What is the Relationship between Head and Heart in Swedenborg’s Theology?

According to the theology of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), the universe and everything in it is quite literally created from and built around the interplay between what is colloquially known as “head and heart,” or between love and wisdom, in the more abstract language that Swedenborg commonly uses.

This is the subject of Swedenborg’s great philosophical and cosmological work Divine Love and Wisdom, originally published in Latin, Amsterdam, 1763.

In this book, Swedenborg traces the creation of the universe to a divine “marriage” of love and wisdom in God. In God, Swedenborg says, love and wisdom are perfectly balanced. And though they can be distinguished conceptually in our minds, they are in fact inseparable from one another, and always operate together as one.

From this “divine marriage” flows all the power, or action, of God—and of course, all the words, or teachings, of God, which are part of God’s power flowing out. This power and truth of God flowing out is known in the Bible as “the Holy Spirit.”

So according to Swedenborg, God consists of:

  1. Love
  2. Wisdom
  3. Action

In Swedenborg’s theology, these three are the “Trinity” in the one Divine Person of God, when the Trinity is viewed in abstract terms.

So in their origin in God, “head” and “heart” are, in Swedenborg’s words, “distinguishably one” (see Divine Love and Wisdom #14, in which Swedenborg uses the name “the Divine-Human One” for God):

  • Love is the reality, substance, and soul of God.
  • Wisdom is the manifestation, form, and body of God.

So in God, there is no separation between head and heart. In fact, they can occur only together with one another, even if we are able to distinguish them conceptually in our minds. God’s head and heart always work together as one in perfect balance.

Because the entire created universe comes from God and is an expression of God, this “distinguishable oneness” of love and wisdom, or substance and form, exists throughout the created universe as well, including in human beings, where it is especially manifested in our will and understanding—once again colloquially known as “heart” and “head.”

However, in human beings, head and heart do not always work together. In fact, common experience tells us that our head and heart are often in conflict with one another.

In humans, head and heart can and do become separated

Unlike anywhere else in the universe, in humans head and heart can seem to be disjointed and separate from one another, so that we experience them as being in conflict with one another. In Divine Love and Wisdom #39, Swedenborg writes:

Even though love and wisdom seem to be two separate things in us [humans], essentially they are distinguishably one. This is because the quality of our love determines the quality of our wisdom and the quality of our wisdom the quality of our love. Any wisdom that is not united to our love seems like wisdom, but it is not; and any love that is not united to our wisdom seems like wisdom’s love even though it is not. Each gets its essence and its life from the other in mutual fashion.

The reason the wisdom and love within us seem to be two separate things is that our ability to understand can be raised into heaven’s light, while our ability to love cannot, except to the extent that we act according to our understanding. So any trace of apparent wisdom that is not united to our love for wisdom relapses into the love with which it is united. This may not be a love for wisdom, and may even be a love for insanity. We are perfectly capable of knowing, from our wisdom, that we ought to do one thing or another, and then of not doing it because we have no love for it.

In simpler language, unlike other animals, we humans are capable of dividing our head from our heart by understanding things that we do not love. As Swedenborg says, our understanding can be raised into heaven’s light even when we do not love what the light of heavenly truth is telling our mind. This is why, as Swedenborg says, “We are perfectly capable of knowing, from our wisdom, that we ought to do one thing or another, and then of not doing it because we have no love for it.”

Eventually, Swedenborg says, our mind will fall back down to the level of our heart. If we persistently do not love and do what our higher understanding instructs us to do, we will revert back to our lower desires—and this will determine our character and our real beliefs, whatever mask of outward civility and morality we may put on in public.

However, our ability to see and understand things that are higher, better, and more spiritual than what our error-prone heart desires, and what our lower self therefore thinks, gives us the ability to be reborn, or “regenerated,” and in this way saved from our fallen, evil, and (in Biblical terms) sinful state.

Without this capability to separate head from heart, there would be no check on our evil desires. We would rush into every kind of evil action with nothing to stop us, since our head would give full assent and assistance to whatever our heart desired.

Before the Flood, humans had no ability to separate head from heart

This, Swedenborg says, was precisely the state of humankind before the Great Flood narrated in Genesis 6-9. By that time, all of humanity except for Noah and his immediate family are described in this way:

The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. . . . Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence. God saw how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways. (Genesis 6:5, 11-12)

Swedenborg interprets this as speaking symbolically about a thoroughly corrupt culture of ancient humans, whose beliefs were completely falsified by the evil in their hearts. He says in Secrets of Heaven #560:

In specific regard to the people of the church before the Flood, they conceived appalling delusions as time passed. The goodness and truth that belong to faith they merged so thoroughly with their foul desires that almost no trace of either was left to them. When they reached this point, they virtually suffocated themselves.

As he explains in more detail in subsequent sections, the people of the various human cultures that existed before the Flood were unable to separate their mind from their heart, or their faith from their desires. Their evil desires caused their beliefs to become utterly false and corrupt as they used their falsified “faith” to justify the wicked and depraved actions that flowed from their evil and sinful hearts. Because of this, they snuffed out all of their spiritual life—a process that is symbolized by the Flood that killed all living beings on earth except those in the ark.

At the time of the Flood, God made a separation between the human head and heart for the sake of our salvation

In order to make it possible for fallen, sin-prone humans to be spiritually reborn, and in this way saved, at the time of the Flood God brought about a radical change in the human mind and spirit. This change is symbolized by the ark—and in particular by one highly significant detail of the ark’s construction:

So make yourself an ark of cypress wood; make rooms in it and coat it with pitch inside and out. (Genesis 6:14, italics added)

In explaining the meaning of the rooms in the ark, Swedenborg says:

The people of this church had to reform. The side of a person called the intellect had to reform first, before it was possible for the other side, referred to as the will, to do the same. So the present passage tells how the contents of the will were separated from those of the intellect and how they were concealed and stored away, so to speak, in order to block off any stimulus to the will. Had the appetites of the will been stirred up, it would have destroyed people. . . .

These two sides, the intellect and will, are as clearly distinguished in us as they could possibly be. (Secrets of Heaven #641, italics added)

In short, at the time of the Flood, God made a distinction and even a separation between the human will and understanding, or head and heart, in order to make it possible for us to be spiritually reformed and reborn. From that point onward our intellect would be able to take the lead, learn what is right and wrong, and impose it upon our will, thus reforming our will, which is our true heart, reality, and character as human beings.

We seem to do this reformation on our own, but in fact it is the Lord God working from within, giving us a new heart, or will, that pairs with the enlightened part of our intellect (which also comes from God) in order to correct our old will, or heart. This process is symbolized in these words from the Prophets:

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. (Ezekiel 36:25-27)

In Swedenborg’s interpretation of this passage (see, for example, Apocalypse Explained #587:14;True Christianity #143#601), the “clean water” is divine truth revealed by God to our thinking mind, and the “new heart” is the new will that God puts in us—a heart filled with love for God and for our fellow human beings—in place of our old corrupt and greedy “heart of stone.”

This process takes place throughout our lifetime on earth for those of us who are being spiritually reborn, or regenerated.

While this process is taking place, we humans have the ability to think one thing and desire another, so that there is a separation between our head and our heart. Our heart can desire one thing, while our head tells us something else, so that our head and heart are in conflict with one another.

However, when our process of spiritual rebirth is complete, our head and our heart, or our will and our understanding, will once again become united, so that our thoughts and beliefs are fully one with our motives and desires. If this reuniting of head and heart does not take place for us on earth, it will take place in the spiritual world after death, before we find our permanent home in either heaven or hell.

Rest from our labors

So if you find your head and your heart frequently at war with one another, don’t despair. This is a temporary situation while we are struggling through our process of spiritual rebirth here on earth. Keep fighting the good fight! And when you arrive at your eternal home in heaven, you will experience the oneness of head, heart, and hands that you long for.

That is the meaning of this beautiful promise in the book of Revelation:

And I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who from now on die in the Lord.” “Yes,” says the Spirit, “they will rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them.” (Revelation 14:13, italics added)

This does not mean that when we’re in heaven we’ll spend all day every day lounging on deck chairs sipping frosty drinks. I don’t know about you, but there’s only so much vacation I can take before I want to get going and get something accomplished!

No, the promised “rest from our labors” is not eternal idleness.

Instead, it is rest from the inner labor of continual struggle between our head and our heart, our beliefs and our desires.

In heaven, even when our life is whirlwind of activity, we will be at rest in our soul because our heart and our head will be working perfectly together, and flowing out into our actions with no conflict, no friction, and no second thoughts.

(Note: This article is an edited and expanded version of part of an answer I wrote and posted on Christianity StackExchange. You can see the original question on StackExchange here, and the StackExchange version of my answer here.)

For further reading:



Lee Woofenden is an ordained minister, writer, editor, translator, and teacher. He enjoys taking spiritual insights from the Bible and the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg and putting them into plain English as guides for everyday life.

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2 comments on “What is the Relationship between Head and Heart in Swedenborg’s Theology?
  1. Denn says:

    Hi, Lee
    Reading your article set me thinking about what sort of entity God really is. I know that he is a trinity, that he is a creator and in some way he is linked to the Messiah, but what does all that mean in practical terms?
    The gospels talk about people seeing God in the form of the Messiah; Moses asked to see God; Genesis one says that he made us in his image, both male and female, and the result was good; but what does that mean?
    In the second Creation Story, God made Adam from red clay. How does that work if we are made in God’s image?

    • Lee says:

      Hi Denn,

      Glad the article got you thinking! These are all very big questions, which I certainly can’t do justice to in these brief comments. However, there are a number of articles here that deal with various facets of your questions. A good place to start would be: Who is God? Who is Jesus Christ? What about that Holy Spirit? Then take a look at the articles linked at the end of that one.

      About God making Adam from red clay, that’s not the sort of statement that is meant to be taken literally. About as close to literal as it gets is that our bodies are, indeed, ultimately made from the soil, through the many plants an animals we consume for our sustenance, all of which go down through the chain of life to their basis and source in the soil.

      Here is the verse you’re referring to:

      Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. (Genesis 2:7)

      Though commentators often focus on the “dust of the ground” (“red clay,” as you’re calling it), there are actually two parts here to the creation of a human being: an outward, physical and earth-centered part represented by the dust of the ground, and an inner, spiritual and God-centered part represented by the breath of life breathed into the human’s nostrils by God, so that the human became a living being.

      In other words, the dust of the ground does not form the whole person, but only the outer person. Inwardly we are brought to life by the breath of God breathed into our nostrils. And that is what forms the “red clay” of our outer self into the image and likeness of God.

      Though in a superficial way we are physically human in the image and likeness of God, becoming truly an image and likeness of God as reborn, spiritual beings is a lifelong process. For more on this process, see: Heaven, Regeneration, and the Meaning of Life on Earth.

      I hope this helps!

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