William Blake and the Role of Myth in the Radical Christian Vision by Thomas J.J. Altizer
In rejecting the urgent plea that is made again and again in our day that we return to the sacred center of archaic myth, Herbert Weisinger justly notes that the history of myth has been the history of the demythologizing of myth. He then insists that any attempts to revive myth as a viable organ of belief are doomed to failure: "For we must remember that belief in myth is not a personal attainment alone; it is more, much more so, a social phenomenon and depends for its efficacy on group acceptance and adherence; a private myth, however admirably expressed in whatever form, is therefore an ultimate, irreconcilable contradiction." Few contemporary theologians would disagree with this statement, but we might well expect that many of Weisinger’s brothers in arms, the literary critics, would raise a cry of protest against this seeming assault upon the reality of the individual mythical vision. Have we not learned in our century that the great poets are mythmakers or myth-transformers, that the forms of poetry are transmutations of archaic ritual forms, and that the poet symbol is an interiorization or a revalorization of the religious symbol? True, the modern poet -- as exemplified, in widely divergent ways, by a Joyce and a Kafka -- has given himself in large measure to a reversal of our mythical traditions. But is it not true, nevertheless, that the poetic vision is a form of the mythical vision?
Too many critics, both literary and theological, believe that at bottom the mythical vision is identical with the archaic vision, and thus the are persuaded that a mythical language can only be created and employed in the context of a primordial, a prehistoric, or a pre-rational human situation. Certainly a private myth must be an ultimate and irreconcilable contradiction if we assume that the mythmaker must be the priestly or ritual spokesman of a pre-literate society. Yet once granted that a genuine form of the mythical vision remains a possibility for civilized or historical man, and that myth itself is a creation of the human imagination, then it follows that a private myth is not only a possibility but is indeed the inevitable form by which a new or revolutionary myth will first appear in history.
The real issue at hand is whether or not there can be an individual and interior mythical vision, a vision that is not simply the reflection of an ancient mythical tradition, but a new creation, a vision that reflects and unveils a new form of the cosmos and history. All of us know that the old myths are dead. But does this mean that myth itself has died? Are we immersed in a world in which a total vision is no longer a possibility? Can myth in our time be no more than a dead fragment of the forgotten past or a pathological aberration of the sick mind? Or is the mythmaker in our seemingly post-Christian world doomed to be the gravedigger of the Christian God, the seer who can but name the darkness that has descended with the eclipse of our sun? Has the wheel now come full circle; must we return to the night of our beginning with no hope of another day? Have we lost the very power to name the darkness of our night? Ours is a situation that is peculiarly open to the vision of the most radical of all modern Christian visionaries, William Blake, for no poet or seer before him had so profoundly sensed the cataclysmic collapse of the cosmos created by Western man. Yet Blake celebrated this collapse as the way to a total and apocalyptic transfiguration of the world. Can Blake’s vision be truly meaningful to us? Is the mythical world which he created one that can enter our consciousness and redirect our sensibility? Can we through Blake know a new form of the human hand and face, and a new direction of the vast cosmos about and beyond us? To the extent that these questions can be answered affirmatively we have a decisive means also of answering affirmatively the question of whether or not myth can assume a new and revolutionary form.
One cry is ever upon Blake’s lips as he sings one song in myriad forms: "Awake! awake O sleeper of the land of shadows, wake; expand!" ( Jerusalem 4:6). Man, the cosmos, reality itself --having fallen into division, generation, and decay -- now sleep the sleep of eternal death. The fall is not a once and for all event, it is an eternal process, an eternal round of darkness and horror, even though that horror has assumed the illusory light of a fallen sun. Poets and prophets must name the horror; but the very act of naming stills its power, unveils its darkness, bringing light to darkness itself. Blake reveals that finally the poet and the prophet are one; the piper whose song brings joy to the child is the lamb whose pain both challenges and defies the tyrannic wheels of experience. If innocence and experience, the two contrary states of the human soul, must culminate in a common vision, then that vision must act upon that which it portrays. It must affect that which it reflects because vision is possible only by means of a transformation of its matter, a loosening of the stones that bind fallen man to his divided state. Poet and prophet must pronounce and act a No upon the world about and within them. Only on the basis of this No can authentic vision appear. The power and scope of vision depend inevitably upon the comprehensiveness of its rejection and reversal of experience. Blake, like his Old Testament prophetic forebearers, would appear to have spent his life and work in final no-saying; but that no-saying is dialectical. On its ground, and only on its ground, appears the yes-saying of apocalypse.
Just as Blake, the purest lyricist of English poetry, was destined by his very vision to become the most original seer in Christendom, so innocence must become experience, and the imagery of experience must reflect a night which has become all-encompassing, allowing no residue of light or purity to escape its awesome totality. Albion -- Blake’s symbol of the universal and cosmic "Man"-- falls into the depths of darkness, and his fall is not only the fall of man but of all reality whatsoever. No God or heaven remains above or beyond this round of suffering and chaos, no realm of goodness or truth is immune to this universal process of descent, no primordial paradise or Eden remains open to ecstatic entry. In the light of Blake’s vision, the fall is all, and, dialectically, the very fullness of his vision derives from the totality of its fallen ground: vision cannot reverse all things unless it initially knows them in a fallen form. An eschatological end can only follow a primordial beginning, but that beginning is not creation, it is fall. This is not fall as a primordial and distant event, but as a continual and present process, a process that has become identical with the very actuality of existence itself. Consequently we must not be appalled at the centrality of the image of the fall in Blake’s work; we must not be dismayed that he very nearly succeeded in inverting all of the established categories of Western thought and experience. We must rather recognize that it is precisely this act of dialectical inversion which prepares the way for the apocalyptic vision of genuine faith. Faith is vision, proclaims Blake and every seer. But vision can neither arise nor be consummated apart from a transformation of the totality of experience. If faith is to become real in this final sense, it must ground itself in a dialectical reversal of everything which has passed through the "dark Satanic Mills" of history and the cosmos.
Blake’s vision was ever circular and fluid. Characters and images move within and without his range in a perplexing manner; no real system is present in his work. Instead, we find a poetic or prophetic consistency arising from a series of dominant, if evasive, motifs. From the beginning, he rebelled against God, or against the God then present in Christendom, ironically disguising his attack by presenting him under the guise of a number of simple though powerful symbols, the most successful of which is surely the "Tyger." For the early Blake, the passionate rebel, God is the primary product and agent of repression, his law the deepest obstacle to liberty and joy. Yet the transcendent and wholly other God is not eternal; only when "Thought chang’d the infinite to a serpent" did God become a "tyrant crown’d" (Europe 10:16-23). The first chapter of The Book of Urizen opens with these lines:
Lo, a shadow of horror is risen
In Eternity! Unknown, unprolific,
Self-clos’d, all-repelling; what Demon
Hath form’d this abominable void,
This soul-shudd’ring vacuum? Some said
"It is Urizen." But unknown, abstracted,
Brooding, secret, the dark power hid.
Here, Urizen appears as the Creator who, unseen and unknown, divides and measures space by space in his "ninefold darkness." Thus Urizen -- or the Christian God -- is a product of the fall. His very holiness, his mysterium tremendum, is created out of his dark solitude, where as he proclaims, "Here alone I" have written:
"Laws of peace, of love, of unity,
Of pity, compassion, forgiveness;
Let each chuse one habitation,
His ancient infinite mansion,
One command, one joy, one desire,
One curse, one weight, one measure,
One King, one God, one Law."
(Book of Urizen 4:34-40)
The figure of Urizen undergoes many transitions and transformations as Blake’s vision unfolds, until he finally disappears in Jerusalem. Always, however, he is associated with the iron laws of the present creation, the repressive laws of morality, and the tyranny of governments and history. His realm is the icy and shadowy north, but his true abode is a solitary void, for the God who alone is God can only be evolved out of absolute solitude. Urizen is a peculiarly Blakean creation, and while he may initially have been little more than a parody of the Christian God, he gradually but surely brings to expression much of the fullness of Blake’s pathos. Increasingly, Blake scholars are agreeing that in the period roughly between 1797 and 1807 Blake’s work and vision underwent a decisive transformation. During this period he wrote and rewrote and then finally abandoned Vala or The Four Zoas, he executed many of his most important paintings and designs, and he began engraving the plates for Milton and Jerusalem. As G. E. Bentley Jr.’s critical study of Vala demonstrates, Blake’s frequent and disorderly revisions of this manuscript epic reveal his own movement into a Christian and redemptive understanding of history, an understanding that could not be reconciled with the initial direction of the poem. We have few clues to the personal ground of this transformation, the most important being a letter that Blake wrote to his patron, William Hayley, on October 23, 1804:
For now! O Glory! and O Delight! I have entirely reduced that spectrous Fiend to his station, whose annoyance has been the ruin of my labours for the last passed twenty years of my life. . . . I speak with perfect confidence and certainty of the fact which has passed over me. . . . Suddenly, on the day after visiting the Truchessian Gallery of pictures, I was again enlightened with the light I enjoyed in my youth, and which has for exactly twenty years been closed from me as by a door and by windowshutters. . . . I thank God with entire confidence that it shall be so no longer -- he is become my servant who domineered over me, he is even as a brother who was my enemy.
When we reflect that in this letter Blake is thanking God that he, Blake, has passed through a darkness that is presumably God’s alone, we must be aware that we are confronting a theological paradox of the first order. Furthermore, at the conclusion of The Four Zoas, Urizen himself has been transposed into Satan, the Spectre or Selfhood of the mature Blake.
At this point we must fully recognize that Blake committed the blasphemy of blasphemies by identifying the biblical God as Satan. Not only did Blake leave numerous personal statements to this effect, but in his supreme pictorial creation, his illustrations for the Book of Job (and Blake, like Kierkegaard, ever identified himself with Job), he depicted God as Satan on the magnificent eleventh plate, and did so in fulfillment of his own vision, in this work, that redemption can take place only after the transcendent and numinous God has been recognized as Satan or Selfhood (cf. Joseph Wicksteed’s study of the Job illustrations). Blake concludes The Gates of Paradise by addressing these words to Satan:
Tho’thou art Worship’d by the Names Divine
Of Jesus & Jehovah, thou art still
The Son of Morn in weary Night’s decline,
The lost Traveller’s Dream under the Hill.
This identification is a consistent motif throughout Blake’s later work and it underlies his whole prophetic vision of the apocalypse. In Milton, Satan has taken on all of the former functions of Urizen, only here Satan does not declare "I am God Alone" until he establishes the law of repression (9:25). Now, Satan is the Spectre of Albion who made himself a God and destroyed the "Human Form Divine" (32:13); as such he is "Chaos" dwelling beyond the skies (20:33). This vision of God as Satan is consummated in Jerusalem where the Spectrous Chaos says to Albion, "that Human Form you call Divine is but a Worm," and then reveals that God is the "Great Selfhood, Satan" (33: 1-24)
Although the identification of God as Urizen or Satan is a consistent and dominant theme of Blake’s work, his later writings record a dark, if powerful, vision of a contrary motif, a vision of a kenotic movement in the Godhead leading to the redemption of a cosmic humanity. This vision arises in the context of a new and apocalyptic understanding of the "Mystery" of the Godhead. When Blake sees Satan within the dark Selfhood of Milton’s shadow, he sees a "Human Wonder of God" reaching from heaven to earth, a "Human Form" revealing the monstrous Churches of a perverse innocence and the dark Gods of Hell (Milton 37:14-16). There follows an apocalyptic epiphany of these Gods in the twenty-seven heavens and their churches of the Antichrist. But in Jerusalem this epiphany is consummated in Jesus’ triumphantly breaking through the central zones of death and Hell and opening eternity in time and space (Jerusalem 75:21).
With the dawn of the apocalypse God appears in his final form as Hell itself, for then he is fully incarnate as Ulro or Hell, and Jesus must break through that Hell to usher in eternity. This vision stands within the Christian theosophical tradition of Erigena, Boehme, and Schelling, with its witness to the dialectical and historical movements of the Godhead. Blake’s vision is more consistently kenotic, for it fully identifies God with the dark abyss or evil potency of the Godhead even while unveiling the goal of this potency as being wholly redemptive. If the young Blake delighted in greeting Satan as a redemptive figure, and an older Blake was overwhelmed and almost crushed by a realization of the deeper consequences of the divine identity of Satan, the regenerate Blake was finally able to name Satan as Jesus, thereby unveiling the redemptive goal of the fallen world of experience.
Blake was an apostle to the Gentiles, and his message brings forth the same offense in his readers that is always induced by an authentic proclamation of the Gospel. That offense is most deeply present in Blake’s devotion to "Jesus only" (the motto of Jerusalem), in his call to all mankind to accept the goal of becoming identical with Jesus, and in his conviction that Jesus is the "Universal Humanity." If only because of his faith in Jesus we must acknowledge that Blake is a Christian seer, but he is by far the most Christocentric of Christian visionaries, despite the fact that his revolutionary vision of Jesus arose out of a rebellion against the "Christian Christ."
Why should Blake have given such reverence to the name of Jesus? Why believe that Jesus’passion is present throughout history, that Jesus is the lamb who is slain in all his children, and that only Jesus can save us from our destructive Selfhood? How could one who, was so overwhelmingly committed to the universal redemption of humanity make such absolute claims for a particular historical figure? Moreover, the actual name of Jesus was every bit as sacred to Blake as it is to those Eastern practitioners of Hesychism who pronounce the name of Jesus as the path to salvation. This is because Jesus’ name has an historical actuality for the Christian -- even for so radical a Christian as Blake -- that is matched by no other. True, such names as Krishna and Kali, and Amithabba and Avalokitesvara, have a comparable redemptive power to the bhakti Hindu and Buddhist; but bhakti religion, whether in its Christian or non-Christian forms, has an inevitable tendency to dissociate the sacred name from the actualities of concrete experience. Blake passionately resisted this transformation of experience into innocence, and while he could not always withstand the temptations of a traditional Christian imagery and iconography, he did so in his greatest vision (e.g., the face of Jesus is not present in the designs of Jerusalem). No doubt the name of Jesus will disappear in the apocalypse, and the radical or spiritual Christian need have no reason to believe that it must be employed by the non-Christian; yet the reality underlying his name is the innermost reality of the Christian faith.
Already in the Songs of Innocence there is an underlying vision of the omnipresence of the passion of Jesus, and as Blake gradually but decisively came to see that passion in every concrete pain and sorrow, he was prepared to celebrate the naked horror of experience as an epiphany of the crucified lamb of God. "Experience," as Milton 0. Percival says, "is with Blake the essence of regeneration." But experience is found only in the fallen world of generation, a world that Blake symbolically associated with the loins, since the very purpose of generation is its gift of life. Having long believed that everything that lives is holy, Blake finally came to see the world of generation as the incarnate body of Christ:
"O holy Generation, Image of regeneration!
O point of mutual forgiveness between Enemies!
Birthplace of the Lamb of God incomprehensible!
The Dead despise & scorn thee & cast thee out as accursed, Seeing the Lamb of God in thy gardens & thy palaces
Where they desire to place the Abomination of Desolation." (Jerusalem 7:65-70)
Generation, as the fullness of passion that is present in sexual energy, is not simply the source of life, but in its own form and direction is the temporal image of the process of redemption. Consequently, generation will not have fulfilled its function until it makes Christ manifest in the fullness of experience. Experience itself, therefore, is only truly consummated in the passion of generation where the spontaneous expression of bodily energy duplicates and even makes incarnate in each individual body the universal process of the kenosis or emptying of the Godhead. The lamb of God sports in the gardens of sexual delight because these gardens are palaces of self-annihilation and mutual forgiveness. The ecstasy of liberation that is the gift of sex reverses the repressed energy of a fallen body, and resurrects the dead who are enslaved to an alien law and an inhuman Creator. Yet Satan has sealed the process of generation in a veil of repression; the sheer immediacy of delight has passed under condemnation and become the very essence of the forbidden, as the "Abomination of Desolation" has been erected in the temple of Christ. Therefore the Incarnation will not be complete until the body of Satan is transformed into Jerusalem, for then the passion of Jesus will appear in its full form as a regenerate experience.
Paradoxically, sexual generation simultaneously appears in Blake’s vision both as the repressed product of Satan’s "mills" and as the most immediate arena of the process of regeneration. Jesus, who is the incarnation of the primordial passion of "Luvah," is at once the dark body of Satan and the redemptive body of holiness:
"A Vegetated Christ & a Virgin Eve are the Hermaphroditic
Blasphemy; by his Maternal Birth he is that Evil-One
And his Maternal Humanity must be put off Eternally,
Lest the Sexual Generation swallow up Regeneration.
Come Lord Jesus, take on thee the Satanic Body of Holiness!"
Despite those critics who cite this fragment of Blake’s vision as evidence of a Gnostic hatred of the body, we have only to recall his continual and ecstatic celebration of sexuality and the body to recognize these lines as containing a vision of the regeneration and reversal of a fallen sexuality. The hermaphroditic blasphemy is a generated or vegetated Christ and a virgin Eve -- the orthodox image of Christ, for the Church castrated Jesus when it locked the memory of his generation in the image of a virgin birth, just as it dehumanized and falsely spiritualized his body in its belief in the ascension. Yet Jesus continually reverses his "Maternal Humanity" by becoming incarnate in a satanic body of holiness. His very existence in a generated body challenges Satan’s repression and initiates the process of reversing the fallen energy of the body. This movement of reversing the world of experience is the process of regeneration, and it occurs only in the full actuality of the body. For the living energy of the body is not only the image of regeneration, but is itself the most immediate manifestation of the incarnate body of Jesus. What the Church knows as the descent of Christ into Hell is not, according to Blake’s vision, a descent apart from the body, but rather a descent into the very depths of bodily repression, a descent that is only consummated in the identification of Jesus’ "Satanic Body of Holiness" with the totality of the cosmos, and its consequent presence as the redemptive fire of passion throughout the whole body of humanity.
For the first time in the history of Christian imagery, Blake has given the world a dynamic image of the cosmic Christ. Blake’s "atheism" was not simply a prophetic reaction to the appearance in his time of a non-redemptive God of power and judgment, but more deeply was a radical Christian response to a divine sovereignty that stands apart from the kenotic movement of the Incarnation. By coming to know the total presence of God in the Incarnation, Blake and every radical Christian is liberated from the God who is wholly other than man, and likewise liberated from the authority of a heteronomous law and an autonomous Creator. To the spiritual or radical Christian, the very name of Jesus not only symbolizes but also makes actually present the total union of God and man, and for that reason it likewise gives witness to a concrete reversal of history, and a dawning apocalyptic transfiguration of the cosmos. The name of Jesus embodies the promise of these final things while simultaneously calling for a "Self-annihilation" that issues in a total identification with our neighbor. Truly to pronounce his name is to give oneself to Jesus as he is manifest in the weak and broken ones about us, and as he is present in the darkness, the anonymity, and the chaos of a fallen history. Consequently, Blake reveals that a fully Christian repetition of the name of Jesus annuls those empty spaces separating man from man, and man from God. The passion of Jesus is the fulfillment of the solitary and transcendent God’s kenotic movement into man; the Jesus whom Blake names as the seventh eye of God comes and freely dies to reverse God’s distant and satanic form. God himself passes through "Self-annihilation" in Jesus’ passion, and, as a result of that passion, and by repeating Jesus’ passion in the actuality of experience, the Christian can discover a new and joyous humanity, a humanity that is born only by means of the death of God: "Thou art a Man, God is no more" (The Everlasting Gospel).
Blake proclaims the Jesus whose redemptive presence makes present once again the actuality of the death of God. With the death of God every alien law and authority has been stripped of its foundation, the spaces separating man from man have been bridged, and the irreversibility of past moments of time has been annulled.
Jesus said: "Wouldest thou love one who never died
For thee, or ever die for one who had not died for thee?
And if God dieth not for Man & giveth not himself
Eternally for Man, Man could not exist; for Man is Love
As God is Love: every kindness to another is a little Death
In the Divine Image, nor can Man exist but by brotherhood."
We exist as "Man" only by knowing that God is love. Yet we only know his love by knowing the presence of Jesus, a presence wherein God eternally dies for man; and by practicing the reality of God’s love as mediated through Jesus, we ourselves effect the death of God. The God who eternally dies for man is the God who is kenotically incarnate in every alien other. His dying dissolves that other, and his death in Jesus initiates the apocalypse. Once God has died in Jesus, he is present only in Jesus’ resurrected body, and that body is the cosmic body of a new humanity. No way to this body is present in the memories and traditions of the Church -- for the Church can only know the past and particular body of Jesus, the crucified body in the tomb, since the Lord of the ascension has negated the human and living body of Jesus. The new body that is created by Jesus’ passage into death -- by the voluntary death of God in Jesus -- is the body of the incarnate God who has totally identified himself with experience.
Finally, Blake’s Christian vision reveals that Jesus is the name of the totality of experience, an experience that is born with the abolition of repression, and that is potentially present wherever there is life. Jesus is the "Eternal Vision," the "Divine Similitude," which if man ceases to behold, he ceases to exist:
"Mutual in one another’s love and wrath all renewing
We live as One Man; for contracting our infinite senses
We behold multitude, or expanding we behold as one,
As One Man all the Universal Family, and that One Man
We call Jesus the Christ. . . ."
Truly to pronounce the name of Jesus is to pierce the darkness of a fallen condition and to give witness to the ultimately human reality of experience. The Blake who declares that God is Jesus (Laocoon engraving) is the Blake who envisioned an experience that is totally fallen and totally human at once. Jesus is the name of the God who has become totally incarnate in experience -- even unto death -- and his death has been consummated in the advent of "The Great Humanity Divine." Perhaps only a poet would have dared to speak of "The Great Humanity Divine" as Los or the human imagination:
Then Jesus appeared standing by Albion as the Good Shepherd
By the lost Sheep that he hath found, & Albion knew that it
Was the Lord, the Universal Humanity; & Albion saw his Form
A Man, & they conversed as Man with Man in Ages of Eternity.
And the Divine Appearance was the likeness & similitude of Los.
William Blake is the only poet ever to have created an apocalypse or a fully apocalyptic work of art -- for, according to Northrop Frye, Milton and Jerusalem are inseparable, and constitute a "double epic," a prelude and fugue on the same subject. When we reflect that the original message of Jesus was an eschatological proclamation of the dawning of the Kingdom of God, that the patristic Church transformed this message by a dissolution and elimination of its apocalyptic ground, that, ever since, the dogmatic and ritual foundations of the orthodox Church have been non-apocalyptic, and that it has only been in the non-verbal arts that Christendom has produced an apocalyptic imagery, then on this ground alone we would be fully justified in pronouncing Blake to be a revolutionary artist and seer. To understand the theological significance of this fact, we must first draw together those points at which Blake is a unique Christian visionary. Upon careful analysis, at least ten such points become apparent: (1) Blake alone among Christian artists has created a whole mythology; (2) he was the first to discover the final loss of paradise, the first to acknowledge that innocence has been wholly swallowed up by experience; (3) no other Christian artist or seer has so fully directed his vision to history and experience; (4) to this day his is the only Christian vision that has openly or consistently accepted a totally fallen time and space as the paradoxical presence of eternity; (5) he stands alone among Christian artists in identifying the actual passion of sex as the most immediate epiphany of either a demonic or a redemptive "Energy," just as he is the only Christian visionary who has envisioned the universal role of the female as both a redemptive and a destructive power; (6) his is the only Christian vision of the total kenotic movement of God or the Godhead; (7) he was the first Christian "atheist," the first to unveil God as Satan; (8) he is the most Christocentric of Christian seers and artists; (9) only Blake has created a Christian vision of the full identity of Jesus with the individual human being (the "minute particular"); and (10) as the sole creator of a post-biblical Christian apocalypse, he has given Christendom its only vision of a total cosmic reversal of history.
Of course, Blake belongs to a large company of radical or spiritual Christians, Christians who believe that the Church and Christendom have sealed Jesus in his tomb and resurrected the very evil and darkness that Jesus conquered by their exaltation of a solitary and transcendent God, a heteronomous and compulsive law, and a salvation history that is irrevocably past. Despite its great relevance to our situation, the faith of the radical Christian continues to remain largely unknown, and this is so both because that faith has never been able to speak in the established categories of Western thought and theology and because it has so seldom been given a visionary expression (or, at least, the theologian has not been able to understand the radical vision, or even perhaps to identify its presence). It can be said, however, that the radical Christian invariably attempts by one means or another to return to the original message and person of Jesus with the conviction that such a return demands both an assault upon the established Church and a quest for a total or apocalyptic redemption. Here, everything depends upon the meaning of an apocalyptic redemption. Its original meaning was certainly lost in the long history of Christendom, and the radical Christian faces the task not only of discovering that meaning, but of mediating it in a new and "spiritual" form to his own time and situation.
A revealing light can now be cast upon the problem of the distinctive meaning of an apocalyptic faith by comparing that faith -- particularly as it is present in the radical Christian -- with the higher religious expressions of mysticism. Fundamentally, the purer forms of mysticism effect an interior dissolution of that experience which has accrued to man in the course of his history, abolishing thereby both man’s autonomous selfhood and his attachment to all exterior reality, and leading simultaneously to a total identification with and immediate participation in an all-encompassing ultimate Reality. Oriental mysticism, particularly in its Indian forms, knows this ultimate Reality as an absolute quiescence, although this quiescence is apprehended as a cosmic Totality. Moreover, this Totality is a primordial Reality; it is both the underlying identity of all reality, and the original form of the cosmos. Therefore, the way of Oriental mysticism is a way backwards to the primordial beginning. While this original Totality comprehends and in fact unifies all those antinomies that have evolved in the course of the history or movement of the cosmos, it remains an eternal and unmoving Totality which at bottom has never ceased to be itself. It could even be said that Oriental mysticism must identify movement as the source of the "fall": only through the advent of motion, process, and energy does the cosmos assume a fallen form, despite the fact that neither movement nor the "fall" can here be judged to be ultimately real.
Now it is precisely at this point that we must acknowledge a seemingly unbridgeable gulf between the worlds of Oriental mysticism and Biblical eschatology. Eschatological faith is the expression of an immediate participation in the "Kingdom of God" -- an apocalyptic symbol that was never assimilated by Christian theology. But that "Kingdom" is a dynamic epiphany of a Godhead in process of realizing itself. So far from existing as a static and timeless Totality, here the Godhead appears and is real only insofar as it is an active process of negating the fallen form of history and the cosmos. An eschatological faith that celebrates the "dawning" of the Kingdom of God cannot know the God who alone is God, just as it cannot know an inactive and quiescent Godhead. The God whom it proclaims is present solely in his Kingdom, and that Kingdom is a forward-moving process effecting an absolute transformation of the world. Consequently, the way of eschatological faith is a way forwards to an ultimate and final Eschaton, and that Eschaton is a once-and-for-all decisive event which will be both a fulfillment of the total movement of the Godhead and a realization of a final paradise which must wholly transcend the paradise of the beginning.
Hopefully we should now be in a position to ascertain something of the meaning both of an apocalyptic faith and of a poetic apocalypse which embodies that faith in a concrete expression. Such a faith revolves about a response to the advent of the final Eschaton; it must be a total response to reflect the all-encompassing finality of the Eschaton, for it knows God’s acts as being already present. These acts are present solely in a dynamic and forward-moving process that even now is reversing the totality of history and the cosmos, and therefore effecting an absolute transformation of a Totality that is human, cosmic, and divine. Only by abandoning its original faith in the dawning Kingdom of God that is in actual process of realizing itself could orthodox Christianity arrive at its belief in the transcendent and solitary God who is the Wholly Other. When the reality of God is eschatologically identified with his dawning Kingdom, then God can be known only as an active and apocalyptic process that even now is becoming all in all.
Apocalyptic faith is the inevitable expression of an immediate and total participation in the dawning "Kingdom." It must reflect a cosmic reversal that is bringing an "end" to the world, and thus it must give witness to a forward-moving process that is transforming the foundations of the cosmos. An authentic witness to the meaning of this process must incorporate a vision of a world that is ceasing to be itself, of a Godhead that is kenotically becoming its own Other, and of a new humanity that is passing into the final paradise. This is precisely the function of a poetic apocalypse. Accordingly, such an apocalypse must be an imaginative disclosure of a universal and kenotic process that moves through an absolute and total negation to reach the epiphany of a divine and human Totality that thereby becomes all in all.
Blake and every radical Christian seer have not only issued a violent protest against the "Christian God," but they have likewise condemned the mystery and repression of religion as a fundamental obstacle to the realization of a union with the life and Word of Jesus. While the radical Christian tends to identify "religion" with the established beliefs and practices of the Christian Church, it is nonetheless true that a new form of Christianity appears in the radical Christian which establishes a new and deeper gulf between Christianity itself and the world of non-Christian religion. If we allow Blake’s apocalyptic vision to stand witness to a radical Christian faith, there are at least seven points from within this perspective at which we can discern the uniqueness of Christianity: (1) a realization of the centrality of the fall and of the totality of fallenness throughout the cosmos; (2) the fall in this sense cannot be known as a negative or finally illusory reality, for it is a process or movement that is absolutely real while yet being paradoxically identical with the process of redemption; and this because (3) faith, in its Christian expression, must finally know the cosmos as a kenotic and historical process of the Godhead’s becoming incarnate in the concrete contingency of time and space; (4) insofar as this kenotic process becomes consummated in death, Christianity must celebrate death as the path to regeneration; (5) so likewise the ultimate salvation that will be effected by the triumph of the Kingdom of God can take place only through a final cosmic reversal; (6) nevertheless, the future Eschaton that is promised by Christianity is not a repetition of the primordial beginning, but is a new and final paradise in which God will have become all in all; and (7) faith, in this apocalyptic sense, knows that God’s Kingdom is already dawning, that it is present in the words and person of Jesus, and that only Jesus is the "Universal Humanity," the final coming together of God and man.
Just as the full meaning of Blake’s vision continues to elude his contemporary interpreter, so, too, the theologian has yet to unravel both the foundations and the implications of a radical Christian faith. One conclusion, however, is inescapable: a new form of faith is present in the radical Christian, a form that seemingly inverts its orthodox counterpart, and which yet claims to be a recovery and renewal of the original message and person of Jesus. Both the secular and the priestly mind will no doubt continue to identify this radical faith as "atheistic," yet no responsible judgment could deny that radical Christianity does embody a strange rebirth of the long lost eschatological foundations of Christianity.
A fundamental issue here has to do with the identity of Christianity. Has Christianity for all time been given to the apostles and the guardians of faith? Must Christianity be identified with its given or orthodox dogmatic form? Are we bound to confine the Christian "myth" to its past historical expressions? Yet we must notice that the very form of these questions gives evidence of a non-Christian conception of religion. Such questions simply assume that there is a single essence of faith, that this essence is present in the past, and that faith itself is the remembrance or repetition of a past or primordial reality. Conceived in this sense, faith is identified as a backward-movement or return to a primordial beginning or an original paradise. Blake knew this original paradise of innocence as a paradise lost, and for that reason he passionately opposed "remembrance," and understood it as being the very antithesis of faith or vision. The specifically apocalyptic or eschatological ground of the Christian faith demands that it be a forward-moving process revolving about the absolute negation of the old cosmos of a totally fallen history. In Jerusalem, Blake names this absolute negation a "Fourfold Annihilation," a total annihilation that is "going forward, forward irresistible from Eternity to Eternity" (98:27). Indeed, the radical Christian has taken this original ground of the Christian faith to its inevitable fulfillment: if all eternity must pass through "Self-Annihilation," then God himself must die to make possible the redemptive triumph of the apocalypse, for his death reverses that "Self-hood" which is the source of the fall.
A form of faith or belief that adheres to an unmoving and immobile Godhead must deny the possibility of a forward-movement "from Eternity to Eternity," just as it must submit to the absolute sovereignty of the primordial God. When faith is understood in this sense, there can be no question of a transformation of faith itself in response to the movement of the Godhead. But an apocalyptic and radical form of the Christian faith celebrates a cosmic and historical movement of the Godhead that culminates in the death of God himself. Blake named God as Urizen or Satan at the very moment when he discovered the apocalyptic significance of the death of the Christian God -- as witness his first prophetic poem, America. Only when the passion of Jesus has been consummated in the epiphany of the death of God in the concrete actuality of history does God himself appear in his apocalyptic form as a dying Satan:
Over the hills, the vales, the cities, rage the red flames fierce:
The Heavens melted from north to south: and Urizen, who sat
Above all heavens, in thunders wrap’d, emerg’d his leprous
From out his holy shrine, his tears in deluge piteous
Falling into the deep sublime: flag’d with grey-brow’d snows
And thunderous visages, his jealous wings wav’d over the
Weeping in dismal howling woe, he dark descended, howling
Around the smitten bands, clothed in tears & trembling, shudd’ring cold.
His stored snows he poured forth, and his icy magazines
He open’d on the deep. . . .
While this vision represents only the initial phase of Blake’s apocalyptic work, it nevertheless records a new and decisive image of God -- an image that prophetically foreshadows Moby Dick -- and an image that itself reflects a new moment of redemptive history, a moment in which God himself passes into a satanic form and finally dies as Satan to make possible the cosmic reversal of the apocalypse. How are we to judge this image of God? It is not wholly the product of a "private mythology," for it is rooted in a history as old as Gnosticism, and it anticipates the whole world of the modern vision. If we are to speak theologically, must we not finally say that this image of God as Satan is either itself a satanic and all too modern form of deicide, or else a new and radical form of the Christian faith?
As one who accepted the strange vocation of being an apocalyptic seer, Blake was not in quest of a hidden but ancient mythical form; instead, he was engaged in a desperate search for a new mythical "system" by which he might record the dawning of a final movement of redemption in the arena of our totally fallen history. To insist that Blake was successful as an artist and poet only to the extent that he resurrected an ancient form of myth is to deny the Christian ground of his vision and to reject the great bulk of his mature work. If we must refuse all that is new in Blake’s vision, then we must simply repudiate Blake as an artist and seer. Blake was the first of the great modern seers. Through Blake we can sense the theological significance of a poetic reversal of our mythical traditions, and become open to the possibility that the uniquely modern metamorphosis of the sacred into the profane is the culmination of a redemptive and kenotic movement of the Godhead. The Blake who proclaimed that God must eternally die for man, that a primordial Totality must pass through "Self-Annihilation," was the Blake who envisioned a uniquely contemporary Christ, a Christ who becomes Antichrist before he is resurrected as Jerusalem.
The closing pages of Jerusalem record a vision of a coming apocalyptic coincidentia oppositorum, revealing how the final union of God and man will annihilate the God who alone is God by resurrecting him as "The Great Humanity Divine." Every fragment of ecstatic joy and bodily delight foreshadows this union, every momentary death of selfhood negates a barrier to this apocalyptic reversal, every affirmation of an opposing other sanctifies that Satan who will ultimately be transfigured into Jerusalem. Finally, Albion will become a radiant Jerusalem, a new cosmos appearing as the "Humanity Divine," an Eden who will be "One Man." Dare the contemporary Christian reject this vision? Or is he doomed to cling to a dead image of Jesus, even at the cost of life? T.J.J.A.