Milton’s use of Christian tradition is enlightening. I highly recommend him, even if you choose another path. He urges us to think about questions and issues that concern us still.
This is the Preface to my Milton study, Perversions, Originals, and Redemptions in Milton’s Paradise Lost.
In his epic Paradise Lost,Milton employs, extends, and deepens the typological scheme that he believes embodied in, and known by a close comparison of, the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. The seeds of typology were contained in various Old Testament comparisons of God and his city and its covenant-abiding members versus the non-covenant abiding ways of the wicked, typified byEgypt and, even more, byBabylon. Typology was further elaborated upon, and nailed to a Christian center, in the writings of St. Paul, and to a lesser degree those of St. John, and expanded by certain church Fathers, especially St. Augustine, the first and foremost framer of sign theory and the most elaborate discoverer of Christian typology in the West. Like Augustine,Milton believed that knowledge of the typology and sign theory that God himself established and embodied everywhere is crucial, not merely decorative. It goes directly to the mind as well as the emotions of the reader enabled by grace and study to be fit, though few.
Without reading properly God’s signs, true wisdom cannot be had. Nor can a genuine, hard-won self that grows out of grace, faith, and right actions based on diligent study and passing the tests presented to them that show them approved of God. WhileMiltonis dubious about the possibilities of a redeemed community composed of such individuals on earth, he affirms that without proper reading of God’s signs and, therefore, understanding and embodiment of his ways, a true and righteous community can never begin to grow on earth as in Heaven.
Regardless of whether one is Protestant or Roman Catholic, for the Christian of every sort typology and semiotics show forth God’s eternal ways and truths, his essential beauty, goodness, and proportion. Words, above all else, embody this system, words which function like Christ, the Word, who by his Incarnation makes visible the invisible actions, words, and things of God.
In his attempt to justify God’s ways—ways eternally embedded in language, endorsed by Christ, who is eternally the Word made flesh, and embodied in the universe of his epic—Milton, like Augustine, returns to Genesis because it records the earthly beginnings, as well as the seeds of the end, of humanity’s pilgrim journey. At that time, all that shares true being will again be caught up in God, their author, their maker—their Poet. For as Ephesians 2.10 argues, the Christian is God’s workmanship. God’s handiwork will become, ever more literally, through the many expanding and contracting rings of meaning, God’s carmen, his poem, his universe, ultimately the very embodiment of himself and his ways.
Then, and only then, will God’s people, few as they may be, fully understand and make evident that a true sense of self is gained not by separation from Heavenly communion, from the spiritual center that gives all else meaning, but rather by remaining within it, for it signifies God’s eternal covenant. Once fallen, separated from God and proper understanding of him and the ways and signs that point always to him, we realize—that is make real—only through grace, inspiration, and hard work, just as we should not mistake the Son for the Father—still God—or the Spirit for either of them—that we become ever more ourselves by tuning ourselves as fit singers of God’s song mysteriously within him and of him forever. Earthly time, chronos, is thus caught up in the eternity of kairos. Fit readers remember—thus embody in themselves, and for God—this spiraling motion inwards and upwards in conversion, through the function of properly inspired memory, reading rightly always God’s signs, which are everywhere. Finally, if faithful to study to show themselves approved of God, making choices patterned upon those in the Godhead, embodying the Word within, they too will enjoy, and truly participate in, the beatific vision, having moved properly from sight to insight, from earthly time to eternity, where all is present.
Significantly,Miltonchooses not to end his major works on—or even show us—the rather broad-brushed beatific visions favored by Medieval writers like Dante. While still a Christian affirming the all-encompassing import of communion, firmly connected to his historical roots,Miltonis also a product of Renaissance and Protestant individualism. He paints individuals in carefully delineated strokes who are somewhere in the process of gaining a deep and abiding—genuine—self, whether on earth or in heaven—and within God himself, the center of everything. There all has begun, for all has been created from God’s very self. And there in him all will end.
Because Christianity deemed the Hebrew scriptures the Old Testament, which are then fulfilled and rightly understood in the Christian writings of the New Testament, I have used these traditional terms in this book. Christian writers very early began distorting Hebrew beliefs and texts to fit their political and theological agenda. The Christian scriptures contain seeds of anti-semitism, for they paint the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day as opposers of God, especially God incarnate in Jesus the Messiah (a blasphemous twisting of the Jewish concept of messiah, who could be anyone anointed by God for a specific task; nor would God in some manner stoop to take on flesh and become human, even dying for humanity).
Although Christian typology embodies the essential distortions of the Christian faith—so that one can say that Christianity is related to Judaism (with other influences), but it is not merely completed Judaism, as many present-day Christians seem apt to think—typology was historically important, for it evidences the ways in which the Christian West conceived reality. By ignoring typology, or refusing to see its presence—and the belief that God, and even, more that Christ, is the center of all, for without faith in Christ, and accompanying good works, there can be no salvation—we do not dispatch the anti-semitism and exclusivism that Christianity has too often encouraged. Only by acknowledging these negative aspects of the faith, and dealing with them in a sensible manner, can we move to something better, more ecumenical and humane.
Thomas Ramey Watson
30 May 2006