Sunday, September 6, 2009

Three Questions on Conjugial Love

As a part of his coursework assignment, I was recently asked by a man in training to become a Swedenborgian minister how I would respond as a layperson to the following three questions:

1.) What impact have the [Swedenborgian] teachings about conjugial [or marriage] love had in your life?
2.) How would you characterize the way you were taught about conjugial love?
3.) How could ministers teach conjugial love better?

Well, first of all, I think it’s great that theological students are being given assignments to consult the laity! It hasn’t always been that way. Maybe we are undergoing a paradigm shift after all. As a related aside, if you are a Facebook member, please feel free to join the Lay Interfaith Leaderless Alliance (LILA) group I recently created there. We are growing!

Before I respond as requested, I would like to bring out of obscurity a little known or utilized piece of esoteric Swedenborgian wisdom regarding marriages. In saying that marriages ‘do not exist elsewhere’ (i.e. other than in heaven), it is in direct contradiction to the traditional irrational Christian teaching that there is NO marriage in heaven - which is based on the cherry-picked biblical verse Matthew 22:30. In his work Conjugial Love Swedenborg writes:

“… a married couple [in heaven] is united in respect to their souls; and one also sees in the two a full expression of what it is to be human. This is the case in heaven, because marriages do not exist elsewhere. Beneath heaven one finds instead only temporary alliances which are formed and broken.” (CL 192:7, emphasis added)

That is a citation from Swedenborg that has NEVER been presented to me in any of my formal Swedenborg-based education. I think it’s important that everyone be familiar with it. So there you have it – now, on to the questions

1.) What impact have the teachings about Conjugial Love had in your life?
On the one hand, these esoteric teachings found only in the theological writings of Emanuel Swedenborg about conjugial (or marriage) love have had an extraordinarily positive impact in my life. On the other hand, they have had a devastatingly destructive one. Positive because they have given me a rational, as well as beautiful, vision for marriage. Destructive because they set me up to believe that conjugial love with a woman on this earth is not just a remote and improbable possibility (which is the truth); but is in fact highly possible and likely; provided that I follow all the rules put forward (and implied) in the classroom. Being psychologically set up that way was a major contributing factor in the serious and severe harm done to me, to the women I married, and to my children now from divorced families. I have since “owned” my own part in my marriage failures and have researched the doctrine of conjugial love for myself and to my own satisfaction. I must hasten to add that I believe it’s not so much the teachings themselves that have done the harm, but instead, the way they were taught to me; which leads me to the next question.

2.) How would you characterize the way you were taught about Conjugial Love?
I was taught about conjugial love too early in life, and, with too much of a pedagogic attitude of ‘compulsion to believe’; and compulsion to believe, mind you, not in divine truth but in what I have come to see as being largely fairy tale. I would refer you to Divine Providence 129 for an understanding of why the practice of compelling others to "believe" is ill-advised as well as decidedly un-Swedenborgian.

3.) How could ministers teach Conjugial Love better?
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in the State of Pennsylvania alone in 2007, there were 71,094 marriages and 35,268 divorces. I think that’s a statistic which tends to support the commonly held belief that one out of every two marriages ends in divorce. I wonder if Swedenborgian ministers teach this kind of statistical fact in conjugial love courses these days? I can tell you that when I was in high school up until 1972 and again for 4 years in college in the mid-1980s they did not – at least not in any religion course I took. Now maybe it’s not right to teach such statistical facts in a religion course; but what about actual theological doctrine as, for example, Conjugial Love 192:7 (see above)? Especially the part that reads, “…marriages do not exist elsewhere. Beneath heaven one finds instead only temporary alliances which are formed and broken.

If I were teaching a conjugial love course, I would make sure that my students had a very thorough understanding of that bit of doctrine before any other learning was pursued. So what are some of the elements of an education which actually prepares the student for marriage? I would definitely include an elective course on Swedenborg’s conjugial love doctrine but mandatory courses would include the following course titles:

~Introspection, Contemplation, and Altruism for the Individual
~Introspection, Contemplation, and Altruism for Couples
~Couples Communication
~Spiritual Practice in Relationships
~Marriage/Divorce and the Law
~Personal and Family Finance: Budgets and Clear Boundaries
~Reproductive Health and Contraception
~Conscious Parenting
~Addiction in general
~Sex addiction

These are just what briefly come to mind when I ask myself the question. There are more and I’m sure you can think of some if you have ever been married. Being as highly educated as possible in those topics is of vital importance for anyone considering marriage. Looking deeply into his writings reveals that Swedenborg has plenty to say about all of these topics; and a thorough education in them will provide a much more comprehensive preparation for the spiritual practice of marriage than courses in esoteric conjugial theology.

I would appreciate any comments on this post – especially ones that include any course titles you think should be added to the above list. Thanks. ~ CBM


  1. Under question 2 you write "too early in life": would you be willing to put an age on that?

    Also under question 2 you describe marriage or the ideal of marriage that was presented to you as "largely fairy tale." Could you say more about what aspects or ideas were most "fairy"-like?

    Under question 3 you suggest that a more realistic, or in other words pessimistic, expectancy should be given. It's odd, but I agree. Still I wonder if that wouldn't leave me/us in a position of discouraging any attempt at real relationships between people?

  2. Hi Muires:

    Personally I feel as though I have never been without the idea of "conjugial love". That's probably in part where my "too early" feeling comes from. Although I knew about it all through elementary school I couldn't say when I took my first formal class in it - probably not until high school. So the short answer is "no, I would not be willing to put an age on it."

    Although I am very open to the idea of experiencing "conjugial love" AFTER the death of the body (specifically my body), the fairy tale part for me is a reference to the experiencing of conjugial love BEFORE the death of the body. However, that does not mean I believe a satisfying, healthy partnership relationship between two earth-bound mortals is an impossibility - I've just learned not to mistake that for Swedenborg's concept of conjugial love. I think Swedenborg's concept of conjugial love is constructed of interior truths that most people are not able to handle without causing damage. An indicator that they ARE able to handle them would be that they pursue knowledge of them INDEPENDENTLY and without being compelled by school teachers who... well, I won't go there.

    Anyway, I know a few people who feel they are willing to tell me that they have conjugial love with their partner (and some who just seem like they do) - and I don't doubt them - but they are few and far-between.

    I don't feel my view of it to be "pessimistic" at all - just realistic. I am totally serious about making it an elective topic in school and making those other course titles I suggested mandatory. If I were a minister, I wouldn't want the responsibility of endorsing marriages between people who I didn't feel were thoroughly educated in the practical aspects of living and partnering with one only person for the rest of their lives on this earth. And yet, it seems to me that NC ministers are only interested in the prospective partners personal sexual history when deciding whether they will perform the couple's marriage ceremony. I think that says more about the minister's personal sexual history than it does about anything else.

    OK - gotta run now. Thanks for the comment.

    ~Jeremy K. Finkeldey (aka Crazybaldman)