Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 9th September 2012
9 September 2012 at 10:00 am
The Reverend Professor Vernon White, Canon in Residence
From his childhood the eighteenth-century engraver and poet William Blake saw visions. When he was four years old he saw God put his head to the window, setting him screaming. He saw the prophet Ezekiel under a tree in the fields. When he was eight, as he was walking on Peckham Rye, he saw (I quote from a record of his life) ‘a tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars’. As he grew up so it went on. Somehow, from an unexceptional upbringing, Blake emerged as an extraordinary visionary and a religious prophet of prodigious if sometimes bizarre, imaginative creativity. So what was this imagination? Was it divine inspiration? Or just fantasy?
In this series of sermons in September I am exploring the role of imagination in faith. Last week I suggested that, at best, it really can be a positive gift of God. It helps us understand other people’s lives more sympathetically. It helps us see new possibilities. It frees us from the prison of our present context, transcends the constraints of space and time, helps us dream dreams about what might be. It was inspired imagination which led prophets to hold out hope of a better place beyond the exile of Babylon or Roman rule. It was imagination which fired Jesus’ own vision of the kingdom of heaven on earth, and the apocalyptic vision of a heaven beyond earth. It is a motivating and transforming power. Today I want to say more about this in Blake: how imagination helped him to see beyond his present circumstance, critique the hidden forces at work in his world, envisage a better world - and, yes, to see God better, as well as the world.
But first - the world. His world was late eighteenth-century London. It was newly industrialized London seething with new energies unleashed by the enlightenment, by the unfettered use of reason which had harnessed technology to make new things on an unprecedented scale. But it was also a world with crippling social consequences: it had created an underworld of people on whose backs the new wealth was being made. Blake saw this. He saw the stunted lives of young chimney sweeps. His imagination helped him see the depth of misery lying behind all this unregulated industrialization: ‘…in every face I meet/marks of weakness, marks of woe’, he wrote in one his poems. His imagination also enabled him to see the hidden powers that had produced this situation. He saw how it was the abstract rational appeal to efficient production of the industrial revolution which led to this crushing of individual people. They were being ground down by ‘mind-forged manacles’, as the poem puts it…
He also saw how this same abstract reason, reason which appeals to efficiency and order and symmetry above all else, was having a pernicious effect in the aesthetic realm. It was producing the new art and architecture of neo-classicism with anonymous uniform geometric forms, leaving no room for the individuality and particularity of the older Gothic where each pillar had its own embellishment and decoration (it is well documented that Blake spent hours studying and appreciating the particularities of Gothic art and sculpture here in Westminster Abbey: you can still see him gazing at it in the south transept where he is memorialised). And although this judgement about architecture may not matter so much as the social critique, in Blake’s mind it was all of a piece. It was also connected with something else, even more fundamental. It was this very same dominance of unfettered instrumental reason, devoid of feeling and imagination, which was also distorting religion. It had produced a false view of God, and had infected a church which used this view of God shamefully, to control people. The God being fashioned by this sort of reason was a remote, objectified God of rational unity and consistency who ruled by universal laws - laws which the Church then applied to everyone to keep them all equally in place, without any imaginative grasp of their individuality or different circumstances. What Blake saw was that this God was just a projection of human desire for rational control of everything, and the dedsire to punish everyone who resisted it. In one his poems he lampoons this false image of God as the ‘old Nobadaddy aloft’ who dismissed anyone who did not fit in: ‘If people rebel/they must go to hell: they can simply have ‘a priest and passing bell’. It was Blake’s imagination which helped him reject this picture of a remote rational God aloft. In stead he saw divinity within the messy realities and passions of actual human experience, especially Christ’s experience: ‘where Mercy, Love, and Pity dwell/There God is dwelling too’, he wrote, in another poem.
But in fact Blake’s imagination takes us much more deeply into God even than that. Yes, it may be better to think of God in human experience than in remote laws, but for Blake the great mystery of God cannot be settled just like that either: that too would be to reduce God to human proportions and control, the control of our own feelings simply replacing the control of our reason. The eternal mystery of God is greater than that: ‘I rest not from my great task... to open the Immortal Eyes Of man inwards…into Eternity’, he wrote in Jerusalem. And so what we find in Blake is what we also find in older generations of Christian mystics - a willingness to look beyond all particular human pictures of God. And that means getting beyond all false alternatives of our human thinking, whether the polarities of reason and feeling, body and soul, even heaven and hell (or at least our views of heaven and hell). What our imagination can help us see is that God cannot be contained in or excluded from any one of these things, but must somehow embrace them all. So, to express this, like the mystics, imagination drove Blake to use a profusion of images for God. Yes, these might sometimes be contradictory. But at least the huge range of images freed God from captivity to any one - with which we can then control others. And although he used this riot of different images, this was never wholly anarchic, for they were always still mediated through scripture and his love for the person of Jesus.
Blake may not be the surest guide to religion. Some of his visions may really have been off the radar. But he did show us something of the genius of religious imagination. He showed how, if it is kept close to the person of Christ, it really can truly be a vehicle of the Spirit, to lead us into genuine new truth; how it really can help us see beneath the false constraints of social and economic necessities, and see possibilities of better worlds and better way; how it can help us see beneath the false and limited images of God, and see the truer and more truly Biblical God - who is both human and also an eternal, liberating, transcendent mystery…