“I cannot see what harm would come of letting us know a little—as much at least as might serve to assure us that there was more of something on the other side.”
“Just this; that, their fears allayed, their hopes encouraged from any lower quarter, men would (as usual) turn away from the Fountain, to the cistern of life…
“That there are thousands who would forget God if they could but be assured of such a tolerable state of things beyond the grave as even this wherein we now live, is plainly to be anticipated from the fact that the doubts of so many in respect of religion concentrate themselves nowadays upon the question whether there is any life beyond the grave; a question which… does not immediately belong to religion at all.
“Satisfy such people, if you can, that they shall live, and what have they gained? A little comfort perhaps—but a comfort not from the highest source, and possibly gained too soon for their well-being. Does it bring them any nearer to God than they were before? Is He filling one cranny more of their hearts in consequence?”
George MacDonald, Thomas Wingfold, Curate
Reflection – Our journey this week with great Protestant writers takes us from Bonhoeffer yesterday in Nazi Germany to 19th century Scotland and the great Presbyterian minister and author George MacDonald (Updated to correct: by the end of his life, he had become Church of England). Known today primarily for his children’s stories (The Princess and the Goblin, etc.), and for his influence on C.S. Lewis, he was a prolific novelist and writer of Christian theology.
This excerpt, plucked more or less at random from an anthology of his writings edited by Lewis, raises very profound questions within the context of the silence of God and the demands of faith as opposed to absolute knowledge.
The fact is, all the testimony of Scripture set aside, along with all the various visions vouchsafed to mystics over the centuries, the simple truth is neither you nor I nor anyone really knows what happens to us the minute after we die. We can believe all we like about it, and we can (and have) crafted rather strong philosophical arguments in favor of the existence of something immaterial in the human person that can then credibly be held to survive the death of the material body.
But we don’t know, and even if our philosophical understanding is strong enough that we assert actual knowledge of the immortal soul (which I think we can), we really don’t know what happens afterwards, what immortality would look like, and any specifics of the afterlife. Even the Scriptures are very scarce on details, of course.
Well, MacDonald suggests to us here that it would actually be pretty bad for us, spiritually and morally, if we did have a positive and definite knowledge of these matters that was vouchsafed to humanity in general. And in this, he is making a very perceptive statement about the nature of God, of faith, of humanity, that takes us beyond the specific question of life after death into much broader fields.
C.S. Lewis broached this question in one of his last works, the magnificent Til We Have Faces, which I always rank among my all time favorite books. ‘Why are holy places dark places?’ is his formulation of it. Why is God hidden from man? Why the mystery, why the lack of positive, definite knowledge? Why doesn’t God just show Himself plainly and speak plainly and make His existence and will so utterly clear and lucid to us that everyone can see what it is and act accordingly? What’s with all the hide and seek? Is God playing games with us? Because… with all due respect, it’s not a very fun game, Lord!
I will leave you to discover C.S. Lewis’ answer to that question in that book, if you haven’t already (it is, in my view, his greatest work, and well worth tracking down). But MacDonald suggests here, in the context of life after death, that it simply would not be good for us to know too much, to have too much certainty at this point of our spiritual journey.
Too much knowledge at too soon a stage is not necessarily a good thing. We have all seen (and perhaps, alas, know from first hand) that a child who is exposed to too much knowledge about the world and its ways at too young an age does not grow well. Jaundiced cynicism, that sad parody of wisdom, is the result. Children should be given knowledge of the world and all its good and evil gradually and according to their capacity to absorb it.
Well, we are all, spiritually, children, whether we like to admit it or not. And it is the wisdom of our Father in heaven that it simply would not be good for us to know too much about the deep mysteries of life and death right now. In our perverse wills and fallen intellects, too much knowledge would coarsen us or make us complacent or indifferent or blasé.
‘Familiarity breeds contempt’. God never allows us to become familiar with Him, and this is a very good thing for us. ‘Stay thirsty, my friends,’ says the Most Interesting Man in the World (ahem), and this is good wisdom found, oddly, in the genre of a beer advertisement.