The practice of communicating with the deceased and other spiritual entities that are no longer tangible to most of us on the physical plane is as old as human civilization. We find it in every culture. And the similarities are striking.
Probably the most famous biblical example of mediumship, which meets a lot of the same qualities as what we see today, is the story of “The Witch of Endor” in chapter 28 of 1 Samuel. It’s an interesting story, partly because there seems to be nuance here between what’s right and what’s wrong and between who has correct spiritual authority. Tragically, the Judeo-Christian tradition and it’s outward, institutionalized forms, has often been oppressive towards folks who have a direct spiritual communication and thus challenge the religious establishment, with Swedenborg being only one of many examples.
What we have in this story, which of course is allegorical and speaks to inner realities, is Saul despairing at an impending conquest by the Philistines, and failing to receive revelation from Jehovah about how to proceed. He is neither answered in dreams nor through the consultation of the Urim, (a kind of magical stone used for divination in the OT). Saul finds a medium, the so-called “Witch” or Medium of Endor, despite the fact that he himself had persecuted her kind, outlawed their practice, and driven them out of the land. Being a genuine medium, the woman at Endor performs a séance and summons the spirit of Samuel, the great prophet. The conversation that then ensues it’s kind of mystifying. First of all the woman gets upset because Saul didn’t tell her about his real identity. Knowing that he is a persecutor of mediums she is justifiably scared and he assures her that she will not be prosecuted for her practice of necromancy. The spirit of Samuel basically gets really upset, and much to Saul’s disappointment, simply reiterates that the Lord is in fact not talking to Saul because of his disobedience, and also announces that the Lord will not deliver Saul from the Philistines.
While there are layers and layers of symbolism in this story and the broader narrative it is a part of, as proposing two things on a more external or literal level: One, mediumship is real. Two, if we put our faith and our Spiritual development in the hands of entities we perceive to be the spirits of deceased people, we’re not going to get very far.
Based on Swedenborgian metaphysics, while there are plenty of entities that we could theoretically be in direct verbal communication with, it would in some ways be no different than talking to a person who is fully incarnate, on this natural plane. This means that whatever conversation we may have or information we may get is subject to the same level of fallibility, and possibly even malice and manipulation as any other conversation on this plane. In other words, you might be talking to a spiritual entity that presents itself as being person x y or z, but we have no way to confirm whether this is literally the person who lived on this planet at one point, or what E.S. calls an “enthusiastic spirit”, who kind of loves messing with us, or a deceptive spiritual play. Or, it could be a manifestation of our own inner psycho-spiritual processes.
When some folks hear about Swedenborg, they often assume that Swedenborgian spirituality it’s all about doing what he did, namely communicating with dead people. He himself was very clear that this is not the case. To him, spirits and angels are simply a part of our inner reality, whether we believe it or not, and whether we notice it or not. We are primarily spiritual beings and a major part of actual Swedenborgian spirituality is to get in touch with our spiritual self and that of each other, and identify with that transcendent self that is not bound by time, space, physicality and mortality. As Teilhard de Chardin is said to have stated, “we are not physical beings having a spiritual experience, we are Spiritual beings having a physical experience.”
E.S. and many like-minded mystics through the ages believed that the structure of reality was made up of emanations coming from a center, which is the Lord, the Divine, the highest and most inward, radiating outward in the form of spiritual planes, dimensions you might say. Everything flows from the divine source, the only thing which is actually truly alive, through several levels or layers of spiritual reality, the most inward being the closest to the divine and thus ultimate truth love and reality, and the more outward being the more subjective, fallible, multiplicitous, coarse, time and space bound planes, including the natural plane.
The process of regeneration is a process of re-identifying with the inward. One could say, to illustrate this, that the point is to elevate oneself from the natural ego plane to the spiritual angelic and heavenly. In some sense that works as an illustration, but in other ways it doesn’t. To Swedenborg, the movement is not from the outside in but from the inside out. So rather than ascending from the natural into the spiritual and into the celestial, the process of regeneration makes us realize that we already exist within those other, higher spiritual planes. It’s kind of like peeling an onion or the pedals of a rose. But again that’s a very imperfect illustration, being that like all illustrations are based on time and space.
Imagine the Divine as the Sun at the center emanating spheres or auras or aeons or emanations outward which are inhabited bye Spiritual beings. The outmost sphere is the natural plane which we inhabit simultaneously as the inner more subtle planes. Swedenborg believed that every thought we have and every feeling that we have originates with the divine and flows into us by means of this spiritual sequence, through those levels. He would say that whether we know it or not, each and every one of us, in every thought we have and in every feeling we have, is connected to that divine structure. And it is based on the states we choose to inhabit that those thoughts and feelings who just like everything stem from God, are engaged.
If we are driven in our cognition and our affection by a love for truth for the sake of truth, and a love of love for the sake of love, we are inhabiting spiritual societies, angelic societies, on our innermost levels of being. We reside there with them on a level of self that is much more real than our earthly self-perception.
People have around them a number of auras from the spiritual world that mirror their life and place them in company with spirits of a similar emotional makeup.” -Secrets of Heaven §5179 (1)
Since angels and spirits are affections of love and thoughts derived from them, they are not in space and time, but only in the appearance of them. To them there is an appearance of space and time according to the states of their affections and of the thoughts arising from these. When anyone therefore thinks of another from affection, intently desiring to see him or to speak with him, he instantly appears in his presence. With every person, spirits who are in a similar affection as he or she is, evil spirits with one who is in the affection of similar evil, and good spirits with one who is in the affection of similar good; and they are as really present as if the person were included in their society. Space and time contribute nothing to presence. -Divine Providence §5179 (2)
This is an extremely important point. Presence, he writes, is not a matter of physical, spatio-temporal closeness and distance. Rather, it is a matter of spiritual state. Consider what this implies about our closeness to each other. Regardless of where on the planet we might reside, and regardless of whether we currently inhabit a “physical” body, and regardless of natural time, we can be close to, and in real, concrete fellowship with each other. This is significant if we want to get an idea of how Swedenborg viewed not only spirit communication, but intuition, astral travel, past-life memories, and the seeming psychic connection between family members, partners, friends, and sometimes even strangers on a level that is more subtle than the coarse realities of the natural plane.
This is also how, metaphysically speaking, the process of regeneration occurs. We reunite ourselves with the source aka the sun aka the Lord, by cultivating our presence in angelic societies while on earth, which we will continue to inhabit after our physical body dies. Love and truth emanate outward through many layers of being (literal, conscious being) all the way to our earthly self-image.
Now this is super esoteric stuff. It might be something you find interesting, or something that doesn’t resonate with you. And that is actually perfectly fine. We are not saved by a belief in spirits (or anything else, for that matter). We are “saved” by uniting ourselves with the Divine by means of embracing and cultivating love and truth. Whether we believe in the metaphysical process that Swedenborg believed in matters a lot less than that we undergo the process of embodying love and wisdom.
In a very real sense you could completely psychologize with what Swedenborg is saying, and I actually find a lot of use in that. I don’t think it trivializes what he is saying, but putting it into the framework of states, not images.
Swedenborgian scholar and theologian Rev. Dr. George F. Dole puts it this way:
“(Swedenborg’s) descriptions of heaven and hell, and especially the intermediate state between them (the world of spirits, which he sees as our present spiritual environment, can be tested against our own experience. His descriptions of that world are in some sense replicable. We may not have open experience of an alternative reality, but we can to some extent be aware of the workings of our mind.”
You don’t need to buy into any particular theological concepts to live a life of regeneration and union with God. But if the metaphysical is something that speaks to you and you want to explore more, the role of communicating with those spirit realms as part of our spiritual path is an obvious thing that comes up. It’s something that has come up for every single person who has ever read Swedenborg, who claimed to be in constant awareness of the cosmic spiritual dynamics happening within whilst being in his physical earthly body.
Again, Swedenborg is very clear that he believed that when we die physically our spiritual self, which was more real to begin with, continues to exist and dwell in different spiritual communities, on different planes of spiritual existence, different dimensions of being.
Since we live constantly in fellowship with inhabitants of the spiritual world, as soon as we leave the physical world we are immediately placed among the spirits like ourselves whom we had been with while in the world. -True Christianity §627 (4)
He also strongly believed that if we want to, we can be reunited and live in the company of those that have been dear to us on the physical plane. Now assuming you want to be in direct communication with someone who has passed on (while you havent), and assuming that that someone is a good person, and thus inhabits positive spiritual realms, and assuming that your intentions are pure and based on love and Truth, you could actually totally do it. You would be inhabiting, as your spirit self, the same spiritual realm as they are, as their Spirit self. Also, he does say that it is theoretically possible to stay in our earthly consciousness and have the experience, the appearance that a spirit, even a particular person is coming down to our earthly self, and giving us some particular message that pertains to our earthly self. Maybe they’ll give us some advice about how we can live a more loving and truthful life. Maybe they will share information about things in this world. Swedenborg had several instances where supposedly he was able, while still in his physical body and fully alert, to contact specific people, and to have those people give him specific information, which he then applied to the natural plane. This stuff is possible, says Swedenborg. And, when humanity was in a more pure spiritually connected stage of inner evolution, he claims that direct communication with spiritual entities on other planes was part of everyday life.
The Lord created us to be capable of communicating with spirits and angels while still living in our bodies, as people actually did in the earliest times. After all, we are one with spirits and angels. fact we ourselves are spirits clothed in flesh. Over time, though, people have immersed themselves so deeply in bodily and worldly concerns that almost nothing else interests them, and so the path has closed; but as soon as the body-driven concerns that absorb us drop away, it opens and we find ourselves among spirits, living life together with them. –Arcana Coelestia §69 (1)
Now here’s the catch though. While this may be possible, and it may even be of benefit at certain times, (assuming that the person has pure intent and is thus communicating with benevolent spirits, not spiritual entities that are trying to mess with them, something that happens a lot, especially when people get involved in this stuff for selfish or materialistic reasons), it has absolutely no spiritual merit in and of itself. Being able to talk to spirits and have them give us instructions on everyday life is, on the level of spiritual merit, and spiritual growth, as neutral as receiving earthly knowledge from other earthly people. It is an exercise that is explicitly tied to our identification with the outer, with the natural, and our attempt to have the spiritual doing the bidding of the natural, which is actually a much lower realm than the spiritual. It is explicitly based on the natural concept of time and space. It will not regenerate us. In fact, it may distract us from what really matters.
“I have been talking with spirits and angels now for many years, and no spirit has dared, and no angel has wanted, to tell me anything, let alone teach me, about things in the Word or any aspect of theology based on the Word. Only the Lord has taught me, the Lord who was revealed to me and who since then has been and is constantly before my eyes as the sun in which he dwells, just as he is for angels. He has enlightened me.” –Divine Providence §135
I used to be mystified and frankly kind of irritated by Swedenborg’s claim that he received no spiritual teachings from Spirits, but from the Lord only. This used to really piss me off. Because it seems like he’s completely contradicting himself, and on a literal level he is. He insists that he received none of his revelations from Spirits and then in the next paragraph goes on about how spirits are revealing things to him and sharing with him all of this spiritual knowledge about heavenly planes etc etc it doesn’t make logical sense when you first read it. It wasn’t until I gained a deeper understanding of the spiritual Dynamics he’s actually talking about that this made sense to me. If you buy into his Neoplatonic framework of the Divine at the center emanating outward, truth, actual spiritual truth comes from the center through spiritual emissaries, you might say, and that’s how it moves into our earthly cognition. To attribute the content of this spiritual truth to the emissary, the messenger, would be misguided. In fact he talks about how there are malevolent spirits who love to do exactly that. To make us think that they are the divine, then they are the “Holy Spirit”, and that thus we ought to worship and devote ourselves to them.
The more we are reborn, that is, the more the process of regeneration is perfected in us, the less we attribute anything of goodness and truth, or goodwill and faith, to ourselves; we attribute it all to the Lord. -True Christianity §610
To identify a spirit as the originator of divine truth would take away the whole point of divine truth. We would worship an image, a messenger, rather than the source.
“Those who are in heaven act as a one; and this they do from the Lord, not from themselves, for they look to Him as the Only One, the source of all things, and they regard His kingdom as the general, the good of which is to be sought. -Heaven and Hell §64 (5)
This brings us back to the spiritual allegory of the story of the Medium at Endor. The symbolism of this sacred story is an illustration of the dynamic we encounter when we turn away from the inner light that guides us from the center of our being, our unitive relationship with the Divine, and think we can substitute, or bypass that connection with an intermediary. Neither the earthly Medium of Endor, nor the spirit of Samuel which she evoked, were able to provide the comfort and assurance he was seeking.
On the one hand, I think this means that we’re invited to experience reality in a more holistic way. To be aware of, and in tune with the spiritual realities underlying our being, other people’s being, and everything in nature. And to be respectful towards traditions which, in good faith and for the benefit of others, engage those spiritual realities as part of their spiritual way of life.
On the other hand, my recent study of Swedenborg’s perspective, or at least my understanding of it, has reminded me that no person, prophet or sage (including the Old Swede), incarnate or spiritual, no practice, no ritual, no text and no religion can take the place of of my inner union with God. Nothing deserves my devotion and trust more than the ultimate source. Don’t shoot the messenger. But also don’t worship him.
Like Swedenborg, may we be open to the spiritual depth of reality, honor it, and harmonize with it. For some of us this might come through an active and real relationship with someone who has transitioned from early life. Or it may come in our meditating on the spiritual source and quality of a plant, or a mountain, or an animal. For some of us it will simply come as a gentle inflow of that which is good and true, with no metaphysical or theological framework attached to it. Like Swedenborg, let us be open to, and perceptive of, and respectful towards the many complex spiritual realities, entities, and dimensions surrounding us. But like him, let us walk in the light of the spiritual sun, the Lord, the divine, the holy ONE that is the source and the essence of infinite wisdom and love, and of all there is.
Only the Lord has taught me, the Lord who was revealed to me and who since then has been and is constantly before my eyes as the sun in which he dwells, just as he is for angels. He has enlightened me. -Divine Providence §135
While inhabiting the many beautiful and interesting dimensions of life joyfully, curiously and lovingly, and with an open heart and mind, let us always keep our attention, our devotion, and our living fixed on the spiritual sun.
(1) Swedenborg, Emanuel. Arcana Coelestia. Translated by John Potts. West Chester, PA: Swedenborg Foundation, 1998.
(2) Swedenborg, Emanuel. Divine Providence. Translated by George F. Dole. West Chester, PA: Swedenborg Foundation, 2010.
(3) Dole, George F. Freedom & Evil: a Pilgrim’s Guide to Hell. West Chester, PA: Swedenborg Foundation, 2018
(4) Swedenborg, Emanuel. True Christianity. Translated by Jonathan S. Rose. West Chester, PA: Swedenborg Foundation, 2010.
(5) Swedenborg, Emanuel. Heaven and Hell. Translated by George F. Dole. West Chester: Swedenborg Foundation, 2000.
Rev. Thom Muller is pastor at the Swedenborgian Society of the East Bay at Hillside, an Urban Sanctuary, in El Cerrito, CA, as well as senior editor of Our Daily Bread. His passions include the intersection of spirituality and psychology, interfaith theology, and the Western esoteric tradition. A native of Germany, Rev. Muller was ordained into the ministry of the Swedenborgian Church of North America in 2016, upon receiving his theological education at Bryn Athyn College of the New Church and the Center for Swedenborgian Studies and Pacific School of Religion at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.