Thomas Wingfold, Curate: Faith and Atheism in George MacDonald

I do not know how to review the novel Thomas Wingfold, Curate by George MacDonald. If I were to assess it as I would any other work of realistic fiction, I could only give it two stars out of a possible five. At least for me, the characters never became anything like real beings. Too often they appear simply as representatives of the theological views and spiritual states that the author has assigned them. And I have to admit that due to the prolixity of MacDonald’s writing, I found myself occasionally rushing through some sections. I can understand (though I certainly do not approve) why some individuals have taken it upon themselves to edit and shorten the novel to render it easier for modern readers.

And yet upon concluding the story I immediately recommended it to my wife—and that not just for fiendish reasons. Throughout it all MacDonald ably communicates his deep evangelical faith. Despite its flaws, I found the book spiritually edifying and uplifting. It is a story of spiritual awakening, and who among us does not need to be awakened?

What held my attention in particular is the ongoing debate between belief and disbelief. If it were not for MacDonald’s writing style, one might think one had stepped into a conversation between a mystical Christian and a new atheist. I say “mystical Christian” because “evangelical” really does not capture the kind of faith here characterized. MacDonald was no ordinary Protestant.

The tale begins with Thomas Wingfold, the local vicar, being challenged by a a confident, articulate lawyer, George Bascombe. Bascombe understands the mission of his life to rescue Christians from their superstition, irrationalism, dishonesty and delusion and bring them into the clear light of rational disbelief. Bascombe’s challenge initiates a spiritual crisis in the young curate’s life. Fortunately for him, providence leads Wingfold to a wise and spiritually mature dwarf, Joseph Polwarth. Wingfold commits himself to discovering whether God in fact exists.

Why should one believe in God? MacDonald does not challenge Bascombe’s atheism by providing rationalistic proofs of God’s existence. He is skeptical that such proofs can be provided or whether they can be of any service to anyone. As Polwarth explains to Wingfold:

My dear sir, no conviction can be got, or if it could be got, would be of any sufficing value, through that dealer in second-hand goods, the intellect. If by it we could prove there is a God, it would be of small avail indeed: we must see him and know him, to know that he was not a demon. But I know no other way of knowing that there is a God but that which reveals WHAT he is—the only idea that could be God—shows him in his own self-proving existence—and that way is Jesus Christ as he revealed himself on earth, and as he is revealed afresh to every heart that seeks to know the truth concerning him.

Only through spiritual experience, through prayer and meditation upon the biblical narrative of Jesus, can one come to know (or not know) whether God exists. An awakening must occur.

Bascombe is confident in his skepticism. God is not a question for him. He does not understand why anyone would worry himself about it. Bascombe lives only on the surface of life. He has not known deep suffering. He has never wrestled with the profound questions posed to human beings by their mortality. Hence he is incapable of seriously entertaining the possibility that God might be known by other means than empirical reason: “That region of a man’s nature which has to do with the unknown was in Bascombe shut off by a wall without chink or cranny; he was unaware of its existence. He had come out of the darkness, and was going back into the darkness; all that lay between, plain and clear, he had to do with—nothing more.”

To the militant atheism of Bascombe, MacDonald offers a two-pronged response:

First, the atheist claims too much for his disbelief. How can one be convinced that the transcendent Creator does not exist, simply because one cannot demonstrate his existence as one might demonstrate the existence of the table in front of us?

“But truth is truth,” George would have replied.

What you profess to teach them might be a fact, but could never be a truth, I answer. And the very value which you falsely put upon facts you have learned to attribute to them from the supposed existence of something at the root of all facts—namely, TRUTHS, or eternal laws of being. Still, if you believe that men will be happier from learning your discovery that there is no God, preach it, and prosper in proportion to its truth. No; that from my pen would be a curse—no, preach it not, I say, until you have searched all spaces of space, up and down, in greatness and smallness—where I grant indeed, but you cannot know, that you will not find him—and all regions of thought and feeling, all the unknown mental universe of possible discovery—preach it not until you have searched that also, I say, lest what you count a truth should prove to be no fact, and there should after all be somewhere, somehow, a very, living God, a Truth indeed, in whom is the universe. If you say, “But I am convinced there is none,” I answer—You may be convinced that there is no God such as this or that in whom men imagine they believe, but you cannot be convinced there is no God. (my emphasis)

The atheist cannot claim he knows God does not exist unless he has himself engaged in a searching of “all regions of thought and feeling, all the unknown mental universe of possible discovery”—and perhaps not even then, even after he feels that he has exhausted all avenues.

But MacDonald’s most powerful response to atheism is its utter hopelessness. If atheism is true, then we find ourselves trapped in an absurd existence that contradicts our deepest aspirations. Again the spiritual master Polwarth:

Either the whole frame of existence is a wretched, miserable unfitness, a chaos with dreams of a world, a chaos in which the higher is for ever subject to the lower, or it is an embodied idea growing towards perfection in him who is the one perfect creative Idea, the Father of lights, who suffers himself that he may bring his many sons into the glory which is his own glory

How silly, thinks MacDonald, to reject the possibility of a divine Creator when we cannot rationally prove his non-existence. Why should any human being prematurely cut himself off from salvific union with God before he has sought this God with all of his heart and mind and being. Helen Lingard begins the novel as a nominal Christian and quickly comes under the influence of Bascombe’s skepticism; yet after the death of her brother, she increasingly finds his skepticism empty and barren. Perhaps it would be better, she thinks to herself, to “cherish a sweet deception for the comfort of the moment in which the weaver’s shuttle flew, than take to her bosom a cold killing fact.” MacDonald the narrator comments:

Such were indeed an unworthy feeling to follow! Of all things let us have the truth—even of fact! But to deny what we cannot prove, not even casts into our ice-house a spadeful of snow. What if the warm hope denied should be the truth after all? What if it was the truth in it that drew the soul towards it by its indwelling reality, and its relations with her being, even while she took blame for suffering herself to be enticed by a sweet deception? Alas indeed for men if the life and the truth are not one, but fight against each other! Surely it says something for the divine nature of him that denies the divine, when he yet cleaves to what he thinks the truth, although it denies the life, and blots the way to the better from every chart!

MacDonald disapproves of every form of self-deception. “If the facts of life are those of George Bascombe’s endorsing,” he writes, “—AND HE CAN PROVE IT—let us by all means learn and accept them, be they the worst possible.” But in the absence of decisive proof, the one who desires to find God is entitled to continue his search: “Meantime there are truths that ought to be facts, and until he has proved that there is no God, some of us will go feeling after him if haply we may find him, and in him the truths we long to find true.”

As the story draws near to conclusion, Bascombe finally proposes matrimony to Helen, still thinking that she remains his disciple. To his shock, and perhaps also to the reader’s, she emphatically rejects his proposal and rejects his skepticism. This wonderful passage deserves to be quoted in full:

“I have given you the advantage, George, and wronged myself. But I don’t care MUCH. I shall only take the better courage to speak my mind.—You come asking me to love you, and my brother lying mouldering in the earth—all there is of him, you tell me! If you believed he was alive still, and I should find him again some day, there would be no reason why you should not speak of love even now; for where does anyone need love more than at the brink of the grave? But to come talking of love to me, with the same voice that has but just been teaching me that the grave is the end of all, and my brother gone down into it for ever—I tell you, cousin—I must say it—it seems to me hardly decent. For me at least—I will NOT be loved with the love that can calmly accept such a fate. And I will never love any man, believing that, if I outlive him, my love must thereafter be but a homeless torrent, falling ever into a bottomless abyss. Why should I make of my heart a roaring furnace of regrets and self-accusations? The memory of my brother is for me enough. Let me keep what freedom is possible to me; let me rather live the life of a cold-blooded animal, and die in the ice that gathers about me. But before I sit down to await such an end, I shall know whether I am indeed compelled to believe as you do that there is no God, that Death is my lord and master, that he will take me as he has taken my brother and yet I shall never see him more. No, cousin George, I need a God; and if there be none how did I come to need one? Yes, I know you think you can explain it all, but the way you account for it is just as miserable as what you would put in its place. I am not complete in myself like you. I am not able to live without a God. I will seek him until I find him, or drop into the abyss where all question and answer ceases. Then in the end I shall be no worse than you would have me at the beginning—no, it will be nothing so bad, for then I shall not know my misery as you would have me know it now. If we are creatures of nothing, in spite of all the outcry of our souls against that fate, what mighty matter is it if, thus utterly befooled of Nature, we should also a little fool ourselves, by believing in a lovely hope that looks like a promise, and seems as if it ought to be true? How can a devotion to the facts of her existence be required of one whose nature has been proved to her a lie?—You speak from the facts of your nature, George; I speak from the facts of mine.”

Helen had come awake at last! It would have suited George better had she remained a half-quickened statue, responsive only to himself, her not over-potent Pygmalion. He sat speechless—with his eyes fixed on her.

“You need no God,” she went on, “therefore you seek none. If you need none, you are right to seek none, I dare say. But I need a God—oh, I cannot tell how I need him, if he be to be found! and by the same reasoning I will give my life to the search for him. To the last I will go on seeking him, for if once I give in, and confess there is no God, I shall go mad—mad, and perhaps kill somebody like poor Poldie. George, I have said my say. I would not have come into the garden but to say it. Good-bye.”

Helen then walks off. George sits by himself for a few minutes, and finally remarks, “Well, I’m damned!” The narrator comments: “And so he was—for the time—and a very good thing too, for he required it.”

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13 Responses to Thomas Wingfold, Curate: Faith and Atheism in George MacDonald

  1. Edward says:

    Father Aidan,
    I’ve had the book on my ipad for a year now, but have not yet read it. I think you’ve convinced me to give it a whirl.

    Ed

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  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Why, that young woman could be a Marshwiggle!

    I’ll echo Edward: I haven’t read a ‘realistic’ MacDonald in years (though I have enjoyed every one of the several I’ve read), but you’ve got me feeling like doing so again, soon!

    Kathy Triggs in her ‘portrait’, The Stars and the Stillness (1986), writes that Wingfold was “one of MacDonald’s favourite characters. He also appears in Paul Faber, Surgeon and There and Back.” I have read none of these (yet).

    I will just note that anyone who wants to try having Thomas Wingfold, Curate read aloud to them (by a variety of voices) can do so at LibriVox.org – though it will take them nearly 19 hours.

    And I will add, in response to your saying, “I can understand (though I certainly do not approve) why some individuals have taken it upon themselves to edit and shorten the novel to render it easier for modern readers”, that I know from corresponding with one such abridger of various MacDonald novels that it was his express purpose to facilitate reprints of the original works – and hope to encourage people who liked the abridgements to go on and try them!

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  3. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    If anyone is on Facebook, take a look at the George MacDonald Society page. Folks are discussing Thomas Wingfold, Curate. It’s interesting to see the different responses people have to the novel.

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  4. Hi, I followed the link here from the Facebook page. It’s been years since I read Wingfold but I am considering reading it again. I quite enjoyed it the first time. George MacDonald has been making an impact on my life since I was eight but more so this year as I have recently read Unspoken Sermons which I highly recommend. It has revolutionized my faith and inspired me to be even more contemplative minded and believe in the love of God in a more expansive, more grander way than ever before.

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  5. I can’t believe I’ve never really engaged with G Macdonald, after all that blessed jack – cs -Lewis (pray for us) said about him. Have just ordered unspoken sermons (from the evil empire, unfortunately, couldn’t find them anywhere else).

    Here goes..
    Thank you for this.

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  6. Jonathan says:

    I heartily second the recommendation to read MacDonald’s Unspoken Sermons. All three series can be accessed for free here: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/9057 (there are various options to download or read online)

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  7. Connie says:

    “… and that not just for fiendish reasons.” lol

    It’s true that most of MacDonald’s realistic fiction is nothing but a platform for his little sermonettes, but what gems they are! His Seaboard Parish series is very quiet and uneventful, with hardly even a plot to it. But throughout the book MacDonald succeeds in making the commonplace feel magical. “Splendor in the ordinary” (to borrow a phrase from Thomas Howard) seems to define MacDonald’s work.

    Also, for those who appreciate the mythopoeia of Lewis’ space trilogy, MacDonald’s Phantastes and Lilith are simply superb, death to self being the most prevalent theme in both.

    You can get a complete collection of his writings, fairy tales, fantasies, novels (unabridged) and Unspoken Sermons, etc., for only $2.99 on kindle from Amazon. Many of his individual books are free.

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  8. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    It is worth adding to Jonathan’s suggestion and my earlier one, that there are not only lots of MacDonald’s books at Project Gutenberg, but that the Internet Archive has a great number of scans of books by him (sometimes including the same titles scanned from different libraries): find by searching for:

    MacDonald, George, 1824-1905

    It also includes Gutenberg’s in the list that comes up.

    (If you search simply for his name, you also get some things about him, as well as things by and about ‘overlapping-named authors’ !)

    LbriVox.org also has many MacDonald works read aloud by volunteers: including Unspoken Sermons.

    Two volumes worth mentioning in addition to Unspoken Sermons are The Miracles of Our Lord (1870) and The Hope of the Gospel (1892), which could be described as ‘unspoken sermons’ as well: both are read aloud at LibriVox and scanned in the Internet Archive.

    Worth mentioning also is Lewis’s Macdonald Anthology, 365 little excerpts from his works to read one-a- day: I have done this a couple times with pleasure!

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  9. C.S. Lewis introduced me – been reading Mr. MacDonald’s books wherever I have found them. Just re-read Phantastes – amazing how much more you see on re- reading something with such spiritual depth! Lilith is a strong favorite too.

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  10. joel in ga says:

    I have read George MacDonald’s novels for such passages as you quoted. His influence on C. S. Lewis is evident. After reading MacDonald’s biography–which sports a preface by G. K. Chesteron–I managed to go another generation back, finding what I perceived to be a similar influence on MacDonald, the works of his friend, Frederick Denison Maurice. Going back still further, Maurice was influenced by Thomas Erskine of Linlathen.

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