Secrets of Heaven (also titled Arcana Caelestia) by the spiritual philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg, gives a verse by verse interpretation of the first two books of the Bible – Genesis and Exodus. Swedenborg maintains that such narratives as the six-days creation story and the picture of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden are not about historical individuals or places, yet nevertheless contain a deeper kind of truth.
Swedenborg and biblical symbolism
To the 21st century reader, the idea of evolution taking place in one week is ludicrous. Likewise it is generally thought that the narrative regarding other stories such as Noah’s ark and the flood, the escape of the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt, and their wanderings in the desert may not be historically accurate. Nevertheless many readers of the Bible have sensed something in these stories that is profound about the mystery of life.
One might say that the creation story is a general picture we can relate to in human terms of the Creator’s working week after which a day of rest is needed. Which of us doesn’t need a rest now and then. However, according to Secrets of Heaven there is much more to be learned from biblical imagery which is said to contain rich symbolic meaning. For example the six days are claimed to correspond to six distinct stages in personal growth.
Swedenborg and the Garden of Eden
According to Secrets of Heaven, the Garden of Eden represents an orderly state of mind where unselfish love inspires intelligent perception. We find the idea that when people rely instead on being sensory-minded they fall into all sorts of misconceptions and unwise behaviour. This is said to be the meaning of eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge rather than from the tree of life. In other words, instead of taking the story of Eve in the Garden as an account of woman as the root of all evil, Swedenborg perceives an ever-present tendency in both men and women, represented by Eve, to ‘fall’, from intelligent perception when beguiled by the senses.
Swedenborg and the Flood
The story of the flood, which Noah’s ark survived, has been generally seen as God’s judgment on a corrupt society, but again we find in Secrets of Heaven a deeper analysis. It states that the inner conflict and personal crises which many people experience during the course of their lives, are testing times after each of which personal growth can take place: bad habits and adopted illusions are gradually set to one side whilst what is good and sensible is preserved.
Swedenborg as psycho-spiritual teacher
In other words, what Swedenborg found in the Bible is an unsuspected psycho-spiritual text book. Written between 1749 and 1756, Secrets of Heaven consists of 12 volumes translated into English from Latin amounting to over 5000 pages. In my view it has rightly been thought of as one of the world’s masterpieces, being a vast storehouse of spiritual understanding.
Not only does the reader get a detailed account of a symbolic meaning of each verse, but also this is often followed by an elaboration of related spiritual teaching. There seems to be no haphazardness in the sequence of ideas presented.
Traditional church theology is out of fashion and for many is off-putting. Any spiritual seeker whatever their religion – or no religion – would find Secrets of Heaven less of a barrier. This is because psycho-spiritual ideas appeal to a wider readership than just Christians, introducing, as they do, spiritual concepts that transcend religious culture. For example the narrative of the Hebrew people wandering away from bondage in Egypt is presented as reflecting our own inner wanderings to find true freedom for the soul.
Two examples of psycho-spiritual concepts used are proprium and remnant states.
In discussing the rib that was taken from Adam to form Eve, Swedenborg introduces the concept of proprium meaning the self-awareness of human self-hood. This is said to mislead one into believing one lives from oneself rather from the divine source of life.
“It involves people believing… in themselves, and their imagining that what they do not grasp through sensory evidence or through facts does not exist at all. They.. as a consequence… have a warped view of everything.” (E. Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven, section 210)
In other words, people tend to rely on self-intelligence rather than put their trust in Divine Providence and thus assume that they are each separate beings independent of others. Although it appears that their thoughts are their own, actually there is nothing that is their own: it merely seems as if it were.
According to the story, despite the fall from a state of spiritual innocence by Adam and Eve and into wicked ways by their descendents, there remained one blameless individual called Noah. This person is said to represent what Swedenborg called remnant states of good thoughts and impulses. He said, in relation to each of us, these remain from childhood when the individual had an innocent grasp of what is heavenly.
“States of good are what are called remnants, which are… implanted in a person’s natural disposition, this being done when a person is not aware of it. In later life he has further new states conferred on him; but these are not so much states of good as of truth, for as he grows up he has truth bestowed on him, and these in a similar way are stored away within his interior..” (E. Swedenborg, Arcana Caelestia section 1906)
Remnants of what is good and true thus enable us to develop a deeper sort of conscience as we grow into adults. If we choose to heed them, these can guide us towards what is loving and sensible. Swedenborg maintained that without remnant spiritual states no-one can be inwardly transformed in adulthood.
One difficulty reading Swedenborg is his calm assurance and his sense of conviction. Consequently, it is easy to get the wrong end of the stick from the general statements which give a misleading impression of dogmatism.
Speaking for myself I found several passages I could not understand and had to set to one side. This should not be surprising given the profound nature of the content. Nevertheless I did discover a huge amount to illuminate and raise my mind. And what I did understand made me realise there are further depths to fathom.