By James F. Lawrence
Spiritual support from celebrated saints who have departed this world has long played a role in Christian prayer life, but Emanuel Swedenborg expands upon this relationship, radically transforming the nature and role of angels in our spiritual lives. Far exceeding the spiritual elites elected by earthly church leaders, the new picture of who is assisting souls includes all those in the spiritual world who possess a developing set of skills for a ministry of presence with those still on earth.
During the eighteenth century, Swedenborg wrote about angels more than did any other writer at that time, and both popular authors and scholars have taken note. The 1980s and 90s saw a dramatic upsurge of interest in angels, with books about angels flooding the spirituality marketplace. While some of those books are Swedenborgian, a great many whose authors were not Swedenborgian still cover Swedenborg. In the nineteenth century, Swedenborg’s works, especially Heaven and Hell, played the leading role in revolutionizing perceptions about the afterlife and about what happens with the soul at the point of bodily death. The resulting culture shift shaped a new and rather exciting awareness of how near to us are those on the other side of “death.”
Leigh Eric Schmidt (of both Harvard and Washington University) and Catherine Albanese (of University of California, Santa Barbara) are two important contemporary scholars who identify Swedenborg as the leading force for transforming Americans in the nineteenth century to believe in the immediate presence of the spiritual world. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859–1930), the well-known British author and physician who wrote a virtual encyclopedia on the nearness of the spiritual world and on how to be touched by those who had passed on, also identified Swedenborg as the most important pioneer at advancing new constructs for fathoming the nearness of the spiritual world. H. W. Janson (1913–82), longtime scholar and chairperson of the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, published a study on the significance of nineteenth-century American cemetery art as it relates to our understanding of the afterlife. Janson illustrated how gravesites during that period represented an evolution in how Americans perceive where the dead have gone, with gravestone artwork reflecting an emerging belief that souls awaken immediately at death into a spiritual life. He cites Swedenborg as the number one factor in the evolving picture of an immediate awakening into the afterlife.
Previously, Christian cultures believed either in a double-judgment system or in there being an unaroused unconscious state in the grave until the Second Coming when all souls would arise from their graves to proceed to their eternal destination. However, the bell curve of belief changed significantly with the advent of the Swedenborgian-inspired view of a seamless awakening into the next life at the time of death that does not involve immediate judgment. In fact, Gallup takes an annual poll on American beliefs concerning the afterlife, and year after year the poll makes clear that a large majority who do believe in an afterlife believe both that it commences immediately at bodily death and that it is largely a loving affair.
The Swedenborgian view of a spiritual world that intimately surrounds and intersects with our natural world in an interconnected matrix of living spirit laid a foundation for understanding oneself to be hooked up at all times with God via a community of angels. Such a worldview that has us lovingly enmeshed in a complex spiritual care system of divine presence bristling with the community of angels can inform an intentional spiritual practice that attempts to welcome and be open to guidance and help. We might call this “communing with angels.”
The Rise of Near-Death Studies and Swedenborg
Swedenborgians have taken more of an interest in the emerging field of near-death studies than have most religious bodies. This is not because Swedenborgians are necessarily foremost in believing in an afterlife, but because the developing picture of what happens to us spiritually at the time of physical death aligns more closely with Swedenborg’s theology than it does with that of other Christian movements. In fact, the psychiatrist who performed the first qualitative analysis research study of people claiming to have had unusually vivid and visionary experiences at the point of clinical death also saw striking similarities between near-death experiences and Swedenborg’s discussion of what happens to personal consciousness when the physical body dies.
Reporting on this research in his 1975 bestseller Life After Life, Raymond Moody (1944–) coined the term “near-death experience” (NDE), which would become an ever-widening research field involving the clinical study of people reporting what were often extraordinary experiences at death’s door and even beyond the point where bodily function ceases. Over the ensuing forty-five years, the field of NDE studies has amassed many dozens of books and websites exploring this substantial body of contemporary first-person testimonies (see Near-Death Experience Research Foundation). In the final chapter of Life After Life, Moody identifies four literary sources in world spirituality who align with his incipient research. One of these sources is Swedenborg.
Swedenborg’s most focused writing on what specifically happens at death can be found in his own bestseller, Heaven and Hell, in the part of the book entitled “The World of Spirits and Our State after Death,” which might as well be dubbed “The Swedenborgian Book of the Dead.”
Intersections between Swedenborg and Near-Death Research
What Swedenborg describes in his writings has four characteristics in common with contemporary near-death experiences.
1. Undergoing a seamless transition to a spiritual consciousness that retains self-identity and that possesses sight, hearing, touch, and speech. This phenomenon is the very foundation of near-death experiences. At this point, there are thousands of testimonies reporting intense spiritual world experiences occurring at the moment of seeming death and often even after clinical death. Swedenborg writes,
Years and years of daily experience have witnessed to me that after separation from the body the human spirit is a person and is in a similar form. I have seen this thousands of times, I have heard such spirits, and I have talked with them even about the fact that people in the world do not believe that they are what they are, and that scholars think people who do believe are simpletons. Spirits are heartsick over the fact that this kind of ignorance is still common in the world and especially in the church.Heaven and Hell §456:1
2. Being met with and absorbed by a brilliant light—not a blinding light, but one endowed with a sense of aliveness and presence unlike anything in the physical world. This is the most common feature of NDEs, and Swedenborg has much to say about such a light.
The fact that the light of heaven holds intelligence and wisdom within it, and the Lord’s gift of intelligence, which essentially is truth, and of wisdom, which essentially is good, are seen by angels’ eyes as light, I have been given to know through actual experience. I was raised up into light which was flashing like the sparkling light of diamonds. While I was kept in this light it seemed to me that I was taken away from bodily ideas to spiritual ones, and so to matters belonging to an intelligent understanding of what was true and good.Arcana Coelestia §4413
In both bodies of testimony, a non-verbal communication accompanies the light, which results in us perceiving matters with a profundity and a fullness surpassing what we experience here on earth.
3. Being greeted by loving beings. Near-death experience testimonies often describe encounters with what might be called angelic figures. Sometimes these beings are not seen in specific forms, but rather are felt through a powerful sense of being connected with a higher presence. Swedenborg writes,
The first experience, being taken out of the body, is like this. We are brought into a particular state that is halfway between sleep and waking. When we are in this state, it seems exactly as though we were awake; all our senses are as alert as they are when we are fully awake physically—sight, hearing, and strange to say, touch, which is then more exquisitely keen than it can ever be during physical wakefulness. This is the state in which people have seen spirits and angels most vividly, even hearing them and, strange to say, touching them, with hardly anything physical interfering. It is the state described as being taken out of the body and not knowing whether one is in the body or outside it.Heaven and Hell §440
4. Flashing through a life review. NDEs often describe looking backwards to see the journey that has led to the present, typically resulting in having a deep perception of key lessons learned from that earthly life journey. Some have described this experience as watching almost instantaneously something of the whole of their life, along with a loving presence helping them to see something that is important for them to understand. Swedenborg very much affirms that the most important experience after awakening in the spiritual world involves sorting out one’s spiritual center of gravity. He writes,
We may also gather from this what is meant by our book of life, mentioned in the Word. It is the fact that all our deeds and all our thoughts are written on our whole person and seem as though they are read from a book when they are called out of our memory. They appear in a kind of image when our spirit is looked at in heaven’s light.Heaven and Hell §463
From a research standpoint, one of the most impressive features of near-death experience testimonies is the strikingly high incidence of similarities across such a diverse cross-section of humanity that spans cultures, ages, and prior religious beliefs (or lack thereof). That preponderance of parallels lends support for the proposition that these experiences point to objective realities as much as they describe subjective interpretations. Swedenborg subtitled his own bestseller “Drawn from Things Heard and Seen.”
Communing with Angels as a Natural Phenomenon
Ancestor worship seemed odd to me during my early years studying world spirituality. However, now that I have outlived a great number of important people in my life, I have come to appreciate those personal experiences that cause me to wonder whether similar such experiences led to the evolution of ancestor worship as an active spiritual care practice for those living on earth (a form of communing with those who have gone before).
In Swedenborgian spirituality, the interconnected energy systems of the Divine throughout every level of and order of being are akin to what makes a unified field theory: every thought and feeling is alive with innumerable connections through communities of life that all have their source in the Divine (Heaven and Hell §168). And so it is that we can be conduits of positive (and negative) forces for one another in this world and crucially also with those now in in the spiritual world who participate with us in the unified spiritual field.
Swedenborg affirms that spirits attend to each of us (Secrets of Heaven §904). When we open ourselves to and invite those with a much higher consciousness to be with us, we are potentially uplifted higher into divine light and love. In fact, “we have no ability at all to do good or turn toward the Lord on our own; it is the angels who give us the power” (Secrets of Heaven §233). Regular and intentional connection with angelic presence stimulates further motivation to be aligned and fused with divine will, which in turn empowers our will to choose regenerate living (Secrets of Heaven §99).
The more we can feel divine impulses, which angels facilitate, the better we can discern and choose how we want to be and live, and that is where a spiritual practice enters. Attention, openness, and desire function as pathways into energy channels for our deeper states of consciousness, both while awake and while we slumber. We tell God that we seek to be open to the ministry of angels who can help us recognize what is important, that we want to be aware of those things that need our attention, and that we hope to have the courage to prefer and intend loving outcomes for others as well as for ourselves. It is through these pathways that we can strengthen ourselves spiritually, just as surely as doing sit-ups and pushups strengthens us physically.
Communing with angels is one of the mediate links in the chain of being between us and the ultimate divine. We can trust that we are loved not only by God and by some in this world, but also by a host of advanced souls in the spiritual world. Swedenborg assures us that the power of angels is immense (Heaven and Hell §229). Now, THAT is something we can use.
Rev. Dr. James F. Lawrence is Dean of the Center of Swedenborgian Studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. He teaches in the fields of Swedenborgian Studies, Christian Spirituality, and New Religious Movements.