Finding Refuge in George MacDonald

I can remember sitting under a tree in a large patch of grass on campus as an undergraduate. I was, I believe, 20 years old. In my hand I held a Johannesen edition of Unspoken Sermons. In my mind George MacDonald was demolishing assumption after assumption, torching presupposition after presupposition. He kept thrusting upon me something that seemed too good to be true: a God that outstripped my imaginative capacity to hope for. How many times had my heart risen – swelled – towards a grand ideal of God, only to fall again, due to some traditional argument or bible verse. MacDonald was not perturbed by old doctrine or ancient thinkers. Nothing but a God too good must be true, nothing but a God absolutely lovely, without any spot of darkness, would satisfy him. If your God could even possibly make you say “ah, now that conception, as good as it sounds, unfortunately just cannot be true of him” – then your God was not big enough for George. He was a man whose faith had been forged in the fire of his own soul-battle; therefore it was strong and fearless. I was but a boy who had not yet begun to fight. My faith would not be my own for some years yet.

Something in me always found solace in the fact that someone else believed what I held by faith as true. When I first began to think as a Christian, that man was CS Lewis. I believed what Lewis believed: he was smarter than me; indeed, he seemed smarter than most anyone. See how much he read, how many arguments he dissembled! At the end of the day, hey, this guy believed it. Should I go against him? He had thought so much and felt so much; his mind had ranged so thoroughly over the whole philosophical and theological terrain! Wasn’t it more comfortable to simply align oneself with the “traditional” teaching that he espoused?

Next came Thomas Aquinas – a thinker who must be one of the most enigmatic who ever lived. Here was a man who wrote over a million words, and never, to my knowledge, cracked a joke. Here was a man who seemed to assert doctrines perfectly contradictory – who seemed to say things that would make an honest thinker question his own sanity – but never openly acknowledged the apparent obscurity in his own answers, never let the man inside show himself. Was he satisfied with what he said? Did he believe his own words; did he believe himself? I see his logic and analysis, but how did the man feel about saying that God elected some and passed over others? How did he feel about the fact that he thought that Jesus Christ did not pray for the salvation of all people? What was the love in his heart like for God? Was he comfortable, was he free, was his soul filled with absolute love and rejoicing in his actus purus, totally unrelated to the world; with his God who could have always created an infinitely better universe than the one he did; who rejoiced in his justice being displayed in the fire-pains of an eternal torture that only his own omnipotently creative mind could conceive? What did Aquinas personally think about the fact that, evidently, he would have defended any moral or theological stance, so long as it came from “the church,” so long as it was held by “tradition”? Did the man ever think – existentially – “what would I not accept? If the two are at odds, the God of my heart, and the god I am told to believe in, which would I believe?”

 At any rate, he seemed to have all the answers. After all, look at the Scriptures! How do you get around them? Does not their traditional interpretation show, for the past two thousand years, that an eternal Hell is the best understanding of them? Who am I to contradict this? Is God not free; is he not abstracted away into something which may create literally any kind of universe imaginable? Why must God save any, let alone all? How can I attribute a necessary relation to a God I can know nothing about unless he tells me in his book? Besides, look at all the miracles on the side of the Church! Aquinas rose in ecstasy; the Summa was laid open in Trent. There are saints that millions pray to who vividly described eternal hell. Could God have let such a falsehood lodge so deeply in his church?

It did not occur to me then that God is present in his church just as much as he is in his humanity – indeed in his entire universe. There is not a soul that God is distant from: he is pressed in closer than the physical touch of face to face. Yet in God’s world there has been deception; there has been torment. People have believed horrible things; genocide has occurred; treachery; war; doubt; divorce; suicide; heartbreak; atheism; hopelessness; disease; starvation. And yet could there not be a lie spread across the hearts of humanity, about his own character? Can a human consciousness experience crucifixion, and there not be a mistaken belief about the fate of humanity? If a man’s consciousness can experience the one extreme, why not the other? In a philosopher’s way of putting it: is there not a logically possible world in which a humanity mistakenly believes in hell?

MacDonald has since been a refuge for me. He is a man who, more than anything, is not satisfied with the faith of other thinkers. He shall meet his God himself; shall ask him questions himself; shall look up into his face himself. This more than anything eventually inspired me to break free of the shackles of old-time thinkers; of the Augustines and Aquinas’ and even – though I love him – the Lewis’.  I shall hope all I can in my all-beautiful God; I shall trust him with not only my soul, but every love of my soul; and I pray I shall feel it a sin to distrust him in absolutely anything.

My book Ears of Corn, published by Wipf and Stock, is a searching cry for the face of God – for the Creator, the one MacDonald kept calling “the Father.” It is written in the same vein as his Unspoken Sermons. It is not simply a reduplication of his thought – though doubtless there is similarity and, I trust, even identity, as all who believe in truth believe in the same truth. I hope this book does his memory proud.

But more than that, I hope to lay hold of a large chunk of truth myself; I hope to call up courage and faith and love in my fellow human being; I hope to stir up the soul to trust in its Maker, the one closer to itself than the beat of its own heart. I cast far from me the faith of others, knowing well now, after going through doubts blacker than I care to retell at present, that to hide behind another’s belief is to be a hollow soul. God is too full of care to be pleased with anything less than our own authentic faith, our own full-blooded trust-response to the riddle of humanity. You cannot get by with another’s answers to the questions of life. MacDonald, if he has taught me one thing, has taught me this: do not be satisfied with yourself until your faith springs from a well of hope and trust from your own heart, in your own saving God – in your own Father.

“Chris Mullen has drunk deeply from the well of George MacDonald. Every page sings with the voice of his master but even more importantly with the voice of the Master, the Lord Jesus Christ. The second to last chapter on universal reconciliation is a particular joy: ‘Any God worth believing in is one who shall reconcile all to himself: therefore all human loves, therefore every possible love that ever bubbled up into heart or brain.’ Ears of Corn is a beautiful, eloquent, and edifying book.”
—Aidan Kimel

“In a manner reminiscent of George MacDonald, P. C. Mullen sets forth an inspired vision of God’s all-encompassing love and Christ’s ultimate victory over sin and death. He cleverly captures our attention with penetrating questions and imaginary dialogues. So even those who reject, as I do, his apparent theological determinism (see chapter 8) will nonetheless appreciate how well his questions undermine any theology that would limit the scope of God’s saving grace.”
—Thomas Talbott, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, Willamette University