Category Archives: Religion

Council of Trent

Pope Pius IV

On this date in 1563 the Council of Trent held its final session.

Frye in The Double Vision:

In many respects the Cold War repeated the later stages of the situation that arose with the Reformation in the sixteenth century.  Then, a revolutionary movement, at first directed mainly toward a reform of abuses in the church, showed signs of expanding and breaking open a tightly-closed structure of authority that claimed exclusive and infallible power in both spiritual and temporal orders.  What was centrally at issue was reformation itself, the conception of a church that could be reformed in principle and not merely through modifying the corruptions that had grown up within it.  The Reformers thought of the church as subject to a higher criterion, namely the Word of God, and as obligated to carry on a continuous dialogue with the Word in a subordinate position to it.

Established authority reacted to this movement as established authority invariably does.  The Council of Trent gives an impression of passing one reactionary resolution after another in a spirit of the blindest panic.  Yet the Council of Trent succeeded in its main objective, which was to persuade Catholics that post-Tridentine Catholicism was not only the legitimate descendant of the pre-Reformation church, but was in fact identical with it.  The logical inference was the claim of a power of veto over the Bible, a position set out in Newman’s Essy on the Development of Christian Doctrine, where a historical dialectic takes supreme command in a way closely parallel to the contructs of Hegel and Marx.  (CW 4, 173-4)

Carrie Nation

Carrie Nation: She’s wielding a hatchet for a reason

Today is the birthday of intemperate temperance advocate Carrie Nation (1846-1911).

Here is Frye on what turned out to be the tail end of the temperance movement in an editorial, “So Many Lost Weekends,” published in the March 1947 issue of The Canadian Forum.  (A twofer: Frye gets in a good dig at “monopoly capitalism” along the way.)

The latest gathering of the Ontario Temperance Federation, which coincided with the lifting of the liquor ration, included an abortive proposal to form a temperance party.  It is with genuine concern that one sees the public utterances of Protestant churches increasingly identified with the impression that their churches regard the “liquor traffic” as of far greater importance than any theological doctrine, any other social question, or any other moral weakness.  We say weakness, for the refusal to make any moral distinction between drinking and drunkenness constitutes a grave social problem; but unfortunately the effect of losing all sense of proportion about it is to make it seem almost trivial.  And it can hardly be denied either that many clergymen have completely lost their sense of proportion about drinking, and have transformed a real issue into a superstitious taboo which is injurious to religion (it has, for example, alienated a large number from the churches whose support could have been had for the asking), which has no intelligible relationship to politics, and which is steadily losing all connection with doing good.

Many temperance advocates are only church politicians, but many are men with long and honourable careers in the support of liberal and socialist causes — a fact which is reflected in a certain realism with which they associate the drinking problem with profits and private enterprise.  One is all the more surprised, therefore, to find them falling into the common reformers’ error of mistaking the effect for the cause.  People take to drink because of psychological maladjustments or economic insecurity.  The former any serious religion would regard as falling with the province of the “cure of souls”; the latter is an evil which nothing but an intelligently planned socialist movement can really cure.  Socialists ask for the support of the Christian churches on the ground that the present system of monopoly capitalism is immoral as well as inefficient; and to divert all of one’s reforming energies from the central problem of insecurity to one of its by-products is, as drunkenness is, like pulling a leaf from a tree and expecting the tree to wither away.  (CW 4, 246-7)

Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses

On this date in 1517 Martin Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses on his church door in Wittenberg, beginning the Protestant Reformation in Europe.

Frye in his student essay, “Gains and Losses in the Reformation”:

[Protestantism’s] record, particularly that of the Calvinist branches, is not snow white in this respect, but any rational comparison between Protestant rule in England under Elizabeth or even Edward and Catholic rule under Mary, or between the treatment of Catholic minorities in Scotland and Protestant minorities in Spain, should establish the point.  There is probably no more inherent cruelty in one tradition than the other, nor more sadism in Latins than in Nordics, but Protestant emphasis on the direct responsibility of the soul to God made heresy far less an outrage on society, and its punishment, consequently, less a venting of popular fury on its victims.  The Catholic tradition of apostolic infallibility once denied, the enormity of the crime took on far less cosmic proportions.  Another reason for the somewhat cleaner Protestant record is without doubt the influence of its intellectual and sensitive progenitors among the mystics and the humanists.  Protestantism contains, at its finest, the refusal of a fine mind to be bullied by inferior interpreters of tradition.  Erasmus is a great Protestant in this sense; so is Zwingli; and so is Luther when we admire him most.  (CW 3, 266)

Frye on Islam and the Koran

A page from the Koran, ca. 800

Further to an earlier post, Bob Denham has compiled a collection of quotes on Islam and the Koran which can be found in the Denham Library here.

Below is a selection on Judaism, Christianity and Islam:

[69]  In my R.K. [Religious Knowledge] course is a clever & plausible remark about the Koran: suras arranged in order of length only means that if the Koran is the Word of God, God doesn’t give a damn about narrative sequence.  Hence the rise of narrative literature and of causality structures (science) in the Christian culture founded on the Bible.  There may be still something in this; but it may be balls too.  After sura 1, an obvious opening invocation, sura 2 outlines the same old fall-exodus recapitulation, sura 3 adds Xy [Christianity] to it; sura 4 deals with points of law like Leviticus, and so on.  It’s just possible that the length-order is the right one, moving from a sort of East Coker laying down of the law, in roughly continuous prose, toward a shower of lyrical apocalyptic sparks, charms, riddles, curses, etc. (Northrop Frye’s Notebooks on the Bible, CW 13, 85)

[310]  Sex books in a bookshop are not there to tell you anything you don’t know; they’re there to keep your mind on the subject.  Similarly with devotional literature, Christian & Marxist.  Myths of concern [?]-clouds.  This is an extension of the dissociation-by-repetition principle (95–6 on the Koran [par. 294]) that repetition charges the emotional batteries & suspends the critical faculties.  What I tell you three times is true.  What I tell you three hundred times is profoundly true. (Northrop Frye’s Notebooks on the Bible, CW 13, 198)

[349]  Just as in the Bible we cannot distinguish the voice of God from the voice of the Deteronomic redactor, so in the Koran we cannot distinguish the voice of the angel Gabriel from the voice of Mohammed in a bad temper. (Northrop Frye’s Notebooks on the Bible, CW 13, 205)

[353]  Resurrection, the opposite of rebirth, is the genuine form of reincarnation.  In accepting incarnation Xy establishes the pattern of resurrection which (for instance) Islam doesn’t have. (Northrop Frye’s Notebooks on the Bible, CW 13, 206)

[22]  Xy absorbed so much that Judaism (like Islam later) excluded.  The internalized imagery of the ancient cave returned in the cathedral, whereas the Holy of Holies remained dark: the Mother returned in far greater force, along with the dying god: the totemic identification of human & animal victim is kept separate in the Akeda [binding of Isaac] and Passover: the blood sacrifice is similarly absorbed into the harvest-vintage ones.  In short, there’s a real catholicity that gives it the resources of a world religion.  It has the power to transcend itself: Judaism hasn’t.  More accurately, and gratefully, it did transcend itself in the Christian Word & Spirit (NOT the Church). (Northrop Frye’s Notebooks on the Bible, CW 13, 370)

So the narrative unity of the Bible, which is there in spite of the miscellaneous nature of its content, was something that I stressed.  And that concern for narrative seems to me to be distinctive of the Bible among other sacred books.  In the Koran, for example, the revelations of Mohammed were gathered up after his death and arranged in order of length, which suggests that revelation in the Koran pays no attention to narrative continuity—that’s not what it is interested in.  But the fact that the Bible is interested in it seems to be significant for the study of literature and for many other reasons. (“Symbolism of the Bible,” Northrop Frye’s Notebooks on the Bible, CW 13, 418)

The New Testament was written in Greek by writers whose native language probably was not Greek.  The kind of Greek they wrote was called koine, the popular Greek which was distributed all through the Near Eastern countries as a kind of common language.  The writers of the New Testament may have been familiar to differing degrees with the Hebrew text of the Old Testament, but when they quoted from the Old Testament they tended to use the Septuagint.  And that is the beginning of a principle which is rather important for the history of Christianity.  In any sacred book, there is enough concentration in the writing, and enough attention paid to it by those who accept it as sacred, for the linguistic characteristics of the original language to be of great importance.  Any Jewish interpretation or commentary on the Hebrew Old Testament inevitably takes great care to study the linguistic nuances of the Hebrew original, and similarly with the Koran, which is so bound up with the linguistic characteristics of Arabic that in practice the Arabic language has had to go everywhere that the Islamic religion has gone. (“Symbolism of the Bible,” Northrop Frye’s Notebooks on the Bible, CW 13, 419)

The Exodus gives to the Biblical religions that curiously revolutionary quality which Judaism and Christianity and Islam all have to some degree: and we saw that a nation which has gone through that kind of revolutionary experience becomes a nation with a very strong sense of its own corporate unity because of the experience which its people have shared.  Thus, law becomes really the antitype of the birth of Israel at the deliverance from Egypt, or the reality to which it points. (“Symbolism of the Bible,” Northrop Frye’s Notebooks on the Bible, CW 13, 584–5)


Mohammed’s Call to Prophecy and the First Revelation; leaf from a copy of the Majmac al-tawarikhTimurid. From Herat, Afghanistan. In The Metropolitan Museum of Art, ca. 1425

On this date in 622 Mohammed completed his hijra from Mecca to Medina.

Frye in notebook 11f:

Still with the Koran: it’s a perfect example of my concern and imagination thesis.  Mohammed was a very great inspired poet, but he found that this quality was precisely what made him distrusted.  So he insisted that he wasn’t a poet but a prophet, & started brainwashing his followers with interminable repetitions of the just-you-wait type.  Islamic culture, Sufi mysticism, geometrical art, mathematics & the like, descend from the suppressed poet; Islamic fanaticism descends from the paranoid prophet.  Yet, human nature being what it is, there would never have been any Islamic culture without the brainwashing paranoia.  Ugh.  But I think we’re finding the moral equivalent of war [para. 78, p. 87] and the next thing to find is the moral equivalent of concerned paranoia.  One element of this is counter-prophecy, of the sort Blake describes in his Watson-Paine notes.  A prophecy that, without being facile or “optimistic,” points out the positive opportunities in each situation. (CW 13, 88)

St. Augustine of Hippo


On this date in 430 St. Augustine of Hippo died (born 354).

Yesterday we quoted Frye on Hegel from his student essay written in 1933, “The Augustinian Interpretation of History.”  That essay is a good place to start today too.  In the essay, by the way, Frye cites a quote from Hegel that might be kept in mind: “We learn from history that we never learn anything from history” (CW 3, 193).

First then, for Augustine, the political problem, the collapse of the Roman Empire.  It was easy to accuse the upstart religion to which Augustine belonged of having caused the downfall, and the first ten books [of The City of God] are taken up with defending the Christians and attacking the pagans.  For our present thesis this is important in clearing the ground for the doctrine of the two cities.  The immediate, obvious opposition Augustine had to contend with was that of paganism and Christianity; not until that was outlined could the theory of the two cities follow.  The latter is an abstract conception of some difficulty, and to introduce it at the outset would upset what balance the book still retains.  Although it is not deliberately a philosophy of history, but an apologetic, the germ is there.  Almost at once Augustine outlines the essential change that the coming of Christianity has made in the world.  Christianity is not responsible for the fall of Rome (I, i), in the sense that the Romans have failed through deserting the gods that could have helped her.  These same gods lost Troy (I, iii); how should they preserve Rome?  On the other hand, Christianity has brought an entirely new note of gentleness: Rome’s Christian conquerors spared her to an extent which Rome herself never practiced toward her foes (I,ii).  In the ancient world there was no idea of anything else than the most brutal revenge in warfare (I, iv).  No, the cause of the Roman defeat lay in herself (II), in her essential weakness and wickedness.  Her empire, allotted to her as a reward for certain terrestrial virtues (V), such as justice, temperance, courage, and so on–on which Augustine dwells with much enthusiasm–has been forfeited by her vice. (CW 3, 200)

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At sunset, Ramadan, the holiest month in the Islamic calendar, begins.

Frye on the rhetoric of “charm” in the Quran in “Charms and Riddles”:

If we pick up the Koran, for instance, and try to read it as we would any other book, we may well find its repetitiveness intolerable: surely, we feel, the God who inspired this book was not only monotheistic but monomaniacal.  And even this response comes only from a translation: the original is so dependent upon the interlocking sound-patterns of Arabic that in practice the Arabic language has had to go everywhere the Islamic religion has gone.  Yet, for anyone brought up in the religion of Islam, hearing the Koran from infancy, and memorizing great parts of it consciously and unconsciously, the Koran does precisely what it is set up to do.  The conception of the human will assumed is that of a puppy on a leash: it plunges about in every direction except the right one, and has to be brought back and back and back to the same controlling power.  (Spirtus Mundi, 135)

Frye on Religion in the Late Notebooks: A Little Anthology


Notebook 27.

[87]  Re the previous (but one) note: expanded consciousness is not religion, of course, but it may be the precondition for any ecumenical or everlasting-gospel religion.  Note that the gospel-church begins with ecstatic phenomena (speaking in tongues), and that our own time is rich in frenzies and hysterias along with more genuine phenomena.  LSD (when it’s a good trip) appears to increase the intensity of the feeling of oneness with the object.

[104]  The Word-Spirit dialogue is slowly assuming a spiral or ladder shape: it conceivably might work out to a counterpart of Hegel’s Ph [Phenomenology of Spirit], only in images instead of concepts, with a religion of parable forming its crisis.  And, of course, there’s the other great hope that it would follow the four levels of meaning.

[106]  The dialectic movement from creation to exodus is clearing.  The forming of a specific mythology is the only possible response to a hidden creation.  As Blake says, religion is a specific social development of the Poetic Genius [All Religions Are One].  In a sense a mythology negates or denies the creation, on Hegelian principles.

[128]  In metaphor, as I said, across [par. 122], we have Joseph “here” and bough “there”: by identifying them in an assertion which “everybody” knows is not “real” identity we eliminate space and have only verbal space.  Similarly with myth and time.  The god, I said, stabilizes the metaphor: all religions lean in a subjective (Dionysian) direction, where you identify with the god through a group, or an objective one where the god remains transcendental and adored.

[136]  I’ve mentioned how in the 19th c. religion gets identified with the find-the-true-church puzzle [par. 43].  Newman is the pattern here.  I suppose S.K.’s [Kierkegaard’s] attack on “Christendom,” perhaps even Nietzsche’s anti-Xn [anti-Christian] polemics, are a kind of neo-Protestantism.

[151]  Thus, without losing its specific historical orientation through Judaism and Christianity, the Bible is an archetypal model of a perennial philosophy or everlasting gospel.  At least, that’s what I’d call it if I were writing a book on religion.  We really do move from creation to recreation.

[197]  I have very few religious books, & those I have stress the mystics.  I have great difficulty, nonetheless, in reading, say, Boehme, because mystics (less true of Boehme than of others) seem so masochistic: isn’t this stuff just wonderful that we have to say we believe anyway?  But now Boehme is making more sense as I move closer to light and signature symbolism.  Once more, it’s not that I “believe” him but that this is the kind of link between the Bible and the creative imagination that I’m looking for.

[206]  I need more on primary & secondary concern.  I want the Innis stuff about Reformers & Marxists settling into an adversary situation.  Marxism in theory transcends ideology, & some bourgeois masochists (Barthes) go along with this.  But when we look at what Lenin says about religion it’s clear that a counter-ideology is being set up: there’s no transcendence of ideology.  So my faith-ideology-secondary concern and charity-transcendence-primary concern still stands.

[207]  Anyway, the religious-secular dichotomy doesn’t work, except as an illusion of ideological adversaries.  A “pro-religious” attitude merely keeps an “anti-religious” one in business, and vice versa.  That’s the real implication of my aligning revolutionary psychologies in Biblical religions and Marxism, not some bromide like “Marxism is really a religion after all” (though I’ve said it is in interviews).  Everybody knows that all religious social phenomena are inextricably bound up with “secular” elements in politics and economics.  So in reverse.

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Salman Rushdie


Salman Rushdie on The Hour with George Stromboulopoulos

Today is Salman Rushdie‘s birthday (born 1947).  Rushdie, of course, was subjected to a death sentence by the Iranian Supreme Ayatollah Khomeini on February 14th, 1989 for his novel The Satanic Verses.  Frye makes reference to it in his last posthumously published work, The Double Vision.

I am, of course, isolating only one element in Christianity, but cruelty, terror, intolerance, and hatred within any religion always mean that God has been replaced by the devil, and such things are always accompanied by a false kind of literalism.  At present some other religions, notably Islam, are even less reassuring than our own.  As Marxist and American imperialisms decline, the Muslim world is emerging as the chief threat to world peace, and the spark-plug of its intransigence, so to speak, is its fundamentalism or false literalism of belief.  The same principle of demonic perversion applies here: when Khomeini gave the order to have Salman Rushdie murdered, he was turning the whole of the Koran into Satanic verses.  In our own culture, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale depicts a future New England in which a reactionary religious movement has brought back the hysteria, bigotry, and sexual sadism of seventeenth-century Puritanism.  Such a development may seem unlikely just now, but the potential is all there.  (CW 4, 177-8)

Twenty years later, the potential only seems more potent.