.; CL 55, 294; AR 716.) As with other forms of question and discussion, this method works well with the good because they want to learn.

Affirmative spirits are frequently told to discuss subjects in groups and then to produce a conclusion. Sometimes an angel directs them by reading the Word and starting their thought in the right direction, sometimes the angels leave the groups to themselves, although instruction in the truth nearly always comes eventually. When stupid answers are given, the groups themselves may reject them.[68] The less wise usually defer to the more wise in such cases, and again affection of learning and openness to the truth are stimulated by discussion. (For interesting examples, see TCR 48, 661, 188 CL 103-114, 330, 331.)

A variation of this method involves affirmative individuals being told to present the truth on their own.[69] Once after an experience with some conceited intellectuals, accompanied by angelic instruction, Swedenborg was told to form a conclusion, which he did. An angel then taught him further.[70] And on one occasion Swedenborg taught some boys who were then able to try out their new learning on their usual teacher.[71] The angels seem to be acutely aware of the importance of individual affections and of reflection as of oneself in learning. Response is seldom mandatory, but is continually encouraged and asked for.

In one memorabilium, response in fact becomes mandatory.[72] A highly elaborate assembly is set up - a gymnasium "where youths are initiated into various matters" of wisdom. Clergy, judges, wise young men, and an audience of listeners are all present. To the dismay of the students the head teacher asks a very difficult question, and though the youths protest that this question is beyond anyone to fathom, the judges insist it be answered. Five young men give five very cautious answers and plead that they really do not know the solution. They speak humbly and well, but are all incorrect, three of them devastatingly so. The last speaker (who is closest to the truth) concludes by appealing to the wise to open up this eternal mystery.

The head teacher then gives a lengthy answer which fully settles the question. He makes no reference to the five wrong answers; presumably they need no specific correction because the speakers clearly want to see the truth. He does not even correct the clergy who applauded one of the worst answers. He argues against no one, he simply presents the truth in all its fullness and complexity.[73] The entire episode is a magnificent learning experience, like any good examination. Especially interesting is the use of an impossibly difficult question, and insisting that the hopeless learners try to answer it. Their efforts are not entirely futile as they seem to learn from their attempts, but how ready they become to hear the truth! Could there be a more effective method of teaching the affection of humility?

Affection of the truth does not mean just getting excited about it, and the angels encourage learners to be patient and take their time in learning. "Think about what we have said," they say.[74] "Wait until later to learn about some things."[75] Sometimes information is withheld, although the angels would like to tell more.[76] Full instruction is sometimes delayed till an experience enables it to be understood.[77] One novitiate was refused a direct answer to his question and instead was told to go and inquire what delight is.[78] As one angel, eager to teach more, said to Swedenborg, "Enough for the present. Inquire first whether these things are above the common understanding. If they are, why more? but if not, more will be disclosed."[79] Patience is central to accommodation.

Occasionally the angels face spirits who have special personal difficulties in seeing the truth. For example, a company of spirits pray on their knees, that they may speak face to face with angels and disclose the thoughts of their hearts. At once three angels appear and invite them to tell the thoughts of their hearts. The spirits lament that they just do not know whom to believe, since all the different sects claim sole truth. They sincerely express their anxiety. But what do the angels reply?

"Read the Word and believe on the Lord, and you will see the truths that will enter into your faith and life. All in the Christian world derive their doctrine from the Word as the one and only source." Two spirits object they have read the Word but do not understand it. The angels say, "Then you did not approach the Lord who is the Word, and you have also previously confirmed yourselves in falsities." They then instruct the spirits at considerable length, with a fair amount of discussion. In the end the spirits are enlightened and have been greatly benefitted.[80]

In a similar occurrence three young novitiates converse with some angelic spirits and make plain their problems in understanding spiritual values. Finally they exclaim, "0 how dry is the joy of heaven. What young man can then wish for heaven? Is not [chaste love of the sex] barren and void of life?" But the angelic spirits simply laugh and reply with instruction, and when the novitiates continue to object, the angelic spirits indignantly reply, "Because you are not yet chaste, you are entirely ignorant of what chaste love of the sex is." This is followed by further instruction, and as the meeting continues the novitiates grow affirmative and end by learning a good deal. It is interesting that the beautiful ideals of conjugial love are presented only after the novitiates display an affirmative attitude, and with the admonition that they think more deeply.[81]

On another occasion some Gentiles told Swedenborg how sad they were that the Divine never appeared to them, when yet they think and speak about the Divine. They wished that if there were a God, He would send them teachers. But they had long waited in vain, "lamenting that perchance He had deserted them, and that thus there seemed nothing else for them but to perish." But angels told the Gentiles the problem was their own unwillingness to believe God had taken on a Human, "and that until they believed this, God cannot be manifested to them, nor can they be taught, because this is the primary thing of all revelation." Conversation and instruction followed, and the good Gentiles received the truth.[82]

It is notable that, in the three examples just cited, the angels turned the conversation away from a self-pitying concern for one's own problems, to the true ideas which could remove the problem. They respect freedom and listen well, but do everything in their power to change false thinking. The spirits were told in effect, forget about yourselves, think instead about these truths.

Moreover, angels are not always outwardly warm. Rather than sympathize with the evil, rather than condemn or punish the evil, they teach and debate them. Often they are indignant at falsity. One angel who listened to a collection of nonsense about the Trinity was silent with astonishment a long time. Then he bluntly asked, "Can the Christian world be so insane?" Anyone, he said in effect, can see how stupid these ideas are. With that, he launched into rebuttal.[83] And when Swedenborg once had the misfortune to ask what wisdom has to do with woman, he was suddenly surrounded by wise men who jested and laughed at his ignorance before explaining.[84] Insensitivity? More likely it was just what Swedenborg needed. (For further instances of angelic indignation at falsity, compare TCR 568; CL 82, 268, 293, 481; 5 Mem. III.) Angels delight in teaching, discussion, debating, even confrontation, because these are the arenas in which they can accommodate the truth they love to human states.


In heaven and the world of spirits the truth in the end prevails of itself, as it is carefully accommodated. Those who do not like it, rail against it and separate themselves from it. The angels use no one method, but an enormous variety, and they have a great deal to say. Running throughout their methods is respect for and insistence upon the truth, and considerable care in accommodating it, from awareness of their learners' particular states. Even the different methods have variations within them, so that no two sessions of instruction ever seem to be the same. Perhaps their great variety in teaching methods is itself an important lesson.


1 HH 335 ff.
2 SD 5664.
3 AC 2209, 2520, 2553, 3310, 4280, 5110, 9025, 9300; SD 3605.
4 Inv. 39, cf. 43.
5 Docu. II, p. 975; cf. Docu. p. 66, II pp. 239, 242, 409, 414-416; Int. 2; Coro. Sum.
6 AC 4269, 5454, 245, 2395.
7 CL 76: 7.
8 CL 316ff. 9 Ibid.
10 CL 477: 3.
11 cf. CL 500.
12 TCR 696.
13 CL 55: 2.
14 On bystanders: cf. TCR 16, 17, 72, 137, 162, 334, 386, 390, 506, 518, 696, 697; CL 55, 477.
15 HH 550, 577.
16 TCR 662: 5.
17 TCR 332.
18 CL 75, 79, 42, 156e, 208, 444.
19 AC 7298: 2.
20 AC 7812, 410: 2, 4172e, 6144; DP 130: 2, 168, 150-153, 219: 3 ;TCR 661; CL 267-269; SD 468.
21 HH 342, 343.
22 Verbo V.
23 DP 154; AE 1173.
24 DP 172.
25 TCR 335; 6.
26 TCR 503: 5.
27 LJ post. 214, CL 355, 356.
28 LJ post. 213.
29 DP 153.
30 AC 2831; cf. 2803, 9300.
31 AR 618.
32 DP 233: 7, 8.
33 LJ post. 329
34 DP 174; AE 1173-1185.
35 AC 5952; cf. 5934, 4096.
36 AE 1180.
37 AE 979.
38 AC 3066.
39 AC 2533: 2.
40 DP 172: 5.
41 AC 3803.
42 AC 9300; cf. TCR 208.
43 DP 256; also see AC 2301, 3388, 3470: 2, 6333, 8920; TCR 370; CL
295; AE 14,1177.
44 TCR 796.
45 LJ post. 58; cf. AR 716.
46 cf. AC 4096: 2, 3 ; SD 6029.
47 AC 4804.
48 AC 7007: 2.
49 AC 5854.
50 AC 4031; see also AC 1937, 1947, 2880, 6071: 5; DP 129-153, 176; AE 1150.
51 TCR 733.
52 TCR 74; cf. 134.
53 CL 355, 356.
54 TCR 77.
55 LJ post. 95; cf. 32, 224.
56 cf. CL 481.
57 CL 183: 2.
58 AR-376.
59 AC 4356, cf. 2338e.
60 CL 444.
61 TCR 79.
62 TCR 113: 4.
63 CL 270.
64 5 Mem. II.
65 5 Mem III.
66 TCR 664-666.
67 TCR 387; Additions to TCR.
68 TCR 188; CL 106.
69 CL 381-384.
70 TCR 334.
71 CL 329.
72 TCR 697.
73 Ibid.
74 TCR 73, 459, 461, 661.
75 TCR 332; cf. 621
76 CL 208, 270; cf. 355.
77 CL 79; TCR 741.
78 TCR 570.
79 CL 270.
80 TCR 621.
81 CL 44.
82 LJ post. 129.
83. TCR 134.
84 CL 56.

-New Church Life 1977;67-85


Swedenborg Biography
Heavenly Doctrines
The revelation process
Who is God?
The Word of God
Bible & the Writings
Time and Eternity
History of Religion
On Being Useful
Providence and  Evil
Getting Rid of Evil
The Death Process
Life after Death
Life on Other Planets
The Second Coming
Spiritual Marriage
Art & Literature


• Home • Up • Next •

Angelic Instruction

Webmaster: IJT@swedenborgstudy.com