George MacDonald's Spiritual Vision and Transformational Theology

It is not too much to say that MacDonald’s perspectives form the foundation for a wholesale redefining of the parameters and perspectives of faith for many Christians the world over. For these, everything in their belief system ultimately comes under the light of MacDonald’s probing scrutiny, there to be re-fashioned, re-structured, and re-oriented in the dazzling light of an infinitely loving and forgiving Fatherhood.
— Michael Phillips, George MacDonald's Spiritual Vision

Michael Phillips has been a driving force behind the George MacDonald renaissance of the past four decades; I've lost track of the number of times people have told me that they owe their discovery of MacDonald to one of the works which Phillips edited and published. Over the last few years, he has published three new books, which present the Scotsman's spiritual vision both in summary and in depth. Phillips' talented editing and organization make these books extraordinarily valuable to newcomers to MacDonald; however, I can attest that even those already well-steeped in MacDonald will benefit from Phillips' insights. These books are a true delight!

The Michael Phillips' trilogy: 

George MacDonald’s Spiritual Vision provides a summary and overview.

George MacDonald’s Transformational Theology of the Christian Faith is a compilation of nearly all of the thirty-six sermons from the three volumes of Unspoken Sermons and the twelve in The Hope of the Gospel. 

George MacDonald and the Late Great Hell Debate presents a focused look on MacDonald’s most controversial ideas on hell.

Over the next few weeks, we'll be running a series of excerpts from these books, beginning this week with Michael Phillips' introduction to George MacDonald's Spiritual Vision: An Introductory Overview. 

by Michael Phillips

This small book, though weighty and dense in places, is nevertheless intended to provide a summarizing overview of what we might call the high points of George MacDonald’s theological outlook.

When working on the more comprehensive title George MacDonald’s Transformational Theology of the Christian Faith, I realized that not everyone is prepared, nor wants, to dive into the deep end of the pool with a 400-page collection of MacDonald’s complete sermons with accompanying notes. A shorter complementary overview was also needed, a survey that progressively identified the key elements of MacDonald’s theology without requiring readers to plow through fifty-page sermons.

Toward that end I prepared a series of talks for one of our MacDonald retreat weekends. This book is the result. Hopefully those who find MacDonald’s ideas a little daunting to lay hold of will find them easier to digest and assimilate in this format.

Aspects of MacDonald’s vision of an eternally loving Fatherhood and a childship of obedience are sprinkled like radiant literary gems throughout all his writings. As our subtitle here indicates, the elucidation of MacDonald’s uncommon vision can be viewed as “transformational.”

Everyone will of course define “transformational” by the light of his or her own experience and background. The only apologetic I can make for my analysis of his work and my use of that word is to say that my own life’s pilgrimage has been informed, and much in my outlook about God and his work transformed, by the truths I have unearthed in MacDonald’s writings.

Over forty-five years ago, my wife Judy and I discovered in George MacDonald’s writings an oasis for our souls. In summoning us into the high regions of Fatherhood, MacDonald challenged us to think more expansively about our faith, and thus instilled a loftier perspective of eternity within us for our spirits to dwell.

As none of MacDonald’s novels or sermons were then available, we set out to reacquaint the reading public with this remarkable 19th century Scotsman through the publication of new editions of his works. As we did, we encountered much debate about which genre of MacDonald’s corpus was most important, was most skillfully executed, and which has contributed most directly to his ongoing literary legacy.

This discussion has dominated scholarly studies since MacDonald’s own lifetime. By their very breadth and scope, MacDonald’s poetic, imaginative, allegorical, and visionary gifts, and the sweeping range of his corpus, have lent themselves to a myriad of interpretations. It struck us, however, that these attempts to rank MacDonald’s work often missed the bull’s eye. Curiously, even many who highly revered MacDonald yet failed to grasp the eternal import of his life and work. His close friend John Ruskin, who lived one of the Victorian era’s notable examples of a troubled life, was fascinated by MacDonald’s writing but confessed himself unable to understand it. Though Ruskin enjoyed an intimacy with MacDonald the rest us can but envy from afar, in a sense he remained on the outside, never experiencing the deepest MacDonald had to offer.

Two of the best book-length studies ever produced on MacDonald’s work were written by an avowed atheist and an unabashed skeptic. After studying his work in enormous depth and with occasional insight, both men entirely missed the essence and spiritual foundation of that work. Indeed, many have taken this analysis of MacDonald to the extreme, reading the most bizarre Freudian interpretations into MacDonald’s writing, while psychoanalyzing MacDonald himself, quite literally from cradle to grave.

In our own time, as his connections to C.S. Lewis have become more widely known and his reputation has expanded, MacDonald has become the subject of an increasing number of scholarly papers, books, blogs, and websites. Hundreds of theses have been written, studies published, societies formed, and countless talks given in symposiums and conferences, which analyze and dissect MacDonald’s work from every angle imaginable…while the eternal raison d’être of MacDonald’s life often remains neglected.

This pinpoints, in my opinion, an essential point for all who love MacDonald to bear in mind as they read his books. Poetic imagination, great wisdom, and the skill to spin memorable stories...these will never measure greatness in eternal realms. Robert Burns, King Solomon, and Ernest Hemingway attest to the fleeting nature of all three. For eternal greatness we must look elsewhere. My focus and passion to make MacDonald’s work accessible to a wide cross section of readers has therefore converged in a single quest—to probe the spiritual pulse of the man.

Certainly MacDonald’s diverse range of literary skills and gifts expressed through faerie, myth, symbolic fantasy, poetry, and allegory lends itself to review on multiple levels. But I have tried to discover, and then articulate through diverse means, the bull’s eye, the foundational perspectives that lay at root in all MacDonald’s work—novels, stories, fantasies, poetry. What ties everything together? What made him tick...spiritually?

What was the core and essence of George MacDonald’s beliefs that informed how he lived? In a sense, this small book, brief as it is, represents the culmination of that forty-year quest to know the deepest of George MacDonald’s heart.

There may be those who wonder why selections are not represented from a wider swath of MacDonald’s novels, stories, fairy tales, and fantasies. Certainly MacDonald’s spiritual vision is beautifully illuminated in the imaginative works. We feel MacDonald’s heart portrayed in the characters of Malcolm, Gibbie, Robert Falconer, and so many others, and through the probing words of the Wise Woman and the Grandmother of the Curdie tales and North Wind. We scarcely need to be reminded that all MacDonald’s writings contain countless threads of insight into his transformational spiritual outlook.

MacDonald’s vision is applied and lived in his stories, yet its specifics are less thoroughly expounded in those sources. It is in his didactic non-fiction where MacDonald addresses his belief system directly and at length. There we discover a straightforward and detailed articulation of those principles which give life to his fantasies and imbue his realistic novels with such eternal power.

C.S. Lewis clearly understood this all-important bull’s eye of MacDonald’s life. Though speaking of MacDonald’s romanticism and mythopoeic art, and acknowledging his personal debt to Phantastes, it was not for his imaginative genius that Lewis most highly revered MacDonald. When he came to producing his own anthology of MacDonald selections, it was also to the sermons Lewis turned.

Lewis acknowledged that to understand MacDonald fully required recognition of his spiritual not merely his imaginative vision. In his anthology, Lewis references only two brief quotes from Phantastes but over 250 from the sermons. He recognized that the touchstone and source of the deepest in MacDonald was to be found in his non-fiction. In the Introduction to his George MacDonald, An Anthology, after discussing various tangential aspects of MacDonald’s genius, Lewis directed his attention to identifying with precision the essence of George MacDonald—the “Spirit of Christ” that is found in his work. Lewis writes, “The Divine Sonship is the key-conception which unites all the different elements of his thought...I know hardly any other writer who seems to be closer, or more continually close, to the Spirit of Christ Himself.”

(To talk about the two separately, however, misdirects our attention toward a division that does not exist at all. MacDonald’s vision was a spiritually imaginative one. It is his imagination that gives such scope and power to his spiritual vision.)

Following Lewis’s lead, it is in the sermons where we find MacDonald’s ideas most cogently and completely presented. This straightforward didactic presentation helps us isolate concepts in depth and detail that will of necessity remain more subtle and fragmentary elsewhere. The passage in What’s Mine’s Mine, in the chapter entitled “The Gulf that Divided,” for example, in which Ian attempts to explain God’s justice to his mother, is one of the most profound exchanges in MacDonald’s fiction. It is a beautiful passage—yet falls short of providing us a complete picture of MacDonald’s thought on the subject. If one wants a full picture of MacDonald’s perspective on justice it is to the non-fictional sermon “Justice” we must turn.

Similarly, Curdie’s transformative experience with the purifying fire of burning roses gives a foretaste of that principle which MacDonald expounds directly and fully in the sermon “The Consuming Fire.” MacDonald’s sermons provide us with the “primary source material” for his theological ideas.

There are of course instances where occasional fictional selections highlight an aspect of MacDonald’s thought not found in his sermons. Some of these are included along with the sermon extracts. For example, in David Elginbrod we encounter MacDonald speaking of the invisibility of the lines of division that exist in God’s economy. Similarly, his exposé of the fallacy of traditional theology as being, he says, “founded in hell,” is clarified with precision in Robert Falconer. The selections included here represent but the pinnacles of distant mountains, peaks of far more extensive progressions of thought found in the originals from which they are taken. That is, of course, the whole idea—to give sufficient glimpses of those summits to encourage readers to explore the entire mountain range.

I have often attached the word “prophetic” to MacDonald’s writings. To the charge of hyperbole, I would reply that MacDonald anticipates the perspectives of eternity, which is truly the most far-reaching kind of prophetic vision of all. He examines with profound insight the eternal methods and purposes of God, as well as potential outcomes that may lie in God’s heart to accomplish. He uses the term “second coming” but once in all his sermons, and that merely in passing. Yet his writings illumine the most truly prophetic vision of God’s eternal work I have ever encountered.

It is not too much to say that MacDonald’s perspectives form the foundation for a wholesale redefining of the parameters and perspectives of faith for many Christians the world over. For these, everything in their belief system ultimately comes under the light of MacDonald’s probing scrutiny, there to be re-fashioned, re-structured, and re-oriented in the dazzling light of an infinitely loving and forgiving Fatherhood.

Such is the purpose of this book—to distill that dazzling brightness from MacDonald’s huge volume of work by breaking it into a somewhat expanded nine-faceted theologic rainbow.

The italicized introductory summaries that begin each chapter represent my own synthesized outline of MacDonald’s progressions of thought. Others, of course, will analyze MacDonald’s ideas through their own lenses of understanding. If my conclusions do not seem helpful to you, by all means do not be bound by them.

You will quickly notice that some of the chapters contain far more quotes than others. Obviously MacDonald spoke more on those topics dear to his heart that he felt were most urgent and important—childship, obedience, justice, etc. I have tried to emphasize what MacDonald himself emphasizes. If it seems too little space is devoted to one thing, and too much to another, that imbalance originates in MacDonald’s own chosen focus. The thematic perspective of all the selections, however, though perhaps not of equal weight, build upon interdependent and progressively related principles. In a sense, though shorter, the principles established in the first three chapters provide important foundations for all that follows.

As you read, you will find occasional idiosyncrasies that may appear to be mistakes. Mostly these reflect odd inconsistencies preserved from the original 19th century publication of MacDonald’s books. For example, two of the books of sermons utilize the British system for quotations (‘single’ marks), while the other two use the American “double mark” notation. You will also notice inconsistent use of the 7 upper (F) and lower-case (f) to denote God the “Father” and his “fatherhood,” even within the same paragraph. Whether this variation was MacDonald’s intent to highlight shades of meaning I am not shrewd enough to discern, or was perhaps owing to a typesetting error, I have not been able to determine. This is not to say that typos have not crept into this publication. That is always inevitable. If you suspect one we would greatly appreciate your calling it to our attention so that it can be corrected.

In what follows, MacDonald’s original progressions have sometimes been abbreviated and the order occasionally shifted to reinforce his meaning. In very rare instances, for the sake of clarifying an idea or thought, occasional sentences or paragraphs have been moved around within a given sermon. The words are entirely MacDonald’s, though here and there they are presented in an order that enhances what might have been somewhat obscure in the original. The use of ellipses (…) indicates that some portion of the original has been removed or the order of quotes shifted to augment MacDonald’s central idea. In some instances, too, longer quotes have been split in order for certain passages to be included elsewhere in order to reflect the topical groupings.

Beyond what MacDonald identified in the quote preceding this Introduction as his own editorial priorities, one additional liberty I have taken for the sake of clarity is to add occasional paragraph breaks. The meaning within MacDonald’s very long paragraphs is easier to assimilate when broken up with a little more white space on the page.

Purists are always aghast when anything is shifted or removed or altered. For such, of course, only the complete original writings will do. It is no secret, however, that for most readers, extracting the ore from MacDonald’s writings requires some effort. It is no slight on either MacDonald or ourselves to admit that his original writings are linguistically cumbersome. Our goal here is to make MacDonald’s wisdom accessible to anyone willing to put in the effort to understand his groundbreaking, unorthodox, and sometimes revolutionary ideas.

I would not presume to call MacDonald’s logic other than straightforward. Yet honesty compels the admission that his logic brings in its train multitudinous tangential modifiers and explanations and offshoot points that can make it difficult to follow his primary sequence of ideas.

Additionally, MacDonald’s grammar and syntax can become extremely involved and can impede understanding. Sentences of 100-120 words are common, and occasionally reach 200. These often contain a half dozen semi-colons, several dashes, numerous commas, and a colon or two. MacDonald can use every punctuation mark in a single sentence! Likewise, his paragraphs are lengthy in the extreme and can run to five or six pages.

Simplifying the complexity of the originals in these two areas—thought progressions and grammatical constructions— enables MacDonald’s meaning to rise to the surface with more radiance. For practical readers, therefore, whose desire is to mine MacDonald’s circuitous progressions for the pure gold of his intended meaning, it is my sincere hope that these selections will indeed bring that wisdom to the surface.

This is not to say that even such a compilation as this will be a light read. MacDonald’s ideas and processes of thought are so profound that nothing makes them easy. Many passages require two or three readings. But spiritual treasure always awaits the diligent heart, buried deep but always ready to explode before one’s eyes when the “Ah-ha!” moment comes.

Our format here follows a tradition employed by MacDonald himself when producing an edition of selections from one of his own favorite authors. The title page reads: A Cabinet of Gems, cut and polished by Sir Philip Sidney; now for the more radiance, presented without their setting by George MacDonald. As editor, MacDonald selected extracts from Sidney’s originals, which he pared down (omitting certain portions which he likewise indicated by ellipses) in order that their radiance would shine through more clearly.

In his introductory remarks MacDonald explained his priorities and methods, which are exactly the same as ours here: “By these extracts from writings I have long loved, I hope to help some of my friends to a genuine acquaintance with the writer…In making these extracts, I have taken the following liberties: I have made shorter sentences out of long ones, purely by omission; and I have, in a few places, inserted or substituted a word necessary, because of such omission, to bring out the sense.”

All readers are encouraged to read MacDonald’s nonfiction writings in full, either in George MacDonald’s Transformational Theology of the Christian Faith, or from other sources and editions. We hope that this small appetizer will prove an aid to understanding when partaking of the full course meal.

No doubt many other selections could have been chosen. If you know of a quote we have overlooked pinpointing some transformational aspect of MacDonald’s vision that perhaps should be considered, your thoughts would be much appreciated. Send them through