Swedenborg and Gurdjieff

In the summer of 1974 I took an evening course at the School of Visual Arts in downtown Manhattan, New York. The title of the course was “Can We Survive Death?” It was here that my instructor introduced me to the ideas of two most unique men—Emanuel Swedenborg and George Gurdjieff.

On the surface, it seemed that the ideas of these two men were quite different. However, both men claimed that a new institution for disseminating knowledge was being set up on earth—from influences beyond the terrestrial orb we inhabited!

I quickly embraced the ideas of both Swedenborg and Gurdjieff and, through intensive studies, believed I had discovered real similarities in their writings, especially when it came to the spiritual evolution of the human race.

Noticing that I had a special hunger for these ideas, my instructor informed me that there were groups of individuals in New York who assembled to study Gurdjieff’s ideas (called the “Work”) and others had formed a church based on Swedenborg’s theological writings.

I eventually got involved with one of the Gurdjieff work groups in Manhattan and I paid a visit to the Swedenborgian church. I remember being surprised by how traditional and non-unique the church service and its worshippers were, but became impressed with the minister there.

The economy (especially in New York) hit a snag during the mid-70’s and I was fortunate enough to find a wonderful job in advertising in St. Louis. I took my knowledge of Swedenborg and Gurdjieff with me. Several months later I located a Swedenborgian church in St. Louis. The church did not have a minister at the time, so the congregation managed to convince me to do the service and sermon every now and then. (They also had a group of inquisitive church members who regularly met on their own to study and discuss Swedenborg’s Writings with great passion.) On one occasion of my performing as “lay minister” I snuck in a few Gurdjieffian ideas into my sermon. After the service I was approached by one of the church members who recognized these concepts as Gurdjieff’s. I was pleasantly surprised!

A year or two later, another member came to church and played some tapes made by Peter Rhodes, who proved quite skillful at finding similarities between Swedenborg and Gurdjieff’s ideas. I would later learn that Mr. Rhodes wrote several books on this topic and even organized a work group of Swedenborgians who put these combined ideas into practice. What I found amusing about this is that Rhodes conducted these work sessions in Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania, which is considered a “Mecca” of Swedenborgianism.

One or two years later, I found a Gurdjieff work group in St. Louis and gradually convinced a few Swedenborgians to join with me.

During the mid-80’s my advertising job required some travel to produce radio and TV commercials. When my trips took me back to New York I would often seek out the Swedenborg Foundation (which was on 23rd Street at the time) and load up on some books that I was anxious to read. On one occasion when I brought my books to the counter for purchase, several individuals came through the door with excited expressions on their faces. They had apparently been to the Samuel Weiser bookstore and had found books on Gurdjieff’s unique symbol, the Enneagram. This nine-faceted diagram offered the key to potentially understanding the universal patterns and lawful structure of God’s holy design in creation and evolution.

Fast-forward to the present.

In my new book Proving God, I throw my hat into the ring, unifying Swedenborg’s and Gurdjieff’s ideas. For instance, I provide evidence that Swedenborg’s notion of the human race being spiritually asleep is the same thing as Gurdjieff’s claim that modern humans live in a state of relative hypnosis and trance. The last chapter of my book attempts to show that Gurdjieff’s Enneagram is the same thing as Swedenborg’s Circle of life.

But while the dust is still settling on these two claims, I would like to offer an example of when Gurdjieff’s ideas should become relevant to a Swedenborgian. First, you have the average Swedenborgian churchgoers. They come to church for religious observance, community, sharing and some may even attempt to apply the words of the minister’s sermon to the workweek ahead.

Other worshippers want something more. So they will often form groups to study Swedenborg’s theology in greater detail—away from the worship service. As these theological ideas are studied with greater intensity and sincerity, a few among this group will sense the need to find practical methods for combating the hells and doing battle with themselves (inner scrutiny)! They will form another group.

It is in this final group that Gurdjieff’s ideas become suddenly and powerfully relevant.

Those who need pastoral care, a constant propping-up of their self-esteem, and who need to be told that God loves them, are a real part of a minister’s challenge and calling—but they never become part of this third group. Why? Because the people who attend such rarefied groups readily recognize that they need to be inwardly confronted—to overcome their negative traits—rather than relying on hugs and pats on the back (which sucks up much of a minister’s energies).

Perhaps this will throw some light on why the Swedenborgian church has difficulty distinguishing itself from the ecclesiastical crowd. Potent ideas must have potent outcomes!


About thegodguy

EDWARD F. SYLVIA, M.T.S. Philosopher/Theologian Edward F. Sylvia attended the School of Visual Arts in New York and received his Master of Theological Studies at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, CA and a Certificate of Swedenborgian Studies from the Swedenborgian House of Studies. He is a member of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences (C.T.N.S.) and the Swedenborg Scientific Association (S.S.A.). Award-winning author of "Sermon From the Compost Pile: Seven Steps Toward Creating An Inner Garden" and "Proving God," which fulfills a continuing vision that God’s fingerprints of love can be found everywhere in the manifest universe. His most recent book, "Swedenborg & Gurdjieff: The Missing Links" is an edgy collection of anti-intuitive essays for personal transformation that challenges and inspires. He has been a student of the ideas of both Emanuel Swedenborg and George I. Gurdjieff for over thirty years. Read more about TheGodGuy, his books and his ideas at http://www.staircasepress.com
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4 Responses to Swedenborg and Gurdjieff

  1. Walt says:

    I really enjoyed this post and am very interested in learning more. I study constantly but do not have a group to study with. I would like to know if you could offer any advice as to how I could connect online or otherwise with groups that are like the third group you mentioned. Any help you could give me would be appreciated.

  2. thegodguy says:

    Dear Walt,

    I will try to help. Where do you live (city)? Are you currently familiar with either Swedenborg’s or Gurdjieff’s ideas? Can you gather a group of interested and serious people together?

    Spiritually yours,

  3. Link says:

    I had a teacher for many years who drew on the ideas of Gurdjieff and Swedenborg. Gurdjieff appealed to my intellectual self and Swedenborg some time later appealed to my heart or emotional self. I was very fortunate to come into contact with my teacher, (he departed for life’s grande adventure in 1999). The Work he taught which drew also on his knowledge of biology, chemistry, Egyptology, and mathematics, we began to know of us Beyond the Fourth way. It’s nice to know that there are other people across the globe aside from Peter Rhodes and my teacher Dr Groves, who are also marrying the learnings from these two remarkable men.

    I tend to think the Gurdjieffan work died with the man, although his ideas are very very important and wonderfully practical, however the few Gurdjieff groups I’ve come across in Australia were terribly terribly heartless and I longed for the compassionate wisdom that Swedenborg brings to the soul. Not to diminish the teachings of Gurdjieff in anyway, I would simply advise against joining groups based on Gurdjieff alone.

  4. thegodguy says:

    Dear Link,

    Thanks for your comments. I could easily see how being involved in a Gurdjieff group would seem heartless. However, a Swedenborgian would find a similar experience through the intensification of self-examination. Regeneration is not a pretty or flattering process.

    I feel Gurdjieff helps me to gain a deeper understanding of Swedenborg, and Swedenborg helps me gain a deeper understanding of Gurdjieff. What would you say if I told you that Gurdjieff’s enneagram is the same thing as Swedenborg’s Circle of Life?

    Spiritually yours,

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