The Immersed Imagination, Part 5: The True Self

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This continues the series of posts on the Hutchmoot talk by Andy P. and me. The last post, beginning my part, spoke of the inconsolable longing which Lewis awakened in my heart with Narnia.

By my mid twenties I had read nearly all of the works of Lewis. I read and reread The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce, Mere Christianity, Till We Have Faces, God in the Dock, and most of the others. In The Great Divorce I saw people I knew, and myself, in the ghosts from the Grey Town. Complainers, self-justifiers,  self-pitiers, hanging on to offenses and illusions from their past; since they lived by illusions, they had become illusions themselves. They refused to be their real selves God made them to be, became caught up in world, flesh, and devil, and eventually lost their ability to be real at all.  This idea of the false self and the true self runs as a common thread through the works of Lewis and George MacDonald. In Perelandra, as the demon-possessed scientist Weston does his best to tempt the pure Queen to disobey by filling her mind with inflated and melodramatic views of herself, Lewis writes, “The external, and, as it were, dramatic conception of the self was the enemy’s true aim. He was making her mind a theatre in which that phantom self should hold the stage. He had already written the play.”

In my mid twenties I began to seek out the works of George MacDonald because Lewis said, “He was my master.” Lewis wrote that Phantastes “baptised my imagination. But MacDonald disturbed me at first. I had carried a legalistic concept of God in my early years which culminated in a nine month stint in a very legalistic church at around the age of seventeen. I longed for God to be more like Aslan. Nearly a decade later when I encountered MacDonald, I had traded the legalistic God for a more biblical God I could trust. By then I was trusting God to take care of me financially  via Malachi 3 and Matthew 6, and I trusted Him to get me to Heaven through Christ. In short, I was believing in a  God of grace and love but not one who required holiness. At the time I didn’t believe it was possible to be holy; I believed Jesus died merely to pay my sin debt so I could go to Heaven when I die.

By the time I was beginning to read MacDonald, I had long since learned that I couldn’t ever be good enough to pass muster. MacDonald’s constant talk of obedience, of doing what Jesus said to do, tore at the depths of me. He stirred up what seemed an ancient sense of inadequacy. I would read him for awhile and set the book down, feeling agitated inside. He writes of Jesus in Unspoken Sermons Series II, “It is simply absurd to say you believe, or even want to believe, in him, if you do not do anything he tells you.”  He struck at the heart of some of the  things I had been taught – the lie that mental assent to a set of facts about God, about Christ, was the same as relying on God Himself. I began to find through MacDonald that true faith and action were inseparable, that obedience was just another word for Faith, that real faith will always bear fruit in our action. He wrote, “It is the one terrible heresy of the church, that it has always been presenting something else than obedience as faith in Christ.”

Although at the time I struggled with MacDonald’s unrelenting emphasis on obedience, paradoxically it was through MacDonald I began to find that the  righteousness of Christ is at the heart of a redeemed man; that Christ in the man is the root and the source of fruit in a true man. In study I began to find the Word of God supports this. I had long believed the opposite, that even as the redeemed, we were at the root depraved and sinful, and that only through physical death would we be holy, so I had given up. But MacDonald says, “Of what use then is the law? To lead us to Christ, the Truth – to waken in our minds a sense of what our deepest nature, the presence…of God in us, requires of us – to let us know, in part by failure, that the purest effort of will of which we are capable cannot lift us up even to the abstaining of wrong to our neighbor.” Unspoken Sermons, Series One

MacDonald writes in Unspoken Sermons Series Three, “The Christ in us is our own true nature made blossom in us by the Lord, whose life is the light of men that it may become the life of men.”

This “Christ in the man,” for MacDonald, is the source and ground of our real  identity. MacDonald’s constant prompts to obey God, to do what Jesus Christ said to do, are the starting point to finding that real identity. For MacDonald, “Everyone who desires to follow the Master has the spirit of the Master, and will receive more, that he may follow closer, nearer, in his very footsteps.” This echoes Ephesians 5:8-10,  “For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of the Spirit is in all goodness, righteousness, and truth), finding out what is acceptable to the Lord.” This new self, or true self, that we really are and are meant to live by is a consistent theme in MacDonald’s work. For MacDonald, salvation means Christ has given himself to us as our inner wellspring of righteousness, and to be true is to live by that trueness – our humanity indwelt by and in willing cooperation with his Deity.

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Winner of 147 Grammys (or so), Ron Block is the banjo-ninja portion of Alison Kraus and Union Station. When he's not laying down a bluegrass-style martial-arts whoopin' on audiences around the world, he's taking care of his donkey named "Trash" and keeping himself busy by being one of the most well-read and thoughtful people we know.


11 Comments

  1. Keith S

    Great thoughts Ron.
    I had to think of this verse as I finished reading your post. “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Galatians 2:20

    You quoted MacDonald- “The Christ in us is our own true nature made blossom in us by the Lord, whose life is the light of men that it may become the life of men.”
    What a powerful statement. In Christ alone we have life, and what an abundant life it is. Praise God for his unspeakable gift of redemption and righteousness in Christ.

    Makes me want to read more MacDonald more than ever!

  2. Mike

    What was the opposite of salvation as far as MacDonald was concerned? Isn’t it true that he believed that everyone would eventually be saved?

  3. Aaron Alford

    Well said, Mr. Block.

    Thanks for articulating these things so well. The idea that who we are, in our inmost being, is depraved and incapable of good is pervasive and destructive. Sin becomes our very essence, rather than the genetic, inherited disease that we deal with. It’s the difference between someone saying they are battling cancer, or saying that they ARE cancer. What the Father has created is good.

    Amen, also, to faith and action. If you do a word search in BibleGateway for “faith alone,” (‘solo fide’) the only reference that pops up is James 2:24: “You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.” Faith and action are not two separate concepts, but one whole.

    And ultimately, there is the mystery of free will and a persistent Grace, working to redeem us, cooperate with us, and make us into who we were truly meant to be.

  4. Profile photo of Ron Block

    Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Mike, MacDonald was a universalist. But to my mind, the best kind of universalist, one who didn’t believe “all religions are basically the same” but that God, in his inexorable love, would use even hellfire to make all of mankind repent of their sins and turn to him. Even the great Shadow, in the end, would be converted. As much as I would like all that to be true, I don’t find it biblical.

    But of course if I had to agree with someone 100 percent to read their writings, I wouldn’t read anybody. MacDonald has a lot of beautiful, perfect, and biblical things to say about the Fatherhood of God, about sin, about holiness, about obedience, and many other things.

    The main thing, I find, is to have a good grasp of Scripture, so that, when reading other books, we can discern what fits into the biblical picture and what does not.

  5. Steve Fronk

    Ron, I appreciate your desire to take all the good you can from whatever source it eminates. Knowing, of course, that if it is good it must ultimately be from God. This, I believe, is what George MacDonald has done, listened for the good, while trusting that voice within.

    He might ask you playfully why it is you “would like all that to be true.” Does it come from the inner voice or a sinful nature? Are there other possible sources?

    If you are at all curious about what some good thinkers are musing over with regard to MacDonald and universalism you can’t find better than the writings of Tom Talbott.

  6. Profile photo of Ron Block

    Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Steve,

    I think wishing MacDonald’s universalism were true involves being “not willing that any should perish,” wanting everyone to know Christ, and not having anyone cast away.

    I’ll have to check out Tom Talbott, thanks for the tip.

  7. Steve Fronk

    Ron, I think you are exactly right. They are Godly sentiments. It seems to me that one of MacDonald’s goals was to separate theology from a pervasive theory of the atonement. The theory caused him much pain from his earliest understanding of it. His struggles to understand God apart from that theory is a large part of what he has left us.

    Here’s a link to Talbott’s writings. The first paper is the manuscript from a forthcoming book.

    http://www.willamette.edu/~ttalbott/publications.html

  8. Mike

    Ron, Wouldn’t it be just like the Great Father to surprise creation with truly making “All things new.” This has been a hugh struggle for me for the past few years. MacDonald has been a light in a dark place or maybe he has been a counterfeit that has led me to believe things that I only dream could be true about God.
    The struggle continues.

    Steve, Yes Talbott can mess a man up:]

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