Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Review Of George MacDonald's Thomas Wingfold Curate

As much as I love him as an author, I feel I am outgrowing much of George Mac’s theology. I’m much more familiar with up-to-date scholarship about comparative cosmogonies, religions, and mythology than I’ve ever been, and that makes some of MacDonald’s theology—very progressive in its own time for its overtones of universalism, inclusivity, and equality—feel outdated to me. It’s my fault for thinking of his theology as current in the first place; but I came from a very fundamentalist Christian background, and it took me a while. I am profoundly grateful to have discovered MacDonald as a source of liberation from my dogmatic heritage (thank you C.S. Lewis and John Eldridge for introducing us), yet I find myself increasingly distanced particularly from his Christian metaphysics, and this distance seems to increase each time I go back to read one of his works.

On the other hand, the unparalleled sweep of his imagination, his poetic grasp of beauty and existential significance, his love of nature, his authenticity, and his supreme literary intelligence far outshine the facets of his fin de siècle religious framework that are dated. I just keep getting the feeling that I haven’t yet plumbed the depths of all this guy has to offer beyond his Christianity. To be sure, there are so many gorgeous concepts and phrasing side-by-side with religious platitude, but his charm and range of vision blast through the time-worn ideas. Although he would probably claim that his profundity is borrowed from the deeper truths of Christianity, it seems to me that he is borrowing from something much older which Christianity itself borrows from, and perhaps from something further back  within his own self that recognized some corollaries within an established religion.

And I have to admire his honesty and attempt at integrating even his darkest doubts regarding the existence of God and the meaning of life into his faith. The protagonist of this book, Thomas Wingold, is a pastor who begins to question his own beliefs regarding the existence of God and the teachings of his sacred book. The entire work depicts a struggle between secular humanism, religious fundamentalism, and an honest faith. Wingfold, of course, represents an honest faith, and even though (spoiler alert!!) he ends up being predictably confirmed in the same faith he started questioning, still it is a purer, kinder, more honest sort of faith that cares for the lonely and outcast. Seems more right than wrong.

I truly believe that the polarized personalities of the work that represent the views of humanism (George Bascombe and Helen Lindgard), religious fundamentalism (Helen’s mother, oftentimes her brother, Leopold, and Wingfold’s own congregation), and an honest, inclusive Christianity (Wingfold and Polwarth) highlight MacDonald’s raging internal debate regarding the validity of each position, especially the contest between humanism and Christianity . It’s clear that MacDonald was not portraying his brain-child humanist in the most positive light—George Bascombe is conceited, selfish, and prejudiced against the weak and ignorant—but even so, he puts some pretty damn good munitions in the mouth of George against which to scrimmage. Perhaps if MacDonald didn’t work so hard to vilify him—probably an attempt to quell that voice in his own head—he could have been pretty close to creating understanding between people of faith and non-faith. But he was definitely playing a side, and gives some of the best apologias for the Christian faith—not bandying mere fact-based propaganda—that I have ever heard. It is philosophical jujitsu at its best with an understanding that the key to throwing an opponent isn’t necessarily data-bashing (“Evidence! All of it that was to be had was but such as one man received, another man refused…”), but rather using the weight of common human experiences, desires, and fears to compel, being diligent not to “weaken by presentation the force of a truth which, in discovery, would have its full effect.”

Though obviously predisposed, as are so many faithful believers, to think that all nonbelievers must be either deluded or dishonest, MacDonald was still extremely sympathetic to a sincere person whose heart seemed open to others; and he empathizes to a degree with the some of the points made by a more genuine secular humanism, namely, the lack of absolute certainty or assurance in matters of faith. Wingfold himself, though reinforced in his faith by the end of the story, is still a far way from absolute, untroubled certainty. But against losing hope in the face of uncertainty, he affirms his self-election:  “What mighty matter is it if, thus utterly befooled of Nature, we should also a little fool ourselves, by believing in a lovely hope that looks like a promise, and seems as if it ought to be true?” This sentiment reincarnates throughout the story, but the essence is the same: the best one can do is hope, and trust that the very best of what one believes is true. If there is a God, he or she will take care of the rest. This, I think, seems fair and even laudable, and would be a great common ground for people of different perspectives to meet if they could get past the need to declare absolute certainty over absolute hope or determination.

I was surprised, however, at my own disappointment with a tenor of poutiness on the part of MacDonald that I never noticed before in his writings. It seemed most pronounced when he mentioned the hypothetical absence of God in the universe. “Wingfold felt that if there was no God, his soul was but a thing of rags and patches out in the masterless, pitiless storm and hail of a chaotic universe.” World’s smallest violin ova’ heah. It was all very much in the spirit of William Wordsworth when he wrote:

“One adequate support for the calamities of life exist—one only—an assured belief that the procession of our fate, however sad or disturbed, is ordered by a being of infinite benevolence and power, whose everlasting purposes embrace all accidents, converting them to good” (from The Excursion).

MacDonald complained through his protagonists about life not being worth living if there were no God to control every little contingency, in which case all good experienced or hoped for were a complete illusion. It was as if he reasoned, “If I can’t have life all my way, with a god of my own perfect ideal, then I would rather not have life or god at all!” This whining reverberates throughout this book, although I can’t say I don’t sympathize in some ways.  Nietzsche’s ‘does-a-mother-get-paid-for-her-love?’ rebuff against those whose virtue consists in a desire to receive a reward for their love and goodness might well apply here:

“At you, ye virtuous ones, laughed my beauty to-day. And thus came its voice unto me: ‘They want—to be paid besides!’... Ye want to be paid besides, ye virtuous ones! Ye want reward for virtue, and heaven for earth, and eternity for your to-day?...Ye love your virtue as a mother loveth her child; but when did one hear of a mother wanting to be paid for her love?” (from Thus Spoke Zarathustra)

But, again, a universe without a traditional concept of God, immortality, and reward is a very hard thing for some who’ve been conditioned to think of happiness with strings of very concrete, eternal guarantees. I won’t begrudge a man or woman their prerogative to construct a system of metaphysics or mysticism. It’s very…human. Happiness ‘with strings’ is what we all want; it’s what we all work towards in one way or another; but when a string breaks, we can either cry over spilled milk, or we can try to enjoy what we have while searching for new strings. Simone DeBeauvoir, the French philosopher, said that losing a god through disbelief hurts too much to come to terms with easily. “After having lived under the eyes of the gods, having been given the promise of divinity, one does not readily accept becoming simply a man with all his anxiety and doubt” (Ethics Of Ambiguity).  This, she said, goes hand in hand with the difficulty people have in “living without a guarantee.” Still, even without a sharply defined guarantee, we are yet alive for this moment, and to waste our only moment with the people we love is tantamount to wasting eternity.

In the end, Wingfold is content to “cast in my lot with the servants of the Crucified”, despite his parishioners’ disapprobation concerning his “lack of absolute assurance.” He lives what feels most real and hopeful to him, and that, at the very least, sounds authentic for many Christians and non-Christians alike. That is something a lot of us can get behind. Regardless of MacDonald’s conscious message, the grandeur of his style and grasp of the significance of human existence which lives on hope—on a chance—makes his works thoroughly enjoyable reads.

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