In Monday’s New York Times, Mark Oppenheimer reviews a new book by Lisa Miller entitled Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife. The review mentions a few specific views of heaven that Miller explores, including the Swedenborgian view of heaven:
Over time, she explains, visions of heaven became more specific. The Book of Revelation is especially vivid. In the Middle Ages, Christians gave heaven strata, where the righteous were sorted into levels. Dante and Milton embroidered the Christian imagination of the afterlife even further. The 18th-century mystic Emanuel Swedenborg believed that marriages on earth continued in heaven, a view later held by Mormons.
Miller’s description of Swedenborgianism makes particular good use of her interview subject, a seventh-generation Swedenborgian named Jonathan Rose, who taught for many years at Bryn Athyn College in Pennsylvania.
That (and the allure of instant gratification that comes with having a Kindle) was incentive enough for me to buy the book.
The book gives Swedenborg a pretty fair hearing, although the section on the Swedenborgian view of heaven is less than ten pages. The most interesting thing to me was Miller’s perception of Swedenborgians. An excerpt:
The Swedenborgians claim that their founder’s influence is far-reaching. The theologian Henry James, Sr., the father of William and Henry James, they note, was an avid Swedenborgian. Helen Keller, who wrote glowingly of Swedenborgianism in her 1927 book My Religion, once reportedly declared: “Swedenborg does such good to me that I long to scatter his teachings to men and women wherever I go.” In an essay published in 1850, Ralph Waldo Emerson called the Swedish mystic a “sublime genius.” Religious crazes come and go in America. I decline to decide which one is the craziest; longevity and numbers of adherents do not seem to me adequate measures of the truth of a religious movement. In that light, the way in which Rose clings to his tradition – as if he were the last Gullah speaker in Georgia – seems to me both admirable and bittersweet.
I can’t decide whether that last sentence should make me cringe or smile. To describe Jonathan Rose “clinging to his tradition as if he were the last Gullah speaker in Georgia” gives the impression that he feels like the last man standing in a dying religion. I know Jonathan, and I know that he is passionate and excited about the future of the church. I doubt there is any Swedenborgian who has not at times felt very alone and very small, and there are times when we may feel like that last Gullah speaker – but I don’t think many of us have some wistful impression of the old “glory days” of Swedenborgianism, despite the fact that his name was more well-known in the 19th century. We know we’ve always been tiny.
But we (including me) do have a tendency to talk about the influence Swedenborg has had, and I felt a little chagrined when I read, “The Swedenborgians claim that their founder’s influence is far-reaching” – the implication, of course, being that the non-Swedenborgians are NOT so sure of Swedenborg’s influence being far-reaching (at the beginning of the section Miller quotes a book claiming that Swedenborg had a strong influence on the modern view of heaven, but than says that this view is “controversial in the academy,” and quotes another author who says his influence was fairly small). I’ve suspected in the past that our talk of how influential Swedenborg was may come across as a little defensive, and Miller seems to take it that way. Still, with a religion as small as ours, it’s no surprise that a writer would hone in on the somewhat romantic feeling of being the “last remnants” clinging to a faith, and to some extent there’s nothing we can do about that impression. It’s just good to know it’s there.