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Lars Bergquist, Swedenborg's Secret. A Biography

The Swedenborg Society,  2005. ISBN: 0854481435

Reviewed by Karin Petherick in SBR 2006:2

Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) received, in his own words, a dramatic call “from the Lord Himself [...] in the year 1743; when He opened my sight to the view of the spiritual world, and granted me the privilege of conversing with spirits and angels". This visionary aspect of Swedenborg’s work has greatly interested succeeding generations of poets and artists, including William Blake, Balzac, Baudelaire, W. B.Yeats, and the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz.The reading of Swedenborg’s work also helped Strindberg recover his faith and health when afflicted by a serious nervous breakdown. Swedenborg’s theory of correspondences and analogies has fired imaginations and helped people to see the physical world as symbolically representing a higher spiritual reality. The author presents Swedenborg’s social and religious background and his work as a prominent scientist until a religious crisis led him to abandon his scientific career and devote the final twenty-five years of his life to interpreting the real significance of the Bible. He set to work (in Latin, as was his wont) on his first great explanatory task, Arcana Caelestia (Heavenly Secrets), elucidating and expounding the inner meaning underlying the allegorical narratives of the Bible, concentrating on the first five books of the Old Testament and on the Revelation of St. John. There were aspects of the Swedish Church’s rigidly orthodox beliefs that Swedenborg challenged, for instance its belief concerning Christ’s Second Coming, which was believed to be imminent, when the Lord would return in glory with his angels in the skies; to judge the living and the dead and to terminate the present world order, when the good would be taken up to Heaven and the evil cast down to Hell. The new Jerusalem would descend to earth, where all the good would dwell, both the living and the dead since the beginning of time. Swedenborg considered this absurd, saying: “Reason has gone into exile”, i.e. the Second Coming had been misunderstood. It would take place solely in and through the Word and consist of a deepened understanding of the Christian message. And the Final Judgement? Swedenborg reminds us of the Gospel of St. John: “God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world”. Each and every one judges himself.Works are decisive, according to the Apocalypse (the Revelation of St. John), and the pattern formed by our deeds is written in the Book of Life. Neither punishment nor reward is a consequence, but a state of mind.This is a recurrent thought of Swedenborg’s. The Final Judgement is man’s meeting with the truth about himself, and once this is fully understood and we live in accordance with it, then we return to a heavenly state, to the Kingdom of God which, according to the Gospel of Luke, is within man. Swedenborg wrote: “Everyone can see that the Apocalypse (Revelation of St. John) cannot possibly be explained except by the Lord alone. For each word in the book contains Arcana (secrets) that could never be known without a particular enlightenment and a revelation. It has therefore pleased the Lord to open the sight of my spirit, and teach me divine revelation. Do not believe, therefore, that I have taken anything there from myself or from any angel, but from the Lord alone.” He had begun close reading of the Apocalypse in the early 1740s, his interpretation of it filled six books (Apocalypsis Eplicata), which were summed up in a separate book entitled Apocalypsis Revelata. Swedenborg was no adherent of orthodox belief in the Trinity, nor in Luther’s belief in Justification by Faith alone; there were rumours about his mental health, and the Swedish authorities feared that he was gaining adherents. Living in London in 1769 at the age of eighty one, his books were impounded in Sweden and he was charged with apostasy from the pure evangelical doctrine. The case against him was not closed until 1778, six years after his death. This immensely detailed and authoritative book is essential reading for anyone interested in Swedenborg, and a visit to Swedenborg House in Bloomsbury, with its bookshop and library, is warmly recommended.

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