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Who was Emanuel Swedenborg?
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Who was Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772)?
He was a Swedish nobleman, a contemporary of Bach, Benjamin Franklin, Kant, Wesley, and Newton,
living at the time of the first full flowering of what we now think of as modern science. For the first two-thirds of his life, he was deeply immersed in both the physical and biological aspects of that science and in philosophy as well. He not only studied these subjects but also wrote voluminously and originally about them. His theories about some subjects, such as brain function or cosmology, were proposed many years ahead of those authored by the men generally credited with originating them. He devised a heavier-than-air aircraft and a variety of other inventions that were ahead of their time.
Most significant, however, is not any individual part but the phenomenal scope of Swedenborg’s accomplishments. He lived during the last time in history when one person could master in a lifetime the full sweep of Western philosophic and scientific thought. And this is just what he did, while at the same time living an active political life and working as an engineer and mineralogist for the Swedish Board of Mines, itself a demanding job because the Swedish economy was largely based on mining. He also learned a diverse array of practical skills, from watch-making to celestial navigation. In summary, it seems fair to say that Swedenborg was a daVinci-like genius of the first magnitude, what would later be called a "system" thinker. In Emerson's words (in the chapter on Swedenborg in Representative men), he was a man "not to be measured by whole colleges of ordinary scholars." (See the chart of his accomplishments.) In sheer volume, Swedenborg’s written work is so enormous that few have read it in its entirety. His fully Divinely inspired theological work alone is not simply 32 volumes long, but densely packed with often profound and theologically ground-breaking ideas.
How do you judge such a person?
How can we know if Swedenborg’s theology is the result of his own great insight or is truly Divine revelation, in fact nothing less than the Second Coming of Jesus Christ? The answer, of course, is that we can't. Here again, God is seeing to it that our spiritual free will is protected. As those who wish to do so can find reasons not to believe that there is a God or that He came to this planet in person, or even that a particular scientific finding is true, so those who wish to can find reasons to credit Swedenborg's theology to him rather than believing it to be revelation from God.
Consider, however, some of the more obvious aspects of Swedenborg's life and work that bear on the believability of his revelatory claim:
Yet all this still does not fully make clear Swedenborg’s accomplishment. His revelation was not simply large in page-count terms. It was also of staggering scope, complexity, and originality, especially in the context of Swedenborg’s own time. (One reason some of his ideas no longer seem so original is that, in the 200 years since he wrote them, many of those ideas have worked their way into our culture by indirect means, notably in the works of the many influential people who read his work, ranging from the Brownings to Emerson and Helen Keller.) Could a man, even a genius like Swedenborg, have accomplished all this and so late in life? The experience of other people, geniuses or not, suggests it would be impossible for a person on his own. But, once again, we just don't know. Whether Swedenborg was simply another theological commentator like Luther or Calvin, or the last and greatest of the prophets, is a matter of belief, just like the question of whether there is a God and whether He reveals Himself to us in the first place. If, as the teachings of the Second Coming state, you are living in spiritual freedom, all you can do is to search for the explanation of reality that makes the most sense to you - with the cautionary note that we all have the tendency, under the affirmative and negative principles (Arcana Coelestia 2568, 2588), to relate to that which confirms what we already believe.
A final thought from Swedenborg, made in the last moments of his life:
After all the huge range of remarkable teachings that had been revealed to him - "I could have said more had it been permitted." What other amazing things might that "more" have included? We will only discover the answer, presumably, when we ourselves experience the "revelation" of passing into the spiritual world at death.
Swedenborg’s claim to have received the revelation of Jesus Christ in His Second Coming has been, not surprisingly, a controversial one. The diversity of opinion about it is reflected in the various biographies of Swedenborg, which range across the spectrum from giving full credence to his claim to outright dismissal of it. There is a similar range of treatment in reviews of the books of Swedenborg's theology. Some biographies primarily cite the works that Swedenborg published himself, which appear to be authoritative Divine revelation, and others quote his unpublished work, typically The Spiritual Diary (Spiritual Experiences in more recent translation) and The Apocalypse Explained, which do not appear to be based on authoritative revelation. (The latter work should not to be confused with The Apocalypse Revealed. For a list of the authoritative works, see The Second Advent Christian™ Canon of Scripture. For a review of this issue, see "Which of Swedenborg's books are Divine revelation?")
The "outright dismissal" approach is of course a perfectly valid position. Indeed, it would appear to be an inescapable one for a non-believer. As Jonsson notes in his biography (listed below), "Those who do not share his belief [i.e. Swedenborg's belief that he had a true revelation] can only try to fit him into the traditional pattern, and support can be found in the religious-historical view that the assumption of a religious role is always dependent on the entire makeup of the individual, including his level of education." (p. 16).
There is also no question that many ideas similar or identical to those of the Second Coming are to be found in earlier work, such as Origen of Alexandria's (ca.185-254 A.D.) concepts about there being an inner spiritual sense of the Bible (e.g. see "The Theology of Origen" New Church Life, 1903, pp. 132-137, 206-210), Pelagius' teachings on free will, and the Neoplatonists' subscription to the ideas of a spiritual sun and what Swedenborg would later term correspondences (see C. Sigstedt The Swedenborg Epic, New York: Bookman 1952, p. 179). The Neoplatonists' leader Plotinus also had the idea of creation coming out of God, as opposed to the traditional Christian idea of creation ex nihilo.
However, the critical point missing from proposals that Swedenborg took ideas from such sources is consideration of the extent to which those ideas in turn could be traced back to earlier revelations, ultimately to the teachings of the Ancient Church (True Christian Religion 264-266). This oversight is particularly surprising in view of the explicit detailing of this history of revelation in the Second Coming teachings, such as:
The important point to note here, however, is that - from a "believer" perspective - it really doesn't matter what the apparent origins of the teachings of the Second Coming are. The rules of the Ten Commandments were not original, having appeared in such places as the Code of Hammurabi (see also L. Boadt Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction New York: Paulist Press 1984) long prior to their being given on Mt. Sinai. What distinguished the Commandments from earlier such lists was that God put His seal of approval on them at Sinai, giving them Divine authority. Similarly, whether a given teaching of the Second Coming was - under the guiding hand of Providence (i.e. Jesus) - derived from something Swedenborg had read earlier in life or from material he received for the first time as revelation, it is the Divine imprimatur of inclusion in Swedenborg's inspired works that gives the Second Coming teachings their authority.
E. Benz. Emanuel Swedenborg. Visionary savant in the age of reason. (West Chester: Swedenborg Foundation 2002. Translation of the German original, published in 1948) - An extensive consideration by the noted German scholar, basically, though not completely, affirmative to Swedenborg’s claims. Review of Swedenborg's theology is for the most part taken from Swedenborg's published work.
L. Bergquist. Swedenborg's Secret. (London: Swedenborg Foundation 2005. Translation of the Swedish original.) Long and scholarly, with some attribution to "inspiration" but basically in the Lamm tradition (see below), e.g., with Swedenborg's "interpretations" seen as influenced by experience ranging from his father to Pietists and Moravians to Swedenborg's knowledge of anatomy and his political experience. Cites both unpublished and published works.
M.B. Block, The New Church in the New World. A Study Of Swedenborgianism In America (New York: Henry Holt 1932; reprinted New York: Octagon 1968). A brief and readable overview of Swedenborg and his revelation, presented as introductory material to a social history of the individuals and organizations that were affected by the revelation's teachings. Objective but affirmative, cites published works.
G.F. Dole, R.H. Kirven. A scientist explores spirit. A biography of Emanuel Swedenborg with key concepts of his theology. (West Chester: Swedenborg Foundation, 1997) - Brief and readable, basically affirmative but also ambivalent about the extent to which the Swedenborg's theological works are Divine revelation and the extent to which they are a product of Swedenborg’s own thinking. Cites both unpublished and published works.
I. Jonsson. Emanuel Swedenborg. (New York: Twayne 1971, reprinted by the Swedenborg Foundation in 1999 under the title Visionary scientist. The effects of science and philosophy on Swedenborg’s cosmology. ) - This biography falls squarely in the Lamm tradition (see below), attempting to demonstrate that the source of Swedenborg’s ideas was his culture rather than revelation. Cites both unpublished and published works.
M. Lamm. Emanuel Swedenborg. The development of his thought. (West Chester: Swedenborg Foundation 2000. Translation of the Swedish original, published in 1915) - Lamm was the original proponent of the idea that Swedenborg’s work was not based on revelation at all but simply a recycling of ideas taken from other sources in the history of ideas. This position has been echoed in more recent work, such as the Jonsson and Bergquist biographies, and the Lang introduction to the New Century Edition of Heaven and Hell (West Chester: Swedenborg Foundation 2001). Cites both unpublished and published works.
C. Sigstedt. The Swedenborg epic. (Bookman Associates: New York, 1952, reprinted by the Swedenborg Society in 1981) - Affirmative and, in terms of length and historical coverage, definitive. It is written in narrative form, as what would now be termed a non-fiction novel. The book is not a reliable guide to the teachings of the Second Coming, however, since much of its review is drawn from the unpublished works, typically the Spiritual Diary (see "Which of Swedenborg's books are Divine revelation? for an explanation).
S. Synnestvedt. A short biography from The Essential Swedenborg. (New York: Swedenborg Foundation, 1976) - Concise and neutral selection of passages quoted directly from Swedenborg's works. All but a minority are drawn from the published works.
S. Toksvig. Emanuel Swedenborg: Scientist and mystic. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1948) - This brief biography is skeptical of Swedenborg’s claims but relatively balanced. Cites both unpublished and published works, but with Spiritual Diary preponderant.
G. Trobridge. Swedenborg life and teaching. (New York: Swedenborg Foundation 1935, several reprints) - At one time the popular biography. Intermediate length, affirmative. Majority of citations from published works. (Most of this book is available online.)
Wikipedia entry, "Emanuel Swedenborg." Diverse collection of information, typical of Wikipedia. Also typical is the various authors' attempt to present Swedenborg and his theology in a fair and neutral way.
J. Williams Hogan. "Swedenborg: A biography," in Swedenborg and His Influence. E. J. Brock (ed.). Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania: The Academy of the New Church, 1988. pp.3-27. Brief and affirmative. Cites only published works.
For Further Reading
K. Akert, M.P. Hammond. "Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) and his contributions to neurology." Medical History 1962 Jul;6:255-6
Dunér D. "[On tremulations. Emanuel Swedenborg's iatromechanics]" Svensk medicinhistorisk tidskrift 2005; 9:27-48.
H. Fodstad. "The neuron theory". Stereotactic and Functional Neurosurgery. 2001;77:20-4
E. Gordh, Torsten ; G.P. Mair, William ; Sourander, Patrick "Swedenborg, Linnaeus and Brain Research and the Roles of Gustaf Retzius and Alfred Stroh in the Rediscovery of Swedenborg’s Manuscripts" Upsala Journal of Medical Sciences 2007; 112:143-164
C.G. Gross. "Emanuel Swedenborg: A neuroscientist before his time." The Neuroscientist 3: 2 (1997): 142-147 (also appears in C.G. Gross. Brain, vision, memory. (Boston: MIT Press, 1998) and in The New Philosophy 1999;102:429-445)
C.G. Gross. "Twitches versus movements. A story of motor cortex." The Neuroscientist 2003; 16: 332-342
Gross, C. "The Discovery of Motor Cortex and its Background." Journal of the History of the Neurosciences. 2007; 16:320-331.
Gross, C. "Three before their time: neuroscientists whose ideas were ignored by their contemporaries." Experimental Brain Research. 2008 Jul 19. [Epub ahead of print]
R.H Griffith. "Swedenborg in the realm of finance." The New Philosophy 1972;75:283-289.
H. Söderberg. Swedenborg’s 1714 airplane. A machine to fly in the air New York: Swedenborg Foundation, 1988)