The Universe Revolves Around the Lord
by John L. Odhner
What matter to us?
"What do these things matter to us?" said the bishops. They had been given a number of recently published books. One of the books was Earths in the Universe. They took the books and looked at them, but their reaction was that they did not consider them worthy of notice. In fact Swedenborg says that the books were "so disgracefully rejected as not to be deemed worthy even of a place among the books to be listed in their catalogue" (AR 716:1, 3).
Ever since Earths in the Universe (EU) was written, men have questioned the validity and importance of Swedenborg's description of life on other planets. As early as 1770, Oetinger questioned whether the whole thing should be taken as a fiction or not (Doc. II 1058). And even at this day we tend to think of EU as containing obscure teachings which we somehow have to explain away. As soon as anyone mentions Earths in the Universe we begin to discuss the question of whether there are men on the moon. When we are tired of arguing, we end the discussion feeling that what we believe about life on other planets really isn't that important anyway.
Surpassing in Excellence
Swedenborg knew that EU was an important book-so important that he published it twice (first as part of Arcana Coelestia, and then as a separate book). In 1758 Swedenborg had just witnessed the cataclysmic events of the last judgment in the spiritual world. He must have been burning to tell people about heaven and hell, the last judgment, and the New Church. But first he took time to tell people about earths in the universe. It was the first book he published after finishing the Arcana and witnessing the last judgment. He thought it would be good for evangelization purposes. (See EU 124.) He sent copies of it to many bishops, great men and lords (see AR 716). The news that EU was among the first of the Writings to be rendered into German gave Swedenborg "singular pleasure, and his eyes, always smiling, became twice as bright" (Swedenborg Epic, p. 415). And EU was among the books given to the Africans (SD 5946). When spirits asked Swedenborg, "What news from earth?" he replied, "This is new-the Lord has revealed things . . . surpassing in excellence those hitherto revealed since the beginning of the church!" And his list of things "surpassing in excellence" includes what is revealed about "the inhabitants of the planets and the earths in the universe" (TCR 846)
They Worship Our Lord
We could illustrate the excellence and significance of EU by a comparison with the work of Copernicus. Back in the sixteenth century hardly anyone ever thought of the possibility that the earth might go around the sun. They thought the earth was the center of the universe, with the sun, moon and stars all revolving around it. Then Copernicus, on the basis of careful observations, established the theory that the sun was fixed, and the earth and all the planets revolved around it. This change in perspective was one of the most important advances in the history of astronomy.
What Copernicus did for astronomy, EU does for religion. It's easy for us to center all our thoughts about God around this earth and around ourselves. We might think that we are better than others because we know Jesus, or that our church will bring us to a higher place in heaven than others. EU does away with all this by showing that no matter where you go in the whole universe, the Lord Jesus Christ is worshiped as the only God of the universe. And seeing this truth is the most important advance toward true religion that we can make.
Swedenborg writes that what is related in EU "has been revealed to the intent that it may be known that the heaven of the Lord is immense, and that it is all from the human race; also that our Lord is everywhere acknowledged as the God of heaven and earth" (HH 417). The Lord Jesus Christ is the sun of the spiritual world, and all the universe "revolves" around Him. Once the Lord (encompassed by the spiritual sun) appeared to spirits from Mercury. At the same time, He appeared to people who had seen Jesus on our earth two thousand years ago. They all confessed that it was the Lord Himself. Then spirits from Jupiter saw Him and they exclaimed that He was the very One who had appeared to them on Jupiter as the God of the universe (EU 40). In one planet after another Swedenborg discovered this amazing fact: They worship our Lord as the only God of heaven and earth! (EU 65, 91, 98, 107, 141, 154, 159, 162, 171)
Part of the power of Copernicus' work was the perspective it gave us about the earth. Seeing the universe as Copernicus saw it can be a very humbling experience.* He transformed our conception of the earth as the glorious center of the universe into an idea that our whole world is little more than a speck of dust drifting in space-no more significant than the little points of light we label 'planets' and seldom think about.
* Perhaps it is no mistake that 'Copernicus' means 'humble.
We learn a parallel kind of humility by reading EU. Several times we are shown the insignificance of our earth. "What would the human race . . . from one earth be for the infinite Creator, for whom a thousand earths, no, tens of thousands, would not be enough?" It notes there that given a million earths with 300,000,000 men on each one, and 200 generations over the past 6000 years, if all those people were gathered together with plenty of space between (enough for each person to have his own king-size bed), they wouldn't fill even a thousandth of the space filled by our earth. That's a speck smaller than a moon of Jupiter! (EU 126) The Lord's love is too infinite to be limited to so small a creation. If a million planets amount to so little, how much less is our one planet? And it is even more humbling when we compare our life with the life on other planets and realize that we are among the least good.
EU asks us to humble ourselves. It shows us how the spirits who are the best in the solar system are the ones who humble themselves before the Lord "so deeply that it cannot be described," not even daring to turn their faces to the Lord-a humility never seen on our earth (EU 85, 91). So here again EU can have a profound effect on our spiritual perspective and progress.
Not a Scientific Fact
It was a long time before the work of Copernicus was generally accepted. When his book explaining the solar system was published, it was labeled "not a scientific fact, but a playful fancy"! Today we might laugh at the learned men of the day for not believing that the earth could move around the sun. Or we might condemn them for not allowing for freedom of thought in scientific and theological matters. But for them the stability of the earth was as undeniable as the solid ground beneath their feet. Copernicus had many theories, but how could the theories of a "crazy priest" stand up against evidence as clear as the daily rising of the sun?
EU also has been labeled as "not a scientific fact." But what is the evidence? Doesn't it all come down to this-"There is no life on the moon because we haven't seen it, and we can't comprehend how it could be there." Isn't this like saying, "The earth doesn't move because we can't see it move, and we can't comprehend how it could"? The Copernican theory was not fanciful, but it was based on observations which the average person could not make. Likewise, EU is based on observations which we cannot duplicate and may wish to ignore. Yet we can at least have the humility to realize that there are many true things we do not know now, which we wouldn't believe if we heard them.
"But it does move!"
Almost 100 years after the death of Copernicus his theory still was not accepted. Galileo was imprisoned for preaching the theory, and he was forced by the church to recant, saying, "I confess that my error has been one of vain ambition and pure ignorance . . . . I now declare and swear that the earth does not move around the sun." It is said that he then whispered, "But it does move!"-as if to say, "All my declaring and swearing won't stop the earth from moving."
We can argue about men on the moon and try to answer the problem that EU poses for us, but when we finally decide which theory is the right one, it will not change reality. The moon will remain just as it is now, as surely as the earth turns. But if we read EU with a view to humbling ourselves and acknowledging the infinity of the Lord's love, it will change the reality within us.