THE JOURNEY OF THIS BOOK BEGAN
in the late 1960s when Bob Kirven first designed an introductory
course for Swedenborgian seminarians at the New Church Theological
School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Entitled An Overview of
Swedenborg's Theology, that original course in structure and
approach was the same as the thirteen chapters here. In the late 1970s, Friedemann Horn, president of the seminary, which had moved to Newton,
Massachusetts, and was then named the Swedenborg School of Religion,
asked if Bob could devise from this popular class a correspondence
course for interested laypersons throughout the Swedenborgian community.
The first edition of the resulting correspondence course was very
similar to what you will read here. These lessons met with a consistent
demand and popularity throughout the denomination and have been taught
ever since through the mail and recently via the Internet.
When I entered parish ministry in 1984, I inaugurated a third avenue of use for the Overview lessons as an adult education curriculum in my parish. To my delight, I discovered in my second engagement with the Overview course (now as a teacher to laity) that the material reliably led to as many ah ha! moments for laypersons as I had experienced as a seminarian. I know of other pastors who have also used the correspondence lessons in their parishes with equal effect. The lessons have proven remarkably helpful for bringing something of the "integrated whole" of Swedenborg's theology into the grasp of the average seeker.
As a person involved in the publishing ministry of the denomination (I was managing director of J. Appleseed & Co. at the time), I began to imagine yet a fourth avenue of use for Bob's concise way of presenting Swedenborg's overall theology: the book you are now holding. Converting the course into a stand-alone book, however, posed two challenges. In all three previous formats the students and laity were expected to have an ample collection of Swedenborg's theological works handy for the extensive assigned readings for each lesson. Yet, we believed that providing several Swedenborg passages (instead of tens of pages) illustrating each chapter of strategic topics would provide an excellent introduction to the whole of Swedenborg's thought for those not (yet) stocked with a full set of his writings. The paring down, however, needed to be done by a skilled teacher, and we were both already over-committed to other projects. And in addition to that task lay the even more cumbersome job of newly translating the selected passages. A stand-alone volume would need a consistency of expression, and the extant translations of Swedenborg's thirty theological works vary enormously in tone and style. These challenges led to a delay of three years, but they were resolved when Professor Kirven, after completing other book projects, offered not only to select but to translate the passages himself!
Matters have come full circle, I suppose, as I now teach first-year seminarians at our theological school (which moved from Boston to Berkeley in 2000) and use these lessons as a foundation, along with a number of other works, in a course entitled "Introduction to Swedenborgian Thought." So one might even say that Bob's original overview course is undergoing yet a fifth incarnation. My hope is that someday I will be as effective a classroom teacher as Bob Kirven, but that will be a tall order. He was a very popular teacher and spiritual mentor to more than a generation of students. He was prized for his largeness of spirit, his gentleness and humor, his sincerity and genuineness, and his theological creativity and clarity. There was a distilled spirituality in his presence from which we all drank freely.
It may seem an odd attribute to highlight, but Bob has wrestled since childhood with a slight stutter that occasionally becomes much more marked. This impediment contributed in a couple of ways to a sometimes riveting classroom presence. His struggle, at times dramatic, to speak his thoughts tended to draw me more intimately into his thought process. I've always harbored the theory that he by necessity developed a discipline for conciseness, and I know that I, at least, never had a teacher offer such richness with such economy. I share this because in a manifest way this carries over to his writing. His commentary on the ideas (or group of ideas) is at times very spare, yet, like traveling by air instead of by car, readers may with amazement realize how much ground has been covered at the end of each easy- reading chapter.
Three features of the final volume are important to note. First, by providing at the end of each lesson citations for all of the original readings, this book can be used for extended study of any particular topic or the whole theology; together, they comprise what seminarians would read in a course at the graduate school level. In addition, the original discussion questions from the correspondence course are included, which render A Concise Overview of Swedenborg's Theology an excellent book for discussion and study groups in homes and parishes. And third, the Swedenborg Foundation is currently producing a new translation of Swedenborg's theological works, the New Century Edition (NCE). In this new edition some of the English titles of individual volumes are being changed from those of the former Standard Edition and other editions currently in use that go back to the nineteenth century. Though at this printing only a few volumes are off the press, and it may be a number of years before the entire edition is completed, we foresee that the NCE will become the translation of choice for North American readers, and therefore the new titles are used in this volume. A reference chart correlating former and new titles is provided in the front matter.
I began this project several years ago with Bob. It met with some lengthy delays, but I am profoundly grateful to him for his teaching legacy and for his willingness to work, at times in poor health, to bring what I believe will be a treasure for many new readers to come. I am, as well, most grateful: to Ross Fish, then managing director of J. Appleseed & Co. (who also once took this course as a parishioner from his pastor) for his spirited support in starting up this publishing project; to Steve Koke, for his watchful eye in proofing and editing the text; and to Margaret Kirven Larsen for her invaluable assistance in copy-editing a final draft for publication.
-JAMES F. LAWRENCE,