Religious freedom has been popping up in the news quite a bit lately: The US Army considers whether to relax its regulations on dress and grooming to allow Sikhs—whose religious practices include men wearing turbans and growing beards—to serve in the military. A town in New Jersey debates whether to allow construction of a local mosque, as residents voice fears of a terrorist attack. And religious freedom has become a buzzword on the US campaign trail, as conservative voters protest laws that contradict their beliefs.
All of these debates center around the practice of religion: when, where, and how groups and individuals can put their religious convictions into action. Emanuel Swedenborg offers a different perspective: What if the real question isn’t how we practice religious freedom but how we practice spiritual freedom? And what’s the difference between the two?
First, though, it needs to be clear that all freedom is a matter of love, even to the point that love and freedom are the same thing. Since love is our life, freedom is also essential to our life. (Divine Providence §73:2)
Freedom is a characteristic of everything that belongs to love and everything that belongs to our will. Anyone can see this from the statement “I want to do this because I love it,” and the other way around, “because I love this I also want to do it.” (True Christianity §493)
When Swedenborg speaks in terms of freedom and love, he’s referring back to one of the core ideas of his philosophy: a person’s dominant or ruling love, which you could think of as the emotions, desires, or needs that drive us on a deep inner level. If we love ourselves or our reputation more than anything else, then we’re motivated by selfish love; if we put others first and if we love the divine (in whatever form that takes for us personally), then we’re motivated by positive, selfless love. When we’re doing what we love, Swedenborg says, we feel free.
In his writings, he talks about different levels of freedom that correspond to different levels of our inner being. We have earthly, or bodily, freedom in the sense that we can control our own actions. We can do whatever we want, except to the extent that laws, moral codes, or fear of social consequences hold us back. We have rational, or mental, freedom in that we can think whatever we want; we can reason through problems and decide what we think. We can also use our rationality to override our lower impulses—restrain ourselves from acting out of anger, for example, or giving in to temptation.
Our spiritual freedom, he says, works in a similar way. We can use our spiritual understanding not only to override our ego-driven urges but to untangle the mess of confusion that sometimes arises from overthinking a situation. The difference between spiritual freedom and mental or bodily freedom is that spiritual freedom comes from the Divine:
Spiritual freedom comes from a love for eternal life. The only people who arrive at this love and its pleasure are people who think that evils are sins and therefore do not want to do them, and who at the same time turn toward the Lord. The moment we do this, we are in spiritual freedom, because it is only from an inner or higher freedom that we can stop intending evils because they are sins and therefore not do them. This kind of freedom comes from an inner or higher love. (Divine Providence §73:6)
Swedenborg describes turning toward the Lord—regeneration, or spiritual rebirth—as a long and challenging process of personal growth. The end result is as much a freedom from the limits of the body and mind as it is a freedom to express divine love:
All the freedom we enjoy in earthly matters comes down from this higher freedom; and because freedom originates there, it has a share in all the free choices we make in earthly matters. From among our earthly options, the love that is dominant in us on the highest level selects everything that is well suited to itself. That higher freedom is present the way a spring is present in all the water that flows from it, or the way the fertility of a seed is present in each and every part of the tree that results from it—especially the fruit, in which the seed renews itself. (True Christianity §494)
From this perspective, spiritual freedom is a freedom without walls or limits. Even a person living in an oppressive regime or whose physical movements are restricted can live a full and beautiful life by first seeking out that source of divine love and then allowing that love to guide his or her life. And that love—that spiritual freedom—can be expressed through even the smallest actions, regardless of whether those actions are overtly religious. If everything that we do comes from divine love, then there’s no way to stop that love from flowing through the world.
What does spiritual freedom mean to you?
For an in-depth look at spiritual freedom in Swedenborg’s writings, watch “Spiritual Freedom,” an episode of our weekly webcast Swedenborg and Life (or read the recap here).
For more on the idea of dominant love, see our blog post “How Spiritual Growth Makes You More You”; and there’s also more about divine guidance in the post “Led by the Lord? The Spiritual Questions to Ask Yourself.”
Regeneration: Spiritual Growth and How It Works is a collection of Swedenborg’s writings on spiritual growth that outlines both the process and the internal factors at work.