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Feet on the Ground and Head in the Heavens

September 21, 2003

Bible Reading

We do have such a high priest, who sat down at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, and who serves in the sanctuary, the true tabernacle set up by the Lord, not by humans. Every high priest is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices, and so it was necessary for this one also to have something to offer. If he were on earth, he would not be a priest, for there are already men who offer the gifts prescribed by the law. They serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven.

(Hebrews 8:1-5)

Reading from Swedenborg

I have seen palaces in heaven that were so splendid as to be beyond description. Their upper stories shone as though they were made of pure gold, and their lower ones as though they were made of precious gems. Each palace seemed more splendid than the last. It was the same inside. The rooms were graced with such lovely adornments that neither words nor the arts and sciences are adequate to describe them. On the side that faced south there were parklands where everything sparkled in the same way, here and there the leaves like silver and the fruits like gold, with the flowers in their beds making virtual rainbows with their colors. On the horizon of sight there were other palaces that framed the scene. The architecture of heaven is like this, so that you might call it the very essence of the art--and small wonder, since the art itself does come to us from heaven.

Angels tell me that things like this and countless others even more perfect are presented to their view by the Lord; but that such sights actually delight their minds more than their eyes because they see correspondences in the details, and through their correspondences they see things divine. (Heaven and Hell #185)


My father joined the Swedenborgian Church after marrying my mother, and remained actively involved in the work of the church until he passed away in 1994. For more than twenty years he served on the board of trustees of the Boston Church where he brought the practical perspective of a self-made businessman to the deliberations of the board. Dad used to complain that some of the members of the church weren't sufficiently businesslike. He liked to say that the church was a business and needed to be run like one. When I discussed this with Dad, I would always make a "Yes . . . but" response.

On the one hand, I fully realized that the church as an institution was in and of this world. It had to be concerned with crass things like paying bills. (Our treasurer can give us a briefing on what happens if we don't pay the power bill or get legal documents to city officials on time.) But I also tried to persuade Dad that the church cannot merely be a business. And, if it is to succeed in its proclaimed mission, it needs not only the talents and energies of practical, hardheaded people, but also the qualities of spirit and intellect that other kinds of people can bring. As necessary as the practical tasks of running a church may be, if we lose sight of the spiritual goals of the church, we have lost sight of its whole reason to exist.

This is a real dilemma in life. All of us have a certain mix of practical and spiritual talents, but we generally lean rather decidedly in one direction or the other. As I have said, my father was a very practically-oriented person. Not only did he build a business, but he could fix almost any mechanical device that he put his hands to. On the other hand, he did not have great patience for theoretical thinking--and certainly not for long, abstruse sermons on Sunday. I, on the other hand, have a certain talent for dealing with ideas and concepts. But, as my wife will readily testify, my talents for dealing with many of the immediate practical challenges of life are limited at best. I tend to be all thumbs at most household chores, and the quality of my organizing skills would be evident to anyone contemplating the hopeless appearance of my desk, at home or in the office.

Humans seem to fall into categories: tough-minded businesspeople vs. dreamy poets and absent-minded professors. We cannot afford the situation that easily develops where those in one category can no longer communicate with those in another. The great British scientist and writer Lord Snow spoke brilliantly of an aspect of this dilemma in his lectures on the "Two Cultures," in which he lamented the inability of writers and scientists to speak a common language.

One of the most interesting and significant things about Swedenborg is that he combined in one person an extraordinary range of talents and abilities. Most people, both Swedenborgians and others who know something about Swedenborg, tend to think of him as a religious thinker, or, as he is almost always referred to in popular literature, a mystic or seer. Yet for the first half of his life Swedenborg was a scientist--and not only a theoretical scientist to be mentioned in the same breath as Leibniz or Newton, but also a very practically oriented scientist. He helped to build dry-docks and a canal, in addition to producing a wealth of devices to make mining safer and more efficient--a very important, practical concern, since Sweden in those days drew most of its wealth from its mines. As a member of Sweden's parliament, he produced papers on currency, trade, and iron production; and this only scratches the surface of his practical accomplishments.

In large measure, Swedenborg's later theological and mystical insights grew out of and were grounded in his practical, scientific knowledge. This is perhaps most clearly seen in his doctrine of "correspondences," whereby spiritual and natural phenomena are linked. Another doctrine especially associated with Swedenborg, that of "uses," is also relevant, since it recognizes the importance of the varied talents and abilities that people can bring to the church and its purposes.

This marriage of the practical and the spiritual can be seen not only in Swedenborg himself, but in many who have embraced and been inspired by his writings. One thinks of such people as Robert Frost and Helen Keller. A dramatic example is Andrew Carnegie, the hardheaded, even ruthless businessman who devoted the last part of his life to giving his great wealth to charitable purposes. In doing this, he was inspired by the ideas of Swedenborg to which he had been introduced in the Swedenborgian Church in Pittsburgh, where he taught Sunday School.

My favorite example, however, is Daniel Burnham, whose adaptation of Swedenborgian theological ideas helped to shape the world in which we live, though hardly anyone is aware of this.

I first became aware of Burnham when I visited the Philippines many years ago with my wife and infant son. We were with my wife's sister in the city of Baguio, a beautiful place in the mountains of northern Luzon, high up above the tropical heat of the plains below. The city is handsomely planned, and in the middle of it is an exquisite park with a small lake where I rowed us about. The park is named for Burnham, and I subsequently found out that it honors him for planning Baguio, which was built in the early years of American occupation as a place where the American governors could go for a bit of relief from the heat and humidity--before the invention of air conditioning. Burnham, I learned, had also been responsible for planning much of the modern city of Manila.

Closer to home, it was Burnham who designed the handsome Union Station in Washington and the buildings on either side--a grand gateway to the nation's capital. At the beginning of the twentieth century, he was chairman of the Senate Park Commission, which played a major role in creating the magnificent mall area, the heart of our nation's capital. More than that, Burnham was the prime creator of the model for what came to be known as "The City Beautiful," which has shaped to this day the concept of the ideal city in this country. As one of two partners in Chicago's most prestigious architectural firm, and the president of the American Institute of Architects, Burnham was selected to preside over the creation of the famous White City at the Chicago world's fair of 1893. This presented an idealized version of what a modern city could be.

Burnham's masterpiece was the Chicago City Plan of 1909, which established the essential design for the Chicago of today. What is of special interest to us is that this plan, which aimed at satisfying the practical needs of a rapidly expanding city, was based upon Swedenborg's vision of the heavenly city. As Irving D. Fisher, a scholar who has closely studied Burnham's work and its relationship to Swedenborg's ideas, has expressed it:

To understand the iconography of the Plan of Chicago one must consider the religious doctrines of Swedenborg and Burnham's adherence to Swedenborg's religious tenets. In his Chicago Plan Burnham prominently employed two doctrines in Swedenborg's system: the doctrine of series and degrees and the doctrine of correspondences. Swedenborg carried over both doctrines from his intensive scientific studies to his later visionary phase.

Burnham, like Swedenborg before him, combined in a remarkable way practical abilities with exalted intellectual and spiritual conceptualizations. Indeed, he not only achieved important practical goals in his architectural and urban plans, but he showed himself capable of dealing on equal terms with hardheaded business and political leaders in Chicago and Washington.

It is interesting to speculate that Burnham might have owed his success in part to having been educated in the school of hard knocks. He failed the entrance exams for both Harvard and Yale, then was unsuccessful in a mining career in the West. He learned the profession of architecture as a trainee, apprenticed to an architectural firm. In any event, it was Burnham's absorption of Swedenborgianism, as the grandson of a Swedenborgian minister and the son of Swedenborgian missionaries, that enabled him to combine, in a brilliant creative synthesis, practical, down-to-earth ideas with the most elevated spiritual concepts. He had his feet firmly on the ground and his head fixed in the heavens.

None of us may embody the genius of Swedenborg or the brilliance of Burnham. But we do have the capacity to create a better and more effective marriage between our practical talents and our spiritual qualities. If we, like Burnham, make a serious effort to absorb the teachings of Swedenborg, then we will be able, in our individual lives and in the life of our church, to meet successfully both the challenge of the here and now and the challenge of the hereafter. We will also then master the difficult art of keeping our feet on the ground, and our vision focused on the heavens.


Lord of all, we thank you for giving us sublime insights into the nature of spirit and our own souls. It is wonderful to contemplate your grand design for the universe, and our own place in it. Yet you have not placed us here only to think and to dream, but also to speak and to act. Help us to translate the beautiful truths you have shown us into practical contributions to the happiness and welfare of the people around us. Inspire us not only to see great visions, but also to labor toward making those visions a concrete reality. While keeping our eyes focused on the heavens, plant our feet firmly on the ground of practical, useful work. Amen.

Malcolm C. Peck