Wednesday, March 7, 2012

C.S. Lewis & his "Master", George MacDonald the Universalist part I

This article was offered for free by author Thomas Talbott on his website. It is from the anthology "All Shall be Well; Explorations in Universal Salvation and Theology, From Origen to Moltmann," edited by Robin Parry (or Gregory MacDonald, as he was known).

If anyone is looking for a historical look at famous Christian universalists, look no further. Everyone from Origen to Barth to Moltmann is covered in amazing detail and eloquent revelation.

And we start with my personal favorite deceased theologian, the Scottish minister and fantasy writer, George MacDonald. This will cover pages one through four.

Universal Salvation in the Theology of George MacDonald (1824–1905) by Thomas Talbott

Born and raised in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, the Victorian visionary and prolific writer, George MacDonald, achieved enormous popularity in his own day both as an imaginative storyteller and as an authentic prophetic voice. "Between 1851 and 1897," notes Frederick Buechner in the forward to Rolland Hein‘s biography, ―he wrote over fifty books—novels, plays, essays, sermons, poems, fairy tales, not to mention two fantasies for adults (Phantastes, 1858, and Lilith, 1895) that elude the usual categories.(1) His friendship with Lewis Carroll (the penname for Charles Dodgson) was very close, and he also made friends with such luminaries as Henry Longfellow, Walt Whitman, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Mark Twain, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. At the height of his popularity in 1872, Macdonald traveled to the United States for a remarkably successful lecture tour in which he addressed huge audiences and "people flocked to him as prophet, seer, saint, all in one.(2) But in no way did MacDonald seek popular acclaim or tailor a message in an effort to achieve popularity; to the contrary, he always remained true to a stunning religious vision that, one way or another, expressed itself in virtually all of his writings, lectures, and delivered sermons. It was a stunning and utterly consistent vision of God‘s all-inclusive, all-pervasive, and inexorable love.

As it happened, MacDonald‘s popularity faded rapidly after his death in 1905. But even so, his influence upon important nineteenth and twentieth century writers ensured an enduring legacy. As Nick Page notes in his introduction to an annotated edition of MacDonald‘s influential Phantastes (3), "The roll call of writers who have been influenced by his unique perspective includes Robert Louis Stevenson, G. K. Chesterton, E. Nesbit, C. S. Lewis, J. R. R Tolkien, Maurice Sendak, T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden.(4) According to W. H. Auden, for one, MacDonald was "one of the most remarkable writers of the nineteenth century."(5) But probably no one did more than C. S. Lewis to rekindle popular interest in MacDonald, which has grown steadily over the past few decades. In his preface to George MacDonald: an Anthology, Lewis thus wrote: "I have never concealed the fact that I regard him as my master; indeed I fancy that I have never written a book in which I did not quote from him. But it has not seemed to me that those who have received my books kindly take even now sufficient notice of the affiliation."(6) Over the passing years, however, at least some of those who take "kindly" to Lewis‘ own books have indeed come to appreciate why he regarded MacDonald as his own tutor and "master."

Without question MacDonald‘s relationship with his father—an unbreakable bond of loyalty, trust, and unconditional love that developed between them—profoundly influenced his own understanding of God‘s relationship to created persons. On the one hand, George, Sr., was a simple farmer and a constant source of spiritual comfort to a young boy with a sickly constitution, who in his childhood lost his mother to the ravages of tuberculosis.(7) As MacDonald explicitly stated in one sermon, "In my own childhood and boyhood, my father was the refuge from all the ills of life, even sharp pain itself."(8) But, on the other hand, George, Sr., was also devoutly religious, a deacon in a local Presbyterian church, and committed to an especially stern form of Calvinism.

So, because MacDonald was never able to reconcile in his own mind his father‘s Calvinist theology with his father‘s own sensitive, caring, and loving nature, he began to reject his father's theology at a remarkably early age. As Rolland Hein observes in his biography, "The young George took churchgoing very seriously";(9) but his reaction to what he heard in church was often to question or even to reject it. When he first heard ―the doctrine of [limited] election," for example, "he said he did not want God to love him if he did not love everybody."(10) The boy was even known to experience physical pain while sitting in church. From the beginning, however, he loved the Christian Scriptures and spent years as a young man studying them in their original languages. But the more he studied, the more persuaded he became that he needed to unlearn almost everything he had learned in church. He thus wrote the following to his father, with whom he remained in loving contact throughout all of his early struggles: "I love my Bible more—I am always finding out something new in it—I seem to have had everything to learn over again from the beginning—All my teaching in youth seems useless to me—I must get it all from the Bible again."(11)

MacDonald received his formal education at Aberdeen College and subsequently at Highbury Theological College in London, where he studied for the Christian ministry. But he resigned under a cloud of heresy from his first (and only) pastorate after only three years, and I doubt that anyone who reads his voluminous Unspoken Sermons or the lengthy religious reflections embedded in his Victorian novels would likely find this development surprising. For MacDonald was a persistent critic of Western theology, particularly as we encounter it in the likes of Augustine and Calvin, and his own religious convictions tended to accord far better with the Eastern Orthodox tradition. Even as many Christians believe that, despite a detailed knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures, Jesus‘ opponents among the scribes and the Pharisees had simply misunderstood the revelation that Moses and the Hebrew prophets had delivered to them, so MacDonald came to believe that, despite a detailed knowledge of the Christian Scriptures, far too many Western theologians have simply misunderstood the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. So perhaps it is not from religious leaders and scholars, he concluded, that we should even expect the greatest insight and clarity of vision. Here is but one example of his attitude towards the Western theological tradition:

"How terribly, then, have the theologians misrepresented God . . .! Nearly all of them represent him as a great King on a grand throne, thinking how grand he is, and making it the business of his being and the end of his universe to keep up his glory, wielding the bolts of a Jupiter against them that take his name in vain. They would not allow this, but follow out what they say, and it comes much to this. Brothers, have you found our king? There he is, kissing little children and saying they are like God. There he is at table with the head of a fisherman lying on his bosom, and somewhat heavy at heart that even he, the beloved disciple, cannot yet understand him well. The simplest peasant who loves his children and his sheep were—no, not a truer, for the other is false, but—a true type of our God beside that monstrosity of a monarch."(12)

As this passage already illustrates, MacDonald passionately believed that God‘s glory consists not in his power or his kingship, but in his humility, in his loving nature, and in his eagerness to give of himself to all of those whom he loves into existence in the first place.

To be continued.



1 See Hein, George MacDonald: Victorian Mythmaker , xvii. 
2 Ibid. His most popular lectures were on Robert Burns and Hamlet , but his repertory also included lectures on the British poet and humorist ―Tom Hood , the Lyrics of Tennyson , King Lear , Macbeth , and Milton.‖ (See Raeper, George MacDonald , 292).
3 Phantastes had a dramatic effect on C.S. Lewis and also influenced such fantasy writers as J.R.R Tolkien and Madeline L‘Engle.
4 See Page‘s introduction to the special annotated edition of Phantastes , 30.
5 Ibid., quoted on the second inside page.
6 Lewis (ed.), George MacDonald: An Anthology , xxxii.
7 "MacDonald was often ill as a boy. On one occasion he was kept in bed for four months and bled from the arm . . .[His] entire life . . . can be characterized as what he had time to do between bouts of illness‖ (Jeff McInnis, Shadows and Chivalry, 11). And yet, though he too was afflicted with tuberculosis, MacDonald nonetheless lived a relatively long life.
8 "Abba, Father!" In Unspoken Sermons , 284. MacDonald recognized, of course, that some people have a less than that you have missed in life. Every time a man might have been to you a refuge . . . that is a time when a father ideal relationship with their own father. So to them he went on to say: ―You must interpret the word [―father‖] by all might have been a father indeed‖ (Ibid ).
9 Hein, George MacDonald: Victorian Mythmaker , 6.
10 Ibid.
11 Ibid., 31.
12 "The Child in the Midst." In Unspoken Sermons, 15. Unspoken Sermons was originally published in three series in 1867, 1885, and 1889 in London by Longmans, Green & Co.


  1. Tx Nick...Lilith has been on my reading list for (well, too long)...P.

  2. George MacDonald was an amazing man. I plan on posting more of this in the near future. ;)