In Swedenborg’s cosmology, all of creation has a divinely established order that starts at the very top (the Lord) and extends down through the heavens and the world of spirits until it reaches the natural world, which is the level at which things have physical existence.
Each of these levels is a less-perfect reflection of the one above it. Heaven is a manifestation of the Lord, but its inhabitants are not as spiritually pure, and therefore it isn’t a perfect manifestation. The world of spirits, the intermediate realm between our world and heaven, is a lower level where there may be both good and evil spirits; because it is so close to the physical world, it resembles our world visually, and so spiritual substance appears as objects we would find familiar. In our natural world, we are so grounded in physical matter that we can barely perceive spiritual realities at all, but our physical reality is still a reflection of what goes on in the spiritual world.
An example of this is the sun. In the spiritual world, Swedenborg says, the omnipresent radiance of Divinity is compared to the sun of the natural world. The divine love that permeates the universe is like the heat of the sun, and the divine wisdom that provides order to everything in the universe is compared to the light of the sun. Together, the heat of divine love and the light of divine wisdom permeate everything that exists, sustaining all living things in both the spiritual and natural worlds.
While it may seem that all things of the natural world are sustained merely by the heat and light of the natural sun, Swedenborg calls this an appearance. In actuality, the sun of the natural world is a manifestation of divine love and wisdom. In other words, even though it seems to us like the sun is doing the work, Swedenborg says, it’s actually God’s love and wisdom that sustains life here also. If God’s presence were withdrawn from anything—even for a moment—it would simply cease to exist. And that goes for each of us as well!
So the sun in our natural world is a reflection of the sun in the spiritual world. By observing the way the heat and light of the sun interact with nature as we experience it through our senses, we can start to understand how love and wisdom work in the world of our inner spirit.
For example, when we say that someone has a “sunny disposition,” we are speaking in what Swedenborg calls “the language of correspondence.” God’s love is shining through that person. Similarly, when we say “now I see the light,” or “that person is quite enlightened,” we are using correspondential language to describe how God’s wisdom is manifesting in people.
It’s more than mere symbols; “correspondence,” as Swedenborg uses the term, is about a real, dynamic, ongoing relationship between divine love and human love, divine wisdom and human enlightenment.
So far we have only spoken about the sun because it is the most basic and most universal correspondence. However, it’s not just the sun that relates in this way. Swedenborg tells us that everything in this world is caused by a spiritual counterpart:
Nothing can exist anywhere in the material world that does not have a correspondence with the spiritual world—because if it did, it would have no cause that would make it come into being and then allow it to continue in existence. Everything in the material world is an effect. The causes of all effects lie in the spiritual world, and the causes of those causes in turn (which are the purposes those causes serve) lie in a still deeper heaven. (Secrets of Heaven #5711)
While it can be easy to see this as a static relationship—light always equals wisdom, water always equals truth, and so on—this is actually a dynamic relationship. Think about the way that your emotions are revealed in your facial expression. Emotions aren’t a physical thing—there’s no way to take them out of your head and look at them—but we can often tell what another person is feeling by observing the corresponding expression. Similarly, we can’t know what other people are thinking, but they can express their thoughts by speaking. The sincerely spoken word is a correspondence of the thought. The simple words “I love you” can correspond to a whole world of inner feeling.
Swedenborg goes into great detail about correspondences, especially about how the human body corresponds to heaven. You can read more about this on our page about the Universal Human.
Inner Meaning of the Bible
Swedenborg uses correspondences to interpret the Bible in a whole new light. He says that the Bible was never meant to be taken purely or even primarily in a literal sense, and he points out that it often doesn’t make much sense as a literal document. According to Swedenborg, the Bible should be read as a spiritual guidebook, not an instruction manual.
This is one of Swedenborg’s most important points, and something that distinguished him from the theologians of his day: the Bible is written in such a way that we can understand the spiritual truths behind the actual written words—truths that open up for us when we are ready to receive them.
In his first theological work, Secrets of Heaven, Swedenborg sets out to demonstrate exactly what he means by going through the Bible verse by verse, sometimes word by word, and explaining the spiritual correspondence behind what is written there. In eight Latin volumes (twelve or fifteen volumes in English translation), he gets as far as the end of Exodus. He seems originally to have intended to eventually go through the entire Bible, but the only other book that he examines at that level of detail is the book of Revelation.
As an example of how he uses correspondences to interpret the Bible, Swedenborg tells us that the story of Creation at the beginning of Genesis is actually the story of our creation as spiritual people—that is, it’s the story of how we can go from being completely focused on ourselves and the world around us to being caring people who manifest God’s love and wisdom as much and as often as we can. (For more about this, see our page on regeneration or read this passage in Swedenborg’s own words.)
For a quick video introduction to the idea of correspondences, see our short clip “Correspondences in the Bible” or, for a more comprehensive view, check out “Physical Correspondences,” a compilation of short clips about how correspondences act in our world.
For a discussion of specific types of correspondences, see John Worcester’s series Correspondences of the Bible, with volumes on The Plants, The Animals, and The Human Body.
Swedenborg lists hundreds of specific correspondences throughout his works. They’ve been collected together in a single reference book in George Nicholson’s Dictionary of Correspondences.