Does the literal sense of the Word play a minor role only? Something to be discarded as quickly as possible in the attempt to get to the real meaning and holiness of God’s Word?
(The Word refers to the Holy Bible. The Writings refer to the works of Emanuel Swedenborg. The abbreviated citations likewise refer to those works.)
I would like to relate, at this point, an interesting fact about trees. This was told me some years ago by a pensioned forester in Sweden. He talked about how people sometimes carve their names into the bark of a tree, and how lovers carve a heart around those names. He said that this certainly damages the tree, but not seriously. It will recover and heal the wound. Likewise, a homeowner will occasionally cut off entire branches from a tree, to protect the house or the electricity cables. Again, this damages the tree, but it can handle the loss of its branches. Take the Senator cypress tree in Longwood, Florida. It is 118 feet tall and 3500 years old. It consists of almost nothing but a huge trunk, having lost most of its branches long ago to lightning strikes. But the tree is still alive. The old forester then said that there is one thing that you must never do to a tree. Never make a circular cut in the bark all the way around the outside of the tree. This will kill the tree. The sap will no longer be able to rise and fall.
Swedenborg’s Writings call the literal sense the basis, containant, and support of the inner senses (SS 27). Just like a tree needs an intact bark, though not necessarily a perfect one, so does the Word need a literal sense. The literal sense is not perfect, it is rugged, uneven, and perplexing at times. Yet it is the covering for the spiritual and celestial senses from which the holiness of the Word flows. The bark, just like the literal sense, is not an external covering that can conceivably be removed. It holds its life together.
This truth is expressed in surprisingly strong terms in the Doctrine of the Sacred Scripture: “Divine Truth, in the sense of the letter of the Word, is in its fullness, in its holiness, and in its power” (SS 37). This does not contradict what we noted just above about the literal sense (SS 5), but it does reveal more of the mystery that we are dealing with in the Word. The celestial and spiritual senses are said to be present at the same time in the natural sense. This refers to the way creation is ordered.
First of all, creation has a successive order, in which everything gradually increases or decreases, and succeeds from other things. The colors of a sunrise gradually changing is an example of this, implying that the complete blackness of night and the light of day are only different from each other in a successive order, or by continuous degree (HH 38).
Secondly, creation has a simultaneous order, which is not gradual. Here discrete degrees of existence are enveloped within each other without direct access to each other (SS 38, 65; DLW 184). It is in this latter way that the celestial and spiritual senses are said to “be together” (SS 37) with the literal sense in the Word.
The term in Latin for “being together” is sunt simul, which has distinct overtones of time, and therefore of process. In other words, the pages of the book do not contain an inner sense, but in the process of a person reading those pages the inner sense becomes present.
Another interesting understanding that can be drawn from this is considering the literal Word to be a simulation of the celestial and spiritual senses. What’s a simulation? In software engineering a simulation is a program that models in some accessible or graphic way a process that cannot be perceived directly. This is used either for the purpose of study (e.g. simulating the solar system), or for the purpose of interacting with a system in a safe environment (e.g. simulating a Harpoon missile on board of a ship). It is easy to see the study part where the Word is concerned. But the interacting part is there too, in the way of visualizing Divine truths in safe stories. The stories are safe in the sense that they leave the reader free to interpret them any way he wants, and even deny that they mean anything. Divine truth needs this cloaking in order to be received by humans or angels (AC 7270.2). “Truth that goes forth directly from the Divine cannot be heard by anyone, not even by any angel” (AC 6982). So in this way the literal Word is an accommodation of Divine truth, for our safety, our study, and our enlightenment. In case the reader thinks that drawing an analogy with modern software simulations is taking the Writings too far out of context, I would like to refer to Arcana Coelestia 1871, where Swedenborg draws an analogy of the Word with the anamorphoscope. Here the literal sense of the Word is described as presenting “itself before the Lord as the image of a human being in which and by means of which heaven is represented in its entirety, not as it is in fact but as the Lord would like it to be” (AC 1871).
On the other hand, using the analogy of a simulation might convey a false impression, of the literal sense not being the real thing. The Writings deny this again and again. The literal sense is the real thing. “The real holiness of the Word resides in its literal meaning,” and even: “the literal meaning is holier than the other meanings, which are internal” (De Verbo 5.1).