Originally published in the Swedenborg Foundation’s newsletter Logos, in the winter of 2005.
By Jonathan Rose
The New Century Edition will soon issue the first of the two volumes of True Christianity in a fresh translation by Jonathan S. Rose. Originally published in Latin as Vera Christiana Religio in 1771, this work was completed by Swedenborg less than a year before his death; it was his last major theological publication. Logos asked Dr. Rose for a short comment on one of the features of the text that struck him as unusual and might be of interest to Logos readers. He responded as follows:
Although all eighteen of Swedenborg’s theological titles are consistent with each other in many ways, each has its own personality. True Christianity is intended primarily to present a structured and carefully argued alternative to mainstream Christianity. While this essentially critical topic and the disputatious approach it requires might have rendered the work a bitter and ponderous read, Swedenborg leavens the message throughout with similes and a dash of humor. Here is one small but evocative example, given after a list of points to be taken up in the doctrinal argument:
These points will be brought to light so that when readers see the things that come later, their rational sight will not feel as if it were in a fog, rushing along city streets until it had no idea of the way home. (§396)
These similes often use parallel or contrasting images:
When God is the source we draw on for wisdom, we are like a bird soaring high, looking around at everything in the gardens, forests, and villages, and flying toward whatever it needs. When we ourselves are the source we draw on for things related to wisdom without believing that those things actually come from God, we are like a hornet that flies near the ground and, on seeing a dunghill, lands there and enjoys the stench. (§69)
At other times multiple similes are integrated into the message, as in the following brief “essay” on our powerlessness against evil and how we can exercise a power that is not our own:
The more we follow the divine design in the way we live, the more power we receive from God’s omnipotence to fight against forms of evil and falsity, because no one can resist evils or the falsities that go with them except God alone. All forms of evil and falsity are from hell. There they stick together as one thing, exactly the same way all forms of goodness and truth do in heaven.
As we said above, to God the totality of heaven is like one human being. On the other hand, hell is like one giant monster. Going against one evil and its falsity is going against that whole giant monster of hell—no one can do it except God, because he is omnipotent.
Clearly then, unless we seek help from God Almighty we have no more power of our own against evil and falsity than a fish has against the ocean, or a gnat against a whale, or a piece of dust against a mountain that is falling on it. On our own, the power we have against evil is much smaller than the power a locust has against an elephant or a fly against a camel. Furthermore, our power against evil and falsity is even weaker because we are born into evil. Evil cannot act against itself.
Therefore we have to follow the divine design in the way we live. We have to acknowledge God, his omnipotence, and our resulting safety from hell, and do our part to fight against the evil that is with us; this acknowledgment and this fighting go together as part of the divine design. Other-wise we cannot help being plunged into hell and swallowed up; and once there, we cannot help being driven by evils, one after the other, like a little rowboat on the sea being pushed around by storms. (§68)
True Christianity’s powerful message is leavened throughout with over four hundred similes, as well as imagery of many other kinds.
Excerpt on Nature as a Window to God
By focusing on what is known about bees as well, anyone can use things visible in nature to strengthen a belief in the Divine. Bees know how to collect wax from roses and other flowers, and how to extract honey. They know how to build cells like little apartments and lay them out in the form of a city with passages for coming and going. From far away they smell the flowers and plants from which they get wax for their hive and honey for food. Once stuffed with these, they fly in a straight line back to their own beehive. By doing so they store up food for themselves for the coming winter as if they saw it coming. They set over themselves a female to lead them as their queen. She gives birth to the next generation. They also set over themselves a kind of court for her, complete with bodyguards. When the time comes for her to give birth, she takes an entourage of these bodyguards, called drones, and goes from cell to cell laying eggs, which her crowd of followers covers with daub to protect the eggs from the air. This results in new offspring. Later on, when they have grown to the age at which they can take on these tasks, the young bees are expelled from the hive. They first gather into a swarm in order to stay together and then fly to look for a new home. In the fall the drones are taken away because they have contributed no wax or honey. Their wings are removed to prevent them from coming back and consuming the hive’s food, for which they did no work.
All this and more besides serve to show that because bees are useful to the human race, a divine inflow through the spiritual world gives bees a form of government like the one among people on earth, and even like the one among angels in the heavens. (True Christianity §12:7)