Embracing Freedom: A Core Tenet of Swedenborgian Belief

As we head towards the 4th of July, our thoughts inevitably turn to freedom and not only what it means for us, but how we achieve or celebrate it.

For many people, religion and freedom are seen as oppositional with religion often seen as restricting freedom. But the relationship between the two doesn’t need to be in conflict. In fact, Swedenborgian beliefs and theology stress the importance of our freedoms and the role personal freedom plays in our spiritual growth.


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Understanding Freedom in Swedenborgian Theology

As we said, Swedenborgian theology emphasizes the role of personal freedom in our spiritual evolution. In fact, according to Swedenborg, freedom is fundamentally spiritual, deeply rooted in the relationship we have with God.

Freedom is not merely the ability to choose without constraint, but it is intricately connected to our spiritual state and our capacity to align ourselves with divine love and wisdom. True freedom, as described by Emanuel Swedenborg, is the freedom to follow the highest principles of love and truth, leading to spiritual growth and ultimately to union with God. What is more free than the ability to live in alignment with our highest values?


And, according to Swedenborg, few things are more important. His own experiences with the spiritual realm informed his belief that humans are endowed with free will by God to choose between good and evil, and thus to shape their own spiritual destinies. This freedom is essential for spiritual development because it allows individuals to consciously align themselves with divine principles.


If we step back from the vagaries, we can get a better sense and understanding of not only these concepts but also how they’re essential to Swedenborgian theology.


Swedenborgian theology highlights three key principles that frame its understanding of freedom.


Free Will

According to Swedenborg, free will is a divine gift bestowed upon humanity. It is through the exercise of free will that individuals can choose to follow the path of goodness and truth or turn away from it. Choosing goodness is vital for genuine love and wisdom to flourish; coerced actions, whether from the church or our communities, hold no spiritual value. Free will enables the soul to engage in a meaningful relationship with God, where actions and decisions are made out of love and understanding, rather than compulsion.


Personal Responsibility

With the gift of free will comes the weight of personal responsibility. After all, if we make the choices, shouldn’t we be held responsible for those choices?

Swedenborg taught that every individual is responsible for their own spiritual journey. This involves recognizing the consequences of one's choices and striving to live a life that reflects divine love and wisdom. Personal responsibility in Swedenborgian theology is not a burden but an opportunity to actively participate in one's spiritual evolution, making conscious decisions that foster spiritual growth and harmony with God.


Spiritual Growth

Swedenborgian belief asserts that true freedom is the pathway to spiritual growth. As individuals make choices aligned with divine love and truth, they undergo a transformative process that draws them closer to God.

Spiritual growth is seen as an ongoing journey, where the exercise of free will and acceptance of personal responsibility leads to deeper insights, greater love, and more profound connections. In turn, each person's spiritual advancement contributes to the overall harmony and progression of the human community and the spiritual realms.


The Role of Free Will in Spiritual Development

In Swedenborgian theology, free will is considered one of the most profound gifts from God to humanity. It’s not just a gift, it’s essential for a meaningful and authentic relationship with God, allowing individuals to make choices that reflect their true desires and intentions.

Free will is the cornerstone of personal and spiritual growth. Without it, individuals cannot actively participate in their own spiritual journey or make the deliberate choices that lead to enlightenment and union with the Divine. Free will allows individuals to:


  • Cultivate Virtue- Choosing to act in accordance with divine principles, individuals can develop virtues such as love, wisdom, compassion, and integrity fostering inner transformation and spiritual maturity.

    For example, in The New Jerusalem and Its Heavenly Doctrine (1758), Swedenborg outlines the principles of the New Church, emphasizing that true faith must be chosen freely. He asserts that faith without freedom is lifeless and that only through the voluntary acceptance of divine truths can individuals experience true spiritual rebirth and enlightenment.

  • Learn from Experience- Free will allows for a range of experiences, including mistakes and challenges. These experiences are crucial for spiritual development, as they offer opportunities for learning, repentance, and growth.

    For example, in Heaven and Hell (1758), Swedenborg describes how the choices individuals make in their earthly lives determine their spiritual destinies. Those who freely choose to live according to divine love and truth align themselves with heaven, while those who choose selfishness and falsity align themselves with hell. This highlights the profound impact of free will on one's eternal state.


  • Express Individuality- Each person's spiritual path is unique. Free will honors this individuality, allowing for diverse expressions of faith and spirituality that contribute to the richness of the human and divine tapestry.


Rather than controlling one’s actions or thoughts, Swedenborg believed that free will is a divine gift that underpins personal and spiritual growth, empowering individuals to choose love, wisdom, and goodness, fostering a transformative journey toward union with God. 


Swedenborg on Freedom and Divine Providence

One reason so many people see religion imposing on freedom is the concept of Divine Providence. Divine Providence is the theory that God continuously governs the universe with infinite wisdom and love, guiding all creation towards its ultimate purpose. It’s easy to see how one might believe it restricts freedom.

However, Swedenborg described Divine Providence as God's omnipresent care, ensuring that everything happens for a reason, ultimately contributing to the greater good and leading humanity towards heaven. This divine guidance, not control, operates subtly, respecting human freedom and promoting spiritual growth through the complex interplay of life's events and choices.


In fact, Swedenborgian belief stresses that Divine Providence works in harmony with human free will. While God provides the framework and opportunities for spiritual growth, it is up to each individual to choose their path. This interplay is crucial for genuine spiritual development:


Divine Providence never overrides human freedom. Instead, it gently influences and presents choices that encourage alignment with divine love and truth. For example, life's challenges and difficulties are opportunities for spiritual growth. Divine Providence uses these experiences to nudge individuals towards introspection, repentance, and ultimately, greater alignment with divine principles.

Similarly, Divine Providence continuously presents opportunities for individuals to make choices that reflect their spiritual aspirations. Whether through relationships, experiences, or insights, God's guidance is ever-present, inviting individuals to freely choose a path that leads to spiritual fulfillment.


Freedom and Moral Responsibility

So, if, as Swedenborg says, we are free even in the face of Divine Providence, what does this freedom mean?

Freedom is the ability to choose according to our understanding of what is good and true, but with it comes moral responsibility. This isn’t about “Hey I’m free; I can do whatever I want.”
We are still accountable for our choices and actions. This responsibility is not just to ourselves but also to the communities we’re a part of and to God. The moral choices we make are expressions of our spiritual state, influencing our own personal growth as well as the well-being of our families and broader community.


So, when confronted with challenges, as well as the freedom to make choices, how do we make moral decisions? First and foremost, we align ourselves with truth and good. We gain an understanding of those through a variety of methods including understanding divine teachings through scripture and through self-reflection and prayer.


Freedom, as we know and recognize in America, isn’t free. The same is true in Swedenborgian theology. Freedom comes with the substantial weight of moral responsibility. They are inseparable and each and every choice we make shapes our spiritual journey and defines who we are, especially as spiritual beings. 


Practical Applications of Freedom in Daily Life

July 4th has fireworks, sparklers, parades, family barbecues and picnics. We know how to celebrate America’s freedom, but how do we practice our own? Exercising spiritual freedom in our daily lives involves making choices that align with divine love and wisdom. On a practical level that means:

Mindful Decision-Making- Take time to reflect on your choices, ensuring they align with your spiritual values. Whether it's deciding how to spend your time, how to interact with others, or what actions to take in challenging situations, mindful decision-making allows you to act with intention and integrity.


Practice Kindness- Small acts of kindness, such as offering a smile, helping a neighbor, or speaking encouraging words, reflect spiritual freedom by choosing love over indifference. These acts not only uplift others but also reinforce your commitment to living according to divine principles.

Practice Gratitude- From appreciating our choices and free will to being grateful for the opportunities and choices we have is important. Recognizing that even challenges are gifts we can take something from can spur not only self-reflection but an appreciation for all that we have.


Balance Work and Rest- In a go go go culture, taking time for calm is a treat. Recognize the importance of balancing productivity with rest and self-care. By choosing to honor your well-being and, on occasion, slowing down, you respect the divine order and maintain the energy needed for spiritual growth and service to others.


Keep Learning- Engage in activities that foster your intellectual and spiritual growth, such as reading, attending spiritual discussions, or meditating. This ongoing education helps you understand and align more closely with divine wisdom, strengthening your ability to make spiritually informed choices.


The Expression of Freedom in Swedenborgian Worship Practices

And, while you’re working on your own understanding of freedom and its role in your spiritual practice and journey, Swedenborgian churches are working on emphasizing freedom and individual expression, creating an inclusive and supportive environment for spiritual exploration through a few essential practices:

Open Worship Services- Services are designed to be open and inviting, allowing each person to participate in ways that resonate with their personal spiritual journey. It’s one of the reasons we embrace online churches. It keeps spiritual practice and engagement accessible.


Inclusive Theology- Swedenborgian theology encourages questioning and personal interpretation of spiritual texts, allowing us to explore and develop our own understanding of divine teachings without dogmatic constraints.


Creative Expression- Worship practices often include music, art, and other forms of creative expression. These help us celebrate the diverse ways in which we can experience and express spirituality, honoring the unique contributions of each person.


Religion need not limit your spiritual practices. In fact, Swedenborgian theology, churches, and communities look for ways to allow freedom to enhance your experiences, benefiting your spiritual journey and, ultimately, the commitments you’ve made to self, family, communities, and more.

If you’re looking to experience or explore a Swedenborgian church community, please reach out to us. We recognize that you have choices about how and with whom you pray, learn, and grow, and we’d love to be a part of your spiritual journey.

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