Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

Even as he deeply respected them, the poet, Oscar Milosz, suggested that Swedenborg's spiritual writings, with their detailed, concrete depictions of envisioned heavens, hells and intermediate worlds, often felt as if they were theologies in search of emboldening vision rather than vision speaking into theology.

This may have been, in part, the temperament of a poet meeting that, in Swedenborg, of a scientist. William Blake, an errant disciple of Swedenborg's, also criticized the preachy, prim tendencies of certain of Swedenborg's heavenly inhabitants and their messages. They seemed too tidily lined up behind Swedenborg's exacting theological framework. For Blake, the divine imagination was more fluid, free and liberating from either narrow moralities or fix it all metaphysics than Swedenborg would allow!

But as Gary Lachman shows in his accomplished essay on Swedenborg (Into the Interior: Discovering Swedenborg), this was a man on a dedicated interior journey, whose discoveries in the structure and life of consciousness were important, and reflect the patterning and process of similar journeys.

Long ago I read Swedenborg's 'The Marriage of Heaven and Hell' - those extraordinarily detailed, concrete, and dry, if moving, descriptions of 'after life' states. Lachman brings them alive by illuminating their status as 'states of consciousness' that seek to show the enfolding unity of things and where each particular thing embodies a divine showing forth. Unity is not a subsuming 'cosmic jello' but a multiplicity of things each carrying the divine imaging, according to its nature, its capability. Swedenborg is an accomplished mystic under the guise of a sometimes pedantic visionary!

Lachman quotes the philosopher Robert Avens defining an 'angel' as 'a human in whom the inner and the outer, the material and the spiritual, perfectly correspond to each other, that is a person in a state of complete self-expression' and that is exactly Swedenborg's vision of the human beings destiny to become angelic - where inner and outer are in perfect harmony.

We all, says Swedenborg, find our place in heaven or hell by following the path of our deepest interest. These can no longer (in our 'after life' state) be hidden. They emerge and we discover either our harmony or our hypocrisy. How revealing might it be to ponder our deepest interest and how difficult it might be to do that in full honesty?

However, I am with Blake in believing that even if led to hell by our interest that interest is never fixed. Unlike Swedenborg, Blake saw that the states of heaven and hell are eternal but we pass through them as our interest is purified, transformed. Swedenborg, though charged with heresy, remained sufficiently aligned with his Lutheran origins to imagine that eternal damnation (though in his understanding self-inflicted by your own deepest interest that creates a mirroring hell) could be a soul's final destiny.

This is the second of Lachman's (prolific) output that I have read and I have to say his ability to write lucidly about complex realities with illumination and a grounding good sense are deeply admirable. He makes 'popular' in the best of senses.


                                          The Angel of the Flowing Light by Cecil Collins

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