(Cross-posted from Street Prophets. This is a piece I've been chewing on for a while about what those of us who are Christians do when we butt heads against people who don't see the same things we do. I hope my friends who have other beliefs will bear with me.)
George MacDonald was a penniless Scottish clergyman who turned to writing to support his family. He fused his no-nonsense Scotch theology with his vivid imagianation to produce some of the most enduring fantasy works of the Victorian Era. Neil Gaiman has cited MacDonald as an influence and C.S. Lewis regarded him as a mentor, once writing: "I have never concealed the fact that I regarded him as my master; indeed I fancy I have never written a book in which I did not quote from him."
I was reading The Princess and the Goblin, one of MacDonald’s fantasy works for children, to my youngest daughter recently, and came across a passage that struck me as having something to say about Belief and what happens when Belief meets Disbelief.
Princess Irene, the heroine of the story, is an 8-year-old girl who lives in a big house near the foot of a great mountain. Guided by an invisible thread given to her by her magical great-great-grandmother, Irene has gone into the labrynthine tunnels under the mountains and rescued Curdie, a miner boy who had been imprisoned by the Goblins. Once safely on the surface, Irene offers to take Curdie to meet her grandmother.
Now Curdie can’t see Irene’s invisible thread. He can’t even feel it. And Irene’s story about a magical grandmother living in her attic sounds completely fanciful to him. He followed Irene out of the tunnels because he didn’t know the way himself and he figured that she could do no worse than he under the circumstances. He can’t understand how a little girl like her could find her way safely out of the goblin mines; neither can he understand why such a sweet and earnest little girl keeps insisting on such outrageous stories. But he agrees to follow Irene up the three narrow flights of stairs to the attic tower where she claims her great-great-grandmother lives.
‘I’ve brought Curdie, grandmother. He wouldn’t believe what I told him and so I’ve brought him.’Indeed, Curdie doesn’t believe Irene’s story. And he doesn’t see her beautiful grandmother and the fire of roses and beautiful blue bed and the shining lamp just like a little moon -- he doesn’t see her grandmother at all. All he sees is an empty room with a stool, a tub, and a pile of straw in the corner, and he hears nothing but the cooing of pigeons in the loft adjacent to the room. He doesn’t believe it. He can’t believe it. And he tells Irene so.
‘Yes -- I see him. He is a good boy, Curdie, and a brave boy. Aren’t you glad you’ve got him out?’
‘Yes, grandmother. But it wasn’t very good of him not to believe me when I was telling him the truth.’
‘People must believe what they can, and those who believe msut not be hard upon those who believe less. I doubt if you would have believed it all yourself if you hadn’t seen some of it.’
‘Ah! Yes, grandmother, I dare say. I’m sure you are right. But he’ll beleive now.’
‘I don’t know that,’ replied her grandmother.
This really vexes Irene. She’s used to her nurse, Lootie, not beleiving her, because, to be honest, Lootie is rather foolish; but Curdie is clever and brave and even imaginative; and he’s a good person. Why won’t he believe her?
‘You must give him time,’ said her grandmother; ‘and you must be content not to be believed for a while. It is very hard to bear; but I have had to bear it, and shall have to bear it many a time yet. I will take care of what Curdie thinks of you in the end. You must let him go now.’After Curdie leaves, Irene and her grandmother discuss this further.
‘What does it all mean, grandmother?’ she sobbed, and burst into fresh tears.Now, I imagine to an agnostic all this about “not yet able to believe some things” must seem awfully condescending. It would be perhaps more palatable to say, “We must respect the religious beliefs of those who disagree with us because we might be wrong ourselves.” But in the story Irene’s magical grandmother is real. That’s a given. There’s no doubt that Curdie is mistaken and Irene is right. Perhaps we could re-write the story so that she was only a figment of Irene’s imagination and that Irene’s adventures were guided solely by luck or by non-magical factors, but then it wouldn’t be the same story.
‘It means, my love, that I did not mean to show myself. Curdie is not yet able to believe some things. Seeing is not believing. It is only seeing. You remember I told you that if Lootie were to see me, she would rub her eyes, forget the half she saw, and call the other half nonsense,’
‘Yes, but I should have thought Curdie --’
‘You are right. Curdie is much farther on than Lootie, and you will see what will come of it But in the meantime you must be content, I say, to be misunderstood for a while. We are all very anxious to be understood, and it is very hard not to be. But there is one thing much more necessary.’
‘What is that, grandmother?’
‘To understand other people.’
But in any case, it is not the skeptical Curdie who needs a lesson in this chapter; it is Irene. And that lesson is to respect people even if they don’t believe the same thing as you do -- not because they may be right in their own beliefs, but because it is the right thing to do.
Irene gets the message:
‘Yes, grandmother, I must be fair -- for if I’m not fair to other people, I’m not worth being understood myself...’Why don’t we Christians understand that? I suspect it’s because we have this ingrained attitude that evangelism is some kind of rhetorical arm-wrestling match, a competition to be won rather than an opportunity to share. We get focused on winning and on seeing the other person as an opponent rather than as another person. And I think we take too literally the admonition of the King in the parable who tells his servants to “Go into the highways and the byways and compel them to come in.”
The truth is that we don’t “bring souls to Christ,” as the saying goes. The best we can do is bring the message of Christ to others and trust the Holy Spirit to work in their hearts. As Luther once said, no one will be dragged into Heaven by the hair.
I’ve said before that the Witness’s job in a court of law is not to persuade the Jury; the Witness is there only to say what he knows and what he has experienced. The job of convincing people falls to the Counsellor, which we know is another name for the Holy Spirit.
But when we get caught up in the competition, and we lose track of where our priorities should lie. We concentrate so much on vindicating our Faith that we forget to listen to the other person
Perhaps if we concentrated less on being Right, we might find Irene’s invisible thread and let it lead us where we need to go.