By Rebecca Esterson
In the fall of 1744, six months after his first Christophany, Swedenborg was told in a dream that he would write a “divine book on the worship and love of God.” Thereafter, he embarked on an ambitious project, expounding on the themes of love and devotion through a detailed narration of the creation of the world. The Worship and Love of God (De cultu et amore Dei) is often described as a transitional work, as it was written during the year of his most intense spiritual crisis and awakening and published precisely in the time between his early scientific and later theological periods. Since this work contains so much material drawn from his previous publications, Swedish scholar Inge Jonsson argues that it is Swedenborg’s attempt to synthesize and summarize his philosophy, astronomy, and psychology up to that point. The Worship and Love of God contains many of the foundational concepts that would occupy the pages of his subsequent theological publications, such as the duality of the spiritual and natural suns; the appearance of autonomy given to humankind for the sake of union with the Divine; the influx or flow of essential divinity from God through celestial, spiritual, and natural levels; and the return of this flow through the nexus of uses inherent in every created thing. However, the book also presents aspects of Swedenborg’s theology that are at odds with those found in his later works, such as those concerning the Trinity and the roles of Christ and Satan in the unfolding of a fall and salvation narrative that is in line with the Lutheran view of atonement. This theological confusion has resulted in an ambivalence to the work that has contributed to its obscurity—so much so that many readers of Swedenborg do not even know of its existence. This is a tragedy.
The Worship and Love of God takes its reader on a literary journey that defies genre classification. Embracing both fantasy and certainty, it tells the story of the creation of the world in both romantic and scientific terms. It employs a poetic imagination in ways that anticipate William Blake, but it also celebrates the mechanisms of the universe using the power of every optical lens, from the cellular level of brain science to the cosmic level of planetary physics. At its heart, however, The Worship and Love of God is a wild and mystical retelling of the biblical story of the first humans, created male and female in the image of their creator. We recognize these two to be the Adam and Eve of Genesis, even though they are unnamed in the text and even though the story strays considerably from the biblical account, wandering playfully in its own garden.
In what few studies we have of The Worship and Love of God, Swedenborg’s Adam has received thorough attention, but Swedenborg’s Eve character is in fact the far more compelling one. Swedenborg discards the millennia-old commentarial tradition that focuses on Eve’s part in the fall of humanity and on her consequent suffering and hardship. Here, Eve is neither the first sinner nor the great temptress we have been warned about in pulpit and in fresco. Rather, she is described as a model of wisdom, beauty, and integrity, a move that is surely worth our notice and consideration against the backdrop of traditional interpretations.
A larger study of the ways in which The Worship and Love of God celebrates all things female would have much to contribute. Such a study would explore the countless ovaries, wombs, and nursing breasts that bring life at every level of creation, beginning with the pregnant sun and ending with the milk-giving branches of the Tree of Life. It would pause over the intimate relationship that Adam has with his inner spirit, his woman-soul, who is alternatively described as queen, mother, sister, and goddess (diva); and it would examine her countless daughters, or intelligences and wisdoms, who occupy the chambers of Adam’s mind. The present study, however, will limit itself to examining the character of Swedenborg’s Eve, demonstrating that she possesses degrees of wisdom and beneficent agency that are rare in the history of biblical reception. This examination will explore three aspects of her character’s development: the requirement of her consent for the first marriage and for the unfolding of the history of the universe; the revealing of inner worlds through the facial expressions that she sees in her own reflection; and her remarkable abilities to interpret the symbols of the cosmos, abilities that match and even surpass those of her partner.
Eve’s Consent and Mutual Love
Remarkably, Swedenborg’s Eve is not born of a rib bone. Rather, she is born in her own garden and from her own Tree of Life, which are some distance from the garden and Tree of Life that produced her future mate. The story of her creation and education, which Swedenborg tells at great length, parallels that of Adam. She is raised by celestial companions and through the illuminating beauty of her natural surroundings. The two do not meet until their wedding night, except for one time in a dream before Eve was even born. The story of that first, otherworldly encounter is crucial to the story of their eventual union, both for the childish blunder it describes and for the way providence uses that blunder for its purpose. The story goes like this: One day, when Adam is still the only human on the face of the earth, he drifts away from his garden and finds himself in a foreign grove. In awe of its beauty, he wanders about and eventually falls asleep under the branches of a tree at the center of the garden. There, he dreams of a beautiful girl, in turn succumbing to his desire to hold her. Adam reaches out to her, but she “like a bright cloud, [flees] from him, seeming to elude his touch and endeavor.” He tries again to grab her, but he injures himself in the process, dislocating one of his ribs. Adam pursues her still and is able to kiss her, but then he wakes up bruised and grieving from the elusive encounter. He returns home, saddened at the realization “that she was only the apparition of a dream.” Despite his failure to possess the object of his desire, his contact with that “most excellent tree, which by its size and beauty emulated the tree of life,” initiates the transfer of his soul: Adam’s animating force—his mother/queen/goddess soul—is shared through this contact, despite his clumsiness, with the fetus of his future beloved; and from this point on, they will both receive the inflowing of divine love through twin souls.
This first punishing attempt at romantic love is resolved later in the story when Adam and Eve unite in mutual love instead of through fantasy and coercion. After the two of them meet and become acquainted through pleasant and intimate conversation, they both declare their mutual love for each other. “Thus there was consent by both, and a covenant, which they also confirmed by mutual kisses. The love thence conceived and born grew and slowly became a flame.”
Radical as it may be, this reinterpretation of the biblical Eden nevertheless celebrates true marriage love, a union founded on maturity and consent. It also magnifies the divine image of both the male and female forms in their fullest expression. Eve is not made from the body and image of Adam; she is made from the body and image of God. Swedenborg’s version draws out elements of the story that too frequently are minimized, and it repaints Eve as an equal partner and intellectual match to her mate.
Eve’s Image in the Water
A second aspect of the development of Swedenborg’s Eve that merits our attention concerns the moment she first sees her own reflection in the water. Once she reaches “the age of laughter and play,” Eve comes upon “a certain crystal-like fountain, transparent even to its opaque bottom,” and she is captivated by what she sees in the water:
Casting her eyes down into the water she was amazed at seeing an image floating beneath its surface, and at times emerging when she put herself in motion, just as if it was alive.
Commentators on this scene debate the extent of Swedenborg’s reliance on similar scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Milton’s Paradise Lost. However, the difference between this version of the story and its predecessors is precisely what is significant. Like Ovid’s Narcissus and Milton’s Eve, Swedenborg’s Eve encounters her own reflection for the first time and is amazed by the beauty of her face and body. But this is not all. Her amazement grows as she realizes that through the movements of her face she sees every intricacy and facet of her inner mind. Eve sees her own astonishment, and then she sees her own thoughts about that astonishment: “She even recognized her wandering ideas about it, wondering that thus all the inmost recesses of her mind stood open and unlocked.” Eve asks the celestial spirits who populate her garden to explain to her what she is seeing, and one of them expounds on the correspondences between the soul, the mind, and the body, telling her that the influx from the innermost to the outermost levels of her being is shown in her facial expressions.
Thy soul and mind transcribe themselves into the gestures, speech, and other external activities, but especially into the countenance; and . . . there is not the smallest particle in the whole body which does not undergo a change similar to their affection; for as those forms rule in supreme principles, they rule also in the inmost of all principles. It is also a mark of thine integrity and innocence that this beams forth so plainly from thy face.
While Swedenborg’s narrative may be derivative, it nevertheless has an entirely different purpose than the earlier versions have. This is not a cautionary tale warning about the dangers of vanity. Rather than becoming enamored with and distracted by her own facade, Swedenborg’s Eve sees that her face is actually a gateway to inner worlds. The surface of the water, like the surface of her body, celebrates and reveals her inner being. Soul and body, along with mind and nature, harmonize and synchronize, reflecting one another as in a mirror. Eve is drawn to this deeper truth, rather than to only the beauty of her outer self, and it is this truth that inaugurates further stages of her intellectual and spiritual development.
Eve as Master Interpreter
After Eve encounters herself in the crystal-like fountain, her celestial companions, and her soul “goddess,” further educate her about the connection between inner things and outer things. Over time, she develops into a wise interpreter of the symbols around and within her, and she is praised for her ability to understand the complexities and connections in her world: “Although thou art still a damsel, yet, as I see, thou clearly comprehendest.” Struck by a kind of lightning of the mind, Eve finds herself in a moment of clarity, able to see the inner realities of all the natural things around her. She is then told to once again look into her own face and see a chain of reflections, ultimately reflecting God’s own being. “Look now from this mirror, and see what is the quality of Order itself, and in what manner the spiritual principle shines forth from the natural, and the Divine from the corporeal, consequently the whole of Order.” At this point, Eve instinctually enters into a meditative state, slowing her breath to such an extent that she is able to direct her focus even more toward the “mutual discourse” of the universe. Her insights continue to multiply and her wisdom increases.
On the morning after her marriage, Eve puts to use her ability to interpret the symbols of the universe. As the sun rises, Adam and Eve look to the sky and witness a fantastic, seven-staged, mystical vision. They first see a light so bright that they are forced to close their physical eyes. The vision continues, however, unfolding now before their spiritual eyes, with images of orbs, radiantly colored borders, swirling spheres, and orbicular gyres. They see images of faces and human forms, masses of eggs, rivers, and veins. Images of fertility and life merge and multiply, culminating in a giant pyramid from whose apex flow spires that stretch out infinitely in the shapes of helices.
More than one commentator has noted the likely autobiographical nature of the mystical experiences described in The Worship and Love of God. Adam’s out-of-body experience, Eve’s breath-induced enlightenment, and this final seven-staged vision all resemble the kinds of experiences Swedenborg was having this same year, as recorded in his dream diary. As Martin Lamm writes, “The biblical fable of creation and of our first ancestors will serve as a disguise for his own experiences.” If this is the case, Swedenborg gives voice first to Eve and then to Adam as a means of interpreting the visions that were unfolding before his own inner eyes, and this he does with great attention. Eve begins by reading the face of Adam, as he touches her face. She then reaches into the sanctuary of her mind and opens for him the secrets of the vision. She explains that the whole universe is a great series, a complex of means to a holy end. She describes the flow of this series from first thing (God) to last things (creation) and then back again. “Hence is the consent and the harmony of all things.” Adam is full of delight and amazement at the wisdom of her interpretation, but she encourages him to offer his own interpretation, deferring to his abilities to read even more deeply into these symbols. Adam begins his exposition as an extension of Eve’s “to further continue the thread of the web which thou hast so skillfully woven.”
Here Adam begins a line-by-line interpretation of the vision as it is written in the book—a curious first-person explanation of the third-person narrator’s account. It is an odd literary move, but it anticipates the exegetical formatting of Swedenborg’s later commentaries, especially those found in The Word of the Old Testament Explained and Secrets of Heaven. The formatting is the most noteworthy thing about Adam’s explanations, which, as Jonsson notes, “do not add anything new” to what his wife has already said. The line-by-line arrangement, while utilized by the author going forward, is too ambitious for this work, and Swedenborg gives up halfway through. The book is never finished, and Adam’s interpretation is never completed. Weighed down by the burden of adding to Eve’s already complete analysis, Adam’s interpretation is abandoned.
As noted above, The Worship and Love of God is often described as a transitional work, published between two distinct periods of Swedenborg’s life and career, or so goes the theory. Given the consistency of many of the key ideas in this work with ideas from earlier and later works, both scientific ideas and theological ones, it may be more accurate to see this as a work that belies the distinction. In other words, The Worship and Love of God presents challenges to the very idea that Swedenborg had two, separate, mutually exclusive periods—a scientific one and a theological one.
Swedenborg’s Eve is an appropriate character through which to consider the problems in distinguishing Swedenborg’s science from his theology. Through her own reflection in the water, she beheld infinite inner worlds. Likewise, Swedenborg observed in nature’s forms the image and functions of the soul, and ultimately of God. His views certainly changed and matured over time, and we can sense the movement of heaven’s inspiration in the expansion of his ideas; but there is no hard break. Swedenborg’s correspondences pervade the so-called scientific and theological works alike. Here, as if in the breach imposed between them, our first mother names their intimate relationship. Nature and heaven are alike; one is seen in the other as in a mirror.
Rebecca Esterson is Assistant Professor in Sacred Texts and Traditions and Dorothea Harvey Professor of Swedenborgian Studies at the Center for Swedenborgian Studies. Her teaching and research interests include Swedenborgian thought and theology, the history of biblical interpretation, hermeneutics, Jewish-Christian relations, interreligious pedagogy, eighteenth-century intellectual culture, and comparative religious studies.
 Inge Jonsson, A Drama of Creation: Sources and Influences in Swedenborg’s Worship and Love of God, translated by Matilda McCarthy (West Chester, PA: Swedenborg Foundation, 2004), 268.
 Emanuel Swedenborg, The Worship and Love of God, translated by Alfred H. Stroh and Frank Sewall (West Chester, PA: Swedenborg Foundation, 2020), part II, no. 87, pages 159–60. Swedenborg published parts I and II of this book, but the third part was left unfinished and was not published until after his death. For more on this history, see the translators’ preface (Worship and Love of God, vii–viii).
 Ibid., part III, no. 111, page 195.
 Ibid., part II, no. 90, page 162.
 Martin Lamm argues here for Milton’s strong influence on Swedenborg, while Inge Jonsson holds that Milton and Swedenborg both draw on Ovid for inspiration. The connection with Milton in The Worship and Love of God, however, is weak. See Jonsson, Drama of Creation, 235–36; Martin Lamm, Emanuel Swedenborg: The Development of His Thought, translated by Tomas Spiers and Anders Hallengren (West Chester, PA: Swedenborg Foundation, 2000), 185–92.
 Ibid., part II, no. 90, page 164.
 Ibid., part II, no. 99, page 177.
 Ibid., part II, no. 95, page 175.
 Ibid., part II, no. 98, page 177.
 Ibid., part II, no. 99, page 180.
 Ibid., part II, no. 106, page 185.
 Ibid., part I, no. 55, page 81: “He felt himself, as it were, carried out of himself.”
 Ibid., part III, no. 115, page 203.