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).

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3 thoughts on “In Response to Comments on Frye and Religion

  1. Eric MacDonald

    Thank you for emphasising your own interest in comparing Williams and Frye. Of course, I think the connexion is a pretty tenuous one, but I won’t go further into it here. Obviously, if I plan to come back here to comment I will have to read some more of Frye’s work, for that is what this is all about, and I want to honour that.

    However, I couldn’t help but notice in this post something about the soma psychikon of Paul’s letter to the Corithians (so often used a funerals). It is not clear to me that Paul ever saw the soma psychikon as even possible here and now. The spiritual body is the one in which the person was to be raised in the hereafter, and to each seed, remember, a body of its own, it is sown corruptible and it is raised in glory.

    I have just been reading Charles Freeman’s relatively new book, Holy Bones, Holy Dust, and he has a chapter (2) on “The Incorruptible Flesh of the Martyrs.” Quite aside from the use of the relics of the saints, is the idea of the suffering of the martyrs as a way of “providing an abrupt and glorious way of transforming the physical remnants into a spiritual entity.” (19). And here Freeman brings up Igntius of Antioch who craved martyrdom so that he might be “ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ.” (20)

    This is important as expressing the importance of the idea of the soma psychikon, which was only accessible to the extent to which this physical body was completely eliminated, ground — in Igntius’ case — into the pure bread of Christ. That is, now no longer material body, but soma psychikon. Any figurative use of this term to speak of life in the here and now is not encouraged by this usage.

    May I also add that the notion of science envisaged by this post is a far cry from the way that many people regard science and the vision of human possibilities that it provides? Indeed, it was through the very beauty of the equations that Einstein’s sense of Spinoza’s God was most fully engaged. Why should we deny this vision, and its possiblities for unfolding truly human possibility?

    As for science, precisely because it is a description of what is it cannot provide any spiritual vision of human ends. Ultimately, [you say] it has only a single, not a double vision of the world.

    And while I can see your point, I suggest that people like Richard Holloway (who seems to me, from what I can tell, which is too little at this point, closer to Frye than Willaims is) have a sense of the human vision that resides in religion, though in too close proximity to religion’s ontological commitments, that can provide a vision of spiritual ends which need to be held in relationship with the finest vision that science can provide. Indeed, without the scientific vision, the religious one is empty, and without something of the religious sense of being alive, perhaps (see some of Don Cupitt’s later writings), the scientific one is possibly (at least to some extent) blind to some human possibilities. That’s what Richard Holloway suggests anyway.

    As for that parting shot in the quotation from Frye:

    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.

    Why those minimising words ‘merely plausible’ and ‘merely credible’? Why is ‘mere plausibility’ mere? Why not just plausible and credible, and is not love plausible and credible? As for understanding by God, well, that’s a bit of a stretch, especially in the light of what theologians say in response to the problem of evil. How do we know that what looks like pointless suffering is not an expression of divine love? CS Lewis asks something like this in A Grief Observed, and I think did not stay for an answer. I don’t like the wedge that is driven here between my humanity and my spirituality. When I get the chance in what is already a glutted reaching schedule, I may get to Frye and Denham.

  2. Joseph Adamson Post author

    As you suggest, Eric, you really need to do some reading of Frye before making assumptions about what you think he is saying. You say the connection between Williams and Frye is tenuous, but how can your own claim here be anything but tenuous when you have no knowledge of Frye’s work? If I may use a banal analogy, it is like someone saying the connection between a horse and a zebra is tenuous, when they have already admitted they don’t know what a zebra is. I cannot provide here in the necessary detail the context of the quotations I have used. It would be too time consuming. If you truly want to be better informed, you might want to start with some of the shorter works, like The Educated Imagination or The Double Vision.

    Frye in no way denigrates science and what he has to say about it is of the greatest interest. I know scientists who believe he has more penetrating things to say about the nature of science than most philosophers of science they have read.

    There is no wedge in Frye between God and humanity, just as there is no such wedge in Blake. There is however a creative tension and struggle, which is a very different thing. As he writes in The Secular Scripture:

    “The mythological universe has two aspects. In one aspect it is the verbal part of man’s own creation, what I call a secular scripture; there is no difficulty about that aspect. The other is, traditionally, a revelation given to man by God or other powers beyond himself. These two aspects take us back to Wallace Stevens’s imagination and reality. Reality, we remember, is otherness, the sense of something not ourselves. We naturally think of the other as nature, or man’s actual environment, and in the divided world of work and ego-control it is nature. But for the imagination it is rather some kind of force or power or will that is not ourselves, an otherness of spirit. Not all of us will be satisfied with calling the central part of our mythological inheritance a revelation from God, and, though each chapter in this book closes on much the same cadence, I cannot claim to have found a more acceptable formulation. It is quite true that if there is no sense that the mythological universe is a human creation, man can never get free of servile anxieties and superstitions, never surpass himself, in Nietzsche’s phrase. But if there is no sense that it is also something uncreated, something coming from elsewhere, man remains a Narcissus staring at his own reflection, equally unable to surpass himself. Somehow or other, the created scripture and the revealed scripture, or whatever we call the latter, have to keep fighting each other like Jacob and the angel, and it is through the maintaining of this struggle, the suspension of belief between the spiritually real and the humanly imaginative, that our own mental evolution grows.”


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