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Tuesday, April 29, 2014
Blakes' Christianity III
To many of us the Protestant Reformation represents a breaking free from the oppression of ecclesiastical tyranny. Unfortunately the tyrannies of Luther and Calvin soon replaced those of the Pope, and the conflicts among the various orthodoxies brought about in the 16th and 17th Centuries perhaps the most satanic bloodletting the church has ever experienced.
The Protestant authorities in general were no less rigid theologically than the Romans from whom they had separated. When a German cobbler named Jacob Boehme started talking directly to God, his pastor had him exiled. However the Lord got Boehme's ear and proceeded to talk to him about Oneness, about the emanations coming from the One, the dark side and the light side. The Lord graced Boehme with a fantastically vivid and voluminous imagination; his visions resembled in many ways those of the Christian Gnostics and of Plotinus. They also owed much to the alchemical doctor, Paracelsus.
Boehme went a long way beyond the orthodoxy of either Catholic or Protestant authorities, but a sweetness of spirit pervaded his mind reminiscent of St. Francis and of other simple souls who have walked with God. Cast out by his church, Boehme still won the respect and support of many serious thinkers, products of the liberating currents of Renaissance and Reformation. His friends published his work widely, and it endured the test of time. Almost two hundred years later, in the late 18th Century, it appeared in an English translation attributed to William Law.
This work became one of Blake's primary sources. He seized on Boehme's visions with delight; he recognized in Boehme a creative servant of God who held the imagination as highly as he did himself. Speaking of a series of anthropomorphic metaphysical designs which appeared in Law's Boehme he told Crabb Robinson that "Michaelangelo could not have done better". Much of the Neo-platonic flavor of Blake's work came down to him through Boehme, his most immediate fountain for the heterodox tradition.
For a great many peasants in Germany the Reformation meant little more than a change of masters; nothing really happened. They had been accustomed to doing what they were told by the Pope's priests; now they did what they were told by Luther's priests. Likewise Geneva afforded no real relief from the pervasive spiritual repression, what Blake referred to as the "mind forg'd manacles". Soon after he won power, Calvin had a child beheaded for striking his father; he executed a man named Servetus for denying the Trinity. He and his contemporaries inaugurated a new round of bloodthirstiness decimating the population of Europe, all in the name of Christ! Blake observed all this without the usual conventional blindness and concluded that the Reformation arose through envy of power--a plague on both houses!
But some of the devout did go further than their masters. Some peasants decided that a believer should be baptized after the age of consent; he should even elect his own priest. The Holy Spirit swept across Europe with the Radical Reformation. Free churches arose here and there and were stamped out with great vigor by Catholics and (right wing) Protestants alike. The Romans had never shown such brutality. It was a century to to be thankful you were not born in.
In their efforts to escape extermination the free churchmen wandered across the face of Europe. They found refuge in a few islands of political sanity amidst the general theological madness: Switzerland, Bohemia, Holland. Another of these islands was England. The non-Conformist tradition in England swelled to a climax in the 17th Century. The Puritans came to power about 1642 and six years later went so far as to behead a king.
During the Civil War the anabaptists and radicals-- Levellers, Diggers, Ranters, Quakers, Muggletonians, Fifth Monarchists, etc. etc.--came within an inch of taking over England. For a few years censorship collapsed, and free thought had open season. Every conceivable idea about God and man had its day. The Levellers even questioned the idea of private property. Their religious and social theories were so radical that Cromwell and his confederates found it necessary, for the protection of their middle class values, to return the Crown to the son of the man whom they had beheaded. John Milton had warned them that they would do this unless they learned to control their greed.
The anabaptists and Milton both exercised an overwhelming influence on the mind of William Blake; call them his spiritual grandparents. Milton shared much of the radical theology of the left wing. Even before the Civil War he had expressed his strong anti-priestly bent: "The hungry sheep look up and are not fed". Milton believed that the Church had become hopelessly corrupted by Constantine.
We can summarize this "Blakean vision of Christianity" with the conclusion that Blake thought of the institutional church as one of the powers of the world, under the dominion of the God of this World. He described it with the colorful though not original phrase, "the Synagogue of Satan". Bear in mind that in Blake's eternal vision differences of time and space had little meaning; he made no distinction between the Sadduccees of the Sanhedrin who had condemned Jesus and the Anglican bishops of his own day, one of whom condemned his friend, Tom Paine.
The Contemporary Scene:
Shortly after the publication of Paine's Age of Reason with its deist critique of the Bible,
a certain Bishop Watson replied with an "An Apology for the Bible in a Series of Letters addressed to Thomas Paine". George III commented that he wasn't aware the Bible needed an apology. Blake noted in his "Annotations to Watson's Apology" that "Paine has not attacked Christianity; Watson has defended Antichrist". On the back of the title page Blake wrote: "To defend the Bible in this year 1798 would cost a man his life. The Beast and the Whore rule without control".
The Beast and the Whore, two of the more flamboyant images of Revelation, in Blake's vernacular symbolized respectively the State and the Church.
A State Church:
England has always had a State Church. Although many fat books have been written about it, the English Reformation primarily signified Henry VIII's declaration of independence from the papacy. Through the Middle Ages religious and temporal authority had existed side by side in continuous alliance and usually with a minimum of tension. At the high point of papal authority in 1077 a Holy Roman Emperor waited for three days in the snow outside the door until Pope Gregory VII saw fit to receive him. The Pope considered the kings and princes of Europe his spiritual children.
Henry VIII was a child who grew up. When the Pope denied him permission to put away his wife in favor of a later romantic interest, Henry declared himself in effect the pope of the English Church and gave himself the necessary dispensation. That was the major event of the English Reformation; thereafter the ultimate authority of the Church of England resided with the Crown.
By Blake's standards a State Church is the ultimate abomination. He was aware that in the second century at least one Emperor had attempted to enforce the worship of his person as God throughout the Roman Empire, resulting in considerable persecution of those Jews and Christians who refused. Much of the New Testament addressed the problem. In 312 A.D. Constantine took over the Church and made it an arm of the State. That's the way Blake saw it in the 18th Century.
In America we take for granted the separation of Church and State as a constitutional principle. This limits the sort of power that corrupted Henry VIII. In England many people feel comfortable with a State Church, but traditions of freedom have limited its power. A large proportion of the population exist in religious groups outside of the State Church, and probably an even larger proportion have no significant religious attachment.
Even in Blake's day the tradition of dissent was an accepted part of the established order. True,the State Church operated Oxford and Cambridge for its own purposes, primarily preparing clergymen. But dissenting academies had arisen to provide a form of education in many ways superior to that of the established universities, especially in the new areas of science and industry. Dissenters largely carried out the Industrial Revolution.
The 17th Century had witnessed an explosion of dissent in which the head of State and Church had lost his own head. But the Restoration in 1660 reinstated the former arrangements. The Commonwealth struggle had led to a general disgust with religious controversy. Enthusiasm came to be despised and feared by clergy and laity alike. Conventional 18th Century religion had little to do with the feelings. It was rather an intellectual and political matter.
One of Blake's four zoas, Urizen aptly portrays the God of the majority of Anglicans during Blake's age. The State Church existed as a facade or symbol of order and authority, but with limited power, temporal or spiritual.
The State Church, like the Jewish Sanhedrin, represented a minority of the people, the conservative establishment types, the squirearchy, the people who for centuries had controlled society. Frequently the landowner's younger son became the priest, though his character may have been dissolute. Politics dictated clerical appointments. Pluralism was common, the same man being appointed to a number of church positions. He would hire a curate to look after each parish's affairs, often at a tenth of the income which the parish provided him.
The bishops served primarily as political officials; they spent most of their time in London sitting in the House of Lords, where they generally provided a faithful voting block for the Crown. Tithes were the law of the land and enforced much as the income tax is today, much of the proceeds going to the clergy. It was a convenient arrangement, but it could not last; there was too much dissent, too much growth, too much creativity. Change was overtaking all England's institutions, and the Church was no exception. The religious changes had been quietly gathering force for centuries.
Side by side with Henry VIII's Reformation had existed a grass roots movement which we may call the Radical Reformation. It was made up of less worldly types than Henry, people who took their religion more seriously. One such group departed England in 1619 aboard the Mayflower. Their descendants became the Established Church in New England and spun off dissents from their dissent, like that of Roger Williams.
William Penn brought shiploads of other irregulars to found a new colony. The Pilgrims, the Baptists, the Quakers of necessity learned to coexist--with one another, with other Eurpoean religious groups, and with the Cavaliers of Virginia, who were solidly Anglican. All cooperated in throwing off the yoke of the mother country. In this melting pot religious groups learned to compete in an ecclesiastical form of free enterprise. It represented quite an improvement over the religious wars that had decimated Europe in previous centuries.
The same fluid climate existed in the mother country. Every group that immigrated contained members who remained behind and found a place in English society. The State Church, with its large and unwieldy ecclesiastical bureaucracy, existed alongside an infrastructure of non-Conformist groups. What these groups lacked in political clout they made up for in creativity, character, industry, and commercial acumen.