Smart people are weird. It has something to do with the ability to follow a train of thought to its logical conclusion, even if the conclusion is superficially absurd or counter-intuitive. That’s why when brilliant scientists go mystic, it gets kind of creepy. Take for instance, Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772 AD). Swedenborg was the Swedish equivalent of MacGyver, a gifted, internationally renowned scientist and inventor with an impressive list of mathematical discoveries and mechanical inventions, spanning a wide range of fields including engineering, geometry, astronomy, chemistry, metallurgy, mineralogy, anatomy, physiology, zoology, and philosophy. We’re fairly certain he would have gotten around to building an atomic bomb out of paperclips, chewing gum, and a bicycle tire had he not taken an abrupt turn into Christian mysticism.
Its not that Swedenborg was irreligious prior to his esoteric revelations. His father Jesper Swedberg was a professor of theology at Uppsala University and later Bishop of Skara (but nonetheless toyed with Lutheran Pietism), for which his family was later enobled, and no doubt his father’s views had some degree of influence on Emanuel Swedenborg’s philosophy of life. Starting in 1744, Swedenborg began having revelationary dreams, which he recorded in his journal. By 1747 he dropped his scientific and engineering work and took up the study of the Old Testament in Hebrew, and scientifically minded fellow that he was, went about dissecting the spiritual significance of every single verse. He went on to write eighteen different theological works, including his famous Arcana Coelestia (“Heavenly Arcana”), De Cultu et Amore Dei (“The Worship and Love of God”), a work maintaining that the Last Judgment had already occurred, but happened in the world of spirits rather than our physical world, Vera Christiana Religio (“The True Christian Religion”), and his most famous work called Heaven and Hell, which frankly reads like a detailed anthropological investigation of the afterlife.
By all accounts, Swedenborg was a pretty nice, mild-mannered guy with a slight stutter who would patiently explain his incredibly complicated theological views whenever asked. His version of Christianity held that faith alone was inadequate, and that salvation required equal amounts of charity. A pretty benign message, all things considered. Swedenborg maintained that not only did he have vivid dreams of heaven and hell, but that he conversed with angels, spirits of the dead, and spirits of entities from Jupiter, Mars, Mercury, Saturn, Venus, and the Moon. He strangely maintained that one had to be extremely careful in speaking with angels and spirits as they would actively mislead, and routinely pretend to have knowledge that they did not actually have. Swedenborg never tried to start a church, and in fact seemed totally disinterested in the idea, but in 1771 his ideas were put on trial when two adherents were charged with heresy and examined by a Swedish Royal Council, which determined that Swedenborg’s theological writings were perfectly consistent with the Bible, since he meticulously cited biblical support for his views in a coherent and consistent way. About fifteen years after Swedenborg’s death in 1772 the “New Church” movement appeared, and various Swedenborgian churches sprang up and spread throughout Europe, subsequently carried to America by missionaries (the most famous one being John Chapman aka “Johnny Appleseed”). Swdenborgianism persists today in the form of the Swedenborgian Church of North America, the Dutch Lord’s New Church Which is Nova Hierolyma, The General Church of New Jerusalem, and the British General Conference of the New Church. There are an estimated 30,000 Swedenborgian adherents still trying to follow his doctrines today. Despite his deep spiritualism and confidence in the veracity of his revelations, Swedenborg seems to have been the rare breed that reconciled his religious convictions with an abiding humanism exemplified by his comment, “Man was so created by the Lord as to be able while living in the body to speak with spirits and angels, as in fact was done in the most ancient time; for being a spirit clothed with a body, he is one with them”. The again, maybe he was just nuts.