Thursday, March 15, 2007

Blake, mysticism and the early Christian Church

Way of the Kitten, Way of the Monkey:

Mysticism, Blake, and the question of Christian Orthodoxy

In the first four centuries CE.

Imagination is the divine intellect; creation the divine action—as it is for God, so it is for man. The Creation Story of Genesis is also the story of Blake’s Poetic Genius, and for Blake it is our story. Since Constantine decriminalized Christianity in the Fourth Century CE., and even before, this sort of solipsistic ideology has never been “orthodox” within the Christian Church or Western culture as a whole. Blake has been called a radical, even considered a nut in his own day due to his seemingly severe and unusual interpretation and critique of Christianity. But Blake considered himself a Christian none the less. As readers, how do we understand Blake and his writing in the context of a religious tradition that he openly denounced? Is he alone in his radical dissent of the Church? Have others claimed to be prophets and been shunned as crazy, and, if so, what is their tradition? If you aren’t orthodox, what then? Today we have a diverse religious community, but within Christianity this is a rather recent phenomena. Since the Fourth Century CE. the Catholic Church has held the doctrine of orthodoxy as the “right” way to worship, validated by the creeds, the laws of Christian worship. But within the first four centuries there was a remarkable diversity that is only in the last fifty years coming to understanding.

This paper is a look back into the beginnings of Christian experience, an investigation into those tumultuous first four centuries where scant information has ever been available. In 1945, in Nag Hammadi, Egypt, a jar containing thirteen ancient Coptic codices was discovered, dating back to the Fourth Century CE. Many of these codices don’t exist in any other copies, though many were known due to references made to them in other extant works. This “Library,” which was likely buried in the desert by a nearby monastery wishing to preserve them rather than destroy them, has opened a new window to an era that has long been oversimplified and subverted.

What the Nag Hammadi Library represents is the complexity and variety of early Christianity. These texts were seminal for the many sects that came to be considered heretical and “Gnostic”—but considered heretical by whom and why? The groups I will refer to all believed in Jesus, all saw in him the light of God, the light of creation, logos. So why then this fissure, this dividing line; why couldn’t all the believers in Christ be Christian; why were some labeled heretics and others orthodox? It is in this investigation that Blake’s own ideology will find a context. Heresy is clearly a subjective term defined by those who see themselves as orthodox. But the heretical sects, often referred to as “Gnostic,” were movements in their right, and not dependent on, or existing only in comparison to the proto-orthodox Church.

Gnosticism is the “catch-all” term for the heretics of Early Christianity. The term is troublesome because it means to represent groups that are often disparate, separate, and loosely organized. In a quote by Tom Hall:

[The Gnostics were] like the romantics in rebellion against the structure of classicism (orthodoxy), they focused on the individual rather than the group; they were liberals rather than holy tories; . . . They were hippies, not corporate executives; spiritual people rather than attendees at divine services; they saw salvation in enlightenment, not ecclesiastical sanction. . . .They were idealists, not church builders; people who would cheer for Ivan Karamazov, not for the Grand Inquisitor in his poem. (King 8).

Perhaps there is a better term than “Gnostic” to describe these people, or perhaps a broader term that could be used to give context to what it means to be a “Gnostic?” Where Gnosticism is a movement arguably of Judaism and Christianity, I hope to find in the work of this paper evidence to show that Christian Gnosticism, within the parameters of specific views—we will only be looking at the Gospel of Thomas here—can be understood within the context of universal mysticism. This is to say that the “Gnostic” described above is not solely a Christian phenomena, but can be understood within a larger religious polemic.

The atmosphere of the first few centuries contained polarities of Christian thought that can tentatively be represented by the Gospel of John and the so-called Gnostic Gospel of Thomas. The differences that can be drawn from these two texts serve as the diametric polemical extremes of Early Christianity—orthodox to heretical—and will also demonstrate the greater spectrum of religion as a whole—both on the level of the individual to the discrepant dogma of the East and the West. Through analyzing the extremes of John and Thomas, a Christian context is achieved with which we can see Blake’s ideology more clearly.

I am more interested in drawing connections than discovering definitive answers. True to Blake, I am uninterested in division and isolation. It needs to be mentioned that in research of this kind there are great linguistic challenges: How do I or my readers understand this word? Words like “Gnostic” and “mystic” can be understood in a multitude of ways. The definitions I ascribe to these terms are subjective, and ultimately crucial to the connections I draw. I will use these words often in their broadest senses, stretching the field to reach connections, not conclusions. This is a study in its fledgling stages, but I feel that the insight that has already come from the comparison of these ancient texts is profound. As you read, imagine a New Testament containing both the Gospels of John and Thomas? What would the interpretive opportunities have been for readers of a canon with such breadth? As a bishop attempting to delineate church dogma, what inevitable problems would this create? Since 1945, these questions have been asked with greater regularity. Of course there are no answers as this unification never took place. In the early centuries there was a battle for orthodoxy—Thomas and the Gnostics lost and likely didn’t wish to be in the fight to begin with. But their views represent the other side of the Christian coin so to speak, the opposing interpretation of Jesus. It is only considered heresy by those on the other side of the line. So what was the difference, what was the key, or keys to the understanding of Jesus that led to the exclusion of many believers, or “seekers” of Jesus? This is where I shall begin.

With the death of Jesus, his disciples and other followers, such as Paul, dispersed. They spread through Syria, Greece, Rome, in the East as far as India, each teaching Jesus’ word as they saw it, the understanding and learning they gained from their personal experiences with Jesus. Of course, the disciples didn’t all learn the same lessons or learn the same truths. Their various versions of Jesus’ ministry were diverse and became more and more diversified as the Jesus’ teaching spread by word of mouth from believer to believer. By the Second Century CE. many people around the eastern Mediterranean were converting to Christianity despite heavy persecution. They were called atheists and were routinely burned and hanged (Pagels Beyond Belief 82). But the faith grew with love and brotherhood. Galen, a renowned physician of the period, spoke with esteem of the Christian doctors. A great epidemic spread through the Levant and was incurable. Galen and many others fled into seclusion until the plague passed. But the Christians stayed and attempted to heal the sick though they often died with them. Galen said:

For the people called Christians . . . contempt of death is obvious to us every day, and also their self-control in sexual matters . . . They also include people who, in self-discipline . . . in matters of food and drink, and in their keen pursuit of justice have attained a level not inferior to that of genuine philosophers. (Pagels 9)

Who are these Christians? They spread across many nations and honored different teachers. Many people followed the teaching of Polycarp, Origen, Tertulian, and Irenaeus. Others followed Valentinus and Ptolemy. Most followed Paul. The only real common denominator was belief in the life and teaching of Jesus. In this time of persecution and diversity, Bishop Polycarp was the first advocate for a “catholic” or universal church. Polycarp was burned alive in Smyrna, and it was his young student Irenaeus who became the great early advocate for a unified church (Pagels Beyond Belief 82). Irenaeus was Bishop of Lyons around 180 CE., and by this time there were already many gospels in circulation. The gospels played an enormous roll in designating and stabilizing what beliefs represented whom, and, therefore, who could be considered as orthodox. I will look briefly at the growth of the gospels to this point as they were largely accepted by both orthodox and the various “Gnostic” churches later catalogued as heretical.

Jesus died in approximately 28 CE, and the first known gospel wasn’t written until around 70 CE. This was the Gospel of Mark, the most rudimentary and skeletal of the four canonical gospels. Mark was a source for the writing of the next two canonical gospels, Matthew and Luke, which were both likely written between 80-90 CE. Both of these texts rely on the Gospel of Mark but expand and expound upon it in their own style and for their various emphases. As well as using Mark, it is suspected that they both used another source, a sayings gospel known as Q (Funk 12). It is thought that the Gospel of John; written later, 90-100 CE; may also have used a separate source, called Signs (Funk 16). With the discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library and the Gospel of Thomas, it is now clear that there were such sources out there. Many scholars believe that texts like Q, Signs, and possibly Thomas date back towards 50 or 60 CE (Funk 18). Other scholars suspect Thomas may have been written sometime later in the first century but before John.

The discovery of the Nag Hammadi illustrates how many other gospels also came into existence in the early centuries following the death of Jesus. No one knows who their authors were, often the texts were circulated anonymously before being ascribed a name of an apostle who best epitomized the nature of the gospel (Funk 20). What is amazing is the diversity between the interpretations of the life of Jesus. Many gospels claim “secret knowledge” that Jesus gave to their particular apostle who then wrote it down. For Irenaeus, all this variety posed serious problems for a unified “catholic” church. Lines needed to be drawn to divide the true believers of Jesus from those who preached blasphemy and lies. The polemical relationship between the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of John epitomizes this divide between the proto-orthodox and the heretical and the subsequent success of Irenaeus’ ideal of orthodoxy, founded upon the Christology of John.

The Synoptics, as Matthew, Mark, and Luke would later be called, found wide appeal but were often understood through the lensing of other texts, such as Thomas and John. Depending on which text or interpretation you prefer (many Gnostics loved John), the reading you took form the Synoptics varied widely.

Before I begin contrasting the Gospels of John and Thomas it is important that I emphasize how similar they are to each other in several ways. Above I briefly mentioned their use as a lens to understanding other works. Both John and Thomas stand together in significant contrast to the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The most significant similarity is the bold proclamation of Jesus’ divinity. John’s Gospel begins:

In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God. All things came into being through him and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1.1 – 6)

The light of creation is equated with Jesus; he is “the true light that lightens up everyone” (John 1.9). On this point John and Thomas are certainly in agreement, and it is precisely here where both diverge from the Synoptics (Pagels Beyond Belief 37). The Synoptics revere Jesus as a rabbi, or a philosopher, a healer, the Messiah—but they all stop short of calling him God. In Beyond Belief, Elaine Pagels quotes Origen, a Third Century bishop and church father, saying that although the Synoptics describe Jesus as a man, “none of them clearly spoke of his divinity, as John does” (37). Thomas compares Jesus to the light of creation as well: “I am the light which is above them all” (Thomas 77). The divinity of Jesus is central to the themes of both gospels, and its presence in John’s Gospel creates a lens by which his divinity can be read back into the three Synoptics (Pagels 38).

Both John and Thomas presuppose some knowledge of the life of Jesus. Thomas is purely a sayings gospel while John only includes parts of the story which are more clearly articulated in Matthew and Luke in particular. John seems to add something, he builds on top of these gospels, in a fashion not unlike the way Matthew and Luke used Mark. Of course there is much less contradiction within the Synoptics. John and Thomas are not interested in presenting the same story over again. They are more concerned with “secret sayings” that the other gospels haven’t offered (Thomas 1). John offers several extra chapters after the resurrection of Jesus that the Synoptics don’t have.

John also differs in some glaring chronological and factual points. As he tells it, when Jesus drove all the vendors out of the temple, it was toward the beginning of his ministry. In the Synoptics, it was the act that was the last straw, and he was arrested shortly there after (Matthew 24.1; Mark 13.1-2; Luke 21.5-7). Also the actual day of the last supper is different. In John, Jesus is arrested Thursday night, the day before Passover, instead of the Last Supper being the Passover dinner (Matthew 26.17-29; Mark 14.12-25; Luke 22.7-20). John portrays Jesus as being the Passover Lamb himself, the sacrifice in and of himself. (Pagels Beyond Belief 22).

For these discrepancies, some church father’s considered the Gospel of John a heretical text, but early bishops such as Irenaeus and Origen spoke out in its defense. Irenaeus, in one of the first proposed canonical lists, includes John with Matthew, Mark, and Luke as the “Four-fold Gospel.” For Irenaeus, John was essential for the primary reason he was often perceived as heretical: his declaration of the divinity of Jesus.

In the end Irenaeus would have his way and John would be deemed orthodox while Thomas vanished into obscurity. What were the differences that led John to win out over Thomas? Thomas was never a candidate for orthodoxy by those with the power, but it is now considered that John was written in response to the doctrine Thomas taught. John and Thomas existed in a direct opposition to each other. I have briefly mentioned a few of the similarities, but there is one point that divides them irreconcilably. Where they agree about the divinity and the “light” of Jesus, the question then becomes: How does one gain access to this light and find salvation? The answer to this question is literally the difference between heresy and orthodoxy.

For John, Jesus was “the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the father except through me” (John 14.6). This line has become one of the great touchtones of Christianity. Jesus is the one and only son of god, the “only begotten son,” and he alone is the door to salvation (John 3.16). Only by recognizing Jesus as “My Lord and my God” can anyone have access to the Father or Heaven (John 20.28). Jesus says, “The Father and I am one,” and “You are from below and I am from above;” “You are from this world and I am not from this world” (John 10.30; 8.23; 18.36). John makes the difference between Jesus and mankind explicit. Instead of demonstrating unity as we will see in Thomas and Blake, division and duality are primary representations in John’s Gospel. Again, in his introduction, we see “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1.5). This idea of Jesus being “the light,” and no one else, is the central theme of the work. Immediately, the author, who I call John for simplicity, mentions John the Baptist “himself not the light, but he came to testify to the light” (1.8). We are not even the children of God, “but he gave [us] power to become children of God” (1.12). This is so we do not confuse ourselves with the one and only “Son of God,” Jesus, “the Father’s only son” (Mark 1.1; John 1.14). It is this very separateness that empowers the line, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the father except through me” (John 14.6).

It is interesting that there are also passages that suggest a togetherness, a oneness that would seem to contradict this clear division. Indeed that is how the Gospel was read by Valentinus and his “Gnostic” followers. Jesus says, “On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you” (John 14.20). How are we to understand this togetherness if so much of the Gospel shows us how very different we are from Jesus? The best explanation can be found in the passage that says, Jesus is “the true light, which enlightens everyone” (1.9). The light that didn’t penetrate creation succeeds through Jesus. Those who believe are filled with his light; you come into the light and the light comes into you. The primary dualism is maintained, but unity, lost through the fall of man, is regained with the acceptance of Jesus as Lord.

This same goal of salvation comes about in a completely different fashion in the Gospel of Thomas. The name of the ascribed author, Didymus Judas Thomas, means “twin” in Greek, didymus; and then Aramaic, thomas. This is an interesting point to keep in mind as we analyze the text, thinking of “twin” in the sense of “a mirror of being.” Many followers of Thomas believed he was the twin brother of Jesus (Thomas pg.124). Where, in the Gospel of John, so much weight is placed on the person of Jesus, the divine being, separate from humanity, the Gospel of Thomas reflects the divinity of Jesus back into the self, the reader. The Gospel reads, “Jesus said, . . . the kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known” (Thomas 3, N.G. 126). What is emphasized over and over again in this Gospel is just that: Know thy self. We are mirrors of Jesus, who recognized his self-divinity, and, therefore, we are no different than he is; we are divine as well. Perhaps this is the “secret saying” that is so secret the author Thomas didn’t include it in a Gospel full of secret sayings. After the disciples discover that Jesus is in fact the messiah, in a variation of a scene in all three of the Synoptic gospels (Matthew 16.13-19; Mark 8.27-29; Luke 9.18-20), Jesus takes Thomas aside and shares with him secret knowledge. Thomas refuses to share what Jesus told him with the other disciples: “If I tell you one of the things which he told me, you will pick up stones and throw them at me; a fire will come out of the stones and burn you up” (Thomas 13 pg 128). This insinuates that what Thomas would tell them was blasphemous, somehow against Jesus himself, although the saying arose from Jesus. This is ambiguous, but I could imagine it being something along the lines as “I [Jesus] am no different from you, you just don’t realize it.” This sort of exegesis finds parallels in passages that are more explicit in Blake’s “Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” where Isaiah claims that he “saw no god, nor heard any in a finite organic perception; but my senses discover’d the infinite in everything” (Blake 186). The prophets themselves, the ancient conduits of God’s divine word, did not literally hear the voice of God. I perceive Jesus sharing a similar understanding with Thomas, because after all, they are twins and symbolically no different, as we are meant to be as readers: “When you make the two one, you will become the sons of man, and when you say ‘Mountain move,’ it will move away” (Thomas 106). The subject and object, Buber’s “I and Thou,” become united within the self. This exegesis finds many parallels in Thomas and Blake.

I will slow down and look at what lines like these mean more clearly. What truth is the author, or the compiler, of the Gospel of Thomas attempting to render? The primary representations seem to be unity and eternity. Remember that a principle theme of both this Gospel and John’s Gospel is the beginning: “You have discerned, then, the beginning that you look for the end? For where the beginning is, there will the end be” (Thomas 18). The beginning and end exist simultaneously, and we are to look for it, here, in the present. This is eternity represented as unity. Unity is also demonstrated and contrasted against duality: “On the day when you were one you became two,” where Jesus sees himself as “he who exists undivided” (Thomas 11, 61). So Jesus himself, who we aspire after, is undivided and we are divided, and he proclaims that we must know ourselves, and to do that we must look to the beginning: So, again, what is the beginning?

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light form the darkness. (Genesis 1.1-5)

In the beginning there was God; in the beginning there was unity in God, and God created light and darkness. We see ourselves there divided, but Jesus says, “If they say to you, ‘Where did you come from?’, say to them, ‘We came from the light, the place where the light came into being’” (Thomas 50). We, like Jesus, can identify with the light, and the light came from the Lord. It is this fact toward which Jesus constantly points in Thomas’ Gospel. How else can we understand statements like, “Blessed is he who came into being before he came into being?” (Thomas 19). This suggests a state of non-being. In the context of Genesis and Jesus’ insistence that we also began there, this makes much more sense—we existed within God before we were created outside of him.

Whether or not man has a claim to divinity or not is, of course, is the primary divergence of the Gospels of John and Thomas. For John, salvation is allowing the light of Jesus to enter into the darkness that is ourselves, the fallen children. The beginning does not represent unity with God. For Thomas, salvation is awakening, through “gnosis,” that the light that is Jesus is also innately inside of you and me. You are as Jesus is, who takes “the exact dimensions of Jehovah, / lithographing Kronos, Zeus his son, and Hercules his grandson, / [. . .] Accepting the rough deific sketches to fill out better in [him]self” (Whitman 61). This is how Thomas is able to portray “the Kingdom of the Father” as being “spread upon the earth and men do not see it”—we are gods in heaven, but “men do not see it” (Thomas 113). I wonder if “salvation” is the right word to apply to the goal of Thomas’ Gospel? Perhaps enlightenment—awakening to our true selfhood—is more appropriate. Thomas writes, “And he said, ‘whoever finds the interpretation of these sayings will not experience death’” (Thomas 1). Salvation from death then is valid through the gnosis of our essential divinity. But this understanding is more metaphysical, as of course our bodies naturally will die regardless of any divine conceptions. I believe this is more a Whitmanean conception of deathlessness: “The smallest sprout shows there is really no death” (Whitman 27). Where physical bodies die, there is an eternal regeneration, palengenosea—constant rebirthing. Death is a change of form and not and end in itself, a point of inflection that, as it happens, we cannot see beyond. But with a Thomasonean and Whitmanian idea of self-divinity, we become immortals, so what is there to fear in death? We are ourselves gods. Time thus becomes cyclic, not linear; there is no beginning or end, or they merge with one another in the constant cycle of life and death. Thomas writes, “You have discerned, then, the beginning that you look for the end? For where the beginning is, there will the end be” (Thomas 18). This, in orthodox understanding, is far from the case. Great emphasis in the Synoptics is laid on the future, the Apocalypse—this is very different event than Creation—and not all will be saved in the end, not all are the children of God. Where It is an eternal palengenosea versus an ontological heaven.

In this dichotomy of innate duality versus unity, fallen versus divine, salvation from within versus from without, where can we find Blake? Text to text comparison, though limiting, is much simpler than comparing Blake to Gnosticism as a whole or orthodoxy as a whole. These texts distill the complexities of these groups down to what can be considered their barest and most essential dharma. Many of the key discrepancies between Blake and Christian Gnosticism, foremost the Gnostic disgust of the human body, are totally absent in Thomas. As I will point out, the similarities between Thomas and Blake’s “Marriage of Heaven and Hell” are profound. I am working with Blake’s earlier texts, primarily this one and “There is No Natural Religion” and “All Religions are One.” These texts have meanings that are, relatively speaking, more explicit than the more complex and embedded mythology of “Jerusalem” for example, where the speaker may or may not be reliable and the context may be difficult to surmise. In “Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” I am taking the voice of the narrator to be the honest voice of the author. However prone to hyperbole he may be: “sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires;” the meaning, none the less, is valid to his ideology, like Swift’s use of satire in Gulliver’s Travels (Blake 185). Blake speaks for the Devil, but the devil is not “evil” in Blake’s personal understanding: Evil is not evil. Many things considered evil in the common semantic sense—the orthodox Christian sense—such as energy for instance, are good to Blake’s thinking: “The nakedness of woman is the work of God,” (Blake 184). These distinctions between good and evil become obscured as the reader finds curious validity in the “Proverbs of Hell” (Blake 183).

What a reader will recognize in both Blake and Thomas is striking similarities in representation and theme. Blake starts with, “as a new heaven is begun, and it is now thirty-three years since its advent,” alluding to his own birth and life as the dwelling place of the divine (Blake 181). Already the reader remembers Thomas and the kingdom of the Father is “spread upon the earth and men do not see it” (Thomas 113). For Blake, heaven, or eternity, is here, as it also is for Thomas.

Blake also emphasizes our perception of the dualistic nature of reality; it is at once externally essential but to be avoided within the self, as we are the unity of all things. He says: “Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence” (Blake 181). But like, Thomas’ Jesus, Blake is a uniter. The external dualities of existence, propounded by religion as also valid within the self, Blake sets out to destroy. Blake writes:

  1. The Man has two real existing Principles Viz: a Body & a Soul.
  2. That Energy. calld Evil. is alone from the Body. & that Reason. Calld Good. Is alone from the Soul. (Blake 181)

These divisions, errors of theology, he rectifies with the unifying “voice of the Devil” (Blake 181):

  1. Man has no Body distinct from his Soul for that calld Body is a portion of Soul discernd by the five Senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age
  2. Energy is the only life and is from the Body and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy. (Blake 181).

The body is not distinct form the soul nor is reason distinct from energy within the self; there is a unity of being within the self. However, the reader must understand that this unity is nuanced; it is at once a togetherness and a separateness: Two opposites are brought together, but do not merge into one another, the Yin-Yang for instance. This “merging together” is precisely what he chastises religion for (Blake 189). This unity is still much closer to Thomas’, “when you make the two one you will become the son’s of man,” then John’s, “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it” (Thomas 106, John 1:5). With John, the internal duality is maintained, where, for Thomas, the path of salvation is conscious transcendence of duality.

The clearest expression of this ideal in Blake is his exposition of the history and birth of religion. Compare creation as John wrote it to this genealogy:

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 [. . .] and whatever their enlarged & numerous senses could perceive. (Blake 186)

Religion is thus born out of pantheism—not that the objects being animated are divine, but that we make them divine, or, we name them so to understand them. This naming is done with the imagination of the poet to represent the essential properties of that object—or its “genius” (Blake 186). Blake continues:

Till a system was formed, which some took advantage of & enslav’d the vulgar by attempting to realize or abstract the mental deities from their objects; thus began Priesthood.” (Blake 186)

Here Blake describes the “abstract[ing]” of “the mental deities,” or the creation of an external, transcendent god, the separation of god from the things he was created to represent: “and the darkness did not overcome it” John 1.6). Because of their removal, the gods now need intermediaries to communicate to the laymen, thus the priests, when it was the priests, Blake claims, who separated the gods in the first place. Blake concludes: “Thus men forgot that All deities reside in the human breast” (Blake 186).

This sentiment is mirrored in “There is No Natural Religion.” He says, “He who sees the Infinite in all things sees God” (Blake 76). The infinite here is closely akin to the imagination of the “Poet” who animated the world with deities, “therefore God becomes as we are, that we may be as he is” (Blake 76). God is the eternal essence of things, recognized by the imagination within each being—universal solidarity. As difficult as this concept may be to rationally understand, it carried through much of Blake’s work. The imagination is the door to the infinite: “if the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite” (Blake 188). For Blake the imagination is a form of acute perception, for again he speaks of perception as a door: “but my senses discover’d the infinite in every thing” (Blake 186). But let’s not believe his use of the word perception is narrow in the sense of “seeing” or “sensing.” He hints at the arbitrary nature of “the five senses” as “the chief inlets of the Soul in this age,” implying that there could be more, and also using the word “chief” as a designation of “hierarchy” or “accepted” (Blake 181). If the infinite is the ultimate truth, then Blake is repeatedly reminding his readers that “what is now proved was once, only imagin’d” (Blake 184). Thus it is the imagination that is the door to new understanding. “Everything possible to be believed is an image of truth” (Blake 184). This is the very point that Blake sets out to prove in the first part of “There is No Natural Religion.” He concludes:

If it were not for the Poetic or Prophetic character the Philosophic & Experimental would soon be at the ratio of all things, & stand still unable to do other than repeat the same dull round over again. (Blake 75).

When Blake speaks of “the ratio of all things,” he is referring to the limited, dualistic, bound version of the thing, as opposed to the perception of “the infinite in all things” (Blake 76). It is the difference between John and Thomas. If the light of Jesus and God is beyond us, outside of our own being, then we are limited and set apart. We must die; we are subjects to a higher power; we are mortal. But if “all deities reside in the human breast,” then we ourselves are the highest power; the infinite we see in god is the infinite within the powers of our own imagination (Blake 186). In “The Everlasting Gospel,” Blake writes, “The Vision of Christ that thou dost see / Is my Visions Greatest Enemy,” thus concluding his disgust for the “orthodox” version of Jesus (Blake 851).

In the East there is the idea of “two principle types of religious attitude,” the “Way of the Kitten” and the “Way of the Monkey” (Campbell Myths to Live By 129). These two types of religious understanding serve as apt headers for the polemic of this paper. The “Way of the Kitten” refers to the reliance of a kitten on its mother in a situation of danger: the “kitten cries ‘Miaow,’ its mother, coming, takes it by the scruff and carries it to safety” (Campbell Myths to Live By 129). However, the “Way of the Monkey” refers to the independence and self-reliance of a monkey: If he wants to be saved he had better save himself. This emphasis on salvation is not coincidental. The fundamental difference between these two attitudes is where one looks for salvation: outside or inside? The “Way of the m\Monkey” characterizes many forms of Eastern Mysticism such as Buddhism, Taoism, and Hinduism (loosely); where the “Way of the Kitten” is much more closely affiliated with Islam, Judaism, and Christianity in the West. But the argument can now be made that sects in Gnosticism—as we have only discussed the Gospel of Thomas here—can smoothly be compared to those Eastern traditions.

Before we venture into some of these investigations, it is again worthwhile to mention the linguistic barriers and conundrums that must be faced, or at least acknowledged. What does it mean to be a “mystic” or what is a “mystic tradition”? Mystic is a term that I think is rarely understood or handled astutely, whether because of its often vague connection to the West, or its clearly obscure connotations. Most scholars are not mystics and most mystics are solitary and not well understood. Mysticism is often defined from beyond itself by people describing what they think they see.

Mysticism is a term that does not flourish under a tightly nuanced, limiting definition, such as Northrop Frye offers in his book Fearful Symmetry. To Frye’s credit, he does offer various, gradually widening versions of understanding, from, “a form of spiritual communion with God which is by its nature incommunicable to anyone else, and which soars beyond faith into direct apprehension,” to a broader understanding, which he uses to classifies Blake as a mystic “if mysticism means primarily the vision of the prodigious and unthinkable metamorphosis of the human mind” (Frye Fearful Symmetry 432). For Fritjof Capra, a physicist who strives to make connections between the mystic and the scientific,

all things and events perceived by the senses are interrelated, connected, and are but different aspects or manifestations of the same ultimate reality. Our tendency to divide the perceived world into individual and separate things and to experience ourselves as isolated egos in this world is seen as an illusion which comes from our measuring and categorizing mentality. (24)

This sort of conceptualization of reality is clearly in line with the formulation of this paper: unity versus division. I have stressed this point through both content and form. Eternity itself can be understood as a form of unity, the unification of the past, present, and future in one or any given moment of experience: “But the hour is coming and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth” (John 4:23). Eternity here is discussed both within and beyond the realm of time.

Capra, in introducing his topic, writes,

mystic traditions are present in all religions, and mystical elements can be found in many schools of Western philosophy [. . .] The difference between Eastern and Western mysticism is that mystical schools have always played a marginal role in the West, whereas they constitute the mainstream of Eastern philosophical and religious thought. (18)

Where is this “mystic tradition” in Western Culture? It seems invisible. We have Julian of Norwich, “See, I am God: see, I am in all things: see, I never lift my hands off my works, nor ever shall, without end” (Dillard 177). I think though, if we look closely enough, it has always been here, disguised under different names, the Cynics and Stoics of Athens, Nietzsche and Existentialism: “be the poet of your life.” With the discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library, we find truth in what Elaine Pagels, in The Gnostic Gospels writes, that ‘it is the winners who write history—their way” (142). It seems now that the Gnostics, the heretics, maybe the mystics, were written out of our history. After the success of Irenaeus’ ideal of orthodoxy came to fruition with the help of Constantine in the late Fourth Century, H. P. Blavatsky believed that the Gnostics went underground. To quote Richard Smith, Blavatsky “claimed the Gnostics as precursors for the occult movement. [. . .] In her program [. . .] the Gnostics were an obvious opposition to what she called ‘Churchianity’” (Smith 537). Can we find anything that we have identified with “the mystic” in this continuation? Erik Voegelin, a political philosopher, claims Hegelianism and Marxism to be expressions of “Modern Gnosticism” (Smith 542). Both Hegel and Marx advocated dialectics as a supreme form of experience. Dialectics can be perfectly juxtaposed with the Yin – Yang theory in Taoism and later Hinduism, Buddhism, and Zen. Indeed mysticism is still alive in the west, but not in societies, but in individuals and ideas.

In the Romanticism of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, we have already found a home for Western Mysticism. In the “Introduction” to the Nag Hammadi:

Gnosticism was ultimately eradicated from Christendom, except for occasional underground movements, some affinities in medieval mysticism, and an occasional tamed echo that stays just within the limits of propriety, for example within English romanticism:

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:

The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,

Hath had elsewhere its setting

And Cometh from afar. (Robinson 5)

Here we have some of my suppositions collaborated by James Robinson. Yeats also writes:

Considering that, all hatred driven hence,

The soul recovers radical innocence

And learns at last it is self-delighting,

Self-appeasing, self-affrighting,

And that its own sweet will is Heaven’s will. (Mitchell XXV)

We begin to see that this sort of mystic ideology is all around. Whitman was perhaps the greatest American mystic with “Song of Myself.” The way I have broadened the usage of the word “mystic” is effective in showing the personal philosophy of individuals but not at identifying social movements. Mystics, as practitioners of the “Way of the Monkey,” don’t need help finding their own path; teachers are a distraction and a hindrance. In Zen they say, “Kill the Buddha.” Whitman wrote, ‘He most honors my style who learns under it to destroy the teacher” (Whitman 69). The faith is entirely subjective, self based.

Even with modern science, Annie Dillard claims, as does Fritjof Capra, that scientists are becoming “wild-eyed raving mystics” (Dillard 202) In 1927, with the Principle of Indeterminacy, Werner Heisenberg “pulled out the rug, and our whole understanding of the universe toppled and collapsed” (Dillard 202). In short, the world was proven to be “as free as dragonflies;” the world is in fact still the primordial chaos that numerous world creation myths have tried to convince man that it wasn’t. Science in the modern era had taken up that challenge of proving the “natural system and organization,” but now, as Capra tracks it, science is converging on the mystic, or, the unity in a fluid, ever-changing, non-temporal state—in short, chaos.

The universe is again incomprehensible. All truth, all knowledge has been alchemized and burned away. So what remains in a world where “the electron [behaves as if it] is a muskrat,” where Relativity is the only functioning law? What remains? Cogito Ergo Sum: I think therefore I am—the ultimate existential and mystical claim. For Descartes, of course, it was only meant as a launching pad for science and theology and not an existential claim at all. For the Mystic, however, it is the only grounds for truth—perhaps the only truth. In Buddhism the Buddha is immanent. In Taoism the Tao flows through and animates all things. In Hinduism, the universe exists in the being of Brahma who is asleep, like Jung’s Collective Unconscious, Indra’s Net—divinity at once immanent and universal. From here, mysticism is ineffable, inexpressible. The Buddha, on waking and obtaining Enlightenment spoke, “this cannot be taught.” For Blake, in “Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” he asks Ezekiel, “why he eat dung, & lay so long on his right & left side? he answered. the desire of raising other men into a perception of the infinite” (Blake 186). So Frye is ultimately right in the incommunicable nature of mysticism. But the sages of all times have accepted what Frye so clearly writes:

For some then no word, such as “Being,” is strictly applicable to God, because words are finite and God is not: the real God is “hidden,” beyond all thought, and a fortiori beyond words. This tendency in thought seems to point in the direction of a non-verbal mysticism, like that of some Oriental religions, notably Tao and Zen, and was also regarded as dangerous [to the Church]. (Frye The Great Code 12)

The fact that words have crystalline meaning and are thereby not suited to portray the fluid, ever-changing reality of nature and being. Some, like Lao Tzu, have used poetry, a subjective and interpretive art to convey his understanding of the “one truth.” The Buddha once simply held up a lotus flower and said nothing, like Tennyson:

I hold you here, root and all, in my hand,

Little flower—but if I could understand

What you are, root and all, and all in all,

I should know what God and man is. (Williams 375)

For Blake:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand,

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand,

And Eternity in an hour. (Blake “Auguries of Innocence” 506)

I found these in an old scrapbook. How fitting a way to make our way back to Blake, Thomas, and the beginning of Christian Orthodoxy. Mysticism stands for the very things we have found prominent in Thomas and Blake: unity inter-connectedness, infinity, self-divinity, subjectivity. Can we also now understand why Irenaeus would be so opposed to such teachings? How could the Church ever hope to control people who have little need for your rules, your guidance, your supremacy? No creed could hold them; no boundary would be big enough. Irenaeus wanted to help the common Christian; he hoped to quell confusion of interpretation. The faith and belief you brought with you to your baptism, that was enough. There was no “seeking” for esoteric “gnosis”—which for the mystic is summed up by both Socrates and the writer I’ve called Thomas: Know thy Self. Not so for John and Christian Orthodoxy. You need the “light” that is Jesus; you need Blake’s priests, who themselves “abstract[ed] the mental deities from their objects,” to explain the now separated god and give the laws that are themselves concrete over the last two and a half millennia (Blake 186).

So, in the end, Blake is found in a wealth of company, formerly anonymous and unaffiliated men through history in the East and West both. Their words are often easily exchangeable among one another, though written on opposite sides of the globe and thousands of years apart. Najagneq, an Inuit shaman, said to Danish explorer Knud Rasmussen about “a power we call Sila.” He said,

his speech to man comes not in ordinary words, but through storms, snowfall, rain showers, the tempests of the sea, all the forces that man fears, or through sunshine, calm seas, or small, innocent, playing children who understand nothing. (Campbell 212)

In perhaps my favorite line of the Romantics, Blake writes,

The roaring of lions the howling of wolves, the raging

of the stormy sea, and the destructive sword, are por-

tions of eternity too great for the eye of man. (184)

Works Cited

Blake, William. William Blake: The Complete Poems. Alisa Ostriker. ed. London: Penguin, 1977.

Campbell, Joseph. Myths to Live By. New York: Bantam, 1972.

Capra, Fritjof. The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism. Boston: Shambhala, 1975.

Dillard, Annie. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. New York:

HarperCollins, 1974.

Ehrman, Bart D. Lost Scriptures: Books that did not make it into the New Testament. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Frye, Northrop. Fearful Symmetry. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1947.

-----. The Great Code. New York: First Harvest; 1982.

Funk, Robert W. and Roy W. Hoover. eds. The Five Gospels: the search for the authentic words of Jesus. New York: Polebridge, 1993.

King, Karen. What is Gnosticism?. London: Belknap Press, 2003.

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-----. The Gnostic Gospels. New York: Random House, 1979.

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Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. 1892 Edition. New York: Bantam, 1983.

Williams, Oscar. ed. Immortal Poems of the English Language. New York: Washington Square Press, 1970.