Baptized Imagination: A Short Review

“It is God who gives thee thy mirror of imagination, and if thou keep it clean, it will give thee back no shadow but of the truth.” (George MacDonald, Salted With Fire)

9780754655169George MacDonald’s theological vision was vivid, deep-rooted, and influential for later Christian luminaries such as G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis. Yet he eschewed excessively abstract theologizing and generally expressed his beliefs in an unsystematic and image-rich fashion. In this book, Kerry Dearborn attempts to piece together his thought from the range of his writings. Baptized Imagination: The Theology of George MacDonald is worth reading just for the joy of so many wonderful quotes, though as an overview of his thought and influences it will be most of interest to theologians and literary critics.

The key to MacDonald’s whole theology is his belief in the infinite yet intimate love of God, which is nearer to us than we are to ourselves. This Trinitarian love bursts all systems that seek to confine it; it washes away fear and nurtures all created life. It is the source of all genuine knowledge, which is realized through encounter and subsequent obedience. MacDonald frequently portrayed God through familial imagery, using warm paternal and maternal figures in his fiction. This love of a divine “motherly Father” lay at the center of all his writing.

Dearborn argues that to MacDonald as author and theologian, the most significant human faculty was the “baptized imagination.” This is not to be conflated with fancy. Fancy rides upon idle emotions, and the result is often illusion, distortion, and a facile approach to life. But imagination is an attribute of the creator God, part of the self-giving love that upholds reality. Human imagination, cleansed by holy rebirth and enlivened by this same love, is constrained by love and so remains always in the light of the truth. Imagination is what enables the mind to overcome the dualities imposed by the intellect and discover new depths. Thus the imagination stands above knowledge and as partner to the intellect in the discovery of truth. We have here the beginnings of a theological aesthetics.

But the implications of this go beyond how we make art; as Dearborn argues, MacDonald also understood that this problematized any theology that rendered God too abstract, remote, and theoretical. The Bible is not to be read as a scientific text, but as witness to a singular concrete truth, Christ, who is grasped by the intellect only through the heart. Any theology which claims comprehensiveness is thereby demonstrated to be false, for no system can contain the eternal. This explains the impressionistic and occasionally inconsistent quality of MacDonald’s speculations, for they arose chiefly from the richness of his spiritual life.

However, it is clear from this study that MacDonald was not, as some have regarded him, a liberal, nor, unless one accepts the severe standards of nineteenth century Scottish Calvinism, a heretic. His relationship with the Federal Calvinism of his youth was certainly troubled; but he was not a “lone mystic.” His ideas about God and scripture were developed in dialogue with a circle of devout clergymen that included F. D. Maurice and A. J. Scott. Many of these men (like MacDonald himself) had been sacked from churches and colleges for their espousal of unlimited atonement, or doubting that Hell is neverending, but they were avid readers of the Church Fathers and found support for their beliefs in classical Christian teaching. Particular British and German Romantics such as Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Novalis were also among his heroes, though he rejected much of the Romantic movement for its pursuit of ephemeral feeling.

Because MacDonald constantly labored to emphasize the limitless love of God, and because his own life was so full of tragedy and hurt, he was often forced to ponder the question of suffering. He believed sufferings, though they arise from evil, can work to purify and redeem; they are inadvertently appointed ministers of the divine Healer, who submits to their pain alongside us. MacDonald described old age as a blessed return to the vulnerability of childhood, a preparation for rebirth.

A striking pseudo-Platonic image used by MacDonald depicts God as the sun, and evil as shadow. The consuming fire of God’s love makes things pure and transparent as glass, and the shadows vanish. This painful process is one of un-making, but it is also one of union and recreation. It is the struggle that defines mortal life, and its end is the perfect victory of Love. “Love,” MacDonald taught, “has a lasting quarrel with time and space: the lower love fears them, while the higher defies them.” MacDonald’s infamous universalism (“death alone can die everlastingly”) was not grounded in his affirmation of a particular theo-logic, but his simple conviction that the profound and unceasing love of God would not give up on sinners even in Hell.

Dearborn occasionally attempts to put MacDonald in dialogue with later and better-known theologians such as Barth, though this rarely amounts to more than scattered comparisons. She openly confesses that she regards MacDonald as “prophetic” for contemporary theological concerns. But this book, fortunately, does not read either like an academic dissection or a hagiography. It is a sound and illuminating discussion of MacDonald’s ideals, and I highly recommend it.

Gregory of Nyssa’s On Virginity: Beauty Will Save the World

Continued from here.

According to Gregory of Nyssa, virginity is a sign to us of spiritual detachment, which is itself the restoration of the human creature to a state of order, purity, and peace. The goal of detachment is contemplation of the perfect and infinite beauty of God and participation in it.

Evangelicals are not known for their attention to beauty. The other transcendentals, truth and goodness, have a clear place, but at least on a popular level, beauty rarely seems to make an appearance. The reason for this lies to a certain extent in our Protestant heritage. The Reformers were eager to strip away the aura of mystery that seemed to give so much power to the priests. Beauty was regarded by many as suspicious and deceptive, and so it was divided from truth. Today we waver between iconoclasm and spectacle.

Gregory is one of the first and greatest theologians of divine beauty, and perhaps we may look to him to begin to recover a robust doctrine. To discuss the beauty of God is to enter into another theological conversation too vast for me, so I will content myself for the most part with describing Gregory’s use of the language of beauty, as Gregory invokes the very archetype words can never truly capture.

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Gregory of Nyssa’s On Virginity: Introduction

St. Gregory of Nyssa was until recently the least recognized of the three Great Cappadocian theologians. He was not a man of exceptional worldly learning and political acumen like his older brother Basil, nor was his theology as rigorously explored and influential as that of his friend Gregory of Nazianzus. Lately he has received more attention for his influence on the Christian mystical tradition, his total opposition to slavery, and his ambiguous leanings on apokatastasis. But Gregory was much more than these peculiarities.

Gregory came from a distinguished Cappadocian Christian family whose members included not only great scholars and rhetoricians, but saints and martyrs and proto-monks. He was a quiet man but a brilliant thinker, well-versed in Greek philosophy, staunch in his defense of the Nicene formulation of the Trinity. He was deeply influenced by Origen, but rejected heretical Origenism wherever its doctrines contradicted those of the church. His prose is simple and beautiful, typically shunning ornate formulas but showing great literary craft and a gift for analogy. During his lifetime he was widely honored by the orthodox as a champion of the faith; the Second Council of Nicaea (787) later called him “father of fathers.”

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Weekly Miscellany II: Nietzsche and Nazism, and More on Worship

Weekly Miscellany II: November 11-17, 2013

Key scriptures under contemplation

Exodus 14-15

These chapters detail the humiliation of Pharaoh at the Red (or Reed) Sea. Again, I am familiar enough with the literal-historical aspects of the story that I am mostly interested in a typological examination. Some aspects of the story have obvious parallels: Moses leads Israel through the waters, by faith, Hebrews 11 states, as though on dry land. Water and the sea often stand for death or Hades in Scriptures and in Hebrew culture. Even so, Christ has opened a way for his people through death. Yet I find interesting as well what comes immediately after the Red Sea hymn, even in the same chapter: the cleansing of the waters of Marah. The thirsty Israelites groaned when the spring they found spewed forth undrinkable bitter water; Moses took a branch from a tree and, throwing it into the spring, made the waters sweet. Moses then preaches a God, so recently shown to be a destroyer of the wicked, who is healer of the righteous.

There is an astonishing parallel to this whole sequence of events in 2 Kings 1-2. The first chapter details how divinely-inspired Elijah rebukes the idolatrous king of Samaria by calling fire down on his armies, which have been sent to fetch the prophet. Two of the evil monarch’s captains perish with their soldiers before the angel of YHWH tells Elijah to spare the third captain, who has bowed down to him in reverent fear, and to go to the king. Elijah goes and informs the king, who is wounded and sick, that he is soon to die in his bed, and he does. Shortly thereafter, in chapter 2, Elijah is taken into Heaven by chariots of fire; divine fire, which a chapter before consumed one hundred men, has become Elijah’s gateway to paradise.

But the parallels are far more explicit in the events that follow, which employ water-imagery heavily. Elijah has been carried into Heaven by the chariots of the Almighty; Elisha, using Elijah’s mantle, parts the waters of the Jordan in a manner reminiscent of the Red Sea miracle. I was startled Tuesday when I noticed for the first time that the next thing Elisha does is cleanse the cursed waters of Jericho. The pattern of events in Exodus is followed exactly, despite the different circumstances. While the “sons of the prophets” at Jericho send out men to search for the raptured Elijah, Elisha demonstrates his true prophetic power by rescinding an ancient curse on Jericho (see Joshua 6:26 and 1 Kings 16:34). He does not use a branch, but he fills a new jar with salt and casts the salt into the waters. This cleanses the waters forever and makes the land fertile.

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Weekly Miscellany I

Introduction and disclaimer to the series: Weekly Miscellany

In the spirit of the title of this blog, I intend to use the space afforded me as a kind of sanctuary for unhurried meditations which I will post weekly. These meditations may be short or lengthy depending on the week. They will probably not be very organized, most of the time, and may vacillate between incoherence and simplicity. They will not be driven by argument or trying to prove a point; if anyone would wish to raise questions or disagreements in the comments, I will read and gladly respond, but probably not allow myself to be sucked into debate, because this is intended to embody a slow process of learning and fermenting ideas, and I do not have time or energy for too much debate too often. This is merely an externalization of internal thought processes, as well as an eclectic chronicle of weekly aesthetic and intellectual stimuli. I am hopeful that this will force me to express my thoughts more often by lifting from my conscience the compulsion for everything to be perfectly ordered and lucid, as well as make explicit and preserve to me some of the jumble of connections that form a part of transient life experience. Whether or not anyone chooses to read occasionally or frequently is extraneous, though there might be coincidental benefit through exposing the reader to ideas or associations not previously within his or her scope of experience.

Christ have mercy upon us.

Weekly Miscellany I,

November 4-10, 2013

Key scriptures under contemplation

Exodus 12-14

The basic Christological significance of the Passover lamb is so obvious and so well known that I will not attempt to elaborate on it here. However, I would like to briefly expand this typological scope to other aspects of the story, to the ransom pattern visible. When the Israelites leave, they have plundered the treasures of Egypt, as Christ plundered the treasures of death, and they bring Joseph’s bones, for Christ has redeemed the dead and the living. Moreover, the firstborn, specially redeemed from death by blood, are now consecrated to God; they have not been merely “set free,” but they are bound and made holy. The descent to death has resulted in a glorious arising; the dying of the seed has yielded rich harvest.

Hans Urs von Balthasar equates orthopraxy with “theo-drama,” in which we are each called to play a unique part, but also one that follows the basic typological structure of redemption: “Death turns into life, and this is something that also takes place in our hearts so that, drawn into the action, they can look toward that center in which all things are transformed” (16-17). There is a certain narrative structure of descent and arising that characterizes redemption; it is the arc between creation and deification, between the activity of God and the union of the divine and the created, mediated most fully in the Godman, Christ, and consequently by the God-imaged priesthood of man. The destructive forces unleashed by Adam on the world are themselves destroyed in death, in the death of baptism, in the daily dying to self that takes place in regenerate man, and finally in the physical death that brings renewal.

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