Wednesday, April 16, 2014

A Swedenborgian Testimony of the Book of Mormon

As you all know, I've become quite enamored of Emanuel Swedenborg over the past year. As you all also know, he was a Swedish thinker from the 18th century who claimed that he had a direct line of communication with heaven, hell, and other parts of the spiritual world.

Unlike many people both within the Church and apart from it, I believe Swedenborg's claims wholeheartedly--his teachings not only display a highly developed philosophical sophistication, but they have also helped me develop as a person. Thus, if we take the Book of Mormon's claim that "all things which are good cometh of God" as true, it becomes unambiguously apparent that Swedenborg wan't lying. Because his works are good, and because they have caused good in me, I don't believe that anyone who participates in the Mormon belief system can justifiably doubt the truth of his works. That isn't to say that there aren't apparent inconsistencies between his teachings and those of the LDS church, though, for while the vast majority of his teachings are compatible with Mormon ones, there are a few places where the pieces don't seem to fit. But for this problem I appeal to Swedenborg himself, who taught:

"However numerous these truths of faith are and however divergent they appear,, they are united by the Lord who is the Word [...] The truths of faith are various and appear divergent to us. [...] Yet they are united in the Lord, and the Lord unites them in us, the way one vine unites many branches. The Lord connects scattered and divided truths into one form so that they present one picture and form one action." (True Christianity, 354)

He says that, however many apparent divergences there are between two bodies of truth, the fact that they are true ensures that God will unite them into something greater. So, despite the fact that Swedenborg taught a few things at odd with Mormon doctrine, I am confident that a "least common denominator" of sorts will come along to reconcile the two bodies. In fact, I've experienced the process happening already.

But that's not what's important. This is a very special post, because I'm going to do something that I don't think has ever been done before (please inform me if I'm wrong). You see, while I've talked ad nauseam about Swedenborg's compatibility with Mormon doctrine, I haven't ever used him to support it. But that's exactly what I'm going to do. Specifically, I'm going to use Swedenborg's own systems to show that the Book of Mormon's symbolism displays all the characteristics of what he would call an inspired text. By doing this, I hope to provide evidence for both the Book of Mormon's truth and Swedenborg's claim. For if two separate works independently come up with the same truths, they can't help but support each other.

To begin, consider this quotation:

"The Word has a spiritual core because it came down from the Lord Jehovah and passed through the angelic heavens. As the Word came down, the divinity itself, which was originally inexpressible and imperceptible, became adapted to the awareness of angels, and, further on, to the awareness of human beings. As a result the Word has a spiritual meaning that is present within its earthly meaning much the way our soul is present in us, the thoughts of our intellect are present in what we say, and the feelings of our will are present in what we do." (True Christianity, 193)

Swedenborg says that the Word we read in the scriptures is the result of divine truth descending from heaven and adapting itself to the minds of human beings. While he does not go very deeply into the process by which the inexpressible Word becomes scripture, he tells us that the "literal meaning" that comes out of it acts as a body to the soul that is the Word's "spiritual meaning". He explains later on that this spiritual meaning is hidden within every verse in the Bible. In fact, he says that "For all those who have formed the state of their mind from God, Sacred Scripture is like a mirror in which they see God, although each in a different way." (True Christianity, 6)

All the stories and images found in scripture signify an underlying spiritual meaning. What's more, he claimed that each image in scripture coheres more or less consistently to the facets of this meaning--the sun and its heat always signifies divine love, the sun's light always signifies divine truth, etc.. If we take Swedenborg at his word, one would expect these correspondences to apply to the Book of Mormon as well. But we don't immediately see how we could test this hypothesis, for you can only compare a set of symbols and meanings if you have them available for both texts (the Bible and the Book of Mormon). Fortunately, there is one place in the Book of Mormon that presents a rigorous interpretation of symbols--Nephi's vision of the Tree of Life. 

In fact, almost all of the symbolic interpretations that the angel gives Nephi correspond to those found in Swedenborg's writings. I'll now go through them one by one.

First, the Book of Mormon's passage about the Tree of Life:

"And the angel said unto me: Behold the Lamb of God, yea, even the Son of the Eternal Father! Knowest thou the meaning of the tree which thy father saw? And I answered him, saying: Yea, it is the love of God, which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of the children of men; wherefore, it is the most desirable above all things." (1 Nephi 11:21-22)

Now, take Swedenborg's interpretation:

“A tree symbolizes perception; a tree desirable in appearance, perception of truth, and a tree good for food, perception of goodness. The tree of lives symbolizes love and the faith it leads to; the tree of the knowledge of good and evil symbolizes faith based on evidence from the senses, that is, on secular knowledge.” (Secrets of Heaven 102)

Now the second Book of Mormon symbol:

"And it came to pass that I beheld that the rod of iron, which my father had seen, was the word of God [...]" (1 Nephi 11:25)

And Swedenborg's interpretation:

"Clearly iron symbolizes truth here. Truth is considered strong because nothing can resist it. So iron, which symbolizes truth, or the verities of faith, is said to crush and bruise, as in Daniel 2:33, 40. [...] An iron rod is the truth in the Lord's Word [...]" (Secrets of Heaven 426)

Now the third Book of Mormon symbol:

"And the large and spacious building, which thy father saw, is vain imaginations and the pride of the children of men." (1 Nephi 12:18)

And Swedenborg's interpretation:

"The fact that a tower is self-worship can be seen from the symbolism of a tower. Self-worship exists when we set ourselves up above others, so much so that we seek to be worshiped. As a result, self-love--which is conceit and pride--is called height, loftiness and elevation, and it is depicted by anything that is high up." (Secrets of Heaven 1306)

Now the fourth Book of Mormon symbol:

"And the mists of darkness are the temptations of the devil, which blindeth the eyes, and hardeneth the hearts of the children of men, and leadeth them away into broad roads, that they perish and are lost." (1 Nephi 12:17)

For this one Swedenborg gives an interpretation that, while it might seem divergent at the beginning, actually reflects a correspondence:

"By 'darkness' falsities are signified, because 'light' signifies truth; that 'darkness' signifies falsities, by which are evils, and 'thick darkness,' falsities from evils"

The reason that this correspondence is not as divergent as it appears is that Swedenborg considered truths as falsities to be the "foot soldiers" of good and evil. In the battle in our minds that make up temptations, we will be tempted not by feelings, but by falsities or seeming truths. For instance, suppose that in a situation where you were supposed to be fasting on a Fast Sunday, you get a thought in your head that says "It's OK if you skip it just once". Everyone has been in that type of situation, and everyone would identify it as a temptation. But what's crucial about it is that that thought is a seeming truth, a falsity that we must believe to be true in order to commit a sin. Hence, I cohere with Swedenborg's thinking when I say that, for him, temptations are falsities (see this post for a more extensive discussion of Swedenborg's treatment of temptation, if you don't believe me). 

Now, the fifth Book of Mormon symbolic interpretation:

"And the angel spake unto me, saying: Behold the fountain of filthy water which thy father saw; yea, even the river of which he spake; and the depths thereof are the depths of hell." (1 Nephi 12:16)

This one is a little more difficult, seeing as I can't find any place where Swedenborg talks about flowing water in such a negative sense. But if you take the word "depths" (a word found in the Bible in various places, referring to the depths of the ocean), we can get an idea of what he would have said:

"By the deep, and by the sea and the depths thereof are here signified the hells."

That's about all the major symbols there are in the text, but there are a few additional ones that go along with the ones mentioned above. For instance, if you consider the path that went along the iron rod:

"Words used to describe truth include way, path, road, street, and lane, because these lead to truth." (Secrets of Heaven 627)

What could be more appropriate, considering that the path guides us along the Word of God?

The only image I found that doesn't correspond with Swedenborg's interpretation is the following:

"The fountain of living waters [...] which waters are a representation of the love of God."

Swedenborg asserts, on the contrary, that a fountain of living waters refers to the Lord, the Word, or or to divine truth (the complement to divine love). But considering Swedenborg's assertion that all water represents some kind of truth, you could say that the idea of a fountain (the source of a river, like the four mentioned in Genesis) brings to mind his description of love as the "purpose" behind truth, which is always the "means" toward an end. But I don't want to push it too far.

Even if we take the fountain passage to be an exception, of the seven images found within the text: four of them correspond exactly, five of them correspond nicely (including the darkness/temptations passage) , and six of them roughly correspond (including the passage about the filthy river). Even taking it at its minimum, the fact that the majority of the symbols in the text correspond line-for-line with Swedenborg's interpretation is astounding. After all, I find it highly unlikely that Joseph Smith would have had the means, the know-how, or the time to read Swedenborg's multi-volume Arcana Coelestia (mostly where these interpretations are found). The books are enormous, and the fact that there are eight of them precludes the possibility that a country bumpkin like Joseph Smith could have delved deep enough to find the required references (he didn't have the luxury of control-F!).

So, from this situation three possibilities emerge: first, that neither Swedenborg nor Joseph Smith had a divine connection, and that the correspondences emerging here are just coincidences. But I find this happenstance too meaningful to explain by sheer happenstance. How many other things could Joseph Smith had interpreted the symbols to mean, after all? 

The second possibility is that Swedenborg and Joseph Smith got these symbols from a secular common source. Again, I find that highly unlikely. Though I have not done a complete pass-through of the Bible (not yet!), I find the specificity of these correspondences too eery to discount. Joseph Smith could have figured out that an iron rod stood for power to defeat evil (or something like that), but to associate it specifically with the Word of God--it defies all secular causal explanations.

Considering the sheer unlikelihood that Joseph Smith read the voluminous Arcana Coelestia, only one possibility remains: that both Joseph Smith and Emanuel Swedenborg had a special connection with God, and that they both received these symbols as a part of revelation. If two people stand on opposite sides of  the globe, and if one had no way of influencing the other, the only other option is something non-temporal and non-spatial (to use Swedenborg's terminology) binds them together. This is God, and I see both Swedenborg's works and the Book of Mormon as a glorious testimony that He lives and that He endows truth upon those who humbly seek him. 

No comments:

Post a Comment