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Old 25th Apr 2012, 10:33   #1
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Default George MacDonald: Unspoken Sermons

“My own debt to this book is almost as great as one man can owe to another: and nearly all serious inquirers to whom I have introduced it acknowledge that it has given them great help-sometimes indispensable help toward the very acceptance of the Christian faith. . . . I know hardly any other writer who seems to be closer, or more continually close, to the Spirit of Christ Himself.”
So wrote CS Lewis of George MacDonald’s Unspoken Sermons. Big words indeed but words that seem to be borne out by reviewers and critics across the last 100+ years. Given this volume for Christmas, I have spent the winter and spring wending my way through MacDonald’s words and thoughts, through days of significant personal bereavement as well as the days of Lent and Holy Week. It has been a read that has extraordinarily meaningful and full of resonances. MacDonald writes his sermons with linking texts – each one ends with the text for the next: he is writing down not just his theology and his innermost beliefs but also how they combine to make a coherent and consuming inner life that reflects outwards in action and word the natural response to such a God and Son as MacDonald believes in. MacDonald is dismissive of faith that does not live itself out, give itself, in action towards others.

Never wait for fitter time or place to talk to him. To wait till thou go to church, or to thy closet, is to make him wait. He will listen as thou walkest in the lane or the crowded street, on the common or in the place of shining concourse. Remember, if indeed thou art able to know it, that not in any church is the service done that he requires. He will say to no man, ‘You never went to church: depart from me; I do not know you;’ but, ‘Inasmuch as you never helped one of my father’s children, you have done nothing for me.’ Church or chapel is not the place for divine service. It is a place of prayer, a place of praise, a place to feed upon good things, a place to learn of God, as what place is not? It is a place to look in the eyes of your neighbour, and love God along with him. But the world in which you move, the place of your living and loving and labour, not the church you go to on your holiday, is the place of divine service. Serve your neighbour, and you serve him.
His Calvinist background is in part left behind as he asserts a form of Universalism, in which God will not abandon any being to darkness and sin. There is only the possibility of a soul persisting in turning away – the “greatest sin” against the Holy Spirit – in full knowledge of one’s persistence in doing evil. Those who maintain a belief in the doctrine of predestination or of substitutionary atonement, are described as being trapped or enslaved by their belief: that their belief is its own punishment. MacDonald strives to move away from a punishing, divisive, enslaving vision of God, and shows us in many of his sermons a vision of God as a loving Father – his anecdotes and comparisons say much about his own experience of being a son and being a father to many children, many of whom he lost to TB in childhood and early youth. He writes of keeping the commandments:

But no man can perfectly keep a single commandment of the second table any more than of the first.’ Surely not – else why should they have been given? But is there no meaning in the word keep, or observe, except it be qualified by perfectly? Is there no keeping but a perfect keeping?
‘None that God cares for.’
There I think you utterly wrong. That no keeping but a perfect one will satisfy God, I hold with all my heart and strength; but that there is none else he cares for, is one of the lies of the enemy. What father is not pleased with the first tottering attempt of his little one to walk? What father would be satisfied with anything but the manly step of the full-grown son?
Although he was writing in amidst the supposed furore over the publication of the Origin Of Species, he writes utterly and readily convinced of the graduated evolution of all things in God’s world as if it were a plain fact already.

Here he speaks of God’s regard for the gradual development of a person’s character, human and spiritual and moral –

“For he regards men not as they are merely, but as they shall be; not as they shall be merely, but as they are now growing, or capable of growing, towards that image after which he made them that they might grow to it. Therefore a thousand stages, each in itself all but valueless, are of inestimable worth as the necessary and connected gradations of an infinite progress.”
And then he contemplates the scientific aspect of creation and God’s place without and within it:

“More life!” is the unconscious prayer of all creation, groaning and travailing for the redemption of its lord, the son who is not yet a son. Is not the dumb cry to be read in the face of some animals, in the look of some of the flowers, and in many an aspect of what we call Nature? All things are possible with God, but all things are not easy. It is easy for him to be, for there he has to do with his own perfect will: it is not easy for him to create – that is, after the grand fashion which alone will satisfy his glorious heart and will, the fashion in which he is now creating us. In the very nature of being – that is God – it must be hard – and divine history shows how hard – to create that which shall be not himself, yet like himself. the problem is, do far to separate from himself that which must yet on him be ever and always and utterly dependent, that it shall have the existence of an individual, and be able to turn and regard him – choose him, and say, ‘I will arise and go to my Father,’ and so develop in itself the highest Divine of which it is capable – the will for the good against the evil – the will to be one with the life whence it has come, and in which it still is – the will to close the round of its procession in its return, so working the perception of reunion – to shape in its own life the ring of eternity – to live immediately, consciously, and active – willingly from its source, from its own life – to restore to the beginning the end that comes of that beginning – to be the thing the maker thought of when he willed, ere he began to work its being.

I imagine the difficulty of doing this thing, of effecting this creation, this separation from himself such that will in the creature shall be possible – I imagine, I say, the difficulty of such creation so great, that for it God must begin inconceivably far back in the infinitesimal regions of beginnings – not to say before anything in the least resembling man, but eternal miles beyond the last farthest-pushed discovery in protoplasm – to set in motion that division from himself which in its grand result should be individuality , consciousness, choice, and conscious choice – choice at last pure, being the choice of the right, the true, the divinely harmonious. Hence the final end of the separation is not individuality; that is but a means to it; the final end if oneness – an impossibility without it. For there can be not unity, no delight of love, no harmony, no good in being, where there is but one. Two at least are needed for oneness; and the greater the number of individuals, the greater, the lovelier, the richer, the diviner is the possible unity.
Sermon after sermon reveals such wise insights that it is impossible to quote them here. Yes, in places there is repetitious and a reiteration of MacDonald’s spiritual viewpoint which seeks to ally himself purely with doing God’s will – that the only divine service in that offered in serving our fellows. All else is cant and a distraction: too close a focus on biblical texts and scripture-based faith, or on clever (and possibly accurate) theology, does not lead one straight to the heart of the Father, but only ‘praxis’, following the Way, following the Christ, not purely the religion based on Christ. MacDonald’s words are not always easy but they are inspiring and extraordinary in their attention to detail. He assesses that human science cannot ‘discover’ God, and that the ways and means of science are only ever ways to unpick the ‘back of the tapestry’ and not come to the heart or mind of the idea of the created thing. He muses on the nature and souls of animals, castigating those who are cruel to animals and concludes –

The ways of God go down into microscopic depths, as well as up into telescopic heights – and with more marvel, for there lie the beginnings of life: the immensities of stars and worlds all exist for the sake of less things than they.
He looks at the attitude held towards children, towards death and the afterlife; how hard it is to follow the Way or to pray; to self-deny or forgive or to live with a sense of abandonment. He examines what freedom or kingship or justice or righteousness might mean in the light of a loving creator-father-God who revealed himself in Jesus, and remarkably, his writing is just luminous and extraordinary throughout.

The God who is ever uttering himself in the changeful profusions of nature; who takes millions of years to form a soul that shall understand him and be blessed; who never needs to be, and never is, in haste; who welcomes the simplest thought of truth or beauty as the return for seed he has sown upon the old fallows of eternity; who rejoices in the response of a faltering moment to the age-long cry of his wisdom in the streets…
Christ died to save us, not from suffering, but from ourselves; not from injustice, far less from justice, but from being unjust. He died that we might live – but live as he lives, by dying as he died who died to himself that he might live unto God.
It has been a privilege to have read this book and particularly this winter/spring – he is encapsulating some of the truths that many Christians believe, the faith that they have or the lives they try to lead. His attitude is humble and sincere, sometimes a little angry and frustrated, occasionally condemning but usually of the hypocrisy of folk who consider themselves Christian, who are possessed by things as by a legion of devils; who stand well in their church; whose lives are regarded as stainless; who are kind, friendly, give largely, believe in the redemption of Jesus, talk of the world and the church; yet whose care all the time is to heap up, to make much into more, to add house to house and field to field, burying themselves deeper and deeper in the ash-heap of Things

or who

instead of setting themselves to be pure ‘even as he is pure’, to be their brother and sister’s keeper, and to serve God by being honourable in shop and counting-house and labour-market, proceed to ‘serve’ him , some by going to church or chapel, some by condemning the opinions of their neighbours, some by teaching others what they do not themselves heed.
He leaves us with a focus on what can and must be done, on the greatness of the task, and its progression towards the perfection of the kingdom:
Every man, woman child – for the incomplete also is his, and in its very incompleteness reveals him as a progressive work in his creation – is a revealer of God.
Ultimately we are invited to “what would Jesus do” – in everyday life, not pausing to moralise or theologise or double-check our biblical references but simply, as believers, “bear witness. One who sees the truth, must live witnessing to it. Is our life, then, a witnessing to the truth? Do we carry ourselves in bank, on farm, in house or shop, in study or chamber or workshop, as the Lord would, or as the Lord would not?

Good words, good sermons, a good book, but as I imagine MacDonald would say, that’s it read and finished now, get up and get on and do it.

and an extra (since the red five stars doesn't work at the moment)
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Old 25th Apr 2012, 10:47   #2
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Default Re: George MacDonald: Unspoken Sermons

Brilliant, brilliant review, Col. You must have been itching to see the P back up and running to get this done. I'm really pleased - as the only other fan of Lilith - to see that MacDonald still intrigues you.

And I love the word 'praxis'.
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