The Whimsical Christian, by Dorothy Sayers, is an intriguing book to say the least. I have written about a couple of her books, The Mind of the Maker and Creed or Chaos?, in the past. My posts on The Mind of the Maker (HERE, HERE, and HERE) still rank among the most read on this blog.
Creed or Chaos? was a bit of a let down, but for good reason. The Mind of the Maker is hands-down one of the best books I have ever read. I read the book almost by sheer accident, having found it in a thrift store and knowing nothing about it other than the fact that I had come across the name of Dorothy Sayers in relation to C.S. Lewis.
The book was tough sledding. I felt as though I slogged through it. There were times when I just wanted to stop reading it, but I just never stopped. And the end result was life-changing. Sayers’ analogy of God and the creative mind of man is a game changer. I will not get into specifics at the moment, but I use things I learned from that book almost every week in one way or another.
There have been two game changers in The Whimsical Christian: the essays Toward a Christian Esthetic and Creative Mind. I will deal with both in due time, but for now I want to record one particular line of thought from Creative Mind.
In my defense of God as creator, I have often pointed out that the biblical record is that God created man and woman, along with the earliest plants and animals, along with every rock and grain of sand, in mature form. We do not know precisely what that ‘mature form’ looked like, but we know that the earliest apple tree did not spring from a seed; rather, it sprung, in maturity, wholly from the creative decree of God. If you looked at Adam, you might have said, ‘He’s probably 20 or 30 or 180 years old, who knows?’I do not have a strict opinion on the age of the universe, but I have sometimes joked that God may have just created the world the way he did to mess with our scientists. Again, that’s a joke. But Sayers actually gives winsome teeth to a similar idea – if the world is younger than it appears, it is simply a part of his craft as an artist:
It was scarcely possible to suppose any longer that God had created each species – to quote the test of Paradise Lost – ‘perfect forms, limb’d, and full grown,’ except on what seemed the extravagant assumption that, when creating the universe, he had at the same time provided it with evidence of a purely imaginary past that had never had any actual existence. Now, the first thing to be said about this famous quarrel is that the churchmen need never have been perturbed at all about the method of creation, if they had remembered that the Book of Genesis was a book of poetical truth, and not intended as a scientific handbook of geology. They got into their difficulty, to a large extent, through having unwittingly slipped into accepting the scientist’s concept of the use of language, and supposing that a thing could not be true unless it was amenable to quantitative methods of proof. Eventually, and with many slips by the way, they contrived to clamber out of this false position; and today no reasonable theologian is at all perturbed by the idea that created was effected by evolutionary methods. But, if the theologians had not lost touch with the nature of language; if they had not insensibly fallen into the eighteenth-century conception of the universe as a mechanism and God as the great engineer; if, instead they had chosen to think of God as a great, imaginative artist – then they might have offered a quite different kind of interpretation of the facts, with rather entertaining consequences. They might, in fact have seriously put forward the explanation I mentioned just now: that God had at some moment or other created the universe complete with all the vestiges of an imaginary past.
I have said that this seemed an extravagant assumption; so it does, if one thinks of God as a mechanician. But if one thinks of him as working in the same sort of way as a creative artist, then it no longer seems extravagant, but the most natural thing in the world. It is the way every novel in the world is written.
Every serious novelist starts with some or all of his characters ‘in perfect form and fully grown,’ complete with their pasts. Their present is conditioned by a past that exists, not fully on paper, but fully or partially in the creator’s imagination…
-Dorothy Sayers, Creative Mind, from The Whimsical Christian, pp. 106-107
The argument is simple: Every novel contains a story. Every story exists as a complete ‘creation’ within itself. Nothing outside of that creation can be said to truly exist within the story. Yet for every story there is a back story: it could be the exposition, or it could simply be things the author is presupposing in order to create the story. The bottom line is that the novel often begins with a fully mature character who appears in complete maturity. This maturity may include many warts and flaws, but those warts and flaws are purely a result of the imagination of the author and their cause may or may not be part of the narrative. They may exist purely in the mind of the author and therefore never enter into the actual ‘revelation’ or into the ‘creation’ itself.
Notice also that Sayers uses a ‘poetical’ reading of Genesis to actually argue against the scientists. When folks today attempt to postulate Genesis 1-3 as poetic, it is usually for the opposite reason. Interesting.
Sayers says that applying this type of thinking to our ideas about creation could be entertaining. Indeed.
She pins down most of our problems as ‘creationists’ to our assimilation of modern scientific categories. We, like so much secular Scientism, tend to view the creation as mechanistic. We have taken the watchmaker argument and reasoned that God actually made a watch. Instead, we should be more concerned with the fact that God has made an artistic story. We should consider the words of the Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev, whom she quotes: “God created the world by imagination.” He imagines and speaks; and things imagined become reality. “…Even God, who quickeneth the dead, and calleth those things which be not as though they were” (Rom. 4:17).
In this framework, of God as Creator in the sense of God as Artist, doctrines like predestination and divine providence are no longer abstract philosophical notions, but essential elements of his art. Of course an author predestines his characters; of course he causes circumstances to develop in a certain way in order to accomplish certain preordained ends. Of course he allows the drama of evil to enter the story, how else could there be a story? And of course he creates mature worlds with the appearance of age. That’s what artists do. He just gets to do it with real dirt, whereas we can only put ink on paper that comes from the real trees he has created.
Throw a narrative wrench into the mechanistic gears. The results could be entertaining.