Sunday, September 16, 2018

Esoteric trailblazer

This is an introduction to the life and ideas of Emanuel Swedenborg, the 18th century Swedish scientist who became a prophet of a new religion. Although I lived in Sweden most of my life and (of course) know about Swedenborg (his old house is currently on display at the Skansen outdoor museum in Stockholm), I've never taken the time to actually study the man and his writings. I suppose nobody becomes a prophet in his hometown! This particular book about Swedenborg is written by former rock musician Gary Lachman, who has authored a long string of popularized works on the esoteric and occult of varied usefulness.

“Swedenborg: An Introduction to His Life and Ideas” is probably too short for those used to scholarly treatments of the Swedish seer, but I think it works relatively well as a teaser if you know next to nothing about him. What the book lacks is historical context. Lachman says relatively little about Swedenborg's exact place in the Western esoteric tradition and even less about his political activities (which may have included secret missions on behalf of the French and Swedish governments). On a positive note, Lachman is sympathetic to Swedenborg and refrains from painting him as barking mad, a common accusation against a man who claimed to have visited both Heaven and Hell! There is also a good bibliography, pointing the reader to modern English translations of Swedenborg's most important works.

I realized several things when reading Lachman. One is that Swedenborg's conversion from scientist and respectable civil servant to crazy-sounding prophet of a new form of Christianity didn't just happen out of the blue. Quite the contrary, Swedenborg had conversed with angels already as a child, and had practiced a form of “controlled breathing” (a meditation technique) for decades before his dramatic religious visions. His scientific works frequently contained metaphysical speculations of a Neo-Platonist or Christian character. Indeed, Swedenborg seems to have been an early example of the modern attempts to harmonize science and spirituality, or portray spirituality itself as scientific. Lachman is fascinated by this side of Swedenborg and believes that his cosmological speculations are similar to those of quantum physicist David Bohm or the idea of a “holographic universe”. Lachman also believes that Swedenborg, rather than Kant or Laplace, was the first to formulate the nebula hypothesis. Kant read Swedenborg and might therefore have gotten the idea from him.

While Swedenborg's more respectable followers portray him as a Christian theologian, “Swedenborg” clearly demonstrates that the Seer of the North was really an esotericist. After his religious conversion, Swedenborg frequently visited London where he conferred with a Sabbatian-Kabbalistic rabbi, Samuel Jacob Hayyim Falk. The rogue rabbi (who had been forced to leave Poland in a hurry) was the center of a virtual occult community of Rosicrucians, alchemists and Moravian Brethren, the latter led by the colorful Count Zinzendorf. Apart from studying the Kabbala, these people were into erotically charged mysticism and magic. Swedenborg is therefore a representative of this somewhat problematic version of Western esotericism. My overall impression of Emanuel Swedenborg is that he was a transitional figure in the history of the Western esoteric tradition. Some of his ideas are decidedly old fashioned, such as the theory of “correspondences” or the centrality of the Bible. Erotic mysticism can be found already in Plato's “Symposium”. Others point forward to a new age: attempts to harmonize science and spirituality, “channeling”, meetings with aliens on other planets, etc. Swedenborg's curiously literal descriptions of Heaven as a kind of Earth double points forward to Spiritualism with its “Summerland”. There are also similarities between Swedenborg and Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet, suggesting that the latter had studied the former's writings or related traditions.

Lachman compares Swedenborg to Rudolf Steiner and Carl Gustav Jung, especially the former. One intriguing similarity with Steiner is that Swedenborg's visions are both literal and non-literal at the same time. Steiner is notorious for his detailed and frequently bizarre visions, but in one of his texts he points out that these are really “translations” of spiritual realities. Swedenborg claimed that time and space as we know it doesn't exist in Heaven or Hell, where everything is rather a matter of psychological states – but if so, his visions cannot be as literal as he makes them out to be. Presumably, they too are “translations”. On the other hand, both Steiner and Swedenborg were thinking in pictures, which *does* sound literal, but perhaps the picture was induced by the spiritual reality?

Judging by Lachman's “Swedenborg”, the Swedish prophet, seer and revelator was actually a kind of universal genius who foreshadowed many modern developments within both science and religion. I admit that I had no idea. Despite being rather short and elementary, I will therefore give this Swedenborgian teaser trailer four stars!

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