I think the issue of whether or not imagination and fact are incompatible in Frye has to be seen in terms of his theory of language. We get two elaborate accounts of this theory in the first chapters of both The Great Code and Words with Power. A briefer version is to be found in chapter 1 of The Double Vision, where Frye says, “The reason for basing kerygma on mythical and metaphorical language is that such a language is the only one with the power to detach us from the world of facts and demonstrations and reasonings, which are excellent things as tools, but are merely idols as objects of trust and reverence” (18) A bit earlier he has remarked, “if we encounter metaphors in poetry, we need not worry about their factual absurdity.” That’s because poetic metaphor, like myth and all other products of the imagination, belong to a phase of language different from the language of fact, reason, demonstration, historical truth, and the like.
The opposition between fact and imagination is related, I believe to Hegel’s distinction between the “for-itself” and the “in-itself,” which Frye glances at in “The Dialectic of Belief and Vision.” The distinction is to be found in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, p. 294 ff. Hegel’s very abstract and difficult prose provides a formidable obstacle to my small brain. But if I understand what he’s getting at in describing these two opposing forces, the “for-itself has to do with thought, with the self-consciousness that comes from our being post-Enlightenment people. It’s limited. It’s related to actuality, human law, the external world of culture and civilization, faith expressed in conceptual or Enlightenment terms, truth as objective factual description. On the other hand, in-itself is a matter of getting beyond Enlightenment rationality to something above and beyond historical self-consciousness. It’s related to possibility, faith, harmony, consciousness of the Notion (Begriff), the spiritual world. It’s a matter of vision. “For-itself” belongs to the world as it is––the world of fact. “In-itself” belongs to the world as it might or should be––the world of the imagination.
Frye’s account of this distinction immediately precedes his commentary on Hebrews 11:1, the passage mentioned by Matthew Griffin that Frye continued to puzzle over, most fully in his sermon “Substance and Evidence.” For those who might be interested in following up on the passage that Griffin says is the key to his reading of Frye, I reproduce immediately following four of the chief places Frye seeks to untangle the meaning of “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen,” the commentaries having been written over a seventeen-year span.
1. From “Substance and Evidence” (1974) in Northrop Frye on Religion, 321-7]
The author of the letter to the Hebrews tells us that “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” This sounds like a definition of faith, but I don’t think it is one: I think this author would know that definitions, for the most part, are a quite mistaken way of trying to get things clear. What he’s done is to make a statement that outlines a general area, and somewhere inside that area we can find what he means by faith. We notice that he links faith with hope when he calls faith the substance of things hoped for, and this reminds us again that Paul speaks of three supreme virtues: faith, hope, and love [1 Corinthians 13:13]. Paul did not write this letter to the Hebrews, but the two authors are thinking within the same kind of structure.
The Christian church insisted for many centuries that faith, hope, and love were what it called “theological” virtues: they were not natural to man, the church said, but were dependent on a knowledge of Christianity. I can hardly imagine anyone saying today that faith, hope, and love can’t really be understood or practised outside the Christian tradition. But the other thing the church said was true: faith, hope, and love are not natural to man. We’re not born loving: we’re born sentimental and gregarious, and vociferously demanding to be loved. We’re not born with hope: we’re born with an instinct for survival. And we’re certainly not born with faith: we’re born credulous, gullible, and superstitious.
It’s credulity that we mean when we say we’re taking “on faith” whatever we accept without question. William James spoke of a “will to believe,” and he said of it that we try to believe as much as we can. Again, he was talking about a will to credulity. We all come to points in our lives when we feel that we need to believe in something beyond the world of our senses and reason, not necessarily something religious, but something with serious values in it, like democracy or social revolution or liberty. But, nine times out of ten, whenever we come to such a point we go straight back to our childhood, and we look for the kind of security and protection that we had, or thought we had, when we were told things by somebody we trusted at that time, like a parent or teacher.
I once knew a clergyman who was asked what he thought of the Jonah and the whale story. He answered that if the Bible had said Jonah had swallowed the whale he would still believe it. He seems to have felt that, whether the whale swallowed Jonah or Jonah the whale, there were special virtues attached to, and special rewards waiting for, the reader who was prepared to swallow both. This is typical of what we so often call faith: an attitude that’s essentially passive, and holds to an accepted authority. If it conflicts with everything that our reason and senses tell us, so much the better: that just shows how strong the faith is. Faith of this kind operates in all areas, not just in religion. I’ve known left wingers who steadily maintained that there was no terrorism in Stalin’s Russia, or if there was it was all for the best. And I’ve known right wingers who maintained that the late Joseph McCarthy never victimized an innocent person, or if he did it was all for the best. The more their views were contradicted by the plainest evidence, the harder they clung to them. I’ve known students who believed that at the time of Noah’s flood, God made a special miracle to destroy the fish, who of course couldn’t be drowned. And I’ve known other students who rejected everything in their religious tradition, but were genuinely shocked if I expressed any reservations at all about astrology. This kind of faith is not a virtue: it’s a mental disease.
What does our author mean when he says that faith is the substance of things hoped for? The word he uses for substance is hypostasis, which means lying underneath, like a foundation. It has a derived meaning of trust or confidence, and Paul uses the word in that sense, but in a very different context [2 Corinthians 11:17]. You can find modern Bibles that translate it that way here, and say “faith is the assurance of things hoped for.” But that just takes us around in a circle, and reduces faith to wishful thinking. The King James Bible is right, as it generally is in such matters: faith is the substance, that is, the essential nature, the primary reality, the actualization, of what we hope for.
The point is that there are two kinds of reality. There’s the reality of what’s there, and the reality of what we make out of what’s there. There’s the reality of the external world that’s given us at birth, the world we can’t help knowing, the solid world we keep bumping into. But the reality of cities and gardens and books and pictures is different. Here is something that doesn’t exist at all to begin with, but is brought into existence by the energy or creative power of man. I think it’s this second kind of reality, the kind we make ourselves, that our author is talking about. If we think of a painter painting a picture, we come closer to the kind of thing he means. The picture is the substance of what the painter hoped for. He probably hoped for a better picture. We all hope for better things than we achieve. But faith is the realization, the bringing into being, of what we do achieve.
It’s true that we use the words faith and belief in all sorts of confusing ways. For example, I may say, “I believe Boston is in the state of Massachusetts,” because I’m an academic, and I hate to admit that I know anything for a fact. Or I may say, “I believe Mr. Nixon was right in resigning the office of president,” although what I’m expressing is not a belief but an opinion. Sloppy language of this kind makes it hard to understand a writer like the author of Hebrews, who uses words with great precision. Knowledge and opinion are not what he means by faith. He means a strenuous effort of the whole personality, and this effort, for him, is the extending and the fulfilment of reason and sense experience, not a denial of them.
If I’m right, then faith is not anything we say we believe, or that we think we believe, or that we believe we believe. What we really believe is what our actions show that we believe. Faith is what we actualize in our lives, and any belief that’s not an axiom of practical life is useless mental lumber. A man may believe in nothing but his own ability to cheat and lie, but his life will still be the product of his faith, no less than the life of a saint. But as soon as we understand that the basis of our belief is what we really do, we’re confronted with the challenge of freedom. If we believe only in things like getting along or doing what we’re told or just surviving, then the less we think about our beliefs the better. But if we’re trying to live a serious life, with things like love and responsibility and service to society in it, we have to try to clarify and articulate our beliefs. We may even have to change our lives to conform with beliefs that we respect and want for ourselves.
The basis of this kind of faith is hope, and hope and faith are related much as wish is to will. We start with some vision in our minds of a better state of things than we know. We can’t be doctors without some vision of what good health can do for human life, or teachers without some vision of what knowledge and wisdom can do, or social workers without some vision of what better housing or greater freedom from racial prejudice could do. We may be unconscious of having such a vision, or we may know that we have it and dislike talking about it, but it’s there all the same. Our faith is what we do to help bring this vision into the world. Whatever we do will fall short of what we hope for, but the important thing is not to lose the hope, or the clarity of the vision that hope produces.
And just as hope is the beginning of faith, so love is the end of it. Let us think, for example, of a Christian and a Moslem, facing each other in one of the Crusades. Neither of them knows the first thing about the other man’s religion, but they’re both convinced that it is utterly and damnably wrong; they are even prepared to die for that conviction. There must be something the matter with a faith that expresses itself as a desire to kill somebody who doesn’t share it. A profoundly Christian writer, Jonathan Swift, remarked that men have just enough religion to make them hate, but not enough to make them love one another. To which we may add that those who have no religion at all don’t seem to hate any the less on that account. The general principle here is that whatever reflects any credit on humanity is always attached to something else that’s silly or vicious. As Jesus ben Sirach, the author of Ecclesiasticus, says: “What race is worthy of honour? The human race. What race is unworthy of honour? The human race” [10:19, RSV].
It’s very important to realize that when we do profess or articulate a faith of any kind, what we’re really doing is attaching ourselves to a specific community. Christian beliefs attach us to a Christian community; democratic beliefs make us want to live in a democracy, and so on. What faith should do is to help create a community in which every individual loves those who are closest to him, or what Jesus calls his neighbours. From there his love radiates out into good will and tolerance, which might be called love at a distance, love for those we don’t know, or for those in other communities. Confronted with a variety of serious faiths—Christian, Jewish, Marxist, Buddhist, and so many others—our first impulse may be to say that only one of these can be right, and the rest must be wrong, unless, which seems more likely, that all are more or less wrong. But what do we know about rights and wrongs in such matters? All we know is that if one man’s faith is better than another’s, it is so only because more spiritual energy has gone into living it.
This brings us to the second thing that our author says, which is that faith is the elenchos, the proof or evidence, of what is not seen. We hear a good deal about the invisible and unseen world in religious writing, and we often get the feeling that somehow the invisible world is considered to be much better, more congenial to sensitive and subtle people like ourselves. Speaking with contempt of the merely material world seems to be one of the privileges of having a middle class income. But New Testament writers have no snobbery of this kind. Neither do they associate the invisible or unseen world with the dark, with anything that’s really mysterious or unknown. They think of it rather as something they can’t see but know to exist. Now if we try to think of things that we can’t see but know to exist, the first thing we think of is the air. And in the Bible nearly everything that’s said about the spiritual world seems to be said in some kind of metaphor taken from air. The Spirit of God means the breath of God, and is symbolized by the wind. The prophets and other sacred writers, we say, were inspired; that is, they breathed in air.
I think this metaphor of air is very significant in the Bible. I think it means that the invisible world is not thought of as a higher order of things, but that it is, like the air, a medium for the visible world. We see the world because we can’t see the air; similarly, the works of our faith are visible because the source of faith is not. If we could see the air, we’d be in a dense fog, in a world that had no direction and no location and no shape. The Old Testament lesson this morning was from the book of Ecclesiastes, which was written by a shrewd, humorous, tough minded writer whose theme is, “vanity of vanities; all is vanity.” The word we translate as “vanity” actually means fog, mist, vapour, and it’s his symbol for the material world as such, the world in which we experience everything but create nothing. In his book he tries to show us how to live through the days of our vanity, that is, how to find our way through the fog. He warns us that a lot of the things that are most worth doing will vanish into that fog: we have to be prepared for this, and do them anyway.
He gives us this warning because in any serious life, the questions will often arise, Why am I doing this? Why bother? Why do hard things when other people get away with doing easy things? Such questions are part of the voice of doubt, the voice that says, All you really know about the world is that you’re going to die, and that nothing you do stays where it is. The people who think of faith as uncritical acceptance usually tell us that doubt is the enemy of faith, that it’s something to be fought down and silenced, that if you ever have a doubt you should persuade yourself that you didn’t really have it.
I don’t agree with this at all. I don’t think doubt is the enemy of faith: I think doubt is the fertilizing principle of faith. To doubt the value of everything we’re doing is only common sense. The voice of doubt is the voice of common sense: if anything at all is true, the vision of doubt is true. The only thing is that it may not be the whole truth. But without constant doubt, faith has nothing to define itself against. It’s the same with the other unnatural virtues. Despair is the contrary of hope, but those who have known despair, from the author of the Book of Job to writers of our own day, the people who have looked into the face of nothingness and have seen that nothingness is what there is: they are the people who can tell us about hope. The human body is a solid object, but most of it is water: faith is most likely to be a solid organic unity when it’s full of doubts and suspended judgments. Tennyson speaks, in a famous passage, of believing where we cannot prove. But it is more characteristic of the spiritual life to prove where we cannot believe, to bring something creative out of our lives that everybody, including ourselves, thinks is probably nonsense.
So far I’ve been discussing faith in largely humanistic and secular terms, and, of course, the author of Hebrews is not thinking in secular terms. That’s the real crux of what he means by the evidence of things not seen. He thinks of a revelation that begins with the statement that in the beginning God made heaven and earth, and he feels that God demands from man the kind of creative response that his own example has set. He argues that it’s only when God himself has become visible as a human life that man can take on his full responsibilities. One implication of his argument is that the world that God made is not the world we are living in now. We get our knowledge of the world we live in from our five senses, and every so often we realize that our senses are self protecting devices: they’re designed mainly not to admit reality but to filter it out. We have reason, but we use most of our reason to rationalize doing unreasonable things. That’s why we have to rely so much on hunch and impulse, on drives that come to us from out of the unknown and propel us toward something else that’s also unknown. As we see, we’re back to the notion of faith that we started with, as accepting something beyond what our reason and senses tell us. This notion, we can now see, has a core of truth in it: it’s in the application of the idea that we so often go wrong.
What happens if we try to explore this unknown world, explore it, that is, with a clear mind, and without using any drugs? I think we find that it’s rather like what the drugs tell us about, in a very muddled and confused way. That is, I think we find that it separates into two worlds, the worlds of the good and the bad trips, one a world of benevolence, goodness, serenity, and peace; the other a world of horror and cruelty and pointless and purposeless malice. In other words, real life, in the long run, is either life within the love of God or life under the wrath of God. The wrath of God is not some senile ghost throwing a tantrum in the sky. The wrath of God is the revelation, to man, of the kind of hell that man has made, and still can make, of his own life in this world. And the love of God is not some fussy parental projection running our lives for us and snooping into everything we do. The love of God is the revelation, to man, that he can, if he tries, find something at the centre of his life that is not only immortal but invulnerable.
2. from “The Dialectic of Belief and Vision” (1985) in Northrop Frye on Religion
Perhaps we are now in a position to confront the definition of faith in the New Testament. The Epistle to the Hebrews tells us that faith is the hypostasis of the hoped-for and the elenchos of things not seen [11:1]. Hypostasis is among other things a Greek philosophical term of which the Latin counterpart is substantia, and the Vulgate so renders the word, followed by the 1611 Bible, which says “substance.” Modern translations usually render it as “assurance,” because Paul uses the word in this sense. But Paul is not the author of Hebrews, and “substance” seems to me closer to what is meant here (see also Hebrews 1:3). The believer is being told that he has got something, not being reassured that he is eventually going to get it. Similarly, the word elenchos is usually rendered “proof” or “evidence,” and commentators often explain that this refers to the inward certainty that requires no external confirmation. But this seems over-subjective, and “proof of the unseen” is an awkward expression. Something like “manifestation” or visible form seems closer to the context. I have often noted that the Bible shows relatively little interest in the invisible world as a separate order; it tends to regard the invisible as the medium for the visible, much as the invisible air makes it possible for us to see anything at all. The author of Hebrews in fact goes on to say this a verse or two later.
Again, if faith is the substance of the “hoped-for” (elpizomenon), faith and hope, two of the three great theological virtues named by Paul [1 Corinthians 13:13], are essentially connected. It is impossible to separate hope from a visionary quality; hope is not a mere subjective yearning but the construction of a model or ideal in the mind that our actions move toward realizing. “Fear and Hope are Vision,” said Blake. Everyone with any social function has some model community in his mind in the light of which he does his job, such as a community of better health for the doctor, of clearer judgment for the teacher, of fewer wrecked and wasted lives for the social worker. The model so constructed is a myth or fiction, and in normal minds it is known to be a fiction. That does not make it unreal; what happens is rather an interchange of reality and illusion in the mind. Most of what we call objective reality is a human construct left over from yesterday; much of this could do with improvement, and the model that hope affords shows up a good deal of this construct as both undesirable and removable, and to that extent unreal. The touchstone of reality is the fictional model vision. The Epistle of James talks about “works” as the complement of faith [2:14–26], but it seems to me a better metaphor to regard faith and hope, belief and vision, as the parents of which works are the offspring.
Faith, then, as distinct from professed faith, is the activity of realizing a visionary model in the mind suggested by hope. I am aware that this collides directly with the traditional view, in which the visionary model of faith is the professed faith, the Apostles’ Creed or what not. I shall give my reasons in a moment for thinking that this self-enclosed conception of faith is inadequate, but what concerns us just now is the need for two elements, a programme of work and a model to work from. Belief without vision, the ordering of one’s life without a clear notion of what it should be ordered to, soon breaks down, within religious bodies, into anxieties over secondary moral issues. When we talk with some members of those bodies, we find all too often that anxieties over liquor, contraception, divorce, dietary ordinances, absence from church, and the like have blotted out most of the religious horizon for them. Parallel forms of blindness are found in the secular world, such as that of the politician who has forgotten what his party ever stood for in the effort to circumvent the intrigues that surround him. Vision without belief produces what the philosopher Sartre calls, very accurately, “bad faith.” This is as a rule the contemplation of a timeless body of truth in itself, with none of the limitations of a specific temporal and historical conditioning for oneself taken into account. No human being is in a position to gain any benefit from that kind of vision, and the truths such a vision express soon shrivel into platitudes, which are true only because they are too vague to be opposed.
3. From “On the Bible” (1989), in Northrop Frye on Religion, 160-2
We might look for a moment at the definition of faith in the New Testament in the Epistle to the Hebrews [11:1]. Faith, the writer tells us, is the hypostasis of things hoped for, and the elenchos, the proof or evidence, of things which are unseen. One thing that is important here is that hypostasis, rendered in the Vulgate by substantia, cannot possibly mean a metaphysical substance, and elenchos can hardly mean a logical proof, or anything that a historian or a scientist would mean by evidence.
We notice that faith is described as the substance, the hypostasis of the hoped for, so two of Paul’s three theological virtues, faith and hope, are very closely associated. Hope is, as Emily Dickinson reminds us, something which is entirely a literary virtue in the sense that its basis is fictional, or as Emily Dickinson says
Could Hope inspect her Basis
Her Craft were done
Has a fictitious charter
Or it has none.
And even in ironic literature, the reader is expected to construct in his own mind a certain norm of a way things should be, of which the ironic texture of what he is reading is presenting the mirrored opposite.
So when the author of Hebrews says, in effect, that faith is the reality of hope, he is I think implying that the essential language of the Bible is literary language, but that there is a category beyond the literary which is the essential thing that the Bible has to say. As for the proof or evidence of things invisible, the things which are unseen in the New Testament are not, as they are in Neoplatonism, thought of as a separate order and a superior one to the visible world. Things unseen are thought of rather as a medium of visibility, and that is what the author of Hebrews goes on to say in another verse or two.
The air of ordinary experience is invisible because if it were not, nothing else would be visible. That is why air is the fundamental metaphor behind the conception of spirit. Air is the medium of the first birth, the event which separates the embryo from the baby, and spirit, which is metaphorically air, is the medium of the second birth. But as the function of air is to be invisible, in order to make the physical world visible, so the spiritual world is invisible in order to make spiritual experience possible and visible to the participant. So the second part of this definition of faith is telling us that faith is the reality, not only of hope, but of illusion.
There are two kinds of illusion, the negative illusion which merely fails to be a reality, and the illusion which exists as a potentiality or model in the mind, as a fiction which does not yet exist but may be brought into existence or realized by a creative mind. It is this realizing of illusion that is fundamental in the imaginative or poetic way of arranging words which proceeds in terms of myth and metaphor.
In a stage play, for example, the reality and the illusion are the same thing: the play is an illusion, but we shall not find any reality behind it if we explore the wings or the dressing room. The Tempest of Shakespeare is predominantly the play that expresses this interchange of reality and illusion in literature because there the play is essentially a play about constructing a play. The subjective illusion, such as the belief that the other characters are drowned, or the plot to murder the King of Naples, is a type of “reality” which turns into illusion, and the objective world, according to Prospero’s speech after the wedding masque [4.1.148–58], turns into illusion also. All that remains is the created and constructed reality of the play itself. When we awake in the morning, we think that we are emerging from a world of illusion into a world of reality, but what we see around us, the furniture of our bedroom, is nearly all of human construction, and whatever human beings have made, human beings can remake.
The paradox of Tertullian, that I believe because it is impossible, has at least the merit of not identifying the conception of belief or faith with the credible. The credible by hypothesis is what is believed already, and to believe only the credible means that there is no adventure of the mind: nothing is being made, nothing is being created or constructed. In literature the basis is that of hypothesis, where we proceed by assumption rather than by verified fact or logical argument or rhetorical persuasion. In literature alone anything can be true; one hypothesis is as good as another. The hypothesis of War and Peace and the hypothesis of Alice in Wonderland are equally literary.
The question which the Biblical definition of faith raises is the question of a faith which is a permanent and persistent myth to live by, a model to which one could adjust one’s entire experience. This means then that faith as defined in the New Testament is a continuous creative act and reality is also a continuously creative act.
I wish in view of the locale of this conference that I had something Venetian to connect this with, but I’m afraid I only have the Neapolitan Vico’s axiom of verum factum, what is true is what we have made.
4. From The Double Vision (1991), 19-21
The Epistle to the Hebrews says that faith is the hypostasis of the hoped-for and the elenchos or proof of the unseen. That is, faith is the reality of hope and of illusion. In this sense faith starts with a vision of reality that is something other than history or logic, which accept the world as it is, and on the basis of that vision it can begin to remake the world. A nineteenth-century disciple of Kant, Hans Vaihinger, founded a philosophy on the phrase “as if,” and the literal basis of faith from which we should start, the imaginative and poetic basis, is a fiction we enter into “as if” it were true. There is no certainty in faith to begin with: we are free to deny the reality of the spiritual challenge of the New Testament, and if we accept it we accept it tentatively, taking a risk. The certainty comes later, and very gradually, with the growing sense in our own experience that the vision really does have the power that it claims to have.
I use the word “risk” advisedly: I am not minimizing the difficulties and dangers of an imaginative literalism. All through history there has run a distrust and contempt for imaginative language, and the words for story or literary narrative—myth, fable, and fiction—have all acquired a secondary sense of falsehood or something made up out of nothing. Overcoming this perversion of language takes time and thought, and besides, there are as many evil myths and vicious metaphors as there are evil doctrines and vicious arguments. But the author of Hebrews goes on to talk, in the examples he gives after his definition of faith, about the risks taken by vision, and he suggests that such risks are guided by more effective powers than merely subjective ones. Besides, we are not alone: we live not only in God’s world but in a community with a tradition behind it. Preserving the inner vitality of that community and that tradition is what the churches are for.
I have been trying to suggest a basis for the openness of belief that is characteristic of the United Church. Many of you will still recall an article in a Canadian journal that emphasized this openness, and drew the conclusion that the United Church was now an “agnostic” church. I think the writer was trying to be fair-minded, but his conclusion was nonsense: the United Church is agnostic only in the sense that it does not pretend to know what nobody actually “knows” anyway. The article quoted a church member as asking, If a passage in Scripture fails to transform me, is it still true? The question was a central one, but it reminded me of a story told me by a late colleague who many years ago was lecturing on Milton’s view of the Trinity. He explained the difference between Athanasian and Arian positions, and how Milton, failing to find enough scriptural evidence for the Athanasian position, adopted a qualified or semi-Arian one. He was interrupted by a student who said impatiently, “But I want to know the truth about the Trinity.” One may sympathize with the student, but trying to satisfy him is futile. What “the” truth is, is not available to human beings in spiritual matters: the goal of our spiritual life is God, who is a spiritual Other, not a spiritual object, much less a conceptual object. That is why the Gospels keep reminding us how many listen and how few hear: truths of the Gospel kind cannot be demonstrated except through personal example. As the seventeenth-century Quaker Isaac Penington said, every truth is substantial in its own place, but all truths are shadows except the last. The language that lifts us clear of the merely plausible and the merely credible is the language of the spirit; the language of the spirit is, Paul tells us, the language of love, and the language of love is the only language that we can be sure is spoken and understood by God.