Wednesday 24 October 2018

George Macdonald's struggles with faith

I am listening to the audiobook of Michael Phillips's biography of George Macdonald (1824-1905).

Having wished to explore this great influencer of The Inklings (especially CS Lewis), I yet found myself unable to engage with any of Macdonald's actual writings - I can't attune to his wavelength... and reading/ listening-to a biography is a tactic I sometimes use in trying to 'get-into' an author.

At present Macdonald is a student at King's College, Aberdeen University; and in a long process of defining and rejecting the un-Christian aspects of the Calvinism of his upbringing - with its (substantially) un-loving God.

My understanding is that McD could not accept (what he had been taught) that a loving God would create a person who was certain to be damned and eternally tormented. I agree that this is unacceptable, to a Christian - and, of course, it destroys the value of free will.

I believe McD then determined upon a universalism of salvation (I haven't reached this point of the biography yet; but I have read that this was McD's mature view); which of course denies human agency/ free will. So hat' won't really do

Any-way... it struck me, for the nth time, how much trouble Christians make for themselves by their determination about infinities and absolutes... That God must be Perfect in all happiness, goodness etc, Omni-potent, -scient and so on and so forth - such that Men have nothing to do other than to obey, to conform to God's will.

And yet it seems pointless for a God of perfection to make creatures only to have them choose only to assimilate wholly to his nature. Obedience seems (by this account) the only valid use of human agency - the correct choice is single and predetermined, even when the outcome of choice is not.

As so often, it is traditional, classical, metaphysical and Not Christian assumptions that are the problem - and which compel Christians to choose between incoherent alternatives.

Those early church Fathers (what actually happened is mostly unknown), who insisted that the only real Christianity must accept their metaphysical (but non-Gospel) prejudices regarding the nature of deity, certainly have a lot to answer for!


Michael Dyer said...

I'll be honest I don't see it that way, I don't think doctrine is the problem and here's why.

It is God's boundlessness that makes the rich variety of humanity possible, conforming to His will and His image can be wildly different from person to person, while maintaining the core connection to God. This has always been known, it's why the saints are genuinely diverse, running the gamut of human experience and stations in life, from kings to hermits, to soldiers, to farm boys, to milk maids, etc. Because God is boundless, on an individual basis you have room for the engineer who mimics God's orderliness, and the artist who mimics His beauty. You have the contemplative who mimics God's boundless intellect, and the man of action who mimics God's tremendous energy and action.

The problems that you rightly point out aren't with ascribing to God the attributes He ascribes to Himself in His word, but with the pharisee problem, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men. You only get an unloving God by chopping up the Bible.

God's omnipotence, omniprescence, and omniscience do not lead to men "just obeying" and that's it. God is perfect and deep. Christians have always thought so far as I can tell and the problems of dead Christians and pharasaical ones seems unrelated to these qualities.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Michael - If that works for you - then stick with it.

But modernity has (and this is probably part of the divine plan, a necessary test) pushed and pushed at the philosophical underpinnings of Classical Theology, until - for many/ most Western people - the mysteries/ paradoxes/ incomprehensibilities that are required to 'make it work' (e.g. the Trinity formulations, the 'explanation' for making omniscience and agency compatible, the 'problem of pain' etc.) will break-down; and - because people are told these mysteries are absolutely necessary to Being A Christian, along with a specific church-membership-obedience - then people stop being Christian (or don't try in the first place).

My point is that there are other metaphysical ways of being a real Christian - like in the Gospels, especially the Fourth Gospel.

This is not a 'liberalisation' at all (not if done for the right motives); it is what remains are ruthless questioning (which, if not done by the self, will be imposed by the culture).

Seijio Arakawa said...

Well, if you do read Macdonald then needless to say you’ll have to transpose what he’s saying onto your own metaphysical assumptions. That’s somewhat similar to the situation of Arkle’s work with somewhat New Age leanings like reincarnation or the “Son/Daughter of God” needing to be transposed if it’s to make sense in the context of a different metaphysics. Within Macdonald’s context and the assumptions of people he was preaching to, a loving God plus an omnipotent God would logically imply (eventual) universal salvation. However, he never states “universal salvation” in so many words, preferring to emphasize other things. It’s partly just a way to change the conversation from being focused on salvation to being focused on theosis.

There’s also a distinct possibility that Macdonald is just no longer relevant in the sense that he was called to preach against errors that are no longer dominant in Christianity, let alone human consciousness in general. Still, when I read ‘Unspoken Sermons’ I had the impression of a ‘perfect’ book (for me, at that place, in that time) and that in some ways the people who have read Macdonald and claimed him as an influence have missed the point he was trying to make. So the experience of reading him is part of my personal Golden Thread.

However, I think there are valid reasons not to like Macdonald’s style (his stories are hit and miss for me — I like two of them, have not liked the others; the sermons are very verbose and possibly I just happened to like that kind of writing) or his occasional reliance on Biblical exegesis (the kind of scholarship where you reason about the connotations of words in an untranslated Bible) which is mostly superfluous when what actually works in his sermons is reasoning-from-bedrock-assumptions.

Chiu ChunLing said...

The assertion that one person, by having a slightly different program handed them than another person receives, is no longer "just obeying" requires a redefinition of some of the terms involved.

Men are called to obey a set of natural laws that do not affect rocks. There are also slight differences in the set of natural laws between men and women generally. And there are comparatively tiny individual variations of the set of natural laws that are applicable to the situation, abilities, and predispositions of any individual man or woman.

This has nothing whatever to do with whether that obedience is, in each case, or all cases, determined solely by God's will or by some other will (of which the will of the individual entity given a set of laws to obey is only one possibility).

I happen to know as a matter of primary experience and direct communication that disobedience occurs directly contrary to God's will. Whether the disobedience is to some general commandment or to a specific personal commandment makes little difference (what does make a difference is repentance). God's grief at sin is real, it is not the stage performance of a man running a puppet show containing a figure of himself interacting with the other puppets he controls.

Of course, one can state that such knowledge is false/impossible/irrelevant. The latter is the natural position of any fundamental denial of free will, the truth value of knowledge only matters if we are really individually charged with shaping our destiny through our personal choices. From the perspective of a denial of free will, my 'knowledge' conforms to the definition of a psychological state involving a class of attitudes towards the conceptual objects involved, it would be meaningless to speak of it being 'true' (or 'false'). Simply by stating that I have no choice other than to 'obey' the program God (or any other entity, benevolent and creative or not) has set for me already presupposes there is no meaning at all in saying something is true.

Of course, this handily eliminates the moral problem of whether God is doing anything bad to anyone else. On such a view, God alone even exists as a real person, everything else is merely an object of God's amusement, like a puppet in a show or a character in a story. No real people are being harmed by the show, the only real person is deriving amusement. If there were any other real people that God would later encounter, it might matter that this amusement were "in poor taste" (i.e. tending to train the sensibility in an immoral direction), but on the view that there are none and never will be any, it is meaningless even to say that it is "in poor taste."

As it happens, I do find this whole arrangement to be "in poor taste", but that's less important than the billions of real people, with real choices, God is trying to save even though none of them deserve it.

Bruce Charlton said...

@CCL - I find the idea of God setting up a universe of laws for his created creatures to obey to be incomprehensible in terms of motivation, and indeed function. I regard this for of understanding as analogous to agrarian human societies - which no longer functions in post-industrial societies.

I envisage God's creation as an extended family of Beings whose relations are, like those of simple hunter gatherers, extended family relationships - with no state/ government or laws.

Human mortal incarnate life (coming between pre- and post-mortal lives, is primarily an experience, not a test.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Seijio - "Within Macdonald’s context and the assumptions of people he was preaching to, a loving God plus an omnipotent God would logically imply (eventual) universal salvation. "

Yes, that's it exactly. Why wouldn't a loving God, who created Men wholly and from nothing, *make* such Men, such that they would (sooner or later) accept salvation.

But I see God as having to deal with a co-eternal pre-existent essence of each Man, from which our free will comes; God's creation is an elaboration of this, and the making of us into his sons and daughters. But he must teach and educate us through experiences, including harsh lessons, since otherwise we cannot rise to divinity; but this cannot be compelled.

Since we are each mini-gods in origin, we can defy God forever - and it looks like some would do so; for instance on the grounds that we resent god having made us his children to dwell in his creation, when we were not capable of full consent. Each must, ultimately, choose to embrace God's creation rather than chaos; but chaos may be chosen.

As I said, I can't attune to McD so far - I have tried his Unspoken Sermons, I wanted to like them, but they just seemed wrong!

Chiu ChunLing said...

There is some ambiguity that creeps in as a result of the prevailing metaphysical assumptions.

I would like to consistently use different terms to express the distinction between the Law which is structural to the universe as a whole and precedes God (and upon which all divine power and mercy are predicated), the selection of that Law that God has identified as pertinent to the progress (whether to salvation or damnation) of any given individual, and the commandments which God reveals as the choices which will interact with that selection of the Law to produce the results which involve the greatest satisfaction of that individual's desires. But the actual history of accepted meanings of terms in English (and probably in any language) makes this too idiosyncratic.

The widespread assumption that God arbitrarily created the Law itself (along with the universe, a term which has also had to be redefined several times due to advances in science and philosophy) makes it somewhat difficult for distinctions between the three concepts I describe to be firmly respected in a language that has largely developed under the influence of that assumption.

I have always appreciated the necessity of a distinction between God's Creation and the Universe as a whole as easily and intuitively as I appreciated the distinction between God and myself. Thus I always failed to fully appreciate the grave difficulties the lack of such a distinction creates for those who accept a metaphysical assumption that they are identical. At least now I realize that some people really do accept such metaphysics, in my youth I had always assumed it was a straw man position invented solely for the argumentative purposes of atheists.

I still don't know how it is possible to believe what seems so clearly a straw man. It just seems nonsensical on the face of it. Pantheism, though clearly wrong, at least is an understandable concept that merely happens to contradict all the evidence.

Bruce Charlton said...

"I would like to consistently use different terms to express the distinction between the Law which is structural to the universe as a whole and precedes God (and upon which all divine power and mercy are predicated), the selection of that Law that God has identified as pertinent to the progress (whether to salvation or damnation) of any given individual, and the commandments which God reveals as the choices which will interact with that selection of the Law to produce the results which involve the greatest satisfaction of that individual's desires. "

I (currently) distinguish Creation from the preceding and surrounding Chaos; but I agree that the Chaos is a cnstraint, in terms of what it contains and the potential for creating. But I suspect that we live within creation, and intinsically can't say anything about the nature of chaos (becausse then it would be ordered).

But I have a strong and increasing objection to the concept of Law being applied to the moral, and more generally creative, aspects of creation. Law is a kind of negative, safety-net, externally imposed substitute for real morality - which is the opposite of all those things. I regard it as deeply unfortunate that it is usual to regard the Christian God as primarily a law-maker - although it seems to fit well with the God of Islam.

In this respect, as in many others, I regard Islam as having more powerfully, clearly and unambiguously captured certain strands within Christianity; that fail to cohere with the essence of real Christianity. As I have said before, Islam is (in a sense) the response to the failure to resolve the Christological and Trinitarian disputes of the early Christian church (Monophysite, Arian, Pelagian, Gnostic etc etc - or the choice between one and more-than one god/s; the choice between a God of love and a god of power, the choice between a reality of comprehensible persons and a reality of incomprehensible powers etc) - or, more exactly, the inadequacy of the accepted resolutions.

Islam implicitly looks at (say) the Athanasian creed, or Christian attempts to square an omni-God with free will; and sees a mass of nonsensical contradictions; and makes a clear and comprehensible choice of sides. This leaves open the possibility of choosing the other side; which, in effect, what the theology of Mormonism has done.

Chiu ChunLing said...

I see that you are using Law to mean legislation. Generally I do not. I mean Law in the sense of the entire structural integrity of the universe, and in the "scientific" sense of describing particular situational aspects and consequences of that structural integrity.

Law in these senses is more or less amoral, but can be analyzed to produce commandments, injunctions as to what actions we should take if we desire "good" results rather than "bad" ones. Commandments are moral, but of course obedience to them is voluntary.

"Power" is a bit of a slippery term. Certainly God had the capacity to not enable us to have much choice in the first place. Abrogating our free will at this stage of creation would be nonsensical and obviate the purpose of nearly all that had been done with respect to allowing us to live at all. That doesn't mean that God lacks the capability to do so, just that it would make no sense.