Thursday, June 23, 2011

Worshipping the White Witch

As summer arrives, my first bit of reading for the season is some unfinished business from the winter.   I am, at long last, making my way through the rest of George MacDonald's Unspoken Sermons.  MacDonald, the Scots Mystic who was C.S. Lewises spiritual teacher, isn't exactly the most entertaining preacher.   His sermons bear no resemblance to the form demanded by the consumers of AmeriChrist, Inc. inspirational products.

There are no canned jokes to warm up the inadequately caffeinated crowd.  There are no stories drawn straight from 1001 Garfield Sermon Illustrations.  There are no nice neat bullet points that tell you how to apply the Three Lessons Learned to Your Life Now.  It's just smart, hard, bare-knuckled and uncompromising theology, applied directly to the forehead with all the merciless intensity of a Scots intellectual.   And if preached, they'd run for at least an hour.

I love 'em.  MacDonald burns bright like fire, and he gets God in a way that goes well beyond abstract knowledge.

Here's da ting.  The last of MacDonald's Sermons I've been reading is entitled "The Truth In Jesus," and after over 100 years, it remains as fiercely heretical today as it would have been then.  MacDonald, as a mystic, had no patience whatsoever for the doctrine of substitutionary atonement.  By this, I mean the theological framework in which Jesus has to die because God's wrath against sinful humanity must be appeased.  A blood sacrifice is demanded, and so Jesus is killed, thus releasing those who believe in him from the heck-fire that we so richly deserve.

This is pretty roots-rock stuff for many evangelicals, but MacD viewed it as monstrous and essentially pagan.  He sees it as a fundamental misunderstanding of Christ's person and teachings,  the central teachings of the apostles, and the nature of God.  For MacDonald, God is ferocious, consuming fire Love, and there's no way to reconcile God's essential nature with this theology.  And Lord ha' mercy, he's gonna be tellin' ya 'bout it.

As I read through his intense polemic, I've been wondering about the relationship between this clear and strongly held position and the place where I first learned about substitutionary atonement.

That place was, of course, Narnia.   I first read Lewises' Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by myself back when I was five.  Hey, it was 1970s Kenya, and in the absence of endless screen inputs, five year olds have time to learn to read.  From the fire and magic that is the gift of children, my memories of that reading are not of reading about Narnia, but of being in Narnia, like you remember a particularly vivid childhood dream.

I remember the Stone Table, and the hill, and the dark path leading there.  I remember watching with Lucy and Susan from a cleft as noble Aslan was led to an innocent death at the hands of Jadis and her howling mob of monsters.     That story laid the groundwork for my own theology, and my understanding of what Jesus means.  It's meant to do that.

So I got myself to wondering:  C.S. Lewis acknowledges George MacDonald as his spiritual teacher, and MacDonald radiantly, relentlessly, and repeatedly rejects the doctrine of substitutionary atonement.  If that is so, is there any connection between what C.S. Lewis teaches us as children and what MacDonald taught him?

The connection, I think, comes in who insists upon the sacrifice, on blood shed as punishment for sin.  

It is not Aslan.  It is not his ever unseen father, the Emperor over the Sea.

It's Jadis, the Last Empress of Charn, the White Witch, the emblem of worldly power and control and the form of "justice" that is written in fear and the horrible balance of suffering.

No wonder I have so much trouble with that way of understanding God.


  1. Proximal, Ultimate.

    The question of whether God could have created a world that fundamentally functions differently than this one does is one of the deep questions. How much is He bound by fundamental principles?

    Jadis demands the sacrifice just as the crowd cries 'Crucify Him;' is her demand the ultimate demand of justice or just it's bloody invocation?

    There is lurking in the background 'deep magic' and yet deeper magic. So, how does the Accuser stand in all of this? How does the Advocate? How much of the scene is set in stone by the fundamental requirements that Man have free will, that there be Good, Evil, Equality, Loyalty, Purity and Authority? How much is simply required by the very existance of Creator and Created?

    How much are those who reject the Law and its apparent blood lust actually just listening to the whispers "did He really say..? surely you will not die..!"

  2. @ BenK: My answer to that first of your series of questions is yes, of course. There are an infinite panoply of worlds. But within this one? Well, we get what we get and we don't get upset.

    Amidst the thicket of your really significant questions, I'd wonder also about the nature and essence of the Law. It is, after all, Matthew 22:36-40 and Romans 13:8-10. This is the Law, the Advocate, and the nature of our Maker all rolled into one...and it is self-evidently antithetical to the balance of worldly justice we write in blood. Are we children of the Law?

    Ultimately, it is we who cry for the cross...and that is why the empty tomb/broken table remains so confusing to us.

  3. We get what we get, and boy, we've been upset since we found that darn Tree.

    I don't think that the Justice of Jadis, if we call it that, is antithetical (your word) to the Law. This is perhaps the genius of CS Lewis, that he understands the internal consistency of the Law. Internal consistency, of course, is perfected in games. Jadis plays the Law as a game which she can win without obeying it herself. Many of us subvert systems established for our well-being - even our collective well-being - by playing them as games. Tithing the mint and the cumin, and so on.

    Stepping outside the layers into additional valences exposes perspectives in which the letter gives way to the spirit of the Law, and the spirit of Law gives way to the greatest commandments.

    Merely attempting to invalidate the Law by pretending that something called 'Love' renders it pointless or evil, however, is not a functional strategy and is denied repeatedly to the Church. The Law must be obeyed and fulfilled.

    This is, then, does return to your original point. The person who is screaming for Christ on the Cross wasn't the Father. We, like Him, should be sorrowful when we must enforce the Law for the ultimate good of creation; he who sheds the blood of man, by man his blood shall be shed, and all that. There can be satisfaction in the fulfillment of the Law, but glee and gloating, eagerness, those are signs of something else that must be addressed, in ourselves. When we exercise Justice in Judgement, we are not winning a game.

  4. It's interesting to consider that MacD was moved to write that sermon in response to the criticisms of a religious skeptic, "one in the front rank of those who assert that we can know nothing of the ‘Infinite and Eternal energy from which all things proceed.'" (A little Google fu reveals that this is from Herbert Spencer. I am slightly amused to see that he looked like this, because I think he bears a certain resemblance to someone I know, though probably just around the facial hair.

    Here's what Spencer said: ‘The visiting on Adam’s descendants through hundreds of generations dreadful penalties for a small transgression which they did not commit; the damning of all men who do not avail themselves of an alleged mode of obtaining forgiveness, which most men have never heard of; and the effecting a reconciliation by sacrificing a son who was perfectly innocent, to satisfy the assumed necessity for a propitiatory victim; are modes of action which, ascribed to a human ruler, would call forth expressions of abhorrence; and the ascription of them to the Ultimate Cause of things, even not felt to be full of difficulties, must become impossible.’

    The quote sounds to me like something Dawkins or Hitchens might have written. But MacD heartily and vehemently concurs. In fact, when Hitchens says that he is an "anti-theist," he is essentially avowing a version of the following is sentiments from MacD in the next graf of the sermon:

    "I do not quote the passage with the design of opposing either clause of its statement, for I entirely agree with it: almost it feels an absurdity to say so. [...] One of my earliest recollections is of beginning to be at strife with the false system here assailed. [...] Rather than believe a single point involving its spirit, even with the assurance thereby of such salvation as the system offers, I would join the ranks of those who ‘know nothing.’ [...]"

  5. I have MacDonald's book of sermons sitting on my Kindle, and I look at it, and then usually decide to read a PG Wodehouse novel instead. I will now make the effort to read at least one of the sermons. thanks, Dave!