An Epistemology of Trust

I was hoping to post more frequent updates on my George MacDonald writing projects, but until now I have found that my very absorption with writing has kept me from being able to distill what I have been doing in the form of a post. Our recent 12-day visit with my parents in western Washington State gave me an excellent opportunity for a writing semi-retreat–thank you, Mom and Dad, for entertaining the kids! During that time, I was able to make some decisions about the immediate direction of my work on the Unspoken Sermons.

I had recently re-read a manuscript I wrote four years ago, right before the start of the 2017-2018 school year. In a sustained burst of inspiration, I had penned 144 pages of longhand in spiral-bound notebooks, but, partly because of the demands of my teacher certification program and subsequent assumption of full-time teaching duties, I never did anything with the manuscript, shutting it up in a drawer.

The manuscript’s working title is “A God Worth Believing In”, and it was written in response to conversations on the Wingfold email group about the problem of suffering, in particular, in response to a short book written by a Wingfold member that argues that suffering is essentially meaningless. As I wrote the manuscript, I became aware of a five-part structure that I began to call “George MacDonald’s Five Points” in explicit contrast to the traditional five points of Calvinism.

The five points of Calvinism are often presented using the mnemonic TULIP:

  • Total depravity
  • Unconditional election
  • Limited atonement
  • Irresistible grace
  • Perseverance of the saints

Here are the corresponding five points that I see in MacDonald’s theology:

  • Obedience the condition of knowledge
  • Humanity of God
  • Restorative justice
  • Inexorable love
  • Perfection through suffering

I don’t have a correspondingly nifty acrostic for MacDonald’s five points, but I do find them to be a useful framework for understanding how he transformed a theology emphasizing a fundamentally unjust providence into a theology emphasizing a fundamentally just providence. There is much more I could say about how these five points answer and correct TULIP, but that will have to wait for another time.

My problem in revisiting this manuscript was that, while it needs significant work to expand the many ideas it throws out in compressed form, I didn’t feel that I could recapture the tone and emphases of the original after so much time. I felt that I had to decide whether to choose between recasting it, or abandoning it. While we were at my parents house, I felt that I saw my way forward. My plan is to recast the work, maintaining the five-part structure, but not trying to replicate the popular tone and apologetic emphasis of the original. Instead, I plan to allow it to be an engagement with important MacDonald texts, especially from the Unspoken Sermons, and to focus on MacDonald’s theological method: how he does theology. The new title, Let Us Then Dare Something, is a phrase from MacDonald’s sermon “The Higher Faith” that I feel captures a key aspect of that method: permission to use the imagination in theology.

This revised project plan allowed me to plunge right into writing, and I’ve now completed the first draft of the first section, on MacDonald’s epistemology. My purpose here is to summarize some of the main ideas of that section. My hope is that doing so will help me to see clearly how to revise it.

  1. How can we do justice to MacDonald’s creative, original theology, when MacDonald himself criticized the very motives behind systematic theology, and refused to write systematically? One way forward is to realize that what seems anti-intellectual in MacDonald may be instead a deep concern for appropriate methodology. Like Nietzsche, MacDonald often “philosophizes with a hammer”, but the rhetorical thrust of his work is a choice consistent with his epistemological views. If we are to come to grips with the brilliance of what he is doing, we have to understand his basic epistemological principles.
  2. MacDonald’s starting point is dissatisfaction with self: he has little or nothing to say to the self-satisfied. His goal is to wake people up. Unfortunately, upon waking, we find ourselves in a kind of existential alienation, or as MacDonald says, as “an unknown I in an unknown world.” MacDonald portrays this state brilliantly in his fantasy masterpiece, Lilith. However, the genius of his work is his ability to plumb the depths of existential angst without leaving us there.
  3. MacDonald’s own existential crisis developed early, in his childhood and young adulthood. He experienced the deep anguish of feeling outside of God’s acceptance, because he could not accept what he was taught about God. His struggle is detailed in his long autobiographical poem, “The Disciple”. It was out of this intense period of struggle that MacDonald eventually arrived at his fundamental epistemological principle: do what you already know, and you will come to know more.
  4. This principle is founded on a profoundly relational, participatory understanding of knowledge that owes much to the gospel of John, and to the Hebrew notion of knowledge. For MacDonald, knowledge worthy of the name is knowledge of the truth, which can only be reached by becoming a live truth ourselves. He explores these themes in “The Truth”, one of his most profound sermon from an epistemological point of view. Love and knowledge can be seen as the two phases of the cycle of life, with love, the primary expression of the will, as the active, initiating phase.
  5. All knowledge flows from God’s self-revelation, but this revelation is much broader than the canon of Scripture. The apparent security of clinging to an external, written corpus as guarantor of truth is illusory: there is no substitute for direct, formative contact with the live Truth, the Son.
  6. We are not to confuse our current understanding of the truth, which MacDonald calls “opinion”, with the truth itself. In his brilliant “spoken” sermon entitled simply “A Sermon”, he explores the multiple distortions that result from the overvaluing of our own opinions, and our resistance to changing them. Transmitting our opinions to others does not transmit the truth behind them: that can happen only through fellowship in the light, the mutual commitment to the principle of “doing what you know”. This commitment frees us to show an astounding degree of liberality to other people as we trust them to God, their true teacher.
  7. Since the only way we can become a live truth is by entrusting our entire being to the Father, we are bound to reject anything that comes between us and the Father’s heart, and prevents us from trusting him utterly. Even if this means mistakenly refusing the outward form of the truth for a time, that is better than doing violence to our conscience. Doing justice to God includes not attributing to him anything that seems unjust to us. Our innate sense of justice is planted by God to point us in the right direction, and will do so more and more as we live according to our best understanding of what is right. Conscience is sacred, and not to be overridden by human authority.
  8. MacDonald’s main interest is not tearing down the false, but building the true. The constructive phase of MacDonald’s theology includes a huge dollop of imagination. This can feel revolutionary and threatening even today, but it is in fact a well-reasoned outgrowth of his epistemological principles. There is no substitute for the process by which the human being becomes reliable, by becoming true. As this happens, the human faculties of reason and imagination, which are a God-given “homing sense” within us, also point more reliably in the direction of truth. In his sermon, “The Higher Faith”, MacDonald exhorts us to set sail with our highest hopes and dreams, our divine instincts and intuitions. “Let us then dare something.”
  9. We could sum up MacDonald’s thoughts about truth and knowledge as an epistemology of trust. We become true human beings as we entrust our whole being to God. This trust frees us from bondage to substitutes for true knowing, such as human religious authority, or even our own opinions. We trust our neighbors to God as we commit to walk with them in what we already know to be true. As we become trustworthy ourselves, we come to trust our God-given sense of right and wrong, our divine imagination, and our deepest desires.

Leave a comment