People who search for truth in the Bible often find that the teachings of the Bible are different from what they had been told by others. This series of articles will offer you a summary of some of the teachings of the Bible. Sometimes popular concepts of what the Bible says are based on tradition, misconceptions, or passages taken out of context. So don’t be surprised if you find here some ideas different from what you may have heard elsewhere.
In his writings, Swedenborg often repeats the idea that heaven has a human form, a concept that he calls the Maximus Homo. This is a Latin term that can be translated “Universal Human,” or, in older translations, “Grand Man.” (It should be noted that in Latin the word homo is gender neutral, so when some translations identify this figure as masculine, they’re introducing a bias that didn’t exist in the original.) This concept includes the idea that God can be understood as infinitely human, possessing every human capacity we can imagine. In other words, Swedenborg invites us to think of the Infinite Divine in terms of the human form.
This is where the idea that “we are made in the image of God” comes from. This well-known biblical concept is, as we shall see, a fundamental way of understanding the universe.
Swedenborg also invites us to think of heaven in this way as well. He tells us that angels in heaven live in communities, and that those communities each perform a function that corresponds to an organ in the human body. Together, all of the angelic communities form a single unit that is the Universal Human.
What Does It Mean to Be Human?
To really understand this, it’s important to first understand that when Swedenborg says “human,” he’s not talking about our literal physical form:
No one should think that we are human because we have a human face, a human body, a brain, and all the other organs and limbs. We share things like these with brute animals, so they are the things that die and are put in the grave. No, what makes a person human is the ability to think and will as a human and therefore to receive attributes that are divine, or the Lord’s. This is what distinguishes us from animals tame and wild. In the other world, the way we received those attributes and made them our own during bodily life determines the kind of human being we become. (Secrets of Heaven #4219)
When Swedenborg talks about a human body, he’s talking about the functions that the body performs: taking things in, keeping what’s useful to sustain our lives, and eliminating the rest. In the same way, the Universal Human is not a literal giant human being made of angels walking around up in the sky, but rather myriad communities working together and performing functions like those that take place in a human body.
By this ‘human’ to whom useful functions relate, I mean not only an individual but also groups of people and smaller and larger communities such as republics and monarchies and empires and even that largest community that comprises the whole world, since all of these are human. So too in the heavens the whole angelic heaven is like a single individual in the Lord’s sight, and so is each individual community of heaven. This is why each individual angel is human. (Divine Love and Wisdom #328)
Parts of the Universal Human
In his writings, and particularly in Secrets of Heaven, Swedenborg goes into detail about what types of people constitute the different “organs” of the Universal Human. A good example of how the system works is the digestive system, which he relates to the process of dying in this world and crossing into the spiritual world.
The mouth, Swedenborg says, is a gateway into the spiritual world. Once people enter, at any time they might be absorbed into the body—that is, taken into heaven. But some people are a bit tougher (think about tough food that has to be thoroughly chewed before it can be swallowed and digested). These kinds of people may have been very self-centered while they were in the world, or focused on material gain; they may have been the type of people who sought out power in order to dominate and manipulate others, and they may even have been very cruel people who enjoyed inflicting pain. These people move down the esophagus into the stomach, where they begin to encounter angels who help them confront who they really are inside.
People who realize that they have committed evil in the world, repent, and allow the good energy of the Lord to flow into them—that is, people who leave behind the parts of themselves that aren’t “nutritious”—will be taken into the body of heaven and carried off to the community where they will live and work. Those who continue to resist will move on to the intestines for further digestion. Angels will keep working with them, but if a person truly loves evil and has no interest in goodness, then that person can’t become part of the body of heaven. Eventually, such people enter the “rectum” of the Universal Human, and from there are expelled into hell.
The two most important organs of the body are the heart and lungs, and likewise the two most important parts of heaven are the angelic communities that correspond to the heart and lungs. The “heart” community corresponds to the celestial heaven or the heavenly kingdom, the part of heaven that is closest to the Lord. The heart represents love and also the will or volition, that is, the part of our minds that moves us and causes us to take action. The lungs correspond to the spiritual heaven or spiritual kingdom of heaven, which is slightly farther from the Lord. Lungs (or, more specifically, the air that they circulate) represent the Lord’s wisdom, which flows throughout the universe just as his love does. Lungs also correspond to the part of the mind known as discernment (also translated intellect or understanding), which is the part of the mind where we process information, store memories, and think and draw conclusions.
Just as a human body cannot survive without a fully functioning heart and lungs, heaven cannot continue to exist without the communities that circulate love and wisdom throughout the spiritual world, and through the spiritual world into our world.
Swedenborg describes the correspondence of other organs too. For example, the angels of the nose are people who excel at telling the difference between good and evil; they have, as we might say in idiomatic English, a “nose” for it. When someone says, “I smell trouble,” or “Joe has a nose for news,” we understand that this means they have a special sensitivity or intuitive ability in these areas.
Similarly, angels who belong to communities that correspond to the function of the ear are ones who hear and obey without thinking too hard about what they’ve been told; angels who belong to communities that correspond to the function of the eyes are ones who understand the truth and the good things that come from faith. When we say, “I see,” we do not always mean that we are seeing a physical object. Often it means, “I understand.” Angels who belong to communities that correspond to the function of the hands and arms are the angels who have power because they give credit for everything to God; since they have no obstructing self-importance, there’s nothing to stop God’s energy from flowing through them and manifesting in the spiritual world.
Just as there are many types of people, there are many types of work that angels can do in heaven, and each different function becomes a useful part of the whole. Here on earth, too, each member of a community has the potential to fulfill a particular role and thereby be useful to others—an important part of spiritual growth. The spiritual lesson of the Universal Human, then, is that we, like the various parts of our own body, should find ways to provide a useful function in human society. At the same time, we can appreciate the many and diverse ways in which other people are playing their role in helping us. When everyone works together in harmony, moved by divine love and guided by divine wisdom, there is an image of God—the Maximus Homo, or Universal Human.
To say that each of us has an internal “self” and an external “self” is not particularly revolutionary. We all have a natural sense that our thoughts and feelings are “inside” us and our bodies and actions are on the “outside” of us.
As Swedenborg describes it, though, “internal” and “external” are a little more nuanced: He divides our thoughts and feelings themselves into internal and external, with internal thoughts and feelings being those about spiritual things and concern for other people, and external thoughts and feelings being those that are about external concerns in the physical world.
So let’s say you’re cooking your family’s favorite dinner. When you’re measuring ingredients, setting the oven temperature, thinking about when to start cooking something to be done at a particular time, that’s all external thinking. When you’re imagining how happy your spouse and children will be, how nice it will be to sit down to eat together, feeling a sense of joy in doing something nice for people, that’s internal thinking and feeling.
So which is more important? Ultimately, our place in heaven (or hell) will be determined by what we love, what makes us happy. So it’s clear that ultimately internal things are more important. That makes sense because they feel “higher,” like they come from a part of us that is more “us.”
But externals are important too. For one, they give us the opportunity to express our internals. If you only think about that meal but don’t actually cook it, you won’t be sharing your love with your family in a very complete way. For another, our externals give us the chance to change. We can make ourselves do what’s right in externals even if we don’t really want to, and if we keep at it and ask the Lord to help He will ultimately change us so that we love to do good things.
Swedenborg makes one other key point about internals and externals, which is that while internals can “compel” externals (your deeper thoughts and feelings can control what you do on the outside), your externals cannot “compel” your internals (what you’re forced to do on the outside cannot control your thoughts and feelings on the inside). We see this all the time when one nation tries to rule over another, or when a repressive regime tries to control its own people. Ultimately hearts and minds cannot be controlled.
This is key when we are trying to help others: You might be able to force someone (your child, say, or your student, or someone who works for you) to do what you think is right, but unless you can appeal to his or her internals, you’re not really changing anything significant.
It’s also key when guiding ourselves in our own lives: Forcing ourselves to do the right thing is meaningless unless we also start an internal dialog about what we truly want and truly think, and start opening up inside to the Lord.
Over the last two thousand years, millions of people have turned to the Bible for guidance, for wisdom, for hope, and for answers. Even today, millions look to it as God’s holy Word. But there are an even greater number who see it and have questions: “Is the Bible still relevant?” “If this is God’s holy Word, why does it contain so many stories involving violence and conflict?” “How am I supposed to understand such a confusing book?” These are all reasonable questions for which many different groups have many different answers. I’d like to share with you my own understanding, as a New Church person and pastor, of what I believe God teaches about His Word.
Look first for the simple answers
Some parts of the Bible are straightforward and easy to grasp quickly. For instance, when Jesus says, “This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12), it’s quite clear what we are supposed to do. Other parts are more complicated, especially when we start to compare them with one another. For example, sometimes it talks about Jesus and Jehovah as if they are the same person: “I and my Father are one” (John 10:30). At other times, though, it seems as if they are two different people: “I am going to My Father, for My Father is greater than I” (John 14:28).
Sometimes it can be hard to get more than even a general idea of what is being described, as in some of the more confusing prophecies and in some of the stranger visions. There are also the parts that are not hard to understand, but which seem incompatible with our modern ideas of science and history.
So, what are we to do?
The New Church teaches that the Bible has multiple layers of meaning. The more significant meanings are the deeper ones. These deep, previously-hidden meanings are now unlocked for anyone to see, in the Writings of Emanuel Swedenborg. Does this mean that we should ignore the more plain “surface” meaning of the text of the Bible? No way! In fact, the book True Christian Religion says that there are places in the Bible where the deeper meaning rises to the surface of the plain text, where anyone can see it:
“…The Word in that sense resembles a person wearing clothes, but whose face and hands are bare. Everything needed for a person’s faith and life, and so everything needed for his salvation, is there uncovered, though the remainder is clothed. In many passages where it is clothed it still shows through, like a woman’s features through a thin silk veil over her face. Moreover, since the truths of the Word increase in number as they are loved and this love gives them shape, so they show through and become visible more and more clearly” (True Christian Religion 229).
In other words, the most critical, soul-saving, life-giving teachings in the Bible are the ones that are easiest to understand: for example, the ten commandments (Exodus 20:1-17), the two great commandments (Mark 12:29-31), the new commandment (John 13:34-35), and the Lord’s prayer (Mathew 6:9-13). What’s more, there are places where the deeper meaning is only thinly veiled; once you know to look for it, it isn’t very hard to find. But what’s perhaps most exciting is the final implication of the above paragraph: once you realize that the Bible has this deeper truth in it, you become more and more attuned to it the more you read!
So, with the help of the explanations in the Writings of the New Church, along with prayer to the Lord for enlightenment along the way, you will find the deeper meaning of the Bible becomes gradually less and less hidden the more you read. And what you will find is that underneath the plain text of the Bible are new living, spiritual ways of understanding the Lord’s Word. Every story in the Bible contains within it deeper truths that relate to God, the church, and your own personal spiritual journey.
Remember, the most basic and the most important ideas in the Bible are the clearest and most obviously relevant ones. So don’t worry that the more complicated parts of the Bible may take time to decipher. God loves you and is merciful to you, and so He has already given you enough to live by, in the parts that don’t need further interpretation.
Now, once you start to really get this idea of there being deeper layers of meaning within the stories of the Bible, you can begin to find answers to other questions. For instance, there are parts of the Bible which seem no longer relevant because modern science has proven them “wrong.”
What about the creation story?
One example is the story of the creation of the world in seven days as told in Genesis. But in the first volume of the book Secrets of Heaven we discover that the literal statements in this story are vessels for deeper ideas. The inner truth of this story is all about the series of internal steps God takes people through as they develop spiritually. The Bible and science become compatible once we realize that the Bible is not really concerned with scientific facts, but instead uses ideas suited to illustrate important truths about humanity’s inner, spiritual reality. God’s primary focus is not to teach us science. What God wants to do is use the Bible to tell us about deep, eternal, unchanging truths that will have a much greater impact on us than our mere understanding of the physical world.
What about the violence in the Bible?
Likewise, this explains why so many of the stories in the Bible are full of violence and brutality. The deeper truth of the Bible is all about the inner life we each face, with all of the temptation, suffering and striving that we inevitably face. Our spiritual lives are full of conflicts between our lower, selfish natures and the higher, loving selves that God created us to be. If the Lord is going to talk to us about how to face spiritual battles, then it makes sense that he uses stories of natural conflict as the foundation and container for these lessons. But don’t take my word for it. I invite you to investigate this for yourself. Start reading the Bible, and when you have questions, look for the deeper truth behind the plain text of the story. To aid you in your search for meaning, turn to the Writings of Swedenborg, and reach out to someone in the New Church. There are many New Church members and ministers who would love to help you find your way as you begin this new journey of exploration. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org , and we will be happy to put you in touch with someone to answer your questions.
As is taught in Corinthians: “The letter kills, but the spirit gives life.” Go to God’s Word and seek out the spirit, and you will find that it gives the Bible new life and new meaning.
Well, humans certainly are unique enough to ask the question and ponder the possibility of our uniqueness. Animals could care less about such philosophizing.
I was inspired to write this post from reading The Hannibal Blog entitled “How humans are (not) unique.”
Certainly, all living creatures are unique and fulfill unique roles in Nature’s economy. Many brain researchers currently state that most of the things we believed made us psychically unique have been observed in other species—such as aggression (and murder), empathy, pleasure anticipation, the Golden Rule and Theory of Mind.
Hmmm? Theory of Mind? Really?!!
It seems that our current Theory of Mind suggests that humans possess the same facilities as other species with the only difference being an added layer of complexity.
This seems odd because my studies into neuroscience suggest there is as yet no complete theory of human cognitive architecture. However, some pioneering researchers are beginning to suspect that brain complexity goes deeper than the substrate of neural (synaptic) pathways and that the neuron itself may have its own “nervous system.”
Scientist/theologian Emanuel Swedenborg beat everybody to the punch on this important topic of brain complexity! He was the first to put forward a neuron theory (brain cells and their connections) and formulate a multi-level theory of mind. His model of mind and consciousness was based on discoveries that led him to believe that the cognitive functions of sensing, imagining, reasoning, intuition and even spiritual experience were totally discrete operations and acted within their own structures (substrates). Each structure within this scaffolding and hierarchy of human consciousness possessed its own unique geometrical principle by which constraints of action were lawfully removed so that new powers of abstraction could be obtained from the sensory data of the circumfluent universe.
The difference between the complexity of animal minds and human minds is not continuous but discrete. In humans, there is no finite ratio between seeing physical objects, seeing mental ideas, and seeing (recognizing) “truth.” These distinct cognitive functions operate in different layers of the brain and neuron.
My upcoming book Proving God spends two chapters covering these new geometrical powers and the discrete qualities of different human cognitive functions, which rely on these forms (classical and non classical) of bio-structure.
Pat: We need the chance to gossip about people and what they get up to – especially the shenanigans of the high and mighty. How else would we have found out about say the serial sexual seductions of Dominique Straus-Khan, managing director of the IMF? This is someone who was heading for high political office. These acts were covered up and apparently regarded as uncontroversial in elite French society.
Chris: But to gossip about such celebrities as Ryan Giggs, the Manchester United footballer, and his widely reported affair with Big Brother star Imogen Thomas, doesn’t help his family. Surely their right to a private life is more important than the mass media’s freedom of expression?
Pat: People should be interested in the real character of those people who act as important role models. They should have public exposure.
Chris: Don’t you think that we all need to keep back something secret about our inner lives in order to function as human beings? Unless we each retain a degree of privacy we lose a sense of who we are. What only I know about myself gives me a sense of my individual self. It is an important way that makes me a feel like a different person from other people. Don’t public figures also have this need?
Pat: Maybe, but the private lives of politicians and faith leaders who are shaping views and making laws should be open to scrutiny. Their personal integrity is a model for the kind of society they wish to lead us towards – one involving trust in relationships, keeping promises, telling the truth and so on. This doesn’t work unless there is consistency between what such leaders publicly say and privately do.
Chris: You’re confusing what the public are interested in as opposed to what is in the ‘public interest.’ There is a difference between what society wants to know and gossip about and what it needs to know and examine.
Pat: Gossip is fun. What’s so bad about getting a kick from bringing the mighty down to size? It is a way of pricking the oversized celebrity ego.
Chris: No, gossip is not fun. It is actually a mean spirited disagreeable attitude towards those with power or privilege. Such gossip is simply fed by disappointment in a fallen hero or envy of the rich and famous.
Pat: People don’t only gossip about the rich and famous. There is no shortage of chat down the pub and on the street corner about what other people in one’s social network get up to in their private lives.
Chris: Looking at the British prurient press one can’t help thinking that hearing about private affairs of others whether or not they are public figures arouses a universal voyeurism in everyone, titillating baser interests. And that applies as much to private individuals as public figures.
Pat: Okay, perhaps the simplistic opinions of the tabloid newspapers attract those readers who are not required to try to think through complex issues. It is easy enough to jump to conclusions about somebody. But, just because it is difficult to make an overall judgment about anyone, it doesn’t mean one we should be satisfied with part of the story. I’m mindful of what Christ once said.
“Stop judging by mere appearances, and make a right judgment.” (John 7:24)
We need to get at the whole truth about the person.
Chris: Hang on. In the public world how can this happen? For example, Twitter is full of unsubstantiated allegations upon which moral judgements are made. This scandal mongering is disreputable and damaging. It seems obvious to me that gossip can only involve Chinese whispers where opinions get passed on from one to another and the original information inevitably suffers distortion.
Pat: Hasn’t shame a potentially important role in the way politician’s behaviour is monitored and corrected. Isn’t this why we have a justice system that punishes wrongdoing like fraudulent expense claims?
Chris: Yes, but only in a court of law can you have any chance of getting at the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Not the kangaroo court that is the typical tabloid newspaper. Exposure there is done for reasons of entertainment masked as information provision.
Even juries cannot be expected to judge an accused inner character – only the likelihood that he or she is guilty of committing the offence. This means judging and discriminating fairly rather than being judgmental or prejudiced.
When some sections of the press make moral judgments in very black and white terms, a previously admired person becomes the object of contempt. Perhaps the judgmental tone appeals because it is so much easier for the reader to play the blame game — to condemn fallibilities in others rather than criticise one’s own foibles.
Don’t you think this is also true for all of us to some extent? Don’t you sometimes hold onto a grievance? Are you not as forgiving as you might want to be? Small frailties get exaggerated. Going round judging others can lead to a hypocritical or sanctimonious society where people fail to examine their own souls. This links in with another thing Christ said
‘Do not judge, or you too will be judged’. (Matt 7:1-3)
I could be wrong but I can’t get rid of a suspicion that a lot of social gossip is negative. I rather like a well-known saying ‘If you can’t say anything good then don’t say anything at all.’ It reminds me of what Emanuel Swedenborg described as an angelic disposition – that of looking for the good in others.
“Those among them who are like angels …intend nothing but good towards their neighbour; and if they notice anything bad in someone they make allowances for it.”
(Swedenborg. Arcana Coelestia section 6655)