One of the most consistent recurring themes throughout Swedenborg’s writings is regeneration, or the process of rebirth and growth as a spiritual person. He makes hundreds of references to the concept, particularly in Secrets of Heaven, where the first chapter describes how the Creation story reflects our journey to spiritual growth.
But there are only two places in Swedenborg’s writings where he devotes stand-alone chapters to regeneration: New Jerusalem and True Christianity, both of which contain chapters on a variety of theological topics. In both cases, Swedenborg starts by introducing a series of fundamental concepts, and in True Christianity he says that it’s only once you understand these principles that you can truly begin the process of regeneration.
What are those principles?
– Will and understanding (sometimes translated volition and discernment). Will can be thought of as anything that moves you to act: emotions, instincts, wants, needs. The understanding is the intellectual part of our mind, the part that takes in information, forms ideas, remembers experiences, thinks, and draws conclusions. Together, these two elements form our mind, where they sometimes work in harmony and sometimes in opposition.
– A person’s ruling love is the one thing that they value more than anything else. Swedenborg breaks loves into two basic types: good loves (love of others, love of the Lord) and bad loves (love of self and the world). Fundamentally, if you care about yourself—money, power, reputation, etc.—more than anything else, then your ruling love is evil. However, if you put your own needs aside out of love for others, that’s a good love.
– Goodwill (sometimes translated charity or caring) and faith. Goodwill is a sense of loving kindness toward all people, whether you know them or not. That may lead to doing acts of charity or service, or it may simply lead a person to be nicer to others. Faith means trusting in spiritual truths—for example, believing that loving others is always the right thing to do, even when it’s difficult.
– Freedom. We have the ability to choose whether to do good or to do evil or, whether to act selflessly or selfishly.
Once we understand all of that, Swedenborg tells us, the path to regeneration is a simple one:
First step: Examine ourselves. Coming from an eighteenth-century Christian society, Swedenborg wrote that we are all born with an evil will, but if he were writing the same thing today he might say that we’re all born egotists. In our early years we’re all driven by a desire to satisfy all of our wants, whether it’s acquiring a new toy or avoiding things that are painful. Some people grow out of this stage, and some don’t. The first step in spiritual growth is looking inside ourselves and identifying what really drives our behavior, for better or for worse.
Second step: Recognize and admit our faults. Most people who examine themselves honestly will see aspects of themselves that aren’t so pretty. It’s fine to put your own needs first in some cases: we all need the basics of food, shelter, and clothing, and we don’t want to act in such a way that our health is at risk. But sometimes putting ourselves first hurts others, and that’s when it becomes a problem. In the second step, we admit the hurtful things we’ve done, and decide that it’s time to change.
Third step: Pray. People who try to change their behavior through willpower alone often find that it’s not enough. Swedenborg says that this is because our will, being fundamentally selfish, doesn’t want to change, and our understanding doesn’t have the strength to overrule it. Thus it becomes necessary to put ourselves in the hands of a higher power, in whatever form we visualize it.
Fourth step: Begin a new life. In other words, be prepared to keep repeating those first three steps over and over again for the rest of your life, and most likely into the next life as well. Swedenborg says that very few people become fully regenerated during their earthly lives, but rather continue the process in the afterlife until they find their true home.