TUESDAY, JUNE 19: Don’t look for any major public signs of New Church Day celebrations—certainly not in secular newspaper or magazine headlines this week. Counting all branches of Swedenborg’s church, these days, there probably are less than 10,000 members divided primarily into four bodies with adherents in the U.S., Britain and South Africa. Of course, thousands of other spiritual seekers have run across the groundbreaking work of Swedish scientist and theologian Emanuel Swedenborg and are influenced by his teachings in an ongoing way—without any formal connection to his church.
What is New Church Day? The holiday honors the publication of Swedenborg’s massive work: “The True Christian Religion” in 1770. Of course, there are other key dates in the church’s history that followers may mark. On May 7, 1787, 15 years after Swedenborg’s death, the New Church movement was founded in England. This year’s annual convention in the U.S. will be July 5-8 in Massachusetts. (Here’s the convention website, although the website’s text mistakenly says this is happening in 2011; scroll down on that page to see more 2012 convention materials.)
Who are Swedenborg’s followers today?
Most are highly educated spiritual seekers who prefer to make their own choices about their life’s philosophy and faith. One of the main tenets of the church today is: “God gives everyone the freedom to choose their beliefs and live their lives accordingly. Salvation is available for people of all religions.” Adherents also tend to be active in social-justice causes. Another belief today is: “Truth is love in action. Actions performed out of love are genuine expressions in a physical form of what love means.”
Because the organized church is so small, various online offerings come and go. A few years ago, one Swedenborg-related website published a recommended order of worship for New Church Day. That suggested liturgy gives readers a general sense of the church’s style of worship.
GARY LACHMAN’S NEW “SWEDENBORG:
AN INTRODUCTION TO HIS LIFE AND LETTERS”
The first thing to say about Gary Lachman’s new book is: Swedenborg, An Introduction to His Life and Ideasis not an official publication of any branch of Swedenborg’s movement. Lachman is a former rock star and, over many years, has become a leading author on esoteric branches of spirituality. His new book is published by the most respected imprint in alternative spirituality today: Tarcher-Penguin, a publishing division headed by scholar, author and editor Mitch Horowitz. In Lachman’s book you will find an entirely different approach to Swedenborg’s life than you would find if you managed to visit a gathering of New Church followers today.
Nevertheless, at ReadTheSpirit, we highly recommend Lachman’s book, which does a great job in less than 200 pages of sorting out key themes in the life and work of this absolutely amazing religious innovator. Among the many roles in Swedenborg’s life: He was a biblical scholar, psychic, scientist, inventor, statesman, theologian, traveler and poet—not to mention a prolific writer of prose. “With so many Swedenborgs, so many ways to approach him, and so many works from his own hand, it is understandable that the average reader interested in knowing more about him would find it difficult to know where to begin,” Lachman writes. That is the point of this brief book. Lachman is not a member of the church himself, he explains, but he is a delightful companion in introducing us to Swedenborg.
Why should anyone care about a man whose name is nearly forgotten (even in courses on comparative religion)? From Lachman’s book: “It is difficult to imagine modern Western alternative spirituality without the influence of Swedish scientist and mystic Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772). Every movement in alternative spirituality—from mental healing and Spiritualism to New Age mysticism and the 12-step recovery movement—owes an immeasurable debt to the ideas he exploded upon the Western world.” Gary Lachman is based in the UK and his website includes a number of intriguing links related to his new book and Swedenborg’s legacy.
Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.