We all know that multiple levels of truth can be found within many poems, stories, essays, songs, and speeches. Likewise the parables, allegories and symbols of the bible come alive when read with an understanding of how literal meanings correspond with the spiritual truths folded within them. Within the Christian community it is universally understood that these deeper meanings have been revealed progressively. Each age of mankind has had greater access to the Word’s deeper meaning than in previous ages. For example, the Mosaic laws governing the Hebrew theocracy take on greater significance with the first advent of Christ. We see foreshadows of the passion and ministry of Jesus in stories about Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac and the mercy of Joseph toward his brothers. During Jesus’s earthly ministry, our Lord pulled aside the twelve and showed them the inner significance of His parables, meanings not revealed to the crowd. Following resurrection, our Lord instructs the disciples in all the ways the Law and Prophets point to Him, open secrets unknown to the priests and scribes.
God has good reasons to release His spiritual light over time rather than all at once for all. First, mankind’s spiritual needs change over time. Unchanging spiritual truth must be repackaged in a form we can receive. More importantly though, over time the revelations become encrusted with man-made traditions that obscure and corrupt the original message. Antediluvian society fell deeper and deeper into evil until the Flood ushered in a new covenant. During their prolonged slavery in Egypt the Hebrews lost sight of the patriarchal faith and started to worship idols. The revelation on Mount Sinai restored faith in the Holy One and laid the foundation for temple worship. With time the priests and scribes of Israel reduced the Law of Moses to empty ritual and burdensome regulation. The first advent of Christ restored spiritual life to the church.
Clearly the Word provides specific application to each stage of civilization. The Torah gave structure to Hebrew church yet contained spiritual seeds for the Gospel, which led the early church with lessons of grace and compassion, both of these still shrouded within mysteries of faith. Is it any wonder then that God would open the text even further, appealing to modern sensibilities born during the Enlightenment? Up until the Enlightenment, both Catholic and Protestant churches analyzed and codified their biblical interpretations. Like all previous churches, faith and worship of the Lord became constricted by rigid rituals, creeds and catechisms. Given the historic cycle of corruption and rebirth within religion, is it inconceivable that freeing the Word from the dogmas imposed upon it, many assertions of orthodox Christian faith would be shown false?
Evidence of God’s on-going project of revelation can be found in the writings of Emmanuel Swedenborg. Starting around 1745 until his death in 1772 A.D., Emanuel Swedenborg experienced visions from the Lord. During these visions, the Lord instructed him to record the Word’s deep symbolism. This symbolism represents the innermost significance, as opposed to the literal, surface meaning of the scriptural accounts. Students of Swedenborg believe that God, long ago, assigned specific meanings to each word and phrase of scripture. God kept these meanings hidden until modern hearts and minds were disposed to accept their profound and eternal teachings. Through the Writings, the Lord has established a new church, the New Jerusalem, to restore true and regenerative faith to humanity.
Yet Swedenborg is not unique in claiming to have brought forth new spiritual revelations during the modern period. Joseph Smith presented us with the Book of Mormon, claiming it to be another testament of Jesus Christ. Mary Baker Eddy wrote about Christian Science. In our day, New Age mystics tell us about their visions, and contemporary Gnostics have revived recently recovered ancient scriptures.
What is it that makes Swedenborg any different? Why should we take him seriously or give the Writings a passing glance? Clearly Swedenborg never met Jesus or any of the twelve during their earthly stays. Although Swedenborg was the son of a Lutheran minister, he himself was not part of any religious order. Swedenborg published the Writings anonymously as a layman. Moreover he wrote in scholarly Latin and not any common tongue. And even though a few instances of his clairvoyance and prescience have been recorded, modern people rightly treat such miracles skeptically. None of these facts establish Swedenborg as a spiritual authority nor do they confirm the truth of the revelations he claimed to have received.
The value of studying Swedenborg comes from his penetrating insights. Throughout his voluminous work Swedenborg gives us an exhaustive and internally consistent interpretation of the allegories, symbols, and figurative language used throughout the Word. The Writings demonstrate line-by-line and word-by-word, the previously hidden significance of the biblical text. In short, the authority of the Writings rests on their conformity to Scripture. You do not need anyone else to tell you whether this conformity is real or only apparent. It is your soul, so you be the judge.
While students of Swedenborg readily accept the opinions stated above, those unfamiliar with the Writings are right to be skeptical. Much of what Swedenborg teaches undermines the dogmas and doctrines of the Catholic Church, mainline Protestant denominations, and Evangelicals. Some churches even go so far as to brand him a heretic and consider the New Church a dangerous cult. If so many traditional Christian churches oppose Swedenborg’s theology, why should you consider the esoteric teachings of this relatively obscure Christian mystic?
You should study Swedenborg if you find that traditional explanations about the creation, nature of God, the Trinity, and Christ’s dual nature as both human and God, do not satisfy your intellect. Does your current religion ask you accept mysteries on blind faith or profoundly felt intuitions? Swedenborg does not ask you to simply believe anything without a rational basis. Most reasonable people want to know that their beliefs, while perhaps not provable, are not at least blatantly irrational. The New Jerusalem presents a version of Christianity that any fair-minded person can confirm by using their own discernment. Once you have been exposed to the deeper spiritual meanings found in the Word, the veils of mystery surrounding most Christian concepts will fall away.
Initially many of Swedenborg’s ideas seem too fantastic to me. His “memorable occurrences” describe features of the spiritual world and conversations with spirits and angels. To my modern ears, these mystical experiences sound unbelievable. Nevertheless I find his systematic approach to biblical interpretation and religious concepts both insightful and profound. The New Church doctrines concerning the nature of the Trinity and the means of our regeneration and salvation appear reasonable and rational, even if discovery of these ideas lies beyond the reach of reason alone.