Reasonable Religion

In the 1700’s, the Enlightenment ideals of liberty and reason gained hold of many minds. The American colonists rebelled against Great Britain’s George III, and the French fought against King Louis XVI’s regime, all in the name of reason. Humans were beginning to base logic as the true standard of conduct. During the final years of the Enlightenment movement, the Romantic poet, William Blake, argues that organized religion fails to adhere to reason based on the way it treats those who veer from traditional orthodoxy. If religion ever hopes to survive the changing climate of the world, argues Blake, then it will have to embrace mutual understanding and not stoic intolerance.

In Blake’s Songs of Experience, there is a poem entitled “The Little BOY Lost,” in which a young man is violently persecuted by the Church for judging religion based on his reasoning. The first stanza says “Nought loves another as itself/ Nor venerates another so/ Nor is it possible to Thought/ A greater than itself to know” (Lines 1-4). The speaker in this case is the boy. He does not believe it possible for a human to appreciate another as ardently as oneself; at the end of the day, people will look after themselves more so than anyone else. This tenet stands in contrast to traditional Christian teaching which emphasizes that the individual must love their neighbor as themselves. The Church has always stood supporting such a moral. But the boy clearly does not find this to be logical. The Church may tell him to turn to God for enlightenment, but the boy does not even consider God to be rational; it isn’t possible to “Thought a greater then itself.” The Church not only sees God as the Creator of the universe but also as one who is morally above mankind. Blake, on the other hand, sees the self as something sufficient in and of itself. It encompasses all experience. Therefore, to think of someone who is transcendently higher than himself is illogical. One cannot see past their experiences and the boy doesn’t want God to be the focus of his life.

The Church responds to the boy’s ideals with ferocity: “The Priest sat by and heard the child/ In trembling zeal siezed his hair/They[the Church] striped him to his little shirt/ And burned him in a holy place” (lines 9-10, 19 and 21). The Church literally kills the boy for thinking outside the doctrines of Christianity. They do not attempt to persuade him of their ways through reasonable debate and exchange. They simply exterminate him. The word “trembling” serves two meanings. In one sense, it refers to the traditional sense of coming to God “through fear and trembling.” In other words, Christianity teaches that people must humbly obey the Word of God. But the Preist’s faith also trembles due to the emotional fear of what the boy’s reasoning may mean, namely, that the Church will lose its grasp on others. When people think according to Reason, says Blake, then they need not follow the Church any longer. The Church exercised a considerable influence over people in Blake’s age, not only in religious terms but in every facet of life, including politics and economics. One of the Enlightenment’s greatest accusations of religion was that it contained too much authority over the common people. So if humans used their own logic, they would soon realize that the Church was tyrannical (Louis XVI was seen as a religiously corrupt ruler by the French). The Church often used violent means of subjecting others to their power. Rebellion to the Church’s standards only resulted in plain death. Because if the Church lost its hold over others, the rulers would quickly be overthrown (as was the case with Louis XVI). Control, above all else, was the goal of the Church. Dissension would cause it to lose the power it constantly lusts over.

But another one of Blake’s Experience poems, “The Little Vagabond,” argues that if the Church would simply be sympathetic towards its outsiders, then society will ultimately profit and the world need not see bloodshed outside or inside the sanctuary. The speaker of the poem says, “But if at the Church they would give us some Ale/ And a pleasant fire our souls to regale/ We’d sing and we’d pray all the live-long day/ Nor ever once wish from the Church to stray” (lines 5-8)/ In lines 2 and 3, the speaker wants his talents and abilities used well in the Ale house. In the secular sphere, he can live a balanced, practical life. If the Church would give him the same means to use his strengths as the Ale house does, the speaker argues, then religion would no longer be unreasonable to him. Religion based on practicality and real life needs and desires would suit him much better. Mentioning that if the Church would give comfort to outsiders, the speaker makes it clear that he does not believe the Church is functioning as it should, namely, by truly caring about the needs of others. Religion is in need of change. If the Church would assist people in living useful lives, then others need not rebel against its institutions. The mutual happiness between those who rule in the Church and the people would signal, more importantly, the end of conflict. Violence between believers and unbelievers would vanish. God would have no more conflict with the Barrel.

Yet the Church has often struggled with the issue of alcohol usage (“the Barrel”) as to whether or not it is doctrinally permissable to drink it. This fact highlights a serious, broader problem with religion becoming more practical; what if the outsider’s Reason contradicts the tenets of the faith itself? Such a compromise with the world would make the Church guilty of heresy. As such, the line between Reason and religion still remains shaky today. Those in the Church do not want to become too reasonable in the sense of abandoning biblical convictions and it is this same adherence to truth that pushes some questioners of Christianity away today. This even applies to those in religion who are not as violent as the Church in Blake’s day was (in that case the world has progressed in that there is less bloodshed due to religion). That is often why it isn’t always a simple issue to make religion more reasonable. People must define what Reason even means, and what it stands for is different for different people. Ultimately, humans must make a choice: do they go with the traditions of religion as it had always been perceived or come up with fresh new ways of seeing God and the world?

Works Cited: Blake, William. Songs of Innocence and of Experience. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967. Print.


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