Heaven in Smaller Form
Emanuel Swedenborg’s Vision of Friendship
“What else is faith except spiritually seeing what is real?”1 -Emanuel Swedenborg
Emanuel Swedenborg, the eighteenth-century theologian and mystic, is revered by some Christians as a seer. He has long attracted interest from Latter-day Saints on account of some of his teachings that anticipate Joseph Smith’s: celestial marriage, three degrees of glory, eternal progression, and premortality (though he was inconsistent on this last point). He had a particularly fertile set of insights on one neglected point: the organization of heaven.
Saints justly celebrate the communal nature of the heaven we anticipate, one that reflects “the same sociality that exists here,”2 only coupled with glory. The doctrine of eternal marriage and family has largely determined our concept of sociality in heaven. However, sociality is a term far broader in scope than the nuclear or intergenerational family. I love my family immensely. I also relish friendship—which Joseph called “the grand fundamental principle.”3 My monthly book club has become a mini-Zion community of the like-minded and heart-bonded. With my colleagues at the Maxwell Institute, I share the ties forged of a holy endeavor—melding faith and scholarship to build the kingdom. More than one ward has become in fact a second family. I have been a part of classroom communities and seminars where love, vulnerability, and common purpose transformed ad hoc collections of strangers into united strivers, wistful at term’s end to see the dissolution of a forged fellowship. Bishoprics I have served in, missionary companionships, even chance encounters with fellow travelers at service stations and country inns have gladdened my soul as well as unsettled me by the rapidity with which profound feelings of connection emerge as if in media res, like an interlude that flashes into the light between darkened acts of a drama both past and yet to come.
Hence, Swedenborg’s visionary excursus on the subject of sociality resonates, not because the ideas reaffirm but because they expand and enrich my conceptions regarding the life to come.
After one visionary experience of heaven, he reported that “The angelic heaven is laid out in communities on the basis of all the varieties of love for what is good… In heaven there are as many varieties of love as there are stars in the sky above the earth.”4 How many varieties of love have we known—and how many have been the cause of particular attractions we have known, of affections they have fed, and of bonds they have produced? Pause a moment and consider. Affinity for something tends to morph into affinity for someone. Love of the gospel comes to mind as a common denominator in a religious community like our own, but that’s a general term and too broad to account for the differing levels of felt intimacy and kinship we feel within the community. Reflecting on the gospel’s many layers and dimensions, its luminous tenets and imponderable oddities, we see that our love of God and his gospel are vested in particular varieties of love we have seen and experienced, and also discovered to be shared by other persons. Might all the forms of community we have known be traceable to such shared affinities? (In some cases, the other revealed to us that beautiful something, the love of which we came to share). I can remember relationships that took root in a shared love of beautiful literature (I married her); a shared love for Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons (a best friend); a shared love of the concept of the veil (another best friend); a shared love of birds, of Saturn’s rings, of a perfect Yorkshire pudding and of the questing insatiability I find to be the heart of the Restoration.
I love Swedenborg in part because he captures the beating heart of a blessed community—and because he anticipates—as I read him—an infinite number of overlapping, growing, morphing, shifting communities they will produce here and hereafter. “There are countless communities in heaven,” he states, and “Every community is a heaven in a smaller form.”5
He makes one final observation about communities that makes me love him more. “Even while it is alive in our body,” he writes, our soul “is in a community with angels, although it does not realize that.”6 Swedenborg does not mean this in some vague, sentimental way. He means that those beautiful and holy forms of the good that we love are also loved by many who have passed before. Belief that an actual “invisible church” is constituted by such love is more than an appealing idea. It is one whose reality I have felt, and whose silent but felt fellowship has been one of the most sustaining influences in my life.
Emanuel Swedenborg, Doctrine of Faith, (Swedenborg Foundation).
Sermon of Joseph Smith, 23 July 1843 (Sunday Afternoon), in Ehat and Cook, Words of Joseph Smith, 234
Emanuel Swedenborg, Heaven and Its Wonders and Hell: Drawn from Things Heard and Seen.
Swedenborg, Heaven and Its Wonders.