Proud of the lesser things

Here, MacDonald give’s an eloquent pronouncement against secular intellectuals.

Actually, this is worth quoting if only for it’s use of the word “sagacity”!

The wise and prudent, with all their energy of thought, could never see the things of the Father sufficiently to recognize them as true. Their sagacity labors in earthly things, and so fills their minds with their own questions and conclusions that they cannot see the eternal foundations God has laid in man, or the consequent necessities of their own nature. They are proud of finding out things, but the things they find out are all less than themselves. Because, however they have discovered them, they imagine such things the goal of the human intellect.

If they grant there may be things beyond those, they either count them beyond their reach, or declare themselves uninterested in the: for the wise and prudent they do not exist. They work only to gather by the senses, and deduce from what they have so gathered the prudential, the probable, the expedient, the protective. They never think of the essential, of what in itself must be. They are cautious, wary, discreet, judicious, circumspect, provident, temporizing.

They have no enthusiasm, and are shy of all forms of it – a clever, hard, thin people, who take THINGS for the universe, and love of facts for love of truth.

-George MacDonald, from Sermon: The Yoke of Jesus

A variation on this comes to mind. I think you’ll meet few intellectuals these days that take such a hard line against what falls outside our senses. Look at all the secular academics in America interested in Zen Buddhism! That is to humble oneself just enough to admit that man’s wit cannot wrap itself around the whole of the universe.

Tips on not hiding your light

In his sermon on “not hiding our lights under a bushel” (Matthew 5:13-16), George MacDonald hands out advice on how to do that in our day-to-day conduct. I found these passages the most relevant:

A Christian who looks gloomy at the mention of death, still more, one who talks of his friends as if he had lost them, turns the bushel of this little-faith love the lamp of the Lord’s light. Death is but our visible horizon, and our look ought always to be focused beyond it. We should never talk as if death were the end of ANYTHING[!]

To let our light shine, we must take care that we have no respect for riches: if we have none, there is no fear of our showing any. To treat the poor man with less attention or cordiality than the rich is to show ourselves the servants of Mammon.

The alert doorkeeper (to the house of prayer)

A man in sorrow is in general far nearer God than a man in joy, Gladness may make a man forget his thanksgiving; misery drives him to his prayers. For we ARE not yet, we are only BECOMING. The endless day will at length dawn whose every throbbing moment will heave our hearts Godward; we shall scarce need to lift them up: now, there are two doorkeepers to the house of prayer, and Sorrow is more on the alert to open than her grandson Joy.

-George MacDonald, Sermon: Sorrow, The Pledge of Joy

Prayer is a difficult discipline for me. Since nearly every treatise, sermon, what have you on prayer typically begins with a long disclaimer stating how much the author sucks at praying, I believe I’m in numerous company.

An odd thing happened a couple weeks back though. I came down with a rather nasty flu and had a high fever for about two days. I only get sick about once a year and I don’t typially handle it well, as my wife will attest to. This time though, while moaning in agony on the couch, I found myself frequently turning to God. And not just asking that my sickness would go away. In fact, there was very little of that. I thanked and petitioned him for many things, hours on end. I can’t remember when the last time THAT was.

Now, MacDonald goes on to explain that the primary source of sorrow is the death of loved ones but I can’t help but think what I just described is related.

Giving the curse too much credit

MacDonald, speaking of how Jesus responded to his parents after they had lost him in Jerusalem, comes to the conclusion that when Jesus said he was in his “Father’s House”, he concludes that he wasn’t actually talking about the temple.

…the Lord meant to remind them, or rather to make them feel, for they had not yet learned the fact, that He was never away from home, could not be lost, as they had thought Him; that He was in His Father’s house all the time, where no hurt could come to Him.

The world was His home because it was His Father’s house. He was not stranger who did not know His way about in it. He was no lost child, but with His Father all the time.

Here we find one more thing wherein the Lord differs from us: we are not at home in this great universe, our Father’s house. We ought to be, and one day we shall be, but we are not yet. This reveals Jesus more than man, by revealing Him more man than we. We are not complete men, we are not anything near it, and are therefore out of harmony, more or less, with everything in the house of our birth and habitation.

Always struggling to make our home in the world, we have not yet succeeded. We are not at home in it, because we are not at home with the lord of the house, the father of the family.

Hence, until then, the hard struggle, the constant strife we hold with Nature – as we call the things of our Father – a strife invaluable for our development, at the same time manifesting us not yet men enough to be lords of the house built for us to live in.

-George MacDonald, Life Essential: The Hope of the Gospel, ch.3

This is a rather interesting (and even backwards!) take, and another angle I keep running into when reading N.T. Wright and others.

First, the opposite. All growing up, I was taught “the world is not our home”. We are longing to get out of this busted up joint and move on to Heaven, our eternal home. This is an important ingredient if you have an eschatology where the world gets nuked really hard. Jesus had “no place to lay his head”, was not at home here. He just stepped down into our miserable world for a while to save us then floated back up to heaven once the job was done. Oh how happy when we fly away to be with him. Being human is totally the pits.

As some of these studious folks have pointed out though, this is a really incomplete picture. It gives the curse too much credit. It leaves out some important things. The whole earth was created by God and declared “good”. Mankind was made lords over the earth. This IS our home. Always has been. Now the curse corrupted creation, but it is being redeemed.

The Lord saved us (once and for all on the cross), and he is redeeming us even now through sanctification. In John’s Revelation, he speaks about the Jesus returning to live with us on the new earth. Not a ton of details are given, but there is no reason we should assume this is some new planet or ethereal realm. It’s the same really nice one he created for us in the beginning, the one beneath our feet right now.

Wright frequently asserts that when we are redeemed, we become MORE FULLY human. We don’t become less icky human and more angelic. Being human is a good thing. Humanity was cursed by sin, but Jesus took/is taking care of that right now. Slavery is evil because it is DEhumanising. Not because it’s more inline with how man was created.

So here, MacDonald suggests that Jesus was at HOME in the world. It was his own creation after all. He commanded the wind and the waves. He looks at the language of “father’s house” in the Greek and sees that “house” is really the word for stuff or things. In fact, only some translations use “house”. Also, if you think about the whole new covenant, was the physical temple ever that important to Jesus? No.

Actually, reading the rest of the chapter, MacDonald’s observations seem rather incomplete as well. I just have to say I was a bit surprised to find this same idea alive almost 200 years ago. (Perhaps I shouldn’t have been.)

Compelled to be free?

Being free to do whatever you want but being a slave to sin is not real freedom.

The libertarian streak in me just doesn’t buy the opposite though. Being free from sin but being in chains is not freedom either. Granted, it is better to be free from sin, but the chains (whether they be imprisonment, totalitarian government, a dehumanizing job, or an unjust tax burden) are still oppression.

It’s hard not to fall into some sort of “class warfare” indignation when reading this section of church history from Williams:

All through the Middle Ages and through the Reformation Augustine’s phrase that liberty comes by grace and not grace by liberty had been at the bottom of the organization and imposition of belief. To be properly free man must be in a state of salvation, and there had been through those centuries less enthusiasm for the idea of his being improperly free – free in a merely temporal sense.

-Charles Williams, The Descent of the Dove, p.216

OK. Right. We want freedom from sin. Salvation is freedom from the curse of sin and death. That’s better than being free in “a merely temporal sense”.

It was approved, it was even encourage, but it was conditioned by the very much more important necessity of offering him the super-natural freedom. What mattered was not that he should be able to speculate as he chose but that he should be able to act as he chose. Only the service of God supplied that perfect freedom, and men, as far as possible, were to be compelled to come in to that service.

Oooookaaaayyy. Compelled (forced), as far as possible to become followers of Christ. Alright. I’m OK with that if that’s really all it is. But how long does it take before you’re being compelled to do all kinds of other things that have the odd side-effect of lining the pockets of the people in power? Quicker than you can say the Lord’s Prayer, that’s how fast.

Messias [Jesus] and his Apostles had not spent a great deal of time talking about freedom and personal independence and individualism and a man’s right to his own opinions.

This is a remarkably good point. Jesus did NOT preach the American Dream. This is the best case out there I think for the idea of the church originating with a community, not the individual. This includes all the stuff that goes along with that: households being converted, infant baptism, common cup communion, congregations based on tight geography (when relevant), and the possibility of a Christian state.

Nor, when the quality of disbelief was rediscovered and the upper classes went all Deist or infidel, was that freedom supposed to relate to the lower classes. Lord Chesterfield did not think one ought to discuss religion before the servants, and more than he thought his servants ought to help govern the country.

How convenient. We get to be free to not take God seriously anymore. But not the working class servants. They don’t count.

But what with one thing and another, the idea that everyone out to be as free as possible had spread widely during the nineteenth century.

And this eventually led to the sort of broad individual freedoms found in America to this day. There seems to be a lot of debate whether this is actually a very Christian idea or not. Being “as free as possible” does seem to be inline with the character of God. Though he “desires that none should perish”, and may even make darn sure some of us don’t.

George MacDonald, Obedience trumps understanding

I’ve begun reading a short collection of sermons by George MacDonald. I’ve only known him threw his childrens fantasy books. Lewis, Tolkien, Chesterton, and L’Engle sight him as a major influence. Since I’m still on an Inklings kick, I figured I had better check him out a bit more.

MacDonald was raised as a strict Scottish Calvinist. As a young man though, Limited Atonement started to really bother him. It wasn’t in line with the character of God that he knew. He eventually reformed his own theology to accommodate a more generous picture of Jesus, without minimizing his justice. In the process though he got kicked out of the pastorate of his first church.

He has this to say about Christ’s offer of rest to us in the gospels:

[The Lord] cries aloud, “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

He does not say, “Come unto me, all ye that feel the burden of your sins.” He opens his arms to all weary enough to come to him in the poorest hope of Rest. Right gladly would he free them from their misery – but he knows only one way: He will teach them to be like himself, meek and lowly, bearing with gladness the yoke of His Father’s will.

The Lord knows what they need; they know only what they want. They want ease; He knows they need purity.

In this passage at least he continues to work this angle of purity and obedience, rather than a message of forgiveness. He spends plenty of time on that in other places. For some of us religious folk though, THIS is the sort of thing we need to hear.

It may be my reader will desire me to say HOW the Lord will deliver him from his sins. That is like the lawyer’s “Who is my neighbor?” The spirit of such a mode of receiving the offer of the Lord’s deliverance is the root of all the horrors of a corrupt theology, so acceptable to those who love weak and beggarly hornbooks of religion. Such questions spring from the passion for the fruit of the tree of knowledge, not the fruit of the tree of life.

Men would understand: they do not care to obey – understand where it is impossible they should understand save by obeying.

For the sake of knowing, they postpone that which alone can enable them to know. They will not accept, that is, act upon, their highest privilege, that of obeying the Son of God. it is on them to do His will that the day dawns; to them the day-star arises in their hearts. Obedience is the soul of knowledge.

-George MacDonald, Life Essential: The Hope of the Gospel, Ch. 1

Personally, I am predisposed to over-analyze situations. This includes seeking to deeply understand WHY I screwed up. This is helpful to a point, but then has severely diminishing returns. Somewhere in there, we need to just stop trying to understand. Just STOP. Cut it out and obey God. Resolve to turn from our sin, even if we don’t have a full grasp on our own psychology or what subtle situations (maybe not our fault) led to our trouble.

MacDonald ends with a disclaimer:

God forbid I should seem to despise understanding. The New Testament is full of urgings to understand. Our whole life, to be life at all, must be a growth in understanding. What I cry out upon is the misunderstanding that comes of a man’s endeavor to understand while not obeying. Upon obedience our engergy must be spent; understanding will follow.

We are the failed and authentic witness, all of us

John Halton posted an excellent passage on church history from philosopher Jacques Ellul today:

How can it be said, then, that freedom exists only in Christ and only for those who confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour? In spite of the experience of history, however, I do say this. Only in Christ and through Christians can authentic and undeviating freedom arise, take form, and spread in the world.

Nevertheless, the history of Christianity and the church is also marked by terrible failures. As I have often said, I do not like to accuse our forefathers in the faith of having been wrong, as though we were better and more enlightened than they. The church is a unity in time.

We cannot dissociate ourselves from the church in the middle ages, at the time of the Reformation, or in the nineteenth century. At these periods, too, the church was the church of Jesus Christ. It was his authentic witness. It carried the truth to men.

But in relation to its ethical task, and its function of representing the lordship of Jesus Christ on earth, we can only say that it has been a serious failure and indeed a veritable catastrophe for man in general. This enables us to measure the degree to which grace alone has made it the church of Jesus Christ and always sustained it as such.

-Jacques Ellul, Ethics of Freedom, p.90

He goes on to comment:

Wonderful stuff. Not many writers are able to make such high claims for the gospel and Christian faith (”freedom exists only in Christ and only for those who confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour”) while at the same time being so clear-eyed about the failure of the church (and Christians) to live up to their calling (”a serious failure and indeed a veritable catastrophe”), yet also avoiding the arrogance of blaming this on those ignorant hick Christians back then (”as though we were better and more enlightened than they”). Genius.

Just yesterday I finished reading Charles William’s church history (The Descent of the Dove), and had some of these same thoughts kicking around in my head. I was pleasantly surprised at how gracious Williams was with the various flawed leaders, Popes, reformers, etc. throughout the church’s life.

It’s such a contrast to what I learned in my homeschooling textbooks: (”the church was hosed until the Puritan’s came along”)

or heard preached on occasion: (”too bad Constantine ruined the church. We’ve been trying to get back there ever since…”)

and again in a church history class in college: (”all those losers back then were quenching the spirit, except for perhaps the Montanists, up until Azuza Street”).

How much more humbling (and truthful) to say, “Yes, mistakes were made. But it was MY OWN crew making them every time. And WE continue to make them. But we’re still the people of Jesus Christ. He’s not going to let us down.”

A good idea really needs a master

Such a method has the same dangers as an other; that is, it is quite sound when a master uses it, cheapens as it becomes popular, and is unendurable when it is merely fashionable.

So Augustine’s predestination was safe with him, comprehensible in Calvin, tiresome in the English Puritans, and quite horrible in the Scottish presbyteries.

There is no way of saving these things; even Francis of Assisi has produced, unintentionally, circle of hopeless bathos [really poor imitators].

All we can hope is that we may, by grace, recover different modes as and when they are most needed.

-Charles Williams, The Descent of the Dove, p.191

This is a really universal principal. A good idea requires much subtlety, wisdom, and just plain common sense to really be executed properly. It needs a master.

My wife and I were talking about this recently with regards to parenting. Some people have a knack for good parenting. It’s a thousand little things. Some are very strict with their children, making frequent use of corporal punishment. And they kids turn out wonderfully. Others read all the same books, talk the same talk, and it’s easy to see at a glance that their relationship with their children is a mess.

The deep religious writing of the wise 70-year old… in the hands of the 22-year-old zealot. Think it loses something? A ton! Even if the new generation is following the great idea to the letter. This applies the same whether the 22-year-old is a protester at an anti-WTO ralley, an angry Jihadist, or a cage-phase Calvinist.

Williams asserts that this sublty, this mastery cannot be saved. I think that maybe with close discipleship some of it can be. For the most part, he’s right though. We need to keep our eyes open, work hard, and figure out how to be masters ourselves.

Taking back passion for the good guys

Quoting C.S. Lewis about love and marriage:

The general impression left on the medieval mind by its official teachers was that all love – at least all such passionate and exalted devotion as a courtly poet thought worthy of the name – was more or less wicked. This impression, combing with the nature of feudal marriage … produced in the poets a certain wilfulness, a readiness to emphasize rather than to conceal the antagonism between their amatory and their religious ideals.”

-C.S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love, p.?

“the antagonism between their amatory and their religious ideals”. Sound familiar? A proper Christian marriage is boring. Nothing arouses like a forbidden affair. Family life is all work and duty and raising children. The real sizzling sex is found in being bad and following your passions, preferably when young and the consequences can be brushed aside or minimized. A medieval idea? Sounds still alive and well today.

Williams explains how some of the romantics sought to take back passion for the good guys:

…among it’s results was a tendency to contradict the official tendency towards Reason. The poets said, with Wordsworth, that passion itself was “highest reason”; they did not always add “in a soul sublime.” It began to be asserted that “passion” precesely excited and illuminated the intellect, that it delivered from accidia [sloth,bordom], excited to caritas [charity], and even (strangest reversal of all!) that such a passion could exist as or in marriage. The idea of marriage was a way of the soul became a possibility. Passion was no longer to be only morally dubious…

-Charles Williams, The Descent of the Dove, p.131

The amazing ambiguous Elizabeth

Here, Williams explains how the toleration of different belief’s and religions across the British empire (and eventually in America) was actually moved forward by the Virgin Queen.

Years were to go by before the secular governments were compelled by their own eventual impotency to recognize that other beliefs existed and would continue to exist, that other believers existed and would continue to exist. At first, and for a hundred years or so, strong efforts were made to prevent their existence. It is arguable that the one point which decided that those efforts should fail and that a different state of things should come into being was the life – unexpectedly prolonged – and the beliefs – unexpectedly ambiguous – of Elizabeth of England.

-Charles Williams, The Descent of the Dove, p. 179