Tertium Quid – My Journey with Swedenborg

A reflection by Rev. Robert McCluskey

Recently I was asked to share why I was attracted to Swedenborg. This is one question I am usually ready for, and I explained that, for me, Swedenborg’s theology represented the possibility of uniting three distinct worldviews that influenced me greatly during my early years: Christianity (RC), Philosophy (Plato), and Community (Grateful Dead). I noted that usually these “groups” don’t even talk to each other, let alone see them as inter-dependent worldviews.

For me, I can’t see it any other way. The radical presence of the Divine in all things, the call and challenge to pursue truth in a selfless and relentless manner, and the possibility of genuine relationship based on a new understanding of freedom. While each of these institutions fall short of their potential (the church gets lost in hierarchy and dogma, philosophy gets lost in terminology and sophistry, and deadheads just get lost), the potential remains nonetheless, and as I said, I saw in Swedenborg a way to unite and integrate these three demands of the spirit. 

The odd man out in this trilogy, for most folks anyway, is the Grateful Dead. What are they doing in a serious discussion about human relations? This was my chance to point out that the Dead are actually part of a much larger tradition (larger than most deadheads are explicitly aware of) that goes all the way back to William Blake. Some time ago, I was happily confirmed in this theory by Curtis White’s The Spirit of Disobedience – An Invitation to Resistance (Harper’s, April, 2006).

Here is a brief summary of the article, followed by an extended quote that says it better than I could:

White’s thesis is that America is currently caught in a confused and confusing mix of two competing and relatively exclusive traditions: Enlightenment rationality and Christian revelation. The first questions authority and relies exclusively on reason to determine the meaning and purpose of life, and one of its chief opponents is the church. Here we get secular humanism, utilitarian systems, and the reduction of the spiritual to a truncated psychology. The second questions reason and defends authority as the ultimate source of meaning and purpose. Here we get fundamentalism, coercive conversions, and the demonization of those who don’t share our views. For enlightenment rationality, belief in God matters hardly at all, and for Christianity, it matters a bit too much. This confusion is best seen in the confused debate surrounding Intelligent Design and evolution. 

Meanwhile, the spirit of capitalism has taken advantage of this confusion, playing each side against the other, appealing to the one that is most expedient for its own purposes. The result is a rationality that rationalizes and justifies even the most atrocious injustices, and religion that is sentimental, emotional, other-worldly and largely ineffective. 

As a solution to this problem, White offers what is commonly known as a third way, an alternate tradition that runs through American culture in a quiet, often unseen way. It is an appeal to individual experience; it focuses on the subject as the locus of spiritual and natural tendencies, each influencing the other as we strive to grow into our true humanity. It recognizes both heavenly and infernal tendencies in each of us, not divided neatly between those we like and those we don’t. It affirms the role of reason and of faith, not as exclusive worldviews, but as two poles of a spiritually mature response to reality, to “what is,” as Rohr puts it. 

And here’s the quote: 

“And yet for all the inevitability that surrounds the Christian/Enlightenment divide, it should not be so difficult for us to find a third option in our intellectual traditions, even if this tradition seems mostly defeated and lost. It is a tradition that is spiritual and yet hostile to the orthodoxies of institutional Christianity. It is the creation of the Enlightenment and yet it is suspicious of the claims of Reason, especially that form of Reason, economic rationalism, that defines capitalism. This tradition began in Europe with Romanticism and in America with the Concord Transcendentalists. Together they created a sort of “counter-Enlightenment” in the West.

At its origin is the poetic system devised by William Blake in the late eighteenth century. In this system there was, to be sure, condemnation of the backward-looking institution of the Christian Church, but there was also condemnation of the figure of Enlightenment rationalism, what Blake called Ratio. Christianity, for Blake, bled from Jesus his real substance as prophet/poet. Reason, or Ratio, on the other side, born with the scientific revolution, divided the world from the self, the human from the natural, the inside from the outside, and the outside itself into ever finer degrees of manipulable parts. From Blake’s point of view, both religion and reason were deeply antihuman, destructive errors.

Blake’s third term, the place he called home, was the Imagination. Blake’s use of the Imagination is not exotic. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s richly American thought was deeply dependent on the Romantic tradition that Blake began. Sounding every bit the descendant of Blake, Emerson wrote in his essay “Self-Reliance,” “The inquiry leads us to that source, at once the essence of genius, of virtue, and of life, which we call Spontaneity or Instinct. We denote this primary wisdom as Intuition, whilst all later teachings are tuitions.” For Emerson as well as Blake, Jesus was the supreme prophet and poet who had realized the full creative capacities of every human. In the Church, on the other hand, “the soul is not preached.” In the Church, our instincts are trampled.

The Church is a dead thing. As shocking as these ideas still sound to us, they represent a fundamental American tradition that ought to be as much a part of our usable heritage as the moral severity that was left to us by Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards and that is preached to this day by the Pat Robertsons of the world and implemented with extremity (and cynicism) by politicians like Texas Representative Tom Delay. In contrast to institutional Christianity, whether dull Unitarians or fiery Evangelicals, Emerson imagined that the world is held together by a spirit that is not of the Church, and certainly not of Reason, but of a direct experience of the world. Emerson made this Romantic idea American, and he gave it first to Henry David Thoreau, then to Whitman, and through Whitman to Ezra Pound, Charles Olson, Allen Ginsberg, and to so many fractured movements of the recent past and present: the ’60s counterculture, the environmental movement, and New Age spiritualism, in particular. They are the heirs to the Imagination’s counter-Enlightenment, with its contempt for the hierarchical authority of the Church and its deep suspicion of what was unleashed by Enlightenment Reason. 

As Hegel famously suggested, speaking of phrenologists in particular and empiricism in general, some people are capable of regarding a bone as reality. In the absence of the Imagination, our sense of the real has ossified. It’s like a great thighbone on the ends of which are our inevitable bulbous realities-in-opposition, the Christian and scientific worldviews. What the Imagination seeks is an opportunity. It seeks a moment when the dry bone of the real is just for a moment “out of joint,” as Shakespeare’s Hamlet put it, so that it can assert its difference. In the fraudulent Manichaeanism of Reason and Revelation, each the light to the other’s dark, each more like the other than it knows, the Imagination seeks to be a decisive rupture.”*

*White, C. (2006). The Spirit of Disobedience – An Invitation to Resistance. Harper’s Magazine.

Rev. Robert McCluskey, B.A., M.A., is a graduate of the Swedenborg School of Religion, and was ordained into the Swedenborgian Church of North America in 1984.

Rev. McCluskey has pastored Swedenborgian churches in Portland, Maine and New York City, and for 17 years served as Swedenborgian representative to the National Council of Churches. 

He currently serves Wayfarer’s Chapel, the National Monument to Emanuel Swedenborg, in Rancho Palos Verdes, California.

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