State Religion

The Political Function of State Religion, by Northrop Frye


It is in the God of official Christianity, invented as a homeopathic cure for the teachings of Jesus, that state religion has produced its masterpiece. This God is good and we are evil; yet, though he created us, he is somehow or other not responsible for our being evil, though he would consider it blasphemous either to assert that he is or to deny his omnipotence. All calamities and miseries are his will, and to that will we must be absolutely resigned even in thought and desire. The powers that be are ordained of him, and all might is divine right. The visions of artists and prophets are of little importance to him: he did not ordain those, but an invariable ritual and a set of immovable dogmas, which are more in keeping with his ideas of order. Both of these are deep mysteries, to be entrusted to a specially initiated class of servants. He keeps a grim watch over everything men do, and will finally put most of them in hell to scream eternally in torment, eternally meaning, of course, endlessly in time. A few, however, who have done as they have been told, that is, have done nothing creative, will be granted an immortality of the ‘pie in the sky when you die’ variety.

It is easy to call this popular misunderstanding, but perhaps harder to deny that orthodox religion is founded on a compromise with it. If God moves a mysterious way, a mysterious God may be capable of anything. And as all mysteries are nightmares, this one increases in horror the longer we continue to think of what he may do to us. But as only the worst of men would tortute other men in hell endlessly, given the power, those who believe God does this worship the devil, or the worst elements in man. And this devil takes his duties as Prince of this world very seriously. In practice he is far worse than his most devoted admirer would dare admit. In practice all established Churches are irrevocably committed to the defence of their establishment, and any time of crisis shows clearly that, as far as the orthodox are concerned:

God is only an Allegory of Kings & nothing Else … God is The Ghost of the Priest & King, who Exist, whereas God exists not except from their Effluvia.  (Blake, Annotations to Thornton’s The Lord’s Prayer)

In early days this God had a hankering for human blood, for he would naturally regard suicide or murder as the most reverent homage that could be paid to him. The Old Testament shows him grudgingly retiring under pressure of the prophets and being forced to content himself with murdered animals, but the feeling that human sacrifice is the ultimate gesture of respect still persists, and periodically causes holy wars and crusades. This creature Blake calls, outside the prophecies, “Old Nobodaddy,” and here he is, contemplating the French Revolution:

The King awoke on his couch of gold,
As soon as he heard these tidings told: …
Then he swore a great & solemn Oath:
“To kill the people I am loth,
But If they rebel, they must go to hell:
They shall have a Priest & a passing bell.”
Then old Nobodaddy aloft
Farted & belch’d & cough’d,
And said, “I love hanging & drawing & quartering
Every bit as well as war & slaughtering.
Damn praying & singing,
Unless they will bring in
The blood of ten thousand by fighting or swinging.”

Although this God is personal, there is a recurrent tendency to think of him as impersonal. He constantly relapses into Fate or Necessity [or “Nature” as it’s now more commonly worshipped] as soon as his pretensions are examined at all seriously. Being a mere shadow of the tyrant’s demand that we submit passively to him whatever we think or want to do, and not having any more intelligible program of obedience (even the ten commandments only tell us what we must not do), Nobodaddy turns out to be much like our old friend the immanent Will. Perfect obedience to him would be unconscious and automatic, like the circling of the stars. The believers in him tell us that the whole universe obeys God in this way except us, and that we do not because we are evil and have fallen. Well, so we have; but the fatal mistake in orthodox thought comes at the next step. All good comes from God, and as, the orthodox say, God is not man, man must be “simple & yet capable of evil.” Such a man must, therefore, look “beyond” the human world for salvation, and there is nothing beyond the human world except the spatial beyond which is nature, and which suggests all these ideas of uncritical docility. Hence routine and passive life comes to be thought good; all that is independent, free and energetic comes to be associated with evil.


The Passive who Obey Reason

This exaltation of the routine and the passive is congenial to all forms of fatalism, among which Blake puts predestination [and ‘reincarnation’], because they assert that we are not to do what we can in this world but what we must. The same idea is enforced in society by law. Law at its best is impartial; it assumes equality among all men, and so exactly corresponds to the equality of dullness which asserts that only the guinea-sun can “really” be seen. In other words, it puts normality at the lower limit just as Lockean philosophy does. Every real thing contains within it its unique law of growth and coherence, and hence “One Law for the Lion & Ox is Oppression,” just as one idea of proportion to cover them both is nonsense. A generalising law permits of no exceptions, but everything that lives is an exception to it. Penal laws are based on the assumption that the “general” interest must be preserved, and preserved by compulsion. Therefore they “court Transgression.”

The worship of mediocrity goes much further than this. Greek ethics, for instance, is based on a hesitation and diffidence which is designed not to alter social conditions. Blake wrote such aphorisms as “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom” with one eye on the Greek “Nothing in excess.” Prudence is defined by Blake as “a rich, ugly old maid courted by Incapacity,” and in the prophecies he speaks of the four Classical virtues as the four pillars of Satan’s throne. But official Christianity is no better; it too tells us that humility and modesty are great virtues, and that in exalting oneself above a certain level there is grave danger, for anything that might attract the attention of the Setebos-God it worships is sure to exasperate him. This corresponds to the scientist’s teaching that we should reserve judgment and not commit ourselves to anything until we are sure of being well within the guinea-sun conception of reality. Hence Blake says not only:

If the Sun & Moon should doubt,
They’d immediately Go out.
but also:
Humility is only doubt,
And does the Sun & Moon blot out.
All moral virtue of this kind ends in lugubrious and portentous dullness.

The morally good man tries to obey an external God instead of bringing out the God in himself. The external God being only the shadow of Caesar, the good man finds himself obeying the latter instead. Caesar being only the shadow of popular timidity, the good man finds himself in the end doing what everyone else does.

The power of becoming our own best selves must be within us: there can be no oracles to approach and no incantations to memorise. Satan in the Bible is called diabolos or accuser because he is forever reminding man of his own insufficiency and causing him to despair of deliverance, and his henchmen spread throughout society the state of mind called by Blake the “accusation of sin,” the final triumph of the death-impulse, the complete torpor and paralysis of the mind. For Satan is not himself a sinner but a self-righteous prig. As Blake explains:

We do not find any where that Satan is Accused of Sin; he is only accused of Unbelief & thereby drawing Man into Sin that he may accuse him.


The Everlasting Gospel


The Holy Spirit spoke by the prophets, all visionaries speak with the voice of God, but in Jesus God and Man become one. For Jesus was a perfect man, not in the negative sense of a man without sin – had he been perfect in that way he could never have existed at all, even as a myth – but as a man who “was all virtue, and acted from impulse, not from rules” (MHH). Everything he did was an imaginative act bringing more abundant life, and his whole gospel reduces itself to forgiveness of sins, in the sense above discussed.

His impact on society was that of a revolutionary and iconoclast, as that of all prophets must be. He found the Jews worshipping their own version of Nobodaddy, a sulky and jealous thundergod who exacted the most punctilious obedience to a ceremonial law and moral code. He tore this code to pieces and broke all ten commandments, in theory at least. He had no use for the Pharisees’ Sabbath or for the paralysis of activity thought to be most acceptable to their frozen God on that day. All the devotion to ritual fopperies of the kind that lazy minds think of as possessing some kind of mysterious magical virtue got the same treatment. Jesus met the guardians of law and conventional piety with jeers and insults and merciless exposures of their hypocrisy and ignorance. He started disputing with doctors very early, and reduced both the smugly pious Pharisees and the smugly skeptical Sadducees to an infuriated silence.

So far from honoring his father and mother – the only positive commandment in the Decalogue – he found that complete imagination involves a break with a family. When he was brought a harlot to be accused, condemned and murdered in the approved way, he showed that the self-rightousness which made killing her a pleasure was something far worse than her sin. Finally Jesus became so obnoxious to society that society could stand him no longer, and, as he refused all compromise or even defense, he really compelled the custodians of virtue and vested interests to murder him. From their point of view they were quite right, and their charge of blaspheming their God amply justified.

At the same time the common people heard him gladly; publicans and sinners welcomed him; lepers, pariahs and beggars called to him; children swarmed after him. He was more interested in sinners than the righteous: Pharisees did not recognise him as a prophet, but the adulterous woman of Samaria did. When he talked of God he did not point to the sky but told his hearers that the Kingdom of Heaven was within them. Nor did he tell them how to live a Christian life in society. He said that God was a Father and that we should live the imaginatively unfettered lives of children, growing as spontaneously as the lilies without planning or foresight. The God of his parables is an imaginative God who makes no sense whatever as a Supreme Bookkeeper, rewarding the obedient and punishing the disobedient.

Northrop Frye was an eminent Canadian literary critic and literary theorist, considered to be one of the most influential of the 20th century. The article above is taken from his remarkable study of Blake, Fearful Symmetry (1947), one of the greatest interpretations of Blake’s works ever written. 

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