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.

The Leper Staggers On

Six months ago, I posted a short meditation on cosmic evil. Since then, the Ebola fatalities figure has climbed from 1000 to almost 10,000. The body count in Ukraine amounts to at least 5400, over twice the estimate of last August. The immediate violence in Gaza resolved at around 2200 deaths, though of course nothing is really resolved.

Figures from ISIS and the chaos that surrounds them are still uncertain but certainly horrific. More than 210,000 have been killed in Syria in the last four years, and three and a half million have fled the country. Last year alone, 17,000 civilians died violently in Iraq. Christian communities that have occupied the Middle East for 1900 years have vanished completely. Hundreds of thousands of Christians, Yazidis, and Muslims are starving in refugee camps.

Meanwhile, ISIS has drawn tens of thousands of young men and women, a substantial minority of them raised in secular western states, into its vision of an Islamist utopia born from apocalyptic violence. They seem completely fearless of divine or human retribution. Their assets amount to billions of dollars. The spokesman in a video from Libyan ISIS, released last Sunday and showing a massacre of about 21 Christians, reminded viewers that Libya is just opposite Rome, the ancient heart of western Christendom.

If I am distant from the media coverage, I am not physically remote from the suffering. As the crow flies, I’m only 640 kilometers away from Mosul. That is about half the distance from my parents’ house in Virginia to my wife’s family in Mississippi. I could drive there in a day, had I a car and were the borders open.

Of course, these statistics can convey nothing of the suffering experienced by each soul. Quantification cannot touch on the true nature of the beast. But there seems no other way to even hint at the magnitude of the destruction, as the world rolls on toward judgment.

I am not raising an alarm. I am in no position to pontificate. I am simply grieving, and seeking repentance for my own part in evil.

EDIT: It is completely coincidental, but perhaps appropriate, that I have posted this on the eve of Ash Wednesday.

 

The Doors of the Sea: A Review

David Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami?

In the long history of Christianity, theodicy is comparatively young. Different generations find different doctrines more troublesome. Once, pagan philosophers looked askance at Christianity’s affirmation of the body and material creation; the idea that base physical matter could be brought into union with the Absolute was repugnant to them. Today, Christianity must contend with a different set of assumptions. The Enlightenment taught us to think of the cosmos as a vast machine; if it is so, and if it is designed and maintained by God, why doesn’t it always bring about goodness and justice, but often chaos and evil? The problem of human suffering tends to provoke a negative response to the theist’s portrait of reality. Its prominence as an object is probably due to the fact that it provokes a moral and visceral rather than merely intellectual reaction. It is a problem that cannot go unaddressed.

The Doors of the Sea is a short book (just over a hundred pages) expanded from an article written by David Bentley Hart in 2004 for the Wall Street Journal. Hart was prompted, as usual, by observations about the ongoing debate between Christians and atheists and serious deficiencies in the understanding of both sides. In The Doors of the Sea, he starts by reviewing the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, and the impression it made in the press. Some nontheist journalists, he noted, insensitively used this tragedy as an opportunity to bash the Christian belief in a good God; simultaneously, some Christians offered untimely (and, Hart believes, misguided) remarks about all suffering being permitted as a part of God’s perfect plan.

Hart finds neither position satisfactory. The prominent nontheist critiques he quotes do not begin to understand either philosophical theism or Christian theology, he remarks, but they cannot be simply dismissed. Beneath the false dilemmas they pose, between divine goodness and divine omnipotence, they point to a real moral horror at evil and desire for justice that Christianity itself inculcated into western civilization. These feelings are legitimate and deserve a better and more coherent response from Christians than they normally receive.

Hence, The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? (2005)

Continue reading

Embracing the Leper: On Cosmic Evil

I know very little about evil. I have lived comfortably the past twenty-three years; I am sound in mind and body; I have never been persecuted or slandered; no one has ever beaten or robbed me or threatened anyone I love.

So I am never quite sure how to react to the evil I read about in the world. Lately, four ongoing crises have been often in my mind:

  • The Ebola outbreak in West Africa (~1000 dead)
  • Fighting in east Ukraine (~2500 dead)
  • The latest conflict in Gaza (~1800 dead)
  • The persecution of Christians and Yezidis in ISIS-occupied territories (casualties unknown)


Continue reading