Swedenborg: An Introduction to His Life and Ideas

Swedenborg: An Introduction to His Life and Ideas

Gary Lachman
New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2012. 181 pages, paper, $16.95.

Whenever I visit Washington, D.C., I stop by the Swedenborgian National Church (also known as The Church of the Holy City), a stunningly beautiful Gothic structure on 16th Street. Despite an active and impressive past, the church today is kept physically intact and spiritually operational by a tiny, although devoted, group of members. One attendee remarked to me, “Swedenborgianism is a good spiritual path for people afraid of crowds!” This is unfortunately a fairly accurate picture of the appreciation of Emanuel Swedenborg and his work, religious and otherwise, in our day. One can hope that this fine introduction, by Quest contributor Gary Lachman, will help to revive interest in one of the West’s most intrepid spiritual explorers.

Swedenborg (1688–1772), the son of a Lutheran bishop, became one of Europe’s most noted scientists in the early eighteenth century. While a spiritual crisis in 1744 propelled him into inner exploration and biblical exposition for the rest of his life, he never left his scientific past behind. “Swedenborg believed that our inner world, our soul, can be investigated scientifically,” Lachman points out. Swedenborg kept meticulous records of his experiences, such as a brightness which confirmed to him that he was on the right track. His journals provide an intricate analysis of hypnagogic and visionary states.

Swedenborg’s writings are notoriously complex, and many of them take the form of biblical exegesis, which may not be accessible to all modern readers. Lachman provides the uninitiated reader with an excellent overview of the main themes in Swedenborg’s work, with an eye to those aspects that may prove interesting and helpful to those not drawn to the specifically religious nature of his vision.

For Swedenborg, the entire physical world gains its being and existence from the spiritual one. In a sense, the world, our world, is a kind of reflection of the higher one. Or to put it a different way, our world is a kind of book which, read rightly, can tell us things about the higher world. As the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz put it, “Swedenborg’s world is all language.”

Perhaps even more important than this doctrine of correspondences is the seer’s teaching on the dynamics of the inner worlds, where “appearance and being are identical.” It is our “true affections”—the real inner intentions behind all our personal actions— that propel us in the spiritual worlds, as places in those worlds are states of being. A change in one’s state of being, a change in one’s true affections, constitutes a change in spiritual “place.” Thus it is by working at the level of genuine intention that we determine our spiritual state, both in this life and in the worlds after death.

In addition to his skillful introduction to Swedenborg’s biography and teachings, Lachman also provides a very helpful annotated bibliography of Swedenborg’s writings, giving the reader the tools to delve directly into the original material. Lachman’s book will surely serve as a standard introduction to Swedenborg for many years to come.

John Plummer

John Plummer is the author of Living Mysteries: A Practical Handbook for the Independent Priest and The Many Paths of the Independent Sacramental Movement.