Into Empyrean: A New MacDonald Reader

My introduction to George MacDonald is thanks to social media. As a “liker” of all things Lewis and Inklings, Facebook had for some time suggested GM groups and pages for me to join/follow. It took me a while to finally look into him, though, for a couple of reasons. For one, I kept seeing Lewis’s oft-cited testament to GM as his “master.” Taken out of context, such a statement seems at best fabricated, and, at worst, unholy devotion. Surely the wordsmith Lewis would never be so careless to afford another man the title reserved for the Master. And second, MacDonald bore some resemblance to Rasputin. Such a comparison becomes ridiculous upon reading MacDonald; his true and gentle spirit reflect an honest, even beautiful countenance when you get to know him. But that was before. Taken together—Lewis’s apparent hero-worship and GM’s (let’s call it) esoteric appearance—made me wary of exploring further.

 As He does, though, God corrects. One day early this year I came across The Fantasy Makers on Amazon’s video streaming service. In watching it I discovered that MacDonald was far from the gnostic wizard I envisioned; he was, instead, the father of fantasy and a central influence on both Lewis and Tolkien. His apologetics had played a major role in Lewis’s conversion from atheism to Christianity. Most interesting, despite the contemporary popularity of his fictional works, and the endorsement of the two great men, GM’s views on salvation have led many, in his own time and today, to summarily dismiss him as a universalist. I was intrigued. What could the two greatest myth makers and Christian writers of the 20th century have seen in MacDonald that influenced them so? And, how did they reconcile their own convictions—decidedly not universalist—with his own?

 So, I started reading… just last month. Thus far, I’ve only completed The Miracles of Our Lord and am halfway through Unspoken Sermons. Even still, as anyone who has read MacDonald can attest, I’ve been struck with more profound insights in that short space—from sweet to severe, as Lewis put it—than in most authors’ complete works. I understand, now, why Lewis called him his “master.” It did help, of course, to read the full passage in context. In it one better sees Lewis’s meaning; that is, GM was his “master” as an elder brother and teacher in the faith. He believed MacDonald more closely and consistently followed the Spirit of Christ than others he’d encountered; but he dared not say GM was never in error. Lewis strove to emulate MacDonald as a Christian and a writer, but reserved inerrancy for the only One whose lips are wholly, and holy, True.

 I share Lewis’s affection for MacDonald. The one area in which I don’t find myself in wholehearted agreement with GM, though, at least so far, is in respect to his views on salvation. I suspect that folks who have dismissed him as a universalist do so—in many if not most cases—because they misunderstand his views. It does seem that MacDonald ascribed to some form of universalism, if it can be called that, in his hope that all would eventually receive salvation (Lewis said as much). As I read GM, here is my attempt to marry what I understand to be his views—on salvation, sanctification, and will—with my own convictions:

MacDonald seemed comfortable with the idea that God’s grace will ultimately redeem all souls. For GM’s dogma to work, to function, it seems necessary that all are born equipped, always already, to receive the Holy Spirit. In this I disagree, in terms. The matter is sin, and Spirit’s work in sin’s extinction. Once the Spirit is received, It cannot be extinguished. But we must first accept His gift. All flesh is born in sin; our fallen souls are thus imperfect until and unless we let the Spirit in and submit to Its cleansing work. As we know, some do not, in this life, give their lives to Christ. If my own view of salvation differs from MacDonald’s in letter, I hope with him in spirit. I don’t necessarily disagree with GM that all might (eventually) receive God’s gift of saving grace, but my conviction is that, if true, it would require such intensity and duration of consuming fire that nothing would survive except the barest seed of soul; one that, if replanted ages hence, and finally submitting to God’s Will, would resemble nothing of the sinner that refused His grace. In such a case, could the redeemed soul be rightly said to be one and the same, the offspring of the unrepentant? Or, is the denial of salvation in the present life indicative of such depravity that even its barest kernel is Error—is, in Truth, irredeemable? For me it is a mystery, and only God knows how deep a cut the soul survives. God is Love, and I love our George for his infinite hope in the irresistible Grace of our Father. But fear of the Lord is the beginning of all knowledge, and this we should mind in weighing matters.

 I agree with MacDonald on most else. Every one of us must pay the last farthing to achieve the state of Being that God requires, wants, and works for us. The way to pay our sin debt is to fully and finally worship in Spirit and in Truth. We can't see God without perfected righteousness in both. One can receive salvation and be sealed in Christ in less than a perfect state of Truth; but what they cannot lack to find God's rest is complete and perfect obedience in both Spirit and Truth. It could not be any other way, of course: God does not provide a path to salvation for those who merely know all things (who have Truth but not Spirit), just as perfect obedience in the Spirit is an impossibility without Truth. However, we can rightly say that we are "saved" in the moment we give ourselves to Christ, and forever onward, because the initial leap of faith—the one that truly and effectually begins a new creation in us—cannot be undone. And salvation can be received in a state of partial knowledge. We don't need to know it all to accept Christ; we must only give all.

Sanctification, on the other hand, requires the marriage of our own will with God's through the fullness of time. We must worship in both Spirit and Truth to be fully sanctified. While salvation is sealed the second we surrender our spirit to God, even if we don't fully know what it means, full sanctification is only realized after years, perhaps aeons, of learning at Christ's feet and enacting God's Will; that is, of revelation. While our own will operates in the acceptance of Christ—and we can deny Him, can refuse salvation (where I part with GM)—if and once that step is taken we are under irresistible grace and can no longer turn away, can no more deny Him. The process of sanctification leaves room for individual agency, but of a new kind, one freed only insofar as it brings us ever closer to enacting God’s purpose. GM describes the nature of this “free” will in Miracles of Our Lord: “...a free will is not the liberty to do whatever one likes, but the power of doing whatever one sees ought to be done, even in the face of otherwise overwhelming impulse. There lies freedom indeed.” In sanctification, that is, we’re not freed from God’s Will imposing on our own, but are dispossessed of the lie that not doing His Will can ever be good for us. Real freedom is freedom from unrighteousness, from sin. In the same passage MacDonald writes that, “...the whole labour of God is that the will of man should be free as His Will is free [...] by the perfect love of the man which is true, harmonious, lawful, creative.” He labors that we may imitate Christ because the Son’s righteousness engendered absolute freedom, and thus absolute authority and power, and with that freedom He chose self-sacrifice in love. It is an eternal paradox that salvation requires our own will, in its falsehood, to die, so that our true self can emerge in obedience to the Will.

The purpose of Christ's sacrifice at Calvary is to provide full pardon to those who accept the gift of salvation, and to then draw the saved with Him up the hill to Golgotha, into sanctification, by illustrating what is required of us. The born again, but for God's mercy, are spared foreknowledge of Love’s terrifying severity, the hardness of the way. Indeed, though salvation is free, sanctification is not. We must work, with God’s guiding hand, to destroy our own will each day in favor of His—and it is painful. Perhaps in His wisdom God knew that full knowledge of what sanctification requires of us would dissuade all from even the promise of eternal life, and He so withholds the truth until irresistible grace takes hold. I emphasize “full” because Jesus did not mince words about the cost of discipleship. In Luke 14, the crowds could only be horrified: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” It is clear that we must suffer, and much.

What, then, can we know of the full Truth? His CROSS. Christ’s atonement on the tree is the perfect consummation and illustration of salvation/sanctification because, in its beholding, we find the One spirit of Love and of Truth, in all its mystery, horror, and beauty. How will our own final test of faith—our own Eloi Eloi—reflect God’s perfect glory? That is yet beyond the veil. It is That we cannot know; the invisible become visible when Christ’s work has been perfected in us. Our journey ends (and begins!) when, like Christ, the mind, body, and Spirit unite as one in Love for God and man. As it is, the cross seals the imperfect, ignorant, helpless, repentant child, and then commits him to His work. The Truth is yet partial for us, yet come it will, in full at last. Until then:

I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I. Send me.”
— Isaiah 6:8
Then the Old Man of the Earth stooped over the floor of the cave, raised a huge stone from it, and left it leaning. It disclosed a great hole that went plumb-down.

”That is the way,” he said.

”But there are no stairs.”

”You must throw yourself in. There is no other way.”

— The Golden Key
“I am ready,” I replied.

”How do you know you can do it?”

”Because you require it,” I answered.
— Lilith

Let us love for our brothers unto the depths, that we may ascend with them into Empyrean.

The  Divine Comedy's  Empyrean, illustrated by Gustave Doré

The Divine Comedy's Empyrean, illustrated by Gustave Doré