The Swedenborg epic

Table of Contents


Chapter 24 - The Worship and Love of God

Swedenborg seems to have begun the work on The Worship and Love of God[301] on October 7, 1744. He abandoned the work on The Senses, part of which had already been printed. The drafting of the new work was finished in an amazingly short time, for the first part had presumably left the press when the introductory lines were written that so wistfully reflect the autumnal landscape.

The springtime of his own life was past, and Swedenborg was alone in London, sad and disquieted, feeling perhaps a sense of loss now that this work, the last of his philosophical ones, and in a sense his uttermost effort, was finished. Effort - for what? To lift the minds of men to contemplation of God, to show, both by argument and persuasion, what he himself had learned through so much rigorous labor - that the end of all ends is with the Divine and returns to the Divine. He was depressed by the reflection that it was unlikely to be accepted by the learned world, and he was lonely with the sense of his aloofness. Reviews of The Animal Kingdom were now coming in and he saw how far the public was from understanding him. He was far from his own country, his own people, as he took his customary walk in the English park which had given him delight ever since his first arrival in the spring of the ..year. But his sadness passed over into serious contemplation:

Walking once alone in a pleasant grove to dispel my disturbing thoughts, and seeing that the trees were shedding their foliage, dispersing the decorations of summer . . . from being sad I became serious ... while I began to meditate on the vicissitudes of times. And it occurred to me whether all things relating to time do not also pass through similar changes; namely, whether this is not the case not only with woods but also with our lives and the ages; for it is evident that they, in like manner, commence from a kind of spring and blossom and, passing through their summer, sink rapidly into their old age, an image of autumn. Nor is this the case only with the periods of men's individual lives but also with the ages or eons of the world's existence . . . [302]

If it is possible to sum up a lifetime of mental growth, to collect together the dreams of infancy, the pious teachings of parents, the studies f youth, the poetry of early manhood; if it is possible to incorporate a mature man's visions of social reform, his concepts of a system of cosmology, his experiences from the study of anatomy, and to combine them with the inward stirrings of psychic vision, and put all these things within the covers of a book - then The Worship and Love of God is that book! For in it Swedenborg sums up his whole lifetime of labor, and lays it at the feet of the Supreme Ruler of his mind. Like an Oriental suppliant, he spreads the burdens of his entire caravan before his monarch's throne.

"I could see that my whole life was a preparation," he had written, interpreting a certain dream. The preparation was now nearly completed, and the reason for it was summed up in this work as the worship of his mind and the love of his heart where all feelings were now subordinated to the love of God.

The splendid prose epic that resulted is a half-scientific, half-poetic paraphrase of the story of creation. It was not unconnected with his preceding Animal Kingdom, but rather a fulfillment of it, for in his "Prospectus" Swedenborg had indicated that his last part would deal with the City of God, seen as the culmination of all created things. With such a lofty, all-embracing purpose it is not strange that all the furnishings of his mental world had to be integrated into the work.

De Cultu et Amore Dei is a book written, as it were, more for angels than for fellow men. It, is as if the author, losing interest in arguing with those who can believe only the reasonings of their senses, seasonings which avail nothing toward spiritual things - and knowing full well within himself the existence of super-sensory reality - was longing to associate with those intellects that existed only beyond the earthly sphere. He reflects:

How lovely had been the orderly origin of the virgin earth from its pregnant parent sun! How sweet the perpetual spring, the paradisal garden where innumerable streams burst forth from their fountainheads, sporting through beds of violets and evergreens, watering the flower-painted tapestry of the earth! How numerous the offspring hatched from its complex kingdoms, dropping milk and honey, celebrating festival days! Every sense was satisfied, but as yet there was no being who could rejoice in all those beauties and from the paradise of earth comprehend the paradise of heaven, or offer immortal thanks to the Deity, thus returning all gifts to the Giver.

In the midst of a grove was a fruit tree that bore a small egg, most precious, in which, as in a jewel, nature concealed her highest powers. In that egg, pendant on the Tree of Life, vivified by the Supreme Mind, all things had been prepared in orderly stages for the production of the Firstborn. In the course of time the foetus broke through the bars of its enclosure and drew the air into his nostrils, saluting it with a kiss. Around the natal couch stood the inhabitants of heaven, gladdened by the sight of an infant, the hope of the whole human race. Lying with his breast and face upturned and his tender hands folded and lifted, he moved his little lips as if to venerate his Supreme Parent, not only in mind but also by a posture of the body, expressing thanksgiving that the workmanship of the world was now completed in himself.

The Firstborn is instructed by "Wisdoms and Intelligences," personified beings in whose veins runs love, not blood, and by whose presence man is made superior to brutes. They inform him that his mind is the soil and ground into which the rays from the Sun of Intelligence flow, with heavenly light and love. "Thou lovest that which thou perceivest to be good," they tell him. "All life is spiritual, and spirit is substance, and God Himself is the only substance real and true. Creation is an emanation from God, no substance being without a form whence it derives its faculties and qualities."[303]

They tell him that there are two ways of access to the mind, one from above, the other from below. God, the Great Architect, has also provided a link between heaven and the world so that lowest things may return to highest things, "outmosts to inmosts." This link is the Prince-of-this-World, a being endowed with great powers, the ruler of the five kingdoms of the senses. His palace is the animus or lower human mind. But this great Prince, ruling godlike over his vast empire, became so elated with the immensity of his power that he insolently wished to seize heaven also in his grasp. His revolt ended in his being bound by curbs and restraints, and made to execute the orders of the Deity. He is tormented by his hatred of God.

In the course of time the Firstborn wanders to a distant grove and sees, as in a dream, a Nymph, his future bride. When the lovely damsel arrives at the age of play and laughter she sees her own reflection in a fountain, is amazed at her image, and learns from her "Intelligences" about her faculties of soul, mind and animus, the mysteries of the human body and the perfections of life. She also is told that not far off there is another being assigned to be the consort of her life.[304]

The Firstborn sees the Nymph herself in the midst of the choir of her "Intelligences," and recognizes her as the original of the dream-vision which ,he had a thousand times recalled. He tenderly woos her and makes her his bride.

An ecstatic vision greets them on their bridal morning, which Swedenborg introduces with these words:

In the early morn, when Aurora sent forth on high into the hemisphere of heaven the rays of the rising sun, like arrows tinged with gold, they both awoke at the same time from a most sweet sleep in the conjugal couch they had shared; for a kind of heavenly lightning glanced over their eyes, driving away rest and drawing the attention of both away from each other and to itself. There appeared something in the middle region of heaven which as to display and signify the universe with its destinies' and inmost certainties; this presented itself to the sight of both in clear daylight . . . [305]

In their state of integrity the primeval pair now were shown, as in a picture, the end and goal of all human life. They were shown that everything, from first to last, conspires to the glory of the Creator, whose purpose is to form a heavenly kingdom or holy society as a Body of which He may be the Soul.. Around a center of dazzling light, they saw a border of flaming purple, in which were most beautiful faces and forms surrounded by a yellow glow. The vision changed into a heart-like vortex, with fiery streams coming and going. Thus was represented, in a complex image, the means and ends of the Supreme Mind - God's purpose of forming a heavenly society out of the human race.

This vision, which is reminiscent of one described by Swedenborg as a dream,[306] forms the Third Part of the Work on The Worship and Love of God, a part that was left uncompleted. He had issued Part II in the middle of March, 1745, and he had begun the printing of Part III. But before that was finished, a spiritual experience gave new direction to his life, interrupting his work in the middle of April, 1745.

It is strange that our knowledge of this momentous event derives not from Swedenborg himself, at first hand, but from a verbatim account written down by a friend. For although Swedenborg unmistakably refers to the same incident in two places in his manuscripts, in neither of them does he describe the nature of the occurrence.[307]

He was eating his midday meal, somewhat late, in an inn where he was accustomed to dine and where he had a private room. He was hungry and ate with a good appetite, his thoughts all the while occupied with speculations on the heavenly things that were hidden from the comprehension of men.

Toward the end of the meal he noticed a sort of dimness before his eyes. It grew darker, and then he saw the floor covered with horrible crawling creatures such as snakes and frogs. Swedenborg related:

I was astounded, for I was in full possession of my senses and had clear thoughts. At last the darkness prevailed, and then suddenly it dispersed and I saw a man sitting in a corner of the room. As I was then quite alone, I became very much frightened at his speech, for he said, "Eat not so much!"

Again all became black before my eyes, but immediately it cleared away and I found myself alone in the room. Such an unexpected terror hastened my return to my room. I showed no concern before the landlord but considered well what had happened and could not look upon it as a matter of chance or produced by a physical cause.

I went to my room, but that night the same man revealed himself to me again. I was not frightened then. He said that he was the Lord God, the Creator and Redeemer of the world, and that He had chosen me to declare to men the spiritual contents of Scripture; and that He Himself would declare to me what I should write on this subject.

Then, on that same night, the world of spirits, hell and heaven were opened to me with full conviction. I recognized there many acquaintances of every condition in life. And from that day on I gave up all practice of worldly letters and devoted my labor to spiritual things.

This comes to us from the pen of Swedenborg's intimate friend, Carl Robsahm, director of the Stockholm bank and fellow member of the Academy of Sciences, who had asked him about the facts of otherworld communication. It should be compared with the incident related in a letter from Dr. Gabriel Andersson Beyer, the first convert to Swedenborg's doctrines in Sweden:

The information respecting the Lord's personal appearance before the assessor, who saw Him, in imperial purple and majestic light, seated near his bed while He gave Assessor Swedenborg his commission, I had from his own lips at a dinner-party in the home of Dr. Rosen, where I saw the old gentleman for the first time. I remember that I asked him how long this lasted; to which he replied, "About a quarter of an hour." Also whether the strong light did not affect his eyes; when he said, "No."[308]

The statement that Swedenborg from that day on gave up all practice of worldly letters, leaves us in no doubt that this is the reason why the third part of The Worship and Love of God was left uncompleted. Or - if we prefer - the lofty purpose of that work was indeed attained but in a manner entirely different from what Swedenborg himself could have imagined. For the continued story would have involved a treatment of the fall of mankind from its state of perfection and also the way back from that fallen state and a return to the state of integrity intended for mankind at creation. Now if the way back led through the Word of God, then it is quite logical that just at this time Swedenborg's attention should have been directed to the explanation of that Word. For the argument in the third part is that man must rise, by worship, to loving approach to God.

* * * * *

What can be said of this remarkable book that so loftily combines science with poetry?

It may be viewed as an allegory describing the formation of the human mind. By the Firstborn is meant not an individual, but the Mind of the whole human race whose destinies his experiences describe. The work visualizes the soul in the state of its first purity, but more than this, it describes-by means of symbols-the formation of Swedenborg's own mind. For here are summed up all the periods of his life, scientific, philosophical, anatomical and psychological, ending in the mystic adoration of God.

It marks the curtain-fall upon the last act of his self-directed life, and as at the end of a play the characters make a bow before the curtain, so here we have all the periods of his career summed up in the performance of an act of worship. He chose a classical altar to outpour this worship upon, and before it he voices, as a kind of song, the grateful devotion of his heart for the favors that have been shown him. It serves to fuse his philosophy with the superior imaginative faculties that were now successively being uncovered. It represented spiritual ideas under sensual forms; it represented, in Swedenborg himself, the lost paradise regained!

For Adam was Swedenborg's new will and new understanding, a new man, created by God alone. When it is said that he burned to know whence the sense of goodness flowed into his mind, do we not perceive Swedenborg's own longing? Like Adam, he had seen himself in the bosom of Divine Love and had heard the words spoken within him:

My son, I love both thy wisdom and thee. Between love and love there is not a closer bond than wisdom. How vehemently thou desirest to know whence comes the happiness of life! Do not any longer inquire about the fountain. Thou sittest in its very heart. The love with which thou embracest me is from mine. I make thee feel it in thyself. Such is the nature of the souls.[309]

* * * * *

Many different evaluations of the meaning and importance of this rare composition have been made. One of Sweden's poets, many ears later, said of The Worship and Love of God, that "it contains enough poetic inspiration to have made a dozen poets into stars of the first magnitude in the heaven of Poesy, could it have been equally divided among them. "[310]

Very different was the estimate of Swedenborg's own day. The author's presentiment that his work might be regarded as mere talk, or as an idle plaything, was amply justified when he saw the reviews in various literary magazines. Critics wondered whether his purpose was merely to give the reader some moments of pleasant relaxation. Perhaps his intention had been to write a play, since the work was divided into scenes? The "Bibliotèque Raisonnée" reminded him that "of all the finest systems of creation it is only the system of Moses that can be maintained as entirely consistent with reason and experience . . . the only source of truth which is inexhaustible."[311]

That they should fail to grasp his meaning did not surprise Swedenborg, indeed he had expected it. But the accusation that this story - in which he had respectfully freed his mind from scriptural literalism - should be considered inconsistent with the Bible was a point that seems to have given him pause. For shortly after the review reached him Swedenborg instituted a careful comparison with the Biblical account in a manuscript entitled: The Story of Creation as given by Moses.[312] In this study he makes a survey of the sacred text according to the two great authorities - Castillio and Schmidius - comparing them word for word with his own poetic version, to see whether the Bible story agrees with his philosophical account of creation. After carefully comparing his work with the first chapter of Genesis, he makes the following comment:

In my treatise on The Worship and Love of God, Part I, I have treated of the origin of the earth, paradise, its verdant bower and the birth of Adam, but still. according to the leading of the intellect or the thread of reason. Inasmuch, however, as human intellect is in nowise to be trusted unless it be inspired by God, it is of importance to truth that those things which have been taught in the little work just mentioned should be compared with the things revealed in the sacred codex and here with the story of creation revealed by God to Moses; and the point should be examined, in what way do they coincide? For what does not straightway coincide with what has been revealed must be openly declared as wholly false or as an aberration of our rational mind. With this end in view I felt bound to premise a careful study of the first chapters of Genesis.

Now when I had compared these things with unremitting care, I was amazed at their agreement.[313]

Later on he says that whether man was formed immediately from the earth, or mediately from an egg, by means of some vegetable or tree, "he was nevertheless formed of the dust of the earth; for everything that passes through the roots and fibers of vegetables is from the earth."[314]

Swedenborg had hoped that his Worship and Love of God would be understood and accepted by some of the learned. He wrote to Ambassador Preis at the Hague, enclosing the first part of the work and asking the ambassador kindly to look it over and then, if he felt favorably disposed toward it, distribute the four enclosed copies to others, at his discretion, "particularly to some of the learned among the foreign ministers" (London, March 11, 1745)[315]

The Worship and Love of God contains certain passages which seem undeniably to indicate that Swedenborg, at the time he wrote them, adhered to various theological tenets of the Lutheran faith such as the dogma of three persons in the Godhead and a personal devil who had been created an angel of light but rebelled and was cast out of heaven. Such passages seem to have disturbed Swedenborg's earliest followers, and they were in grave doubt as to how this book should be regarded.[316]

Some years after the author's death an English gentleman wrote to the secretary of the first society formed for the dissemination of the new doctrines in Sweden, asking their opinion respecting the authority of The Worship and Love of God. Gustaf Billberg's answer was:

You wish to know our opinion respecting the truth of the work De Cultu et Amore Dei. I am able to tell you, on the authority of Christian Johansen, who questioned Swedenborg himself on this subject, that he obtained from him the following answer: "It was certainly founded on truth,. but somewhat of egotism had introduced itself, as he had made a playful use in it of the Latin language, on account of his having been ridiculed for the simplicity of his Latin style in later years."[317]

* * * * *

The material for a work of art is seldom original, for artists are part and parcel of their times and of the past, and play freely with concepts already in the minds of their readers. Lasting values seldom come from sudden novelties, but often from the new order in which familiar ideas are presented as a result of the artist's inspiration. We have seen this kind of inspiration constantly operating in the arrangement of Swedenborg's ideas.

With this thought in mind examining the sources for the ideas presented in The Worship and Love of God, we find a story about creation agreeing in general while differing in particulars with the one related in Genesis. For the theories of cosmological creation, the author drew on his Principia. For the idea of a Great Egg of the universe and for such terms as Olympus, Parnassus, Helicon, etc., he drew on Ovid and other classical writers. The concept of a Prince-of-this-World, or Lucifer fallen from heaven, was common currency in Christian lore and legend, used by Milton in his Paradise Lost.

The similarity of Swedenborg's ideas to Milton's is so striking as to be hardly explainable by both authors having had access to common mediaeval sources.[318] It may be assumed that Swedenborg had read Milton as a youth, for he mentions him in a letter from England, and it is unthinkable that so devoted a student of poetry should have passed over the very cream of contemporary verse. So Milton's powerful poem was part and parcel of our philosopher's mental heritage. Like Milton, Swedenborg borrowed freely from this source and that, always altering the ideas to fit them into his own scheme. This Milton himself considered justifiable for, by his own definition: "Borrowing, if it be not bettered by the borrower, is accounted plagiarie."[319] There are no property rights in thought. Swedenborg's Eve, like Milton's, sees her reflection in a fountain. Like Milton's "angels," Swedenborg's "Intelligences" address and instruct the Firstborn. Milton, like Swedenborg, voices Neoplatonic ideas:

What though this earth be but the shadow of heaven
And things therein each to the other like
More than on earth is thought?

The resemblance, in fact, is so striking as to suggest that Swedenborg's dream warning him "not to take of others' wares" was a reference to Milton.

* * * * *

The first phase of his life now was ended. He possessed a divinely fashioned compass and had already embarked upon a charted course leading to mysterious shores. His ship had passed familiar boundaries and was pointed toward the open sea. By the remarkable vision of April, 1745, the meaning of his life had been explained to him and his sadness had been turned into joy, his disquietude into comforting assurance. A commission had been given him by the Lord. What specific commands he received during the quarter hour of his divine inauguration we do not know. What we do know is that immediately afterward Swedenborg entered upon an exhaustive study of the Sacred Scriptures and that this fully engaged him for the next three years. Among his manuscripts from this time is found a collection of Scripture passages referring to The Messiah about to Come into the World, after which he makes the comment:

Jesus Christ, our Saviour, is the Messiah about to come . . . and judge the world, the time is now at hand, and He will surely come.[320]

On June 2 Swedenborg attended services at the Swedish chapel in London, making his usual contribution, and he did so again on Midsummer-Day, June 25, 1745. We may here note an earnest admonition given him in a dream not to discontinue church attendance and the taking of the communion[321]

In July he left London to return home from his fifth foreign journey, and on August 19 we again find his name on the roll of the Board of Mines. For a few months he resumed his residence in an apartment where the windows looked out over the bridges of Slussen and Skeppsbron but in the spring of 1746 he moved into his own home on Hornsgatan in the southern quarter across the river, which in the meantime he had had repaired and put into order.[322] Here, for the next twenty years, Swedenborg wrote most of his theological works. 

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