A street drunk wandered into the No Exit Cafe as it metamorphosed into a church one Sunday morning. Two rickety cafe tables had been slid against a side wall, below and a bit to the left of the shelf with the wooden Beethoven bust, the carved elephant tusk, and the mounted and saddled armadillo. On the two tables a white linen cloth was draped, with a red satin runner down the middle. Candlesticks stood on either side of a book holder on which lay a closed Bible. Above this altar, coffeehouse art-for-the-alienated grimaced at worshipers.
The drunk rapped on the cafe counter for alcohol. A parishioner came up to him and explained that this was a church this morning, and otherwise it was a cafe, not a bar. The drunk pulled his frayed jacket a little tighter around him and turned dizzily to go. “A church?” he said. His eyes fell on the collection bowl by the entrance, already fluffy with dollar bills. “I can come to this church?” he said.
Everyone’s welcome, be at home, the parishioner said nervously, following the other man’s glance. The man nodded and pulled up a chair, seating himself alone at the table that held the collection bowl.
Another visitor to the church, watching all this over her shoulder, now whispered, “Here it comes, the test of everyone’s sincerity. What are they gonna do now?”
Nothing dramatic: the few parishioners who had noticed the unfolding morality play now watched as the drunk sat in front of the collection bowl, arms crossed, chatting with a greeter by the door. Suddenly the man stood up, asked directions to the closest liquor store, and bolted. He never came back. A few minutes later services in the Chicago New Church began.
This is a new church in several disparate senses. It met in the No Exit Cafe for several years, from 1986 to 1989, until the congregation outgrew it–due in large part to an innovative and now widely imitated church marketing device: regular display ads in the Reader. Quite a bit of the church’s theology is also “new,” in the sense of being 200 years old rather than the usual 2,000, propounded by a prophet only 200 years dead.
The name of the New Church’s prophet is faintly familiar, because he’s often acknowledged or reviled as the godfather of the new-age movement as well–though many new-agers no doubt suppose that their movement is younger, and perhaps hipper, than his character would indicate: a privileged 18th-century Swedish scientist, theologian, and mystic who chatted with angels, grappled with devils, spat at man’s churches, and annotated God’s truths for the last 30 years of a long and otherwise gentlemanly life.
Two years ago Baron Emanuel Swedenborg’s followers moved their Sunday worship toward downtown and the upscale, to the Old Town School of Folk Music, where their congregation continues to grow. Back behind the school’s Different Strummer music shop on Armitage, worshipers gather beneath large paintings of the Old Town School’s home prophets–Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and in shades of blue in the middle, Big Bill Broonzy. Now that the children can’t crawl under cafe tables and play with the sugar bowls during worship, many whole families come to church; the kids are overhead now, in a couple of music rooms above the altar that stands at Big Bill’s feet. When the kids tromp upstairs to Sunday school after children’s worship, old-timers are pleasantly reminded of how much more noise the kids used to make.
Services seem unremarkably spare and Protestant at first sight: a Bible between lit candles is opened to begin and closed to end the sacred parts of the proceedings, and motley hymns and folk songs are sung to the accompaniment of the school’s electric piano. The first novelty appears after the Old Testament and Gospel readings, when an extract “from the heavenly doctrines of the New Jerusalem” is read. These snippets of Swedenborg’s glosses on the Bible are often analytical and sometimes nearly unintelligible, but in an informal sermon that follows–and this is what perked my interest–the gloss often brings to life the stories of all those madmen slaughtering, raping, and howling. Indeed, they seem to come to truth. While this explanation is under way, the kids in the front row for children’s worship continue to poke each other and squirm, and by the back stairs someone might be sitting in the lotus position, eyes closed, smiling.
Following his first serious conversation with an angel, at age 56, Swedenborg wrote 30 volumes of religious works. He already had 150 publications to his credit, but abandoned his distinguished scientific career for biblical exegesis. His 12 volumes of line-by-line commentary on the Bible’s first two books, the Arcana Coelestia (“Heavenly Secrets”), were published anonymously in the 1750s. This first visionary fruit is characteristic of the work that would follow; it begins:
From the mere letter of the Word of the Old Testament no one would ever see that this part of the Word contains heavenly arcana, and that everything within it both in general and in particular has reference to the Lord, to His heaven, to the church, to faith, and to all things connected therewith. . . . The Christian world, however, is as yet profoundly ignorant of the fact that all things in the Word both in general and in particular, indeed, the very smallest particulars down to the least iota, signify and enfold within them spiritual and heavenly things; and for this reason the Old Testament is but little cared for.
In his “arcana” Swedenborg provides dictionarylike definitions for the metaphoric, mythic language of revelation.
After the sermon–where Swedenborg’s definitions are often made more plain than they are in his writing–the school’s twin-pot coffee maker in the lobby is fired up to fuel discussion and fellowship among people drawn by a very wide net. Among those sipping and settling theological points might be a lapsed Buddhist, an intensely meditating cabdriver, a hospital controller, a nurse, a “recovering Catholic” or two, a musician or lawyer or curious neighbor, in addition to longtime Swedenborg readers and one-time glimpsers, and a random smattering of people who shop newspaper ads.
Whatever brings them together–and even brings them in early, to clean up after Saturday night’s folkies and to drag card tables up from the basement for comfortable discussion–it seems to stir them in different ways. That seems to be part of the excitement, in fact–this sharing of such diverse yet gathering strands as they’re threaded through such different and curious souls.
The difficulty in telling this church’s story is precisely its delight: its history is our history, it comes and goes everywhere I look, and its supporters are so commonly celebrated for things other than their religion that when I first tugged its thread I pulled in Helen Keller, Johnny Appleseed, William and Henry James, William Blake, and the Romantic poets. I reeled them in for a while without even wanting to discover other individuals and ideas–Daniel Burnham and his great Chicago Plan, the Brownings of Walpole Street, Alcoholics Anonymous, the rational oppression of the Enlightenment, and the conformity of nonconformity. I was content to noodle on that for a bit before tripping over Charles Baudelaire and Jorge Luis Borges, and even Vachel Lindsay–and all this threaded through the little church that advertises. Next I started learning about the Church of the Great I Am and bodily ascent to heaven, and felt myself falling through a weird warp indeed.
Eventually I fell on a lilac-brimmed private park in Glenview, where a century after Swedenborg died in exile in a London wig maker’s shop–and a century ago–a band of Swedenborgian church people withdrew from Chicago’s wickedness into the yet-innocent countryside, and watched their refuge suburbanize around them. Behind that enclave’s high bushes generations of children were raised, educated, and married and had children themselves amid the lawns, duck pond, winding lanes, and tall trees, their backs turned upon the “vastation of the Old Church” beyond the lilac bushes. Until recently. And that was why I was wandering myself among the tall trees.
In recent years they’ve been trimming the bushes. Just a decade ago the Swedenborgians’ private Park Drive became a paved and public Glenview street, and it’s animated today with non-Swedenborgian dog walkers, joggers, and strollers. The community of the Immanuel Church of the New Jerusalem–still thriving and worshiping in the Park, as it’s called informally–has opened up to Glenview only recently, and today is turning back to the city it left to the devil a century ago: from this suburban fastness the congregation subsidizes the Sunday goings-on at the Old Town School.
It’s hard to get a fix on what these Swedenborgians believe so deeply. Swedenborg isn’t the world’s most approachable prophet, for he leapt to his Lord’s service with the same dogged spirit he’d used to upholster the libraries of Sweden. His dense, vastly learned, and forbidding tracts in Latin on science, philosophy, psychology, anatomy, engineering, and mining were published, though not celebrated, throughout the intellectual centers of Europe.
He was the son of an ennobled Lutheran archbishop who had been the king’s chaplain when Swedenborg was a boy. Swedenborg was a mining-industry heir on both sides of his family and deeply learned in Enlightenment science; he sat on the Swedish Board of Mines for 23 years and invented a whole raft of extracting and processing techniques for his nation’s chief industry while pursuing his many scientific interests and his overarching passion, which was to use the tools of rational science to discover the seat of the soul.
At age 56, after inquiries and efforts that beggar the imagination, Swedenborg still couldn’t find the soul. His gathering despair gave way to months of tortured sleep and soul-searching prayer. His dream journals from this period–the first ever used as the basis for self-analysis–suggest that his profound intellectual pride had to be humbled, until he found himself in humble perplexity “to be constantly and uninterruptedly in company with spirits and angels, hearing them speak and in turn speaking with them. In this way it has been granted to me to hear and see wonderful things in the other life, which have never before come to the knowledge of man, nor entered into his idea.” And so, at God’s particular request, Swedenborg wrote more than 30 volumes of praise to him and excoriation of man’s churches, crediting his books only to an anonymous “Servant of God” until fame finally found him out.
For an idea of his approach, here are parts of Swedenborg’s gloss on the second sentence of Genesis: “And the earth was a void and emptiness, and darkness was upon the faces of the deep; and the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” Swedenborg wrote about the first half:
Before his regeneration, man is called the “earth void and empty,” and also the “ground” wherein nothing of good and truth has been sown; “void” denotes where there is nothing of good, and “empty” where there is nothing of truth. Hence comes “thick darkness,” that is, stupidity, and ignorance of all things belonging to faith in the Lord, and, consequently, of all things belonging to spiritual and heavenly life. Such a man is thus described by the Lord through Jeremiah:–
“My people is stupid, they have not known Me; they are foolish sons, and are not intelligent; they are wise to do evil, but to do good they have no knowledge. I beheld the earth, and lo a void and emptiness, and the heavens, and they had no light (iv. 22,23).”
The “faces of the deep” are the lusts of the unregenerate man, and the falsities thence originating, of which he wholly consists and in which he is totally immersed. In this state, having no light, he is like a “deep,” or something obscure and confused. Such persons are also called “deeps,” and “depths of the sea,” in many parts of the Word, which are “dried up,” or “wasted,” before man is regenerated. As in Isaiah:–
And so on for a couple more paragraphs. Then Swedenborg dispels the gloom and doom, moving on to the second half of the second verse:
By the “Spirit of God” is meant the Lord’s mercy, which is said to “move,” or “brood,” as a hen broods over her eggs. The things over which it moves are such as the Lord has hidden and treasured up in man, which in the Word throughout are called remains or a remnant, consisting of the cognitions of what is true and good, which never come into light or day, until external things are vastated. These cognitions are here called “the faces of the waters.”
What this means becomes clearer in the next verse of Genesis, which says “And God said, Let there be light, and there was light.” Swedenborg explains:
The first state is when the man begins to know that the good and the true are something higher. Men who are altogether external do not even know what good and truth are; for they fancy all things to be good that belong to the love of the self and the love of the world; and all things to be true that favour these loves; not being aware that such goods are evils, and such truths falsities. But when man is conceived anew, he then begins for the first time to know that his goods are not goods, and also, as he comes more into the light, that the Lord is, and that he is good and truth itself. That men ought to know that the Lord is, He Himself teaches in John:–
“Except ye believe that I am, ye shall die in your sins (viii. 24).”
Also, that the Lord is good itself, or life, and truth itself, or light, and consequently that there is neither good nor truth except from the Lord, is thus declared:–
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and God was the Word. All things were made by Him, and without Him was not anything made that was made. In Him was life and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness (John i. 1,3,4,9).”
This stuff, I suppose, shows why Swedenborg had to have a church to himself: he’s spelling out in molecular detail that God is all good, and humans all goop and confusion until we try to live God’s good rather than our own. Then we start merging with God’s greater good, which is also truth and love. Mysticism, rationality, and biblical exegesis had never interpenetrated so deeply before Swedenborg.
The book of Genesis is about the birth of the universe, but Swedenborg specifies that the universe being born is the one that exists between our ears, where each of us creates our eternity. His Bible, from Genesis through Revelation, is about each individual’s birth of love.
You might wonder who cares about all this. Why would anyone want to read books that insult them? Without any Swedenborging you’ll find the answer everywhere–people can’t help caring. The soul crying out in Psalms can still be heard: “How long, O Lord? Wilt thou forget me forever? How long wilt thou hide thy face from me? . . . I am like a vulture of the wilderness. Like an owl of the waste places. I lie awake. I am like a lonely bird on the housetop. . . . I eat ashes like bread, and mingle tears with my drink. . . . My days are like an evening shadow. I wither away like grass.”
When mystics brag as they often do about how wretched they are, we tend to take them at their word that they hate themselves. But in Swedenborgian terms they are discovering themselves, as clay to be molded by infinite love. According to this age-old mystic discovery, one no longer needs to be good but only willing; mystics are, to a man and woman, amazingly grateful to be. For many such souls as these, Swedenborg made the ineffable as clear as chicken broth.
This doesn’t look clear to the casual eye. Swedenborg wrote a universe of utterly consistent relations that intertwine in every sentence of 30 volumes. There isn’t the merest dewdrop here unrelated to the ocean.
His writings remind me of a particular mountaintop moment that mystics tell of, when all the world’s learning and knowing exists as an ocean in the mind, and the mind’s thoughts lie like froth on the surface of that sea. The customary thing to do in this moment is to realize the oneness of all things, marvel at God’s brief being everywhere, and scramble down the mountain to get back to work. Swedenborg seems to have frozen that moment, the moment before awareness of all collapses into one. Constantly living in his recognition of all things’ meanings and presence in all other things, Swedenborg was unusual among connoisseurs of the infinite in trying to tie down the meanings of the manifest world.
For ordinary mystics, mere meanings melt into oneness along with appearances. But for Swedenborg, his Bible meanings describe the actual truth of the physical universe too, which consequently doesn’t melt away through his explanations, though it really isn’t the whole story. The problem is that there are many more meanings in the Bible than can be described even in 30 volumes–just as there are in the universe. But his meanings have the universe’s own loose and suggestive edges, which tremble inside the mind.
I didn’t understand that humbling yourself isn’t the same as hating yourself until I’d spent months gaping at Swedenborg’s writings. I soft-landed on this patchy Swedenborgian ground courtesy of the poet William Blake, whose “universe in a grain of sand” turned out to be a chip off the Swedenborgian block. Blake joined the original Swedenborgian Church of the New Jerusalem in London soon after its founding, some years after Swedenborg’s death in 1772. But he abandoned it in short order, deciding like many another Swedenborgian that “The whole of the New Church is in the Active Life and not in Ceremonies at all.”
Swedenborg might have agreed with him–like other prophets who have caused no end of noise, he seems to have had no intention of starting a church. “The Lord’s church is distributed over the whole world,” Swedenborg wrote, and “it includes all people who live in the good of charity in accord with their own religious persuasion.”
This humane teaching is at the heart of the earliest, and perhaps still the most famous, popularization of Swedenborg’s Latin words, Blake’s poem “The Divine Image.” It begins:
To Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love
All pray in their distress;
And to these virtues of delight
Return their thankfulness.
The third verse explains:
For Mercy has a human heart,
Pity a human face,
And Love, the Human form divine
And Peace, the human dress.
In other words, these divine qualities are mirrored in human qualities. They’re as human as they are divine.
And all must love the human form,
In heathen, turk or jew;
Where Mercy, Love, & Pity dwell
There God is dwelling too.
This is a claim for the divinity of love in every man and woman, and an assertion that our mortal clothes are divine where love meets love in freedom. It also suggests that Turks and Jews aren’t fundamentally different from Christian priests and kings, an opinion not merely scandalous but illegal in most of Enlightened Europe.
The Divine Human is Swedenborg’s theology in a nutshell–but it’s a nutshell of infinite Chinese boxes. Swedenborg describes a never-ending yet human-scaled world through a chain of metaphors of mortal confusion and divine love interpenetrating throughout our universe, which is actually a single body.
This may sound unremarkable nowadays, because Swedenborg’s doctrines have penetrated where his name hasn’t–they’ve become part of our zeitgeist. Like all mystics, Christian mystics had felt and sung God’s love and oneness through the centuries, but love and unity weren’t what characterized Christian churches. For a taste of the old-time religion, consider these lines from a book of evangelical Protestant doctrine published the same year as the Arcana Coelestia, in 1756:
Christ did not die for all men, but only for the elect. God has created the greater part of men for eternal damnation, and does not wish that the greater part should be converted and live. The elect and born again cannot lose faith and the Holy Spirit, [even if] they should commit all kinds of great sins and crimes. But those who are not elected are necessarily damned, nor can they attain to salvation even if they were to be baptized a thousand times, were to partake of the sacrament daily, and moreover were to lead as holy and blameless a life as it is ever possible to live.
The Calvinist God made judgments. He did not make sense. Swedenborg’s answer to this kind of stuff was that God doesn’t judge anyone or choose anyone; rather we choose ourselves every day. We should be guided to choose wisely. Swedenborg cut a whole new cosmology out of the Bible, yet his version of the universe is hauntingly similar to unorthodox traditions from East and West that were virtually unarticulated in 18th-century Europe. Bits and pieces of his thought have become unquestioned banalities as the 18th century’s Enlightenment reaches its culmination and begins to collapse today.
Swedenborg argued to his age that earth is a place where good and no-good mix, and the afterlife is where they are divided. They’re mixed up here in order for God’s children to choose freely the loves that will enfold them for all eternity. Given how long we’ll be stuck with the choices we make now, we should make good choices, he said, no matter what doctrine we happen to use: any church doctrine will with varying degrees of difficulty enable us to choose to love God and our fellowmen and -women, every blessed one, just the way Jesus said. But doctrine ought to say as forthrightly as Jesus did that nobody’s better than anyone else. None of us is born to die, and nobody’s born to fry.
This was not a decent assertion in Enlightenment times. Imagine comparison shopping among Swedenborg’s 18th-century competition: You could choose Catholic subjection to priestcraft and sacrament, an option so scary that many people became Protestants. You could go for Lutheran “faith alone,” which might not redeem you no matter what you did, or what you wanted to do. Or you might go in for Calvinist self-torture: your predestined soul could never know for certain if God loved or loathed you forever and ever and ever. In Swedenborg’s day these were God’s official idioms. Groups that stressed love and individual responsibility, such as the notorious Mennonite Anabaptists, were a horror to rulers both Catholic and Protestant and were exterminated wherever they broke out, in the tradition of the slaughter of Hussites and Cathars in earlier centuries.
No wonder, then, that dainty 18th-century deists threw up their hands at the whole bloody theo-illogical mess that history handed them, and turned themselves to loftier pursuits than God: pursuits such as science and revolution, through which they might follow their bliss with comparative freedom. Swedenborg addressed his message to deists and atheists no less than to respectable church people, aiming to re-create a theology of individual freedom and responsibility on a simple foundation of God’s love–because, as he tirelessly pointed out, we’re stuck with our ever-loving souls whether we want them or not.
Meanwhile, in the short term before we’re all dead, we’re stuck here on this often quite yucky earth: what on earth do we do with our lives? This vexed question was answered with brio by the Swedenborgians who left Chicago and other urban centers 100 years ago. Swedenborg’s writings, they believed, told them precisely how they should live here and now.
Confronting civilization’s collapse into vice, violence, and chaos–a problem already widely noted by the late 19th century–the pioneers of Glenview cut and ran. Swedenborgians called anarchy’s rising tide “the vastation of the Old Church,” the Old Church being this world, outdated by Swedenborg’s revelations. They planned to cloister themselves in the country, live according to the Word, and breed like bunnies, thus in God’s good time retaking the world.
They seceded not just from urban society but from a larger national Swedenborgian church that they considered doctrinally too slack to contend with encroaching doom. One hundred years later, the community still lives true to its vision, which is still evolving. Despite the recent bush trimming and road paving, the Swedenborgian community seems a world apart from Glenview’s subdivisions and squared lawns: discreetly hidden by a thin fringe of lilacs along Schermer Road are scores of genteel Victorian houses scattered among century-tall trees, with a circular drive wandering among them. In the loping circle defined by the road, just up from a duck pond amid open, tree-flecked lawns, a simple white church is attached to the private school, which has 60-some students and 12 teachers. To one side is the school gym, in which Friday-night community suppers, first held in the 1890s, still go on. Cars roll infrequently and slowly down Park Drive, and people smile at me as they pass.
I talked with three generations of New Churchwomen in Glenview, with a fourth generation sometimes burbling nearby. The matriarch, Mary Nicholson, is the 84-year-old daughter of early Glenview settlers, and was born and raised “behind the lilacs.” She says of whatever went on beyond the bushes, “Well, that was another world. That wasn’t our world, that was other people’s world. We’d go down to the village when they had Glenview Day, and we paraded down there when Armistice Day was declared.”
Mary’s daughter Kay Hauck, also born and raised here, is an artist and mother of three grown children who has recently moved to the city and become active in the Chicago church: three years ago she married a congregant she met at the No Exit Cafe. She recalls that neighboring children once believed enraged Swedenborgians would jump out of the trees on them if they entered the Park.
Kay says of the first years of the community, “There was nothing out here. There was a railroad track that came through, a few farms, and a country-store kind of thing. But for a bunch of urbanites to move into the country like they did was a novel idea. And they commuted to work. They had professional people who had their businesses downtown still.”
The church community found its haven in Glenview–which was named by a half-brother of Swedenborgian Daniel Burnham–at the suggestion of a city family with a large tree nursery in the area. That family, Mary Nicholson recalls, helped anchor the earliest settlement: “The Nelsons–it was great-grandpa Nelson who planted the Park and everything, and I think he planted Lincoln Park too–when they came out here the Nelsons had a sled and also a bus, and horses at the nursery, and in the winter they would bring them out to the entrance to the Park, and people, if they got there at 7:30 or something, they could get a ride to the village [to catch the train to work in Chicago]. The rest of the year they’d walk. It was quite a trek. This was all open country then, and snowy, and it was a big thing to get into town and out. There were lots of stories.” These professional city people, riding their wagon en masse through the dusty crossroads hamlet that became downtown Glenview, never quite blended in.
But the years of dislocation caused by the world wars, Kay says, derailed many of Mary’s generation from the professional tracks of their fathers. “Many were employed by Swain Nelson as young men in the nursery, and they went into that kind of work. So there were a lot of entrepreneur small businessmen who came out of that generation, and their children grew up in the late 40s, early 50s, my generation. A lot of us married young, that was the time to be doing that sort of thing. Had young families right away. And a tremendous lot scattered because of job opportunities.
“You know, sociology and history have so much bearing on what happens to movements. It’s very hard to sort out what was done from religious conviction and what happened from history. Definitely there was a religious conviction that brought people into this community–they had a dream of a true religious community where they could raise their families right, concentrate on the education of their children, and so forth–that kept them here in spite of high costs of living. A lot of people who own these old barns now are really struggling to maintain them and pay the property taxes. It gets to be an incredible burden.” Many residents send their children to school in Bryn Athyn, a comparable but much larger community in suburban Philadelphia that houses the church headquarters and a boarding school for teenagers. This is also very costly. “You could put out a lot to stay here,” says Kay.
So even without the glasnost of recent years, the Park community has been entangled with the world. Most recently it’s been on both sides of the breakup of the American middle class into a relative handful of have-it-alls and an increasing number of have-less-and-lesses. The Glenview church has recently built condo apartments in the Park–which look much like new condos anywhere else–in an effort to create homes for its young families. Skyrocketing suburban housing costs make it a challenge to keep Park homes in the hands of church families, which is of special importance in this community that depends on what Swedenborg calls the “uses” of each to all.
Swedenborg’s idea is that faith in God is meaningless without charity to other people. Like the sun’s heat and light, and something like God and man, faith and charity can only exist together. They are only meaningful in terms of each other.
Luckily for the Park, the duty of charity might be answered by, say, volunteering to mow the Immanuel Church’s greensward every couple of weeks, or managing the construction of the condos your neighbors’ kids might move into, or enduring the endless committee haggling that keeps all the Park land titles, bequests, and co-ownerships in line. Kay notes that “there’s a whole committee that operates what’s known as “Park dwellings’–it’s an incorporated thing that just handles the real estate transactions, this legal stuff that goes on. It’s very complicated. And these people don’t get paid. In some cases they’re doing full-time after-work jobs on these types of things.
“We have something like 200 active members. People who come to church occasionally would probably boost it to 500 or so. That’s adults. It begins to boggle your mind when you consider that a great number of active, participating people in this community are older, retired, either widows or spinsters. They’re not really able to contribute in terms of energy or time. A lot of them put in a lot of money. So then it gets down to the parents of kids who are doing all this committee work. In a lot of ways it’s an amazing commitment. So you grow up with the feeling that what life is all about is being involved.” She smiles. “I still have trouble with relaxing.”
Needless to say, Kay became a committeeperson early on for the Chicago New Church, which evolved out of a book discussion group of five. The young minister who led the group, Grant Schnarr, was an Immanuel Church schoolteacher and soccer coach; he still leads the Chicago church today. After a year and a half of discussing books he conducted the group’s first worship service, in a living room where the five had spent many Sunday evenings arguing, agreeing, and passing the hat for more beer. Soon after that service, the girlfriend of one of them realized that she just might be waitressing in what could be a house of worship fit for her boyfriend, and the Chicago New Church found a home in the No Exit Cafe.
The first baptisms for the Chicago New Church took place in Glenview, where the communicants did stir up the waters a bit. “They would show up for church in Glenview the way they dressed for church in Chicago,” Kay recalls, grinning at the memory of cafe dress codes. “People in Glenview basically dress up for church. So there was this feeling like, oh, these are really strange people. And you know, they are characters. They’re rugged individualists, those guys.”
For example, Bill Brimfield, a trumpet player with the Fred Anderson Quartet. His gig at a recent Chicago Jazz Festival was the excuse for a New Church field trip. Bill is hitting his 50s, with creased and shiny skin of many changing shades and the air of one who’s acquired wisdom the old-fashioned way, by hard-knocking around. He is by far the oldest of the Chicago church’s founding members and has been interested in Swedenborg for more than 20 years.
“Anybody who’s searching for truth,” he says, warming to the subject, “gets something out of every religion. I get in my moods, I pick up the Koran and I’ll put that down, pick up the Bhagavad Gita, and I’ll put that down. All the religions come from the same source. There is one God. He’s just called many names.
“I got that from a movie years ago, an old, old Tyrone Power film, Captain From Castile. It was about the Spanish conquistadors, and about the Aztecs, the Indians in Mexico. The Indian part was played by Jay Silverheels–he used to play Tonto in The Lone Ranger. And they started talking about religion. Spaniard was saying, we have our God, called, you know. And the Indian said we have all our gods, too. And the Indian said “Perhaps your god and our god is the same god, and we’re talking about different names.’ I was a small boy, and that thought stuck with me on into manhood. I think that movie started me in the study of comparative religions.
“I was raised Southern Baptist. Much of their doctrine I just couldn’t buy: this fire-and-brimstone and eternal damnation, this concept of an angry God who says, ‘If you don’t go down and suffer and die for the human race, I’m gonna wipe ’em out!’ I said, that can’t be right. But the writings [of Swedenborg–New Churchers tend to emphasize the works over the man], the writings to me put God on a personal level. God himself came down to earth in the form of Jesus Christ. And I know what he did. I know what he said. I can relate to him: ‘Come unto me, all ye that are weary and heavy-laden, I will give you rest.’
“I tell people, when you go to church to worship God, take him home with you, because he likes your company. If he didn’t he wouldn’t have made us in the first place. And in a sense maybe he needs us. Because the writings say he’s divine love and divine wisdom, and the purpose of creation is that God would have something to love that could freely love him back. Because love gets lonely, like the Langston Hughes poem says. Love needs to be reciprocated.”
Bill gets up for another jolt of coffee. As he settles back into his chair at our sunlit table he says, “When I get up to the spiritual world, Swedenborg’s gonna be one of the first people I want to talk to. Sure, we all wanna talk to Jesus. But as far as us lowly humans, I would really like to sit down and talk to Swedenborg. It’s a nice thought that one day those people in history that you’ve admired, you can sit down and talk with them, just like you and I are sitting down talking here. It’s a very nice thought that we can become angels.
“You know, I was raised in the belief that angels were created first, and then men were created, and there was a set distinction between angels and men. I’d rather think of angels as our big brothers and sisters. And God created man that I might be an angel. If you don’t make it, it’s not God’s fault, it’s your fault. Heaven’s open to everybody. It’s your choice. There are those that prefer hell: the hell of their own making, the hell of their own choosing.”
About those angels and devils: Swedenborg says that all of us have two angels who are always with us, one rooting for love of God and the other for love of your neighbors. But at our other ear we have two devils, who agitate for the hellish loves of self and the trophies of earth. But the argument is not monotonous–individual spirits constantly come and go to fill the four slots, according to our vagrant temptations, moods, and needs. Each spirit may come from a different community of heaven or hell: there are innumerable communities where like spirits reside, and each community is defined by the loves of those who love being there. “The highest angel is directly opposite the lowest devil,” Bill says. “There’s equilibrium between the two. A man is born in this equilibrium, in this freedom.”
OK, so why does God rub our noses in it? I ask Bill. “I read someplace, sometimes the Lord will slam the door in your face to point you to the one he wants you to walk through. That really applies to me. I always desired a spiritual life. I always felt I never had the self-control to achieve it. That’s because I was into this born-again thing. Like if you say, ‘Oh! I’m gonna be a Christian,’ and zap! bap! a flash of lightning and from a sinner you’re made a saint. It doesn’t work like that. It takes years. The writings talk about re-formation, then regeneration. It’s a lifelong process. And it continues even into the next world. God wants you to come to him out of love, not out of a fear or sense of duty.
“You know, people talk about living a Christian life–they say, I gotta start living right and then I’ll find God. That’s putting the cart before the horse. Find God. And then you’ll find that getting drunk and chasing whatever doesn’t appeal to you anymore. The highs that I used to get off of booze, I get that high off of God. Took me a while. Took me almost 50 years. And I’m just scratching the surface. If you diligently search, the things that used to gas you, they start falling away. ‘Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all else will be added unto you. Take no thought for the morrow.’
“That was, still is, one of my biggest faults: how’m I gonna pay the rent, pay this bill, I owe this person, that person, how am I gonna? And God says, ‘Don’t worry about it. I got it covered. I still run it. If I can run this universe and make the planets revolve around the sun, can I not help you, oh ye of little faith?’
“That’s where faith comes in. If this great God do all these things that he does, he can and will help me. But he can’t help you unless you let him. And you can’t ask him with your mouth. You gotta ask him with your heart. ‘Eye have not seen, ear have not heard, the things the Lord has prepared for those who love him.’ You get glimmers of it. God’s not gonna force it on you. You gotta want it. And if I have to live in a hut or a hovel or a pup tent in order to acquire a mansion, so be it.
“There’s a story ’bout this lady who died and went to heaven, and Saint Peter says ‘OK, I’ll give you a quickie tour.’ He shows her all these mansions, palaces. Says this belongs to so-and-so, this belongs to so-and-so, and she knows all the people that these mansions belong to. And they were socially beneath her on earth. And so she just said, ‘Well, if that’s what they’ve got, mine must be super-magnificent.’ The angel says, ‘Let’s go to your house.’ So he takes her to her house, a horrible little hut. She says, ‘Wait a minute, Saint Peter, this has gotta be a mistake. Surely I have better than this!’ He says, ‘Well, we did the best we could with the materials you sent up.’
“You’re building your own mansions now. On this earth, right now. As to your spirit, as to your love, you’re already in heaven, or hell. You’re already there. When you die you just go to the place that you’ve made on this earth. And it’s something that you made, something that you want. You love truth, and your falsities die. It’s up to you. Do you love beauty or do you love filth? Nobody’s forcing you, God or angels, not even demons are forcing anything on you. There’s the old saying ‘The devil made me do it’–no, he did not. He can’t. If God can’t force you to be good, the devil sure as hell can’t force you to do evil. You do what you want to do.”
That makes it sound so easy. Why’s it all so damn hard? “I had to go through some changes,” he replies. “Alcoholism for one, and some other ones–grief–and I had to learn through hardships of various kinds that there’s something better.
“How can you appreciate being well fed if you’ve never been hungry? How can you appreciate being warm if you’ve never been cold? How can you appreciate being loved if you’ve never been lonely? That’s how the devils in hell perform a certain duty, even though they don’t know they are: How can you see what’s good and true if you don’t have evil to compare it to? How can you appreciate good in your life if you never experience evil? And at the end of it all, how can you appreciate heaven if you haven’t been through hell?”
There’s a church saying Bill mentions that sums things up: “Heaven or hell is being with people forever who are just like you.” The line turns my thoughts back to the drunk who wandered into the cafe and couldn’t stand to stay there: Is it true, as Herodotus said, that “A man’s character is his fate”? Or was Mencius, a little later in China, closer to the mark: “He who cultivates his superior parts is a superior person. He who cultivates his inferior parts is an inferior person”?
Western civilization tends to think like Herodotus and to dismiss Mencius as dippy. But Bill Brimfield and Kay Hauck and Mary Nicholson, as they teeter happily between the clamorings of heaven and hell, remind me of Mencius: their characters are not their fates, they choose their fates every day, in a more Mencian, Oriental way forever woven of all possible things.
Mary remembers fondly that “old Bishop Acton one time said, ‘You know, you mustn’t think of the things that go on in the other [spiritual] world as very different from now, because you’re living in that world now. And the laws that are in that world are the laws of our mind right now.’ Like, according to your state of life and how you’re looking–happy, sad, anything, the whole world–if you’re looking blue, well, everything seems blue. And if you feel good, everything seems good.” That thought might be deep or trivial. It’s an open choice, made every day.
Like the Chicago church where Bill and I talked, the original New Church in London grew out of a cafe discussion group of five men. But discussion wasn’t an innocent activity 200 years ago. Alone among the great powers, the British government posed no profound impediments to free religious discussion–its sanctions against dissenters made their opinions merely unstylish, not illegal. Nor did the official Anglican church come down hard on heterodoxy: the established church tended to indulge eccentricities of belief, if not behavior, with patrician good grace. In a pattern familiar to a more recent vintage of American dissenters, it was the dissenters themselves who made life hardest on themselves, censuring, censoring, and excommunicating their own members who developed alarming sympathies. It was of such outcasts that the original New Church was born.
John Wesley’s Methodism was the biggest and noisiest of the 18th century’s dissenting sects. Methodists in America would go on to pioneer the media of 19th-century evangelism–the camp meetings, circuit riders, revivals, and the like. Many Methodists were interested in Swedenborg’s writings, but after six of Wesley’s English ministers had public recourse to these books, Wesley’s initial warm interest in the writings turned cold, and he began expelling Swedenborgian ministers from his church. Baptist ministers too came to fear the loss of their jobs if they followed their consciences. And so, even though Swedenborg clearly defined his New Church as the spiritual home of all believers without regard to doctrine, outcast ministers in need of a ministry made Swedenborg’s name their own. They had to found his church to preach his creed.
The outcast church quickly made the passage to the New World, first via James Glen, a British plantation owner in Guyana who lectured on his new religion in the principal U.S. cities before returning home. According to Marguerite Block’s 1932 book, which grew out of her PhD thesis in history, The New Church in the New World, “The latter days of ‘the Torchbearer of the New Church to the New World’ were sad indeed. It is recorded that ‘the charity which existed in his heart did not allow him to treat the poor slaves as other men did,’ and his once prosperous estate went to ruin. He died in poverty in a native hut on the plantation of one of his neighbors.”
This became a common pattern among Swedenborgians in the southern United States. Swedenborg held in high esteem the African angels he met in heaven, because their spirits and faith were so pure; his beliefs encouraged his rich communicants to educate and emancipate their slaves. Whatever treasures were laid up for them in heaven by this generosity, here below their fortunes seldom survived it. The world’s first abolitionist organization, which ultimately banned the English slave trade that supplied the world market, was inspired by Swedenborg’s writings–before it was, as we say today, co-opted by members of Parliament and made respectable.
Swedenborgianism in the southern states never spread very well from scattered plantations: their autarkic ideal in agriculture often carried into religious culture as well. Up north it spread far if not deep, using the innovative techniques of the Methodists as well as whatever great ideas came the way of its eager evangelists. None of these evangelists was more eager than Johnny Appleseed.
He was born Jonathan Chapman in Boston in 1775, but he left for the uncut forest as a teenager. Now famous as a horticulturalist, in his day Johnny Appleseed was known as a “sower of two-fold seed.”
He was an itinerant nurseryman, and one of frontier America’s precious few wilderness lovers. Every year he brought apple seeds west from the cider presses of Pennsylvania, and in clearings that he cut and fenced beyond the frontier of settlement, across Ohio and Indiana, he grafted and planted apple seedlings. When droves of sodbusters started arriving a few years after him, he would pay newcomers to tend and sell his young trees, by now well along.
He gave away trees to those who couldn’t afford them, and gave money and food to anyone in need. Block writes of Johnny Appleseed, “The settlers thought him half-witted, the children adored him, and the Indians venerated him as a mighty medicine man. Like St. Francis he loved all living creatures, and would not injure even a wasp or a snake, in fact, he never carried a rifle. His diet was strictly vegetarian. His appearance is described as ‘eccentric in the extreme. As an unconscious devotee of “Lady Poverty” he lacked completely any feeling of sartorial fitness, and was often seen clad simply in an old coffee sack, barefoot, and with a tin pot for headgear.'” These eccentricities aside, Johnny Appleseed was a successful businessman, working regular routes over an ever-expanding territory.
Along with his Pennsylvania seeds, he brought west with him volumes of Swedenborg’s writings. He ripped them into chapters, “which he fastened together in the form of pamphlets,” writes Block. “With these in his bag of seeds he traversed the wilderness, a human circulating library, leaving a chaper or two in each cabin, and on his return trip collecting them for redistribution in reverse order. It must have been a somewhat garbled version of the doctrines which the pioneers received. Not only did he distribute literature, but also preached and read to fascinated groups around blazing hearthfires.” The seedwork he did in the early 19th century bore uncertain fruit, of course; but years after Johnny Appleseed’s death Vachel Lindsay said of his own boyhood in Springfield, Illinois, that “the exquisite sharp-edged Swedenborgian culture” still invigorated the towns of the Old West, and Block notes that “there were so many prominent New Churchmen in Michigan, that Swedenborgianism was often spoken of as ‘the state religion.'”
In the mid 19th century Swedenborg found his greatest if most reluctant propagandist in the Concord divine Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson was awed by Swedenborg, whom he found gargantuan yet somehow grotesque, “one of the missouriums and mastodons of literature,” “a colossal soul.” Emerson referred to him more than 80 times in his writing, yet he said of Swedenborg, “The entire want of poetry in so transcendent a mind betokens the disease [of mysticism, which is similar to insanity], and like a hoarse voice in a beautiful person, is a kind of warning.” He went on, “This man, who, by his perception of symbols, saw the poetic construction of things . . . remained entirely devoid of the whole apparatus of poetic expression.” Emerson took great pains to distance himself from the church and faith that he nonetheless believed “must contribute more than all other sects to the new faith which must rise out of all.”
Emerson’s grapplings with Swedenborg made “the Mystic” famous for a few years–15 minutes took a lot longer prevideo–and from that acme of acclaim some currents of Swedenborgianism merged into other pop-literature undertakings, especially the communist settlements of Owens and Fourier that came and passed like summer flowers across the midwestern plains, with Swedenborgians conspicuously planting and mourning them.
Swedenborg’s insight into “the poetic construction of things” has had a more lasting effect than his political inspiration, attracting tribute poems from, among others, Baudelaire, Borges, and most recently Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz. Yet none has explained the poetry of Swedenborg’s writing more beautifully than a decidedly amateur poet: Helen Keller, who scarcely laid eyes on the world that Swedenborg’s “correspondences” opened up to her.
Keller has become something of an eminent nobody to recent generations, but in her day the charming little deaf, dumb, and blind girl was the most famous child on earth. As long as she giggled on the knees of famous men she was beloved, but she became a sobering exemplar of the dangers of female education soon after she graduated from Radcliffe, when she sympathized in print with striking workers in a textile mill, mostly women and children, in Lawrence, Massachusetts.
Respectable opinion turned savagely not against her but against the guardians who had allowed her innocence to be polluted with such worldly filth. She argued, largely in vain, that she had a mind and heart of her own, and over the years she learned to steel herself against the frenzies of the respectable.
So it isn’t surprising that an early chapter of her book My Religion begins “Do I hear someone say, ‘But is not deaf and blind Helen Keller liable to be imposed upon by those whose opinions or dogmas or political ideals are confined to a small minority?'” She became heartily sick of this condescension from the heart-dead, and she knew her religious beliefs were even more appalling than her sympathy for the poor. She gingerly introduced Swedenborg’s teachings by recalling the gentle old man who introduced her to them.
Former Swiss consul John Hitz had dedicated his life to the deaf under the patronage of Alexander Graham Bell, who had similar sympathies–Bell actually invented his telephone for deaf people. Bell was a father figure to Keller, and “Mr. Hitz” became her dearest friend. “He loved to take me out walking early in the morning,” she recalls, “while the dew lay upon grass and tree . . . We would often pause that I might feel the swaying of the trees, the bending of the flowers, and the waving of the corn, and he would say, ‘the wind that puts all this life into Nature is a marvellous symbol of the spirit of God.'”
“But,” she had already complained, “I could not form any clear idea of the relation between this Divine Love and the material world. I lost myself many times in shadows and uncertainties, wandering back and forth between the Light which was so ineffably reassuring and the chaos and darkness of nature that seemed so real as not to be gainsaid. One day I was made radiantly happy and brought nearer to a sense of God when ‘I watched’ an exquisite butterfly, just out of its cocoon, drying its wings in the sun, and afterward felt it fluttering over a bunch of trailing arbutus. Someone told me how the ancient Egyptians had looked upon the butterfly as an emblem of immortality. I was delighted. It seemed to me as it should be, that such beautiful forms of life should have in them a lesson about things still more lovely. Nevertheless, the same buzz-saw continued to worry me . . .”
That “buzz saw” worried me too when I first read it; her metaphor ragged at my nerves, but eventually its sense emerged: buzz saws for Keller were primarily dark, nerve-trembling noises. In her limited sensory world, buzz saws weren’t most acutely the tools that the servants cut firewood with–that was too much for her to picture, and too untrue to her restricted experience. Such suddenly sensible incongruities recur throughout her book and give it a special savor, as when she says of her beloved old friend Hitz that “At eighty years of age he had the heart of an evergreen.”
Keller’s bizarre metaphors are like Swedenborg’s natural “correspondences”–an essential term for him. The buzz saw corresponds to her soul-gnashing private doubts, and her friend’s heart corresponds by his age and aura to a tall, wind-whispering pine. Without visual images to limit her imagination, Keller attached the meanings of her own heart and experience to the labeled phenomena of the world. She understood that, to the degree that she knew her own reality, she could recognize the reality around her. Knowing the one, she better “saw” the other. For this reason Swedenborg’s swarming worlds of angels, spirits, and meanings amplified and gave shape to objects and feelings already familiar and perfectly acceptable to her. She knew that she transported herself to Athens while sitting in the family library, for example–didn’t everyone do that?–so it was perfectly plain to her that she was a spirit.
Swedenborg’s central claim in Heaven and Hell, that all God’s children inhabit already their self-made heavens or hells of spirit, made as much sense to the sense-starved teenage girl as those slow-unfurling butterfly wings that symbolized God.
Natural correspondences, though heaven-sent to Keller and to symbol-telescoping poets, are only one part of the larger world of correspondences in God’s and Swedenborg’s scheme of things. As Keller sees it, natural correspondences bring the Bible to life: it has a spiritual meaning beneath its literal surface. “When we read of mountains, rivers, lambs and doves, thunders and lightnings, golden cities and precious stones and trees of life with healing leaves,” Keller writes, “we may know they are exact symbols of the spiritual principles that lie back of them. Affections and ideas are signified, and their uses to the soul. . . . This is what Swedenborg calls the law of correspondences–analogies between the forms of nature and those of spirit. The Bible may be called the Poem of the World as well as God’s finite utterance to man.”
God being infinite, he can’t just tell us these things. To illustrate, Keller quotes the first lines of the 78th Psalm, which recapitulates the book of Exodus: “‘I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings of old, which we have heard and known, and our fathers have told us.’ . . . And what a deep parable it is!” she writes. “It describes perfectly our exodus from materialism and ignorance, and our slow, difficult progress toward the happier life, which the beautiful, fertile land of Canaan represents.”
Using the idea of correspondences, the tribal story can be read as a personal story that’s particularly transparent to people in the 12-step programs that have evolved with Alcoholics Anonymous. Here’s a short version of Exodus as it reads through Swedenborg’s correspondences, which I’ve cribbed from a series of sermons at the Old Town School of Folk Music.
It works like this: When the children of Israel (that is, each of us) flee their captivity in Egypt (that is, the tyranny of our compulsions and desires) they are stopped dead in their tracks by the Red Sea. Water corresponds to truth, and here a sea of false truths has trapped the Israelites, who look back and see the rising dust of Pharaoh’s armies gathering upon them as they teeter on the shore. They’re scared silly, as we are when we first break with our compulsions but can’t yet believe we’re free of them.
God tells the Israelites to advance. Into the water? God tells Moses to “lift thou up thy rod, and stretch out thine hand over the sea, and divide it.” Lifting a wooden rod–wood corresponds to simple good–together with reaching to God divides the false truths safely. The waters part, the children of Israel cross, and behind them the ocean of false truths washes away Pharaoh’s pursuing army–roughly what happens to the old gang we leave behind.
Many a dry drunk has cried at this point: you call that progress? The children of Israel are in a trackless wilderness, thirsty, lost, alone. The first water they find is alkaline, bitter, and they can’t swallow it–water always represents truth, and now their truth is hard to take. So God shows them a tree–again, the simple good–“which, when he had cast into the waters, the waters were made sweet.” Following the consistent wood-and-water, good-and-truth imagery, this means that by doing and accepting simple good as we go forward, the disagreeable truths of past bondage are recognized and more easily swallowed.
On the story goes, as the tribe searches for God and Canaan through seemingly endless wilderness wandering and self-betrayal, sustained by the simple stuff of life that God scatters for them like morning dew–it’s not glamorous, but sufficient for their daily needs. After this long, heartbreaking wandering comes the slow rebirth of innocence that empowers the invasion and capture of the Promised Land, when the walls at last come tumbling down.
It’s no accident that Swedenborg’s glosses fit so well with the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous. Bill W., AA’s legendary founder, was married to a lifelong New Churchwoman, Al-Anon founder Lois Wilson, and the metaphor of the 12 steps and much else seems to have come straight from Swedenborg.
So it’s something of a marvel that scarcely anyone’s heard of the man whose ideas thread through so many famous people and events. Perhaps the explanation is summed up in a 19th-century New Church newsletter, which tells of an old woman who left the Church “and made up her mind to go to heaven the Methodist way because the New Church way to heaven was so difficult, and took so long, and you had to read so much!”
But I’ve noticed that the little puzzle of Swedenborg’s obscurity is part of a much larger puzzle. Swedenborg faded from American awareness precisely when America’s governing souls lost interest in God. (We think of the United States as a forever God-struck place, forgetting that God strikes new souls in forever new ways.) Henry Adams, in our greatest American autobiography The Education of Henry Adams, wrote that the divines of Boston “had solved the universe. . . . The [God] problem was worked out:”
Of all the conditions of [Adams’s] youth [in the mid 19th century] which afterwards puzzled the grown-up man, this disappearance of religion puzzled him most. . . . That the most powerful emotion of man, next to the sexual, should disappear, might be a personal defect of his own; but that the most intelligent society, led by the most intelligent clergy, in the most moral conditions he ever knew, should have solved all the problems of the universe so thoroughly as to have quite ceased making itself anxious about past or future, and should have persuaded itself that all the problems which had convulsed human thought from earliest recorded time, were not worth discussing, seemed to him the most curious phenomenon he had to account for in a long life.
This gentling of liberal Christianity into marmoreal smugness–still commented on today–didn’t in fact solve the God problem, but kicked the burden of fussing about it down the social ladder, to the orders that still whooped and hollered. It was no accident that the Pentecostal movement swept the Great Plains when the Brahmins made peace with their countinghouses, and it was no accident that back in Boston Pentacostals soon built many a stout church. In ever-different words the same yearnings are spoken, over and over again; the one-ways of peace, however fulfilling, noisily succeed one another. Is this Swedenborg’s particular problem then, or is it man’s problem, or God’s problem? Robert Graves summed the matter up this way in his poem “History of the Word”:
The Word that in the beginning was the Word
For two or three, but elsewhere spoke unheard,
Found words to interpret it, which for a season
Prevailed until ruled out by Law and Reason . . .
These, in their turn, found they could do no better
Than fall to Letters and each claim a letter.
In the beginning then, the Word alone,
But now the various tongue-tied Lexicon . . .
Out of the lexical babble, two or three again will hear the Word, and somebody will write a poem.
There are whole competing lexicographies to account for this phenomenon, none worth reading. The problem seems to be that God’s truth, whatever that is, erupts through individual yearning hearts, and when heart-truth is tricked out as church-truth on an altar, with its inevitable attendant state-truth and cop-truth and newspaper-editorial-truth smoldering out of the accruing incense pots, individual hearts shudder back into the cold until they’re stirred fresh again; then some hot dog tries to nail the truth down once and for all all over again, building the next boom market in altars.
In young churches where individual soul-fires burn strong, schisms are common, because little churches don’t have the authority to fry wrong thinkers the way the big boys and governments do. The Swedenborgian church had some painful flaps in its earliest days–believers disputed just what they believed the 30-odd volumes boiled down to–and the American church split again 100 years ago. The secessionists were those who moved to Glenview and other such sanctuaries, where they wouldn’t be slopped so hard by the tar brush of earthly life. This branch has flourished, largely by retaining more of its children than most churches do. As a coherent small society at peace within a large, incoherent one, the church seems to function for its children like a small town scattered across the country. It’s a heart-home, a place where, from wherever you are, you can go home again–and feel guilty again, while worrying about your neighbor as yourself. The church had hoped to colonize and eventually convert the world with a flood of its progeny, but changing middle-class realities have kiboshed that plan. Nowadays they put their faith in evangelism, as practiced, for example, by the Chicago New Church.
The original branch of the church has been in decline since the schism. Marguerite Block wrote in 1932, “To offset the discouragement caused by this decline, the more philosophical fall back on the “permeation theory’ for comfort. This theory, briefly, is that since the Last Judgment and the Descent of the New Jerusalem, the whole world is being gradually permeated by the new truths, and the new spiritual power. Though the world has not accepted the Writings of Swedenborg nevertheless his teachings have influenced its thought far more than it is aware.”
At the time Block was writing, Swedenborg’s ideas were most clearly (if thinly) disseminated through the New Thought movement, which was represented in better neighborhoods by churches like Unity and, to a degree, the Christian Science Church, and through some of the great metaphysical cults of the 1930s such as the Church of the Great I Am, which is still headquartered in downtown Chicago. The I Am church’s commerce in “Ascended Masters,” perhaps aided by its alleged mail fraud, had packed the largest theaters of America’s largest cities until, discouragingly, its founder failed to ascend bodily to heaven as expected when he died and had to be cremated.
Difficulties like this surely contributed to the neglect of Swedenborg in the first half of this century. As the poet Czeslaw Milosz writes, “The truth is that every epoch has dusty storage rooms of its own where disreputable relics of the past are preserved. Swedenborg was left there together with the quacks, miracle workers, and clairvoyants so typical of the not-so- reasonable Age of Reason–people such as Count Cagliostro, the legendary Count Saint-Germain [one of the Ascended Masters of the I Am Church], and an initiator of the ‘mystical lodges’ in France, Martinez Pasqualis. The risk of taking Swedenborg seriously was too great. . . . [His] legend was still alive at the time of Balzac and Baudelaire, but gradually it waned.”
Nowadays Carl Jung and the emerging disciplines of transpersonal psychology make Swedenborg’s influence plainer, and more respectable. Jung was very interested in the life and work of Swedenborg, who had analyzed his own dreams in what are now called Jungian modes, recognizing each dream character as a splinter of his healing self. Growing interest in Jung’s work in particular is bringing spiritual issues back into the realm of decent, even academic discourse. At the farther reaches of decency, the new-agers who rejoice that they’re already God are to my ear also talking Swedenborg, though they’re understandably fuzzy about all the Chinese boxes of the Divine Human.
The boxes–the various scales of the one Divine Human–all interexist at once. So Swedenborgians get very excited about the Second Coming of Christ, for example: they say he turns up all over the place these days. As Grant Schnarr, the founding minister of the Chicago New Church, explains it, “The Lord is making his Second Coming through a new understanding of him. Through new understanding and a new ability to see him in his own Word.”
“Well, this is what’s fun. It’s not really that clear. Swedenborg says in his book True Christian Religion that this Second Coming is by means of a man to whom the Lord has revealed himself, to teach the doctrines which will be of the new Church. It sounds like the writings are the Second Coming. And then elsewhere Swedenborg says the Second Coming is a new enlightenment that will come over mankind from the spiritual world, and from revelation.
“And elsewhere he says the first coming is when a person first discovers the truth, and the Second Coming is when that truth is put into his heart or whatever, and God is actually with him. So he gives lots of definitions. It’s a process, this coming.”
A single process with infinite particulars, this coming happens on many levels and in infinite heavens all at once. The problem is, as Lao-tzu summed it up 2,500 years ago:
The way that can be spoken of
Is not the eternal way;
The name that can be named
Is not the eternal name.
Swedenborg says that God saw the same problem, which arose as man separated in consciousness from God: “Conjunction with an invisible God is like a conjunction of the eye’s vision with the expanse of the universe, the limits of which are invisible; it is also like vision in mid-ocean, which reaches out into the air and upon the sea, and is lost. Conjunction with a visible God, on the other hand, is like beholding a man in the air or on the sea spreading forth his hands and inviting to his arms.”
And that’s how Jesus Christ enters the picture. He is a human touchstone of that infinite Tao that surpasses imagining or describing. What connects all the Chinese boxes is this one God, everywhere on-line, on every scale, resembling us. With Jesus to relate to, the Bible to flip through, and all its arcana an open book, Swedenborg saw himself heralding a new age for reasoning men and women. Over the doors of heaven’s temples he saw written, “Now it is permitted to enter with understanding into the mysteries of faith.”
So Swedenborg gave short shrift to the riddles and incense of the Old Church–by which he meant every church, so far as I can tell. He reviled, just for example, almost everything said about the Holy Trinity. Anyone who tries to believe that three gods can make one God, he wrote, is one bewildered pagan. “Those three, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, are the three essentials of a single God, which make one as soul, body and activity do with a person.” He believed that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit live in each of us, correspondentially, as good, truth, and action. Or, if you prefer, as love, wisdom, and charity: infinite, such entangled triads thread God’s aspects through us all, across different scales past all imagining, and on through eternity. Another such triad might be end (Father), cause (Son), and effect (Holy Ghost), or if that seems too Aristotelian, the Platonist in you might call them essence, form, and purpose, and even the Heideggerian in you might hatch appropriate homologues to live and not-live with. But you needn’t worry about it, Swedenborg assures us–all you need is love.
None of this faith splitting went over well in the lands of Luther, where noble friends only narrowly averted Swedenborg’s unceremonious arrest. An old man of 86, he absconded to the California of 18th-century Europe–London–where a few months later, as ever waist-deep in manuscripts, fair copies, and folios, after declining a proposed visit with John Wesley because he planned to be dead by then, he quietly died. The maid who reported that he’d predicted the date and time of his death recalled that he seemed pleased with the melancholy news, which he passed on to her “as if he were going to have a holiday.”
That eager anticipation of what’s in store after we bite the dust separates Swedenborg’s followers from the crowd. But what touches me most are his correspondences, wavering through the Bible’s beautiful words like winds through wheat fields. I’m not sure I have the faith to really hear Jesus say “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: and yet I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more cloth you, o ye of little faith?” But I’ve learned to go out to the bogs by the North Branch and slog through the grasses until I find a wild lily, and get down on my knees to touch its petals. Last fall, after they were gone, I looked up lilies in the six- volume Swedenborg Concordance and read that lilies correspond to “the blossoming that precedes the fruit.” I thought of that all winter.
It was Helen Keller who put me on to touching flowers. She wrote, “To one who is deaf and blind, the spiritual world offers no difficulty. Nearly everything in the natural world is as vague, as remote from my senses as spiritual things seem to the minds of most people.” My first, smug sense was that Swedenborg gave Keller a sort of blind-man’s nature guide, offering depth, form, and enriched associations to the thin chaos of her senses.
Having said that, I’ll let her have the last word. Keller’s book My Religion concludes, “The inner, or ‘mystic’ sense, if you like, gives me vision of the unseen. My mystic world is lovely with trees and clouds and stars and eddying streams I have never ‘seen.’ I am often conscious of beautiful flowers and birds and laughing children where to my seeing associates there is nothing. They sceptically declare that I see ‘light that never was on sea or land.’ But I know that their mystic sense is dormant, and that is why there are so many barren places in their lives. They prefer ‘facts’ to vision. They want a scientific demonstration and they can have it. Science with untiring patience traces man back to the ape, and rests content. It is out of this ape that God creates the seer, and science meets spirit as life meets death, and life and death are one.”