Regeneration is the word that Swedenborg uses to describe our growth as spiritual beings—a process of being “created anew” as spiritual people who are bound for heaven.
We are all born into natural, worldly life. We have no choice about this. But our birth into spiritual life is, indeed, a matter of our individual choices—choices that we make over a whole lifetime. This second birth into a life that is truly spiritual is a gradual, continual process, not a one-time event. Therefore, Swedenborg refers to it as being “regenerated” rather than being “born again.”
Throughout his writings, Swedenborg devotes a lot of time to the question of how we can grow as spiritual people. He wants people to understand that it’s not just a question of saying or even believing the right thing: we have to put our faith into action.
There are two places in Swedenborg’s books where he goes into great detail about the nature of regeneration. In True Christianity, Swedenborg describes regeneration as a three-step process, one that begins with repentance, continues with reformation, and then finally ends with regeneration (which includes the two prior steps). In the first chapter of his multivolume work Secrets of Heaven, he breaks down the process even further, relating each day in the creation story to a phase of regeneration.
Swedenborg is careful to emphasize that “repentance,” as he defines it, doesn’t just mean confessing our sins, being forgiven, and then forgetting about it and going right back to what we were doing before. In order to truly repent, we need to change our ways.
He lists four steps in this process:
1. Examine ourselves.
We have to start by looking not only at our actions, but our motives. This doesn’t just apply to obvious sins, like theft or adultery, but also to the things we think about and dwell upon in everyday life. Have we been selfish? Egotistical? Unkind? Dishonest? Have we harbored resentments and nursed grudges when we should have been more forgiving? Have we openly or secretly controlled and manipulated others when we should have shown respect for their freedom and individuality? In declaring this as the first step in the regeneration process, Swedenborg anticipated the “searching and fearless moral inventory” of the twelve-step movement by two hundred years!
2. Recognize and admit our sins.
“Sin” can mean different things to different people. When Swedenborg talks about sin, he’s usually referring to the sins listed in the Ten Commandments (murder, adultery, stealing, and lying, for example). These are the sins that prevent us from loving our neighbor—that is, loving others in general. It’s obvious that anyone who murders, steals from, or lies to their neighbor is not acting in a loving way. But when these sins are removed, the way is opened for God to flow in with genuine love for others.
Swedenborg says that if we want to be regenerated, we have to want to manifest God’s love in the world. That’s why this step is so important. When we know what kind of a person we truly want to be, we need to recognize that we have not been acting in ways that are consistent with our highest aspirations. This is what Swedenborg means when he says that this second step is to recognize and admit our sins. We do this because we want to be better people.
3. Pray to the Lord.
An important part of this step is admitting that we need help. Ever tried to kick a bad habit? Go on a strict diet? It’s not easy. Sometimes we may experience success; at other times we find ourselves right back where we started. Much more difficult is removing those deeply ingrained traits, habits, patterns, and attitudes that prevent us from realizing our true inner nature. The removal of everything that stands in the way of our becoming fully human, loving, and wise is much more than we can handle by ourselves. That’s why Swedenborg says we need to ask God for help.
4. Begin a new life
. This is the hardest part—we have to put our intention into practice. It’s all right if we don’t always succeed, as long as we learn from our mistakes. The important thing is that we never stop trying to do better.
It’s important to remember that this part of the process does not end with prayer. It begins with prayer. After prayer, we must do all we can to work towards the spiritual goals we have set for ourselves. We must, of course, believe that God is working the miracle of inner change within us. But we must also believe that it cannot happen without our cooperation and do the necessary work. Our real efforts become the fulfillment of our prayers.
In the following passage, Swedenborg talks about many of the things we have mentioned in the first three steps. He concludes by reminding us how easy it is to read and believe these things, and yet, how hard it is to do them:
It is amazing but true that it is easy for any of us to rebuke someone else who is intending to do evil and say, ‘Don’t do that—that’s a sin!’ And yet it is difficult for us to say the same thing to ourselves. The reason is that saying it to ourselves requires a movement of the will, but saying it to someone else requires only a low level of thought based on things we have heard. . . .
All people who do good actions as a religious practice avoid actual evils. It is extremely rare, though, that people reflect on the inner realms that belong to their will. They suppose that because they are involved in good actions they are not involved in evil actions, and even that their goodness covers up their evil.
But, my friend, to abstain from evils is the first step in gaining goodwill. The Word teaches this. The Ten Commandments teach it. Baptism teaches it. The Holy Supper teaches it.
Reason, too, teaches it. How could any of us escape from our evils or drive them away without ever taking a look at ourselves? How can our goodness become truly good without being inwardly purified?
I know that all devout people and also all people of sound reason who read this will nod and see it as genuine truth; yet even so, only a few people are going to do what it says. (True Christianity #535)
Reformation and regeneration are so closely linked that it’s easiest to think about them together, like a ramp that gradually proceeds from one level to another as opposed to two distinct steps. And in order to understand the difference between the two, it’s important to understand two key concepts from Swedenborg’s theology: the will and the intellect (also translated “volition” and “discernment” or “understanding”).
The intellect performs the activity we associate with our brain: we see or hear information, we remember it, we think about it and draw conclusions.
The will is the part of our mind that moves us, that urges us to action. In the context of regeneration, you could think of our old, unregenerated will as the egotistical part of ourselves that wants everything for itself, that wants all its desires to be satisfied, that doesn’t care about anybody else. Part of the process of regeneration is reforming the old will, or, as Swedenborg says, subjugating it so that a new will might be born within us.
The will and the intellect, together, form the mind. Our intellect is the part of us that restrains our old will from running amok. We don’t always succeed in resisting our most basic urges, but we try because we’ve learned from our parents and from society in general that certain things are wrong, and we’ll be punished if we’re caught. Swedenborg tells us that in order for regeneration to begin, we have to first learn what’s right and what’s wrong, and then decide intellectually that we’re going to change. That’s the repentance stage.
What follows is a struggle between the old will and the new intellect (or our new understanding). Our old will doesn’t want to change, and at first we have to force ourselves, with God’s help, to do the right thing. This is the reformation stage: we do good deeds, but it’s difficult. We may make excuses to be lazy, to walk past someone who needs help instead of stopping, to say no when we know we should say yes (or vice versa!). But the little voice in the back of our mind keeps reminding us to do better.
The more we do what we know is right, the more we act in a loving way, the easier it gets, and the more we want to be good. Gradually, our old will is replaced with a new will, one that comes from the Lord, and our intellect is raised up, higher and higher as we continue to think in increasingly more spiritual ways. This is regeneration.
This process continues throughout our lifetime—and beyond. “Our regeneration does not happen in a moment. It gradually unfolds from the beginning all the way to the end of our lives in this world; and after this life is over, it continues and is perfected” (True Christianity #610). In fact, it’s not possible to be fully regenerated while we are still in our physical bodies, because no matter how much good we have at the core of our being, our human nature will always try to lead us astray. But Swedenborg says that people who begin the process of regeneration are in the company of angels while still on earth, and after they die they go to join those angelic communities. There the process of human perfection continues.
This is true even of people who aren’t Christian: if a person is good and loving in this world and strives to set their ego aside in order to help others, that person is bound for heaven regardless of their faith.
Find Out More
The “Swedenborg on Regeneration” page has videos, excerpts, and downloads that explore this topic.
On YouTube: “Goals Pyramid” talks about the importance of watching what we put into our minds.
In The Hidden Levels of the Mind, Douglas Taylor puts Swedenborg’s teachings about how the mind, body, and soul relate to each other—and how regeneration works—in one simple, straightforward volume.
For a more general approach that integrates Swedenborg’s ideas with those of G. I. Gurdjieff, you may enjoy Observing Spirit by Peter Rhodes.
If you noticed that the steps described above bear some resemblance to the twelve-step program for addiction recovery, you can read more in Grant Schnarr’s Spiritual Recovery: A Twelve-Step Guide.