INSPIRATION: WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO SAY WRITERS ARE INSPIRED?

Biblical literalists will tell you the Bible is inspired by God and a picture has arisen of the writers faithfully transcribing God’s inspiring Word. However, poets have long sought from beyond themselves the inspiration of the Muse. That there might be similarity with the Biblical in the kind of inspiration in some artists’ and prophetic voices is suggested by the great Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn who claimed in The Oak and the Calf that for the final draft of The Gulag Archipelago three large volumes written in seventy three days, his was merely the recording hand.

William Blake, referring to his pictures, though he might well have said the same of his prophetic poems, “though I call them mine I know they are not mine”.

The idea of divine inspiration is reflected by D.H. Lawrence, reflecting to a colleague on his approach to his work:

I know how hard it is. One needs something to make one’s mood deep and sincere. There are so many frets that prevent our coming at the real naked essence of our vision. It sounds boshy doesn’t it? I often think one ought to be able to pray, before one works- and then leave it to the Lord. Isn’t it hard, hard work to come to real grips with one’s imagination- throw everything overboard? I always feel as if I stood naked for the fire of Almighty God to go through me-and it’s rather an awful feeling. One has to be so terribly religious, to be an artist. I often think of my dear Saint Lawrence on his gridiron, when he said, “Turn me over, brothers, I am done enough on this side.

(To Ernest Collings, 24th February 1913 The Letters of D.H. Lawrence)

That it was possible for Lawrence- son of a coal miner- in 1913 to pitch his inspiration at so high a level- scarcely imaginable in a writer in English a hundred years later- demonstrates an intense seriousness in his conception of the possibilities and meaning of art in the twentieth century, which links it closely with the Biblical idea of inspiration.

Whatever, both Blake and Lawrence were brought up as Nonconformists; one was the earliest great English Romantic and the other developed into perhaps the last representative of that great outcrop of writers. Solzhenitsyn, a faithful follower of the Russian Orthodox church writes out of the the great tradition of the Russian novel, but all three writers develop their work out of the Judeo-Christian heritage.

But to get back to the Bible, perhaps you remember the second story of creation in Genesis 2:

And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils; and man became a living soul.

Genesis 2: 7 KJV

Hence inspiration -the breath of God breathed in by Man; with Man as “living soul” created in the image of God (Genesis1.27) ;there follows creative speech (Adam is to name the animals) developing into what, in time, Lawrence is to call “art speech” (“art speech is the only speech”) properly and originally inspired in Man by God.

The idea of inspiration is central to the Old Testament. God inspired Moses, much against his will, to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. When Moses argues he has not the gift of eloquence he is told by God:

Who hath made man’s mouth…………Now therefore go, and I will be with thy mouth and teach thee what thou shalt say.

Genesis 4 11-12

The great Hebrew prophetic tradition follows in similar vein. Jeremiah similarly protests about being unable to speak for I am a child” (Jeremiah 1.6) and God reassures him Then the Lord put forth his hand and touched my mouth. And the Lord said unto me “Behold I have put my words in thy mouth” (Jeremiah 1.9). We hear of Ezekiel’s vivid visions followed by the words:

Son of Man, all my words that I shall speak unto thee receive in thy heart, and hear with thine ears“. (Ezekiel 3.10)

The prophetic tradition demonsrates most obviously the Biblical idea of inspiration. The prophets are men with a deep sense of accountability to God, deeply disturbed by the way in which their nation is going and finding, through inspired vision, a voice to express what they are convinced is God’s will. While much of what they say is directed towards the plight of their nation at a particular time, within the fluctuations of Middle-eastern geopolitics, from them emerge great visions like those of Isaiah’s suffering servant and Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones, visions that were to inspire future prophets and indeed Jesus himself , who seemed particularly influenced by Isaiah’s idea of the “suffering servant” and Daniel’s apocalyptic visions.

Yet inspiration is not confined to the prophets. The Genesis stories of creation and the Fall are told at a depth which makes them continue to be deeply meaningful thousands of years later. The psalms are poems written by poets inspired to address God, some in gratitude to the good shepherd, some in distress to a God seemingly turned away. Job’s great drama daringly imagines God giving voice to the creation of the cosmos.

Biblical literalists then are not misguided in seeing inspiration as central to the creation of the books of the Bible. However the power to be a prophet or seer does not guarantee authenticity in itself. The Bible speaks of false prophets. Ezekiel is warned to distinguish true prophecy from those so called prophets who “follow their own spirits and have seen nothing” (Ezekiel 13.7). Of them God says

Have ye not seen a vain vision and have ye not spoken a lying divination, whereas ye say,The Lord saith it albeit I have not spoken.

Ezekiel 13.7

We are disturbed by Biblical visions that speak of the the destruction of the Ammonites. These are visions, based on an idea of tribal purity at odds with later Christian ideas. Peter’s wonderful vision of being commanded to eat foods he instinctively considers impure (Acts 10. 9-16) is a revelatory turnaround of what he has learned from his religious heritage.

We need, in other words, as well as revelation, critical discernment . It is not enough to claim the inspiration and expect immediate endorsement. Prophecy may stretch the bounds of credibility or seem confusing or downright wrong as sometimes do the later Blake and the later Lawrence.

Yet inspiration, that is true inspiration, has an authority about it that we should be wary of countermanding:

And they were all amazed, insomuch that they questioned among themselves, saying, What thing is this? what new doctrine is this? for with authority commandeth he even the unclean spirits, and they do obey him.

Gospel of St. Mark 1.27

The voice of Jesus saying and doing what intellectual traditionalists of his day find outrageous, yet calls forth, as the revelatory does, wonder at the voice of counter- authority.

We, of the English language, have been peculiarly fortunate in a tradition of great prophetic voices who from Blake, Coleridge, Carlyle, Dickens, Lawrence, Leavis have represented a continuity of voices protesting against mainstream thought systems that have led to modern day scientism and technological- Benthamism (the phrase is Leavis’ characterisation of the age) which have vitiated our modern culture and depressed and diverted the religious spirit of the people.

Inspired voices? Our age desperately needs to learn from them.

THE LANGUAGE OF THE SUN AND MOON : DRAWING ON BOEHME.

You may have noticed in our readings of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” how the sun and moon are significant presences in the poem. Coleridge thought deeply on the subject of symbols and symbolic language. He saw Nature as reflecting the language of God the Creator and he also conceived that the poetic imagination, given that Man was created in God’s image (Gen.1: 26-27), was a means of discerning the meaning of God’s language working through Nature.

Many of the poem’s first readers were shocked by the description of the Sun:.

Nor dim nor red, like God's own head
The glorious Sun uprist. 

According to Malcolm Guite in Mariner (Hodder &Stoughton 2017) one contemporary viewer wrote the likeness “makes the reader shudder…with religious disapprobation.” For the second edition Coleridge was persuaded to remove “God” and replace the phrase with “like an angel’s head” but when he produced the Sibylline Leaves edition (1817) he brought back the original phrasing.

The association of God and the Sun is of course both common and apposite. Without the sun there is no life, with light and heat the Sun enables growth; God the Creator acts to give light. Guite argues that the identification of the Sun with God as source of light is vital for Coleridge’s “sacramental” view of Nature. If God is creator, then the universe should not simply be seen as a mass of dead objects but as vital elements expressing God and our attitude to the universe should not be of its instrumentality or usefulness to us but reverential. As we have seen this is the message the mariner’s experiences teach him.

Guite here brings in Blake because Blake, like Coleridge, was profoundly opposed to what both saw as the deadening effects of the Newtonian view of the universe, Deism and Locke’s empiricism. For both poets, humans are creative participants in reality , not passive recipients of a reality presented to them. Blake has an interlocutor asking, “When the sun rises, do you see a round disk of fire somewhat like a guinea” and replies” O no,no, I see an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty.”

Why then readers of the poem might ask is the God-like invocation of the Sun followed by a more negative picture? :

All in a hot and copper sky,
The bloody Sun at noon,
Right up above the mast did stand 
No bigger than the moon.

 

The answer to this is suggested by Coleridge’s reading of a German mystic, Jacob Boehme 1575-1624 (also an influence on Blake). John Beer in his work “The Mysticism of Coleridge (Chatto & Windus 1970).

The heat of the sun is an essential element in the speculations of Jacob Boehme. Boehme’s insistence on the benevolence of God led him to the doctrine that if God sometimes seems angry, this was no more than an appearance engendered by the diseased imagination of fallen man. Cut off from the light of God, he could experience only the heat of his presence: and an exposure to his full glory would therefore be felt as nothing less than exposure to unendurable fire,

In relation to “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” this is clearly relevant to the expression of the Sun as not only ” glorious” but also as oppressive, “bloody” and by implication condemnatory. The mariner’s guilt metaphorically expressed by the blood on his hands is projected on to a “bloody” sun representing an angry, vengeful God as Judge. ( The idea has a wider relevance when we consider the way in which the Israelites in the Old Testament project their guilt on to a God who is perceived as vengeful and angry with them for their misdeeds). Guite points out that the sense of blood-guilt is expressed later in the poem when he longs for forgiveness:

He'll shrieve my soul, he'll wash away
The Albatross's blood.     

It is the action of the Moon that saves the mariner from living under what he feels as oppressive judgement. As noted in my commentary on Part 4 there is a rhythmic shift of the verse when the Moon appears. The presence of the Moon is set against the shadow of the ship :

But where the the ship's huge shadow lay,
The charmed water burnt away
A still and awful red.
 

While the “awful red” is associated with judgement and condemnation when the mariner looks beyond the shadow he sees the action of the moon on the water and his vision is transformed. The water-snakes, hitherto rejected with disgust are now seen as creatures of beauty. As Coleridge’s marginal gloss puts it: “By the light of the Moon he beholdeth God’s creatures of the great calm”.

Beer considers that as the moon is reflected sunlight the moon is interpreted by the poem acting as a mediator between God and Man in his fallen state. The moon is associated with radiating grace. It can also be seen in its traditional form as female; there is a Marian element in Coleridge’s poem. In part 3 when the skeletal ship comes between the Sun and the mariner’ s ship the mariner appeals to Heaven’s Mother:

"And straight the sun was flecked with bars
(Heaven's Mother send us grace)"  

This corresponds to the mediating action of the moon in Part 4:

Beyond the shadow of the ship,
I watched the water snakes:
They moved in tracks of shining white,
And when they reared the elfish light 
Fell off in hoary flakes.

Within the shadow of the ship,
I watched their rich attire:
Blue, glossy green and velvet black 
They coiled and swam; and every track
Was a flash of golden fire.

 

As we have seen in the previous post it is the sight of the hitherto abhorred water- snakes in the beauty of the moonlight that enables the beginning of the redemption of the mariner. As Coleridge’s later-added gloss puts it:”By the light of the Moon he beholdeth God’s creatures of the great calm”. He sees what he did not see with the albatross when he killed the bird, that these are God’s creation. The moon, then, as reflector of the Sun’s light, Heaven’s mother, bringer of grace, mediates the mariner’s transformation.

Guite points to an entry in one of Coleridge’s Notebooks which has relevance to the meaning he is addressing here: “Quiet stream with all its eddys [sic] and the moon playing in them; quiet, as if they were Ideas in the divine Mind anterior to Creation.”

Guite goes on:

For Coleridge, the meaning of the moon and moonlight is not a purely human invention. It is a symbol, but it is not a randomly chosen or arbitrarily constructed human one; it is a symbol which is moulded by and participates in the reality it represents.

Guite refers to a late work in which Coleridge writes: The Symbol is characterised by… the translucence of the Eternal through and in the Temporal. It always partakes of the Reality which renders it intelligible, and while it enunciates the whole, abides itself as a living part in that Unity of which it is representative. (The Statesman’s Manual).

The Sun and Moon then in Coleridge’s work point to the spiritual and transcendent dimension working in Nature. They represent God’s creative glory, the expression of His Word, Logos, within Nature. Coleridge sees his responsibility (as does Blake) to challenge the materialist view of Nature as a mechanism, with God as the absent clock maker who has created the laws of operation and then retired from the scene. Reality for Blake, the visionary and Coleridge, the idealist, is God-penetrated and the creativity in Man is continuous with what God has created in Nature. Coleridge’s use of the Sun and moon as symbols in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”brings together the life within and the living reality of the external world.

They represent for us, these Romantics the first great creative reaction, developing the Christian world-picture to fight against the reductive tendencies of scientism and materialism. In a world still so reduced we still can find inspiration in these poets.

CORRESPONDENCE : ON “GOD SAID ” LET NEWTON BE.”

Replies to my blog-posts are very welcome. The following written is a very thoughtful and well-argued response to my most recent post. I add a reply. Further contributions are welcome.

“Thanks, Alan, for a well written and argued piece, ably outlining the development of an important process of enquiry and understanding in the realms of Science, Religion, Philosophy and the Arts, which I much enjoyed working my way through. And now, of course, you’re waiting for the “but”-so I won’t disappoint you.

What I find difficult with the piece arises from its dualism. You suggest, I think, that the eternal and infinite God is separate from all he has made – that his creation is outside himself. Being eternal, he must indeed be “outside” Einstein’s space-time. My problem is that, being infinite, there cannot be anything “outside” of what is infinite, or it would no longer be infinite! Additionally, you are, I think, suggesting that as well as being “outside” his creation, God is simultaneously “inside it”, and I find it difficult to make sense of this immanent/transcendent connundrum. It seems to me the equivalent of saying that “a” is simultaneously “not-a”, in which case old Aristotle, with his logician’s hat on, must be vehemently protesting from his grave!

I’m reminded of the difficulty Descartes ran into, when he separated mind from matter, and declared them to be different “substances”. His problem then was how to explain how they can interact with one another. A brain is a piece of matter, which has weight, shape and occupies space. The thoughts, feelings and experiences of a mind are utterly different, being weightless, shapeless and occupying no space. Where, then, is the link between mind and matter? Descartes settled for the pineal gland in the brain, the function of which was unknown at that time, a piece of nonsense that dented his philosophical reputation.

We can experience the problem for ourselves by putting a pebble on a table in front of us. We can then introduce into our mind the thought of moving the pebble without touching it. We can’t do this, however, there being no link between the two categorically different “substances”. If God, as John 4:24 says, is Spirit-invisible and intangible (compare, above, mind as “weightless, shapeless and occupying no space”), how can he interact with the material realm? One way of addressing this issue is simply to state the paradox of God being both transcendent and immanent is only to be expected, since we are dealing with what lies beyond the limits of human understanding. It might be argued, however, that this is more of an evasion than an explanation.

Interestingly, Newtonian physics has been, not replaced, but greatly enhanced by Quantum physics, one outcome of which, surprisingly, (and strongly resisted by some) has been a “re-introduction” of mind and consciousness into the objective realm of matter. Out of this, there has arisen a growing interest in , and exploration of , the age-old concept of Panpsychism, which leaves dualism behind. Mind is the inwardness of matter, and matter is the outwardness of mind. There can be a head and a tail but still only one coin. One is tepted to say that, “In the beginning there was Mind”- and therefore matter as its correlative outward expression. There is here, perhaps, a possibility for a re-marriage of religion and science, because, although, Panpsychism can be “Godless”, it can also be a foundation for Pantheism, if one wishes to travel in that direction- Spinoza’s alternative to Descartes or, picking up on your own references to Romantic literature, my favourite lines from Wordsworth:

                    "....... a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused, 
Whose dwelling is... in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things."      

My concluding thought is that Creation is not a one-off event, but an ever-ongoing unfolding of all that is, which one may wish to call God-as more of a verb than a noun, more of a process than a person as such-although a process that has given rise to life, mind, consciousness, self-awareness and personality. “Salvation” may then have less to do with the dualism of the restoration of a relationship between the categorically different-God and Humanity-and more to do with the realisation of an identity that transcends dualism. This takes us into the every bit as important and relevant realm of the religions and philosophies of the East-but space and time, alas, have now run out!

So, thanks again, for writing a splendidly thought provoking piece, and for stimulating a too often idle brain to respond with not just a provoking reply.

Ray Inkster.

Reply from Editor

Good to get your response Ray and a very thoughtful well considered argument it proves to be! I enjoyed reading and learned much from what you have written. Nevertheless I feel you have tended to use argument as a springboard for your own preoccupation, criticising dualism as an illogical connundrum. I have to ask the question after some re-readings how is it are you connecting your argument with mine? The question you deal with may be in the background but because background it is not really what I am focusing on: the challenge raised to an earlier world-view (based on Newtonian physics and empirical philosophy and celebrated by Pope’s epigram ) by the Romantic movement ( Blake and Coleridge in particular). You do not comment on this. The high point of my argument was the Coleridge quotation. The connection between God’s infinite creativity and that of the creativity of the great poet/ artist is to me fascinating and deeply relevant to how we conceive God today. But again there is no comment on this.

In my post, I relate three Biblical understandings of how God’s power of creation manifests itself. These might be worth your consideration. As it is, it seems clear to me that Coleridge’s quotation emphasises the primary significance of “emanation” a link which I would like to have seen you explore further.

On the Transcendence/ immanence connundrum you diagnose so well you advance one unsatisfactory explanation as mystery which we just have to accept. This you call “evasion”. My understanding is Christian theologians have sought to balance the two, though with differing emphases. Some mystics emphasise the transcendence so that there is little emphasis on God’s immanence. Others like Paul Tillich, who speak of God as the “ground of our being,” emphasise this so much there is little emphasis on the transcendent God. Perhaps those of us not theologically or philosophically minded can get by satisfactorily by accepting the mystery -“we know only in part”.

That said I must again acknowledge my gratitude to you. Your reply has encouraged me to get involved in reading David Bentley Hart’s very wonderful work “The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss (Yale University Press 2013). Of this work Rowan Williams has said, ” David Hart can always be relied on to offer a perspective on Christian faith that is both profound and unexpected. In this materpiece of quiet intellectual and spiritual passion, he magnificently sets the record straight as to what sort of God Christians believe in and why.”

As you know Hart, belonging to the Eastern Orthodox persuasion is among the foremost theologians of the U.S. and is extremely well-read in the scriptures and mystical works of all the faiths and he discusses these in this work. He is a brilliant philosopher and sharp-minded critic of what was once called the New Atheism.

A challenge of mine to you would be to write a review of this work, yourself, as a guest-post! Something to keep your brain working in your retirement!

Yours ever,

Alan

God said “Let Newton be, then there was Light”

KEEPING FAITH IN THE CREATIVE SPIRIT.

Genesis begins ” In the beginning God created heaven and earth. And the earth was without form and void and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the waters. And God said, Let there be light.

In that very confident age when the creation appeared to have been satisfactorily explained by Newtonian science Alexander Pope expressed it in an epigram:

Nature and Nature's laws lay hid in night
God said, " Let Newton be, then there was light".

The orderly , law-governed cosmos demonstrated by Newton’s science was seen as justifying natural religion. Newtonian science seemed successfully to marry science and religion: having demonstrated scientific laws mathematically, he concludes: “It is not to be conceived that mere mechanical causes could give birth to so many regular motions” (Bk2 Principia 1687 ) thus pointing to theism. (Blackburn Dictionary of Philosophy O.U.P. 1996.). Natural religion lessened dependence on revelation. God’s workings could be studied by the empirical methods , so well advanced by eminent philosophers, like John Locke (1632 -1704) who, as well as his great philosophical work Essay Concerning Understanding 1689 also wrote The Reasonableness of Christianity (1695).

All this prepared for a rational-minded belief in a God who set off creation, whose intentions, in what had been shown to be an ordered universe, were benevolent. But God did not necessarily intervene within human affairs and any claim of mystical understanding or of visionary revelation was regarded with suspicion, the cause of the troubles of the recent past, that had led to the Civil War, and the superstition of the Middle Ages. John Toland, a radical thinker, wrote a work entitled Christianity Not Mysterious 1696( Blackburn ibid. on Deism). God became distant, religion became formalised, ethical, common-sensical and well -regulated.

Deism expressed faith in God as a watchmaker or clock-maker who set the universe into operation and left it to follow the given laws. This attitude affected the eighteenth century church, where rational minded common sense, a spirit of moderation and good -will guided followers away from extremism but not, it might be said, from complacency.

During the pre-Romantic and Romantic periods, however, reaction developed against the limitations of the rule of reason; the kind of experience it tended to distrust and deny, including emphasis on salvation and the visionary became re-emphasised. In religion there was the Methodist revival started by the Wesley brothers. The poet and artist, William Blake exemplifies the reaction against conventional thinking and practice. Brought up within one of the many non-conformist sects in London, he despised the conformist religious establishment and he loathed empirical philosophy which was sceptical of the visionary and revelatory spiritual experience which he knew to be real. Similarly, Coleridge, although continuing Church of England, rejected empiricism for idealism. Idealism was a rejection of a materialist philosophy that treated the action of the spirit as a development from the material base , rather than the organising principle from the beginning.

Blake and Coleridge in their poetry were concerned, though in a very different way from Pope, with the meaning of “creation” and the ways in which poetic creation mirrored or exemplified the divine process. The word “create” ( along with its derivatives” creation” and ” Creative”) were vital to them and the imagination was seen to be the source of creativity. Coleridge sees the imagination of the artist as reflecting the divine process of creation: “a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM”. Here Coleridge is drawing on the answer given to Moses in his encounter with the divine presence in the Book of Exodus.(see Exodus 3:13-14)

How does this fit in with Christian theological conceptions of “Creation”? I looked this up by checking the New Lion Handbook of Christian Belief (ed. Alastair McGrath2006. Lion Hudson).

But how are we to understand this idea of “creation”? What does it mean to speak of God “creating” the world? Three main ways of conceiving the creative action of God became widely established in the Christian church.

1.Emanation. This term was widely used by early Christian writers to clarify the relation between God and the world. The image that dominates this approach is that of light or heat radiating from the sun , or from a human source such as fire. This image of creation (hinted at in the Nicene Creed phrase “Light from Light”) suggests that the creation of the world can be regarded as an overflowing of the creative energy of God. Just as light derives from the sun and reflects its nature, so the created order derives from God and expresses the divine nature. There is, on the basis of this model, a natural or organic connection between God and the creation. (See Gospel of St. John 1.1,4, 8-9) “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…..In him [the Word of God] was life; and the life was the light of men” and “He[John the Baptist] was not that Light but sent to bear witness of the Light, that men through him might believe. That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world”.)

2. Construction. Many Biblical passages portray God as a master builder, deliberately constructing the world according to a definite design The image expresses the ideas of purpose, planning and a deliberate intention to create. (See Psalm 8. 3 “When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars which thou hast ordained” or Job38.4 “Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?”)

3. Artistic expression. Many Christian writers, from various periods of the history of the church speak of creation as the “handiwork of God”, comparing it to a work of art, which is both beautiful in itself as well as expressing the the personality of the creator. (see Psalm 19.1 “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament showeth his handiwork” or Psalm 104.2 “Who coverest thyself with light as with a garment: who stretchest out the heavens like a curtain”.)

Of these, it can be said that both Blake and Coleridge see in God the action of emanation in the “overflowing of His creative energy”(see above definition) making creation possible. They see God not primarily as architect or designer as in (2), nor as in (3) presenting a finished creation but as in (1) in emanation moving within, involved in, His creation. For Blake there is continuity from the energy of the creative God for whom “eternal energy is creative delight” (from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”) to the energy of the creative artist. To Coleridge there is continuity between God the great I AM expressing His being continuously through His creation to the secondary, more limited but also greatly creative imagination of the great poet. As I understand the Coleridge quotation, I see him meaning, that God sustains creation through every moment as a continuous presence, permanently involved. In great poetry and great art, in general, this kind of imaginative involvement, is reflected in a more limited way, in the human world but in one that is inspirational pointing us to the greater creative action of God. To me this God, so variously pointed to in Blake and Coleridge, is more inspiring than the God of Newtonian science.

However, sadly, in the meantime, the marriage between religion and science has become a divorce; and the result has been the decidedly messy consciousness of our age.

But there is more to be said on that later.