I was reading the article Do Atheists Go to Heaven? by Swedenborgian minister and scholar Lee Woofenden, in which he says:

Psalm 14 and its variation in Psalm 53 start out:

Fools say in their hearts, "There is no God."

Not "in their heads," but "in their hearts." Saying in your head that there is no God, as your average present-day atheist does, is very different from saying in your heart that there is no God.

This had me curious. "Head knowledge vs. heart knowledge" is a common distinction to make in modern theological discourse, but I figured it was mostly 1) colloquial, and 2) modern. But given the application that a Swedenborgian scholar gives to the concept, I wondered if Swedenborg himself wrote about the distinction. Did he?

1 Answer 1


Head and heart, or love and wisdom, are fundamental to God and the universe

According to the theology of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), the universe and everything in it is quite literally created from and built around the interplay between what is colloquially known as "head and heart," or between love and wisdom, in the more abstract language that Swedenborg commonly uses.

This is the subject of Swedenborg's great philosophical and cosmological work Divine Love and Wisdom, originally published in Latin, Amsterdam, 1763.

In this book, Swedenborg traces the creation of the universe to a divine "marriage" of love and wisdom in God. In God, Swedenborg says, love and wisdom are perfectly balanced. And though they can be distinguished conceptually in our minds, they are in fact inseparable from one another, and always operate together as one.

From this "divine marriage" flows all the power, or action, of God—and of course, all the words, or teachings, of God, which are part of God's power flowing out. This power and truth of God flowing out is known biblically as "the Holy Spirit."

So according to Swedenborg, God consists of:

  1. Love
  2. Wisdom
  3. Action

In Swedenborg's theology, these three are the "Trinity" in the one Divine Person of God, when the Trinity is viewed in abstract terms.

So in their origin in God, "head" and "heart" are, in Swedenborg's words, "distinguishably one" (see Divine Love and Wisdom #14, in which Swedenborg uses the name "the Divine-Human One" for God).

  • Love is the reality, the substance, and the soul of God.
  • Wisdom is the manifestation, the form, and the body of God.

So in God, there is no "hard distinction" between head and heart in the sense that they are somehow radically separate. In fact, they can occur only together with one another, even if we are able to distinguish them conceptually for purposes of analysis. God's "head knowledge" is precisely the same as God's "heart knowledge."

Because the entire created universe comes from God and is an expression of God, this "distinguishable oneness" of love and wisdom, or substance and form, exists throughout the created universe as well, including in human beings, where it is especially manifested in our will and understanding, once again colloquially known as "heart" and "head."

In humans, head and heart can and do become distinguished and separated

Unlike anywhere else in the universe, however, in humans head and heart can seem to be disjointed and separate from one another. In Divine Love and Wisdom #39, Swedenborg writes:

Even though love and wisdom seem to be two separate things in us [humans], essentially they are distinguishably one. This is because the quality of our love determines the quality of our wisdom and the quality of our wisdom the quality of our love. Any wisdom that is not united to our love seems like wisdom, but it is not; and any love that is not united to our wisdom seems like wisdom's love even though it is not. Each gets its essence and its life from the other in mutual fashion.

The reason the wisdom and love within us seem to be two separate things is that our ability to understand can be raised into heaven's light, while our ability to love cannot, except to the extent that we act according to our understanding. So any trace of apparent wisdom that is not united to our love for wisdom relapses into the love with which it is united. This may not be a love for wisdom, and may even be a love for insanity. We are perfectly capable of knowing, from our wisdom, that we ought to do one thing or another, and then of not doing it because we have no love for it.

In short, unlike other animals, we humans are capable of dividing our head from our heart by understanding things that we do not love. In Swedenborg's words, our understanding can be raised into heaven's light even when we do not love what the light of heavenly truth is telling our minds. This is why, as Swedenborg says in the quotation just above, "we are perfectly capable of knowing, from our wisdom, that we ought to do one thing or another, and then of not doing it because we have no love for it."

Eventually, Swedenborg says, our mind will relapse back to the level of our heart. If we persistently do not love and do what our higher understanding instructs us to do, we will revert back to our lower desires—and this will determine our character, whatever mask of outward civility and morality we may put on in public.

However, our ability to see and understand things that are higher, better, and more spiritual than what our sin-prone heart desires, and what our lower self therefore thinks, gives us the ability to be reborn, or regenerated, and thus saved from our fallen and sinful state.

Without this capability to separate head from heart, there would be no check on our sinful desires. We would rush into every kind of evil action with nothing to stop us, since our head would give full assent and assistance to whatever our heart desired.

Before the Flood, humans had no ability to separate head from heart

This, Swedenborg says, was the state of humankind before the Great Flood narrated in Genesis 6-9. By that time, all of humanity except for Noah and his immediate family are described in this way:

The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. . . . Now the earth was corrupt in God's sight and was full of violence. God saw how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways. (Genesis 6:5, 11-12)

Swedenborg interprets this as speaking symbolically about a thoroughly corrupt culture of ancient humans, whose beliefs were completely falsified by the evil in their hearts. He says in Secrets of Heaven #560:

In specific regard to the people of the church before the Flood, they conceived appalling delusions as time passed. The goodness and truth that belong to faith they merged so thoroughly with their foul desires that almost no trace of either was left to them. When they reached this point, they virtually suffocated themselves.

As he explains in more detail in subsequent sections, the people of the various human cultures that existed before the Flood were unable to separate their mind from their heart, or their faith from their desires. Their evil desires caused their beliefs to become utterly false and corrupt as they used their falsified "faith" to justify the wicked and depraved actions that flowed from their evil and sinful hearts. Because of this, they snuffed out all of their spiritual life—a process that is symbolized by the Flood that killed all living beings on earth except those in the ark.

At the time of the Flood, God made a separation between the human head and heart for the sake of our salvation

In order to make it possible for fallen, sin-prone humans to be spiritually reborn, and thus saved, God then brought about a radical change in the human mind and spirit. This change is symbolized by the ark, and in particular by one highly significant detail of the ark's construction:

So make yourself an ark of cypress wood; make rooms in it and coat it with pitch inside and out. (Genesis 6:14, italics added)

In explaining the meaning of the rooms in the ark, Swedenborg says:

The people of this church had to reform. The side of a person called the intellect had to reform first, before it was possible for the other side, referred to as the will, to do the same. So the present passage tells how the contents of the will were separated from those of the intellect and how they were concealed and stored away, so to speak, in order to block off any stimulus to the will. Had the appetites of the will been stirred up, it would have destroyed people. . . .

These two sides, the intellect and will, are as clearly distinguished in us as they could possibly be. (Secrets of Heaven #641, italics added)

In short, at the time of the Flood, God made a distinction and even a separation between the human will and understanding, or head and heart, in order to make it possible for us to be spiritually reformed and reborn. From that point onward our intellect would be able to take the lead, learn what is right and wrong, and impose it upon our will, thus reforming our will, which is our true heart, reality, and character as human beings.

We seem to do this reformation on our own, but in fact it is the Lord God working from within, giving us a new heart, or will, that pairs with the enlightened part of our intellect (which also comes from God) in order to correct our old will, or heart. This process is symbolized in these words from the Prophets:

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. (Ezekiel 36:25-27)

In Swedenborg's interpretation of this passage (see, for example, Apocalypse Explained #587:14; True Christianity #143, #601), the "clean water" is divine truth revealed by God to our thinking mind, and the "new heart" is the new will that God puts in us—a heart filled with love for God and for our fellow human beings—in place of our old, corrupt and greedy "heart of stone."

This process takes place throughout our lifetime on earth for those of us who are being spiritually reborn, or regenerated.

While this process is taking place, we humans have the ability to think one thing and desire another, so that there is a separation between our head and our heart. We can "think" one thing with our heart, and "think" another with our head.

However, when this process is complete, our head and our heart, or our will and our understanding, will once again become united, so that our thoughts and beliefs are fully one with our motives and desires. If this reuniting of head and heart does not take place for us on earth, it will take place in the spiritual world after death, before we find our permanent home in either heaven or hell.

Summary of "head knowledge" vs. "heart knowledge" in various states of human sinfulness and spiritual rebirth, according to Swedenborg's theology

  1. In our unregenerate, sinful state while living here on earth:

    • "The thoughts of our head" are what we have been taught by parents, teachers, ministers, and so on based on the Bible and on principles of civil morality.
    • "The thoughts of our heart" are the fallacious and false ideas that we grasp onto in order to justify and support our selfish and greedy desires.

    As long as we are in an unregenerate (sinful) state, these two are often at odds with one another.

  2. In our regenerating state while living here on earth:

    • Our "head knowledge" is what we've been taught by various teachers, both religious and secular, some of which may actually be faulty and false.
    • Our "heart knowledge" is what we sense to be true in our heart, and actually live by, whatever faulty ideas we may have in our head (such as doctrinal errors or atheism).
  3. In our regenerated, or reborn, state, especially after death when we are living in our permanent home in heaven, there is no distinction between our "head knowledge" and our "heart knowledge." Our head and our heart are in perfect agreement.

  4. In the eternally damned state of those who, while on earth, chose selfishness and greed over love and kindness, head and heart will also perfectly agree—only the heart will be filled with evil desires, and the head will be filled with falsity and illusion that supports and justifies the heart's evil desires.

Sample passages in which Swedenborg distinguishes between what today we would call "head knowledge" and "heart knowledge"

In this passage, Swedenborg speaks of the "perception," or heart-based knowledge, of the earliest people on earth, represented by Adam and Eve before the Fall:

People today have no idea what perception is. It is an inner feeling for whether a thing is true and good—a feeling that can come only from the Lord—which was very familiar to the people of the earliest church. The sensation is so clear for angels that it gives them awareness and recognition of truth and goodness, of what comes from the Lord and what from themselves. In addition, it enables them to detect the character of anyone they meet simply from that person's manner of approach or from a single one of his or her ideas.

Spiritual people [defined elsewhere as intellect-oriented people] have no perception, although they have conscience. People who are lifeless [meaning in a sinful, unregenerate state] do not even have conscience, and many do not know what conscience is, much less perception. (Arcana Coelestia #104, italics added)

Following up on the above description of the earliest people on earth, in this passage Swedenborg talks about how the early human culture represented by "Cain" in Genesis 4 began to separate the head from the heart—a situation that still exists in humans today:

This shows the nature of the earliest church and of its religious thought. Modern times, in which faith comes first, are completely different; but through faith the Lord endows us with charity, and then charity takes highest importance. It follows that religious teachings were falsified in earliest times when people declared their faith and in the process separated faith from love. Those who falsified the religion in this way, dividing faith from love (that is, championing faith alone), were at that time called Cain. To do as they did was scandalous to the earliest people. (Arcana Coelestia #337, italics added)

In other words, the people represented by Cain abandoned the "perception," or "inner feeling for whether a thing is true and good," that their ancestors had enjoyed (which we today would call "heart knowledge"), and instead used their intellect to develop beliefs in their heads, separated from the love in their hearts. However, these intellectually developed beliefs ("head knowledge," in today's language) were actually based on an already corrupted heart, represented by Cain's evil desires and resulting actions against his brother Abel.

In this passage (from an older translation), Swedenborg speaks of a person understanding "truths of faith" (meaning religious beliefs), and then accepting them in the heart:

Conscience in a member of the Church is formed by the truths of faith received from the Word, or from religious teachings drawn from the Word, according to his acceptance of them in his heart. For when a person has a knowledge of the truths of faith and understands them in his own particular way, and then wills and does them, conscience takes shape in him. Acceptance in the heart is acceptance in the will, for a person's will is what is called the heart. (Arcana Coelestia #9113, italics added)

Many more passages could be quoted, but these should be enough to show that Swedenborg did, indeed, identify and distinguish between what we today would call "heart knowledge" and "head knowledge."

For further explanation of these points:

For more on the separation of head and heart symbolically pictured by the ark and its rooms, see my article, "Noah's Ark: A Sea Change in the Human Mind."

For more on the reuniting of head and heart after death, see my article, "What Happens To Us When We Die?" especially the section titled, "Our Second Stage After Death: The Stage of Inward Life."

For more on the application of all of this to "the thoughts of our head" vs. "the thoughts of our heart," and on how we actually go about applying the spiritual knowledge in our head to reforming our fallen and sin-prone heart, see:

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