On Belief


Blake's Nebuchadnezzar

Northrop Frye letter to Roy Daniells, 20 December 1973:

It seems to me that there are two mental processes which are quite distinct, both called belief.  One is the existence of evidence which seems conclusive, as when I believe that the earth goes round the sun and not vice versa.  The other is a belief derived not from evidence, but from imaginative vision.  A belief of this kind is an axiom of one’s conduct: what a man believes in this sense is only what his actions show that he believes.  Such beliefs represent a voluntary choice from an infinite number of imaginative possibilities.  The gospels present their story as a myth, an imaginative vision.  They are remarkably careless about collecting or appealing to evidence in the form of testimony or reason.  The account of the resurrection is designed to elicit the response “I can believe in a conquest over death achieved by human, backed by divine, power,” or something like that.  I don’t think they are trying to elicit the response “I find that these things happened exactly as described, because I believe that the writers are trustworthy historians.”  They are not trustworthy historians:  they tell four different stories.  But they are all agreed that resurrection is an important subject to decide on for belief, one way or the other.  From this point of view, it is not necessarily a misleading myth to say “in Adam all die,” which simply means that everybody dies.

I agree about the habitual dishonesty of theologians, but of course they are just as confused as everyone else about the distinction between the two kinds of belief.  As long as they could they tried to insist that belief in Christ was the same kind of belief as belief in the global shape of the earth.  Forced out of that position, they find themselves with no standards for any other kind of belief.  Very few theologians know or care much about literature or about the mental processes it calls for.  So they cannot understand that the gospel writers wrote in mythical rather than historical language because they felt that what they had to say was too important to be trusted to factual language.

Northrop Frye letter to Roy Daniells,  19 March 1975

What fills me with horror and terror, to use your words, is the mystery of the corrupted human will.  That is never more corrupt than when it gets to work in the religious area, in obedience to Swift’s principle that we use religion to hate each other and not for love.  The desire to persecute is never founded on “believe in God,” but always on “believe in what I mean by God”––all persecution and inquisition have been products of man’s deifying of his own understanding.  That and the lust for political power.  In the Apocalypse of Peter, one of the earliest NT pseudepigrapha, Peter is shown hell, given a strong hint that the sufferings there may not be everlasting after all, and then cautioned not to say this to anyone when he gets back, because people won’t behave properly unless they’re threatened with this kind of bogie.  That’s the way social institutions operate, and they operate in the same way even in Marxist countries where there’s no re­ligious basis as such.  They all try to paralyze man with fear.

Christianity makes a good deal of sense to me because its myth does.  It identi­fies man and God in a way that doesn’t cripple our critical faculties, and the kind of man it sees as divine is a man who cared enough about what was happening to other men to go through a pretty grim death.  I know that the Christian myth has been treated as fact but the people who did that were repeating the crucifixion when they made martyrs of people like Bruno and Servetus.

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3 thoughts on “On Belief

  1. Clayton Chrusch

    I suppose I have a problem with Frye’s antisupernaturalism. I think I understand and fully accept what Frye says about the mental processes and standards called for by mythical thinking. But those ideas don’t exclude the supernatural, and in fact I’ve never heard any compelling argument against the existence of the supernatural, either in Frye or elsewhere.

    In Fearful Symmetry, Frye avoids the issue by calling humanity supernatural, but if it is, it is only weakly supernatural. People who are suffering want a factual end to their suffering, not just a refinement of mental processes or the kind of small improvements made possible by human power. Buddhists hack away at our most basic assumptions of self, life span, time, and the continuity of identity to get around the problem of human weakness, and Buddhists may very well be right to do so, but that has never been the main thrust of the Christian tradition which accepts the final reality of the individual person. If Christians are right, then salvation really does need to be individual and factual, not just social or metaphorical, and so the supernatural needs to be omnipotent and factual.

    I’m eager to hear and learn from opposing views, but as I write, my own view is that the factual approach to myth is not so easily dismissed, and mythical and factual approaches are both necessary.

    Merry Christmas to everyone.

  2. Russell Perkin

    Happy New Year to everyone!
    Re Clayton’s comment: Walter Pater was attached to the analysis of belief and unbelief of that prominent agnostic John Stuart Mill. For Mill, the skeptical arguments concerning religious belief applied equally to statements of unbelief, so that the hypothesis of religious belief could never be proven false (or, of course, proven true). For Pater, as someone who refused to be sure either way, the “bare concession of possibility (the subject of it being what it is) becomes the most important fact in the world. The recognition of it straightway opens wide the door to hope and love.”

  3. Robert D. Denham

    I’ve been mulling over Clayton’s comment about Frye’s antisupernatruralism. There are close to a hundred places in Frye’s writings where he uses the word “supernatural,” but I don’t get the sense from these references that he’s antisupernatural. Most often Frye’s use “supernatural” does not point to some transcendent religious realm or being. For him, the supernatural is what is fantastic (ghosts, vampires, omens, portents, oracles, magic, witchcraft, and the like) or above nature––as in the heroes of myth in the Anatomy: superior to other people (superhuman) and to their environment (supernatural). The supernatural would include the “children of nature” (“the helpful fairy, the grateful dead man, the wonderful servant who has just the abilities the hero needs in a crisis,” Anatomy 196–7) that we find in folk tales and romances. For Frye the supernatural is not a term that is opposed to unbelief. It’s simply the antithesis of the natural. In his essay on Emily Dickinson he writes, “the supernatural is only the natural disclosed: the charms of the heaven in the bush are superseded by the heaven in the hand.” Sometimes Frye speaks of the supernatural as phenomena that are difficult to explain. He reports on this episode with his mother:

    She has always regarded her mind as something passive, worked on by external supernatural forces, and is very unwilling to think that anything might be a creation of her own mind—besides, it flatters her spiritual pride to think of herself as a kind of Armageddon. She told me that once she was working in her kitchen when a voice said to her “Don’t touch the stove!” So she jumped back from it, and something caught her and flung her against the table. Half an hour later the voice came again, “Don’t touch the stove!” She jumped back again and this time was thrown violently on the floor. When Dad came home for dinner he found her with a black eye and a bruised shin. I have read a story by Thomas Mann in which he tells of seeing a similar thing in a spiritualistic séance [the episode involving Ellen Brand toward the end of Mann’s Magic Mountain—the section entitled “Highly Questionable” in chapter 7]: that story was the basis of the priest’s remark to the ghost in my Acta Victoriana sketch: “If you are very lucky, you may get a chance to beat up a medium or two” [“The Ghost”]. Mother has also heard noises like tapping and so on, and was tickled to get hold of a copy of a Reader’s Digest in which a writer describes having gone through exactly similar experiences [Louis E. Bisch, “Am I Losing My Mind?” Reader’s Digest, 27 (November 1935), 10–14.] The best way to deal with mother is, I think, to get her books telling of similar things that have happened to other people: she’s not crazy, but might be excused for thinking she was if she didn’t realize that such things are more common than she imagines. She was delighted with my Acta story, and I’ll try to get her that Mann thing and C.E.M. Joad’s Guide to Modern Thought, which has a chapter on those phenomena. (Frye-Kemp Correspondence, 13 August 1936).

    In Fearful Symmetry Frye speaks of the supernatural as the human creative power: “All works of civilization, all the improvements and modifications of the state of nature that man has made, prove that man’s creative power is literally supernatural. It is precisely because man is superior to nature that he is so miserable in a state of nature” (41). Frye’s reaction to natural religion, with its premise of the analogia entis, is almost always negative. Both Word and Spirit, he declares in his Late Notebooks, can be used without any sense of the supernatural attached to them.

    Another context for the supernatural for Frye is that it constitutes one of the levels in his view of the great chain of being. In “Nature and Homer” he remarks that

    The lower level has in its basement the world of sin and moral corruption, which is strictly speaking unnatural, though it often appears to be an intensification of ordinary nature, as it does in Comus. The ordinary physical world above it, the nature of animals and plants, is morally neutral, and hence not a resting place for man. Man is in this nature but not of it; he must either go downward into sin or upward into his proper human world. The upper level has above it a supernatural order, which operates in this one as the economy of grace, providence, and salvation. The supernatural world is often associated, as in the Nativity Ode, with the world above the moon, the starry spheres that suffer no change or decay. Of course even this is still nature, and its relation to the world of God’s actual presence symbolic only, but the symbolizing of the higher by the lower “heaven” has been traditional throughout the Christian period. The last stanza of Spenser’s Mutabilitie Cantoes is a familiar English example.

    In Frye’s own short stories or fables five of them have supernatural features, though he treats the visitation of various spirits with such matter of factness that the distinction between the supernatural and the natural seems to collapse. The supernatural also belongs to Frye’s conception of the bardo world. When in the 1940s he proposed to write a bardo novel, using the point of view of a dead narrator looking at the world, the result, if he could pull it off, would be a supernatural novel, but only in the sense that it would be based, not on some religious or theological underpinning, but on intellectual paradox.

    Throughout his notebooks Frye cautions against “deifying the void.” As Michael Dolzani has said of this phrase, it “means mistaking the hidden Beulah-realm for something spiritual when it is merely what Fearful Symmetry called a kind of mezzanine-level of the objective. . . . It is not supernatural, but what Frye calls hyperphysical, not above nature but an extension of it. Those who see something spiritual, even divine, in it are thus guilty of idolatry, which in the Biblical tradition means the worship of something in nature.”


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