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Eighteenth-century scientist and mystic Emanuel Swedenborg wrote that all that exists in the natural world has a correspondence to something in the spiritual world. That means everything we see or hear has a deeper meaning—even the colors around us.
In this episode, host Curtis Childs explores Swedenborg’s writings to better understand the spiritual meaning behind color. What do they mean, and what can they teach us about God?
The Spiritual Barometer
Swedenborg learned that color represents how love and wisdom are received through a spiritual experience of a grey room. He tells the story of a group of spirits in the afterlife talking about the many different aspects of God, questioning how all of the variety in the world could come from one being. In response, Swedenborg has a vision of a gray, unswept room. The meaning? We all look different depending on how we absorb love and wisdom (which, as any good Swedenborg geeks knows, correspond to heat and light) from the Lord and reflect them out into the world.
Here’s another example of this dynamic:
Goodness and truth constantly flow into all of us from the Lord, and consequently real marriage love does too, but we receive it in different ways. The way we receive it determines who we are. With the lewd it turns into lechery, with adulterers it turns into adultery; heavenly gladness turns into unclean pleasure, so heaven turns into hell. The situation resembles that of sunlight flowing into physical objects, which receive it according to their form. They turn it blue, red, yellow, green, or murky, and even black, depending how they take it in. (Secrets of Heaven §2741)
Each color can have multiple meanings depending on how it interacts with that divine love and wisdom: for instance, white can represent self-righteousness in a bad sense, but in a good sense it means a genuine understanding of truth. Black can represent wickedness, but it can also indicate humility.
Proceeding & Receiving
Red symbolizes love with its goodness, and white symbolizes faith with its truth. Red symbolizes love with its goodness because the color comes from fire, and fire is love with its goodness. White symbolizes faith with its truth because the color comes from light, and light is faith with its truth. (Secrets of Heaven §9467)
Johanan Odhner, research professor at Temple University, helps us understand why these colors might have special meaning to us from a psychological and scientific perspective. He points out that it makes sense to break light into two kinds: white light, or the visible spectrum, and infrared energy, which we experience as heat.
But there are two parts to this dynamic: there’s the divine love (heat/red) and wisdom (light/white) proceeding outward into all of creation—and then there’s how we receive it.
The reason ruddiness or redness symbolizes the good in a life is that everything good comes of love, and real love is heavenly, spiritual fire. [The Word] even uses fire as a simile and metaphor for love . . . and it uses blood the same way . . . Since both are red, the good that comes of love is symbolized by ruddiness or redness. . . . Almost everything has a negative sense as well . . . so red does too. When its meaning is negative, it symbolizes the evil that comes of self-love, and again this is because fire is used as a simile and metaphor for the cravings of self-love . . . as is blood . . . That is what red symbolizes in a negative sense . . . (Secrets of Heaven §3300:2, 5)
What about other colors?
- Orange doesn’t get as much attention from Swedenborg, but is often connected to paradise.
- Yellow can mean grace and mercy in a positive sense, or worldliness and a love of wealth in a negative sense.
And the rest of the rainbow? Glad you asked . . .
Rounding Out the Rainbow
We dive right into the next series colors with a look at green. Green is everywhere, and most recognize it to mean life. But in the bad sense, it can mean earthly knowledge without spiritual context. Its positive sense flips that on its head to mean earthly science used to support spiritual faith.
Blue in a negative sense is arrogant self-intelligence without heavenly love, but its positive sense it signifies the heavenly love of truth.
Across history, purple has been a symbol of royalty. Swedenborg tells us there’s a spiritual meaning behind that:
Since “kings” symbolize those who, from the Lord, are in truths from goodness, it was a custom derived from ancient times for kings, when they were crowned, to receive such insignia as symbolizing truths from goodness: [such] as for the king to be anointed with oil, to wear a crown of gold, to hold a scepter in his right hand, [and] to be clothed with a purple cloak. (Apocalypse Explained §31:6)
In a bad sense, purple can signify religious truths used to dominate others. But on the other end of the spectrum (see what we did there?) it also represents the kind of goodness and love found in the highest heavens.
In the spiritual world, a swath of colors in one spot, as in a flower garden, can interact to form new meanings. In one of Swedenborg’s descriptions of a garden in heaven, even the angels could only guess at the real meanings of the colors they saw.
In the wrap-up, Curtis reminds us that the variety of colors in the world represent all of the ways that we reflect divine love and wisdom, but that each color can be expressed in a positive or a negative way, depending on how well we’ve learned our lessons. And if we know how to read them, colors might just also reveal something new about the deeper spiritual world around us.
Want to give it a try? See what emotions this meditation on color brings out in you.
- So how does knowing the spiritual meaning of colors help us follow God’s will?
- The Bible and other Christians talk a lot about being deceived by the devil through other beliefs. I believe in my heart of hearts that Swedenborg’s work is God-inspired, but a small part of me is afraid to be deceived.
- In the spiritual world, what is it in us that perceives colors? Do we have photoreceptors, or is it purely a mental thing?
- Is the lower earth void of color? Is it just shades of gray?
- Why is there a limit to the amount of colors we can see when we are in the physical, but people who have NDEs [near-death experiences] report seeing so many more when they were out of their body?
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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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