Faith, Law, and Charity

Poking around at The Educated Imagination (and if you haven’t made it a regular stop and bookmarked it, do so now. I’ll wait. Hmm, hmm, skiddly do wah, skiddly id– Oh, you’re back? Right then.), I noticed that Frye uberscholar Robert Denham has posted some excerpts from Frye’s later notebooks, on the theme of religion. For the non-Fryegeeks out there, although Frye was ordained in the United Church of Canada, his thoughts led him away from what many might consider orthodox positions. A quote I found of particular interest was this one:

I’m no evangelist or revivalist preacher, but I’d like to help out in a trend to make religion interesting and attractive to many people of good will who will have nothing to do with it now.  The literalist view of meaning makes those who take it seriously hysterical.  Before long they’re saying that serious writers are wallowing in filth, that children should be spanked as often as possible, that not going to church/mass on Sunday is a mortal sin, that it offends God to call one’s bum an arse, & the rest of the dreary rigmarole.  I suppose the root of the hysteria is the threat of hell: I note that these people are always hailing with delight something like herpes or AIDS or, of course, any uncertainty connected with evolution or the pill.  Under the law, the more religiosity, the less charity.

I suspect that Frye has identified the source of much of the discomfort that some people (for whom I care quite deeply) have with religion in general, and with Christianity-as-practiced in particular. I have a great deal of sympathy for that position, and I think Paul did as well, as we see in the famous passage from 1 Corinthians 13: 1-3 (KJV) —

1Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.2And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.

3And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.

God knows (and so should we) that most of us (myself included) could be far more charitable than we currently are. Consequently, there’s a temptation to read Frye’s meditation as a simple kick to the slats of Christian bigots, and he certainly saw those slats as being in need of kicking. However, as I tell my students when we read Shakespeare, we should never settle for the easy meaning.

When I see the introductory phrase in Frye’s last sentence, I see part of what is for me a particular challenge. I can’t help but wonder if the increase of law is in fact something driving religiosity away from Charity.

Frye noted that the dichotomy of the religious and secular is a false one — as Denham also quotes to us:

This dissolving of the religious/secular dichotomy would take me quite a long way.  What does have to be abandoned in religion are the things that violate primary concern, like human sacrifice or persecution of “heretics.”  But such things are, again, inseparable from “secular” forms of tyranny, cruelty or exploitation.

Likewise, I’d like to suggest that like the priests in Blake’s Garden of Love, the compulsions and restrictions of government can take us away from our joys and desires, including the desires toward which charity might lead us. Instead, we do what we are forced to do, or don’t do what is forbidden. Under compulsion, charity never enters the picture, and if Paul’s right, we have nothing.

“Under the law, the more religiosity, the less charity.” My question then becomes: could that inverse proportionality be changed were we less under the law? Conversely, does putting people more under the law (religious or secular — remember, we’re talking about a false dichotomy there, as both are sources of ideologies) mean that we become still less charitable?

About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
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5 Responses to Faith, Law, and Charity

  1. Is government of, by and for the people “compulsion”? I think Frye is referring very specifically to the reductive law reprented by theology, which, let’s face it, is not interactive or amendable by popular will the way that the democratic process is. Frye was a big believer not only in democratic government, but in the “co-operative commonwealth,” or the non-Marxist brand of Canadian social democracy that flourished when he was a young man. Frye was an active supporter of both the CCF (Co-operative Commonwealth Federation) and its successor the NDP (New Democratic Party).

    The fiery 21 year old Frye here: http://fryeblog.blog.lib.mcmaster.ca/2010/03/12/frye-the-socialist/

    The still enthusiastic 32 year old here: http://fryeblog.blog.lib.mcmaster.ca/2010/06/18/stanley-knowles/

    The cautiously hopeful middle-aged man here: http://fryeblog.blog.lib.mcmaster.ca/2010/07/06/13531/

    The wisely pragmatic 77 year old here: http://fryeblog.blog.lib.mcmaster.ca/2010/06/17/new-democratic-party/

    Frye never left Canada because, he said, wherever else he went, there would be “no New Democratic Party or United Church of Canada.”

  2. Is government of, by and for the people “compulsion”? I think Frye is referring very specifically to the reductive law represented by theology, which, let’s face it, is not interactive or amendable by popular will the way that the democratic process is. Frye was a big believer not only in democratic government, but in the “co-operative commonwealth,” or the non-Marxist brand of Canadian social democracy that flourished when he was a young man. Frye was an active supporter of both the CCF (Co-operative Commonwealth Federation) and its successor the NDP (New Democratic Party).

    The fiery 21 year old Frye here: http://fryeblog.blog.lib.mcmaster.ca/2010/03/12/frye-the-socialist/

    The still enthusiastic 32 year old here: http://fryeblog.blog.lib.mcmaster.ca/2010/06/18/stanley-knowles/

    The cautiously hopeful middle-aged man here: http://fryeblog.blog.lib.mcmaster.ca/2010/07/06/13531/

    The wisely pragmatic 77 year old here: http://fryeblog.blog.lib.mcmaster.ca/2010/06/17/new-democratic-party/

    Frye never left Canada because, he said, wherever else he went, there would be “no New Democratic Party or United Church of Canada.”

    • profmondo says:

      Well, there’s the fun part of the question, isn’t it, Michael? In actual practice these days, we don’t seem to have much government by the people. This ties in to Codevilla’s argument from one of my earlier posts that US political culture has produced a self-anointed ruling class that has determined that it knows best for us and gets petulant when questioned. I, too, believe in a cooperative democracy, but I don’t think it’s truly cooperative if it’s dropped on us from the top down.

      By the same token, Frye’s church, the UCC, is marked by its congregational structure. I guess that’s what I think we’ve lost to the self-appointed episcopacy of the ruling class.

  3. Of course, Warren. It is thus. But it has never always been thus. And it needn’t ever be thus. And I think that’s Frye’s point in his lifelong support of social democracy.

    If I may cite Michael Moore (no, wait, listen, please!), America is a constitutional democracy, not a constitutional plutarchy. We have our constitutional rights, including right of free speech, right of free assembly, and right to vote. Those are pretty formidable powers vested in every citizen. It’s really just a matter of engaging them as though they really matter — because they really do.

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