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.
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)
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.