I give you the end of a golden string, Only wind it into a ball,It will lead you in at Heaven's gate Built in Jerusalem's wall. (Plate 77 of Jerusalem)Late 18th Century Europe existed in a state of rapid transition from medievalism to modernity. The old arrangement of society, a divinely ordained king, a land owning aristocracy, and a marriage of Church and State came increasingly under the attacks of political, economic, and religious progressives. The American Revolution pointed toward the outcome of the struggle. In Europe the decisive event came with the French Revolution and its aftermath.
William Blake lived through those stirring times. His work has great significance as political commentary. Now two centuries later its spiritual dimension has assumed even greater moment. Blake participated passionately in the social and political debates of the day, although few contemporaries heard his voice. It is his place in the spiritual dialogue that exercises the greatest fascination and will probably endure when the other dimensions of his thought have passed into the dust of time.
Blake radically redefined the Christian faith and offered to his own and later generations a religious perspective that takes fully into account the corruptions of the past and the psychological sophistication of the future. It was during Blake's age that religious faith in Europe began to lose its grip upon the minds of men. His generation saw the final breakdown of the Medieval Synthesis and the triumphant emergence of the Age of Reason. He participated in a decisive battle of the eternal war between conservative religionists and liberal rationalists. Though without the bloodshed of earlier days, it was a conflict in which quarter was neither given nor expected. The battle pitted the community of faith, which in the 18th Century suffered an eclipse, against the rationalists, critical men of great brilliance. But none of the rationalists surpassed the brilliance of William Blake, a critical man of faith; their contribution to modern thought had its day; we are still far from catching up with his.
In the battle between faith and reason Blake occupied a unique middle ground. On one hand he constantly attacked an oppressive politico-religious establishment; on the other he just as steadfastly defended a spiritual orientation against the rationalists. This meant for Blake a lifetime engagement on two fronts.
This survey describes and explores the various dimensions of Blake's vision of Christianity. One overriding consideration determined that vision: Blake saw freedom as the primary and ultimate value. The attitudes he expressed toward all institutions, his evaluation of them, the comments he made about them with his poetry and pictures, all these things were determined by the institution's relationship to that supreme value of freedom.
He believed from the depths of his being that coercion in any form is the primary evil. It outweighs and in fact negates any benefit that an established religion may afford. Blake believed that regardless of his professed faith, the leader who uses coercion thereby shows himself to be a follower of the God of this World, the Tempter with whom Jesus dealt in the wilderness.
As a religious thinker Blake customarily receives the designation of radical Protestant. The
seeds of his protest go back far beyond Luther. In his day a more common term was dissenter. Blake protested against and dissented from the authority of the orthodox Christian tradition. We can best understand Blake as a thinker, as a Christian, and as a man in terms of this dissent from orthodoxy. His intellectual life in many ways summarized the history of Christian dissent. His art evoked and drew upon the earlier occurrences of dissent through the centuries.
Blake defined God in terms of vision. Every man has his own vision of God, and no two are exactly alike. Blake spent much of his time and energy describing the superstitious images of God embraced by men in his day as in our own. With his usual extravagant language he was capable of saying something like 'their God is a devil'. He's referring to their vision, their image of God.
Think for a moment about the vision of God of the Inquisitors, of for that matter of Bin Laden. Their God gloried in blood, but not my God, Blake's or yours! Jesus was an obvious dissenter from the orthodox tradition into which he was born. He blithely ignored many of the requirements of respectable Judaism. He repeatedly violated the Sabbath. He felt perfectly free to initiate conversation with unfamiliar women, a gigantic taboo; in fact he spent hours with disreputable characters of both sexes. He ate without washing his hands. All these acts seriously violated the laws of his religious tradition.
In 'The Marriage of Heaven and Hell' Blake claimed that Jesus broke all of the ten commandments and "was all virtue, and acted from impulse, not from rules" (See Chapter Five.) Going beyond mere dissent Jesus attacked the established religious leaders. He called them whited sepulchers, poked fun at them, and encouraged all sorts of insubordination among their followers. Worst of all he set himself up as an alternative authority. In all these ways he directly challenged the religious leaders and provoked them to bring about his execution as a revolutionist.
Jesus perceived death as the ultimate authority or power of the world. On behalf of his ideals and with spiritual power he challenged death, and according to the Christian faith he defeated it; he conquered death. In the words of Paul he "abolished death". Blake understood this in a more existential way than do most Christians. One of his primary themes, running from the very beginning of his poetry until the last day of his life, was the redefinition of death in accordance with the Christian gospel.