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The word conscience might make you think of Jiminy Cricket or some angel on your shoulder driving you toward good behavior, but the spiritual reality is a little more complex—and a lot more interesting.
In this episode, host Curtis Childs explores eighteenth-century scientist and mystic Emanuel Swedenborg’s spiritual writings about conscience: what it is, how to develop it, and how it evolves in us.
The Essential Elements
To understand conscience, we need to understand its opposite. Without conscience, the world would be full of people just taking what they want however and whenever they can, as illustrated by the unfortunate scene that played out at the offTheLeftEye studios.
What can remedy this situation? First, let’s look at how we form a conscience in the first place.
A conscience forms in us on the basis of whatever religious tradition we follow, depending on how deeply we internalize that tradition. (New Jerusalem §130)
Swedenborg’s view that any religious tradition can lead someone to heaven was revolutionary in his time, but it was inextricable from his learnings about the spiritual world. Conscience isn’t just about following a rote ritual; it’s about internalizing what you believe to be good and true. Conscience is a conscious decision to do good as you understand it, even if it goes against your nature.
But it’s not only about doing good—it’s about doing good for the right reasons. You have to want to do good out of a love for others, not for selfish or worldly reasons.
That’s Good, Right?
As Swedenborg understood it, conscience is not just some internal divider between good and evil.
Conscience is an inner restraint that keeps us focused on thinking, saying, and doing what is good and that holds us back from thinking, saying, and doing what is evil, not for selfish and worldly reasons but for the sake of what is good, fair, and right. (New Jerusalem §139:3; cross-ref to Secrets of Heaven §§1919, 9120)
But hang on: not everything that we think of as conscience is necessarily so. In his spiritual experiences, Swedenborg described something he called “false conscience.” Spirits would tell him, for example, that he should eat or shop at a certain place because the owners were good people or that he should not spend money outside his home country in order to help his national economy. While these are legitimate personal decisions, not everything is a moral issue. If obsessing over these issues leads to a constant sense of guilt, that can do more harm than good.
How do you distinguish between good conscience and bad conscience when religions have different or conflicting tenets? Swedenborg describes two types of conscience: conscience focused on what is good and conscience focused on what is right. Our outer selves—the parts of us that are driven by physical concerns—focus on societal laws and tenets (what is right), whereas our spiritually connected inner selves are driven by faith and goodness. The conscience focused on goodness is where we can find the overlap in different religious teachings.
Heavenly Access Infrastructure
Conscience is a place where heaven can operate in us. It’s the path through which God leads us to him, entering into our inner minds and gradually ridding us of evil. Across many religions, following your conscience seems to be a path to rebirth.
Those whose conscience governs them, or who act in accord with their conscience, act freely. Nothing repels them more than violating their conscience. . . . From this it stands to reason that the spiritual person’s conscience is a gift from the Lord, that it is like a new will, and therefore that the person who has been created anew is supplied with a new will and from this a new intellect. (Secrets of Heaven §918)
For those who have taken the first steps to spiritual rebirth, following conscience is like working out—the more you do it, the better you get.
But conscience is just one level in our mental and spiritual being. The next level up is perception, where it’s not just a voice in your head guiding you to do this and not do that, but it’s an intuitive understanding of what is good. In other words, conscience is about forcing yourself to do the right thing; perception is about doing good because you love it and want to do it.
The Lord gives [heavenly angels] a perception through love of what is good and true. From perception they recognize immediately whether a thing is so or not. (Secrets of Heaven §202)
When guided by conscience toward perception, life can be much different—and far better—as seen in this security footage from the offTheLeftEye production studios.
In the wrap-up, Curtis reminds viewers that conscience isn’t about being right; it’s about being good and loving to others. And as good as it is, conscience is just one step in the process toward becoming better people.
- What does Swedenborg say about the creation of humankind? Adam and Eve? Darwinism?
- Does each spirit and angel have their own truth, or is there just one truth for all?
- How does this theory work as far as building heaven for special needs people or the severely mentally ill?
- How do we know what choice is made out of good conscience?
- What are we supposed to learn from violent stories from the Old Testament that seem different from what Jesus taught?
Related Swedenborg and Life Videos
Free Books Online
New Jerusalem (has a great short chapter on conscience)
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About Swedenborg and Life
In a lighthearted and interactive live webcast format, host Curtis Childs from the Swedenborg Foundation and featured guests explore topics from Swedenborg’s eighteenth-century writings about his spiritual experiences and afterlife explorations and discuss how they relate to modern-day life and death.
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When we wake up in heaven, Swedenborg tells us, angels roll a covering from off of our left eye so that we can see everything in a spiritual light. The offTheLeftEye YouTube channel uses an array of educational and entertaining video formats to look at life and death through an uplifting spiritual lens.
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