Is our sense of self—the understanding that we exist as independent individuals separate from divinity—just an illusion? For anyone who studies Buddhism or Hinduism, that’s a familiar concept. Even Christian mystics describe experiences of being completely immersed in and united with God. Emanuel Swedenborg goes one step farther than the mystics: not only is our sense of self an illusion, he says, but it can be a harmful one.
Let’s take a step back. Psychology tells us that an ego is an important thing to have: if we couldn’t tell where we end and where other people begin, how would we function in daily life? But Swedenborg is speaking from a spiritual perspective. He frequently describes the feeling that we operate independently from God as outright evil, and in this passage he explains why:
The human being has two powers of mind, called the understanding and the will; to the understanding belong truths or falsities but to the will belong forms of good or of evil. Thus to the understanding belong the things which a person believes, and to the will belong those which he loves; for the things that a person loves are felt to be forms of good and those that a person believes are felt to be truths. . . . All the will side of the human proprium is evil, because by himself the human being does not love anything other than self and the world, or if he does love his neighbor it is for a selfish reason. Therefore a person has to be regenerated, and through regeneration must receive a new will. But the will received through regeneration is not the person’s own; it is the Lord’s as it resides with him. (Secrets of Heaven §10035:1, 2)
The Latin word proprium used in the passage above could be understood as a sense of self or independence; in some translations, it’s rendered as self-image, autonomy, or intellectual selfhood. It is sometimes translated very literally as own, meaning something that a person identifies as his or her own.
Swedenborg uses the word evil to describe our inborn sense of self, because it’s human nature to identify ourselves with self-centered desires: we want to acquire more stuff, be first in line, and be the center of attention. Sometimes even when we seem to be doing good in the world, it’s really because we’re driven by selfish motivations like wanting to improve our reputation. But when we identify too strongly with those selfish feelings—making them part of ourselves rather than rejecting them—the result is that we adopt evil as part of our identity. In other words, we own it.
Swedenborg goes on to say that if we want to rise above our human nature, we need to go through a process of spiritual growth, or regeneration. During this process, we shift from being self-centered to being other-centered, until we are motivated completely by love for other people. When that happens, he says, our own will (remember from the passage above that for Swedenborg “will” is what we love) is replaced by God’s.
But it’s not just our will that changes. It’s our entire sense of self:
Human selfhood [proprium], viewed from heaven, looks completely bony, lifeless, and hideous—inherently dead. But once the Lord gives it life, it appears to have flesh. Human selfhood is in fact nothing more than a dead trifle, even though it seems to its owner to be significant and indeed all-important. Anything living in us comes from the Lord’s life. If his life withdrew from us, we would fall dead as a stone. We are merely organs designed to receive life, but the nature of the organ that we are determines how we respond to that life.
Only the Lord has autonomy [proprium]. By his own power he redeems us and by his own power he saves us. This autonomy or selfhood of his is life, and it causes our selfhood, which is inherently dead, to come alive. (Secrets of Heaven §149:2)
Here we see the difference between our own proprium and divine proprium. Our sense of self is empty and lifeless, because there’s nothing of the divine in it; we believe that we’re separate from God, and so we are. But God’s sense of self is life itself, and when we put our own sense of autonomy—our proprium—aside and allow God’s to enter, we truly become alive.
So if our proprium comes from our inborn human nature, then what kind of proprium does the omniscient, omnipotent creator of the universe have?
Swedenborg, of course, has an answer. He describes God’s proprium as pure goodness (Secrets of Heaven §§3813, 10035; Heaven and Hell §591) and, as in the passage above, as life itself. Elsewhere in his writings (for example, Divine Love and Wisdom §1), he also says that divine love is force that gives us life. We start to see an equation take shape:
God = good = life = love
Take a moment to imagine that. What if your very core, the essence of everything that you are, was pure love? What if you were unable to think about yourself except in terms of loving others and wanting nothing but good for them? That, we’re told, is what it’s like to be God.
Swedenborg goes on to say that the people who embrace this type of love to the fullest extent that they can (depending on where they are in their spiritual journey) not only set aside their ego but also their sense that they are doing everything on their own. This doesn’t mean that they lose their sense of individuality; rather, divine love and goodness shines through them in a way that is uniquely their own, like light beaming through a stained-glass window.
Allowing God’s proprium to flow into and through us helps to bring about a heavenly state on earth, Swedenborg adds:
The more present the Lord is in heaven, the more hell moves away. When we depend on ourselves, we are in hell. When we depend on the Lord, we are in heaven and are always being lifted up from hell into heaven. The higher we rise, the greater the distance between us and our hell.
The sign or indication that the Lord is present, then, is the withdrawal of our own will. Times of trial and many other means of regeneration work to distance it. (Secrets of Heaven §1044:3)
So when we take our personal “stuff”—our fears and desires and self-doubt and any other hang-ups that affect our daily lives—and set it aside, then we create space for divine love to enter. Or, to put it another way, we replace our ownproprium with God’s and become truly spiritually alive.
What would it be like to be alive in that way?
For more about the proprium:
Read another blog post about the proprium in “How Spiritual Growth Makes You More You.”
Watch a video clip of Latin scholar and series editor of the New Century Edition translation series, Rev. Dr. Jonathan S. Rose, talking about the Latin meaning of the word proprium and what it means in Swedenborg’s writings. (This clip is from“Spiritual Light,” an episode of our weekly webcast Swedenborg and Life.)
Or watch an entire episode of Swedenborg and Life devoted to this topic: “The Infinite in You.”
Postscript: But What about Jesus?
In Swedenborg’s theology, Jesus is the human manifestation of God, born on earth in order to subdue the evil that was threatening to overwhelm both this world and the next.
Did living on earth affect God’s sense of self? Actually, according to Swedenborg, it was the other way around: God living on earth brought his goodness and love closer to us, thus potentially affecting every human being. As Jesus lived and grew progressively closer and closer to his divine self, he was giving all of us a model for how to replace a human sense of selfhood with a divine one.
[The Lord] was born in order to unite his divinely heavenlike selfhood [proprium] to a human one, in the context of his human nature, by the use of his divine power, so that they could become one inside him. Had he not united them, the world would have ended in total destruction. (Secrets of Heaven §256)