Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist but others Elijah and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you but my Father in heaven”. -Matthew 16:13-17
I’ve heard the statement several times, mostly from non-Swedenborgians, that the Swedenborgian Church is not a very “Jesus-ey” church. It is true in a certain sense. The name Jesus is notably not used all that frequently in Swedenborgian churches. There are several reasons for this, some of which may surprise you.
Swedenborg does in fact have what’s called a “high Christology”, the character of Jesus Christ is absolutely essential to Swedenborg’s theosophy. The figure of Jesus Christ is inseparable to the very basics of Swedenborgian theology, but here’s a few reasons for the appearance:
Swedenborg is a unitarian theologian (I am using the term theologically, not in relation to the “capital U” Unitarian tradition). A central issue in Christian theology throughout the centuries has been the question of how one is to integrate the concept of the trinity into a monotheistic image of God. The different theological positions have ranged all the way from radical unitarianism, meaning one-ness, there is only one divine personality, to tripersonalism, the belief that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are 3 separate and independent beings. Swedenborg is a unitarian who believed that God is one, in fact God is ultimate one-ness, and there is no division between 3 entities or personalities:
“God is one in Essence and in Person, in whom is the Divine Trinity, and that He is the Lord God the Savior Jesus Christ.” –TCR §2 (1)
Logically then, there is no need to constantly distinguish between Jesus, God, the Holy Spirit, Jehovah, the Lord etc. (he almost exclusively uses the latter, something I’ll address further below).
Swedenborg is what I would call a qualified universalist (again not with a “capital U”). While he did not believe humans were compelled into heaven, (sometimes implied by the concept of “pure” universalism), and did not support doctrinal relativism, he believed that all faith traditions can lead us on the path of regeneration and re-union with God, and he believed all faiths were represented in heaven. We all perceive things differently, and there are countless ways in which people connect with the Divine. He did believe that the spiritual dynamics that faith in Jesus Christ, if understood as a “divined human”, reveal the true nature of the divine. In that sense, it is a faith that saves (TCR 4), but this “faith” (fide), as understood by Swedenborg, implies something quite different from the acceptance of religious dogmas:
We are to believe or have faith in God our Savior Jesus Christ because this is believing in a God who can be seen, in whom is what cannot be seen. Faith in a God who can be seen—who is both human and divine at the same time—goes deep within us. Although faith is earthly in its form, it is spiritual in its essence.
Within us faith becomes both spiritual and earthly, in that everything spiritual has to be received in what is earthly to become anything to us. Something purely spiritual does indeed enter us but we do not accept it. It is like the ether that flows in and out of us without having any effect. For something to have an effect, we have to be mentally aware of it and open to it. We have no such awareness or openness unless something affects our earthly self.
On the other hand, faith that is entirely earthly, meaning faith that is deprived of its spiritual essence, is a mere persuasion or knowledge, not faith. A persuasion outwardly imitates faith, but because there is nothing spiritual inside it, there is nothing in it that saves. . -TCR §339
Likewise, in HH §80:
By “receiving the Lord”, [angels] mean receiving the good and truth which are from Him, since the Lord is in His good and in His truth. (2)
Jesus Christ is a spiritual reality. Not a name and not simply a time-and-space-bound being. This is the most important point by far. Swedenborg, as implied by his universalism, rejects the Protestant doctrine, common in his Swedish Lutheran cultural and theological context, that faith in Jesus is in and of itself salvific. Many forms of Christianity maintain that you have to believe in Jesus to be saved, and, especially in Protestantism, that you have to accept the concept of vicarious atonement (Jesus having been sacrificed as a ransom for human sin), another concept which Swedenborg strongly rejects.
A traditional Christian might ask: “So what’s the point to Jesus, then? If he didnt die as a ransom sacrifice for my sin, and I don’t have to be a ‘Christian’ to get to heaven, what’s the point?”
As with all things in Swedenborg, it’s all about inner vs outer. There’s the outer layer, the literal. Swedenborg did very much believe that Jesus of Nazareth the person literally existed. He believed that all of Sacred Scripture was symbolic, “correspondential”, and that it is the inner meaning, not the outer, that makes it holy. And he believed that certain parts of the Bible were wholly allegorical. The 7 days of Creation, for example. This stuff obviously didn’t actually happen, but is sacred mythology that illustrates a spiritual process, or rather processes, that unfolds within us. The Gospels, however, he believed were both literally and correspondentially true. While as with anything, the inner is more important than the outer, he did believe that the historical Jesus existed, and that his life and mission had a tangible metaphysical effect on spiritual reality beyond a purely allegorical or spiritualized meaning. And he sees the life of Jesus not as a life of a perfect divine person who then gets sacrificed because of their purity. Rather Jesus of Nazareth is an imperfect human being, who struggles between his humanity and his divinity, gradually “divining” his human. This is where the narrative becomes so deeply related to our own spiritual growth, where Jesus becomes alive in our very being.
To spend a little more time on how ES conceptualizes the outer journey of Christ, the myth of Christ (at this point I have to clarify that the term “myth” does not assert that something is not “true”. A myth is simply a narrative, a story, that arises in culture, and represents a deeper spiritual reality.) Swedenborg’s concept of the metaphysical, mythological story of Jesus is in some ways similar to the avatar concept that we most commonly see in Eastern religions. Basically, humanity had gotten so external, so focussed on the ego, that hate, cruelty, selfishness and falsity were becoming so prevalent that Earth needed a divine incarnation to not only show an applicable model for spiritual living, but through that process, reordered and restructured spiritual reality to restore a balance, to introduce some goodness and truth, and assure people’s freedom of choosing to live a life of love and truth.
An important aspect of this is that Jesus was NOT born perfect, but, like us, was born with all the inherent tendencies towards “evil”, towards ego-attachment, that come with the human experience. Swedenborg’s Jesus goes through a gradual process of gnosis, of consistently choosing love, kindness and compassion over hate and selfishness, and thereby uniting himself to his inner divinity. He does so to the point where, eventually, at the very end, after being tempted in the most egregious ways possible to be unkind and judgmental, including unjust imprisonment, betrayal and public execution, he “glorifies” his humanity and become “the Lord”. “Father forgive them for they know not what they are doing.” The ultimate model of forgiveness, kindness and transcendent faith in the reality of love and truth. A restorer of divine balance.
Now, how does this restoration take place? By believing that the story of Jesus happened? No. Beliefs are not salvific, says Swedenborg. It is by integrating that same process that Jesus modeled into our life, thereby making his timeless actions come to life in our relationship with others and ourselves, and thus the divine. He reads the Christ narrative as a narrative that is deeply symbolic of our own spiritual journey:
Therefore in his human manifestation he was an infant like any infant, a child like any child, and so on with just one difference: he completed the process more quickly, more fully, and more perfectly than the rest of us do. –TCR §89
We can all live Christ Consciousness. What is Christ Consciousness? The Lord, meaning the Glorified Jesus Christ is, spiritually, the divined human. A human being that has united with the divine through a lifelong application, or rather cultivation and integration, of Love and Truth. A human being who has transcended the ego for the sake of the transcendent truth of love.
Swedenborg is very clear: There is one universal process of god-realization, and that process is not dependent on which religion one may subscribe to. Regeneration is humans choosing to integrate love and wisdom, aka God, into their life, thereby divining their human
The universal end, that is, the end of all things of creation, is that there may be an eternal conjunction of the Creator with the created universe; and this is not possible unless there are subjects wherein His Divine can be as in Itself, thus in which it can dwell and abide. In order that these subjects may be dwelling-places and mansions of Him, they must be recipients of His love and wisdom as of themselves; such, therefore, as will elevate themselves to the Creator as of themselves, and conjoin themselves with Him. Without this ability to reciprocate no conjunction is possible. We are these subjects, and are able, as of ourselves, to elevate and conjoin ourselves. -DLW §170 (3)
This is the state that Jesus Christ represents. Christ doesn’t simply represent God. We’d just say “God” if that were the case. The spiritual state of Christ explicitly represents the state of the divined human. The human being having united with the divine. Jesus is an ultimate image of that process. But believing in an image, or a name, without integrating the qualities, the states, that this image represents, has no spiritual value in and of itself.
In heaven, “loving the Lord” does not mean loving him for the image he projects but loving the good that comes from him. -HH §15
We can spend our entire life believing in and praying to Jesus, and live our entire lives in a state of selfishness and greed and bigotry. If the history of institutionalized Christianity teaches us one thing, it’s that believing in Jesus does not make you a better person. Or, we could spend our entire life integrating love and truth, however we best understand them in the framework of our culture and religion and philosophy, without ever having heard the name of Jesus, and enter Christ Consciousness, divining our human. This is not dependent on the doctrinal specifics, which ought to be matters of personal conscience (AC §1799), neither does it depend on the specifics of our religious practice:
Divine worship in the heavens does not consist in going to church and in listening to sermons, but in a life of love. -HH §222
To be a Christ-follower is not a matter of dogma, much less of religious affiliation, but a matter of living the principles Christ represents.
The Lord, as to his humanity, was made new, that is, glorified, meaning made Divine.
We cannot possibly conceive (or believe) this when we are consumed by material attachments; because absorbed in that state, we cannot know what the spiritual and celestial is, nor are we willing to know. But when we are not preoccupied with material attachments, we are capable of perceiving this, for we then believe that the Lord is one with the Father, and that from Him proceeds all that is holy; consequently that He is Divine even as to the Human; though whoever believes this, may perceive it in their own personal way. The state of the Lord’s glorification can be compared to the state of our own regeneration, because our regeneration is an image of the glorification of the Lord. -Arcana Coelestia §3212 (3)
The story of Christ is the story of us. It is not something to be believed, but something to be lived. A process that is open to us, in fact, a process we are designed, but never forced to undergo.
The Lord regenerates us in the same manner in which He glorified His Humanity. –New Jerusalem §300 (4)
It’s all about transcending the outer and engaging the inner. Inner always equates higher. That is true for our earthly experience. We progress spiritually when we identify not exclusively with the outer, the sense-oriented, finite self, but our inner angelic self. This is the case with Scripture, and its external and internal sense. We gain an understanding of divine truth not by focussing on external narratives and holding on to them dogmatically, but by opening ourselves up to the spiritual realities these images represent. This includes the story of Christ. It is an inner journey we undergo, not an outer journey we believe in. The latter only has spiritual value if it serves as a means for us to internalize these principles.
The beautiful thing is that whatever we may believe about the outer Jesus, whether he existed as a historical figure, bound by time and space, whether he rose from the dead, this is all important but secondary. Are you living Christ, whatever name or image you give that living? Are you following Christ by entering the process he illustrates?
Now, I am in no way saying that these questions relating to the outer life if Jesus are irrelevant. Neither are the metaphysical questions about the nature of God, the nature of Scripture, the afterlife, etc. But these metaphysical truths are all secondary. And I find it really beautiful that ES believed that there are certain mysteries which we may not grasp during our earthly lifetime, and that if we only live a Christ-like life of radical love, kindness and truthfulness, the nature of things, as pertains to metaphysical truths, will be revealed to us later on.
We don’t have to understand Jesus. We don’t have to believe in Jesus. We have to live the process of embodying the Christ narrative, of walking his path of God-realization. Then, regardless of our external beliefs or culture or religion, we will truly experience the Christ within.
- New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition. Copyright © 2021 National Council of Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
- Swedenborg, Emanuel. The True Christian Religion. Translated by Ager, John Curtis. New York: American Swedenborg Printing and Publishing Society. 1910.
- Swedenborg, Emanuel. Divine Love and Wisdom. Translated by George F. Dole. West Chester: Swedenborg Foundation, 2010.
- Swedenborg, Emanuel. Arcana Coelestia. Translated by John Potts. West Chester, PA: Swedenborg Foundation, 1998.
- Swedenborg, Emanuel. New Jerusalem. Translated by George F. Dole. West Chester: Swedenborg Foundation, 2016.
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.