This is the third of three sections of an essay by Curtis Childs on the significance of Emanuel Swedenborg's work. Start with Section 1: Why We Are Here. Then read Section 2: Egypt, Assyria, and Quantum Mechanics. Then finish up here with: Swedenborg's Influence. - Editor.
Let me explain why Swedenborg merits scrutiny. It is a fact that the greatest poets and prose writers have borrowed liberally from him. The list is long: first Blake, as his direct spiritual descendant; then Goethe, a fervent reader of Swedenborg (as was Kant followed by Edgar Allan Poe, Baudelaire, Balzac, Mickiewicz, Slowacki, Emerson, Dostoevsky.... ( Czeslaw Milosz, 1980 Nobel Prize, Literature, Swedenborg.ca)
The task of compiling a list of the people and institutions affected by Swedenborg becomes a decision about who and which to include. His influence has been massive. While discussion of his scientific achievements would merit its own article, for brevity this section will focus only on the impact of his theological works, necessarily robbing him of credit for the achievements of the first fifty-six years of his life.
Hellen Keller, perhaps best known for her activism on behalf of the handicapped and for other causes, was greatly affected by Swedenborg’s writings. Struck in early childhood by an illness that left her deaf, blind, and dumb, somehow she was able, through the help of her teacher Anne Sullivan, to overcome and become a prolific writer, speaker, and activist. Swedenborg’s works entered her life during her teenage years, when she was first given a copy of Heaven and Hell. This had a huge impact on her, and it showed up in her writing, throughout her life: “Swedenborg’s books have lifted my wistful longing for a fuller sense-life into a vivid consciousness of the complete being within me… yes, the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg have been my light and a staff in my hand, and by his vision splendid I am attended on my way” (34).
Swedenborg’s influence extends into architecture as well, and on a grand scale. Irving Fisher wrote an article about Daniel Burnham, the famed architect behind the world’s fair in Chicago and the modern incarnation of the city itself. Fisher outlined two categories of architects: those who espouse the ideology behind their works, and those who keep it secret. “Daniel Burnham,” he writes “fits into this latter category: he revealed to no one that his great Plan of Chicago was meant to be the earthly embodiment (i.e. the correspondent form) of Emanuel Swedenborg’s heavenly city” (245). Burnham was raised Swedenborgian, as was his business partner John Wellborn Root. Burnham’s Chicago plan uncannily echoes Swedenborg’s descriptions of heaven, and comments Burnham made to his assistant, Edward H. Bennett, as well as Burnham’s continued involvement in the Swedenborgian community, provide strong evidence pointing toward Fisher’s claims.
More contemporary figures have also been affected by Swedenborg’s works. Although his impressive credentials include director of the Cardiovascular Institute and Complementary Medicine Program at New York Presbyterian Hospital and vice-chair and professor of surgery at Columbia University, Mehmet Oz is perhaps most recognizable in his role as health expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show. In an article entitled “Mehmet Oz Finds His Teacher,” which appeared in the November-December 2007 issue of Spirituality & Health, he writes about his seeker state following medical school. “I hungered for a scientific rationale to help me reconcile my newly found insights into our bodies and the deeper spiritual longings we all possess. Help came in the form of an eighteenth-century Swedish philosopher” (48). Oz found Swedenborg’s teachings to be especially helpful in reconciling the idea of a loving God with all the suffering he encountered in his patients. Oz wrote that he seeks to “connect with my patients on both the physical and spiritual levels, since true healing is never about curing just the body. Although I rarely mention him by name, Swedenborg has made this easier for me” (49).
Swedenborg was also given high praise in the Nobel Lecture of Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio, winner of the 2008 Nobel Prize in Literature. Le Clezio wrote of something “great and powerful…new and ancient at the same time, impalpable as the wind, ethereal as the clouds, infinite as the sea.” His experiences had him to believe that there truly was something valuable in literature. “It is this something which vibrates in the poetry of Jalal ad-Din Rumi, for example, or in the visionary architecture of Emanuel Swedenborg.” In an interview following his acceptance speech, he again mentioned Swedenborg. “I was in Sweden, and the first thing I did in Stockholm was inquire about the house of Emanuel Swedenborg. You know, the Swedish genius, scientist, philosopher, and theologian. And they showed me the house where Swedenborg used to talk with the angels. How marvelous!” (Nobel Winner). He also stated in a press conference that he was in the process of writing a play about Swedenborg and Immanuel Kant.
Although he never organized any kind of institution, followers of Swedenborg did so shortly after his death. There are presently several active Swedenborgian denominations around the world. The General Church of the New Jerusalem (www.newchurch.org), based out of Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania, has congregations in twenty-nine states, three provinces, and twenty-three countries. The Swedenborgian Church of North America (www.swedenborg.org) has congregations in seventeen states and five Canadian provinces. The Lord’s New Church (www.thelordsnewchurch.com) has congregations in seven countries. The General Conference of the New Church (www.generalconference.org.uk) has twenty-two locations in Great Britain.
In light of Swedenborg’s direct influence, his fame in Europe during his time, his contributions to scholarly and scientific knowledge, and the congruence of his ideas with modern trends and thought, his virtual anonymity in the modern mainstream seems out of place. That “a person of the most extraordinary intellectual gifts whose creative work in a variety of scientific fields still astonishes us today” (Ring x) would vanish from school curricula may point to the price Swedenborg paid for his sudden career jump from scientist to mystic. “His achievements as a scientist and his activities as a public figure in his fatherland are widely known, even if his theological works stirred some negative reaction during his lifetime and for some years after his death,” wrote Jean-Francois Mayer in his essay “Swedenborg and Continental Europe” (167). Could this “negative reaction” even in his homeland have eclipsed his positive reputation around the rest of Europe in his time, and, ultimately, the world?
Yet Swedenborg’s religious thought seems to fit in much better with current worldviews than with the dogmatic institutions of enlightenment-period Europe. The coming of a “new age,” the presence of spirits and angels around us, the connectedness and oneness of all things, which are now mainstream in emerging religious and secular thought, were staples of Swedenborg’s theology. When Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th president of the United States on January 20, 2009, his inauguration speech had multiple instances of religious content. “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers” (2) he said, listing huge and longstanding institutions who have been, and in some cases still are, bitterly divided, and whose doctrines on salvation and the true way to God have often been interpreted as mutually exclusive. Yet, just a few minutes later, he addressed all these Americans, saying that the “source of our confidence” is knowing that “God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny” (3). To evoke a single Deity when speaking to such a varied audience seems to refute some religious convictions. But at the same time it affirms a growing feeling among the peoples of America and the world that perhaps affiliations and rituals are not what move the heart of God, that perhaps the only thing with true spiritual value is what is in our own hearts. Perhaps the human race’s vision of how to get to heaven now more closely echoes Swedenborg’s statement, made in 1764, that “everyone can be saved; and everyone is saved who believes in God and lives a good life” (Divine Providence 325).
Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, renowned and admired by people of many backgrounds throughout the world, and certainly a prominent figure in any catalogue of world religious leaders, states this as his central religious tenant of faith: “my religion is kindness” (Dalai). What, against the backdrop of a loving God, could make more sense? This universal concept seems to be gaining ground across the globe, this idea that basic kindheartedness toward other human beings is the only thing elegant and beautiful enough to be at the core of any religious worldview. Or as Swedenborg puts it: “all religion is of the life, and the life of religion is to do what is good” (Doctrine of Life 1).
Curtis Childs is a semi-attractive twenty-five year old living in Huntingdon Valley, PA. He recently graduated from Oakland University with a Bachelor's in Communication. He jams all kinds of stuff, including guitar and video games, and can spit rhymes with the best of them (this is not a joke). He is currently employed full-time creating and performing in a program that is designed to connect kids to a friendly God, and encourage them to be pumped about being decent to each other. He one time got an article published in a book by Penguin Classics. So there. He would also like to say that Emanuel Swedenborg is just about as hip as it gets.
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