Message from the President – October/November
Written by Jim Lawrence
During a recent memorial service for a young adult killed in yet another senseless act of random gun violence, I was saddened yet again by how often people of faith in certain modern frameworks do not seem to regard an ongoing spiritual world life beyond physical death to be a possibility. Of the many people who spoke, only one alluded in any way to the possibility that the death being mourned was only of the body and the physical presence here, but not of the true spiritual person. Many people of faith, of course, do speak about the newly departed as now in heaven with God, but for decades in my personal religious circles outside of Swedenborgianism most memorial services are like the one I just experienced: the deceased will (only) live on in our memories.
Such a spectacular omission in a memorial service always spurs me to continue the work of our tradition that holds out for much better news. If we have arisen into this amazing experience of life full of the drama of growing into the meaning of love and into an expanding joy in relationships and community only for it all to come to a crashing end with physical death, that imposes a severe limitation on the meaning of life. At least it does for me.
Emanuel Swedenborg certainly agreed that the significance of the truth or falsity of soul survival of physical death was of supreme importance. A decisive turning point for him occurred during 1734 when preoccupied in Leipzig, Germany with publishing his Principia, the natural science work that would establish his reputation throughout Europe as a promising natural philosopher. He became disturbed at the extent of atheism among the intelligentsia and blamed lack of empirical evidence of the soul’s immortality as the cause. He spent the next several years trying to find proof of the soul in anatomical research, which produced lasting contributions to early neuroanatomy but nothing that he could present as hardcore evidence of the soul.
His private journals, however, describe an immersion into a spiritual world full of activity with not only the presence of God but with spiritual beings who had once lived in the physical world. Of all the books that eventually flowed from his pen, the one with descriptions of the spiritual world beyond this one, Heaven and Hell (1758), is far and away his bestseller. But in many ways, it hasn’t sold well enough. So many today see no reason to believe in ongoing life.
But more good news continues to grow. The psychiatrist Raymond Moody revived interest in Swedenborg’s teachings with his now legendary 1975 work Life After Life. He wrote a section on Swedenborg as someone whose writings supporting the new evidence of empirical studies of what he coined “near-death experiences” (or NDEs). Nearly a half-century later, that mountain of evidence is astounding. Comprehensive databasing at the Near-Death Experience Research Foundation on their website https://www.nderf.org/ should give hope to everyone that life here is not a momentary blip. These efforts combine with our church’s devotion to continuing Swedenborg’s own quest to shape empirical evidence to help people understand the Good News that our time on earth is just the beginning of love, community, and the exhilaration of being alive.
—Rev. Dr. Jim Lawrence
Read the full issue of the October / November 2022 Messenger
Meet Jim Lawrence
Rev. Dr. Jim Lawrence is the president of the Swedenborgian Church of North America. He was the dean of the Center for Swedenborgian Studies for 21 years prior to being elected President in 2022.