By James F. Lawrence
The Christian Bible remains to this day the most culturally influential book in the history of the world. Representing one-third of the earth’s 7.7 billion people, Christianity is both the largest and, on a worldwide basis, the fastest growing faith tradition. By far, the Judeo-Christian scriptures exist in more translations, editions, and printings, as well as in more people’s upbringing and active spiritual imagination, than has any other text in the history of humanity. Whatever else can be said about the large landscape of interpretation of Judeo-Christian scriptures, it is certainly true that the Bible continues to function as a “tent of meeting”: a gathering place where the large questions about meaning and purpose can be discussed.
A fascinating feature of the worldwide Bible conversation today is that there are comparatively more interpretive theories in play about the Christian Bible than there are for all other sacred text traditions. This is due in large part to the sheer size of Christianity, with its vast number of denominations. How to read or interpret the Bible enjoys a riveting history reaching back to the early church, one that yet also continues to flourish in our own times. Should we take the Bible literally? Should we take it figuratively? Should we take it with a grain of salt, since it was written so long ago? And where does Swedenborg’s distinctive approach to sacred scripture fit into this complex picture? Among those continuing to use the Bible proactively for spiritual living, three primary schools of interpretation dominate the scene today.
First, there are those who interpret the Bible literally—that is, as the inerrant Word of God in its literal sense. Comprised mostly of evangelicals and fundamentalists, this group claims God, not humans, as the author of scripture. The people who scribed the books of the Bible were but physical agents for God’s words to us. Furthermore, what God is saying in scripture is clearly given. The text delivers its full message in its plain words. Despite the disparagement this approach has taken for some time now, this group remains surprisingly large and fairly constant in its numbers.
A second significant group of Christians interprets the Bible through careful linguistic and historical study. That is, they believe the Bible was written by human authors who were bound by their own special circumstances. God may have inspired these writers in an extraordinary way, but the text contains flaws and peculiarities that can be attributed to those Jews and Christians who wrote so long ago in a very different world. This second group holds that in order to understand the Bible’s original meaning, it needs to be interpreted through close examination of its original languages and through historical analysis of the life and times of those who wrote the texts. What did the inspired text mean in its original context? Once this meaning has been to some extent recovered, we can then extrapolate further meanings that are pertinent to our own context. This approach began in Swedenborg’s own time period and then expanded quite dynamically in the nineteenth century. It peaked among believing practitioners around 1990 and has waned some since then.
A third and quickly growing group believes that what the reader brings to the biblical encounter provides the best path of interpretation. Located especially in North America and Western Europe, a broad collective of scholars and clergy coming from most liberal mainline and some Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions regards the meaning of the text as living and in an ever-new open moment. Though there may be varying degrees of interest in what the author meant, how the reader reads the text is what is most important. These “reader-centered” interpretations employ numerous literary and ideological techniques for discovering how the text can speak anew in the contemporary moment in which it is read. Explorations of scripture as literature, as history with spiritual lessons, and as narrative stories that are speaking to us today are all valid methods of interpretation. This approach puts forth the possibility that the living text can speak against the original viewpoints of those who wrote it—you can “preach against the text.” But even such a contrarian strategy as this one affirms the Bible as the “tent of meeting,” where we continue our journey in the wilderness seeking wisdom and understanding. For group three, then, there isn’t any one single meaning of a text, but many possible meanings that might bring different sorts of folks in different sorts of settings closer to God and more meaningfully onto their spiritual path.
Where Is Swedenborg’s Way?
What the three primary schools of interpretation all have in common is that they take scripture seriously as a place to engage the ultimate questions of religious life today. It’s not so much whether but how God is present in the engagement with scripture that’s the rub. Swedenborg fits snugly in none of these groups, though he does affirm some aspects of all three. He stands with the literalists in the radical position that God is the author of scripture in the sense that God worked through the human agents of the original texts in ways of which they were unaware. Swedenborg stands with group two in asserting that knowledge of the original languages can be very important for plumbing the full depths of the divine utterance in the text. He especially valued knowledge of Hebrew. And Swedenborg stands with group three in affirming that many simultaneously true meanings are possible—that the same passage can be understood as saying true things to different kinds of questions at once.
Swedenborg’s way, however, rests on a bold revelation about the Bible that none of the other groups share—namely, that sacred scripture is divinely designed with inner rooms, inner spaces, and inner meanings within the literal words and sentences. In fact, far from being a text tied to the historically bound thoughts of its authors, or fixed to the plain meaning of its literal sense, or limited by the ideas and spirituality of the creative contemporary reader, every verse of scripture in these inner rooms shares knowledge and information about God’s self and intimate relationship with humanity, about the spiritual history of humanity, and about the reader’s personal soul journey. No matter what the first arc of a text’s inner sense is about, each person’s genuine encounter with the Word evolves as the mind evolves spiritually through regeneration.
In heaven and in the world we find sequential arrangement and simultaneous arrangement. In sequential arrangement, one thing replaces and follows another, from the highest to the lowest. In simultaneous arrangement, though, one thing adjoins another, from the innermost to the outermost. The sequential arrangement is like a column with steps from top to bottom, while the simultaneous arrangement is like a composite object that forms a series of concentric circles [that radiate] from its center to its outer surfaces. . . . Now for the Word. What is heavenly, what is spiritual, and what is earthly emanate from the Lord sequentially, and they exist on the last level in a simultaneous arrangement. This means that now the heavenly and spiritual meanings of the Word are together within its earthly meaning. Once this is grasped, we can see how the earthly meaning of the Word, which is its literal meaning, is the foundation, container, and support of its spiritual and heavenly meanings, and how divine goodness and divine truth are present in their fullness, holiness, and power in the literal meaning of the Word. (Sacred Scripture §38)
Swedenborg’s way of reading the Bible wasn’t entirely new. He can be grouped loosely with an allegorical tradition that once flourished openly—and with support from orthodoxy—up until the Renaissance and Reformation, at which point it went underground into Christian kabbalist and Masonic movements. Many leading biblical interpreters explored inner levels of meaning within the literal text of the Bible. Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, Jerome, the Venerable Bede, Bernard of Clairvaux, and Erasmus, to name a few, believed that the Bible’s plain words contain hidden inner levels—levels that speak to the work of Jesus Christ, the moral and spiritual life of Christian faith, and the ultimate destiny of creation. But by the time Swedenborg produced his extraordinary exposition of the inner meaning of scripture, that “inner sense tradition” had largely disappeared. Since Swedenborg’s day, it still has never made any kind of serious comeback and remains lost as an interpretation practice.
Swedenborg’s New Microscopes and Telescopes
As an accomplished explorer of the “Book of Nature,” Swedenborg loved instruments that extended sight. Both the telescope and microscope were in beginning but enthralling phases of development during his early career, and Swedenborg himself even learned to grind lenses for making superior microscopes. Microscopes helped scientists at that time to see vast universes lying within the minuscule, and Swedenborg perceived deeply enough through microscopic sight to propound an atomic theory of matter 200 years before Einstein. As for his use of the telescope, Swedenborg was such a good astronomer that he deduced the earliest version of a largely correct nebular hypothesis theory about the formation of our solar system: the planets orbiting the sun were originally large chunks off the solar mass whose escape was captured into eternal orbits by gravity.
In a story now legendary, while struggling on his first attempt at exploring the Bible—one that blended science and poetry in speaking of the Creation story (The Worship and Love of God)—Swedenborg experienced a visitation from Christ that he interpreted as a commission to take up a new mission, and an unexpected one for a scientist. He felt called to reveal to the world the deeper mysteries in the Bible. Swedenborg began to experience a state of consciousness that put him, as he interpreted it, in a spiritual world that was as normal and stable as was the physical world. Whatever one may choose to surmise about these claims, it is a matter of record that he put aside his work in natural science in order to work on the Bible. But he took his telescope and his microscope with him.
The Correspondences of Scripture
Swedenborg reported being shown in the spiritual world how much of the Bible was written with inner levels of meaning through a dynamic not hitherto understood very well, which is that the spiritual and natural worlds are connected by “correspondences,” and that the Bible’s literal (or natural) text was but an outer manifestation of a vast spiritual realm that could be revealed if you learned how to read this correspondential language.
Correspondence is all-powerful. In fact anything that happens on earth in keeping with correspondence prevails in heaven, because correspondence comes from the Deity. People with a goodness based on love or on faith are in correspondence [with heaven], and everything that happens with them is done by the Deity, because he is the source of all the good growing out of love and all the good growing out of faith. All the miracles recorded in the Word were accomplished through correspondence. The Word was written in such a way that everything in it, down to the smallest particular, corresponds to something in heaven. As a consequence the Word has divine force. It unites heaven with earth, because when it is read on earth, angels in heaven feel moved at the holy content of the inner meaning. The correspondence of everything in the Word is what accomplishes this. (Secrets of Heaven §8615:3)
Just as is the case with the immense solar system or with the interior spaces of molecular life, however, you cannot see correspondential levels with the naked eye. You need special lenses. You need, in fact, a spiritual microscope and a spiritual telescope.
Swedenborg ground a spiritual microscope that he placed upon the text. Suddenly, a horse wasn’t just a powerful and beautiful animal capable of traveling great distances faster than any other beast; a horse was also the power of understanding by which one could traverse a measureless landscape of meaning. A “day” in the creation story wasn’t a literal twenty-four-hour period of time, but was one of “so many consecutive stages in a person’s regeneration” (Secrets of Heaven §6). For eight years, Swedenborg placed a microscopic lens of correspondence upon Genesis and Exodus and revealed a universe of spiritual thought addressing all the great questions of why we are here, who God is, where humanity has been on its long journey, where God wants us to head, and how to live so that we can get there.
Swedenborg also found that the lens of correspondences could be ground so that it revealed telescopic vistas. The spiritual telescope could take in at once the whole text from Abraham and Sarah to the Holy City and see a quaternity of interlocking and mutually enriching stories in its intergalactic structure: the literal story of a specific historic people within which are stories of the Messiah, of the human race, and of the individual human soul. For twenty-seven years, Swedenborg worked to get a better grasp of all the spiritual understandings that can be interpreted from the sacred texts, and the Swedenborgian tradition has shaped a long history of working with biblical spirituality as a primary practice of the faith.
In recent years, with the sharp rise in spiritual practices, a renewed effort to make Swedenborg’s approach to Bible study accessible has led to helpful works such as Bruce Henderson’s A New Key to the Bible: Unlock Its Inner Meaning and Open the Door to Your Spirit. People looking for a new way to make the Bible come alive for them may find such a work to be a real revelation in describing how closely aligned their inner life is with the inner meaning of that old ancient tome that is still the world’s most studied book.
James F. Lawrence is Dean of the Center for Swedenborgian Studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. In addition to Swedenborgian studies and ministry practices, he also teaches courses in Christian Spirituality and New Religious Movements.