OF A FRINGE WATCHER
Skeptical Inquirer, Vol. 34, No. 5, September/October 2010.
Swedenborg and Dr. Oz
Born in Cleveland to Turkish immigrants and raised a secular Muslim, Dr. Mehmet Cengiz Oz is vice-chair and professor of surgery at Columbia University. Thanks to his many appearances on The Oprah Winfrey Show, and now with his own Oprah-sponsored The Dr. Oz Show, he has suddenly become the nation's most famous heart surgeon. Each year he performs more than three hundred cardiac operations at New York-Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan. His speaking fee is $100,000. Author of hundreds of technical papers and a series of YOU books— the most recent is YOU: Having a Baby— his admirers are now in the millions.
It is not widely known that Oz has been profoundly influenced by Emanuel Swedenborg, a Swedish Protestant fundamentalist who, late in life, became a spiritualist and Sweden's most famous trance medium. In the November/December 2007 issue of Spirituality and Health, a glossy bimonthly devoted to New Age topics, Oz coauthored an article titled "Mehmet Oz Finds His Teacher," about how his wife Lisa introduced him to the theology of Swedenborg. (Lisa, by the way, is a Reiki Master. Reiki is a Japanese form of alternative medicine developed by a Buddhist monk.)
Once greatly admired by thinkers as diverse as Emerson, Goethe, Blake, William James's father, and John Chapman—better known as Johnny Apple- seed—Swedenborg is now almost forgotten except for a small cult following. Here is a thumbnail biography.
Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) was a respected Swedish scientist until middle age, when Jesus appeared to him in a vision. The Lord persuaded him to abandon science and devote the rest of his life to theology. After Swedenborg's death, his followers in England founded The Church of the New Jerusalem based on his fifty or so books. Remnants of this church still flourish in England and in the United States, where Swedenborgians number an estimated 6,000.
Swedenborg never doubted that every verse in the Bible was God inspired. His deviations from orthodoxy resulted from endless trances that today would be called OBEs (out-of-body experiences). Among his many books, the most popular by far was Heaven and Hell. Swedenborg claimed to have visited both regions in his trances, where he supposedly spoke with angels, devils, and spirits of the departed. His book contains detailed descriptions of heaven and hell.
All of Swedenborg's books were written in Latin. A series tided Heavenly Secrets consists of eight volumes. Although he never married, Conjugal Love was a widely read treatise. Another popular book, Apocalypse Revealed, is a verse-by- verse analysis of the Bible's Book of Revelation.
Swedenborg's most worthless book, Life on Other Worlds, contains—fasten your seatbelt!—detailed accounts of his out-of-body travels to the five then- known planets, the Moon, and five planets outside the solar system. On each of these worlds he was able to chat with the human inhabitants and the bodiless spirits of deceased humans who serve the inhabitants. He also visited the heavens and hells of some worlds, where he spoke with humans who became angels and humans evil enough to become demons. Some of these trips "lasted a day," he writes, "others a week, and yet others for months."
Swedenborg's first visit was to Mercury. Its spirits were able to invade his brain, searching for facts and knowledge but having no interest in ideas or opinions. The most notable spirit he meets is none other than Aristotle. We are told he was a wise man in contrast to his many "foolish" Earth followers.
The human inhabitants of Mercury are slimmer than earthlings. Their women have smaller faces. Their clothes are tight fitting. In spite of Mercury's nearness to the sun, its atmosphere shields the planet from the sun's heat, producing a climate "not too hot or too cold."
Swedenborg then visits Jupiter. Its land is called "fertile." (Swedenborg had no way of knowing that Jupiter has no land.) Its inhabitants' main concern is bringing up their children, whom they dearly love. They are free of all evil impulses, such as stealing and greater crimes. They know nothing of wars but are a "gentle and sweet" people who live in a state of "blessedness" and "inner happiness." Their clothing is made of "bluish bark or cork." When they sit down to eat they do not use chairs or benches but instead sit on piles of fig leaves. Their horses resemble ours, only smaller.
I spare the reader Swedenborg's accounts of the inhabitants and spirits on Mars and Saturn. Venus is more interesting because its humans are of two kinds: one "gentle" and "humane," the other as fierce as wild animals. The two groups, along with their spirits, live on opposite sides of Venus. Their heavens and hells are nearby.
Swedenborg devotes only three pages to the spirits and inhabitants of the Moon. The humans are small as dwarfs, but when they speak, their voices— which come from their abdomens— roar like thunder. Swedenborg assures us that the moons of other solar-system planets are also inhabited by humans and their spirits, but he gives no details. His trip to our moon is followed by visits to five planets in what he calls our "starry sky," far beyond our sun.
I should add that the humans on our planets all worship Jesus, although he was incarnated only on Earth. Swedenborg devotes a chapter to explaining why Jesus chose our world as a place to live as a man and die for our salvation. In other writings Swedenborg claims that the Lord's Second Coming, and the judgment of who is to be saved and who is not, actually took place in our heaven in 1757. (He was convinced, by the way, that faith in Jesus is insufficient for escaping hell. That faith must be combined with charity, or good works.)
If you are interested in reading Life on Other Worlds, a paperback translation titled Life on Other Planets was published in 2006 by the Swedenborg Foundation in West Chester, Pennsylvania, and the Swedenborg Society in London. Copies are readily available on the Internet.
The book contains a lengthy introduction by Raymond Moody, author of many books about NDEs (near death experiences) of persons whose hearts momentarily stopped beating and who had visions of entering heaven, sometimes even seeing Jesus. Moody believes NDEs are genuine out-of-body events similar to Swedenborg's trances. He strives mightily, without success, to find something of lasting merit in Swedenborg's crazy book.
Now for Dr. Oz's fascination with Swedenborg's other, saner writings.
"When Lisa and I got married," he writes in Spirituality and Health, "there was no 'til death do us part in the ceremony." Swedenborg had convinced Oz and Lisa that marriages are intended to last forever in paradise.
"After death the veil that separates the spiritual from the material world is lifted," Oz goes on, "and we continue in our true selves—either as angels or evil spirits, depending on whether we have internally made a heaven or hell for ourselves while living here." Angels, as described by Swedenborg, "are not a separate species, but people who are regenerate—literally reborn humans." This, of course, is contrary to what the Bible says about angels and demons.
Swedenborgism, Oz believes, is close to Buddhism. "Zen Master D.T. Sesuki," Oz writes, "once referred to Swedenborg as 'the Buddha of the North.'" A devout Christian, Swedenborg would have violently disagreed.
The number of alternative medicines that Oz favors is not known. He believes, contrary to most doctors, that acupuncture really works, that its effect on pain is more than a placebo. Acupuncture should always be supplemented, says Oz, by what he calls the Dr. Oz Diet to lose weight. On an episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show Oz supervised an acupuncture treatment for a pain in Oprah's shoulder. Oprah said she could hardly feel the needles and that the pain had vanished after the treatment. In the April 2010 issue of O, Oprah's magazine, Oz's daughter Daphne authored an article on "The Secrets of Acupuncture."
It is hard to believe, but Oz also recommends homeopathy! Homeopaths are convinced that the more dilute a drug, the more potent it is. Accordingly, they dilute their medications until only a few or no molecules remain. Somehow, in a way totally unknown to science, the dilutant "remembers" the missing molecules! Mainstream doctors like to tell of the homeopath who forgot to take his daily pill and died of an overdose.
In the November 2009 issue of O, Oz recommended homeopathy for treating migraines. "Acupuncture and homeopathy are worth considering," he wrote, "as adjunct therapies once you are sure the headache is not a sign of a serious disorder."
Ophthalmologists all agree that eye refraction problems, such as near- and far-sightedness and astigmatism, can be relieved only by corrective lenses or eye surgery. Oz thinks otherwise; search Google for "Dr. Oz, eye exercises." Also search on Oz and acupuncture, homeopathy, remedies, and cancer.
Oz is a fine cardiac surgeon. Unlike the Wizard of Oz, he is not a humbug, but one should be wary of his far-out medical advice.