Rev. George F. Dole, Ph.D. (1931-2021)

Reflections on George Dole’s Professional Career

by Jim Lawrence
August, 2021

Rev. George F DoleAfter completing degrees from Yale (B.A.), Oxford (M.A.), Harvard (Ph.D.), and the New Church Theological School (M.Div. equivalent), George Dole was ordained into the ministry of the Swedenborgian Church and joined the pastoral staff at the Church of the New Jerusalem adjacent to Harvard Yard (referred to locally as the Swedenborg Chapel) in 1960. He served in congregational leadership for fourteen years while often teaching as adjunct instructor at the seminary. In 1975 he was hired full time on the seminary faculty. He retired from full time teaching in 2001 and moved to Maine. There he served more than a decade in congregational leadership “in retirement” and importantly continued to teach until his final illness as adjunct professor in videoconferencing classes at the Center for Swedenborgian Studies.

George Dole’s teaching and mentoring skills in classroom settings became the stuff of myth. Students felt on holy ground when working with him due to his unfailing capacity for facilitating discovery and insight. Four qualities cohered in his exemplary teaching presence: an impressive brilliance, a surprising humility, an ability to convey affection for students, and his legendary playfulness as a thinker. Routinely students experienced a sense of real breakthrough in how they understood subjects and how they could live forward with theologically enriched perspectives.

George DoleAs a scholar, Prof. Dole pioneered several original arcs of theory bearing fruit in new ways of understanding theology, history, psychology, natural science, and biblical studies in the intersections of Swedenborgian thought and contemporary discourse. His characteristic method was to take a core Swedenborgian principle and interpret it outward in dialog with various disciplines to see where they might go. Often, they went far.

One formidable long-term project involved his integration of developmental theory in psychology with the overarching inner sense storyline of the Bible. For many years this led to a year-long class simply called English Bible that involved going through the Bible twice—once for the literal historical story of the text, and again integrating developmental theory across the biblical narrative. He taught this spiritual formation view of the Bible to two generations of seminary students, and also took this approach to the larger public in A Book About Us: The Bible and Stages of Our Lives. A second fruitful scholarly project is found in his book A Thoughtful Soul: Reflections from Swedenborg, the most popular overview of Swedenborgian thought with students out of the dozen book-length overviews. Organizing Swedenborgian thought in dialog with contemporary categories of thought provides students with illuminating roadmaps for meaning and purpose journeys.

A third intersection in which he worked for decades is science and theology. One popular early essay, “Image of God in a Mirror,” shapes a creative reflection on the new physics and Swedenborg’s cosmos to construct what could be called “the new Swedenborgian metaphysics” that he would continue to engage continuously in classroom conversations and address in a book-length treatment—his final published book—The Universe and I: Where Science and Spirituality Meet. In yet another example with numerous published versions, the most recent being titled “Swedenborg’s Modes of Presentation, 1745-1771,” Prof. Dole shaped what has become widely regarded as the state of the question on understanding Swedenborg’s writing sequence.

Perhaps his most evolved statement as a theologian can be found in Freedom and Evil: A Pilgrim’s Guide to Hell, a work piqued by a query made by a friend regarding why there weren’t any books on hell during the angel craze decade of the Nineties. Coming at that topic necessitated all of Prof. Dole’s resources as an interpretive theologian, and I regard this work to be the most profoundly representative of his overall worldview. More than one student has remarked it is the best book they’ve ever read about Swedenborgian thought.

The world at large especially sees his name as a translator of Swedenborg. Languages were George’s first love, and he possessed some facility in fourteen languages. He took four years of French and Latin in high school. As a Classics major at Yale he added four more years in Latin, an additional four years of Greek, two of German and Hebrew each, and one of Arabic. At Oxford for his Master’s degree he specialized in Hebrew with Arabic as a “minor.” Returning to Yale for doctoral work, he spent two years studying Akkadian (Babylonian and Assyrian), with additional study in Ugaritic and some exposure to Aramaic, Syriac, and Moabite. After switching to Harvard to finish his doctoral studies, he continued his study of Near Eastern languages with Sumerian while also focusing on German as his primary modern research language, with French as a secondary focus. In his academic career, George translated numerous German texts deemed useful for Swedenborgian studies, and he also, in his words, “picked up enough Swedish and Russian to translate straightforward prose with heavy reliance on dictionaries.”

His renown as a translator of Swedenborg’s Latin into English lies in his conviction that English translations had been marred by a complicated syntax when Swedenborg’s line of thought in Latin tended to be straightforward. Swedenborg’s Latin syntax was as important for effective translation as vocabulary. His celebrated 1975 translation of Heaven and Hellbegan a movement in Swedenborg translation method that is now widespread, and for the New Century Edition he translated five of Swedenborg’s major works– Heaven and Hell, Divine Love and Wisdom, Divine Providence, Revelation Unveiled, and Marriage Love— along with several minor works.

We had among us one who contributed robustly to the spiritual tradition that reared and nurtured him—George liked to remark you can never exhaust or outgrow Swedenborg’s spiritual insights and vision. He proved that best of all, with an abundance of proof living forward in his students and his published works.