Monday, October 14, 2013

Swedenborg and the Sun of Love

I want to introduce you to someone.

Emanuel Swedenborg was an eighteenth-century nobleman, scientist, and inventor. He designed a flying machine, had an IQ of 205, and would have been famous for his technological and scientific innovations had he died before his fifites. But as it turns out, he is famous for something else. You see, Emanuel Swedenborg claimed he could visit heaven and hell whenever he wanted to.

Right now your crazy-person-alarm bells are probably going off. But there is a lot of evidence supporting his claims. On the one hand, he taught the principe of right-and-left brain hemisphere lateraliztion centuries before it could be verified scientifically, and told of many other things which were only accepted scientifically in the very recent past. 

He also taught many things in accord with Mormon doctrine. For instance, he asserted that God appeared to angels in Heaven as a man. He also declared that heaven was divided into three parts, and called the highest one the Celestial Kingdom. And he went audaciously against the teachings of his time by saying that angels could only acheive the highest happiness in heaven by joining with another in eternal marriage.

But though these facts are compelling evidence that Swedenborg learned things from Heaven, the best evidence I could give for the truth of his claims is his effect on me. When I read Swedenborg's writings, I am suddenly reminded of the Book of Mormon's teaching that God speaks to men in their own language. You see, I am an academic. I think of things in terms of abstract ideas and concepts, and so the simplicity of the Gospel has often been a stumbling block for me. While not denying the importance of this simplicity, I cannot help but think that God used Swedenborg to show me that the Gospel isn't necessarily anti-intellectual, and that He can speak to us scientists and philosophers. When considering this, and the profound Spirit I feel when reading his writings, I feel very strongly that God led me to him as a part of a profound tender mercy.

He taught amazing things about the world to come. For instance, he says that in Heaven, emotional and physical distance are one and the same. This means that the closer you are to someone emotionally, the closer you actually draw to them in the literal, perceptual world. This gives me the profound comfort that I will be forever tied to those who I am close to, and that not even death can separate me from my friends and loved ones. He also taught that the things in Heaven form a living, symbolic reality, where everything exist both in a literal and a figurative way. Virtuous people in Heaven are beautiful, while sinful people are ugly. Everyone in Heaven actually turns their head to God, while everyone in Hell looks away. And your place in the afterlife is a symbolic representation of your joy and love on earth.

But by far, the most profound of these symbolic realties is Swedenborg's teachings on the sun in Heaven. I will quote his words on this subject in the book Heaven and Hell as follows:

"Even though neither this world’s sun nor anything derived from it is visible in heaven, there is a sun there; there is light and warmth, there are all the things we have in our world and many more—not from the same origin, though, since things in heaven are spiritual while things in our world are natural. Heaven’s sun is the Lord; light there is the divine truth and warmth the divine good that radiate from the Lord as the sun. Everything that comes into being and manifests itself in the heavens is from this source. [...] The reason the Lord in heaven appears as the sun is that he is the divine love from which all spiritual things come into being—and, through the agency of our world’s sun, all natural things as well. That love is what shines like a sun.”

God's love is the sun of Heaven. Everything you can see there you see by its light, and all things there are warmed by its heat. But this light is actually truth, for there we see something when we understand it. Similarly, the heat there is good, meaning that we will gain an inner warmth whenever we encounter something virtuous, lovely, or of good report.

But Swedenborg doesn't just say that this will happen, for he declares that we dwell in Heaven already. In a sense we live in both worlds, allowing both the suns of love and of flaming gas to affect our senses. But if this is true, why can't we see God's love? Why can't we access the joys of Heaven now? I have thought about this question, and I believe that we can.

To see Heaven, we must learn to see with new eyes. While our normal optical receptors provide us with aesthetic joys and delights, you can't deny that there is something lacking in everything we perceive with our five senses. The world as we see it always disappoints, leaving us to search after something more susbstantial. In truth, we can find this when we learn to see not with our earthly eyes, but with the eyes of our spirit. And this will happen when love, and when we feel love.

If everything in Heaven derives from love, should we be surprised that the most meaningful experiences in our life come when we love another person, or when we feel loved by them? When we do this, we open our spiritual eyes just a little, and we can peer ever so slightly into the grand vistas of the next life. But what if we were to ignore our earthly eyes altogether? What if we saw by love, and by love alone? We would not be bilnd, but we would actually see for the very first time. 

When we live by love, we cannot be denied the joys of Heaven. We will see the magnificent buildings and wildernesses of that place, reunite with lost loved ones, and even see God. But this will not happen with our natural eyes. To see this magnificent world of love, we must use a new sense, one which is at best only loosely connected with the other five, one of pure affection and devotion. Then we will know that this new world is the only real one, and that everything else was just a dim dream.

Surely Antoine de St. Exupéry was tapping into this world when he penned that "what is essential is invisible to the eyes. It is only with the heart that one sees rightly". When we love, we see people as they really are, as God sees them. It doesn't matter if they are ugly or awkward, and it doesn't matter if we are lacking where other people aren't - in love's light, we see both others and ourselves in the splendor and glory of Heaven. In this light, everything is of infinite worth, and nothing is forgotten. 

Swedenborg says that people only go to Hell if they willingly refuse this love. So if we are to learn anything from him, we must remember to see not with the eyes, but with the heart. We must see the love which ever and always emanates to us from Him, and use this love to see others for who they truly are. Truly this is eternal life, life as it should be - to live forever in the love of God,  and sharing that love with those who mean something to us.

I pray we will all someday experience that love, and see things not by the light of our sun, but ever as God sees them. I hope with all my heart that we can have this sight, and that we will not be forever limited to the dim joys of our senses. But until that day, we must have faith. We must trust to God that He will lead to this promised land, and will show us salvation.

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