Originally published in the Swedenborg Foundation’s newsletter Logos, in the spring of 2009.
By George F. Dole
Swedenborg published two theological overviews, one early in his revelatory career and one at its close: The New Jerusalem and Its Heavenly Teaching, issued in 1758, two years after Swedenborg had finished Secrets of Heaven; and True Christianity, issued in 1771, a year before the author’s death. Jonathan Rose’s translation of the first volume of the latter was published in 2006, and I have recently finished a first draft of the former. The two works are strikingly consistent in substance and strikingly different in form, but Swedenborgians seem to have paid more attention to the similarity than to the difference.
We can get a quick, though somewhat misleading, overview of the contrast between them simply by looking at the chapter titles of the two works. Eleven of the twenty-four titles in New Jerusalem have no direct equivalent in True Christianity. I see this as somewhat misleading because the absence of a chapter title on a subject does not mean it has been completely ignored; but that absence does indicate a difference between the two works. It is surely striking that there is no chapter in True Christianity on the subject for which Swedenborgian theology is best known, that of heaven and hell. This is particularly remarkable in light of the fact that the preliminary outline of the work (in Survey 16) called for three chapters on life after death. Thus the omission from the final version must have been quite deliberate. Another remarkable feature is True Christianity’s treatment of the subject of God in three chapters, one on the Father, one on the Son, and one on the Holy Spirit. There is no precedent for this divided treatment in any of the preceding works. Even the preliminary outline in Survey called for only a single chapter on “The Lord God the Savior and the Divine Trinity within Him.”
In his introduction to the New Century Edition translation of True Christianity, R. Guy Erwin very capably documents the thesis that the work is “an attack on Lutheran theology,” and these two decisions about content—to downplay the afterlife and expatiate on the Trinity—make sense in light of Erwin’s reading. Lutheran theology had no prescribed doctrine of the afterlife, so that could be omitted. Its very core was a highly developed doctrine of the three persons of the Trinity, so that needed to be addressed directly and first. In brief, if you want to argue theology with an orthodox Lutheran, True Christianity is your book.
New Jerusalem, in contrast, presents the theology as it emerged directly from Swedenborg’s years of total immersion in the deeper meaning of Genesis and Exodus as he penned and published the eight volumes of Secrets of Heaven between 1749 and 1756. It begins with a preface concerning the new heaven and the new earth (which comes last in True Christianity), and after a brief prologue on the sad state of the church and the need for “a theology of charity,” or caring, plunges into the subject in quite extraordinary fashion—by highlighting the words “good” and “true” and saying that “nothing is more necessary for us than knowing what ‘good’ means and what ‘true’ means and how each focuses on the other, as well as how each is united to the other” (§12). In sharp contrast to True Christianity, the chapter on the Lord is not first but next to last, followed only by a kind of epilogue on ecclesiastical and civil government.
The work proceeds from its unorthodox beginning by a most thoughtful and thought-provoking examination of our human nature—our affective and cognitive abilities, our inner and outer natures, the different qualities of our various loves, conscience, freedom, our claims to worth, and the process of spiritual growth—fourteen chapters about us before turning to the usual stuff of theology: the sacraments, life after death, the church, Scripture, and, at last, the Lord.
The chapters are very brief, averaging about three pages each, but each chapter is followed by a series of very concise references to Secrets of Heaven that develop its theme in greater detail and at considerably greater length. The extreme case is the chapter on Sacred Scripture, where the initial exposition takes little more than a single page and is followed by sixteen pages of references to Secrets of Heaven.
The result is a book about living, and one that begins by going right to the heart of the matter—by asking what we mean when we refer to something as “good.” I am reminded of a classic exchange in George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara:
Stephen: I know the difference between right and wrong.
Undershaft: [hugely tickled] You don’t say so! What! No capacity for business, no knowledge of law, no sympathy with art, no pretension to philosophy; only a simple knowledge of the secret that has puzzled all the philosophers, baffled all the lawyers, muddled all the men of business, and ruined most of the artists: the secret of right and wrong. Why, man, you’re a genius, a master of masters, a god! At twenty-four, too!
Asking what is good is indeed quite a question “to begin with.” In effect, Swedenborg is warning readers that if they are not willing to look at the way their own feelings about what is good affect their judgments of what is true, and vice versa, they will be able to do no more than skim the surface of what is to come.
It sometimes seems to me that the brevity of the chapters, especially in contrast to the length of the chapters in True Christianity, has given the impression that New Jerusalem is a kind of “Swedenborg Lite,” and that if you really want to get into the theology, you need to go to the final work, the capstone. We need to entertain the possibility, though, that the brevity of the chapters may be balanced by their density and depth. They invite close reading and amply repay it. This is surely suggested by the detail provided in the citations from Secrets of Heaven. If all you want is a quick overview, that lies immediately to hand. If at any point your curiosity is piqued, you are given the ends of a whole series of strings to follow as far as you wish.
New Jerusalem differs from True Christianity in another respect as well. Except in the chapter on the Lord, it does not appeal to the authority of Scripture but, implicitly, to the reader’s own experience. This reminds me that the late New Church theologian Bob Kirven used to call Swedenborg’s theology an “empirical revelation”—a phrase that very accurately reflects the ex auditis et visis, “from things heard and seen” of the subtitle of Heaven and Hell and the ex auditis e coelo, “based on things heard from heaven” of the subtitle of New Jerusalem. The issue is most directly and poignantly presented in Secrets of Heaven 68: “I have seen, I have heard, I have felt.” In other words, New Jerusalem is primarily a theology to live by, which means we cannot truly understand it unless we look and listen and feel.
On its way to making this appeal to personal experience, New Jerusalem does in a sense start with a focus on the Lord. In §13 it says, “The divine plan calls for the good and the true to be united and not separated, to be one, then, and not two. They are united as they emanate from the Lord and they are united in heaven, so they need to be united in the church”—by which Swedenborg means here among us on earth. It is a remark so rich in meaning that it almost obviates the rest of the book: if we could just get ourselves to the heart of that first chapter, there would be little need to read further.