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TOWARD A SPIRITUAL PSYCHOLOGY:
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
I 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.”
THE SCOPE OF TRADITIONAL PSYCHOLOGY
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
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
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
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.
TRADITIONAL PSYCHOLOGY AND SPIRITUALITY
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
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.
SWEDENBORGIAN VIEW OF HUMAN BEINGS
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
- 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
- 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
- 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
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.”
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN TRADITIONAL PSYCHOLOGY AND THE SWEDENBORGIAN VIEW
OF HUMAN BEINGS
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
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.
TOWARD A SWEDENBORGIAN PSYCHOTHERAPY
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:
- unconditional regard
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
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
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
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