Neo-platonismWhile the Church Fathers congregated in Rome, Gnosticism had its center in Alexandria, a marketplace of competing religious and philosophical ideas. There in the third century a man named Plotinus gave birth to Neo-platonism, an amalgam of the best of Greek thought with the ethical teachings of Christ. Extremely eclectic, drawing on currents of thought from Rome to India, Plotinus's teachings became the religion of some of the later Roman Emperors.
During the fourth century the religion of Neo-platonism disappeared as a rival of the Church. However it deeply influenced the shape of Christian theology, most notably through the mind of St. Augustine. Augustine in his spiritual journey passed through a Neo-platonic stage, which left its mark upon his Christian life and writing. Augustine occupies an anomalous position in the history of the Church: he is both a Church Father of impeccable reputation and the spiritual forebear of many theologians whose Neo-platonic bent put them on the fringe of orthodoxy:
Erigena, Duns Scotus, William of Ockham, Meister Eckhart are a few of these Neo-platonic Christians. Some of these thinkers succeeded in remaining within the umbrella of the authorized tradition; some were partially or totally cast out. Among them they preserved to theology a breadth and a poetic dimension that burst open the priestly cocoon with the 15th Century Renaissance and the 16th Century Reformation.
The Middle Ages
Through the Middle Ages the successors of the Church Fathers, most notably the authorities at Rome, maintained a fairly firm grip on the shape of theological and intellectual activity. They presided over an age of stability with a gradual leavening of creative change. They aborted many changes in the name of orthodoxy; the aborted change usually went underground to reappear at a more open time and place. The openness most often proved momentary. Creative truth struggled against rigid institutional necessities.
In spite of all the Church periodically gave birth to men and women who, from the platform of the orthodox tradition, were elevated to a direct vision of God. Most of the creative change in the Church originated with such types. The Church rather uniformly discouraged mystical visions of God unless they conformed in full detail to the orthodoxy of the moment. God refused such limitations; the entire period witnessed recurring visions of great diversity. Many of these prophetically judged the priestly position. A long volume could be written about the many prophetic visions which in one way or another resemble that of our poet.
The Church was broad enough to include and even honor many of these free spirits, but the works which followed them in the hands of their more militant disciples generally fell into ill repute. The early Franciscan movement is a case in point. St. Francis preached to his little sisters the birds; he shared the stigmata of Christ and suggested that to share Christ's poverty might be fitting for his disciples, an extremely radical idea which an extremely wealthy pope indulged. But many of Francis' disciples faced persecution of various sorts.
Roughly contemporary with Francis another monk named Joachim of Flora rediscovered for the nth time the dominance of the Spirit over the letter. Preaching what he called the Everlasting Gospel Joachim proposed to dispense with the corrupt and worldly political structures of the establishment and move into a New Age, the era of the Holy Spirit. The New Age would replace the age of the Church; it would be an age of freedom with everyone led directly by the Spirit. Jeremiah had foretold this. Even Moses had said, "would to God that all the Lord's people were prophets". For the creative poet the New Age represented freedom at its best, exactly what Jesus had come to bring us. For most of the priests it represented antinomianism at its worst.
The Everlasting Gospel and the New Age came down the centuries through the various subterranean channels of the heterodox tradition. Swedenborg announced its advent in 1757, which happened to be the year of Blake's birth; Blake noted this with obvious delight in 'The Marriage of Heaven and Hell'. Years later, in the autumn of his life, Blake filled his spiritual journal with a fragmentary poem called 'The Everlasting Gospel'. It was his systematic attempt to set forth in the most direct terms possible his precise view of Christianity and its founder. He probably never concluded the project to his full satisfaction.