George MacDonald wrote during the Victorian Era when scientific reasoning was taking hold as the predominate means of knowing. The Victorian mind often disregarded God and rejected the imaginative function as a way to understand the world. Many Victorians distrusted the imagination and treated it as a lower and irrational way of knowing, while accepting rationalism as the superior way of reasoning. In his essay, “The Two Worlds of George MacDonald,” Stephen Prickett observes that MacDonald faced a culture that was predominantly concerned with “rationaliz[ing] and where possible demythologiz[ing] the long record of man’s awareness of the [spiritual]” (19). Prickett describes the age as “probably the most profoundly self-critical age in English history” (qtd. in Hilder, “George MacDonald’s” 177), one full of religious doubt that created a “spiritual vacuum” (The Romantics 116) filled by skepticism. Gilliam Avery writes, “George MacDonald was born in one of the bleakest periods of children’s literature . . . [where] imagination in itself was held to be evil, and all that was not actual fact was a lie and therefore damnably wicked” (qtd. in Hilder, “George MacDonald’s” 176). In spite of this adversity, MacDonald believed that rationalism was in fact irrational because it sought to separate human reasoning from the imagination. MacDonald once wrote that imagination “is the faculty which gives form to thought” that helps us “to inquire into what God has made” (Orts 2), and invites us to take part in the greater nature of our inquiries. MacDonald then views our imagination as the primary epistemological approach that guides us to a theological end. In other words, imagination has the ability to teach us to recognize the wonder of God in all of Creation—MacDonald refers to this as the “wise imagination” (Orts 28). He writes:
In very truth, a wise imagination, which is the presence of the spirit of God, is the best guide that man or woman can have; for it is not the things we see the most clearly that influence us the most powerfully; undefined, yet vivid visions of something beyond, something which eye has not seen nor ear heard, have far more influence than any logical sequences whereby the same things may be demonstrated to the intellect. (Orts 28)
The Victorian mind was besieged by waves of skepticism, materialism, and nihilism, and in an era where rationalistic discourse was privileged over imaginative discourse, MacDonald asked his readers to embrace imagination as the spiritual faculty that bridged the gulf “between that which makes in its own image and that which is made in that image” (Orts 3). He stressed the use of such symbolism because it refutes the reductive nature of rationalism by asking readers to look beyond the materialistic world.
The term moral imagination originated with Edmund Burke (Schakel, Imagination 163), and describes the theoretical position that any life-shaping education must include the imagination. MacDonald’s own understanding of the imagination was largely shaped by the thinking of Romantic writers such as Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Novalis. These Romantic thinkers helped MacDonald form his belief that Nature is a symbol that points people to the divine, and that these symbols are understandable with the help of the imagination.
MacDonald trusts the symbolic nature of his writing to carry his message of the moral imagination, and believes that some truth that comes from intuitive experiences cannot be grasped by mere rationalism. In contrast to rationalism, with its wariness of emotional and experiential understanding, MacDonald regards the wise imagination as the primary means to wisdom. He thinks of the wise imagination as being open to the divine: “The imagination is the light which redeems from the darkness for the eyes of understanding” (Orts 14). This is imagination and reason collaborating for the purpose of holistically directing the gaze of all humanity to a transcendent God. MacDonald explains:
Man is not divided when the manifestations of his life are distinguished. The intellect “is all in every part.” There was no imagination without intellect, however much it may appear that intellect can exist without imagination. What we mean to insist upon is, that in finding out the works of God, the Intellect must labour, workman-like, under the direction of the architect, Imagination. (Orts 11)
George MacDonald writes, “the best thing you can do for your fellow, next to rousing his conscience, is—not to give him things to think about, but to wake things up that are in him” (Dish of Orts). Our “wise imagination” then proceeds from and therefore reveals our divine likeness, and opens our eyes to the vision of the divine in both nature and humanity.