The Vision of George MacDonald
In speaking of George MacDonald, C.S. Lewis once said, “I have never concealed the fact that I regarded him as my master”. In light of Lewis’s confession, it could be said that MacDonald was the master of a master, as Lewis was also a master to many. Though I mildly bristle at the word “master,” this is a word that is hard for me to deny as few others have challenged and encouraged me as George MacDonald. I suppose I could call him master, if I can refer to myself as his critical student.
During his life, MacDonald was a noted author, poet, and Christian minister, who held company with such figures as Lewis Carroll, John Ruskin, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Walt Whitman. Though he wrote many novels, and many of his sermons were published in book form, he is most critically praised for his mastery of fantasies, or more specifically a genre known as mythopoeia, through which he deftly rendered spiritual realities into a mythical and imaginative landscape.
When I read MacDonald I have this sense that my strongholds are being confronted and are likewise beginning to crumble. As I mentioned, I am his critical student, as there are points where I questions his beliefs, but I also find that few others get me to question my beliefs as he does. In the end, he gets me to move beyond theological hang ups and right into the matter of becoming like Christ, of becoming an infinitely glorious child of the eternal Father.
The following essay by Mike Partridge does a good job of expressing what is essential and compelling in the life and theology of George MacDonald, and because MacDonald is a profound influence on my thinking, it also expresses the issues I wrestle with regarding faith and spiritual maturity.
George MacDonald loved the bible but he had little time for the dry theological systems of the past. His spiritual vision and imagination was forged by reflecting on the beauty of God’s creation (particularly the countryside of his birthplace in Scotland) and he found kindred spirits in the works of the romantic poets (themselves a reaction to the dry rationalism of the enlightenment) such as Coleridge and the youthful Wordsworth.
In the writings of Coleridge the poet was a prophet who mediated revelation to humanity through symbols and metaphors, particularly those found in nature and spoke of a transcendent reality beyond that which we commonly experience. This involved a response of the whole person rather than the mere assent of the will to a particular doctrine or creed. A personal revelation that found a response in the heart of every human being whether or not they were a believer.
Another key influence was the German romantic poet Novalis, who wrote, “We are closer to things invisible than to things visible.” His belief was that men and women were on a journey Homeward.
The result of these, and other influences, was an organic rather than structured theology. Men and women are children of God and part of his family simply through being born and not because of any special experience or personal merit.
George MacDonald deliberately avoided setting out his ideas as a defined theological “system” preferring to allow his ideas and words to create a personal response in the hearer. This makes him hard sometimes to categorise. As the late William Raeper pointed out in his excellent biography, MacDonald’s theology “celebrated the rediscovery of God as Father, and sought to encourage an intuitive response to God and Christ through quickening his readers’ spirits in their reading of the Bible and their perception of nature.”
Men and women are born out of the heart of God (not ex-nihilo as traditionally held by the church). Since the whole of creation has its origin in him, it is possible to approach him either through the bible or nature. This approach has similarities with the Neo-Platonic theories of Plotinus and Origin one of the early Church Fathers.
God is the Father welcoming his prodigal children home not just their creator or judge. Whether we realise it or not we are all on a road leading back to him. He is our Home. MacDonald believed that people were either responding to God or turning away from him . For MacDonald there was no absolute need for a moment of conversion as traditionally understood. We are all at different stages on the journey – a journey that has its beginning and end in God.
Spiritual awakening is a process of organic growth rather than a sudden discontinuity with the past. The soul is like a young plant reaching out to the light that illuminates every person whether Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim or atheist. Conversion is the moment of perception, illumination and understanding. As we have seen it does not represent a radical new departure but a sudden spurt of growth as the light penetrates our inner being.
The bible is a sign post to Christ. It is Christ, not the bible, who is God’s revelation to humanity, and one reads the bible in order to respond to him. Right belief is secondary to obeying the light you have already received. For MacDonald social justice and the gospel could not be separated.
In Adela Cathcart, MacDonald spoke of God as “Him who is Father and Mother both in one” and “father and mother and home.” (Vol.II, p76&77). For MacDonald the child (cf. Diamond in At the Back of the North wind) was often a type of Christ acting out God’s plan in the world and bringing his creation back to him. It is the heart of a child alone who can find faith. Through submission and sacrifice one climbs the evolutionary scale – through dying one is made alive.
MacDonald recognised that truth could be separated into scientific truth and poetic truth (cf. C. S. Lewis’ treatment of Myth). He held firmly to the literal truth of the resurrection and the miracles of Christ which he regarded as evidences of the higher law of love.
He followed Plato in thinking that evil was. to a large extent, a result of deprivation and not depravation. Human beings sinned because they did not see the truth clearly, and to have a clear vision of God would mean that they would be so overwhelmed by his love, that all wrongdoing would be immediately set aside. Seeing right was the beginning of acting right, and Christ was the clearest picture of God given to humankind.
He rejected totally the doctrine of penal substitution as put forward by Calvin which argues that Christ has taken the place of sinners and is punished in their place recognisingthat in turn it raised serious questions about the character and nature of God. Instead he argued that Christ had come to save people from their sins, and not from the punishment of their sins. The problem was not the need to appease a wrathful God but the disease of sin itself.
Salvation is a process of evolution toward Christ-likeness. We are marred by the Self. Sin is choosing not to obey and conform to the will of the Father in response to which God must send his consuming fire to burn the evil out of us.
“The wrath will consume what they call themselves; so that the selves God made shall appear.” (Unspoken Sermons 1, p44).
MacDonald would accept no compromise with sin but saw evil as a discord that will eventually be brought into harmony with God when the whole of creation is reunited with him.
Hell is not a place of punishment but a place of purification to prepare one to enter God’s presence. True repentance, however, is essential.
“All pains, indeed, and all sorrows, all demons, yea, and all sins themselves, under the suffering care of the highest minister, are but the ministers of truth an righteousness.” (Mary Marston, Vol.II, p.321). Some things that we call evil are sent to bring the sinner back to God.
He was open to the possibility that some might recognise good for what it is but still choose the bad, but he did not think this very likely.
Thus Hell is not a place of eternal conscious torment in fire but an ultimate, final encounter with God. Hell is knowing the infinite loss of God and is forced on no one. It is self selected. As C. S. Lewis wrote, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done”, and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done”. (The Great Divorce, p72). It is a falling out of the hands of the one who loves us.
He believed that death is not an end but a doorway into a greater reality.
“For I suspect the next world will more plainly be a going on with this than most people think – only it will be much better for some, and much worse for others, as the Lord has taught us in the parable of the rich man and the beggar.” (There & Back, Vol.III, pp.138-9).
Salvation is rooted in God’s love and his will to save, not in the reckoning of accounts. Legal metaphors of guilt and judgement play their part in the Scriptures, but the reality beyond the metaphor is relational and personal, it relates to God’ search for fallen human beings and their response or otherwise to his initiative. This search does not cease at the point of human death. This life is simply a stage on the journey Home.
George MacDonald taught a religion of the heart not the head. People could not be driven into the kingdom of God but rather led by example in the doing of good. He thirsted for a [mystic] union with the divine that would enhance rather than submerge human individuality. MacDonald sought to express the divine in the human, and the human in the divine. As Father, God is calling his children Home. God reveals himself through creation but supremely through Christ, the obedient Son.