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Core Beliefs of Swedenborg

Categories: Life | Afterlife | Prayer

Reflections on Divine Providence
Dreams Helen Kennedy
Footprints in the Writings of Swedenborg
Hearing Someone Else's Prayer
Meetings in Life
Prayer for Others
Reflections on Spirituality
Toward a Spiritual Psychology
We Don't Really Live Here
Why Was Jesus Crucified?
End of the Age

Who is the God of Heaven
Angels in the New Testament
Children in Heaven
Life After Death
Some Thoughts about Hell
Spiritual Substance and Material Reality
Swedenborg in Popular Angels Books
What Angels Do

When we Pray, What Shall we Ask?
Prayer for Others
Hearing Someone Else's Prayer



Reflections on Swedenborg,
Traditional Psychology and Psychotherapy

Abie Venter, M.A (Psych), M.A (Counselling Psych), is a counselling psychologist at a hospital in Bloemfontein, Free State Province of South Africa.


Toward Spiritual PsychologyI have worked in the field of Psychology in South Africa for the last 17 years. The last five years were spent as a counselling psychologist at a hospital in Bloemfontein, Free State Province of South Africa. As a white South African of 41 years of age, I have witnessed many a tumultuous period in the recent history of our country. These radical socio-political changes of the last decade have impacted heavily on the psychological equilibrium of all South Africans. Like all social revolutions across the world, ours was, unfortunately, also marked by violence and crime affecting all races and socio-economic groups. Almost invariably, my psychotherapeutic work with patients involves spiritual questions. Why must I suffer? Is there a God that sees my suffering? What is the purpose of this hurtful existence of ours? Where was the Lord when my beloved was killed? When I was tortured, did He care? I’m dying of AIDS, how should I deal with this? I was unable and perhaps unwilling to avoid these questions in psychotherapy.

The only problem was that my traditional training in therapeutic psychology did not really equip me for dealing with clients’ spiritual questions. I was trained, like elsewhere in the western world, to look at behaviour objectively and rationally. My analytic and diagnostic skills were honed to perfection. My spiritual counselling skills, however, were left largely unattended.

The only remotely “spiritual training” I’ve had in Psychology was exposure to the work of existentialistic and humanistic thinkers. Victor Frankl’s famous work, “ Man’s search for Meaning,” as well as the work of Abraham Maslow were the closest I came to seeing the patient as a spiritual creature. Our lecturers advised us (indirectly) not to become entangled in theological debate with patients, but to refer these questions to appropriate members of the clergy. One was left with the impression that it is professionally irresponsible to discuss religious matters with patients.

Yet the more experienced I became in emotional counselling, the more I became aware that spiritual matters are at the heart of most emotional disorders. This is especially true for older patients, patients in adulthood and old age. My colleagues will crucify me for this statement, yet I believe it is profoundly true. Great was my relief to have this perception of mine validated by one of the most famous and respected thinkers in Psychology, the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung (1875-1961). This quote from Modern Man in Search of a Soul (p 264) summarizes my experience as well:

“During the past thirty years, people from all the civilized countries of the earth have consulted me. I have treated many hundreds of patients. Among all my patients in the second half of life - that is to say, over thirty-five – there has not been one whose problem in the last resort was not of finding a religious outlook on life. It is safe to say that every one of them fell ill because he had lost that which the living religions of every age have given to their followers, and none of them has been really healed who did not regain his religious outlook.”


Psychology is a very young discipline, being barely a century old. Its roots, however, extend back into ancient times. One can reasonably argue that Philosophy is the grandparent of this science.

Freud (1856-1939) was the first person to theorize a structure representing the psyche. His famous id/ego/superego structure gave other thinkers a departure point from which to continue their work. Freud emphasized the role of biological drives (id), mediated by the influence of reason (ego) and conscience (superego).

One very useful way to look at psychology is to look at the major paradigms operant in this discipline. A paradigm can be described as a system of thought containing many different schools of thought. The similarities among the schools of thought are greater than the differences.

The Psychodynamic paradigm is regarded as the first paradigm in Psychology. This system of thought emphasizes inner drives and past experiences in our attempt to understand the current behaviour of the individual.

The Cognitive-Behavioural paradigm developed as an opposition to the psychodynamic paradigm. Its major premise is that current thought and behavioural patterns (and not so much childhood experiences) determine our psychological condition. The rationality of our thought, as well as environmental reinforcement, shape our conduct and mental condition.

The Existential-Humanistic paradigm sees human beings as creatures in search of meaning in an often-hostile environment. It emphasizes the higher needs in people. The need for self-actualization is recognized. This means that our task is to realize our inner potential fully.

Although it may not yet be recognized as such by other academics, I would argue that Post-Modern thought in Psychology forms a separate paradigm. Social-construction and narrative theories state that views of reality are not fixed entities, but are socially negotiated and changeable. The core idea of this school is that humans are limited creatures and unable to arrive at any objective truth. The individual will always experience events entirely subjectively. Almost any so-called fixed “truth” could be deconstructed to show its subjective constituents.

The important point to be made here is that no major school of thought in psychology gives prominence to the spiritual in humans. The third paradigm, the Existential-Humanistic school hints at this, but is careful not to take a pro-religious stance.


Most dictionaries and textbooks define psychology as the study of human behaviour. Very often these definitions differentiate among the aspects of affection, cognition and conation (wilful execution of behaviour) in human beings. People are described as bio-psycho-social beings.

These definitions of psychology are indeed very broad and all-encompassing. One assumes that spiritual matters are part and parcel of human behaviour. My experience, however, has been that religious and spiritual matters (as they relate to psychology) are rarely researched and discussed in professional circles. It is almost as if it is politically incorrect for psychologists to be profoundly interested in theology and metaphysical philosophy. The unsaid message is that if the psychologist (and more importantly the psychotherapist) has strong religious views it will compromise his/her objectivity and effectiveness. The fear is that transference will take place. (Transference refers to the therapist consciously or unconsciously projecting and imposing his/her belief system on the client.)

On careful analysis of the different paradigms in psychology, one even detects a certain hostility toward spirituality and religiosity. Freud believed that the religious impulse is essentially neurotic. He saw it as a defence mechanism employed to ward off unwanted inner sexual urges. Religious activity was seen as sublimation, the channelling of sexual energy to non-sexual pursuits.

Cognitive and behavioural theorists stood more apathetic toward the spiritual drive in people and chose to ignore it for the most part. “Over-religious” thought could however be deemed irrational by some cognitive therapists. Avid behaviourists simply do not recognise a spiritual world as they are totally caught up in a world of surface reality.

The third paradigm Existential-Humanism seems to sense the importance of spirituality, but says in effect that there is no objective spiritual truth and that every individual must create his own truth.

The psychotherapist is thus left with little in traditional psychology to direct his work with patients experiencing underlying spiritual crises. Some universities do present courses in the “Psychology of Religion”. This field of study is, however, rather marginalized and does not form part of mainstream psychology and psychotherapeutic training.

In this void, I discovered the work of Swedenborg. His work spoke to my intellectual and spiritual sensibilities. Here was a completely rational and systematic approach to the world of spirit. Swedenborg did not demand blind faith in his divinely directed works. In the tradition of true science, he built up a logical system of thought with a remarkable inner consistency and external validity.


Swedenborg’s extra-sensory spiritual perceptions confirmed the basic Judaic-Christian view of humanity, namely:

  • Human beings were created by a benevolent God.
  • Humanity is a separate creation, not a mere continuation of the animal kingdom.
  • Unique human qualities are rationality and free will.
  • Human beings were intended to be spiritual beings first and foremost.
  • Unlike the rest of creation, human beings survive physical death.
  • Humans were made in the image of God, meaning the human form is a representation of the Divine.
  • Humans were at first very close to the Godhead, but abused their unique powers and free will. They indulged their own illusory sensuous intelligence at the cost of relying on divine wisdom. (The Genesis story referring to the first ancient church).
  • The Divine Human manifested physically on this earth to restore the human race to its true position and spiritual course.

Swedenborg continued to add the following which, is not directly stated in the Old and New Testament:

  • The individual is a microcosm of the macrocosm, meaning the entire spiritual realm (heaven and hell) is fully present within his psyche. The New Testament approaches this idea with “the kingdom of God is within you”.
  • Our psychodynamics are shaped largely by opposing (benevolent and malicious) spiritual forces within our psyches.
  • We have constant unconscious contact with the minds of others of our race already deceased. Ties of ancestral, emotional and spiritual affinity determine this association. If this association were severed suddenly, we will quickly die physically and psychologically.
  • The human being has two essential mental qualities (male and female), determining his/her psychology and spirituality. Male and female qualities reside in both sexes. With the male, the male qualities manifest exteriorly and the female interiorly. With the female it is the reverse.
  • Reason and cognitive function mark the male mental disposition. Wisdom, peace and truth are male spiritual qualities. The female mental disposition, however, is marked by the affective function. Love, innocence and goodness are the female spiritual qualities.
  • Interiorly, however, the position is reversed. In their deepest spiritual core men are love and women wisdom.
  • The male and female psycho-spiritual qualities in humans enable not only marriage between the sexes, but also a marriage of goodness and truth within the individual. In as much as this marriage is effected within the individual he/she is said to be in “heaven’ already.
  • In people committed to selfishness and mere sensuous consciousness, the male qualities are falsity and the female hatred. The same type of marriage is effected between the sexes and within the individual as with the good and the wise.
  • Psycho-spiritual discomfort and agony is the result of a mixture of goodness and evil as well as wisdom and falsity in the individual. It is when the individual’s will is torn between two opposing (equally strong) forces that she/he suffers enormously mentally. This process is referred to as temptation. The dross of evil and falsity clinging to the goodness and truth within the individual has to be shed, either in this world or in the intermediary spiritual world. Only then, can we approach our true blissful destination, heaven.
  • A logical conclusion to be derived from the above is that the very good and the very evil do not suffer psychologically and spiritually, as does the majority of humanity (that is morally not very good, nor very evil). This is borne out by my experience in Psychology. The psychopaths (anti-social personalities) I’ve had in consultation almost invariably have little inner anxiety and discomfort. The Mother Theresa’s (very good) amongst us are equally unaffected by inner turmoil.
  • A major construct in Swedenborgian thought is the “proprium”. It would be equal to what traditional psychology calls “the ego” or the “self”. This is the self-directing principle in the psyche. It is here that free will and choice reside. Since the spiritual fall of humanity this faculty is corrupted. It is what St Paul calls the “sinful” part of our humanness. It opposes the spiritual within us. It hates constraints placed on its freedom. It embraces the seven sins of pride and indulgence enthusiastically. It co-operates eagerly with malicious spiritual forces seeking our spiritual destruction.
  • All our energy should be directed toward spiritual regeneration. We should ceaselessly engage in battle with the evil proprium within ourselves. This is done “as-of-self”, meaning that we are not conscious that the Lord is really managing the process. This is also called Providence and miraculously involves the smallest of detail of our lives. The more goodness and truth takes precedence over evil and falsity, the greater the psycho-spiritual health of the individual. The more he remains torn between these two forces, the greater his mental anguish.

However: the more one studies Swedenborg from a psychological point of view, the more one sees that our sojourn on this earth is not primarily meant to be comfortable and pleasant. It is directed toward but one purpose: spiritual growth. Thus if a Swedenborgian is asked why harrowing things happen to seemingly good people (e.g. rape, injury, disease etc) the answer will invariably be very clear: “Your experience, painful though it seems, is an opportunity to grow spiritually”. More importantly, the Swedenborgian pastor will add: “… the Lord is fully conscious of your suffering and He is managing this process in order that you might grow closer to Him. He will not allow you to suffer more than what is spiritually useful to you.”


To anyone who looks analytically at traditional psychology and the Swedenborgian view of psychology, major differences are apparent.

In traditional psychology all emphasis is on self-empowerment. Self-confidence, self-esteem, self-concept, self-efficacy are keywords thrown liberally around. In traditional psychology the following rule-of-thumb holds sway: the less self-confidence an individual has, the less effective she/he is as a person.

In sharp contrast to this the Swedenborgian view is the individual’s self is corrupt. The individual must submit to a Being greater than him/herself in order to gain self-empowerment. The degree to which someone surrenders his own will to the Divine is the degree to which he/she is restored to his/her former glory.

This is quite the opposite of the traditional psychological view which sees the human being as a creature cast into this world. Existentialists and phenomenologists speak of the “cast-ness” of humans. Soren Kierkegaard, the Swedish philosopher (regarded by many as the father of Existential philosophy and psychology ) positions the human as creature right in the center of two agonizing anxieties: guilt from the past and fear for the future. One detects the feeling that we are randomly cast into a chaotic world. The human being is thus a shameful and tragic figure, delivered unto forces greater than her/himself.

A Swedenborgian view, however, is that God is firmly in control of this world, despite the apparent chaos we see. Every hair on our heads is indeed accounted for. We are indeed worth more than the birds of the field.

Swedenborg states clearly that we belong to a heavenly society, even whilst being on earth. Our very names and characters are known in the spiritual realm. We are hardly random creatures in a random world.

Traditional Psychology starts with the physical and then proceeds to the mental aspect of being human. Every thought is seen to be essentially a biological process. In contrast to which a Swedenborgian Psychology sees the mind as being made of spiritual substance. The mind is a substance within the spirit-body. The biological brain is thus a mere receiver of impulses originating from the spiritual sphere (mind). Thought originates in the spiritual sphere and manifests physically, quite the opposite of the view held in Physiological Psychology.


The Swedenborgian psychotherapist will not shy away from the spiritual questions of clients. The therapist will deal with them directly, without giving up the major principles Carl Rogers identified to mark the ideal therapeutic relationship:

  • empathy
  • unconditional regard
  • respect
  • genuineness
  • understanding

The therapist will not become imposing and dogmatic in therapy. She/he will not force clients to take spiritual views of their dilemmas nor challenge clients’ views from a holier-than-thou position. The counsellor will, however, together with the client seek a spiritual understanding of what is happening to the client.

The Swedenborgian psychotherapist will not be the first to speak of spiritual matters in psychotherapy. He/she will only react to that which the client is willing to bring to therapy. Only when the client shows an eagerness to discuss problems from a spiritual perspective, will the therapist actively engage in the process.

It could indeed be argued that awakening the spiritual nature in clients, who are not ready or willing, could be detrimental to their already compromised psychological equilibrium.

However: where the client is eager to approach his emotional problems from a spiritual perspective, the Swedenborgian psychotherapist can bring an enormous wealth and depth to psycho-therapy. The skilled psycho-therapist will, however, not force profound Swedenborgian concepts like providence, the role of the proprium and the role of the spiritual realm down clients’ throats. These subjects will be approached carefully and only with the encouragement of the client. If the client displays serious psychopathology (e.g. psychosis or organic disorders) these subjects will be avoided altogether.

An Idea originating from Dr James is that the Lord is the Divine Psychotherapist. The Lord is intimately involved in our spiritual regeneration, arranging events and circumstances so that this can be achieved. Spiritual progress is not a passive affair, as so passionately preached in some Christian churches. Irrational faith alone does not suffice. Regeneration is an active participation by the individual in a process managed by the Lord. The Lord strengthens our characters and religious nature by a series of temptations, uniquely tailored to our spiritual needs. Every temptation is thus an opportunity to grow spiritually. We are often tempted in those areas in which our weaknesses lie.

The Swedenborgian psychotherapist will help the client to identify those areas in her/his life that are being affected by temptation. Those areas are usually also the areas of potential spiritual growth. Thus: if a client has an anger-problem, the therapist needs to show him/her the potential for spiritual growth in this area.

A temptation overcome increases our psychological and spiritual strength manifold. Our mental health is increased with every spiritual victory we have in temptation, and decreased with every temptation we succumb to.

Every licensed or registered psychologist is bound by legal and professional constraints. The psychotherapist will thus be careful not to impose a value system on the patient. Spiritual conversations with patients will be conducted in the mode of: “ …let’s compare our views of transcendent reality…lets try to find common ground….let’s try to relieve your anxiety by a grander scope of life and suffering”. A non-directive approach will be the professionally responsible way to go.


This paper attempted to compare traditional psychological theory with the Swedenborgian view of humans. The differences between these two models of reality were emphasized. The goal was not to deride traditional psychology, but rather to show its limitations. Psychology has been a very useful science with many excellent applications. It has, however, demonstrated a certain unwillingness to make spirituality and religiosity a central part of its scope.

My view is that Swedenborgian metaphysics has much to say to traditional psychology. It will surely challenge many sacredly held notions in Psychology. I see a clear and expressed need in patients for a spiritual explanation of their dilemmas. This need is often voiced directly in therapy.

Swedenborgian theology contains a rich treasure of psychological knowledge. The vast writings of Emanuel Swedenborg are worthy of serious study by all psychologists.

…..Thought from the eye closes understanding, but thought from understanding opens the eye.

Divine Love and Wisdom, paragraph 46






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