from Robert H. Kirven, "A Concise Overview of  Swedenborg's Theology, (Appleseed & Co. MA 2003)

Table of  Contents


Chapter 8


The Church; Sacraments; Earths in the Universe

SWEDENBORG SAW THE CHURCH ON MANY LEVELS and from different perspectives. This presents difficulties if you look for one precise definition of what the church is. You might be more successful, though ungrammatical, to look for what the church "are," because Swedenborg has many definitions, although he sees only one church. The different definitions complement each other in a vast, multi-faceted and inclusive picture of the church, one that is compatible with the expansiveness of his total theology.

Perhaps the diversity of his conception will appear more unified if you look at the different scales on which the church exists (fully the church, on every scale), at the grades of specificity or generality in which the church can be recognized (the same church, at every level), and finally, from a third perspective, the distinctions between its material and spiritual realities.

The various scales of the church's existence may be apparent only from a point of view that is uniquely Swedenborgian. The center of the scale is not unfamiliar: the church is a congregation; the church is the corporate body throughout a nation or a particular tradition that shares the same faith; and the church is also the body of all in the world who share, and those (now in the spiritual world) who have shared, that faith. Congregation, denomination, the "communion of saints:" each of these is the church, and all of them are the church. This is a common Christian understanding of the church.

Swedenborg's largest and smallest scales are distinctive. Beyond the Christians' communion of saints, the church is the entire heaven—the angels of every church, Christian and others, on this and every inhabited planet in the whole universe. On the smallest, or most particular, scale we find another original concept: the church is the individual person in whom the church is a reality. In Swedenborg's usage, this is not merely a figure of speech. Each person who is truly a part of the church is also, just as truly, the church itself.

This is strange mathematics, in which each part is equal to the sum of the parts, but from the Swedenborgian perspective, that's the way things are.

There is a glory in this perception, when you wake up on a bright and beautiful morning and realize that the church is alive! There's challenge and responsibility in it, too: in each temptation that you face, the Lord's church is threatened by evil or falsity. The church is the church for Swedenborg, no matter at what size or scale you choose to consider it.

Next, look at the grades of specificity and universality in which the church can be recognized. Most specifically, as on the smallest scale, the church is the individual person, or the specific corporate body of people, for whom three things are true: (1) the Lord is equally and simultaneously divine and human, (2) the Holy Word is his truth and presence, and (3) loving the neighbor—that is, doing good for the neighbor for the Lord's sake—is all of life.

But such a specific reality of the church occurs only in a few, and alone would be too restrictive a concept to fit the place that the church has in human life. So the church is found more generally—but still as the church— with all who are regenerating. That is to say, all who are striving toward the ideal of the most specific form of the church, also are the church. But the church is heaven, and if this generality were all of the church, then everyone outside the Christian community would be excluded from heaven, and only a fraction of the human race (and an infinitesimal fraction of life in the universe) could be saved.

However, the church also exists more generally in all who really believe in the god that they have heard of and who live as best they can according to the principles of that religion. I think this was an original concept in Swedenborg's time, and it still is unusual, though no longer unique. There was a Catholic scholar, Father Raymond Brown, who explained the ancient doctrine of "no salvation outside the church" as referring to the "church general," comprising "all who answer 'yes' to the best they know," and outside of that circle there is no salvation. This definition can be extended without distortion beyond the confines of our planet; on that scale it is a useful paraphrase of Swedenborg's definition of the church in its most universal aspect.

Thirdly, consider the degrees of the church's reality. In the highest, or heavenly, sense, the church is the Lord, the conjunction of love and wisdom. In the spiritual sense the church is heaven, the realm of beings whose whole life is that love and wisdom of the Lord's. At the opposite end of the scale, in what Swedenborg calls the ultimate, or material sense, the church is the good and truth of human lives in which that love and wisdom are concretized and enacted.

It is worth noticing that these descending degrees of the church's reality do not go so far as to include what most of us call "the church"—the building in which worship is experienced. That is because the church, even in its smallest, most particular and tangible form, is a person or a person's life. The church is the Lord's presence among men; he is present in you, if you are a church. The buildings that we erect may represent the Lord's church for us, but they do not correspond to it (remember Chapter 7?) because they do not include any of the Lord's living reality. A building that we call a church more nearly corresponds to the outer clothing of the life that is a church (and men have built some beautiful overcoats); the most magnificent edifice of human construction, even if it is filled with thousands on Sunday morning, is only a bundle of sticks or a pile of stones unless the worshippers themselves are churches and are the church.

These perspectives on the church are, indeed, different. The church on any scale—individual, worldwide or cosmic—can be recognized in all levels of specificity and generality, and all degrees of reality. The church that is envisioned from these three perspectives as a whole is indeed a many-splendored thing.

Another ancient definition of the church is this: "The church is where the Word is read and the sacraments are administered." Historically, that definition has sometimes been combined with others into a sort of "Catch 22" in which church discipline was enforced by threat of exclusion from the sacraments. By definition, that meant exclusion from the Church, and since there is "no salvation outside the Church," that was a pretty serious threat! Without such exclusionary uses, however, the definition of the church as being where the Word is read and sacraments are administered would not be inconsistent with Swedenborg's concept of the church at certain levels, from certain perspectives. That is, sacraments belong to the "church specific" (not the most specific alone, but not too general a church, either), in the natural or ultimate level of the church's reality. Sacraments are essentially correspondential acts with correspondential substances. As such, they occur only on the natural, or ultimate, plane of reality where material substances and physical actions are found. In the spiritual world, where a person can be cleansed by truth itself, there is no need for baptism with water as a correspondence of truth (in fact, there is no water there, except truth which has the appearance of water). Likewise, our eating bread and drinking wine corresponds to taking good and truth into ourselves and incorporating them into our being. We do this correspondentially because we are not aware of performing the spiritual act with spiritual substances—an awareness that is as common a daily occurrence in purely spiritual life as ordinary eating and drinking are in ours.

In practice, we celebrate the sacraments only in what might be called the lower-middle scale of the church, that is, in a congregation. In Swedenborgian practice, sacraments are not celebrated by one person: their celebration consists in their administration by a minister to a congregation. Both are essential, because the communion of the communicants with each other and with the celebrant is part of the correspondence of the communicant's communion with the Lord. In that sense, the celebrant becomes a communicant too, when he or she partakes of the bread and the wine. When communion is celebrated by a minister and only one person (as in hospital rooms), the individual usually is a part of a congregation, separated from the others in space but not in spirit. At the other end of the scale, "World-Wide Communion" is not one sacrament but many, except to the extent that individual communicants can reach out in spirit to embrace the larger fellowship.

Finally, Baptism and Holy Communion are celebrated in the middle range of specificity of the church. It is not limited to the most specific, for it is instrumental in the efforts of those who are regenerating. At the other end of that scale, practices differ. I am not aware that Swedenborg specifies unequivocally either that Communion would be open to all who seek it or that it should be closed to all except those within the specific church of the celebrant's ministry. In the past, some Swedenborgian congregations have maintained closed communion; some do today. Some, especially in the General Church, practice a slight variation of closed communion. At the 1970 World Assembly, for example, members of all Swedenborgian churches were welcomed to the General Church's celebration of the sacrament (the issue of non-Swedenborgians did not arise). However, the celebration could take place only "in the sphere of the General Church"—which translated in practice to only in the building where General Church worship is commonly held. In local and less formal situations, the practice is more flexible than that. The General Convention is not uniform in this, but my subjective impression is that the majority of Convention's ministers regard the Communion table as the Lord's table, open to all who seek him. Many ministers' invitation to the sacrament includes a formula with the words, "Whether you are of this church, or of another church, or of no church . . . ." The assumption behind this practice is that anyone partaking of the sacrament insincerely or unworthily (whatever that might mean in a particular conception) deprives himself or herself of its full benefits, but does not detract from the benefits to others.

Baptism is also a function of the middle range of specificity. It is administered to those who are only beginning their growth toward full specificity as a church; by definition, as well as in practice, it excludes those who do not seek a Christian life. Baptism's three functions apply to three separate scales of the church. The cleansing from sins occurs in the individual baptized; the sign that the person is a Christian is given to the participating congregation and, by implication, to the worldwide church; and the introduction into the Christian heavens refers, of course, to the church on the largest scale.

The concept of life throughout the universe is central to Swedenborg's vision of the church, as has been noted in discussions of the larger scales of the church, and the broader reaches of its generality or universality. However, the concept has presented a difficulty of a different kind for many Swedenborgians. Swedenborg describes the appearance of people living on the moon, for example, and our astronauts tramped around quite a bit without seeing any sign of them. Data from Mars is less conclusive, so far, but not very helpful, either.

Several approaches have been employed to deal with this inconsistency between Swedenborg's statements and our experienced reality. One is that Swedenborg's revelation concerned truths of faith that are necessary for salvation and did not extend to matters of merely physical fact. Another is that nothing in Swedenborg's spiritual experience gave specific indications as to when life existed on the different planets or on what scale. Therefore, astronauts could have reached the moon long after the time of life he spoke of, or could have overlooked it if its physical form were on microscopic scale or smaller. A third approach (which appeals to me, mostly for subjective reasons) is that the spirits who lived on different planets of different galaxies met Swedenborg outside of space, as well as outside of time, so their descriptions of their physical origins were translated through their physical concept of astronomy and then through Swedenborg's as well: the moon they spoke of could have been in another galaxy, for example.


Read the following passages from Swedenborg. For further reading in other published versions, see the passages listed just below:

New Jerusalem 202-208, 210-214, 241-245
Other Planets 1-45,113-126


The Church; Sacraments; Earths in the Universe

NJ 202

Baptism was instituted as a sign that a person belongs to the church and is in the process of being born again. The washing of baptism is nothing else than spiritual washing, which is new birth [which the church calls regeneration].

NJ 203

All new birth is accomplished by the Lord through the truths of faith and a life according to them. Your baptism testifies that you have given yourself to the church and therefore can be born again....

NJ 204

The Lord teaches this in John 3:5: Unless one is born of water and spirit, one cannot enter the kingdom of God. In the spiritual sense, "water" is what is true of what is believed from the Word. "Spirit" is living according to that truth. "Being born" is being born again by living out that truth.

NJ 205

Everyone who is being born again undergoes temptations, which are spiritual combats against things that are evil and false. Therefore, the water of baptism also signifies these struggles.

NJ 206

Since baptism is a sign and memorial of all this, an infant may be baptized. If not baptized as an infant, a person may be baptized as an adult.

NJ 207

Therefore, those who are baptized should know that baptism itself does not give faith or salvation. Rather, it testifies that they may receive faith and be saved, if they are regenerated.

NJ 210

The Holy Supper was instituted by the Lord so that there might be an intimate connection between the church and heaven—thus a connection with the Lord. Therefore, it is the most holy thing in worship.

NJ 211

Those who do not know the internal or spiritual sense of the Word do not understand how that connection is formed, since they do not think beyond the external sense, which is the sense of the letter. From the internal or spiritual sense of the Word, we know what is signified by the "body" and "blood," and the "bread" and "wine"—as well as what is signified by "eating."

NJ 212

In the spiritual sense, the Lord's "body," "flesh," and the "bread" signify the good of love. The Lord's "blood" and the "wine" signify the good of faith. "Eating" is making something a part of oneself, forming an intimate connection. The angels accompanying a person who goes to the Sacrament of the Supper understand those things in no other way, for they perceive everything spiritually. This is why the holiness of love and the holiness of faith flow into us from the angels at that time—which means they flow into us through heaven from the Lord. This is how an intimate connection is established.

NJ 213

It can be seen from all this that when we eat the bread, which is the Lord's body, we are intimately connected to the Lord by means of the good of love to him and from him. When we drink the wine, which is his blood, we are intimately connected to the Lord by the good of faith in him and from him. However, you should know that only those who do what is good because they love to do it, and have faith in the Lord that comes from the Lord, achieve intimate connection with the Lord by the sacrament of the Supper. With them, the Holy Supper effects intimate connection. With others, there is presence, but not intimate connection.

NJ 214

The Holy Supper includes and embraces everything of divine worship that was instituted in the Israelitish Church. The burnt-offerings and sacrifices (of which the worship of that church primarily consisted) are called "bread" in one expression [in the Word], so the Holy Supper is the completion of that worship.

NJ 241

What constitutes heaven in our lives is what constitutes the church: love and faith constitute heaven just as they also constitute the church....

NJ 242

The church is said to be where the Lord is acknowledged and where the Word is, for the essentials of the church are love and faith in the Lord from the Lord, and the Word teaches how we must live in order to receive love and faith from the Lord.

NJ 243

There must be doctrine from the Word for the church to exist, since without doctrine the Word is not understood. Doctrine alone, however, does not constitute the church with us; our living according to doctrine is what constitutes the church. Therefore, it follows that faith alone does not constitute the church with us: the life of faith (which is called compassion) constitutes the church. Genuine doctrine is the doctrine of compassion and faith together, not the doctrine of faith separated from compassion. The doctrine of compassion and faith together is the doctrine of life.

NJ 244

People outside the church who acknowledge one god, who live according to their religious principles and have compassion toward their neighbor, are in communion with people who are within the church. No one who believes in God and lives well is condemned. So it can be seen that the church of the Lord is in the whole world, although it exists specifically where the Lord is acknowledged and the Word is.

NJ 245

Everyone with whom the church exists is saved, but everyone in whom the church does not exist is condemned.

OP 1

By the Lord's divine mercy, inner aspects of things have been opened to me (aspects involving my spirit) and this has permitted me to talk with spirits and angels—not only those around our planet, but also with those around other planets. Because I wanted to know if there are other worlds, what they are like, and what their inhabitants are like, the Lord has allowed me to speak and converse with spirits who live on other planets. I have spoken with some for a day, some for a week, and with others for months. These spirits have taught me about the worlds on which or near which they live. They have told me about the lives, customs, and worship of the inhabitants of those planets, and various other things worth mentioning. Because I have come to know all this in this way, I am permitted to report some of what I have heard and seen.

All spirits and angels are from the human race, live close to their own world, and know what goes on there. People whose inner aspects are opened enough to enable speech and conversation with spirits and angels can learn from them. This is because people are essentially spirits, and their inner aspects are together with spirits. Therefore, when their inner aspects are opened by the Lord, they can speak with other spirits just as with other people. This experience has been given me daily, for twelve years now.

OP 2

In the other life, everyone whose love of what is true—and love of use stemming from it—leads them to want to speak with spirits from other worlds is given the ability to do so. Therefore, it is well known that there are many planets with people living on them and spirits and angels from them. These spirits' experience confirms that there are many worlds and informs them that the human race is not from one world only but from innumerable worlds. They know the talents, lifestyles, and characteristics of divine worship in each world.

OP 3

I have talked about this now and then with spirits of our world who said that anyone with an able mind can conclude from many things that there are other planets and inhabitants on them. You can conclude on the basis of reason that masses as great as the planets (some of greater magnitude than this world) are not empty masses created only to be carried in their revolutions around the sun, and to shine with their scanty light for a single world. Their purpose must be more significant than that. If you believe (as everyone should) that the Divine created the world for no other purpose than the existence of the human race and heaven from it (for the human race is the seminary of heaven), you must also believe that wherever there is a planet there are humans.

The planets which are visible to our eyes because they are within the boundaries of our solar system are worlds, as may be evident from the fact that they are bodies of earthy matter because they reflect the light of the sun, and when seen through optical lenses they appear not as stars glittering from their own flame, but as soils variegated by darker portions. Further to the same point, the planets—including Earth—are conveyed around the sun and advanced through the zodiac. From this motion they have their years and seasons of the year—spring, summer, autumn, and winter. Also like our earth, they revolve on their own axes, which gives them their days and times of day—morning, noon, evening, and night. Moreover, some of them have moons, called satellites, which revolve around their spheres at regular intervals as our moon does around our earth. Also, the planet Saturn, because it is so far from the sun, has a large luminous belt which supplies that world with much light (even though it is reflected). Who, knowing these things and thinking reasonably about them, can say that they are empty bodies?....

OP 7

Concerning divine worship in general, as practiced by inhabitants of other worlds, all those who are not idolaters worship the Lord as the one God. Indeed, they worship the Divine not as invisible but as visible for the same reason: when the Lord appears to them, he appears in human form—as he appeared to Abraham and others on this earth. Also, everyone who worships the Lord in human form is accepted by the Lord.

They say, too, that no one can properly worship God—much less be joined to him—without comprehending him by some idea; and God cannot be comprehended except in human form. If he is not comprehended in this way, interior sight—which is an aspect of thought concerning God—is dissipated as eyesight is dissipated when looking upon the boundless universe. In this case, thought can do nothing else but sink into nature, and worship nature as God.

OP 8

When they were told that the Lord assumed human form on our earth, they mused awhile and presently said that this happened for the salvation of the human race.

OP 9

It is a mystery not yet known in the world (but which I have clarified [in Secrets of Heaven 59 (Chapter 10) and elsewhere]) that all of heaven calls to mind a single human form, called the Universal Human. In total sum and in every detail, inside and out, we correspond to that human—or heaven. The structure of the Universal Human requires spirits from many worlds; those from our earth, being few compared to the whole, are not enough. The Lord provides that whenever there is a deficiency anywhere as to the quality and quantity of correspondence, spirits are called immediately from another world to fill the deficiency so that proportion is preserved and heaven's consistency maintained.

OP 10

It was disclosed to me from heaven that spirits of the planet Mercury stand in relation to the Universal Human as involving memory, specifically memory abstracted from worldly and merely material objects....

OP 11

Some spirits came to me, and it was announced from heaven that they were from the world which is nearest the sun, which on our earth is named the planet Mercury. Immediately on arriving, they inquired of my memory what I knew. Spirits can do this most ingeniously. When they meet anyone, they see everything contained in that person's memory. While they were searching mine—looking for various things, such as cities and places where I had been—I noticed they did not wish to know anything about temples, palaces, houses, or streets. They only wanted to know about what I knew to have happened in those places, what I knew about the government there, the inclinations and customs of the inhabitants, and similar things. Ideas like that are related to places in a person's memory, and when a place is mentioned, they are brought to mind.... I asked them why they disregarded the magnificence of the places and only paid attention to events and actions happening there. They said they had no delight in looking at material, bodily, and earthly things. They only enjoyed looking at real things. This confirmed that in the Universal Human, spirits of that world are related to what is abstracted from the memory of material and earthly things.

OP 12

I was told about the life of the inhabitants of Mercury. They do not care about earthly and corporeal things, but only about the nations of their world— their statutes, laws, and governments—and about innumerable heavenly things. I was further informed that many people of that world speak with spirits and know a lot about spiritual things and the states of life after death. That also explains their contempt of bodily and earthly things, because people who confidently know and believe in life after death care about such heavenly things as being eternal and happy—not about worldly things, except to the extent the necessities of life require. The inhabitants of Mercury are that way, so the spirits from there are, too.

OP 13

They were eager to search out and take in all I knew about the kinds of things that were raised above the physical senses in my memory. I could tell this was the case because when they looked into what I knew about heavenly things, they skimmed hastily through them all, commenting that this and that were so and so. Indeed, whenever spirits approach a person, they enter into the person's memory, stirring up anything there that interests them. Really, I have often observed them reading such things as if reading a book. These spirits did so quickly and easily because they did not pause at heavy and sluggish things which confine the internal sight and slow it down—as all earthly and corporeal things do when they are regarded as goals (that is, when they alone are loved)—and looked instead directly into things. The fact is that things which are not stuck in worldly concerns carry the mind upwards into a broad field (material things, on the other hand, carry the mind downward, limiting and closing it off). Their eagerness to acquire knowledge of things, enriching their memories, was demonstrated in the following experience.

Once, when I was writing something about things to come—and they were at a distance and could not look into them from my memory (because I was not willing to read them in their presence)—they became indignant. Contrary to their normal habits, they wanted to attack me, call me "the worst" and things like that. To be sure I was aware of their resentment, they induced a painful contraction in the right side of my head as far as my ear. Such things did me no harm. Nevertheless, having done something bad to me, they moved away to a greater distance; but soon they stopped moving, wanting to know what I was writing. That's how curious they are.

OP 14

More than other spirits, spirits from Mercury know about things related to this solar system and to planets in other galaxies. They remember everything they have learned, recalling it as often as anything similar occurs. This also demonstrates that spirits have memory and that it is much more perfect than ours. Moreover, they remember everything they see, hear or comprehend, especially the kinds of things that delight them—since these spirits especially enjoy knowing about things. Whatever causes delight and affects the love, flows in, as if spontaneously, and remains in their memory....

OP 24

Spirits from Mercury do not stay long in one place or around spirits of one planet but wander through the universe. The reason is that they are related to the memory of things and this memory must be enriched continuously. Therefore, they are allowed to wander around, learning things for themselves in every place....

OP 40

There were certain spirits who knew from heaven that a promise had once been made to spirits from the planet Mercury that they would see the Lord. Therefore, they were asked by spirits around me whether they still knew of that promise. They replied that they did still know of it, but they did not know whether it had been promised in such a way that it was beyond doubt. While they were talking with each other about this, heaven's sun appeared to them. Heaven's sun, which is the Lord, is seen only by those who are in the inmost or third heaven. Others see the light derived from it.

On seeing it, they said it was not the Lord because they did not see a face; they continued talking with one another but I did not hear what they said. But suddenly the sun appeared again, with the Lord, encompassed with a solar circle, in the midst of it.  On seeing this, the spirits from Mercury humbled themselves profoundly and subsided. Then the Lord also appeared to spirits from Earth—spirits who, during their life on earth, saw him in the world— and they all (one after the other, and thus many in sequence) confessed that it was the Lord himself. They made this confession in front of the whole crowd. Then the Lord, out of the sun, appeared to spirits from the planet Jupiter. They declared aloud that it was the same Lord they had seen on their earth when the God of the universe appeared to them.


New Jerusalem 202-208, 210-214, 241-245;
Other Planets  1-45, 113-126.


How do you place the world's New Church or Swedenborgian ecclesiastical organizations in the range of specificity and generality in which the church appears?

Considering the correspondential significance of marriage (see Chapter Six), why do you (if you do) think marriage is a rite, rather than a sacrament? Explain.

Is an unbaptized child denied the ministry of heavenly angels? Explain why, or explain the importance of baptism regarding introduction into the Christian heavens.

What questions or issues does the lesson raise for you?

To Chapter 9