Is God actually an imaginative and poetic construction? William Blake says yes.
The title of this issue is The Poetic Genius, the human power of poetry which, according to William Blake, created the gods and all religions. In the two opening articles, David Perman looks at the English religious poetry of the revolutionary seventeenth century and Alfredo Cordal writes about the Spanish poet Lorca and the duende, ‘the mysterious power that everyone feels but that no philosopher has explained’. Then Peter Lumsden reflects critically on the European Social Forum, whose purpose was first to imagine another possible world and then discuss how to bring it into being. Peter is a very long-standing member of the Sea of Faith network. Here I’d like to stress again that all members of the network are invited to send the editor proposals for articles and reviews.
In a short prose piece dated 1788, William Blake argues:
Principle 2nd: As all men are alike in outward form, so (and with the same infinite variety) all are alike in the Poetic Genius.
Principle 5th: The Religions of all Nations are derived from each Nation’s different reception of the Poetic Genius, which is everywhere called the Spirit of Prophecy.
Principle 6th: The Jewish and Christian Testaments are an original derivation from the Poetic Genius; this is necessary from the confined nature of bodily sensation.
Principle 7th: As all men are alike (though infinitely various) so all Religions etc., as all similars, have one source. The true Man is the source, he being the Poetic Genius.
Like Wordsworth a few years later (in his Preface to the Lyrical Ballads), Blake is praising likeness in difference, here the universal human capacity for poetry, together with the multiplicity of different poetries. He goes on to say that all religions have one source – the same Poetic Genius – although there are many religions, cultures, poetries, which are all human creations. The fact that there are many different ‘receptions’ of the Poetic Genius throughout the world enormously enriches the human treasury, but, as Blake says in his Marriage of Heaven and Hell, religions have also been used for oppression:
The ancient Poets animated all sensible objects with Gods or Geniuses, calling them by the names and adorning them with the properties of woods, rivers, mountains, lakes, cities, nations, and whatever their large and numerous senses could perceive. And particularly they studied the genius of each city and country, placing it under its mental deity; till a system was formed, which some took advantage of, and enslaved the vulgar by attempting to realise or abstract the mental deities from their objects: thus began Priesthood; choosing forms of worship from poetic tales. And at length they pronounced that the Gods had ordered such things. Thus men forgot that all deities reside in the human breast.
Blake praises the many different ‘receptions’ of the Poetic Genius as human wealth and abundance and includes religions among the creations of the Poetic Genius. This abundance is not in itself dangerous but wonderful. The ancient poets did not invent but tried to discern what ‘their large and numerous senses could perceive.’ Animating ‘all sensible objects’ with Gods or Geniuses was a way of naming or personifying the nature and powers of these objects: natural objects, such as woods, rivers, mountains and lakes; and cultural entities, such as cities and nations. Woods, rivers, mountains and lakes are real natural resources, which people fight over. Cities and nations have real powers of life and death. So the poets were not just fantasising but trying to discern the forces that operate in and govern the world. Religion becomes a system of oppression to ‘enslave the vulgar’ when it attempts to ‘realise or abstract the mental deities from their objects’ – that is, set them up as idols, access to which is controlled by priests.
Blake’s common term for an oppressive system that ‘enslaves the vulgar’, in order to maintain control in the hands of a few, is Mystery. ‘Pity would be no more/if we did not make somebody poor’ begins his frightening poem ‘The Human Abstract’. It goes on to describe the process by which religion is used to gain control:
Soon spreads the dismal shade
Of Mystery over his head:
And the Catterpillar and Fly
Feed on the Mystery.
Creating Mystery is the way in which ‘some took advantage’ by abstracting or supernaturalising (i.e. claiming that natural forces are actually supernatural) real natural and cultural forces in order to enslave others. ‘And at length they pronounced that the Gods had ordered such things. Thus men forgot that all deities reside in the human breast.’ The supernaturalising or alienation of these forces turned them into Nobodaddy, that is, an idol with powers of human sacrifice.
In an additional poem to his Songs of Experience, Blake describes the dark side of human nature as ‘A Divine Image’:
Cruelty has a Human Heart,
And Jealousy a Human Face,
Terror, the Human Form Divine
And Secrecy, the Human Dress.
However, the pair to both ‘The Human Abstract’ and ‘A Divine Image’ in his Songs of Experience is ‘The Divine Image’ in his Songs of Innocence (and we note that this time Divine Image has a definite article), in which:
For Mercy has a human heart,
Pity, a human face:
And Love, the human form divine,
And Peace, the human dress.
Blake is saying that human beings contain both the terrors of ‘The Human Abstract’ and the qualities of ‘The Divine Image’. There is a battle between them, just as in his poem Jerusalem, the beautiful city comes down to Earth, to real London. ‘Pancras and Kentish Town repose’ but the repose is threatened by ‘cruel patriarchal pride/planting thy family alone/destroying all the world beside.’
In his final piece on Radical Theology (sof 66) Trevor Greenfield asked, ‘Is God actually an imaginative and poetic construction?’ In the above two passages Blake answers with a resounding ‘yes’ and I think they are illuminating for SoF’s ‘exploring and promoting religious faith as a human creation’.
A poetic way of looking at the world of ‘sensible objects’ is to personify them. You may think of your local river as ‘an old brown god’. Or if there is a beautiful tree outside your window that cheers you up and inspires you when you are sitting at your computer with a writer’s block, you may get to know it well and begin to feel it has a ‘personality’. You may give it a name and begin to think of it as a Spirit or God. This is a poetic way of thinking about it, via the poetic trope of personification. The tree is real; its supernatural Spirit or God is not. If you ‘attempt to realise or abstract the mental deity from its object’ and call it a God with supernatural power, this is false and, Blake suggests, the motives for doing so may be dubious, to say the least.
Poetic personification can also be applied to abstract nouns, such as being, life, love. There is no being except what is, there is no life except what lives, there is no love except people (and others who are capable of it, some animals perhaps?) who love. But it is possible to think of Being as a divine person (Yahweh’s name was I AM). Again this is a poetic trope and should be taken as such. It is important both to reject the supernatural existence of such poetic personifications and to appreciate the poetry. The poetry of Earth is what gives zest to life, both Earth’s own superabundant variety of creatures, each with their own intractable particularity, and the vast common treasury of the human imagination. Theology is a sister art not only to philosophy, but also to poetry.
SoF has to engage in debate, on the one hand, with fundamentalist religious believers and, on the other, with old-fashioned rationalists, who have ‘no time for poetry’ – like Gradgrind, all they want are ‘facts, facts, facts’ – causing untold human deprivation. SoF also needs to explore religions as political forces. As we saw above, Blake pointed out that the supernaturalisation of the Gods created by the Poetic Genius, was for political reasons. Exploring religions means not only exploring them as part of humanity’s cultural and poetic treasure but also discerning, with the Spirit of Prophecy, how a supernaturalised God becomes oppressive and often murderous. This is extremely important in today’s fundamentalist climate.
In his poetry Blake embodies both the darkness of the ‘Human Abstract’, which is capable of great cruelty, often in the name of religion, and the huge human possibilities for good, which the human Poetic Genius has projected and personified as divine:
Then every man, of every clime,
That prays in his distress,
Prays to the human form divine,
Love, Mercy, Pity, Peace.
Love, Mercy, Pity, Peace are qualities and names that have been ascribed to God. Blake’s term ‘the human form divine’ describes them as part of the human potential; they come into being when human beings create, enact or do them.
The same is true of Wisdom; it has been used as a divine name and is a quality to which we humans may aspire. The name of this magazine sof spells the root of sofia (or sophia), the Greek word for Wisdom. I’m writing this in Advent and I thought of the first of the Latin liturgy’s great ‘O’ Magnificat antiphons for Advent Vespers or Evensong:
proceeding from the mouth of the Most High,
reaching from end to end
to look after all things strongly and sweetly,
come and teach us carefulness.
Wisdom, here personified as divine, can also be regarded as part of the human potential. The Advent prayer is for incarnation, for Wisdom to become human, for it to materialise.