Thursday, August 30, 2018

Jordan Peterson's Bible Lectures and Swedenborg's Biblical Inner Meaning

So I've been studying the works of the 18th century scientist, theologian, psychonaut, and Christian mystic Emanuel Swedenborg for over at least five years. I find his works fascinating because his visions describe phenomena that are bizarrely similar to those of NDEs and people who take drugs like DMT (not to mention things like the Tibetan Book of the Dead and certain strands of Islamic mysticism). But that's neither here nor there.
What I find most fascinating is that he wrote a 10,500-paragraph-long exegesis of the inner meaning of Genesis and Exodus, and this spiritual interpretation is shockingly similar to Jordan Peterson's psychological interpretation in many parts. Let me give some examples.
For instance, I'm sure you're familiar with Jordan Peterson talking about how the snake in the Garden of Eden story affectively describes the factor in human evolution that gave human beings both self-consciousness and visual acuity. In essence, the snake is the thing in the grass that makes you look carefully, anxiously, and fixedly on the environment for threat - the factor that makes you "open your eyes" into a big stare almost permanently. Compare that with Swedenborg's statement about the snake:

"The earliest people did not compare various human traits to animals and birds but called them such. This was their manner of speaking...Snakes was their word for a person's sensory abilities. This is because sense impressions rise directly out of the body, just as snakes lie directly on the ground."

That is, snakes are a primeval word (an affective and not empirical description of Being, in other words) for the factor in human consciousness that regulates conscious intensity. Swedenborg goes onto describe how Eve eating the fruit is a symbol of human beings reveling fully in sensory consciousness and not participating in a more unconscious "participation mystique" where we paid attention more to the motor significance of perception than its literal content. Peterson's words from Maps of Meaning say the same thing, more or less: "The 'serpent' of the 'external unknown' works in concert, therefore, with the 'serpent' of the internal unknown: apprehension of the mystery which transcends the current realm of adaptation (that is, the permanent mystery of mortal limitation) produces permanent consciousness, at least in principle." I.e. the snake in Eden, for both authors, is the factor that "opens our eyes" to the factors in our environment that are permanently unsafe, what you have to scan for, the literal, sensory aspects of Being where you constantly have to watch out for the patterns of snake scales.
But that's not all. More impressive is their mutual treatment of the Cain and Abel story. For Peterson, as you know, Cain is the symbol of the embittered intellect, the intellect resentful of Being, a mind that thinks it knows better than God, a consciousness that has not accepted the price of Being (i.e finitude) and therefore learned how to love. Likewise, Swedenborg says this:

"Cain's offering depicts worship motivated by a detached faith while Abel's offering depicts worship motivated by charity."

For Swedenborg, charity and faith form a union like female and male and like the right hemisphere and left hemisphere of the brain (which, by the way, Swedenborg the lettered anatomist identified, respectively, with the affective and intellectual principles at least a good 150 years before anyone else did). To exercise faith (which he associates with the intellect) without charity (which he associated with the will or "affections") is the origin of evil, a state he says is depicted by this story. Likewise, here's Peterson in Maps of Meaning again: "Reason can serve health only when it plays a secondary role." This quote, by the way, is in a chapter called "The Hostile Brothers," where he interprets the Cain and Abel myth in way even more clearly in alignment with Swedenborg's exegesis.

There are other examples. For instance, in their treatment of Genesis 12 both Swedenborg and Peterson say that the actions of that chapter elucidate pedagogical principles; Peterson does this referencing the Future Authoring program in that lecture more than he does in any other Bible Lecture, and Swedenborg does it by explicitly saying that the affective meaning of Genesis 12 is used by angels in heaven as a kind of instructional manual for children there. But I think I've said enough.
The question is: why? I think, at the very least, these stories have a kind of inner feeling-logic, a method to their madness, a motor significance woven through the words, that can be distilled and explicated clearly. If so, geniuses like these two should come up with the same narratives. And they do.


  1. As a novice in the workings of Emmanual Swedenborg, I do agree to the fact that in a lot of ways, Peterson's interpretations really does coincide in a sense with Swedenborg's. I suspect that he is even a Swedenborgian in disguise for cautionary reasons he may have.

  2. I've noticed many of these types of similarities as well. I think the reason is because Swedenborg influenced Carl Jung, who read Swedenborg's books, and then Jung heavily influenced Peterson.