Religious Knowledge, Lecture 1


Classnotes of Margaret Gayfer, incorporating some notes by Richard Stingle.

Lecture 1.  30 September 1947

The Bible is the grammar of Western civilization; it brings down an entire culture and civilization to us.  Christianity and Judaism represent the only religions which have a sacred scripture; both have tried to achieve a single, definitive scripture.

The Bible is unique in its symmetry.  It represents a vision of the whole of human life.  Its aesthetic beauties are accidental.  It contains transcendental genius and ridiculous genealogies side by side.  It is crude, shocking, funny.  The Bible has a beginning, middle, and an end.  In telling a single narrative from Creation to the Last Judgment, it takes an epic survey of time.  The Bible sees the whole of time as a category of time and as a thing separate from itself.  Time is seen in the perspective of eternity.  Jesus is the centre of the Bible.  Jesus and the Bible are identical.

The traditional approach to the Bible is synthetic, to see it as one work.  The modern approach is analytical and scholarly.  For Frye, the synthetic approach is the real approach to the Bible, to see it as a unity.  Several theological systems are based on the Bible and all claim to be equally correct.  All religions are on a level as far as moral doctrines are concerned; the moral loftiness of the Bible is accidental, like its aesthetic beauty.

The synthetic approach sees certain recurrent symbols in the Bible that form a single pattern of symbols.  The structure of the Bible is complicated and must be studied.  The original authorship is a very minor point.  The literary person can see lyrics, parables, letters, memoirs, and so on—literary forms that have been smothered by repeated editings.  The Bible is as much an edited book and its editorial processes must be regarded as inspired, too.  The whole Bible is the history of man’s loss of freedom and organization and how he got it back.

There are two kinds of symmetry.  One is chronological, seeing the Bible story of creation, etc., as a legendary and mythical story of the fortunes of the Jewish people from 2000 B.C. to 100 A.D. and the spread of the Christian Church.  (Some books are out of order.  John should be the opening book of the New Testament since it is the Christian statement of the opening of the Old Testament.)

The second is a kind of symmetry that does not correspond to the chronological pattern exactly.  The difference between time and false history doesn’t arise in the Bible.  The whole conception of true and false as we think of it is not dealt with in the Bible.  The fall of man and the apocalypse have nothing to do with history.  The Bible is not a straight line of chronology; its time is a circle.  The beginning and end are the same point.  You can’t “jimmy” Adam and Eve into ancient history.  The whole question of causation, order, purpose, etc., is not dealt with by the Bible.

Christianity clings to revelation, and the only practical way to do this is in a book.  All we know about God is in the Bible; there is no God in nature or “up there” in the sky.  The association of God and Man is the basis of Christianity.


Time and space are the categories of experience.  Historical studies deal with Time, and science with Space.

The primitive mind arrives at the religious experience early and a place is assigned to religious myths, so that God resides in various places.  In this way, religion reflects the society of the people.  Foresters and farmers have a particular god, for example.  The dying and revising god of the farmer reflects the pattern of the farming life.

When you get a Federal God, he is placed “up,” that is, in the sky, like Jehovah who is a mountain god.  All gods fall under the monarch of the sky, a god who is “up” on a mountain, either Sinai or Olympus.  This conception is seen in the theology of the Middle Ages in which God is “outside” the primum mobile.  In Dante, one goes through spheres “up” to God.  Although since Copernicus there is no “up” and “down” in the universe, the idea persists. However, in religion, space is vanished.  Heaven and Hell are not places.  Even after Copernicus, God is still enmeshed in time; He started it and it will end.  With Darwin, the lid blew off time; it has no beginning and no end.  To go back in time gets you no nearer to God, since God is banished from time.  The 19th‑ century deist position of the universe running according to a God who started things was blasted by Darwin.  Evolution showed that nature can create itself; there is no need for bringing in an outside God.

Time and space are indefinite and shapeless, and in that indefinite universe there is no God.  Time and space are categories of reality, and yet they are grotesquely unreal.  Time has three phases—past, present and future—all of which never exist.  The same is true of space.  Man has an “up” and a “down” category of experience and yet there is sometime in indefinite space which eliminates the idea of “up” and “down”.

Man operates with points of reference—time and space—which he calls real.  Time makes a distinction between Now and Then, even though neither of them can be proved as real.  Our conception of space turns on Here and There, which also do not exist.  “Here” in space and “Now” in time are the central points of man’s reference.  One of the functions of religion is a perspective of reality concerning these worlds.

Religion does not deal with time and space but with eternity and the infinite.  Eternity seems to be indefinite time; infinity seems to be indefinite space.  But this is not so; we are just confusing categories.  Eternity and infinity are concerned with the real Here and Now.  The religious perspective gets us clear of time and space to the point where you look down on both.

The Bible presents reality in eternal and infinite terms: time begins and ends as a circle.  The Last Judgment re-establishes the world as it was before Creation.  Time has a shape.  Space has a shape too, a beginning and end which are the same place.

The Creation myth shows the tendency in the human mind to look at the world as not being subject to time and space.  For most of us, Creation involves time.  Actually, Creation never happened in time.  Man’s mind is hunting for something central to hang on to.  The real Creation myth is one which defines the present and continuous relation of God to Man.  It happens in the real Here and Now.

“In the beginning” is right now.  God creates.  The Gospel story is not the biography of Jesus.  It doesn’t tell how Christ came but how he comes.  This is what always happens; this is the way redemption comes.  The apocalypse never happens in the future; it happens now within the individual soul.  The nature of religion is that it reveals something; it does not threaten man with something he cannot see.

“Metanioa” is the word for repentance, and it means “a leap of the mind.”  The Bible responds to the child’s request, “Tell me a story.”  The sophisticated mind wants an answer and will not relax and listen to the wisdom of simplicity.  Simplicity comes from a relaxation of the mind which enables you to say, “Well, why not?”  The parables are stories because the mind cannot take in abstract ideas.


The historical Jesus is not the basis of Christianity; the present Jesus is.  Historical legends are in the Bible because they represent something which is timeless.  There are no facts on the Bible, only truths.  God defined by man is but a shadow of the human mind.  It is like putting a corset on a finite thing; it won’t do.  The naive man thinks of two realities, subject and object.  The Wisdom Literature shows that both subject and object are unreal.  Reality is in the contrast between the two.

The usual primitive process is that natural forces become symbols.  This is a conception of personal gods which appear as natural objects although they are not identified with them.  To see God as the epiphany of nature is all through 19th‑century poetry.  But the quest for a God outside of man breaks down.  We must look for him inside. But, where is “inside”?

What it breaks down to is God versus nature, and yet, there is something called human nature.  Man is a natural being, and in the human mind there seems to be no eternal object or subject.  The usual notion of the soul is of a spirit, breath.  This is nonsense.  The Bible talks of a spiritual body.  Leviathan in the Bible is organized monstrosity.  He is surrounded by water.  The activity of salvation is drawing a fish out of water into the higher sphere of air.  In the New Testament, light and fire are presented as higher elements.

People talk of the tyranny of the past.  The Christian is delivered from time, but he is still involved in an irrevocable causation which makes every free moment done and accomplished without recall.  How much of man can be redeemed from that?  What about the Leviathan within us?

First, we must separate human nature and humanity.  In Adam all die; human nature always falls.  Christ becomes Man, but not human nature.  Not one person is with Jesus when he dies.  With Pilate, we all deny the possibility of the union of Christ and Man.  We either condemn Jesus or condone him.  Every man is Caiaphas and Pilate, who would not see God in Man.

“My river is my own” is the key to the Book of Job.  Leviathan is the king of “all the children of pride.”  He rules the world of humanity as well as of tyranny.  Every tyranny is the epiphany of Leviathan.

The fact of death is the fact of time.  The world of death is the world of human nature which proceeds in time to death.  There is no end to life for man but death; for natural man, that is.  To see the end of life as life means you are not talking about human nature but humanity.


The Word of God is in the Bible, the person of Christ, God’s power of creation.  In Genesis, it is the words God speaks that create; they are what Blake calls “the originals of creation.”  In the Gospel of John, “in the beginning was the Word,” which restates Creation.

If the central figure of Christianity is the God-Man, why isn’t the Bible merely the Gospels?  How can we make the same phrase apply to the Bible and to Christ?  The Bible is the revealed form of Christ.  The present Christ appears in the form of a book.  A real God must be anthropomorphic.  It is an anthropomorphic universe he created for Man.  God doesn’t create Man and then think up a job for him.  Man is born into a pattern of what he shows forth.

Milton’s individuality is his poetry.  He is a man born to write poetry.  The part of Milton that survives is his book, as for all creative people.  The men themselves have disappeared into the unreality of the past.  Their ego has gone.  The book is not something salvaged from the life of the dead man.  It is something alive, not dead.  The revealed form of Milton is his book; nothing else in Milton’s life ever did exist.

The life of the Bible is in its contact with the reader.  It must be chewed and digested, an organic process.  After you have got to that point, then it doesn’t matter about the editing, the censorship.  The vision of the Bible in which you operate is your justification of faith.  The fulfillment of man’s being is an eternal progression open at the top.  The Protestant revolution affirmed the autonomy of the Word of God.  The church should never interfere with the contact of man with the Bible.  The variety of readers is not important, but the reading is; there is unity there.  The church is one Man, one unity; yet there are individuals within it.

Christianity adopts the Jewish idea of redemption but places it in the eternal present.

In the Bible, Egypt symbolizes the state of bondage into which man is born, while the Promised Land is the paradisal state of man.  The forty days in the wilderness ends the “legal” phase of Jesus’ life.  The law of Mount Sinai is the climax of the Hebrews’ forty years of wanderings.  The Sermon on the Mount is the climax of Jesus’ time in the wilderness and re-interprets the Ten Commandments.

During their wanderings in the desert, the Israelites were rebellious and God sent a serpent to bite them.  Moses intercedes, and puts up the Serpent of Brass on a pole and tells them look at it and be healed of the serpent’s bite.  The brazen serpent is the imprisoned sun on a dead tree.  This is the Crucifixion.

The New Testament tells us what the Old Testament means.  It is the consolidation of everything the Old Testament says about Jesus.  In the prophetic mind, the recognition of God-Man, the epiphany, is always present.  The apperception of this pattern is there in the Old Testament prophets.  The articulation comes in the New Testament with the Word of God.

The whole effort of education is to discover the simplicity that is always there.  First we must wander through the wilderness of sophistication, which is really the commonplace.  The child lives in a universe in which all things are possible; that is, God’s universe.  The child doesn’t leap over nature to get the transcendent but stays within his own experience.  Leap over yourself and get to God.  The simple transcends the commonplace.  Some fairy stories search the centre of experience and are myth, that is, they are true.  Once the myth is in your mind it matures and is never lost.

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4 thoughts on “Religious Knowledge, Lecture 1

  1. Joe Adamson

    This is an amazing coup, Bob. Thank you so much! The closing paragraph brings to mind the conclusion of Words with Power. Frye turns to the same image of wandering through a wilderness of sophistication, a perfect description of the space inhabited by the current critical establishment, clearly one of the references intended by Frye, who evokes the figure of Elihu in the Book of Job:

    “perhaps a later insertion by someone who shared Elihu’s characteristics, bumptious, confident, proud of his close relation to the contemporary, sure of his ability to defend God and condemn Job. His credentials are very dubious, but he has his own place in the story. When we become intolerably oppressed by the mystery of human existence and by what seems the utter impotence of God to do or even care anything about human suffering, we enter the stage of Eliot’s ‘word in the desert,’ and hear all the rhetoric of ideologues, expurgating, revising, setting straight, rationalizing, proclaiming the time of renovation. After that, perhaps, the terrifying and welcome voice may begin, annihilating everything we thought we knew, and restoring everything we have never lost.”

  2. Robert D. Denham

    I’ve got a dozen or so sets of student notes for Frye’s classes. At the moment I’m transcribing Ross Beharriell’s notes for the 1947-48 Blake Seminar. Other sets are for Spenser, Milton, Literary Criticism, Nineteenth Century Thought, Renaissance Literature, Modern Poetry and Drama. Quite a few are from Margaret Virany (nee Kell), who uses Pitman shorthand. It’s not clear yet whether I’ll have the patience or stamina to decipher those.

  3. Joseph Adamson

    Then we’ve got more to look forward to. That’s marvelous.

    Yes, of course–shorthand, a real skill, which almost every woman, I guess, would have learned in high school, given the assumptions about female career paths in those days. It certainly would have given them an advantage in the classroom over their less skilled brethren. Now it’s all those laptop keys clicking away like crazy.

  4. Robert D. Denham

    Of course Frye also learned shorthand during his three-month stint at Success Business College during the fall of 1928. He worked briefly as a public stenographer, recording meetings, out of court hearings, and the like. Thank God he didn’t fall back on this skill in writing his notebooks and diaries.


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