(Note: This post is an edited version of a paper written for an academic program at the University of Pretoria in South Africa. References for some quotations have been left in condensed academic format. For full publication information, see the bibliography at the end.)
As the Africans surpass all others in interior judgment, I have talked with them on matters requiring rather deep consideration, and recently on God, on the Lord the Redeemer, and on the interior and exterior man; and since they derived great pleasure from that conversation, I will here mention what their perceptions were from their interior sight on these three subjects. (Emanuel Swedenborg, True Christian Religion §837)
On hearing these things the Africans, because they are superior in interior rationality, perceived them more fully than the others, and each assented to them according to his perception. (True Christian Religion §838)
The Africans were delighted with what was said, because from the interior vision in which they excel, they acknowledged its truth. (True Christian Religion §839)
These were some of the words that sealed the deal for the Rev. David W. Mooki.
Here is the story, as told by the Rev. James F. Buss, a British New Church (Swedenborgian) minister who was resident in South Africa for some years during this period:
On a certain summer day in the month of December in the year mentioned—1909—our Mooki, in one of his walks abroad, saw some second-hand books exposed for sale in a shop in the main town of Krugersdorp; and, on turning them over, his eye caught the title, “The True Christian Religion: Swedenborg.” Turning its pages, his interest was awakened further, and he felt that he must get this book; so, without, of course, the remotest idea of its real character and significance, he bought it and took it away with him. With the diligence and thoroughness that are characteristic of the man, he read this formidable volume of 816 pages through in a very short time, and to such purpose that, when he reached the end, he found himself so powerfully convinced that the Lord Jesus Christ had made his Second Advent in the manner there explained, that he felt equally sure that the “New Church,” of which the book also told him, must be in existence somewhere in the world. He was also profoundly impressed by what he read in the “Supplement” of this book, about the Africans in the Spiritual World and the peculiar genius by which they are distinguished from all other races even on earth. From this he drew the conclusion that the “New Church” type of Christianity was pre-eminently the one for the African people. (The Romantic Story of the South African Mission, by James F. Buss, p. 11)
Two years later, on January 24, 1911, Mooki and several fellow ministers from the African Catholic Mission Church in which they had been serving broke off from that church and founded the organization that would become the New Church of Southern Africa (NCSA). During its heyday in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, under the leadership of Mooki’s son, the Rev. Obed S.D. Mooki, the NCSA would become by far the largest Swedenborgian ecclesiastical body in the world. This story is told much more fully in A History of the New Church in Southern Africa 1909–1991, by Jean Evans. For a brief account, see “A Journey to South Africa,” by Annette Woofenden, in The Messenger, June 2020, p. 76–78 (the link is to a PDF of that issue).
Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772) was a Swedish scientist, philosopher, and theologian. Today he is best known for the thirty-odd volumes of his theological works, containing extensive commentary on the spiritual meanings he saw in the Bible, a dissenting Christian theology, and first-hand accounts of travels and experiences that, he said, took place in the spiritual world during the last three decades of his long life.
The African character, according to Swedenborg
Naturally, Swedenborg’s encounters with Africans were seen through the eyes and culture of an eighteenth-century European intellectual. However, it was in the spiritual world, Swedenborg said, that he met and conversed with Africans. During his lifetime on earth, “it is possible that he encountered Africans at one point or another during his travels, although there is no record of it” (“A Love Affair with Africa,” by Andrew M.T. Dibb, p. 3).
It seems likely that Swedenborg did see Africans during his earthly life. There were very few black slaves in his native Sweden. However, Swedenborg spent a number of years in London, where black slaves were more common. During his lifetime, Great Britain had not yet taken the lead in abolishing slavery throughout its empire, ultimately cutting off the Atlantic slave trade altogether.
What is remarkable about Swedenborg’s reported spiritual-world contact with Africans is that in stark contrast to the reigning negative European view of Africans as brutish barbarians, Swedenborg held a very high opinion of their character. “Africans are especially valued in heaven,” he wrote. “They accept the good and true things of heaven more readily than others do” (Heaven and Hell §326). Stories of Africans’ spiritual insight and prowess are salted here and there throughout Swedenborg’s voluminous theological works.
Swedenborg’s Africans do not conform to the romanticized European stereotype of the “noble savage.” Yes, he did also comment on the negative side of African character, mostly in the personal diaries in which he recorded his spiritual experiences. But in the main, the Africans he met in the spiritual world came across as more rational, enlightened, and spiritual than the people of Swedenborg’s own European culture.
The spiritual insight of the Africans Swedenborg met was not based on the cold intellectualism common in European theological and philosophical discourse. Africans, he said, “are of a heavenly nature” (Spiritual Experiences §4783:2). In Swedenborg’s use of the term in this context, “heavenly” means, in contemporary language, heart-centered. This is in contrast to the “spiritual,” or head-centered nature he ascribed to Europeans (see Spiritual Experiences §5518).
Precisely because these angels are heart-centered rather than head-centered, they are the wisest and most beloved of the angels. They understand from the heart deeper heavenly and spiritual wisdom than head-centered people can grasp.
Of course, Africans are not the only heart-centered people. People of other races and nations, including Europeans, can also be heart-centered. And it should be said that not all Africans are necessarily heart-centered. Swedenborg’s descriptions of the character of various races and nations are clearly generalizations. But one gets the distinct impression that in Swedenborg’s version of heaven, Africans make up an outsized proportion of the residents of its “heavenly kingdom.”
A special revelation in Africa?
In the account of Africans in True Christian Religion that impressed the elder Mooki so much, Swedenborg makes one statement that has proved tantalizing and elusive for Swedenborgians ever since. Here it is, in a more contemporary translation:
Since Africans are this way, a revelation is occurring among them today. It began in one place and then spread outward from there, but it has not yet reached the sea coasts. . . . I have heard angels rejoicing about the revelation among Africans that I just mentioned. (True Christianity §840)
In Supplements on the Last Judgment and the Spiritual World §76, he gets even more specific about just what was being revealed in Africa in his day:
I have been informed by a heavenly source that angelic spirits are communicating to the inhabitants of that region what it says in Teachings for the New Jerusalem on the Lord, [Teachings for the New Jerusalem] on the Word, and Teachings about Life for the New Jerusalem, which have just been published.
The titles listed here are three of the other small works that Swedenborg published in 1763, which cover some of the key doctrines of his theology. In other words, he is saying that the very same things he, Swedenborg, is revealing from heaven in Europe are simultaneously being revealed by direct revelation to the people in the central part of Africa. In Spiritual Experiences §4777, he goes into more detail about where in Africa this revelation is taking place, including this surprising statement:
The angels consequently rejoiced that the Lord’s coming was now imminent, that the Church, which is now dying out in Europe, is being established in Africa and that this is being done by the Lord alone through revelations and not through missionaries sent out from Christians. They were also warned that they should not accept any doctrine from Christian missionaries. They should certainly listen to them, but not believe them. On which account too, the heavenly doctrine is not being made known to those near the coast, because Christians who bring in offenses come there, for they are at the forefront of all who believe nothing and who live impiously.
(This was written before quinine and other “wonder drugs” made it possible for Europeans to travel to the interior of Africa without swiftly succumbing to diseases endemic in Africa, against which they had no defense or immunity.)
All of this sounds very exciting and romantic. However, though a few accounts published in the early 1800s seemed to corroborate some elements of Swedenborg’s report, despite much searching, no solid evidence was ever found of any such Christian and Swedenborgian revelation into the heart of Africa. (For a discussion, see Dibb 2019, p. 12–19; see also Christison 2007, p. 19–21, 65–71.)
As far as we can tell, no new church of a Swedenborgian Christian type was established in the interior of Africa in the late eighteenth century based on direct revelation to Africans. Or if it ever was, by the time significant numbers of Europeans made it to the central regions of Africa later in the nineteenth century, no trace of it remained. Swedenborg’s vision of a new Christianity being established in Africa, outside the Christian world, in a way that reflects the establishment of the original Christian church in pagan lands, outside of Judaism, seems not to have taken place in the manner he expected.
Fortunately, the branch of Swedenborgians from which I come feels no need to believe that Swedenborg was inerrant. Swedenborg may have been a particularly enlightened soul, but he was just as capable of making mistakes as the next person. I am content to believe that his idea that a special revelation of the same doctrines he was presenting in his theological works was taking place in the heart of Africa was one of these mistakes. Angels also, in Swedenborg’s view, do not have God-like omniscience. Just like humans on earth, they are always learning and growing. They, too, can be mistaken in some areas—and this seems to have been one of those areas for them as well.
Historically, African Christianity did develop as a result of white missionaries from Europe, and later from North America, preaching and teaching their version of Christianity to Africans, and making converts. In North America, slaves from Africa were converted to Christianity by their white masters.
And yet, the Christianity that the African slaves in America adopted was not the same as the Christianity that their white masters sought to impose upon them. In The Cross and the Lynching Tree, seminal American Black Liberation Theologian James H. Cone writes:
Cut off from their African religious traditions, black slaves were left trying to carve out a religious meaning for their lives with white Christianity as their only resource to work with. They ignored white theology, which did not affirm their humanity, and went straight to stories in the Bible, interpreting them as stories of God siding with little people just like them. They identified God’s liberation of the poor as the central message of the Bible, and they communicated this message in their songs and sermons. (The Cross and the Lynching Tree, p. 118)
Perhaps these transplanted Africans did not receive direct revelation from God. But, never having heard of Swedenborg, they did on their own exactly what he had recommended: they listened to their white Christian masters, but they did not believe them. Instead, they went directly to the Bible. Based on the stories and teachings they found there, they formed their own version of Christianity that spoke to their own situation and experience.
If, as Swedenborg taught, the Lord speaks to people of good heart through the pages of the Bible, then indeed, God was revealing true Christianity to these displaced and oppressed Africans.
Fast forward to the late twentieth century, two centuries after Swedenborg said his piece about Africans receiving direct enlightenment, and we find Black Liberation Theologians and figures in the Black Consciousness movement similarly sidelining the faulty Christianity of Europeans, and building their own more authentic Christianity based directly on the Bible as seen through African eyes and culture.
Perhaps Swedenborg’s vision of revelations from the Lord leading to a new African Christianity were simply off by a century or two. Perhaps what he thought was happening in the late eighteenth century began happening instead in nineteenth and twentieth century America and in twentieth century Africa. Perhaps instead of happening by direct revelation, it happened through the pages of the Word of God.
The political side
Before getting into the dialog itself, a word about the political side of Black Consciousness and Black Liberation Theology. It is well-known that the leading figures in these movements lean heavily to the left politically. However, politics will be excluded from this dialog.
Because the political views of the Black Consciousness leaders and Black Liberation Theologians are largely imported from nineteenth-century European philosophers such as Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, and from Western universities and political figures.
This dialog is with the spiritual thinking that intellectual leaders in Black Liberation Theology and the Black Consciousness movement have themselves contributed to the world of ideas, not with the materialist political perspective that many of them adopted from Western intellectuals during and after the colonization of Africa by Europe.
But isn’t Christianity a white religion? Doesn’t adopting Christianity bring Africans under the intellectual thrall of Europe? Isn’t Christianity inherently inauthentic for Africans?
So some have argued.
It is true that Christianity had become a largely European religion before its great spread to other continents in the past few centuries. However, Christianity is not European in origin. In Biblical terms, Jesus descended, not from Japheth, the mythic father of the Indo-European peoples, nor from Ham, the father of the African peoples, but from Shem, the father of the Semitic peoples. In present-day ethnographic terms, Jesus was not European or even African, but Middle Eastern. In plain language, Jesus was not white.
In contrast to their adoption of political philosophies from Marx, Engels, and other European thinkers, when Africans look to the Bible for their theology, they are not drawing upon a European text. It was precisely in bypassing the attitudes and approaches of “white” or European Christianity that the intellectual leaders of these African movements developed their own form of Christianity. Yes, most of them retained elements of European Christian doctrine in their theologies. However, this dialog is specifically with the spiritual ideas that Black Liberation theologians and Black Consciousness leaders themselves drew from the Bible as they read and interpreted it through the eyes of their own African culture and experience.
If, as Swedenborg believed, God has revealed spiritual truth directly to Africans, this is the truth with which I am interested in dialoging from a Swedenborgian perspective. I do believe that in contrast to European Christianity, the spiritual understanding of these African thinkers is a great advance toward the true Christianity that is taught and exemplified in the Bible, and by Jesus Christ himself.
I believe this is the same genuine Christianity that Emanuel Swedenborg sought to revive and develop in rebellion against the corrupted European Christianity in which he was raised.
This, then, is my dialog as a Swedenborgian with Black Consciousness and Black Liberation Theology.
The dialog begins
To keep the dialog within some bounds, it will be limited to four key elements on which there are clear commonalities between Swedenborg’s theology and that of Black Consciousness and Black Liberation Theology. In long form, these elements are:
- It is up to Africans to perceive, define, adopt, and practice their own form of Christianity.
- Human liberation, also known as freedom, is an essential foundation for spiritual life.
- Religion is not about mere belief. It is about actively living according to one’s beliefs.
- Christian life is not solitary. It must be embedded in the life of the human community.
Swedenborgian Christianity and Black Christianity are not identical. I am not arguing that Black Consciousness and Black Liberation Theology are the new Christianity that Swedenborg envisioned.
However, through my current reading in these Black theologies, I have come to believe that they are part of that new Christianity, or perhaps are that new Christianity in part. After all, Swedenborg saw the Church, not as an institution, but as a spiritual fabric of perception and life that weaves across all the boundaries of human nations, cultures, churches, and institutions. (For Swedenborg’s definition of “the Church” in this broad sense, see Heaven and Hell §308 and Divine Providence §325.)
1. Africans can make their own Christianity
Blacks are out to completely transform the system and to make of it what they wish. —Steve Biko (I Write What I Like, p. 49)
Steve Biko (1946–1977) is widely regarded as “the father of Black Consciousness.” During Apartheid times in South Africa, he sought to extricate black people from the inferiority complex foisted upon them by their white oppressors, and set them up on their own two feet:
Black Consciousness . . . seeks to demonstrate the lie that black is an aberration from the “normal” which is white. It is a manifestation of a new realisation that by seeking to run away from themselves and to emulate the white man, blacks are insulting the intelligence of whoever created them black. Black Consciousness therefore, takes cognizance of the deliberateness of God’s plan in creating black people black. It seeks to infuse the black community with a new-found pride in themselves, their efforts, their value systems, their culture, their religion and their outlook to life. (I Write What I Like, p. 49)
Swedenborg’s parallel high opinion of Africans has already been discussed above.
To illustrate it further, in Love in Marriage §103–114, Swedenborg provides a lengthy report on a symposium held in the spiritual world in which representatives from nine European nations—France, Holland, Italy, England, Poland, Germany, Spain, Denmark, and Sweden—are called together to “explain the secret source of married love and its virtue, or potency” (Love in Marriage §103). Each group proceeds to do this, embellishing their grand pronouncements with many rhetorical flourishes along the way.
After all the Europeans have had their say, a group of Africans emerges from behind a partition where they have been standing up to this point. One of them steps forward to express his opinion on the subject at hand. Then comes the grand finale:
Everyone stood up after these statements. And behind the gold table with the tiara on it a window was made—one we had not noticed before! Through it we heard a voice, “The tiara goes to the African.” The angel placed it in the African’s hand, not on his head, and he went home with it. The natives of the European countries went out, got in their chariots, and returned to their own people in them. (Love in Marriage §114)
Even in a European milieu, Swedenborg’s Africans are quite capable of asserting themselves and standing squarely on their own two feet!
Swedenborg’s view of Africans as fully competent and capable people in their own right was likely one of the things that impressed David Mooki so much in 1909.
Mooki was not the only South African person of color to appreciate Swedenborg’s view of Africans as capable of discerning and building their own theology and church.
Robert Grendon (1867–1949) was born in Namibia, the son of an Irish father and a Herero mother. He had a distinguished but highly controversial career in South Africa as an intellectual, poet, pedagogue, journalist, and polemicist (see Mokoatsi 2015). Privately, he was also an ardent Swedenborgian. It was likely Grendon who wrote these words under the pseudonym “Quiz” in a letter published on 20 December, 1918, in the South African newspaper Ilanga lase Natal:
Whatever the theology may be that we shall adopt in the future, it will have to bear the test of exact logic, or otherwise it will not suit the African mind. Consequently we shall do well to go at once on to the road that we mean to travel by. The confusion of thought which Missionaries have brought cannot appeal to the clear-minded and patriotic Africans. (quoted in African Jerusalem: The Vision of Robert Grendon, by Grant Christison, p. 98)
This is a clear echo of Swedenborg’s warning, mentioned earlier, that Africans should indeed listen to European missionaries, but should not believe them.
Referring to Grendon and several fellow Swedenborgians who wrote many columns and letters for Ilanga during this period, Grant Christison writes:
A prominent feature of the message conveyed by Ilanga’s Swedenborgians is that Christianity is not represented solely in its European strain. There is a manifestation of Christianity that is distinctly African, and an African Church that is about to make its debut appearance on the world stage. (African Jerusalem, p. 95)
And more starkly:
Swedenborg states that ‘at the present day the heathen come into heaven with less difficulty than Christians’ [Heaven and Hell §324.]. The individual African must therefore reject the Old Church as a spent force, of no value to Africa. This is a precondition for his receipt of the New Church, where alone exists ‘True Christianity’. Tasisela goes so far as to persuade ‘Makosi’—his fictive interlocutor and disciple—that ‘there are no Christian Nations’, and that ‘a sprinkling of pious persons [do not] make a Christian nation’. The Old Church is not to be trusted, because it is a weapon in the hands of those in power: ‘The minds of the underlings, the rich hold, must be kept in a state of subserviency, and popular religions are made to be tools to serve the acquirement of riches by the privileged few.’ (African Jerusalem, p. 98–99)
“Tasisela” was likely a pseudonym for Harold Attersoll (1849–1922), a maverick Swedenborgian who was a member of the English Durban Society of the New Church (Swedenborgian), but who had strong ties with the African Swedenborgian community (see African Jerusalem, p. 16–17, 94–95 footnote 5, 535–536, 584).
Half a century before Biko issued his powerful call to Blacks to take pride in themselves and construct their own world based on their own mind and culture, South African Swedenborgians—black, mixed-race, and white—were issuing a similar call for Africans to build their own form of Christianity distinct from, and even in defiance of, European Christianity.
I hasten to add that the institutional New Church (Swedenborgian) in its various branches worldwide had no such clear stance on freedom and independence for Blacks in Africa and elsewhere in the world. It was largely non-institutional Swedenborgians who fought the good fight on these issues. See Barber 2019 and Lawrence 2019.
2. Liberation is an essential foundation for spiritual life
Liberation therefore, is of paramount importance in the concept of Black Consciousness, for we cannot be conscious of ourselves and yet remain in bondage. We want to attain the envisioned self which is a free self. —Steve Biko (I Write What I Like, p. 49)
We now come to the virtue that gives Liberation Theology its name: human freedom.
On the political side, freedom is the absence of slavery or servitude to other humans. Whether or not Marxism and socialism have in practice provided greater freedom to the people living in nations under their sway, their rhetoric of freedom from imperialism and capitalism is a driving force behind Liberation Theology. A rhetoric of freedom is found in right-wing political philosophies as well.
This suggests that freedom, or liberty, is a universal aspiration of humans and human cultures. Indeed, Buti Tlhagale, the first black Catholic Archbishop in South Africa and an ardent Black Liberation Theologian, wrote:
Men and women aspire to be masters of their own world, their own environment, freed from the servitude imposed by others. Men also seek to be freed from the power of fate. They seek to be free psychologically. These three levels of freedom, man’s relationship to God, others and the world, are reciprocally intertwined. (Tlhagale 1991, p. 61)
Swedenborg makes a similar connection between political freedom and spiritual freedom.
Swedenborg was very engaged in the politics of Sweden, his native country. In 1719, when he was in his early thirties, Ulrika Eleonora, the newly crowned Queen of Sweden, ennobled Swedenborg’s family as part of a move to solidify her political support. As the eldest surviving son in his generation, Swedenborg took a seat in the House of Nobles, one of four houses of the Swedish Parliament. He remained active in this body for the rest of his life, taking his seat whenever he was in Sweden during its proceedings. (See A Scientist Explores Spirit, by George F. Dole and Robert H. Kirven, p. 23–24.)
It is therefore somewhat surprising that politics is almost entirely absent from Swedenborg’s theological works. These works focus heavily on Bible interpretation, theology, moral and spiritual life, and the nature of the spiritual world.
But there is an exception when it comes to freedom. In his ranking of the nations of Europe, the top spot was held by England, precisely due to the personal and religious freedom that its citizens enjoyed. Holland ran a close second. It is no coincidence that all of Swedenborg’s theological works were published either in London or in Amsterdam. These were the only two European nations in which freedom of the press had been established such that he could publish these heterodox works without their being suppressed by the censors. Of the English he wrote:
The better individuals among the British people are at the center of all Christians . . . . This is because they have a profound intellectual light. This trait of theirs is not noticeable to anyone in the earthly world but it is obvious in the spiritual world. They owe this light to their freedom of thought and consequent freedom of speech and writing. (Among other peoples who have no such freedoms, the intellectual light is smothered because it has no outlet.) (Supplements on the Last Judgment and the Spiritual World §40)
Swedenborg prized political freedom not only for its own sake, but because it provides the foundation for spiritual freedom. And spiritual freedom, he said, is necessary for reformation and “regeneration,” or in Jesus’ terminology, being born again (see John 3:1–8):
No one is reformed in states where freedom and rationality are absent. I have already explained [§§78–81] that nothing becomes part of us except what we do in freedom and in accord with reason. This is because freedom is a matter of our will and reason is a matter of our understanding. When we do something in freedom and in accord with reason, then we do it of our own will by means of our own understanding, and whatever is done by these two united becomes part of us. (Divine Providence §138)
This understanding was the driving force behind pioneering Swedenborgian abolitionists Carl Bernhard Wadström (1746–1799) and August Nordenskjöld (1754–1792). In their 1789 prospectus Plan for a Free Community upon the Coast of Africa under the Protection of Great Britain they wrote, “To what purpose is Spiritual Liberty without Civil Liberty?” (quoted in African Jerusalem, p. 64). Slavery, in their view, was incompatible with the spiritual freedom God gives to human beings as an essential prerequisite for their pathway toward eternal life. Being Swedenborgians, they saw Africans as fully, if not preeminently, human.
Over a century later, Robert Grendon took this as the basis for his sharp opposition to white people imposing their will on black people:
Grendon also upbraids the white instigators behind Durban’s Native Reform Association for working according to the false premise that the ‘purification of the black man’ may be achieved by imposing their will externally upon his. The ‘project of the Reform League is doomed to failure, for no reform can be effected by either fear or dread, since these faculties do not constitute a part of the internal man’—or, the ‘volitional centre’, as Quiz describes it. (African Jerusalem, p. 109–110)
From a Swedenborgian perspective, human betterment cannot be imposed on people from the outside. It must come from within people who are living in a state of freedom, out of their own choice and free will.
Regardless of the particularities of their politics and theology, when the Black Consciousness Movement and Black Liberation Theologians press for freedom from political and economic repression for black people, from a Swedenborgian perspective they are working to establish a fundamental condition for the spiritual life and growth of one-fifth of God’s children on this earth.
3. Christianity is all about action
All religion has relation to life, and the life of religion is to do good. —Emanuel Swedenborg (Doctrine of Life §1)
This heading, which opens Swedenborg’s small work Doctrine of Life (in a traditional translation) has become a motto among Swedenborgians. Some background will serve to highlight its significance.
As an eighteenth-century Swede, Swedenborg grew up in the Swedish Lutheran Church. His father, Jesper Swedberg, was a prominent and outspoken Lutheran clergyman (see A Scientist Explores Spirit, p. 9–12). One would think this would incline Swedenborg toward Luther’s central tenet of justification by faith alone. However, old Swedberg was a Pietist. “He particularly stressed the conviction . . . that living a Christian life is more important than the more orthodox Lutheran virtue of doctrinal faith—‘brain faith,’ according to Jesper” (A Scientist Explores Spirit, p. 10).
Whether it was due to this influence or to Swedenborg’s own character as a man of practical action, during his theological period from the mid-1740s to the time of his death in 1772, Swedenborg was an implacable enemy of faith alone theology. Few heresies (as he saw them) of the old Christianity came in for sharper and more sustained criticism in his theological writings than this doctrine. The extent of his antagonism to it may be seen in his interpretation of these words in Revelation 12:3:
“Behold, a great, fiery red dragon.” This symbolizes people in the Protestant Reformed Church who make God three entities and the Lord two, and who divorce charity from faith, making faith saving and not at the same time charity. (Apocalypse Revealed §537)
For Swedenborg, the old Protestant doctrine that salvation is available only to believing Christians, and that their salvation is accomplished solely by their faith, and not at the same time by their “charity,” or good actions pursuant to that faith, was an anathema.
Buti Tlhagale, who is Catholic rather than Protestant, perhaps says it best when he speaks of the active nature of Liberation Theology, under the heading “Persons Defined by Action”:
The authenticity of Christians is only possible when they are actively engaged in eradicating structural injustice. . . . Involvement in emancipatory actions is an expression of the genuinely human. Liberation Theology maintains that genuine freedom acquires its growth and full meaning only in the liberation struggle. . . . The liberation struggle is the genuine space where human beings truly come to their own. (Tlhagale 1991, p. 58–59)
For Tlhagale, any Christian who is not engaged in active struggle against injustice is an inauthentic Christian. And is an inauthentic Christian truly saved?
Even within its Protestant wing, Liberation Theology focuses on action over mere belief. In his 2003 paper “The Functioning of the Bible in Protestant Mission,” Prof. J.N.J. “Klippies” Kritzinger distinguishes between the “conversionist (or evangelistic) and “liberationist (or activist)” approaches to Christianity (see Kritzinger 2003, p. 543–545).
As these descriptive names suggest, conversionist Christianity is all about saving souls—and souls are saved by getting people to believe in Jesus. The state of the world and its society and culture is a secondary consideration. Whether people are oppressors or oppressed, as long they are saved, they will enter a happy afterlife. Liberationist Christianity, by contrast, is all about action to bring freedom and justice to the oppressed, and to transform human society on this earth into a just society. It is not content to wait for justice and happiness in the afterlife. It seeks to achieve them in the here-and-now.
This focus on constructive action to make things better for our fellow humans in this world, rather than on an inauthentic salvation by mere belief in hopes of future reward in heaven, is in full harmony with Swedenborg’s teaching that faith and good works must be together for any salvation to occur. It is the same teaching that the Apostle James gave so memorably many centuries earlier:
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but does not have works? Surely that faith cannot save, can it? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. . . . You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. (James 2:14–17, 24)
Accordingly, Swedenborg says, faith alone will not bring us to heaven, but only a life in accordance with our faith. This is what remains when we enter eternity:
The fact that love in action, and therefore our life, is what remains follows logically from what I have presented from experience and what I have just said about deeds and works. Love in action is the work and the deed. (Heaven and Hell §483)
In working to lift the poor and downtrodden up from oppression to freedom and human dignity, those who are actively engaging in the Black Consciousness movement and Black Liberation Theology are doing the work of salvation here on earth. And if we do not do the work of salvation here on earth, there will be no salvation for us in heaven.
4. Christianity is embedded in community
“Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu.” —Zulu proverb. “A person is a person because of people.”
For a conversionist Christian, the critical issue is that each individual human being should be saved. For a liberationist Christian, salvation has no meaning if it does not happen within the human community.
From a pragmatic perspective, black people must work together as a group to achieve liberation. As Biko puts it:
The quintessence of [Black Consciousness] is the realisation by the blacks that, in order to feature well in this game of power politics, they have to use the concept of group power and to build a strong foundation for this. . . . The philosophy of Black Consciousness, therefore, expresses group pride and the determination by the blacks to rise and attain the envisaged self. (I Write What I Like, p. 68)
But Biko’s view of people embedded in community goes beyond strategy:
Ours is a true man-centred society whose sacred tradition is that of sharing. We must reject, as we have been doing, the individualistic cold approach to life that is the cornerstone of the Anglo-Boer culture. We must seek to restore to the black man the great importance we used to give to human relations, the high regard for people and their property and for life in general. (I Write What I Like, p. 96)
Biko’s fellow South African Simon S. Maimela, a Lutheran minister, university professor, and Liberation Theologian, further develops this perspective:
It is important to remember that, in real life, men and women are not simply “men” in general who as such are members of humanity in general. Rather, real human beings always exist concretely in particular communities, societies, and nations in which they hold certain positions, and in which they are accorded certain rights and are burdened by certain duties and obligations. It is within those social contexts that both the limits and possibilities for growth and self-realization find expression. (Maimela 1997, p. 5)
It is not just community in general, Maimela says, that shapes us as human beings, but the particular community in which we live. Individuals are shaped in specific ways by their specific social contexts. This is an integral part of being human.
In his letters, especially in 1 Corinthians 12, the Apostle Paul speaks of “the body of Christ,” and of our varying places within it. Each person relates to some part of the body, Paul suggests, and every part of the body is necessary for the whole function.
Many centuries later, Swedenborg picked up this theme and developed it into a full-blooded theory that he called “the Universal Human” (Latin: Maximus Homo, traditionally translated “the Grand Man.”) Functionally, Swedenborg said, smaller and larger communities of people, nations, and humanity as a whole reflect the order and organization of the human body.
Here is a vivid illustration of this concept offered by Brian Kingslake (1907–1995), a British Swedenborgian minister who served in the New Church of Southern Africa for twelve years in the 1950s and 1960s:
A municipal council is not in the human shape, but it can be in the human form. It has a head (the mayor); a mouth with teeth (the tax department); a nervous system (mail and telephones); white corpuscles (the police); kidneys (the judiciary); feet (the departments in the administration that get things moving); and so on. Every individual employee is a “cell” in the “body politic.” We need not go into too great a detail, but the point is made that any organization can (and at best, does) take upon itself the human form. (Inner Light, p. 88–89)
Swedenborg experienced heaven as made up of many communities of people:
The angels of any given heaven are not all together in one place, but are separated into larger and smaller communities depending on differences in the good effects of the love and faith they are engaged in. Angels engaged in similar activities form a single community. There is an infinite variety of good activities in heaven, and each individual angel is, so to speak, his or her own activity. (Heaven and Hell §41)
He devotes several chapters to explaining in detail his view of heaven as a whole reflecting the human form, and of each community of heaven reflecting the human form. Like Maimela, he insists that there is great variety in these communities:
We do need to realize that even though all the individuals in a community of heaven look like a single entity in human likeness when they are all together, still one community is not the same person as any other. They are differentiated like the faces of individuals of one lineage. The reason for this is the same as that given in §47 above, namely that they differ depending on the various good activities that they participate in and that give them their form. Those communities that are in the central or highest heaven and are at its center appear in the most perfect and lovely human form. (Heaven and Hell §70)
The parallel to African thought does not end there. Having covered the larger and smaller community as reflecting the human form, he then says, “Therefore every angel is in perfect form” (Heaven and Hell §73, emphasis added). In explaining his meaning, he writes:
It has been explained in the two preceding chapters that heaven as a whole reflects a single individual and that the same holds true for each community in heaven. From the chain of causes presented there, it follows that each single angel reflects the same as well. As heaven is a person in greatest form and a community of heaven is a person in lesser form, so an angel is a person in least form; for in the most perfect form, like the form of heaven, there is a likeness of the whole in the part and of the part in the whole. The reason for this is that heaven is a commonwealth. In fact, it shares everything it has with each individual, and individuals receive everything they have from the commonwealth. (Heaven and Hell §73)
Though it is stated in Western idioms, I can hardly imagine any European theologian coming closer to stating the African philosophy of ubuntu, which is encapsulated in the Zulu proverb that introduces this section: “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu”—“A person is a person because of people.”
An African New Jerusalem?
Once again, I am not arguing that Swedenborgian Christianity and Black Christianity are identical. Swedenborg, as a European, could not fully envision how the new Christianity he espoused would take shape in an African context.
And yet, perhaps these areas of striking similarity will go a long way toward explaining why David Mooki believed that “the ‘New Church’ type of Christianity was pre-eminently the one for the African people” (The Romantic Story of the South African Mission, p. 11), and went on to found a “New Church” in South Africa as a result.
Perhaps they explain why Robert Grendon, a South African of mixed European and African parentage, who was proud of both, was so drawn to Swedenborg’s writings, and spent so many years injecting Swedenborgian thought into the South African conversation through his polemics and his literary correspondence—without, however, identifying the source of his ideas.
For me, as a present-day Swedenborgian in dialog with Black Consciousness and Black Liberation Theology, these commonalities offer a tantalizing hope. Perhaps Swedenborg’s vision of human communities united in mutual love and service can indeed find their expression in Africa in a way that has so far proved elusive in his native European culture.
For further reading:
- Black Lives Matter
- Power Corrupts? Absolutely Not. Arrogance Corrupts Power.
- Antoinette Tuff and the Averted School Shooting: God’s Love in Action
- Is Racism Equal-Opportunity?
- Heaven, Regeneration, and the Meaning of Life on Earth
(Note: it is standard practice to refer to passages in Swedenborg’s works by section numbers, which are uniform across all editions, rather than by page numbers. Bracketed dates are the date of original publication of that work. This website may earn commissions from links to books on Amazon contained in this post and its bibliography.)
Barber, Christopher A. (2019) “200 Years and 100 Miles: Doctrine’s Failure to Settle the Slavery Debate in the New Church,” in New Church Life, September/October 2019 (MMXIX:5) [PDF], p. 416–446. Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania: General Church of the New Jerusalem
Biko, Steve (2005) I Write What I Like. Cambridge: ProQuest LLC
Buss, Rev. James F. (1924) The Romantic Story of the South African Mission. London: General Conference of the New Church
Christison, Grant (2007) African Jerusalem: The Vision of Robert Grendon. Doctoral thesis, University of Kwazulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg
Cone, James H. (2011) The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books
Dibb, Andrew M.T. (2019) “A Love Affair with Africa: 19th Century Swedenborgian Views of Africa.” Paper delivered at the American Society of Church History, Winter Meeting 2019, Chicago, IL
Dole, George F., and Robert H. Kirven (1992) A Scientist Explores Spirit: A Biography of Emanuel Swedenborg with Key Concepts of His Theology. West Chester, Pennsylvania: Swedenborg Foundation
Evans, Jean (2019 ) A History of the New Church in Southern Africa 1909–1991, and a Tribute to the Late Reverend Obed S.D. Mooki. Cheyenne, Wyoming: Spiritual Insight Services
Kingslake, Brian (2019) Inner Light: Swedenborg Explores the Spiritual Dimension. Cambridge, Massachusetts, J. Appleseed & Co.
Kritzinger, J.N.J. “Klippies” (2003) “The Functioning of the Bible in Protestant Mission” in Missionalia: Southern African Journal of Missionary Studies, 1 November 2003 (31:3). Stellenbosch, South Africa: Southern African Missiological Society
Lawrence, James F. (2019) “Slavery in the American Context: Wadström, Swedenborgians, and an Abolitionist Myth,” in The Moment Is Now: Carl Bernhard Wadström’s Revolutionary Voice on Human Trafficking and the Abolition of the African Slave Trade, Anders, Hallengren, Ed. West Chester, Pennsylvania: Swedenborg Foundation
Maimela, Simon S. (1997) “What is the Human Being from Biblical Perspective?” in Boleswa: Occasional Papers in Theology and Religion, 1:6, Jerome T. Walsh, Ed. Gaborone: University of Botswana
Mokoatsi, Thapelo (2015) “Robert Grendon,” in The Journalist, April 1, 2015 (http://www.thejournalist.org.za/pioneers/robert-grendon/)
Swedenborg, Emanuel (1950 ), William C. Dick, Tr. True Christian Religion. London: Swedenborg Society
_____ (1954 ), W.C. Dick, Tr. Doctrine of Life. London: Swedenborg Society
_____ (1992 ), David F. Gladish, Tr. Love in Marriage. West Chester, Pennsylvania: Swedenborg Foundation
_____ (1998–2013 [1747–1765]), J. Durban Odhner and Kurt Nemitz, Tr. Spiritual Experiences. Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania: General Church of the New Jerusalem
_____ (2000 ), George F. Dole, Tr. Heaven and Hell. West Chester, Pennsylvania: Swedenborg Foundation
_____ (2003 ), George Dole, Tr. Divine Providence. West Chester, Pennsylvania: Swedenborg Foundation
_____ (2006–2012 ), Jonathan S. Rose, Tr., True Christianity. West Chester, Pennsylvania: Swedenborg Foundation
_____ (2007–2010) N. Bruce Rogers, Tr. Apocalypse Revealed. Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania: General Church of the New Jerusalem
_____ (2020 ), George F. Dole, Tr. Supplements on the Last Judgment and the Spiritual World, in The Shorter Works of 1763. West Chester, Pennsylvania: Swedenborg Foundation
Tlhagale, Buti (1991) “The Anthropology of Liberation Theology” in Journal of Theology for Southern Africa, 76, 57–63
Woofenden, Annette (2020) “A Journey to South Africa” in The Messenger, 24:5, June 2020 [PDF], p. 76–78. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Swedenborgian Church of North America
What do you think?