“Things Heard and Seen”: Swedenborg, Netflix and Necromancy (Part I)

On April 29, Netflix released a brand new horror movie entitled “Things Heard and Seen”, starring oscar-nominee Amanda Seyfried (known from blockbusters such as Les Miserables, Mean Girls, and Mamma Mia!), written and directed by Shari Springer Berman and based on the novel All Things Cease to Appear by Elizabeth Brundage.

The film follows a college professor and his family, as they move into a new home in rural upstate New York, which is haunted by spirits, including a Swedenborgian ghost named Mrs. Smit, who had been murdered by her husband upon building the house.

The film begins with a quote from Swedenborg’s Spiritual Experiences §5685:

“This I can delare, that things that are in heaven are more real than things that are in the world”*

While it may seem like the stereotypical “haunted house” flick with the usual tropes, the film is unique in its explicit engagement with the mystical teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg, particularly as they relate to the afterlife and communication with spirits. The title itself is a reference to Swedenborg’s most popular published work, Heaven and Hell (1758), and its original full title Heaven and its Wonders and Hell, from Things Heard and Seen (“De Caelo et Eius Mirabilibus et de inferno, ex Auditis et Visis”), in which the Swedish sage describes his countless journeys to the spiritual world and encounters with the various beings residing there. 

Throughout the movie, uniquely Swedenborgian spiritual and metaphysical concepts are mentioned, and his life, work and followers are depicted, which make for a unique, fascinating, and entertaining, albeit often inaccurate engagement with his spiritual system.

Things Heard and Seen appears to already be the most popular and well-known film inspired by Swedenborg (aside from 1998’s What Dreams May Come, starring Robin Williams, which has a more more indirect connection), and offers an opportunity for contemporary pop culture to discover and explore “New Church” spirituality and the actual richness of insight it provides when portrayed and approached properly, beyond the dramatic, flashy and provocative imagery of the movie.

Rather than being a review of the film, this blog series is meant to shed light on its underlying Swedenborgian principles, and explore the connections between Swedenborg, the paranormal, and popular culture. 

HOW ACCURATE IS THE FILM IN ITS PORTRAYAL OF SWEDENBORGIANISM?

While the film does a decent job at hinting at several uniquely Swedenborgian metaphysical ideas, such as the constant presence and influence of spirits in our own inner lives, the notion that spirits are drawn to like-minded individuals, and a general sense of a benevolent overall spiritual and cosmological structure, both the notions of “hauntings” and the summoning or contacting of specific spirits of deceased people are not concepts which are emphasized in Swedenborgian spirituality, neither is the idea of people being “damned” or “bound” to specific physical locations, as the film insinuates. 

While there is certainly an openness towards, and interest in such phenomena as Near Death Experiences, Spiritualism, and practical mysticism, Swedenborgians are not known to hold seances seeking out communication with specific spirits. This may be by far the most notable inaccuracy of the film, and one that is bound to worry actual Swedenborgians, who have a long history of rightly attempting to distance themselves from the spooky, strange, and otherworldly aura popular culture has sometimes associated with the great mystic. 

DIDN’T SWEDENBORG TALK TO DEAD PEOPLE?

It is absolutely true that one of Swedenborg’s major claims, and sources for his writings, were his alleged conversations with “angels and spirits”, all of whom, he writes, used to be human beings who have deceased and are now living in the fullness of the spiritual world, which is intimately connected to our “natural” conscious state. Arguably, his mystical writings constitute the largest, most extensive record of communication with the dead known to scholars, making the Tibetan Book of the Dead and the Seth Material look pale in comparison as far as volume is concerned. 

At the same time, he presents his encounters as experiences and realms he was led to as part of an overall revelatory process about the nature of spirit, rather than a specific “seeking out” of particular entities, something that distinguishes him from other mediums and mystics. The objective, for Swedenborg, was not to learn earthly information from specific beings, but rather a holistic experience of the subtle realms of consciousness, which to him, are intimately connected to the spiritual world. 

One reason why Swedenborgians have not been known to practice channeling is Swedenborg’s explicit warnings about the matter, claiming that while communication with spirits is certainly possible, it is not advisable for most people, and likely to have problematic outcomes: 

“It is clear how dangerous it is on this planet, when spirits speak with people, or people listen to spirits operating in them, if they do not have faith in the Lord. If they have faith, it does no harm, for the Lord liberates them; but if they do not have faith . . . they are not only persuaded that it is the holy spirit [speaking], but are also aroused and incited toward wicked acts.”* 

-Spiritual Experiences  §3781

According to Swedenborg, the spirits with the greatest interest in such activities are exactly the ones that are better avoided…

It seems important to note, however that there are exceptions to Swedenborg’s general approach toward communicating with the spirits of deceased people, which is to focus on being led by the divine by means of connections with benevolent spirits, and inquiring about universal spiritual truths from both angels and demons, rather than invoking the presence of specific beings.

Perhaps the most famous example of explicit “Necromancy” (“the supposed practice of communicating with the dead”**, generally associated with an active and intentional seeking out or invocation of specific spirits) is his supposed encounter with Queen Louisa Ulrika of Sweden in 1761. As the story goes, Queen Louisa requested that Swedenborg contact her deceased brother, Prince Augustus, who had died in 1758, and to relay a private question to him. Swedenborg is said to have returned to her a few weeks later, providing the Queen with Augustus’ answer to the question, which she claimed could have only been known by her brother, confirming Swedenborg’s successful contact. 

Just a year earlier, Swedenborg had supposedly been asked by yet another lady of high status, the widow of a deceased French diplomat, to contact him regarding the location of an important receipt which had been missing, the location of which only her late husband would know. Upon Swedenborg’s inquiry in the spiritual world, he appeared to his widow in a dream, and informed her, accurately,  of the location of the document. 

While these anecdotes are often used as examples of Swedenborg’s “evidential mediumship” and prominently touted by his followers as confirmation of his supernatural abilities, they present a challenge to those who try to disassociate him from the practice of necromancy. Be that as it may, his message to the world about talking to specific deceased spiritual beings can be most easily summed up as “Better not to mess with it.”

There are other examples of Swedenborg seeking out and encountering the spirits of specific personalities, including in his published theological works, such as prominent philosophers and theologians, in the worlds beyond, although he maintains that “special permission” was granted to him in order to convey particular spiritual ideas and principles, and that generally, important popular figures are not inclined to be easily contacted by “mortals”, and are better left alone...

Next Week: “Part II – Swedenborg and Haunted Houses

* Swedenborg, Emanuel. Emanuel Swedenborg’s Journal of Dreams and Spiritual Experiences. Translated by C. Th Odhner. Bryn Athyn, PA: Academy Book Room, 1918. 


** Oxford English Dictionary. Accessed May 7, 2021. https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/necromancy

Rev. Thom Muller is pastor of Hillside, an Urban Sanctuary, in El Cerrito, California, as well as senior editor of Our Daily Bread. His passions include the intersection of spirituality and psychology, interfaith theology, and the Western esoteric tradition. He was ordained into the ministry of the Swedenborgian Church of North America in 2016, upon receiving his theological education at Bryn Athyn College of the New Church and the Center for Swedenborgian Studies / Pacific School of Religion at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA.

ODBLOG: “Zoom Out, Zoom In”

Rev. David Fekete contemplates botht he vastness and intimacy of he divine in this reflection…

Readings: Isaiah 40:21-31, Mark 1:29-39

God is above the universe, before the universe. God is cosmic. God made the billion galaxies with their billions of stars. And as Isaiah says,

He who brings out the starry host one by one

    and calls forth each of them by name.

Because of his great power and mighty strength,

    not one of them is missing. (Isaiah 40:21)

God made them all and God’s mind is infinite, so God knows how many stars there are and calls them all by their billions of billions of names. 

I have a friend who doesn’t believe in God. He doesn’t believe in God because the universe is much, much too big for any one Being to have made it and keep it in order. But God is omniscient. That means “all-knowing.” That means that God’s mind is infinite. And an infinite mind can make the universe with its billions of galaxies and billions of billions of stars and keep track of it all and keep it in order. That is what

infinity is like. We say the word infinite, and we don’t stop to think what it means. Infinite

means that the whole universe can be known, created, and kept in order by such a consciousness. It’s that big. And we could go sub-atomic, too. Zoom down into the atoms and sub-atomic particles and acknowledge that God knows each quark and neutrino by name and made them all and keeps them in order. This is the magnificent God in the clouds of glory where we often place God. God is this. But when we put God in the clouds of glory, God can become impersonal. God is also

intimate. God comes to each one of us in our hearts. God doesn’t only number the galaxies, stars, quarks, and neutrinos, God also numbers the hairs on our head. God doesn’t only know the stars by name, God knows us each by name. And God cares about us. God cares more than our mothers. Infinite applies here, too. God’s love for us is infinite. Here, we can say omnipresent. That means “all-present.” That means that God is present everywhere. Even cosmic Isaiah says,

Why do you complain, Jacob?

    Why do you say, Israel,

“My way is hidden from the LORD;

    my cause is disregarded by my God”?*

Our cause is not disregarded by our God. God knows our cause. God knows our needs. God knows our wants. God knows what will make us happy. And God gives us what will make us happy.

I don’t think enough attention is given to God’s intimacy. Of God’s omnipresence. Of

the God who sits next to Simon’s mother-in-law and holds her hand. To make my point, I’d like to share a story about my own recent understanding of God. It relates to healing. 

Recently, I’ve undergone Rieki healings. I tried Rieki healing because Carol had gone to a practitioner and told me that it relieved her stress. Feeling a lot of tension, including muscle stiffness and joint soreness, I thought I’d try Reiki. I was skeptical at first, but was open-minded. I was, in fact, surprised what a marvellous healing happened. It went way beyond my body into my mind and soul, healing my consciousness and clearing my mind. Reiki healing is done by the healer laying her hands on my forehead, shoulder blades, heart, abdomen, knees, and feet. You wouldn’t think this would do anything. But it does. Then there is another healing practice that works through the ether over distances. So the healer is at home and I am in my home and the healing energy flows through the ether to me over distance. Recall that Swedenborg says that distance is an illusion and in the spiritual world there is no distance at all. Space is an illusion.

To receive the healing energy, one asks the Creator to come and let you into the healing sphere. Here, I ran into a conceptual problem. Just what kind of Creator do I ask to let me in? This healing process was all new to me, and I think its origins are in Shamanism. That suggested to me an Indigenous Creator. But I’m a Christian. And I’m getting to the point I’m trying to make.

I thought that Jesus is the Creator for me. I wasn’t sure about mixing up Christianity with Shamanistic healing practices. But there’s only one God, one Creator, and for me, that is Jesus. So when I prayed to the Creator to let me into the healing energy, I pictured Jesus sitting next to my bed, laying His hands on my forehead like my Reiki healer.

At first I recoiled at this idea. Swedenborg suggests we picture God like a human shining in the center of the spiritual sun. That’s a pretty cosmic image of God. But what about God sitting at my bedside laying His hands on my forehead? It almost seemed blasphemous. But why? Didn’t Jesus sit at the bedside of Simon’s mother-in-law and take her hand? Yes, He did. There was nothing special about Simon’s mother-in-law—she was an ordinary woman. Then they brought everyone who was sick to Jesus. Jesus no doubt took them by the hand, or otherwise touched them. These were ordinary people whom God loved and healed and touched. So I concluded that I could imagine Jesus at my bedside laying His healing hands on my forehead.

That is the Divine Human this church preaches. God’s soul is infinite but God has a

human body made divine. So that Human and God are One. It is central to the Swedenborgian Church that God and Human are completely united in the one person of Jesus. We say this; we profess this; we believe this. But do we realize this? Do we realize how intimate this makes God? I still hesitate when I think about Jesus sitting at my bedside laying His hands on my forehead. Should I?

John 1 says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God . . . and the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us and we beheld His glory.” And the Bible and our doctrines tell us that Jesus rose flesh and bone. And Swedenborg tells us that Jesus appeared to him in a tavern and told him not to eat so much.

The infinite cosmic God who sits above the universe sits by the bedside of Simon’s mother-in-law and holds her hand. The infinite cosmic God who sits above the universe and numbers the hairs on our head. The infinite Cosmic God who sits above the universe sits at my bedside and Lays His hands on my forehead. That, I think, is what the doctrine of the Divine Human means.

*New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. 

“No Justice, No Peace” -Rev. Hugh Odhner

Then justice will dwell in the wilderness,
    and righteousness abide in the fruitful field.
The effect of righteousness will be peace,
    and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever.
My people will abide in a peaceful habitation,
    in secure dwellings, and in quiet resting places.
*

-Isaiah 32:13-18

As the threat from Covid-19 appears to be gradually subsiding in this country – not that the threat of the pandemic has gone away; it is still with us, with new and perhaps more deadly variants showing up, but after a year, and after many of us have received vaccinations – attention is turning or being turned to other issues. One of these is the almost daily demonstrations taking place against the police. The slogan “no justice, no peace” is being heard and seen more and more often. The slogan is not particularly new; it became associated in the nineteen-eighties with protests against police violence in New York City. It has had a resurgence now, not because the underlying issue ever went away, but because increased attention is now being given to it. 

Almost fifty years ago, Pope Paul VI delivered a message for the World Day of Peace on January 1, 1972. He said, “If you want peace, work for justice.”* These words were true then and are just as true today. Without justice it is not possible to have true lasting peace, not in the world, not in our country, not in our local communities, not in our church, and not in ourselves. The mere absence of civil and social conflict is not an indication of genuine peace. For it may be imposed by political, societal or religious forces and customs which mask over deep-seated problems, and they will remain covered over until such time as the forces and powers are weakened. And then the disturbances which lay hidden underneath are exposed and come to view. While this upsetting and disruptive, know that disorders and evils cannot be dealt with until they come out into the open (Divine Providence §278). This is true both for an individual and as well as for a larger or smaller society.

The connection between justice and peace is evident from many passages in the Word of the Lord. Isaiah 32 states that the effect of justice will be peace. Psalm 85 verse ten states that righteousness (or justice) and peace have kissed each other. Arcana Coelestia 3574 tells us that this signifies their conjunction together. Consider for a moment that if we do not treat others with justice, that is, with fairness, as we ourselves would like to be treated, there is not likely to be a peaceful relationship. And this is true both for individual relationships and for society in general. To return to Isaiah 32, notice that the effect or work of justice not only is peace, but also results in tranquility and trust. Where justice and fairness are not practiced, a sense of trust will be absent.

The connection between justice and peace is like that between the two Great Commandments. Just as the first commandment relates to love to the Lord, and the second to love to the neighbor, so also “peace” relates to the Lord, and “justice” to the neighbor. We cannot be in one without the other. Peace in the highest sense signifies the Lord Himself. In the prophecy in Isaiah 9:6-7,  the Prince of Peace is the Lord. 

Concerning peace we read this in Arcana Coelestia §5662:

… peace in heaven is like spring on earth, or like the dawn, which does not affect us by sensible changes, but by a universal pleasantness that flows into everything that is perceived, and fills with this pleasantness not only the perception itself but also the individual objects.***

At the present day scarcely anyone knows the meaning of “peace” where it is mentioned in the Word, as in the benediction, “Jehovah lift up His faces upon you, and give you peace” (Num. 6:26); and in other places. Almost everyone believes peace to be security from enemies, and also tranquility at home and among companions. Such peace is not meant in this passage, but a peace which immeasurably transcends it – the heavenly peace just now spoken of. This peace can be bestowed on no one unless he is led by the Lord and is in the Lord, that is, in heaven where the Lord is all in all; for heavenly peace flows in when the lusts arising from the love of self and the love of the world are taken away. 

These are what take peace away, for they infest a person’s interiors, and at last cause him to make rest consist in unrest, and peace in annoyances, because his delight is in evils. So long as a person is in these he cannot possibly know what peace is, indeed, during that time he believes that such peace is nothing; and if anyone says that it becomes perceptible when the delights from the love of self and the world are taken away, he laughs, because he makes peace consist in the delight of evil, which is the opposite of peace.  

We read further regarding what peace is like and also what takes away peace:

(Peace) is like dawn on the earth, which gladdens minds with universal delight; and the truth of peace is like the light of the dawn. This truth, which is called “the truth of peace,” is the Divine truth itself in heaven from the Lord, which universally affects all who are there, and makes heaven to be heaven; for peace has in it confidence in the Lord, that He directs all things, and provides all things, and that He leads to a good end. When a person is in this faith, he is in peace, for he then fears nothing, and no solicitude about things to come disturbs him. A person comes into this state in proportion as he comes into love to the Lord.*** (AC §8455)

On the other hand:

All evil, especially that of self-confidence, takes away a state of peace. It is believed that an evil person is at peace when he is in gladness and tranquility because all things succeed with him. But this is not peace; it is the delight and tranquility of intense desires, which counterfeit a state of peace. But in the other life this delight, being opposite to the delight of peace, is turned into what is undelightful, for this lies hidden within it. 

In the other life the exteriors are successively unfolded even to the inmosts, and peace is the inmost in all delight, even in what is undelightful with a person who is in good. So far therefore as such a person puts off what is external, so far a state of peace is revealed, and so far he is affected with satisfaction, blessedness, and happiness, the origin of which is from the Lord Himself.***  (AC §8455)

When we see those signs that say “no justice, no peace,” let us raise our minds above the political message being displayed, and see the truth of the heavenly message that lies within. Where there is no charity toward the neighbor, where there is no regard for treating others as we ourselves would wish to be treated, which is at the core of justice, there can be no love to the Lord who is the source of all peace, who is peace itself. That slogan printed on the sign, while perhaps meant to be a political message, is actually a spiritual message that we can take to heart and soul, for at its core, it embodies the teaching of our Lord.

*New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

**Pope Paul VI, “Speech at World Peace Day 1972”. Libreria Editrice Vaticana. Vatican City, 1972.

***Swedenborg, Emanuel. Arcana Coelestia. Translated by John Potts. West Chester, PA: Swedenborg Foundation, 1998.

The Rev. Hugh Odhner is minister at the Lord’s New Church Philadelphia Society. A bridge-builder between the different Swedenborgian branches, he has preached at several Convention ministries, including the Church of the Holy City in Washington, D.C., and has been a regular attendee and lecturer at Fryeburg New Church Assembly for many years. He lives with his wife Denise in Bryn Athyn, PA.

Swedenborgians in Action Against Racism: New Online Seminar May 10

With an increased interest in, and awareness of the issues surrounding racism in our society, Swedenborgians in Action Against Racism has been an initiative within the Swedenborgian Church which aims at addressing these issues from a New Church perspective.

Join Swedenborgians in Action Against Racism for a one-off evening Zoom program at 7pm ET aimed at helping us all navigate talking about race and racial justice with our families, friends and co-workers. Such conversations can often feel overwhelming and fraught, but like with many things, practice, familiarity and knowledge helps. Participants will gather together for a brief introduction and then self-select into the following discussion groups according to interest.

  • Unpacking Microaggressions: how some comments and questions land, and why they are so harmful.
  • Sorry, not sorry: how to apologize in a healing fashion, either immediately or way after the offense.
  • Actually, some questions are stupid and that’s okay: a safe place to ask what you’ve been afraid to say.*
  • Conversational Techniques: how to preserve civility and keep the peace without backing down, and how to rebound if hostility prevails.
  • The Vocabulary of Social Justice: what are you talking about?

*We invite those registering for this discussion topic, and any others who would like to participate, to use this link to submit a question you would like to ask. 

Leaders include: Rev. Shada Sullivan, Rev. Robert McCluskey, Page Morahan, Lori Gayheart, Kurt Fekete, Elise Genzlinger and Rev. Dr. Jim Lawrence.

Click this link to register. for the program by May 8th.

Questions? Email Central Office at manager@swedenborg.org or call (617) 969-4240 M-F 12pm ET to 4pm ET.

To find out more about SAAR and its vision and mission, check out ODB’s interview with Rev. Shada Sullivan and Lori Gayheart: https://spiritualquesters.org/?p=1471