When you hear the word enlightenment, you might picture exotic scenes of monks meditating on a mountaintop or a wise spiritual teacher offering gems of insight. Enlightenment isn’t something that we often associate with Christian spirituality, but Emanuel Swedenborg uses that very term throughout his writings to refer to receiving insight from God.
When Swedenborg talks about being enlightened, in a sense he’s being very literal: he describes a spiritual world that exists in parallel to our own, where God is the sun that radiates love and wisdom the way that the sun in nature radiates heat and light. In the spiritual world, God’s light is pure wisdom, and anyone who receives it can “see” in a whole new way:
I have often been allowed to perceive that the light that illumines the mind is a true light, quite different from the light that we call natural light. I have also been allowed to see it. I have been gradually elevated into that light inwardly, and as I was raised up, my discernment was enlightened to the extent that I could grasp what I had been unable to grasp before, ultimately things that could in no way be comprehended by thought from a natural light. At times I have resented the fact that they were incomprehensible [in natural light] when they were so clearly and plainly perceived in the heavenly light. (Heaven and Hell #130)
As the above passage suggests, Swedenborg sees enlightenment not as an event (as some other traditions portray it) but rather as a state of perception that can come or go. For example, in the stories of his experiences in the spiritual world, he sometimes describes people who are confronted with a mystery praying for insight and being enlightened—sometimes actually having light sent to them from above—so they could understand the answer.
But he also describes enlightenment as something that people can experience here on earth, especially while reading scripture:
There is a spiritual perspective, of which few people know anything at all, a perspective that inflows in the case of people who have a longing for truth and tells them inwardly whether what they are hearing or reading is true or not. When we are reading the Word with enlightenment from the Lord, we have this perspective. Having enlightenment is nothing more nor less than having a perception and therefore an inner acknowledgement that this or that statement is true. Isaiah calls such people “taught by Jehovah” (Isaiah 54:13; see also John 6:45) . . . (Faith #5)
In the above passage, Swedenborg gives the first prerequisite for enlightenment: The person has to have a “longing for truth.” They have to really want to understand the nature of spiritual reality. If God chooses to grant this, then a new perspective will flow into them, and they can use that perspective to gain a new understanding of what they’re reading—and ultimately, of life itself. Swedenborg adds that people who approach this process with genuine faith may not even realize that they’ve been enlightened.
Once a person gains this spiritual perspective, Swedenborg continues, it starts to snowball:
The first task [of those who seek enlightenment when they read the Word] is to put together a body of teaching for themselves from the literal meaning of the Word. That is how they light a lamp in order to go further. Once they have put together a body of teaching and lit the lamp, they see the Word in the light of that lamp.
However, people who have not put together a body of teaching for themselves first look to see whether the theological perspective offered by others and generally accepted does in fact agree with the Word; and they accept what agrees and dissent from what does not. That is how they form their body of teaching, and through their body of teaching, their faith.
This [enlightenment] happens, though, only for people who are able to contemplate things without being distracted by professional responsibilities in this world. If they love truths because they are true and put them to use in their lives, they have enlightenment from the Lord, and other people whose lives are to any degree guided by truths can learn from them. (Sacred Scripture #59)
Behind this growing enlightenment are spiritual processes that Swedenborg describes at length in his writings. All human beings, he says, have an inner self and an outer self. The outer self is the part of our mind that controls our everyday life: it thinks, it talks, it acts. The inner self is the part of us that connects to the spiritual world, and it is also the part that receives the light of wisdom. The more light flows into us, the more we can understand spiritual mysteries. (For a more technical explanation of how this works in Swedenborg’s own words, see this footnote.)
So while Swedenborg depicts enlightenment as something that can happen temporarily, as described above, he also describes a state that we can achieve permanently when we grow as spiritual people, a process he calls regeneration.
To sum up, Swedenborg describes three important elements in achieving spiritual growth and, ultimately, enlightenment:
First, enlightenment begins with the desire to understand spiritual truth and the faith that God can and will provide that understanding.
Second, enlightenment is most likely to happen when we not only love truth, but put it to work in our life. For example, if your inner enlightenment tells you that you should be more forgiving, and you make a conscious effort to let go of a grudge you’ve held for a long time, then you make that wisdom part of yourself, and open yourself up to greater light.
Third, our intentions are important. If we only want to achieve understanding to improve our social status, impress others, or make money, then ultimately, Swedenborg says, we will fail.
Remarkably, the kind of enlightenment we individually enjoy depends on the desire we have for truth, and the desire we have for truth depends on how good a life we live. That is why people who have no desire for truth on its own account, only as a means to achieve success, receive no light at all when they read the Word. They only confirm themselves in their theology, whatever its teachings are like, whether they merely distort the truth . . . or go so far as to oppose it. . . . Such people seek not the kingdom of God but the world, not faith but fame, not heavenly but only earthly riches [Matthew 6:33; Matthew 6:19–20]. If they happen to be struck with a lust for learning truth from the Word, they keep discovering falsity rather than truth, and eventually, grounds for denying all truth. (Secrets of Heaven #7012; see also Secrets of Heaven #10330:2-3).
But for those who do succeed in cultivating inner wisdom, Swedenborg describes the end result as a state of “quiet” when all struggle ceases—remarkably similar to the way that Buddhists, for example, describe achieving enlightenment (Secrets of Heaven #5221; see also Secrets of Heaven #87 on the final stage of regeneration). Could there be more common ground than we think between different traditions of enlightenment? You decide!
For more on how light works in the spiritual world, check out the “Spiritual Light” episode of our weekly webcast Swedenborg and Life.
If you’d like to read more about Swedenborg’s concept of spiritual levels and how we interact with them, see his book Divine Love and Wisdom, especially part three (#173–281). For more on the Bible and how to access its inner meaning, read his short work Sacred Scripture.
Divine Love and Wisdom #256: While earthly-minded people cannot think about this wisdom the way angels do, they can still grasp it mentally if their minds are raised into the level of light that angels enjoy. Our minds can actually be raised that far and enlightened accordingly. However, this enlightenment of our earthly minds does not happen by distinct levels. There is instead a gradual increase, and in keeping with that increase, our minds are enlightened from within, with the light of the two higher levels.
We can understand how this happens by perceiving that for vertical levels, one is above the others, with the earthly level, the terminal one, acting like an inclusive membrane for the two higher levels. As the earthly level is raised toward a higher level, then, the higher activates that outer earthly level from within and enlightens it. The enlightenment is actually happening because of the light of the higher levels from within, but it is received gradually by the earthly level that envelops and surrounds them, with greater clarity and purity as it ascends. That is, the earthly level is enlightened from within, from the light of the higher, distinct levels; but on the earthly level itself, it happens gradually.
We can see from this that as long as we are in this world and are therefore focused on the earthly level, we cannot be raised into wisdom itself, the way it is for angels. We can be raised only into a higher light at the boundary of angels and receive enlightenment from their light, which flows into us from within and illumines us.
I cannot describe this any more clearly. It is better understood through its effects [described in the following section, #257].
Secrets of Heaven #5208:1–2 (commentary on a Bible passage that refers to someone awakening from sleep; Swedenborg says this refers to a person becoming enlightened): Enlightenment here means general enlightenment coming from spiritual heavenliness and therefore from inside. Enlightenment that originates or flows from inside is vague and general when shed on a lower level [of our inner self]. Yet it gradually becomes less general and eventually specific as truth based on goodness is instilled on the lower level. Every bit of truth based on goodness shines and illuminates. . . .
Our spiritual and natural levels, or our inner depths and outer surface, are brought into correspondence in just this way. First we acquire truth. Then that truth is apparently banished, so to speak, although it is not really banished but only hidden. Next our lower levels are enlightened in a general way by our higher levels, or our outer surface by our inner depths. Under that illumination, truth is restored in its proper pattern. As a result, all individual truths on that level become an image of their general truth and correspond to it.