I didn't expect spiritual uplift from the magazine -- just the usual fluff. Yet there in front of me was an extraordinary article written by the Canadian intellectual Northrop Frye just before his death in 1991. Frye astounded the world with his dispassionate and erudite academic writing for half a century. But this was Frye raw, naked, utterly unlike his former public self.
The article described how Frye came to grips with the death of his beloved wife of many years. He began by mentioning the fact that, in 1936, before his academic life began, the author was ordained a United Church minister.
Yet he admitted that during his entire life he had never had faith. Even as the author of the monumental The Great Code: the Bible and Literature, Frye hadn't believed in God. It seems that, for most of his life, he was content to consider all matters of faith as academic.
Yet after his wife died, Frye could no longer sustain an academic distance from his own life. Though he had a masterpiece on the Bible to his credit, on the question of God he now felt the need to go deeper. So he put his giant intellectual motor to work.
What he could not accept was that his wife of a lifetime -- what she had meant to him, the essence of her -- could be reduced to simply a collection of cells that had once lived and were now dead. And since this belief was his strongest impulse, it followed that he must believe that she continued to live in some way. And if this latter belief was really stronger than his former academic belief, he reasoned that this was faith, perhaps not in the accepted pure sense of the word, but what he saw as a negative faith--a default faith.
It was an epiphany. If Northrop Frye believed that the concept of negative faith had merit, that was good enough for me.
After a lifetime of guilt for what I had not been able to believe, Frye's revelation was a welcome relief. Negative faith may not be a fulfilling form of faith -- because it means never really knowing the things we long to know, such as the nature of God and the afterlife. But I'll take negative faith with an open mind over the fraudulence of an atheist's claim to knowing what can never be known.
Mock on, Dawkins.