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Religious differences have been the cause of countless debates and conflict—but what if major religions weren’t as different as they seem? What if all religious traditions are based on spiritual truths in the same way that scientific understanding comes from the physical world?
In this episode, host Curtis Childs and featured guests explore what eighteenth-century Christian mystic and philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg discovered during his mystical explorations of the spiritual world about the value of religious diversity. Bringing in students of many religious traditions, we’ll discuss how love is the spiritual reality and common bond connecting all faiths.
Author Richard Smoley talks about the appearances of Swedenborg’s ”Universal Human” in various religions—from Hinduism to Zoroastrianism. They all describe some variation of one enormous human form of which we are all a part, and in this we see from where came the concept that we are all fundamentally one.
Richard also draws attention to Swedenborg’s view that there are several levels of reality spanning from heaven to hell, although they are described differently in other religions. Some sects of Buddhism, for example, teach about levels of spiritual reality that have rough parallels to heaven and hell; but they do not see them as places where people remain eternally. Many religions agree, though, that there are realms other than the physical reality that we witness.
Another striking overlap between these worldviews is the presence of invisible entities who are able to interact with us. Whether we’re discussing angels, demons, spirits, or djinn, we’ll see alignment across many faiths. And even those traditions that have not made contact seem to agree on the existence of spiritual beings beyond our vision.
Since many traditions throughout time have agreed that there are certain spiritual realities, we feel drawn to ask what the truth is behind these realities; and in doing so, we should begin with the nature of God. According to Swedenborg:
God is love itself and wisdom itself. These two constitute his essence. All the infinite things in God and all the infinite things radiating from him relate to two essentials: love and wisdom. Our earliest ancestors saw this relationship. In the sequence of ages that then followed, however, people removed their minds from heaven, so to speak, and plunged them into worldly and bodily preoccupations, with the result that people became unable to see this relationship. They began not to know what love is in its essence, and therefore what wisdom is in its essence. They forgot that without a form there is no love, because love operates in forms and through them. God is substance itself and form itself, and is therefore the first and only substance and form, whose essence is love and wisdom. . . . Furthermore, love is the essence that not only forms all things but also bonds and unites them to each other; therefore love is the force that holds all things in connection. (True Christianity §37:1)
Truths such as these have united people for longer than we have historical record. Swedenborg wrote that ancient people were able to experience spiritual truths directly, in much the same way that we perceive a tree or flower that’s right in front of us, and so they had no need to take a leap of faith. Are there other religions that describe this same experience of spiritual reality?
Buddhist monk and mandala master Losang Samten uses colored sand to meditate on spiritual topics such as compassion. For more than 2,600 years, these mandalas have carried messages for peace and kindness that teach us how to live in love.
When this interview was filmed, Losang was in the process of creating a mandala of compassion, and he explains in detail the accompanying mantra of compassion. Using six syllables (om ma ni pad me hum), Losang meditates on generosity, ethical discipline, patience, effort, focus, and wisdom—all of which are reflected in the mandala itself.
Just as the principles of compassion outlined above focus on practice rather than membership in a particular faith, Swedenborg focused on practical action as a fundamental expression of spirituality:
The case is the same with faith and charity as with truth and goodness: Truth is the form of goodness, or in other words, is goodness given a form that brings it to light. So faith is the form of charity, or in other words, is charity given a form. (Secrets of Heaven §9783)
Without speaking of any specific church, Swedenborg spoke of humanity’s search for spiritual truth and our capacity to band together in the name of faith. His definition of church is not based on tradition but on values.
A person is a church when in possession of goodness and truth, and a group of such people make up a church on a larger scale. (Secrets of Heaven §6113)
Next, yoga practitioners Michelle Synnestvedt and Scott Marmorstein discuss their faith’s focus on self-awareness, gentleness, compassion, and connection. If this sounds familiar, it should.
Their yoga practice connects them to their physical bodies and surroundings, as well as to spiritual realities. Michelle explains that yoga helps her get to the fullness of what she is, and she feels that it does the same for all other practitioners.
In everyday life, these practices help us to focus on remaining calm and enduring unpleasant situations while remaining gentle and unperturbed. These practices help us to process experiences by pausing and being present in whatever situation.
So, when all traditions seem to agree on the value of compassion, why is it that so many people seem to forget about love and focus instead on the suffering of people that disagree with them? Swedenborg often wrote about the dangers of separating faith from love, which was an issue he saw in the Christian church of his time.
Like Swedenborg, theologian Ted Heckman grew up in a Lutheran family. He points out that while Swedenborg had some harsh critiques of different Christian denominations during his time, there was also a lot of common ground when talking about the need to be good people.
One point of division across many Christian divisions is the doctrine of the Trinity—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Swedenborg reacted strongly to the belief in the Trinity as three different persons, believing instead that the Trinity represents facets of one God. But none of this should distract from God’s love.
Since love constitutes our life, and since we are destined to live forever the life we have acquired in the world—in either heaven or hell—it is extremely important for us to know how to acquire and develop heavenly love so that the life we live to eternity can be blissful and happy. (Apocalypse Explained §837:3)
All of these traditions seem to lead us towards positive action, by informing our decisions with love. But what about those who are without a spiritual tradition? Swedenborg writes that the spiritual reality can be found even through secular means.
It needs to be known that when any church disappears—that is, when love for others dies—and the Lord establishes a new religion, rarely if ever does this happen among the people of the old religion. Instead, it happens among people who had no church before, or in other words, among gentiles. The reason the Lord institutes a new religion among people outside the church is that they do not adopt falsities as premises that oppose the true tenets of the faith, since those tenets are unknown to them. When we absorb false premises from childhood on, and later confirm them, they need to be dispelled before we can regenerate and become part of the church. (Secrets of Heaven §2986:2, 3)
Other Religious Paths
Author and poet David Parry has been involved in a wide range of spiritual traditions, and so has studied Swedenborg extensively. His Pagan, Spiritualist, and Gnostic backgrounds all see strong alignment with Swedenborgian thought. What he drew from those traditions was an appreciation for ecology and for history and ancestry, which is something that many faiths have in common; and David in particular finds harmony with Swedenborg’s description of communities in heaven working together. He even finds parallels between the Wiccan duotheism of god and goddess and Swedenborg’s division of spiritual reality (emanating from God) into love and wisdom.
So, overall we have a consensus on what really matters in spiritual matters—love and compassion. We are all enriched by our spiritual journeys, no matter in what direction it takes us. In fact, the diversity that those different points of view bring is what makes the world a better place. And according to Swedenborg:
Heaven is where the Lord is recognized, trusted, and loved. The different ways he is worshiped—in variations that stem from the difference of activity from one community to another—do not cause harm but bring benefit, because they are a source of heaven’s perfection . . . Every perfect whole arises from a variety of elements, for a whole that is not composed of a variety of elements is not really anything. It has no form, and therefore no quality. However, when a whole does arise from a variety of elements, and the elements are in a perfected form in which each associates with the next in the series like a sympathetic friend, then it has a perfect quality. Heaven is, then, a single whole composed of a variety of elements arranged in the most perfect form; for of all forms, the form of heaven is the most perfect. (Heaven and Hell §56)
Hopefully, you’re able to get from this episode a sense of the commonalities that exist between all these different traditions—and maybe insight into your own path, no matter what it is.
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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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