The Everlasting Gospel

From Northrop Frye, Fearful Symmetry
Quotations from the poems and prose of William Blake

The Holy Spirit spoke by the prophets, all visionaries speak with the voice of God, but in Jesus God and Man became one. For Jesus was a perfect man, not in the negative sense of a man without sin -- had he been perfect in that way he could never have existed at all, even as a myth -- but as a man who "was all virtue, and acted from impulse, not from rules". Everything he did was an imaginative act bringing more abundant life, and his whole gospel reduces itself to forgiveness of sins [...].

His impact on society was that of a revolutionary and iconoclast, as that of all prophets must be. He found the Jews worshiping [...] a sulky and jealous thundergod who exacted the most punctilious obedience to a ceremonial law and moral code. He tore this code to pieces and broke all ten commandments, in theory at least.

Finally Jesus became so obnoxious to society that society could stand him no longer, and, as he refused all compromise or even defense, he really compelled the custodians of virtue and vested interests to murder him. From their point of view they were quite right, and their charge of blaspheming their God amply justified.

At the same time the common people heard him gladly; publicans and sinners welcomed him; lepers, pariahs, and beggars called to him; children swarmed after him. Pharisees did not recognize him as a prophet, but the adulterous woman of Samaria did. When he talked of God he did not point to the sky but told his hearers that the Kingdom of Heaven was within them. Nor did he tell them how to live a Christian life in society. He asked the impossible, demanded perfection, and threw out wildly unpractical suggestions. He said that God was a Father and that we should live the imaginatively unfettered lives of children, growing as spontaneously as the lilies without planning or foresight.

The God of his parables is an imaginative God who makes no sense whatever as a Supreme Bookkeeper, rewarding the obedient and punishing the disobedient. Those who labor all day for him get the same reward as those who come in at the last moment. His kingdom is like a pearl of great price which it will bankrupt us to possess. If we want wise and temperate advice on living we shall find it in Caesar sooner than in Christ: there is more of it in Marcus Aurelius than there is in the Gospels. Sensible people will tell us that it is foolish to throw everything to the winds, to give all one's goods to the poor and live entirely without caution or prudence. But they will not tell us the one thing we need most to know: that we are all born into a world of liquid chaos as a man falls into the sea, and that we must either sink or swim to shore, because we are not fish.

For all [of] Jesus' teaching centers on the imminent destruction of this world and the eternal permanence of heaven and hell, these latter being not places but states of mind. Jesus however did not discuss this in terms of good and evil, but in terms of life and death, the fruitful and the barren. The law of God that we must obey is the law of our own spiritual growth. Those who embezzle God's talents are praised; those who are afraid to touch them are reviled.

There is much haughtiness and arrogance in Jesus, much speaking with authority and much blasting invective. This is the indignation of the prophet. Yet we have seen that resentment excludes retribution, and Jesus forgave all sins continuously until his last gasp on the cross. For the same reason he renounced all the attributes of the conquering Messiah, refused to fight tyranny with tyranny, and withdrew completely from the vendettas of society. It is therefore nonsense to believe that Jesus forgave sins only because he was biding his time for a more hideous revenge later on. Hell is [...] "the being shut up in the possession of corporeal desires which shortly weary the man," and this is the only hell that Jesus spoke of.

The higher state of heaven is achieved by those who have developed the God within them instead of the devil. Those who have fed the hungry and clothed the naked are here, because they have realized the divine dignity of man. These are the just who, as Paul said, live by faith, and the just, being potentially visionaries, attain that vision after death. Faith, which may be blind, achieves its consummation in vision, and Jesus promised that some of his followers would not taste death before they had that vision. Faith, Jesus said, can remove mountains. But mountains in the world of experience are entirely motionless; what kind of faith can remove them? Well, a landscape painter can easily leave one out of his picture if it upsets his imaginative balance. And that kind of vision, which sees with perfect accuracy just what it wants to see, pierces the gates of heaven into the unfallen world.

Jesus was not only a teacher but a healer, and the true healer does not "cure", he helps the sick man to cure himself. Jesus tore off all the veils of timidity and caution and prudence and moderation and confronted his hearers with the ultimate contrast of full imagination or Selfhood [ego], himself or Caiaphas. He could bring God out of a fisherman or a tax-collector, and he could frighten a weakling until all his hysterias and bugaboos ran shrieking out of him. Therefore he continuously worked what are called miracles.

Now just as prophecy is vulgarly considered to be fortune-telling, so miracles are vulgarly considered to be mysterious tricks which cannot be explained except on the assumption that the worker of them is all that he says he is. Miracles of this kind belong to the more popular and ignorant levels of religion: they are a crude form of scientific experiment. The miracles of Jesus depended on the belief of the recipient. A real miracle is an imaginative effort which meets with an imaginative response. Jesus could give sight to the blind and activity to the paralyzed only when they did not want to be blind or paralyzed; he stimulated and encouraged them to shatter their own physical prisons. Miracles reveal what the imagination can do. The opposite of revelation is mystery, and a miracle which remains mysterious is a fraud, especially if it is an authentic miracle:

Jesus could not do miracles where unbelief hindered, hence we must conclude that the man who holds miracles to be ceased puts it out of his own power ever to witness one. The manner of a miracle being performed is in modern times considered as an arbitrary command of the agent upon the patient, but this is an impossibility, not a miracle, neither did Jesus ever do such a miracle [...].

Jesus' teaching avoids generalizations of the sort that translate into platitudes in all languages. Examples, images, parables, and the aphorisms which are concretions rather than abstractions of wisdom, were what he preferred. These are the units of art, and are addressed only to those who are willing to understand them; no art works automatically on the unresponsive any more than a miracle does. Coleridge's "willing suspension of disbelief" is a negative statement of the desire to see which all art implies. Such a desire is simple and childlike rather than complex; but to the generalizer there is nothing so esoteric as a straightforward story which compels him to focus his vision on something concrete. He prefers plain statements of general truth: those, he feels, are addressed to all men equally [...]. He is more at home with "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth": that expresses the general truth that one may become rich and respected by not offending anybody:

The vision of Christ that thou dost see
Is my vision's greatest Enemy: [...]
Thine is the friend of All Mankind,
Mine speaks in parables to the Blind.

There is no Christian visible Church, Christian theology, Christian morality, Christian society, or Christian ceremony. Religion [...] is "Civilized Life such as it is in the Christian Church", and the Christian Church in this sense is nothing but "Active Life" or the free use of the imagination. Nobody can be "converted" to Christianity in the sense of exchanging one faith for another:

[...] By their works ye shall know them; the knave who is converted to Christianity is still a knave, but he himself will not know it, though everybody else does.

Imagination is life, and Jesus, by "taking away the remembrance of sin", released it, bringing more abundant life. He not only judges the quick and the dead; he judges them according to whether they are quick or dead. He did not curse Pilate; he cursed the barren fig-tree. The imagination always follows Jesus, and cannot do otherwise. There is no natural religion; all religion is revelation; revelation is apocalypse; apocalypse is vision. The only "church" Jesus founded was a communion of visionaries, and Baptism and the Lord's Supper symbolize [...] "throwing off error and knaves from our company continually and receiving truth or wise men into our company continually." The essence of the socially acceptable and moral Antichrist, then, is "the outward ceremony", its recurrent ritual imitating the [God] who chases his tail forever in the sky.

Heaven is not a place guarded by immigration officials interested only in passports and certificates, nor is it the higher class to which we are promoted by passing an examination showing what we have learned in this world. Heaven is this world as it appears to the awakened imagination, and those who try to approach it by way of restraint, caution, good behavior, fear, self-satisfaction, assent to uncomprehended doctrines, or voluntary drabness, will find themselves traveling toward hell [...], hell being similarly this world as it appears to the repressed imagination:

Men are admitted into Heaven not because they have curbed and governed their passions, or have no passions, but because they have cultivated their understandings. The treasures of heaven are not negations of passion, but realities of intellect, from which all the passions emanate uncurbed into their eternal glory. The fool shall not enter into Heaven let him be ever so holy. Holiness is not the price of entrance into Heaven. Those who are cast out are all those who, having no passions of their own because no intellect, have spent their lives in curbing and governing other people's by the various arts of poverty and cruelty of all kinds [...].