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GTU Celebrates the Center for Swedenborgian Studies

Longstanding School Launches New Era

by James Lawrence

from Currents Fall 2015

The Center for Swedenborgian Studies (CSS), a graduate program for religious training and scholarship that has operated continuously since 1866 in four successive locations, recently became the GTU’s newest Center of Distinction. CSS provides academic and vocational studies for students affiliated with or interested in the Swedenborgian tradition, functions as a think-tank for Swedenborgian studies globally, and is the official seminary of the Swedenborgian Church of North America. The Center’s offerings are multi-disciplinary, emphasizing theology, the arts, spirituality, history, and biblical studies, while also giving significant attention to interreligious engagement, cultural studies, and personal spiritual formation.

The Center seeks to develop Swedenborgian studies in both a ministerial-formation framework as well as cultural and historical frameworks. Though these dual objectives will routinely involve fruitful intersections, a crisp distinction between them is planned. Many of the vocational students served by CSS are in schools and programs elsewhere in the world and are supported via distance learning with occasional local intensive courses, whereas support for students in the MA and PhD programs at the GTU will occur locally.

The Center features three core full-time scholars: Devin Zuber, Assistant Professor of American Studies, Literature, and Swedenborgian Studies; Rebecca Esterson, Scholar-in-Training, Ph.D. Candidate at Boston University; and James Lawrence, Dean of CSS and Assistant Professor of Spirituality and Historical Studies. Additional adjunct faculty in practical theology support students preparing for vocational ministry paths.

For more than a century, Swedenborgian scholarship in seminary settings has related Swedenborgian thought to the standard array of classical and practical fields in theological education, including theology, biblical studies, ethics, spirituality, and pastoral care. Yet the approach of the GTU’s Center for Swedenborgian Studies includes opportunities for scholarship in a wide range of additional fields, such as literature, art and architecture, science and spirituality, pluralism, and New Religious Movements.

Swedenborgian thought draws on the spiritual insights of the Swedish Christian mystic Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772). The tradition that has developed from Swedenborg’s work has followed two distinct channels—one via Western artists, poets, novelists, and philosophers and the other via several sectarian church movements. As to the first channel, Swedenborg’s most significant cultural influence can be located in nineteenth-century England, Germany, and the United States, as his metaphysics was appropriated broadly by Romance writers and artists, Transcendentalists, Spiritualists, utopian communitarian groups, and healing theorists, as well as by Christian clergy and laypersons of many denominations.

The denominational tradition that arose from Swedenborg’s influence began developing within a generation of his death. Though Swedenborg confined his reforming activities to a largely anonymous ministry of publication, a church movement in England devoted to his vision of Christianity arose among enthusiastic readers of mostly Anglican, Methodist, and Baptist backgrounds. A separatist controversy in 1787 led to a new ecclesiastical structure that was distinctly Swedenborgian: the General Conference of the New Jerusalem. Other Swedenborgian denominations formed during the subsequent century in the United States, Canada, Switzerland, and Australia; over the second half of the twentieth century organized Swedenborgianism took root with some vigor in sub-Saharan Africa, Japan, and South Korea. Today, five Swedenborgian denominations worldwide total 60,000 members. The oldest Swedenborgian denomination in the United States—the General Convention of the New Jerusalem, formally organized in 1817—is the tradition connected to the Center for Swedenborgian Studies.

Swedenborgianism embodies the commitment to interreligious dialogue that is a hallmark of the GTU. The landmark 1893 World Parliament of Religions was the brainchild of a Swedenborgian jurist, Charles Carroll Bonney. In his keynote address at the Parliament, Bonney lifted up the ideal of an “absolute respect” toward all traditions, quoting passages from several of Swedenborg’s works. The first Buddhist publication in the United States, The Buddhist Ray, was conceived and published in 1888 by a Swedenborgian minister, Herman Vetterling (1849-1931), who later changed his name to Philangi Dasa. The Zen Buddhist scholar widely regarded as bringing Zen to the West, D.T. Suzuki (1870-1966), considered Swedenborg as an especially appropriate dialog partner with his tradition, and translated several of Swedenborg’s works into Japanese.

Swedenborg and his successors have also made historically significant contributions to the discourse between science and religion. Swedenborg produced approximately 150 written works in at least a dozen science disciplines, and the sheer quantity and breadth of his work in natural science analysis is of note. The Swedish Nobel laureate Svante Arrhenius has detailed Swedenborg’s importance in the history of astronomy, while Princeton’s Charles Gross lists Swedenborg as a potent figure in the history of anatomical research. Swedenborg’s work on anatomy and consciousness remains relevant to such contemporary topics as Altered States of Consciousness (ASCs), Near-Death Experiences, and the mind-body problem.

The Library and Archives of the Center for Swedenborgian Studies, located in Holbrook Hall at Pacific School of Religion, contains a wealth of materials for research and scholarship in all areas of Swedenborgian studies. In addition to the complete works of Emanuel Swedenborg in all translations, one can explore monographs, pamphlets, periodicals, and secondary research materials by and about authors, artists, and thinkers influenced by Swedenborgian thought. For example, the collection features indexed notebooks containing more than 200 original items of correspondence to a prominent nineteenth-century intellectual sometimes called George I: George Bush (1796-1859), an ancestor of presidents George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush. Other archival materials include a large traveling trunk of Henry James, Sr., with his collection of Swedenborg’s works annotated in his own hand, a pair of oil desk lamps that once adorned Swedenborg’s writing desk in Stockholm, and rare first editions of many of Swedenborg’s works. All books and monographs have been added to GRACE, the GTU library’s online catalog.

CSS hosts occasional lunch conversations, lectures, and public educational discussions on a broad array of topics connected to aspects of Swedenborgiana. The Center also produces Studia Swedenborgiana, which published as a print journal from 1974-2006 and continues as an online journal.

James Lawrence (PhD, ’12) is Dean of the Center for Swedenborgian Studies and Assistant Professor of Spirituality and Historical Studies at the GTU.