Back of the North Wind

Discussions of theology, philosophy, religion and life inspired by the writings of George MacDonald (and perhaps others such as CS Lewis) posted by "recovering fundamentalists".

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I am a "recovering fundamentalist". The trick is to figure out how not to throw out the Baby with the bathwater. I learn through dialogue, and so invite commentary on my posts to Back of the North Wind.

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

GMD on Prayer

One of the topics I enjoy from George MacDonald is that of prayer. In At the Back of the Northwind, in Chapter 30, we are told of an orphan girl, a "crossing sweeper" (who would sweep the street crossings with her broom in return for a few coppers), who has a dream. In the dream, she has an adventure with the man in the moon. At the beginning of the dream, she meets him and sees the stars in the sky, seemingly for the first time in her life:

After this he said nothing for a while, and I laid myself on the floor of his garret, and stared up and around at the great blue beautifulness. I had forgotten him almost, when at last he said: 'Ain't you done yet?' 'Done what?' I asked. 'Done saying your prayers,' says he. 'I wasn't saying my prayers,' I answered. 'Oh, yes, you were,' said he, 'though you didn't know it!

I love the idea of a little pagan girl, adoring creation, and in so doing, adoring the Creator without knowing she is doing so. I identify with her, and so I appreciate George MacDonald attributing something positive to her.

Perhaps this is what the girl saw? Click on the image to see a larger (and more beautiful) version.


Monday, November 22, 2004

GMD compared to St. Paul

In his book, Lilith, George MacDonald distinguishes his view of how things work a little from Paul. Recall Romans 8:28

"And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those that love God, to those who are called according to His purpose."
Compare this to George MacDonald in Lilith: the guide, a librarian/raven from the other-world described in Lilith gives his the main character instructions, to which this character responds:

"I will try to remember--but I may forget!"
"Then some evil that is good for you will follow."
"And if I remember?"
"Then some evil that is not good for you will not follow."

So while both George MacDonald and Paul assert that all things will work out for good, MacDonald does not distinguish between "those who love God" and others who do not love God (yet). While MacDonald acknowledges evil, he asserts that evil when it occurs will be used for the good of even those it seems to harm.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Atheism discussion continues...

Atheism seems to be a hot-topic in the blogosphere at the moment. Here are a couple of excellent blogs with posts on the subject: North Western Winds, and, new to my blog-roll, True Grit. The True Grit blogger seems to be engaged in a debate with Austin Cline as well.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Are Animals Atheists?

In response to my first post asking Is Atheism Livable?, prof rob comments:

I don’t see anything untenable about an atheistic worldview. I believe all other animals are atheistic, and I’ve never seen a suicidal dog. The nature of any species is survival, and I believe religion is often one of those tricks we use to propagate. Why else would all religions have rules for couples? They are ensuring the survival of the species. Without this, however, another system of rules would arise. A species survival is not based on religion. Religion is one of many possible tactics.
I have addressed since then why from a morality perspective and a meaning perspective I am asserting that a self-consistent materialist world-view is not livable. (That's a bit different than saying "tenable". As I claimed in my original off-hand remark which sparked the Cline rebuttals on the atheist website: it is possible to construct a completely self-consistent materialist world view.) There is one more perspective to describe: that of rational thought. But prob rob provides a much needed and light-hearted break from the more serious discussion.

As an aside, I really haven't been saying anything in these posts about religion. I haven't claimed that religion is or is not a source of morality, nor will I contest here that religion arises from the evolutionary imperative. I am merely trying to focus on whether or not one needs something outside of the material universe in order to derive the possibility of morality, meaning, and rational thought.

Prof rob asserts: "all other animals are atheistic". I would translate this as either, "No animal believes in a god" or "All animals believe that there is no god". In either case, he asserts something about animal beliefs. It is not obvious to me that animals have beliefs. Well, my dog seems to believe that she'll get a biscuit everytime I let her in and out of the house. Let me rephrase that--it is not obvious that animals have beliefs about God. (See University of Waterloo's Philosophy 255 course outline on animal beliefs, and Dennett's "Do Animals Have Beliefs" in Comparative Approaches to Cognitive Sciences, MIT Press, 1995.) Actually, I recall reading as a child a very disturbing Mark Twain essay of a dog which seemed to believe in a god -- though the god (her master) was unworthy of the dog's belief.

On the other hand, even if one asserts that an animal has beliefs, no one has information about whether the animal relies on a purely materialist world-view! So I'll leave aside animal beliefs as not particularly relevant to the discussion of a materialist world-view. But I may bring up in a future post, "animal souls".

And finally, yes, prof rob, it's about time to bring this blog back to George MacDonald!

Monday, November 15, 2004

The Source of Meaning for an Atheist

Cline provides, in his rebuttal to my post about the livability of a self-consistent materialist world-view, one argument for meaning in life: enjoyment of pleasant experiences:

As for myself, the lack of permanence isn't a problem. I doubt that it's normally a problem for donalgrant, either. I'll bet he enjoys good meals, despite the fact that each meal is temporary and has no possible final consequence. I'll bet he enjoys good movies, despite the fact that each movie (or at least the experience of viewing it for the first time) is temporary and has no possible final consequence. Even for non-materialists who believe in an eternal afterlife, most events in their lives are temporary with no possible final consequence — yet, for some strange reason, they don't abandon them as meaningless.

Why? Probably because they enjoy those experiences and value them for what they are, right then and there. I have the same perspective on life. overall It's not permanent. Someday, perhaps today, I'll die and that will be it for me — my memories and personality will disappear as my physical brain dies. Does this logically entail that I cannot value and enjoy what I have right now? Of course not.

In fact, yes I do enjoy good meals, and good movies too. (Are there any out there at the moment?)

One must distinguish between pleasure and meaning, however. Experiences need not be pleasurable to be meaningful. Many of the most meaningful life events are even painful: the birth of a child, a memorial service for a friend, the running of a marathon, fighting a battle, defending a thesis. (Okay that last one maybe doesn't rank up there -- but it was memorable and painful for me!)

So meaning is certainly not tied to pleasure. But Cline is just using this as an example. So let me enlarge his source of meaning in life to "valuing experiences for what they are, right then and there." Let's examine what those experiences are, right then and there, to a materialist.

"Meaning" is association, a way of connecting one thing with another. For example, the meaning of certain letters on a page is the concept of the word they spell. The meaning of a metaphor is the concept represented by it, and the connection between the metaphor and the concept. In other words, meaning is going beyond the mere appearance of a thing, to an implication behind it. "What do you mean?" we say, not when we didn't hear the words, but when we couldn't interpret the message behind the words.

"Meaning" is also provided by consequence and/or memory: this is another version of the "association" of the previous paragraph, where now the interpretation of the event is the consequence of the event, or the association it has in one's memory with other events.

Cline argues that meaning does not rely on permanence. I will counter that "permanent meaning" relies on permanence: survival of a memory of an event or a consequence to that event -- neither of which can be obtained in a materialist universe, as I argued in my earlier post: "We come from supernova dust, we end up as dissipated heat in the entropy death of the universe. What happens between is temporary and has no impact and no possible final consequence."

But what about temporary meaning? Here too the materialist has a difficulty. For there to be meaning in an event, as I have said, there must be an association. But one step more, there must be some truth in the association, or at least, some belief in the truth of the association. My wedding ring is meaningful because it means that my wife loved me when she gave it to me, or at least, that I believe she did. If there is no way for me to believe that there is a relationship (positive or even negative) between the gift of the ring and the love of my wife, then the meaningfulness of the ring ceases to exist.

However, if I am convinced of a purely materialist world-view, then all events, including my own actions and the consequences of those events and actions are either determined, or are random. Even my attempt to make an association between events is either determined or random. If the association is random, then (I assert) there is no meaning, no value to it, no expectation of truth in the association, just as a dictionary which made random associations between groups of letters and concepts would not provide meanings to the words. If, on the other hand, the association is determined, then I had no choice in whether or not to make the association. If I had no choice in making the association, it cannot be "my association", and cannot be a meaning for me.

I recognize that this is abstract, but the world of pure materialism is so far removed from the world of our ordinary experience that one has to be a little abstract. Let me try to illustrate:

The good meal that Cline and I both value (make mine a steak with some good wine!): what are some of the ways in which it might be postulated to be meaningful? Perhaps the meal is associated with the friend who shared the meal, perhaps the meal is associated with the pleasurable memories of taste and satisfaction, perhaps the meal represents my competence because I also cooked it skillfully? (Or maybe the meaning is my incompetence because I cooked it poorly!) Three (of many) examples which might imbue a meal with meaning. What happens when we approach this meal from a strictly materialist point of view?

As a materialist, I am allowed to hold that the association I have for the meal (its meaningfulness to me) is either a random event or was determined. This applies both to the objects of the association (for example, the meal and my incompetence as a cook) as well as the connection between the objects -- the association itself. In the case of the objects, if the meal was a random result over which I could not possibly have had any control, then I cannot maintain that the meal represents any connection to my competence as a cook. On the other hand, if I had no choice but to cook the meal in the way I did -- there was no way for me to "fail" (assuming the competent cook scenario) -- then there is no value in the success, and no meaning in the meal.

Moreover, and more fundamentally, if I understand from the materialist world-view that the association between the meal and my competence is a random event -- then the elements of the association cease to have any relationship to each other. Or if the association was determined without any choice on my part, it ceases to be my meaning for the event: if I have no choice over the associations that occur in my mind, then they are not associations with any particular meaning to me -- they are merely forced upon me.

In robbing people of the ability to choose their own associations, Materialism robs the world of even temporary meaning.

One can do the same analysis with any other postulated meaning of a meal, or any other event. But what really happened? In the beyond-purely-materialist universe, our atheist cooked a meal by making choices about what food to serve, making choices about whom to invite to the meal (perhaps I wouldn't make the cut), and by skillfully making decisions along the way about how to prepare the meal. As she reflects later upon the success of the meal (how much she enjoyed the taste and the compliments she obtained from the guests) she realizes that she hosted an excellent dinner party. She associates the meal itself with her abilities as a chef and the friendships she has. She chooses to maintain that association, and later, when she's depressed about some new ridiculous hate-mail from an irrational theist, she remembers that meal and the memory of her competence and friendships brightens her life.

All meaningful because of the choices she makes -- choices that she could have made otherwise, including the choice to impart meaning to the meal itself. Fortunately for her and for other materialists, she does not dwell day-to-day on the materialist implication that she had no choice in any of her actions. If she did, she would find that a completely self-consistent materialism is not a livable world-view.

The Ethics of an Atheist

Cline, the guide of the website, claims to have provided atheist bases for morality, a reason to live and a basis for rationality in the following articles: 1, 2 and 3. I leave it to the interested reader to scan these and find the promised content. What I found, besides lots of criticism of his theist correspondents and their views, was the following argument for atheist morality:

the happiness and suffering of other human beings matter to us such that we should seek, whenever possible, to increase their happiness and decrease their suffering. It's also the "point" that morality is required for human social structures and human communities to survive at all
Marriages don't need gods in order to mean anything - they derive meaning from the people who are married and from their community which has created the institution of marriage. Laws aren't a sham so long as the community creates standards of behavior and holds people to those standards. Morality isn't senseless because we all still have to live together and survive. Gods don't have any necessary connection to any of that.
and the following argument for atheism:
This atheist is better educated and more skeptical as a general rule; they won't be so easily duped by nonsensical claims and they care more about matching their beliefs to reality.

I'd like to look at these individually. I'm going to ignore the last statement, for I do not think it particularly relevant. Nor do I have any intuition or facts (i.e., statistics) for or against the claim. The second statement (relating to marriage and societal laws) can be seen as a subset and reinforcement of the first. So I will deal only with Cline's first paragraph here.

The first statement, which I will try to translate into a more logical argument, is the following:

Assumption: Happiness and Suffering of other human beings matter to us.
Ethical Conclusion: Whenever possible, we should increase their happiness and decrease their suffering.

Note that I will not assume that this is every atheist's ethic, nor even Cline's own ethic (though that is perhaps more likely), but rather an example of an ethic being put forward as something consistent with a completely consistent materialist world-view.

I will not quibble with whether or not the ethical conclusion is a good ethic -- I will accept it as "an ethic". (I.e., does this ethic call for Euthenasia?) However, I have two other difficulties with this argument:

    1) The assumption does not follow from a self-consistent materialist world-view.
    2) "Whenever possible" may not include any ethical choice for a materialist.

For item (1), I can imagine that Cline would argue, "How dare you challenge my assumption: I am telling you that happiness and suffering of other human beings matters to us." And I am sure it does. But I also assert that this is an inconsistency in the world-view of a professing materialist. Why should happiness and suffering, if they are merely chemical reactions in the brain of a material human object -- a biological machine, matter to us? It is no answer for Cline to say "they do!", for I will counter that "they do because you intrinsically value the human as more than a piece of deterministic (or quantum-mechanically indeterministic) chemistry". If a materialist could choose one way or the other, why should a materialist care more about maintaining the organization (the life) of a human being than the coherence of a crystal-lattice?

My atheist former-boss, in these conversations, claimed that empathy was the key: that the higher creatures are on an evolutionary scale, the more empathy they have with others. A worm has no empathy, a dog may exhibit some (but a cat, none -- just kidding!), and enlightened human beings exhibit great empathy. I'll agree to this observation (not that I know about the inner workings of worms, dogs or very enlightened human beings...), but still maintain that it does not address the materialist dilemna. For a materialist, what is the difference between a sophisticated version of the Eliza program and an empathetic human being? Both obey programming, some of it deterministic, some of it perhaps randomized, but none of it able to make an independent choice, an unforced expression of empathy.

Which leads me to the issue with item (2): "Whenever possible". The problem with the ethic for a materialist of "increasing happiness and decreasing suffering whenever possible" is that the possibility is not under the control of the material being. If there is nothing beyond deterministic, quantum mechanically fluctuating (or even deterministic but chaotic) equations governing the actions of an individual, there is no question of the individual making a choice to increase happiness or decrease suffering. The individual will do whatever those governing physical equations lead her to do. Those governing equations may well be set by society, by her gene code and by external influences in the environment, but what control does she have over them? And if she has no control over them, how can she choose to act ethically?

Indeed, the materialist can make no true choices at all -- all choice is illusion. In which case, one cannot be held responsible for choices in the way in which we normally think. One can only be conditioned by others to change one's biological programming to conform to their desired choices, or be destroyed as a malfunctioning machine. (This is the topic of CS Lewis' excellent The Abolition of Man.)

But from where comes the orginal conditioning? The materialist must answer that is has an "evolutionary origin", which I take to mean that what appear to be ethical choices for the materialist must lead to either:

    a) survival of the species, or (what I think may be more current theory, a la The Selfish Gene),
    b) propagation of one's own genetic code

This is closely related to the last part of Cline's statement of morality quoted above: "morality is required for human social structures and human communities to survive at all". Again, I will not quibble with the value of "survival of human communities", but I assert that Materialism provides no basis for this value other than the evolutionary imperative. But where does that lead? There are two possibilities:

    1) Materialists have a choice to obey the evolutionary imperative -- either (a) or (b) above, or
    2) Materialists obey the evolutionary imperative without choice.

I have already asserted that Materialism is inconsistent with the idea of a true choice, so that (1) is not a real possibility. But let's assume that I am wrong, and the Materialist has a real choice whether or not to obey the evolutionary imperative. In that case, what is the Materialist's value behind supporting the evolutionary imperative? Remember, we postulate that the Materialist is free to disobey the imperative. So what is the value of survival of the species, absent "evolution" telling us to survive? If we are just collections of leptons and quarks, photons and gluons, what is the non-evolutionary imperative telling us to preserve one ordering (humanity) of these elements versus another (entropic dust)?

I'm going to be redundant and dwell on this more: it is a circular argument for an atheist to say that one should choose to obey the evolutionary imperative for species survival (or genetic code propagation) in order to have the species survive or the gene code propagate. The materialist has to provide a rationale for why the evolutionary imperative is a positive value. And the materialist view seems to argue, if not in the opposite direction, at least that there is no basis for one value over another. Why not choose maximum "cleanliness" (i.e., the absence of organic slime) as the value. (This "ethic" is described in CS Lewis' That Hideous Strength.) Or perhaps that maximizing light and minimizing matter is the supreme value? Or that maximizing species diversity (at perhaps the great expense of the human race) is the supreme ethic? Or perhaps the materialist perceives that the more advanced species have a greater capability for inflicting and experiencing suffering, and so we should strive for a Universe where only very primitive species, with no capacity for suffering, exist?

As for (2), I assert (will someone contradict me?) that without choice there are no ethics. Ethics are about making choices -- if there are no choices that may be made (in this case, because there are no true "choosers", only conditioned biological entities) then there is no question of ethics, no possibility for morality.

The Materialist Dilemna: a purely material being cannot choose to act ethically, but if it could choose, it would find no basis upon which to make a choice.

Both of these fly in the face of our common intuition and experience, but that is precisely my problem with a materialist world-view. When examined in detail, it is so inconsistent with our experience and values that it is unlivable.

Personal Remarks on Atheism

While this "atheism thread" seems like a diversion from the focus of this blog, Prof Rob has reminded me that it is an essential part of "recovering from fundamentalism". So let me take some time to reply to the Austin Cline rebuttal to my previous post.

In this post, I'll make more personal comments, and leave arguments and rebuttals to future posts:

First of all, all comments expressed in this blog are opinions, not facts or truths. (In fact, given that I am writing under a pseudonym, there is even some uncertainty as to whether they are even my own true opinions: See Brandon Watson's intriguing article on the subject, especially the section about Kierkegaard and Johannes de Silentio.) Cline complains:

His testimony about what he currently can and cannot imagine about himself should be treated as credible and accepted at face value. His error is in presuming that the same must apply to everyone else in the world, including me. The rest of us, though, are not limited in our possibilities by one person's lack of imagination. If he can't figure out how to ascribe meaning to something non-permanent, that's his problem — not mine.
My statements are of course just opinions, and subject to being informed by Cline or others. Below and continuing, I plan to examine the "information" Cline has provided. I hope that when I state an opinion Cline finds wrong, he (and others) can avoid feeling personally attacked and just enjoy the opportunity to provide an alternative point of view.

Monumental Arrogance
Cline describes me:
like oh-so-many I have encountered in the past, I really don't think that donalgrant has spent any time whatsoever talking to atheists about what they believe, asking them what they think, and then contemplating what that might mean. Instead, he seems to just launch into critiques on a few assumptions about them. I'm sure he's a nice guy and all, but this is why I used the phrase "monumental arrogance" above.
I hope the "personal content" here is not relevant to this discussion. In fact, I have spent a lot of time talking with my atheist friends, including my former-boss whom I described in the last article as one of the wisest and best people I know, and some of whom have been a big part of my leaving fundamentalism behind. My interest in atheism at all, and the opening offhand remark to this discussion about "completely self-consistent atheism not being livable", come from a serious consideration of atheism (and agnosticism) as a belief (or lack of belief) system. My continuation of this discussion, although coming from a theistic bias, represents continued contemplation of what atheists, including Cline, think and mean. It should not be interpreted as a personal assault on atheists when I assert (even without proof!) that it is difficult and perhaps impossible to find a basis for morality, rational thought, and meaning in life within a completely self-consistent materialist world-view. I certainly would not interpret it as a personal assault if Cline were to assert, for example, that physicists from Caltech (one of whom I am) have a poor basis for socialization.

Burden of Proof
Cline says it is my responsibility to prove that atheists do not have a basis for morality, rational thought and meaning in life. Though I've described some motivation behind my assertion (and I'll try to provide more later outside of the "personal comments section"), it is actually pretty hard to prove a negative. For example, I would imagine that Cline might find it impossible to prove that God doesn't exist, and I wouldn't ask him to do so. On the other hand, I think it would be fair for him to ask me if I have any reason to believe that God does exist. (My answer might surprise him!) Similarly, I think it is fair to ask an atheist to provide some basis for things such as "meaning in life", morality and rational thought, assuming that atheist believes he has such. Note that I have not addressed the many problems with theism, for example, the problem of evil and the problem of survival. (Survival in the sense of some continuity of personhood into an afterlife.)

"Not One Shred of Evidence" one of the complaints Cline has against me. It's true -- I did not produce any evidence in this discussion -- nor will I ever. This discussion is not about statistics or observational facts, but about philosophy and argument. There will never be any evidence. Even if I started quoting suicide rates (I have no idea what they are) between theists and atheists, that would only be of passing trivial interest. Anecdotes would be even worse, as would testimony taken under oath -- all things described as "evidence" but not particularly relevant to an argument about the basis of morality, rational thought and meaning in life in a purely material world.

"Not a single logical argument. Nothing."
Cline also complains that I haven't provide logical arguments in support of my assertions in the previous post. In a strict sense, this is true. I've been somewhat lazy -- describing arguments rather than constructing them, and leaving it to the reader to fill in details. That does not invalidate the arguments, and I expect most of the arguments are familiar to folks who read this and are especially familiar to Cline. Meanwhile, it doesn't appear to me that Cline has been any more rigorous than I have in his arguments. Compare his statements in the paragraph above with mine, and see whether his contain superior construction and rigor. This does not excuse me, of course. (But see the burden of proof paragraph above.)

I guess that's enough of the personal remarks. I hope to continue with some more topical discussions after this, including responding to Prof Rob's very interesting comments about "animal atheism".

Friday, November 12, 2004

Is Atheism Livable?

I seem to have caught the attention of an atheist website (not really my target audience...) which quibbled with an offhand comment I made at the end of Meta Post #2:

I'm sympathetic to healthy skepticism, but while atheism can be made self-consistent, I don't think a completely consistent atheistic world view will be found to be livable.

The complaint is that I misunderstand and misrepresent atheism (actually, I don't think I represented atheism at all in that post). Austin Cline writes:

Guess what? There are millions and millions of people who manage to find those world views to be quite livable. They don't go moping around, wonder what is wrong with themselves and seeking out religious theists to help them out of their "unlivable" conundrum.

Why? Because there is absolutely nothing about atheism that makes a world view unlivable. You don't need a god to have morality or ethics. You don't need a god to have a reason to live. You don't need a god to have a reason to love or enjoy yourself. You don't need a god to be a good citizen, neighbor, husband, mother, or third cousin twice removed.

Believers may find that their theism plays an important role in such things, but it requires monumental arrogance to assume that their god (or some god) is necessary for everyone — and, therefore, atheists must have some difficulty living or constructing a "livable world view." It's a common mental virus: "Everyone who isn't pretty much like me must have something pathologically wrong with them." It's a dismissal of the very conception that people can be different on fundamental issues and yet still manage their lives just fine.

So I guess I'd better respond, lest I propagate the appearance of being "monumentally arrogant". (Well, a little humiliation now and then is good for us all.)

I do not deny that atheists (or buddhists or secular / religious humanists / objectivists) live fine lives, make good neighbors and are happy. In fact, my former boss, an atheist, is probably one of the wisest, kindest, best people I know. And I know plenty of theists who fall into the opposite category.

But my claim in my remarks is that these atheists are not living a "completely consistent atheistic world view". I'm focused especially here on materialism -- the idea that there is nothing outside of the physical world. That all rational thought and morality are merely the expression of electrons in some probabilistic pattern in our brains.

I note that Austin Cline, in his critique, while claiming that "You don't need a god to have a reason to live" does not actually provide a "reason to live". In fact, it is difficult to find a root basis for morality, rational thought (how does an electronic event come to represent an external objective reality?), or even just a "reason to live" in a purely materialistic world. We come from supernova dust, we end up as dissipated heat in the entropy death of the universe. What happens between is temporary and has no impact and no possible final consequence. There is nothing more unique about the organization of matter in a human or animal than in a star or snowflake -- no reason to treat one more carefully than the other.

Wherefore, then should one care about what happens to neighbor, spouse or children? Perhaps we want to avoid pain, so we behave in a way which minimizes pain. But the ultimate escape from pain is suicide. Why not hasten the return to dust, the escape from pain, which is inevitable? After all, as the "dread pirate Roberts" once said, "Life is pain, Princess. Anyone who tells you different is selling something."

No one tries to live this way -- I do not believe that anyone could live this way. But that was precisely the point of my original remark: a completely self-consistent atheist (read, "materialist") world-view is not livable. Atheists live good lives by avoiding the full implications of their own world-view. This shouldn't be surprising: the vast majority of atheists and theists never follow the implications of their own world views. One might argue that the theist's world-view implies an even more difficult -- more painful -- life than the atheists. But it will at least provide a basis for rational thought, for morality, and for the value of life itself.

The atheist/materialist who claims there is nothing outside of the physical world finds herself in a situation illustrated by Mark Tansey, in "Triumph over Mastery II", where the painter is white-washing the Sistine Chapel, and finds that he is painting over his own shadow -- erasing himself from existence. Tansey was focused on art, but the principle he illustrates is more general: the atheist in making an argument for materialism undermines the credibility not only of her own argument, but her ability to make any rational argument at all.


"We interrupt this blog-cast"

While most of everything written here will be inspired by George MacDonald or themes related to him and disciples of his such as CS Lewis, I cannot help but advertise some beautiful poetry written by Brandon Watson on the Siris blog. George MacDonald wove a lot of poetry into his writings -- poetry which I find much more enjoyable than most of what I read from contemporary authors. (Not that I'm well read!) But Brandon is writing poetry with symbol, rhythm, alliteration, rhyme and redemption. Thoroughly enjoyable both in sound and meaning! Especially The Good of Sorrow and Naked.

Not Exactly "Happily Ever After"!

I just finished reading George MacDonald's The Princess and Curdie to my son, and had a little surprise at the end of the story. It had been long enough since I had read the book that I had forgotten the final ending.

I was expecting a classic fairy-tale ending, with our hero Curdie and the fair princess Irene being married and living happily ever after. I thought I was reading that ending with the following conclusion to the story:

Irene and Curdie were married. The old king died, and they were king and queen. As long as they lived Gwyntystorm was a better city, and good people grew in it.

But George MacDonald continues on past what would have been a pleasant conclusion, and follows it with this:

But they had no children, and when they died the people chose a king. And the new king went mining and mining in the rock under the city, and grew more and more eager after the gold, and paid less and less heed to his people. Rapidly they sank toward their old wickedness. But still the king went on mining, and coining gold by the pailful, until the people were worse even than in the old time. And so greedy was the king after gold, that when at last the ore began to fail, he caused the miners to reduce the pillars which Peter and they that followed him had left standing to bear the city. And from the girth of an oak of a thousand years, they chipped them down to that of a fir tree of fifty.

One day at noon, when life was at its highest, the whole city fell with a roaring crash. The cries of men and the shrieks of women went up with its dust, and then there was a great silence.

Where the mighty rock once towered, crowded with homes and crowned with a palace, now rushes and raves a stone-obstructed rapid of the river. All around spreads a wilderness of wild deer, and the very name of Gwyntystorm had ceased from the lips of men.

Holy Cow! What was GMD doing with this children's story?! Seems to be sort of a cross between Saul, Midas and Atlantis.

I guess what I take from this (though it does confuse me) is that although George MacDonald believes in God's grace triumphing in the end over man's rebellion, he never minimizes the wickedness he sees, nor the effect of that wickedness. There is no "cheap grace" with George MacDonald.

Friday, November 05, 2004

The Avengers: GMD-->CSL?

CS Lewis wrote that he had never written a book without quoting from George MacDonald. When I first read that, before I had read any George MacDonald, I assumed Lewis was using hyperbole. Once I began to read MacDonald, I realized that, if anything, Lewis was understating the case.

I ran across what appears to be another example of MacDonald inspiring Lewis during this evening's nightly reading with my son from George MacDonald's The Princess and Curdie. In the chapter, The Vengeance, several "cob's creatures" -- misshapen beasts bred by the goblins in the mines, but now allied with Curdie, wreak vengeance upon the dishonest and faithless servants of the palace household:

The rest of the creatures now came stalking, rolling, leaping, gliding, hobbling into the room, and each as he came took the next place along the wall, until, solemn and grotesque, all stood ranged, awaiting orders.
'Go at them,' he [Curdie] said.
The whole nine-and-forty obeyed at once, each for himself, and after his own fashion. A scene of confusion and terror followed. The crowd scattered like a dance of flies. The creatures had been instructed not to hurt much, but to hunt incessantly, until everyone had rushed from the house. The women shrieked, and ran hither and thither through the hall, pursued each by her own horror, and snapped at by every other in passing. If one threw herself down in hysterical despair, she was instantly poked or clawed or nibbled up again.
There they were beginning to congratulate themselves that all was over, when in came the creatures trooping after them, and the second act of their terror and pain began. They were flung about in all directions; their clothes were torn from them; they were pinched and scratched any- and everywhere; Ballbody kept rolling up them and over them, confining his attentions to no one in particular; the scorpion kept grabbing at their legs with his huge pincers; a three-foot centipede kept screwing up their bodies, nipping as he went; varied as numerous were their woes....

This storyline seems to me strikingly similar to CS Lewis' Banquet at Belbury chapter of That Hideous Strength. In that chapter, an entire zoo of animals which had been caged and tormented at the NICE (National Institute for Coordinated Experiments) is released by Merlin and sent to wreak vengeance upon the hapless members of the institute as they finish their evening meal. Here are some extracts from that chapter:

Out of that confusion, with a howl of terror, broke the tiger. It happened so quickly that Mark hardly took it in. He saw the hideous head, the cat's snarl of the mouth, the flaming eyes ....

Then he caught out of the corner of his eye a glimpse of something smaller and greyer. He thought it was an Alsatian. If so, the dog was mad. It ran along the table, its tail between its legs, slavering. A woman, standing with her back to the table, turned, saw it, tried to scream, next moment went down as the creature leaped at her threat. It was a wolf ....

Something else had darted between his feet. Mark saw it streak across the floor and enter the scrum and wake that mass of interlocked terror into new and frantic convulsions. It was some kind of snake ....

Thud--thud--thud; the door was being battered from the outside ... At last the door gave. Both wings gave. The passage, framed in the doorway, was dark. Out of the darkness there came a grey snaky something. It swayed in the air; then began methodically to break off the splintered wood on each side and make the doorway clear. Then Mark saw distinctly how it swooped down, curled itself round a man ... and lifted him bodily high off the floor. After that, monstrous, improbable, the huge shape of the elephant thrust its way into the room: its eyes enigmatic, its ears standing stiffly out like the devil's wings on each side of its head....

In general, my desire here is to look at content discussed by GMD and others, rather than doing some sort of literary dissection (for which I am not qualified!). However, I couldn't help noticing the similarity here, and wondered if any other students of Lewis or MacDonald had noticed this?

The Princess and Curdie is a fairy tale, while Lewis writes in the introduction to That Hideous Strength that he intended the book to be a "modern day fairy tale" as well. One difference between these two episodes is that Lewis' account is far more lethal than MacDonald's: the cobs creatures kill no one, leaving open the possibility of their future reformation. Lewis' avengers kill ruthlessly. Could it be more than a coincidence that this difference is analogous to the difference between the two of them on mankind's eternal destiny? Lewis postulates the possibility, or even the likelihood, that eternal death is the final fate of many, while MacDonald seems unwilling to grant that even the devil is completely beyond the possibility of eventual redemption.