Category Archives: Religious Knowledge Lectures

Religious Knowledge, Lecture 10


Lecture 10.  December 9, 1947

The key ideas are ritual and myth. The active side of religion is ritual, the ceremony, the religious act.  The myth side is the explanation of a ritual, the religious Word.

Ritual     Act         Ceremony     King

Myth      Word       Doctrine      Prophet

The basis of ritual is sacrifice, and this goes back to the idea of the substitute for the human sacrifice.  The prophets come along with teaching so that the doctrine aspect is connected with the prophet.  The pre-prophetic is ritual dependent upon the king. Now, the symbol becomes interpreted in mythic terms through the prophet.


The Psalms are the doctrine of the king in prophetic language.  The prophets are concerned with the meaning of the ritual, an attempt to explain the true nature of the king.  The king is the visible symbol of the larger human body, “society.”  He is the social body united in one man.  At certain points, the prophets have a special authority to appoint kings or heirs apparent.

The original motive for sacrifice is that the king’s energy is that of the tribe.  In pre-exilic prophets you get the feeling that the old king is not good enough.  Isaiah is one prophet who has got beyond that mental tailspin.  For him the source of inspiration is consciousness; he is the trusted adviser of the king.  Mixed up with what he says is a criticism of what is going on in history.

Isaiah Chap. 6, v. 8:  “I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for me?  Then said I, Here I am; send me.”  But no one wants to be a prophet.  Isaiah asks, How long will it be? It’s no fun.  In the same way, says Frye, the artist is wholly possessed by what he wants to say.  Genius has nothing to do with sanctity or with whether or not the artist is good or bad.  When he has genius, it possesses the whole of him and gives him the power to shape words as he wills.  Yet the work of art itself is taking form; the artist releases what is being created.  The sculptor sees the statue in the block of marble; it is not an act of will.  There are always times when the artist, the prophet, is saying more than he knows.

Isaiah 7: 10–12: Ahaz represents conventional piety. “I will not ask, neither will I tempt the Lord.”  This is the right answer, up to a point.  But Isaiah takes up the idea of the “great sign of the Lord thy God.”

Isaiah speaks of the arrival of some new form of life, Immanuel, God with us.  He speaks as if this is going to happen at once.  In Chapter 8, Isaiah begets a child, and in the next chapter the arrival of this new life inspires him to say what is over Ahaz’s head, and over the whole situation, too.  He talks of a new king on the throne of David.  He is talking about the real king here.  In Chap. 2 he talks of the “last days” and the spiritual king who will restore the age of paradise.  Still, there is not any doctrine here yet, which you could not match outside the Christian religion.

Micah makes the famous statement of the prophetic position against the sacrificial cult. Chap. 6, 6–8: the utter uselessness of ceremony in itself.  Even human sacrifice will not attract God’s attention.  There is the conception of the blood of a child as a redeeming scapegoat.

Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousand rivers of oil?  Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?  What does the Lord require of thee but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.

In Chap. 6, Hosea speaks a message of forgiveness, of the restoration of Israel through the love of God. “Come, let us return to the Lord.”

The pre-exilic prophets have the inspiration of the prophet and speak with consciousness.  They condemn the moral evils of their community, the superstition, the mental attitude towards magic.  But Amos is concerned with the paradox of the relation of God to his people.  God has chosen one nation, and yet he is no respecter of persons.  Amos denounces the neighbouring nations, and the audience loves it.  He denounces Judah, the Southern Kingdom, and they still love it.  Then, he turns and denounces the Israelites with the same voice.  He acknowledges the uniformity of men, and yet retains the peculiar relation of God and Israel.  To begin with, Israel means the larger human body, the concrete symbol of which is the King of Israel.

The prophets are led from the contemporary situation and the feeling that their own country is exceptional to the conception of the King of Israel as the source of authority in Israel and of its health and improvement.  The prophets, therefore, become frank advisers of the king and will not flatter.  The feeling merges that only the king is authority and God works through him.  The pre-exilic prophets idealized the King of Israel as the Prince of Peace.

The paradox of a monotheistic state is seen in Amos where the hangover remains that God is concerned with the nation of Israel.  This creates a difficulty that is not cleared up until the later prophets.

Religious Knowledge, Lecture 9


Michelangelo, Isaiah

Lecture 9.  December 2, 1947

The king is regarded as the archetypal man in whom all the people who follow him find their own being.  This is based on the idea that man is part of a larger human being.  To see society as a larger self we must move from atomic individualism to some kind of abstract idea.  Man sees in society only himself and others like him, but knows there is more than must a mere aggregate of individuals.

“Body” and “being” are vague terms.  The essential thing is that society is seen as a human form, larger than the person. That’s what man expresses in the king—the larger body of society.  He picks out a concrete symbol to express that idea.  The king is an individual and. at the same time, the larger human being.  Cannibals express literally that they are members of a single human body.  There is a certain distrust of the king in the story of Saul; he is seen as something of an idol.

The Israelites saw in Egyptian culture the idolizing of the king.  Thus, deliverance from Egypt meant deliverance from the divine man, Pharaoh.  When the Israelites pick a king, it develops from the genuineness of kingship.  Instead of a physical idol, they saw the spiritual reality that the king symbolizes and that all subjects are united in a common human body.  David rejoices, repents of his sins, etc., because he is the King.  The individual worshipper says that David is myself, my larger human body in which I find myself.  David is the typical man; therefore, each worshipper goes through his emotions when he says his Psalms.

The idea of kingship carried with it one important factor: the King in the Old Testament is not divine. And yet, there is danger in an idol and a danger in making the spiritual abstract. The danger of idolatry must be faced.  The concrete symbol must be the king representing the larger human body; the concrete stands for the symbol and has to be the flesh incarnate.

The king is society incarnate in a man.  He is Israel incarnate because Israel is the larger human body of society.  The Bible doesn’t use abstract ideas.  It doesn’t use the term “society,” but Israel, or Jacob.  The king, therefore, is the Son of Israel, the incarnate form of Israel, the Son of Man.  Accepting the divine king in spiritual form is the consolidation of the symbol.  We see that the most primitive is often the form of the most highly developed.  The most crude form of the cannibal feast is the real form of the highest development at the other end.

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Religious Knowledge, Lecture 8


King David Dancing Before the Ark, 15th century


Lecture 8.  November 25, 1947

David and Solomon represent the focalizing of the symbolism of the king, the consolidation of religious and secular authority.  These men are important not so much as rulers as for the consolidating of religion.  David captures Jerusalem, the focus of political and religious aspiration.  But it is the same centralizing of something far more primitive.  It shows up in the Middle Ages in the person of the consolidating figure of the priest-king, the head of religion and state,

Samuel II, Chap. 6: David brings the ark to Jerusalem, the City of David.  Before Jerusalem was taken and the temple was established, the Israelites had a wandering temple, the Ark of God.  This Ark would be the thing that represents the protection of the Israelites by God.  When the Philistines captured the Ark of God, the Israelites knew they were licked.  Then they got it back.  A temple is built for the Ark.  The return of the Ark is told in Samuel, in which it is regarded as a sacred thing, as a reservoir of electric force.  David leads the dancing procession (verses 20-22).

The king who leads the service is also exposed to humiliation.  David is willing to accept this as part of kingship.  Verses 18-19: the entry of the Ark is signalled by a communion feast distributed by the king.  This is repeated in the feeding of the 5000, which is the prelude to the communion feast itself.  The conception of communion is still there.  True honour comes from the act of suffering and humiliation.  David is intimate with God, the chosen Son of God.  It doesn’t make him divine, though.  Psalm 45 shows the symbol of the king.

The city and the temple are seen as the only place were religion is.  God is only there.  The distinction between city and temple is dissolved until there is no distinction.  The king represents the people in a single human form as the elected Son of God.  David is the Son of God and, at the same time, all the Israelites are in the body of David.

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Religious Knowledge, Lecture 7


Zampieri, King David Playing the Harp

Lecture 7.  November 18, 1947

For farming people the sacrifice was concerned with the cycle of crops.  First it was the pastoral, hunting age of existence, the Stone Age.  It was followed by farming, the new Stone Age. To tell this story, the Bible gives us Cain and Abel, the pastoralist and the farmer.  The Bible deals symbolically with what we have dealt with historically.  From the tillers of the soil come the village, the city—the move from stone to bronze to iron.

Out of the unity of social interests comes the unity of religion.  Judaism and Christianity evolve out of a Mediterranean culture and religion.  Palestine would be less independent than any other country because it is at the crossroads of the world.  To expect a unique experience in Palestine would be like expecting New York to be invaded by wild Indians.

Much of the pre-prophetic religion is obliterated because the Old Testament is founded on prophetic writings.  Solomon’s temple shows a generous mixing up of religious influences.  His successors show that every king who Does Right keeps to Jehovah and every king who Does Wrong mixes cults, which include Moloch.  There are hints of pre-prophetic religion in the story of Jephthah’s daughter, and at the end of Judges are queer stories of an abominated religion.

Samuel Book II, Chap. 21, describes an oracle system. When the famine comes one consults the oracle.  David inquires because he is the king and therefore responsible for the famine as the principle of fertility in the society.  It is a private prayer, but really an oracle.  There is a feeling of divine vengeance for some crime, as in Greek tragedy.  Because crime is unnatural, nature must right herself.  It is the act of treachery of Saul that causes the sin that caused the famine.  However, Jonathon’s son is spared.

Ideas persist of a human sacrifice at harvest to right the famine.  The sacrifice originally is the tribe in communion as one man––through the one man who symbolizes the unity of the tribe.   They enter into communion as one body.  For the farmer, the blood becomes the vintage and the flesh the harvest. The man sacrificed becomes the regular recurrence of the cycle of nature as well as the unity of the tribe.  There is no symbolism here; they are the body and the blood.

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Religious Knowledge, Lecture 6


Carravaggio, Abraham and Isaac

Lecture 6.  November 14, 1947

There are three periods to the Hebrew religion:  Pre-prophetic, prophetic, post-prophetic or priestly.

The pre-prophetic is a mixed cult.  The pre-exilic prophets—Amos, Hosea, Micah, Isaiah, Jeremiah—represent a spiritual awakening in history.  It might be part of the general movement of Zoroaster whose teaching affected the life of the Hebrews.  The prophetic follows the worship of Jehovah.  The post-prophetic (priestly) is the legalizing of Jehovah.  This period is Judaism, the founding of the second temple, the synagogue, the Pharisees, and an organized cult.

Amos is one of the earliest prophets.  Genesis and Kings II have four or five main documents showing the people affected by prophetic teaching.  There is no “pure” pre-prophetic phase.  First there was YHVH (Yahveh) which became Jehovah, the tribal, ancestral God of the Hebrews.  This is what the prophets preached.  The pre-prophetic religion which the prophets attacked as not “pure”: that is, it had a mixture of other gods.  The mixing of cults was wrong, and the wrongness hinged on the ritual and the ceremony.


The prophets emphasized doctrine and teaching.  Judaism, or the priestly period, was the synthesis of religious doctrine with the prophetic teaching.  The prophets were actuated by a feeling of moral evil on the part of any mixed cult.

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Religious Knowledge, Lectures 4 and 5


Lectures 4 and 5.  October 21 and 28, 1947

In dealing with mental truth we must detach “truth” from the Bible as it is known in history and science.  The first fact we are aware of is that we live on a flat surface and the sun rises and sets.  Then, by explanation, we know it is an illusion.  But the fact of experience is still real.  The truth as it appears in the Bible is like the truth of that fact of experience.  The accuracy of history in the Bible is in inverse proportion to its spiritual value.

In the Old Testament we see a chasm opening between two types of minds.  One type sees experience in historical terms, and the other, the prophetic mind, transforms human reminiscence into drama.  The shape and form of that story becomes a parable.  A cleavage emerges between the literal and the spiritual comprehension.  The literal acceptance survives in Judaism and represents a type of attitude that Jesus condemned in the Pharisees.  The Gospels bring the spiritual approach.


Ritual is the act, the thing done.  Myth is the Word, the revelation, the scripture, the story of how this came to be; that is, what is said in the Bible.  Ritual comes earlier because the act must precede its explanation.  Myth is the explanation of the ritual. The Bible is a gigantic myth, a mythic account of human life. It is definitive myth which gets everything in and consolidates all mythic tales of any significance.

What ritual is the myth explaining?  The ritual of human sacrifice.  This must be dug out of the Bible because it is clear only in myth.  Much editing has covered up this human sacrifice ritual and it survives only in odd and lurid passages in Judges, etc.

All myths do not explain a ritual.  The explanation of customs of various tribes have mythical explanations.  The anthropologist is looking for different explanations because a different conception of myth is necessary to him.  Myths deal with gods.

God is the God of Christians; god is a supernatural being.

All products of human civilization are products of myths; they are attempts to reflect on life.  Man doesn’t evolve; he resists evolution.  The development of consciousness is an evolution of mental form.  Evolution takes place in time, while consciousness looks back at time.  Myth is word, idea.

Natural              Human

Ritual                Myth

Act                    Word

Will                   Idea

Monoloty is the stage of religious statement in which the Hebrews say “Jehovah is our God.”  It is not polytheistic nor monotheism, but a kind of halfway house.  Other people have gods and each god chosen is a war-god––“my god can lick your god,” which means no tolerance of someone else’s god.

Monotheism is when our god becomes the only true god, the only possible God.  This represents the advance of civilization.

Polytheism: Man never assumes he is the greatest thing in the world.  He is a natural being among nature.  God here is seen as unknown, which means we separate him from the known, that is, from nature.  To make god knowable, he must combine subject and object, human nature and the forces of nature. There becomes a god for each natural phenomenon; the god humanizes the natural force of the storm, for example.

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Religious Knowledge, Lecture 3


Lecture 3.  October 14, 1947

There is a historical background to the Bible, but what is important is the imaginative ordering of the events.

Assyria destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 715 B.C.  David and Solomon illustrate a brief interval of prosperity.  The Kingdom of Judea struggled on longer because Assyria (Nineveh) was destroyed.  The Chaldeans come into prominence with the Babylonian captivity.  The Jews in Babylon kept their own religion, literature, pedigree.  The fall of Jerusalem consolidated them spiritually and nationally.

Then came the Medes and Persians, especially the latter, which took over.  The Persian Empire was organized under Cyrus, who became the pattern of the Great King.  He had a different policy and let the Jews keep their religious traditions and allowed them to return.  Nehemiah describes the rebuilding of Jerusalem.  Cyrus cleaned up on Croesus and got all of Asia Minor.  Darius I was the great organizer and Xerxes carried on the conquest of Greece.  The Persian Empire was destroyed by Alexander in the 4th century B.C.  The Greeks enter oriental history in migratory droves.  The Philistines were Aryan and closely related to the Greeks.  For example, Goliath is described as “gigantic.”

At the time of Alexander’s empire, Palestine was ruled by Selecus and Egypt by Ptolemy.  These dynasties became absorbed into the country; Selcia became Syria.  The tolerant policy was succeeded by attempts to force the Jews to abandon their religion.

At the time of the Maccabean rebellion, the third brother, Julius, was the field commander, and his success was consolidated by Simon.  This independence gave them a small period of prosperity because the Romans had not penetrated that far.  The rebellion lived on; people looked for a Messiah to deliver them.  This was not very long before Jesus’ time.  The Maccabean period saw the consolidation of Jewish literature, and the patriotic party of the Pharisees was formed.

The Romans expanded under Pompey.  Octavius became the first emperor and Jesus was born during his reign.  The Romans became more intolerant; they couldn’t stand the Jews and, therefore, the Christians.  In 71 A.D. Titus wiped out Jerusalem and Hadrian completed the process that made the Jews a wandering people.  They embarked on a new Babylonian captivity in which Babylon is the whole world.

We must see that the history of the Bible is a mental life, like a child’s memory.  Other events become superimposed upon another.  For example, for the Hebrews, the Egyptian and the Babylonia captivity become one.  Jerusalem is a squalid little town; its magnificence is in the mind.

History is not important, but the imaginative pattern is.  The Jews are an oppressed people; therefore their imaginative pattern is greater.  The Celtic imagination, for example, creates gigantic heroes, magic, enchantment, a super-nation idea to compensate for being oppressed.  This leads to imaginative literature.  In the USA, you get a historical sense of fact.  What persists are not tall tales, like Paul Bunyan stories, but stories about Washington and Lincoln.  America is a successful nation and therefore needs no compensating imaginative history.

Religious Knowledge, Lecture 2


Lecture 2.  October 7, 1947

The writers of the Gospels were writing about Jesus, but they are not writing a biography.  The events are there because they fit the pattern of what the writer was trying to present.  The life of Jesus is the drama of spiritual Israel.  When we study the Bible we see that the Book of Isaiah are fragments pasted together and that a lot of editing has been done.  We cannot accept the Bible as the work of one man, but we can look at it as a complete book, a unity.  It has editorial unity, and this is true of the whole Bible.

The first part of the Bible is arranged by people influenced by the Prophets.  The opening books are later, written by men impressed by the earliest Prophets, such as Amos, in the 8th century.  The Exile took place around 586 B.C.  Before that, there were attempts to reform the early religion, such as taking old traditional laws and reforming religion according to the teaching of the Prophets.  Then you’d have the Law and the Prophets.

The Book of Laws is an attempt to reform religion according to the spirit of the Prophets that there is no God but our God.  The Prophets taught a historical dialectic and Genesis to Kings is written in this light.  The sanctity of the Law and the truth of the prophetic interpretation is their dialectic of history.  The Torah is the Law, the first five books.  The former prophets were historians, the latter were like Isaiah.

The Torah is the Jewish kernel of their Bible, and the Christian Gospels are the commentary on the Law.  The Law in the first five books has an elaborate ritual and ceremonial code, as well as the moral duties of the law and punishments, as in the Ten Commandments.

In a primitive society there is little distinction between moral and ceremonial law.  The framework of the narrative tells the story of the Hebrew people from the Creation to the entry into Canaan.  The kernel is the descent into Egypt and the deliverance into the Promised Land.  The narrative focuses on a different level: Abraham is the Hebrew tribe; Jacob is Israel.  Here we are dealing on a plane in which the nation is conceived as a single person.  The story of Jacob’s descent into Egypt is the story of the people.  It is based on historical reminiscence, but we don’t know what.  However, we needn’t worry about it as history, but look at it as a single pattern.

The Israelites go down into bondage, a kingdom of darkness, another fall, of Israel.  The plague of darkness is the most deeply symbolic.  The dream of the Promised Land is the Garden from which man fell.  The leader, Moses (Son), leads them through the wilderness to the boundary of the Promised Land. But Moses does not conquer it; that is reserved for Joshua, whose name means Jesus.  Israel was guided through the wilderness of the dead world by the power of the Law and a man names Jesus began the assault on the Promised Land.

The Exodus is the central story of Israel.  Here you get Joseph, one of the twelve brothers who goes to Egypt. There is a cruel king, a massacre of the firstborn.  Then comes deliverance by Moses (son), the Exodus, the crossing of the water, the Red Sea, the forty years in the wilderness.  The New Testament parallel is Jesus, Egypt, a cruel king, leaves Egypt, twelve followers, baptism in Jordan, forty days in the wilderness.  Moses is the law, so he can’t enter the Promised Land, but Joshua (Jesus) does.  The Annunciation in the New Testament is the annunciation that the assault on the Promised Land has begun.  Egypt is the fallen world, the Promised Land is the Kingdom of God.

The symbol and allegory of the Old Testament become reality in the New Testament.

Old Testament                   New Testament

Manna                              Bread of life

Water out of the rock         Water of life

Serpent of brass                Crucifixion

Promised Land                  Resurrection

(Joshua)                             (Jesus)

The Gospels are indifferent to proof, historical proof.  The people who saw Jesus’ life are a mixed bunch.  They are not concerned with how He came but with how He comes. This is what always happens.

Religious Knowledge, Lecture 1


Classnotes of Margaret Gayfer, incorporating some notes by Richard Stingle.

Lecture 1.  30 September 1947

The Bible is the grammar of Western civilization; it brings down an entire culture and civilization to us.  Christianity and Judaism represent the only religions which have a sacred scripture; both have tried to achieve a single, definitive scripture.

The Bible is unique in its symmetry.  It represents a vision of the whole of human life.  Its aesthetic beauties are accidental.  It contains transcendental genius and ridiculous genealogies side by side.  It is crude, shocking, funny.  The Bible has a beginning, middle, and an end.  In telling a single narrative from Creation to the Last Judgment, it takes an epic survey of time.  The Bible sees the whole of time as a category of time and as a thing separate from itself.  Time is seen in the perspective of eternity.  Jesus is the centre of the Bible.  Jesus and the Bible are identical.

The traditional approach to the Bible is synthetic, to see it as one work.  The modern approach is analytical and scholarly.  For Frye, the synthetic approach is the real approach to the Bible, to see it as a unity.  Several theological systems are based on the Bible and all claim to be equally correct.  All religions are on a level as far as moral doctrines are concerned; the moral loftiness of the Bible is accidental, like its aesthetic beauty.

The synthetic approach sees certain recurrent symbols in the Bible that form a single pattern of symbols.  The structure of the Bible is complicated and must be studied.  The original authorship is a very minor point.  The literary person can see lyrics, parables, letters, memoirs, and so on—literary forms that have been smothered by repeated editings.  The Bible is as much an edited book and its editorial processes must be regarded as inspired, too.  The whole Bible is the history of man’s loss of freedom and organization and how he got it back.

There are two kinds of symmetry.  One is chronological, seeing the Bible story of creation, etc., as a legendary and mythical story of the fortunes of the Jewish people from 2000 B.C. to 100 A.D. and the spread of the Christian Church.  (Some books are out of order.  John should be the opening book of the New Testament since it is the Christian statement of the opening of the Old Testament.)

The second is a kind of symmetry that does not correspond to the chronological pattern exactly.  The difference between time and false history doesn’t arise in the Bible.  The whole conception of true and false as we think of it is not dealt with in the Bible.  The fall of man and the apocalypse have nothing to do with history.  The Bible is not a straight line of chronology; its time is a circle.  The beginning and end are the same point.  You can’t “jimmy” Adam and Eve into ancient history.  The whole question of causation, order, purpose, etc., is not dealt with by the Bible.

Christianity clings to revelation, and the only practical way to do this is in a book.  All we know about God is in the Bible; there is no God in nature or “up there” in the sky.  The association of God and Man is the basis of Christianity.

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