Research Paper: William Blake and Religion

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William Blake and Religion

William Blake's religious and mystical imagination, expressed in writing such as the Marriage of Heaven and Hell or the illustrations he did for Dante's Inferno and Milton's Paradise Lost, appears all the more remarkable when considered in the religious and political context of the time. Blake presents an incisive critique of organized religion (embodied in his case by the Church of England), while celebrating the transcendent, expressive potential of mystical and religious thought. Building off of the prophetic, visionary work of Emanuel Swedenborg, who in his book Heaven and Hell claimed to have visited and cataloged the details of heaven, hell, and everything in between, Blake constructs his own interpretation of Christian mythology that explicitly condemns the elements of religion that function to control the individual while celebrating those elements which serve to encourage human creativity and compassion, illuminating what he means when he "describes his destination, which he suggests should be everyone's destination, as a 'perception of the infinite;'" for Blake, the ultimate goal of any religious or mythological system should be the expansion of human knowledge and experience, such that one may begin to perceive the abundance of the universe free from any arbitrary, destructive ideology (Prather 508).

Before addressing Blake's work, and the Marriage of Heaven and Hell in particular, it will be useful to first examine Emanuel Swedenborg's Heaven and Hell, in order to demonstrate how Blake's rebellious, revolutionary approach to religion stems from an earlier strain of mystical religious thought that sought to diminish the coercive, domineering elements of Christianity in favor of human self-determination and individual transcendent experience. In this context, one may understand the term "mystical" to connote a particular approach to religion and metaphysics that focuses itself not on the codified rules and restrictions of organized religion (a kind of metaphysical schema embodied by the Church of England and Roman Catholicism), but rather the transcendent experiences which emerge from "encountering and confronting the orthodoxies of […] personal mythologies" within the larger mythological framework of codified religion (Kaplan 436).

Put another way, this is an approach to religion that does not assume the validity of organized religion as it relates to any transcendent truth, but rather views the interaction between individual consciousness and mythology as the path towards metaphysical knowledge (regardless of whether or not the individual believes that mythology represents reality or is "mere" fiction). In this sense, one can already see how Blake, and to a lesser extent Swedenborg, represent an affront to organized religion, because by definition organized religion represents a disavowal of the individual in favor of top-down ideological control. In contrast, Swedenborg, and especially Blake, favor the interplay between individual expereince and expression and human culture at large, because this interplay is the only process by which humans can ever come to a consensus regarding objective reality and the means of attaining the best kind of life, according to what will benefit human beings the most.

In Heaven and Hell, Swedenborg claims to provide an account of the time when it was "given me to be in company with angels and to talk with as man with man, and also to see what is in the heavens and what is in the hells, and this for thirteen years" (Swedenborg 9). Almost immediately he challenges a central tenet of Christianity, the notion of the Trinity, when he says that "those who into the other life [meaning the afterlife] from within the Church, and who have an idea of three Divine Beings, cannot be admitted into heaven, since their thought wanders from Divine Being to another and it is not allowable there to think three and say one, because in heaven every one speaks from thought" (Swedenborg 9-10). Although a disavowal of the Trinity has existed within the larger discourse of Christianity throughout its history, and is even a part of certain contemporary Christian sects (such as Jehovah's Witnesses), Swedenborg's disavowal of the Trinity is notable because his notion of a singular Lord of Heaven and that Heaven's metaphorical relationship to humanity can be read as a precursor to Blake's eventual argument that God is nothing more or less than the totality of humanity, such that Blake could claim that Jesus "is the only God […] and so am I and so are you" (Bentley 30). While Swedenborg would likely be scandalized by Blake's statement, the fact remains that one can easily indentify a line of contiguity between Swedenborg's conception of a divine humanity and Blake's assertion of this "divinity."

To understand how Swedenborg's view of a singular, personified God can lead to Blake's interpretation of human divinity despite Blake's disavowal of a divine personification apart from humanity, one must explicate the logical chain Swedenborg uses to define and describe his heavenly cosmology. Swedenborg claims "that heaven as one whole represents one man," and that the angels, "knowing that all the heavens and their societies represent one man, […] call heaven the Greatest and the Divine Man" (Swedenborg 35). Swedenborg proposes a fractal nature for heaven, wherein heaven is divided into "innumerable societies," each of which represents man and when taken together represent the Divine Man (Swedenborg 27, 39). From here, he comes to the conclusion:

1. That the Lord is the God of heaven. 2. That the Divine of the Lord makes heaven. 3. That heaven consists of innumerable societies, and that each society is a heaven is less form, and each angel in least. 4. That the entire heaven as a whole represents one man. 5. That each society in the heavens also represents one man. 6. That hence each angel is in perfect human form. All these things lead to the conclusion that the Divine, since it makes heaven, is human in form. (Swedenborg 45).

While Swedenborg's claim that "the Divine […] is in human form" seems to conform to the line in Genesis which states that God made humanity in his image, his claim is somewhat remarkable because he essentially inverts the relationship; humanity is not a reflection of God, but rather the other way around. This concept is central to Blake's view of Christianity, because he argues that "All deities reside in the human breast" (Blake 59).

It should be noted, however, that Blake did not regard Swedenborg's ideas as an entirely unproblematic approach to religion; in fact, he compares Swedenborg to "a man [who] carried a monkey about for a shew, & because he was a little wiser than the monkey, grew vain, & conceiv'd himself as much wiser than seven men" (Blake 69). Blake goes on to argue that while Swedenborg "shews the folly of churches and exposes hypocrites," he ultimately wrote "all the old falsehoods" because "he conversed with Angels who are all religious, & conversed not with Devils who all hate religion, for he was incapable thro' his conceited notions" (Blake 69). Thus, while Blake does take and expand upon both Swedenborg's notion of divine humanity and the centrality of mystical, visionary experience to the attainment of knowledge, he rejects Swedenborg's tendency to fall into the same kind of dogmatic prescriptions as organized religion; for example, though Swedenborg's disavowal of the Trinity leads to the notion of the Divine Man, a concept that has close parallels in Blake's work, Swedenborg's claim that people who believe in the Trinity cannot enter heaven represents precisely the kind of dogmatic, repressive, and arbitrary standards that characterize organized religion.

The point of departure between Swedenborg and Blake, then, can be seen quite clearly in the title of their books, because where Swedenborg purports to describe heaven and hell as representative of a kind of moral dichotomy, Blake attempts to demolish this moralizing dichotomy through the marriage of heaven and hell, by pointing out that "without contraries is no progression. Attraction and repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human experience" (Blake 48). Recognizing this, Blake argues that rather than assuming "that Energy, call'd Evil, is alone from the Body, & that Reason, call'd Good, is alone from the Soul," one actually cannot differentiate between the body and soul, because "that call'd Body is a portion of Soul discern'd by the five Senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age," such that "Energy is the only life, and is from the Body, and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy" (Blake 49).

In other words, Blake is arguing that there is no true dichotomy between desire and constraints on desire, but instead these restraints merely represent the natural boundaries of desire, dictated by "priests of religion who advocate moral rules and notions of order" which have little to no bearing on actual human experience and flourishing (Gilpin 55). As such, any artificial boundaries placed on desire, such as the arbitrary rules of organized religion, represent an affront to humanity, because "those who restrain desire, do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained; and the restrainer or reason usurps its place & governs the unwilling"… [END OF PREVIEW]

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