Originally published in the Swedenborg Foundation’s newsletter Logos, in the summer of 2006.
When Swedenborg wrote Secrets of Heaven, his largest theological work, which expounds the books of Genesis and Exodus, Scripture was a dominant force in the Western world. It was the chief sword used in many a doctrinal battle. Martin Luther, for example, rested his critique of the Catholic Church of his time on the Bible. The principle of sola fides, “faith alone,” was a corollary of the principle of sola Scriptura, “Scripture alone.” Luther saw the immense authority of the Catholic Church as outweighed—one might even say dwarfed—by the supreme authority of the Bible, which was not only the Word of God but the one and only Word, the Word. Small wonder, then, that when the spiritual world was opened to Swedenborg, he plunged into the study of Scripture, intent on disclosing as much as he could of the inner meaning that angels found in it.
As someone who had grown up and spent all his life in a Protestant world, what Swedenborg uncovered was probably very different from what he expected to find. This inner meaning turned out to lie deeper than the institutional and doctrinal divisions between Protestants and Protestants, deeper than the larger divisions between Protestants and Catholics, deeper than the divisions between Christians, Jews, and Muslims, deeper than the divisions between these “people of the book” and other religions. It proved that there was a common foundation for all the many mansions of human belief on earth. What the inner meaning disclosed was that it is inherent in the nature of an infinitely wise and loving God that every religion be provided with the laws essential to life in heaven. In fact, in heaven itself Swedenborg found many “gentiles”—those people for whom in their earthly lives the Word itself had been either beyond their knowledge or outside their belief. (In fact, Swedenborg implies that because of the sorry state of the Christian church, there may well have been more non-Christians than Christians going to heaven at that time.)
To comprehend “the spiritual sense of Scripture,” then, Swedenborg had to plumb a depth of meaning that showed cultural and religious differences were irrelevant to a life in heaven. His major work unfolding the meaning of Scripture, Secrets of Heaven, therefore showed the universality of the Hebrew Scriptures. Secrets of Heaven calls us to go beyond literal form to spiritual substance, beyond the many forms that goodness may take to the essence that makes all these forms good. The necessity for us to understand one another and the Divine, the tension between spirit and matter, the constant process toward spiritual perfection—all these and other similar truths of our existence are essentially the same, regardless of language, culture, gender, and the like.
This lesson of universal truth is implicit in the most basic facts of faith. For example, we read in Divine Providence §255:3 that Islam was founded because of the need for a religion “appropriate to the character of the people of the Near East” who had not yet received a monotheistic revelation. Jesus, of course, was both a Hebrew and a Near Easterner. This leads to the somewhat startling question: In what way, then, is Islam appropriate to the character of Jesus? The simple answer is: It is appropriate in those deep, under-lying truths that Islam shares with both Judaism and true Christianity.
In a symbolic manner of speaking, the effect of this approach to Scripture is to take it back toward its origin. Swedenborg’s homeland lay at the north-westernmost circumference drawn by the radius of Christianity in the western European world, about as remote as possible from the cultural heritages that inform the literal Bible story. In that sense we could perhaps say that Sweden represented the remoteness of Christian belief at that time with respect to the deeper meaning of the Word. By contrast, the Holy Land, the stage on which the biblical drama occurred, is the only place on the face of the globe where three continents meet. In various acts of the Bible drama, Africa comes on stage in the form of Egypt, Asia in the form of Assyria and Babylonia, and Europe in the form of Greece and Rome. We could say that the Holy Land represented the deepest reading of the Word, the one that demonstrates the love and wisdom inherent, through Divine inflow, in all religion. It was Swedenborg’s task to draw the reader back from the farthest circumference of the literal sense to the Holy Land that was the heart of the deeper meaning.
According to Secrets of Heaven §1401–§1424, God’s call to Abram in Genesis 12:1–3 was more than a literal call to one person; it was and is a call to everyone. Swedenborg explains it as inwardly representing the call to Jesus to leave his merely human existence and become one with Divinity itself, with a love for the whole human race. The universality of that love makes all Jews and all non-Jews—the entire human race—God’s “chosen people.” We can go further. To say that God’s Incarnation is “the definitive intersection between divinity and humanity” is also to say that it defines the intersection between each of us and our Creator. We can see this fact mirrored in the ease with which the explanation of the stories of the Bible patriarchs in Secrets of Heaven moves from a focus on Jesus’ glorification to a focus on our regeneration. The two topics are, at a truly deep level, inextricably fused into one.
There is a consequence of this fusion that is so obvious it is easy to miss. Both glorification and regeneration are stories, which means among other things that particular episodes or statements cannot be understood if they are lifted out of their narrative contexts and read apart from the sequence of events that gave rise to them or—most importantly for our future life—from the events that follow upon them. When we read in Revelation 20:12 about our books of life being opened and compared with the Book of Life, we may miss the point if we think of those books as ledgers, covered in individual pluses and minuses. Our deeds and intentions remain living stories written into our being and cannot be understood except in their entirety, including what they say about our life to come. Thus where we happen to be at any given moment of our own particular story is of less importance than where we are headed.
In this respect we are all exactly like everyone else. This is the global teaching of Secrets of Heaven. As it opens Scripture for us, it shows that those stories, with their basis in the deepest of all truths, are applicable to everyone who is, was, or ever will be.
[The Lord’s spiritual church] exists among nations far distant from the church. Many of the people in those nations . . . live according to their religion, loving . . . God and their neighbor. Their passion for goodness leads them to do deeds of neighborly kindness, and their passion for truth leads them to worship the Supreme Being. Non-Christians who are like this are those who are in the Lord’s spiritual church. —Secrets of Heaven §3263:2, translated by Lisa Hyatt Cooper