This article is for people who want to know what Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772) says on the subject of homosexuality. If you’re not interested in that, you can safely skip it. For the broader picture, and my reasons for writing these two articles about homosexuality from a Christian perspective, please see the companion article, “Homosexuality, the Bible, and Christianity.”
While many Swedenborgian ministers and laypeople accept homosexuality as equal to heterosexuality, a great deal has been written by conservative Swedenborgian ministers arguing that Swedenborg condemns homosexuality as evil and contrary to God’s will. I am not aware of any article currently in print that considers their arguments point by point. This article is intended to fill that gap.
Writing and publishing these articles is not something that I particularly enjoy doing. It’s just something that must be done to help dispel a large weight of faulty thinking and bad scholarship swirling through our society and our world on the subject of homosexuality.
People’s lives—physical, social, and spiritual—are at stake. Although I would prefer to avoid the subject entirely, I cannot in good conscience stand idly by and say nothing.
The Swedenborgian debate on homosexuality
The same debate over homosexuality that rages in the wider world also goes on among readers and followers of Emanuel Swedenborg. As in society generally, conservative Swedenborgians argue that homosexuality is evil and contrary to God’s will, while liberal Swedenborgians argue that homosexual love is every bit as good and God-given as heterosexual love.
The homosexuality debate among Swedenborg readers follows lines similar to the wider Christian debate on the subject, only with various passages from Swedenborg’s theological writings thrown in.
Here is the short version, from my perspective:
After many years of reading and studying every passage in Swedenborg quoted by those who believe that Swedenborg condemns homosexuality, I still do not think Swedenborg says anything clear or distinctive on the subject.
Most of the passages that conservative Swedenborgians interpret as condemning homosexuality are not about homosexuality at all. They are based on the story of Sodom, which, as I pointed out in the article “What is the Sin of Sodom?” is simply not about homosexuality. There are also some general references to the two chapters in the book of Leviticus that contain the Old Testament prohibitions against men having sex with men. Swedenborg does not comment on any of the verses that deal with homosexual sex in the Epistles of the New Testament.
The remaining few passages in Swedenborg’s writings are negative descriptions of homosexual activity that he wrote but never published. These passages are, if anything, milder versions of scathing attacks on homosexual behavior that were common in European literature of the day.
For those not familiar with Swedenborg’s writings, he composed his theological works during a period of almost three decades from about 1744 until his death in 1772. The theological works that he published in his own lifetime fill about 23 volumes in English. He wrote but never published theological works equivalent to another 23 or so volumes in English, all of which were published after his death. This does not count his extensive indexes of the Bible and of his own works, which he used for his own reference as he wrote his books.
My general conclusion about Swedenborg’s writings in relation to homosexuality is similar to my conclusion about the Bible and homosexuality. It can be summed up in this question: If homosexuality is really such a terrible sin as the conservatives claim, why is there so little written about it?
In all of those voluminous writings, Swedenborg says so little about homosexuality that it is necessary to dig hard to find anything at all on the subject. That’s surprising. It’s likely that Swedenborg himself, like most European Christians of his day, took a dim view of homosexuality. He was certainly aware of its existence. Yet in all of his extensive writings, he never wrote a single clear condemnation of homosexuality.
In fact, in Marriage Love, his encyclopedic exposition on marriage, its beauties, and its corruptions, he says nothing at all about homosexuality.
Part 2 of Marriage Love goes into excruciating detail about the various corrupt and adulterous attitudes and practices that destroy marriage. Yet in that whole ten-chapter section of the book, there is not a single word about homosexuality as a form of adultery or as a destroyer of marriage. This should give pause to conservative Swedenborgians who have concluded that homosexuality is “the worst form of adultery” (more on this below).
Swedenborg does, however, offer some very beautiful teachings about the spiritual nature of marriage. And though he thought of marriage as existing only between one man and one woman, his views of marriage do offer some light on homosexual relationships as well. Some of these will be covered in the next article, “Homosexuality, the Bible, and Christianity.”
In this article, we’ll look at some statements in Swedenborg’s writings that are interpreted by conservative Swedenborgians as condemning homosexuality.
Swedenborg’s interpretations of the Bible
About two-thirds of Swedenborg’s theological writings are very detailed spiritual interpretations of the Bible. He published verse-by-verse explanations of the books of Genesis, Exodus, and Revelation. Along the way he interpreted thousands of other passages scattered throughout the Bible.
However, Swedenborg rarely commented on the Acts or the Epistles in the New Testament. He viewed them as important books for the church that do have a certain level of inspiration, but as not having the continuous spiritual meaning that especially makes a book part of the Word of God.
So when it comes to homosexuality, the debate focuses on Swedenborg’s interpretation of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18–19, and a few statements that relate to the laws in the book of Leviticus—which he did not explain in detail.
Here we go!
The sin of Sodom, Swedenborg style
Before reading this section, I recommend that you read the article, “What is the Sin of Sodom?” It’s not absolutely necessary, but you’ll understand the points made here better if you’ve gotten that article under your belt.
Since the story of Sodom and Gomorrah occurs in the book of Genesis, Swedenborg provides a detailed, verse-by-verse interpretation of it. And in that entire microscopic examination and interpretation of the story, he never says a single word that’s clearly about homosexuality—if he says anything about it at all.
If anything, he discredits the idea that the story is about homosexuality, saying instead that it is about spiritual issues and realities. Here is one passage that is commonly interpreted by Swedenborgian conservatives as condemning homosexuality:
People who understand the Word purely from the sense of the letter may think that “Sodom” means a foulness that is contrary to the order of nature; but in the internal sense “Sodom” means evil that springs from self-love. (Arcana Coelestia #2322)
I dealt with Sodom as self-love in the article “What is the Sin of Sodom?” so I won’t go into it in any detail here.
Briefly, what I said there is that the inhabitants of Sodom displayed supreme selfishness, arrogance, and a desire to dominate and humiliate others through their intent to gang rape the two angels who were visiting Lot. This corresponds perfectly with Swedenborg’s concept of a love of dominating others based on (unhealthy) self-love. This, Swedenborg says, is what the story of Sodom is really about.
The irony is that Swedenborg as much as says in the passage quoted above that the story of Sodom isn’t really about any “foulness that is contrary to the order of nature.” And yet, this passage is quoted in arguments for the idea that Swedenborg condemned homosexuality.
“A foulness that is contrary to the order of nature”
Why do many conservative Swedenborgians interpret that passage in this way?
From what I can tell, it really stems from a previously adopted position against homosexuality based on the usual conservative Christian views about it.
But another basis for these arguments is the idea that “a foulness contrary to the order of nature” must refer to homosexuality because it was a common euphemism for homosexuality in 18th century Europe.
Conservative Swedenborgians also say that when Swedenborg referred to “secret evils that are not to be named” in Marriage Love #450, and to “criminal practices that are not to be named” in Marriage Love #459, he must be talking about homosexuality because these, too, were common euphemisms for homosexuality in the 18th century.
Yes they were.
But “a foulness contrary to nature” was also a common euphemism for:
- Animals or humans born with severe physical defects
- Human wickedness and sin generally
And “secret evils that are not to be named” was used to refer to a whole host of things that were considered unsuitable for polite conversation, from masturbation to pedophilia.
Perhaps Swedenborg was referring to homosexuality when he mentioned “a foulness that is contrary to the order of nature” in relation to the story of Sodom. But he could also have been referring to the polygamous and adulterous nature of the gang rape that the inhabitants of Sodom intended to commit against Lot’s visitors. Even rape itself could qualify as “a foulness contrary to the order of nature.”
Singling out homosexuality as the meaning of Swedenborg’s cryptic words here, and using that as a basis for major arguments against homosexuality, is building a large edifice on a very narrow and shaky foundation.
“The worst form of adultery”
Conservative Swedenborgians also commonly refer to homosexuality as “the worst form of adultery” based on another, earlier statement of Swedenborg about Sodom:
Although in the next chapter it seems as if Sodom means the evil that consists in the worst form of adultery, nevertheless nothing else is meant by it in the internal sense than evil that stems from self-love. (Arcana Coelestia #2220)
Homosexuality is the worst form of adultery?
Worse than gang rape?
The idea that homosexuality is “the worst form of adultery,” and that this is what Swedenborg must mean here, is just plain silly.
How anyone, Swedenborgian, Christian, Jewish, or of any other faith or perspective could read the story of Sodom and conclude that its worst feature was homosexuality is totally beyond me. The horrible violence and adultery involved in the story of Sodom has just as much to do with homosexuality as the horrible violence and adultery in the story of the gang rape of a woman in Judges 19 has to do with heterosexuality.
I should also mention that the Latin words pessimi adulterii in Arcana Coelestia #2220, commonly translated “the worst form of adultery,” or “the worst adultery,” mean something more like “an exceedingly bad form of adultery.” I would nominate gang rape, whether homosexual or heterosexual, as eminently qualified to be “an exceedingly bad form of adultery.” Unlike consensual homosexual sex, gang rape is a horrific act of violence that damages and destroys people physically and emotionally, leaving them scarred for life.
As I mentioned earlier, Swedenborg doesn’t say anything at all about homosexuality in Marriage Love.
But he does talk about rape.
Right after his main chapter on adultery, there is a series of four short chapters on “even more serious” violations of marriage. He says that these obsessions come into play only for people who have engaged in adulterous relationships until they’ve become burned out on ordinary adultery.
One of those chapters is about people who have an obsession with rape—probably equivalent to what we identify today as serial rapists.
Doesn’t an act that Swedenborg plainly and unequivocally describes as more serious than the kinds and levels of adultery he has already covered—an act to which he devotes a special chapter in Marriage Love—have a much better claim to being “an exceedingly bad form of adultery” than one that he never makes any clear statement about anywhere in his writings?
Rape, as an act of sexual assault, domination, and humiliation, is perfectly suited to symbolize the spiritual evil of utterly self-centered love that desires only to dominate and destroy other people. The gang rape involved in the story of Sodom forms a far better basis for the spiritual symbolism of Sodom than the fact that it happened to be homosexual rather than heterosexual gang rape.
This should be enough to establish for any objective reader that when Swedenborg interprets the story of the sin and the destruction of Sodom in Genesis 18–19, it has little or nothing to do with homosexuality—just as when the Bible itself interprets the story of Sodom, it has little or nothing to do with homosexuality. (Once again, see “What is the Sin of Sodom?”)
Swedenborg’s comments on the laws in Leviticus 18–20
A second set of passages in Swedenborg’s Bible commentaries that are pointed to by conservative Swedenborgians to support their belief that homosexuality is evil and adulterous according to Swedenborg are some scattered statements about the sexual liaisons that are forbidden in the lists in Leviticus 18–20, which include the prohibition against men having sex with men. Here are two examples, from a traditional translation of Swedenborg’s works:
The various kinds of adulteries and whoredoms (such as are enumerated in Leviticus 18:6-30), signify the various kinds of adulterations and falsifications of good and truth. (Apocalypse Explained #410:11)
All adulteries (of which many kinds are enumerated in Lev. 18:6-23) correspond to the adulterations of good and truth. (Apocalypse Explained #434:16)
When Swedenborg uses the words “signify” and “correspond,” he is referring to the spiritual meaning and symbolism of the Bible verses.
Swedenborg never specifically explains the prohibitions on men having sex with men in Leviticus 18:22 and Leviticus 20:13. However, they are covered by blanket statements such as the two above that class them along with the other “adulteries” in those lists in Leviticus, and as symbolizing spiritual adultery and falsification of good and truth.
We won’t get into what that means here. It would take too long to explain, and it’s not necessary for this discussion.
What we do have to understand is that when Swedenborg interprets the spiritual meaning of the Bible:
- Sometimes the meaning is based on broad, universal meanings, such as warmth symbolizing love.
- Other times, the meaning is based on how something functions within that particular society rather than on universal meanings.
In the case of the various sexual liaisons prohibited in Leviticus 18 and 20, Swedenborg refers to them as “adulteries” (in a broad sense of the word) because that is how they were viewed in the culture in which that book of the Bible was written. Since they are presented as forbidden and adulterous in the Bible, their spiritual meaning is also based on that view of them.
While some of the forbidden actions in those chapters are still considered immoral and wrong, others are no longer seen as wrong in today’s culture. For more on this, see the companion article, “Homosexuality, the Bible, and Christianity.”
For more on the principle that the Bible is written using the particular beliefs, customs, and practices of the cultures in which it was composed, see the article, “How God Speaks in the Bible to Us Boneheads.” For now, I’ll give one example mentioned in that article of how something can have a bad meaning because of the culture in which it was written:
In ancient Hebrew society, dragons were considered evil creatures.
But in Chinese society, dragons are seen as powerful symbols of good.
Do Chinese readers of the Bible have to change their view of dragons, and consider them evil creatures because they are used as a symbol of the Devil, Satan, and evil in the Bible?
Of course not.
They just have to realize that the ancient Hebrews thought of dragons as evil, and make the mental adjustment.
In the same way, just because the ancient Hebrews thought of homosexuality as evil, so that it symbolizes some particular kind of spiritual evil when it occurs in the Bible, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is actually evil and condemned by God.
Swedenborg’s descriptions of homosexual activities
In Swedenborg’s unpublished journals of his spiritual experiences, there are a few descriptions of homosexual activities that Swedenborg clearly does not approve of.
The most extensive of these occurs in his multi-volume journal Spiritual Experiences, #3895–3900. His heading for this journal entry is, “About extremely lewd girls.”
It’s too long to quote here, so I’ll just mention a few of the most salient parts. These “extremely lewd girls” (really young women) say that “they wanted to have nothing to do with men . . . but that they had lived among themselves without men.” In the course of the narration, they look for a place where they can be alone together, finally retreating “to the ends of the universe.” Once they get there, and make sure that there are no men present (apparently they were unaware that they were being watched), they agree that they can begin on their extremely lewd activities. “But,” Swedenborg says, “their obscenities were not shown to me, except a woman dressed like a man, then delighting themselves with abominably lewd practices.” He goes on to say that “once they have become captivated by such an extremely foul enjoyment, they then care nothing for, but rather loathe men, and thus the natural modes of conjunction.” This leads inevitably to the destruction of marriage love, and some of them “become the vilest prostitutes.”
What were these women doing?
The imagination runs wild!
Alas! Swedenborg gives us no clear picture of the nature of their lewdness except that there is some cross-dressing involved, and there are no men present.
Does this passage represent Swedenborg’s spiritual characterization of lesbianism?
Perhaps. As I said earlier, being an 18th century Christian, Swedenborg probably took a dim view of homosexuality, whether gay or lesbian.
However, his heading is not “about lesbians,” but “about extremely lewd girls.” And though Swedenborg readers who believe that homosexuality is evil tend to focus on the woman-on-woman nature of the activities, it would make more sense to focus on the lewd nature of the activities.
For one thing, these activities apparently included a large group of women all being lewd together. And Swedenborg would condemn any sort of group sex, heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual. He is very clear that true marriage love can occur only between two people, not with multiple partners.
The most we can say based on this passage in Swedenborg, then, is that if a whole bunch of lesbians get together for an orgy, that is not a good thing. Then again, if a whole bunch of straight women and men get together for an orgy, that is also not a good thing.
This passage says nothing about committed, faithful, monogamous lesbian or gay relationships. The fact that lesbians can be just as jaded and immoral as straight women and men can be does not mean that all lesbians are jaded and immoral, any more than the fact that some straight women and men are jaded and immoral means that all heterosexuals are jaded and immoral.
There are a few other passages in Swedenborg’s unpublished works that apparently refer to evil and immoral homosexual activity. However, the same principle applies to them as to the above passage about “extremely lewd girls.” Just because there are homosexuals that engage in highly promiscuous and debauched sexual behavior, that doesn’t mean all homosexuality is evil and immoral. After all, there are also heterosexuals who engage in highly promiscuous and debauched sexual behavior—and nobody claims that this means all heterosexual relationships are evil.
Swedenborg’s statement that marriage can exist only between one man and one woman
There is one more type of statement in Swedenborg that must be considered. And though it says nothing directly about homosexuality, it gets to what is perhaps the most fundamental objection to homosexuality among Christians, encapsulated in the fundamentalist slogan, “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.”
Here is Swedenborg’s view of heterosexual love based on God’s creation of man and woman for each other:
The principle of marriage of one husband and one wife is the jewel of human life and a treasure-house of Christian religion. (Marriage Love #457)
The union of souls is impossible except in monogamous marriages, that is, between one man and one woman. (Marriage Love #482)
These are just two of many places where Swedenborg says that true, spiritual, eternal marriage is possible only between one man and one woman.
Does this exclude homosexual marriages, as Christian and Swedenborgian opponents of homosexuality believe?
Perhaps. It really is a difficult question. God certainly does seem to have created man and woman to go together. From that perspective, homosexual relationships don’t seem to fit into the scheme of things.
However, context is important. When Swedenborg insists on marriage between one man and one woman, he is arguing against polygamy, not against homosexuality. For example, in Marriage Love #482 he goes on to say:
The union of souls is impossible except in monogamous marriages, that is, between one man and one woman; it is impossible in polygamous marriages, that is, between one man and several women, because in this case love is divided, and in the other case united.
Marriage Love simply doesn’t deal with homosexuality. It doesn’t mention it, and it doesn’t say whether it is good or bad. The entire book deals with heterosexual relationships. And Swedenborg insists that only monogamous relationships are, or can be, Christian and spiritual.
Whether we also interpret his “one husband with one wife” as excluding homosexuality seems to depend on whether we think of homosexuality as something that is contrary to the will of God or something that is according to the will of God—or at least allowable under God’s providence.
This article covers the major arguments and passages from Swedenborg’s writings that appear in doctrinal papers against homosexuality written by conservative Swedenborgians.
Such arguments, in my view, are based more on an already existing cultural and religious rejection of homosexuality than they are on anything Swedenborg might have said on the subject. What Swedenborg did write about homosexuality is so scant and so ambiguous that no solid argument can be made against homosexuality based on it.
About the most we can say based on Swedenborg’s few and scattered statements is that while Swedenborg himself probably shared in the opposition to homosexuality that was common in his day and culture, it was not an important enough issue in his mind for him to make any clear and unambiguous statements about it.
Swedenborg’s general teachings about marriage, though, do have great relevance to the subject of same-sex marriage. The principles he outlines about heterosexual marriage and its benefits can be applied in the present day to faithful, monogamous same-sex marriages as well.
We’ll take up that subject in the later sections of the companion article, “Homosexuality, the Bible, and Christianity.”
For further reading: