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.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

GMD on Religious Incantation

I enjoyed a little de-bunking George MacDonald did for today's reading from The Seaboard Parish. A somewhat overzealous Christian criticizes a carpenter for being too confident of his estimate of how soon the carpenter would be finished with his project. The parson steps in to the poor carpenter's defense:

"You shouldn't be sure of anything, Harry. We are told in the New Testament that we ought to say 'If the Lord Will', said Joe."

"You shouldn't be too hard upon Harry," I said. "You don't think that the Bible means to pull a man up every step like that, till he's afraid to speak a word? It was about a long journey and a year's residence that the Apostle James was speaking."

"No doubt, sir. But the principle's the same. Harry can no more be sure of finishing his work before it be dark, than those people could be of going their long journey."

"That is perfectly true. But you are taking the letter for the spirit, and that, I suspect, in more ways than one. The religion does not lie in not being sure about anything, but in a loving desire that the will of God in the matter, whatever it be, may be done. And if Harry has not learned yet to care about the will of God, what is the good of coming down upon him that way, as if that would teach him in the least. When he loves God, then, and not till then, will he care about his will."

I find this so refreshing. I'm sure that there are other "christianese incantations" I've heard that are unnecessary. But GMD criticizes not only the incantation itself, but the idea of trying to enforce a moral attitude on someone else through their speech.

Meanwhile, MacDonald continues with further criticism of the incantation:

Nor does the religion lie in saying, If the Lord will, every time anything is to be done. It is a most dangerous thing to use sacred words often. It makes them so common to our ear that at length, when used most solemnly, they have not half the effect they ought to have, and that is a serious loss. What the Apostle means is, that we should always be in the mood of looking up to God and having regard to his will, not always writing D.V. for instance, as so many do---most irreverently, I think---using a Latin contraction for the beautiful words, just as if they were a charm, or as if God would take offence if they did not make the salvo of acknowledgment. It seems to me quite heathenish.

(D.V. is "Deo volente" = "God Willing", by the way.) George MacDonald seems to me to be on pretty solid ground here, especially in the context of Jesus' instructions to his disciples:

But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking.
Matthew 6:7.

(Or check out the same passage in this version for a suprising slam on some Christianese.)

MacDonald wraps up the whole discussion with the following:

Our hearts ought ever to be in the spirit of those words; our lips ought to utter them rarely. Besides, there are some things a man might be pretty sure the Lord wills."

And that final line is not only cute (one can almost see the smirk on MacDonald's face as he says it), but echoes the book by Garry Friesen, Decision Making and the Will of God: the thesis that God's will is not some mysterious hidden thing which you might miss by accident, but is something revealed through the Bible and through our conscience, and is usually pretty straightforward. This book really impacted me when I was in school. It's a little disturbing to me that it's already 25 years old! It was quite controversial when I first read it. Perhaps less so now?