We live in a secular age; the reality of God has been largely barred from the consciousness of most people. It is a significant experience for only a minority of the population. Of course many people understand that everyone has a God of some sort--his ultimate concern. But the biblical God, the God of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, is not a live issue in the minds of very many people today. Our foremost modern psychologist, C.G.Jung, quite properly placed God in our unconscious and encouraged us to seek there for him. Jung understood very well Blake's statement that "all deities reside in the human breast" (end of Plate 11 of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell).
Plate 11 of MHH
The secular currents so powerful today were already flowing strongly in the late 18th Century in England. The prevalent deism put God back behind the present scene, a long way behind it. Strictly the Divine Architect, having made the world like a clock, he wound it up and left it to run on its own. He also left the deists to their own devices, and they were happy in this new freedom. They felt that they had learned to control their destinies without divine assistance.
Blake lived in the midst of these currents, but he opposed them emphatically. Unlike the deists he experienced the immediate presence and pervasive reality of God in his life. He completely filled his poetry and pictures alike with metaphysical images because his mind dwelt almost exclusively upon spiritual themes. The material realm interested him only as a shadow of the eternal. He abhored the materialism by which the deists lived. He might have been happier and more at home in the Middle Ages.
But he was also a very modern man. He understood better than Jung that an external objective God is an unknown quantity, a projection of unsophisticated minds:
"Mental things are alone Real....Where is the Existence Out of Mind or Thought? Where is it but in the mind of a Fool?" (Vision of the Last Judgment, Erdman page 565)
The only God anyone can know is the image of God projected upon his mind or enclosed in his consciousness. Since time began, men have shared their visions of God with one another. All religions began in this way. The Bible makes most sense as an infinitely fascinating compendium of the visions of God shared by Moses, Isaiah, Paul and the other writers. This unfolding and composite vision has shaped western culture down to the present moment.
Blake thoroughly surveyed this passing scene, not just the Bible, but every other religious document he could get his hands on, and related them all to his own direct and immediate visions. Over his lifetime he may have taken more liberties with God than any other systematic thinker ever did. He could do this because he so fully realized that all of these visions of God had come forth from human breasts like his own. Moses, Isaiah, and the others were his eternal brothers, and he joyously engaged with them in the eternal war, the intellectual war, which he called the "severe contentions of friendship" (J. 91:17).
The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you (Romans 2:24).
From the beginning Blake realized the close and intimate relationship between a person's image of God and his political views. The authoritarian image in some form finds favor with establishment types, authority figures and all others who perceive their welfare as dependent upon the status quo. These people feel threatened by unrest in the social levels below their own; they look to God, their primary symbol of authority, to control it. They impose this vision of God upon society, and they use their power to control and discourage alternative visions.
Liberal types in contrast more likely entertain an image of a benevolent God, a God of mercy whose basic activity is not to control the lower classes but to lift them up, nurture the needy, provide for the poor, and protect them from the rapacious powerful.
Blake found both types of men among the authors of the Bible; they project the two basic images of God side by side. His simplified schema of interpretation assigned to the two types the designations of priest and prophet. The priest upholds the authority of the past, the authority of tradition. The prophet sees a burning bush and hears a new word which judges the authority and tradition of the priest and invokes a new scene, new ideas, new forms, new life.
Rather obviously Jesus belonged to the prophetic type. He had as a fundamental aim raising our consciousness of the benevolence of God. He incarnated God, and he was supremely benevolent to all but the priestly party. They suppressed him in the flesh, and in his resurrected body they have always attempted to remake him in their image. As he warned, they have used his name to control, suppress, and even exterminate large numbers of people who would not do as they were told. Blake's real mission in life, both before and after his Moment of Grace, was to rescue the world's image of God from the preemption of the priestly party.
The conventional understanding of God is that he will get you and put you in a dark hot place forever if you don't do exactly as you are told, by his priest of course. In 1741, sixteen years before Blake's birth, a New England divine named Jonathan Edwards wrote and delivered a sermon which he named, ""; historians tell us that it scared literally thousands of people into the Christian church. A similiar vision of God Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God has haunted multitudes before and after Blake even down to the present day. Besides the superstitious fear it has aroused, this understanding of God has contributed to oceans of blood shed by well meaning Christians through the ages.
Relating this conventional understanding to one of Blake's earliest experiences, his brief career in school yields a distinctive image of God as a Transcendental Schoolmaster. As soon as Blake reached the age of reason, he rejected such a God as radically and unequivocally as he had rejected the flesh and blood schoolmaster. He saw such an image of God standing at the apex of a pyramid of human unhappiness, of exploitation, oppression, misery and hatred. He saw the divine right of kings and all those who derive their authority from the Crown. He saw their lackey priests extorting tithes from the people, collected by the 18th century equivalent of the IRS, and often giving little in return.
He saw the emerging divine right of industrialists to work seven year old children fourteen hours a day at hard labor and reward them with a pittance. This image of God was most horrendously embodied in the judges and executioners who disposed of the child criminals. He saw the press gangs with royal authority to capture and drug anyone lacking upper class credentials; their poor victims woke up aboard ship in a state of virtual slavery, and following the brave Roman tradition they learned to fear their officers more than the enemy. Blake felt an intense mystic union with the suffering masses and even the suffering masters: he knew that a prison officer has to be just as sick as the men he guards.
Marriage of Heaven and Hell
Schizophrenia might be the normal reaction to certain social conditions.
The August Schoolmaster exists to enforce good and to prohibit or punish evil. The trouble with good and evil is that in this fallen world they are always defined by the man with the biggest stick. He of course sees himself as the likeness of God, God's earthly representative. So the most oppressive tyrant, the most colossal mass murderer, the most authentic Caesar becomes the Son of Heaven. The list is long and gruesome, and Blake knew his history.