Daily Archives: July 13, 2012

In Response to Comments on Frye and Religion

In response to comments on my post on Rowan Williams and Frye (here), I am not really interested in getting into a discussion about whether the world would be better or worse without religion or the belief in God. The question is what are Frye’s views on the subject. It would be patently false to say or suggest that Frye rejects religion.  Frye is a a dialectical thinker and was quite capable of holding apparently antithetical positions and letting them grow into a more comprehensive view that includes them both. Yes, the history of the Christian religion,  as Frye discusses in some detail in The Double Vision, is a ghastly one. He points out that religious communities have tended so often to resemble what he calls a  “primitive society,” or “embryonic society,” “[o]ne in which the individual is thought of as primarily a funciton of the social group,” and hierarchical power structures and tight control of individuals are deemed necessary. Frye opposes this to what he calls a mature society– the likes of which, of course, we have never really seen–in which the “primary aim is to develop a genuine individuality in its members,” and “the structure of authority becomes a function of the individuals within it” (DV, 8). Churches and religious beliefs are always plagued by what Frye calls secondary or ideological concerns as opposed to human primary ones; and religious insitutions adapt the Gospel’s “myth to live by” to suit the power structures of their community and society. This does not prevent Frye from insisting at the same time that a mature society, if we are ever to see one, can only be one in which the individuals are spiritual people:

The New Testament sees the genuine human being as emerging from an embryonic state within nature and society into the fully human world of the individual, which is symbolized as a rebirth or second birth, in the phrase that Jesus used to Nicodemus. Naturally this rebirth cannot mean any separation from one’s natural and social context, except insofar as a greater maturity includes some knowledge of the conditioning that was formerly accepted uncritically. The genuine humanthus born is the soma pneumatikon, the spiritual body (I Corinthians 15:44). This phrase means that spiritual man is a body: the natural man or soma psychikon merely has one. The resurrection of the spiritual body is the completion of the kind of life the New Testament is talking about, and to the extent that any society contains spiritual people, to that extent it is a mature rather than a primitive society. (14)

As for science, precisely because it is a description of what is it cannot provide any spiritual vision of human ends. Ultimately, it has only a single, not a double vision of the world. It is not concerned, Frye would say, the way that art/literature and religion are. Art and literature and the Bible are about the world we want and the world we don’t want. They show us a world that makes human sense.That doesn’t concern science. Science and democracy have been great forces in changing and improving the world, and they have forced religious institutions to change for the better. They have separated church and state and diminished the secular and temporal power of religion, which is a necessary step to a much more open and non-dogmatic church, to a much greater openness of belief. For all Frye’s dissatisfaction with the United Church–where gays and lesbians are, by the way, fully accepted in every aspect and function of the church–he also praises it for its ability to remain open and improve:

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. (20)

These are not the words of a man who rejects religion. They are the words of a religious visionary. Again, I highly recommend Bob Denham’s comprehensive treatment of this subject in Northrop Frye: Religious Visionary and Architect of the Spiritual World (U of Virginia P, 2004).