The writer of Psalm 42 is “in despair” and cries out to the Lord in the midst of his tribulation, “All Thy breakers and waves have rolled over me,” he laments.[1] The tumult and roar of the seas is a metaphor for distress. Even in the midst of being “cast down” the psalmist had employed his imagination in seeking to understand what God hath wrought.[2] George MacDonald, whose works ignited a young C.S. Lewis’s imaginative creativity, well understood the critical role imagination plays in our exploration of the heavens and the earth. “To inquire what God has made,” he writes, “is the main function of the imagination. It is aroused by facts, is nourished by facts; seeks for higher and yet higher laws in those facts; but refuses to regard science as the sole interpreter of nature, or the laws of science as the only region of discovery.”[3]

But just a cursory glance at the way in which the modern world treats sorrow and interprets the world around us shows how the “laws of science” have nearly become “the only region of discovery” in man’s quest to understand and interpret himself and his surroundings as well as alleviate his mental and emotional suffering. The heavens and the earth are cosmic accidents. Man is mere chemicals. Sorrow is mere chemistry.

The thought that the physical universe has no purpose or that we are merely a complex, accidental amalgam of chemicals is, however, a by-product of the imagination, though an imagination decimated by the blight of a dull, monochromatic view of ourselves within the cosmos. Man does not not imagine. MacDonald believes the “imagination is that faculty which gives form to thought.”[4] If, for example, modern culture views sadness as merely a chemical imbalance, the only response moderns can “imagine” is to counter such despair with science and its laws. What other options may be available cannot be imagined.

This, however, is not a treatise on the efficacy of depression medications or on contemporary science and its laws, but a brief look at how MacDonald’s insights about the imagination might serve as a creative starting point for a redemptive transformation of the mind of a culture which has unimaginatively constrained itself to “science” and the “laws of science as the only region of discovery.” Hopefully, through a careful examination of MacDonald’s “orts”, those “fragmentary presentments of larger meditation” on the imagination he offers to us in his “dish”, we’ll be able to glean some health-giving nourishment and inspiration to counter the otherwise attenuated “orts” which presently emanate from the insipid mortar and pestle of modernity.[5]

There are two particular overarching “orts” — things, thoughts — from MacDonald’s dish worthy of careful consideration which might help facilitate such cultural transformation. How can MacDonald help us? First, he suggests that for man created in God’s image as a participant in creation, “the world around him is an outward figuration of the condition of his mind; an inexhaustible storehouse of forms whence he may choose exponents.”[6] The created order, in other words, is a place from which we may draw inspiration and find expression in our earthly plight. The second is his belief that, “All the processes of the ages are God’s science; all the flow of history is his poetry. His sculpture is not in marble, but in living and speech-giving forms.”[7] In short, man’s existence and his participation in the created order, according to MacDonald, require the imagination in order for us to discover what God has done in and through these things. And in so doing, our minds and imaginations are transformed. Hope returns. And the hope which MacDonald offers us is an ancient one that does not disappoint.[8] Without a properly functioning imagination Christians are apologetically bereft of being able to “show . . . that which is invisible.”[9] With the aid of divinely inspired imagination, however, culture can become “an ordering of our life towards harmony with its ideal in the mind of God.”[10]

For MacDonald, it is the chief end of man’s imagination to “contemplate what the Hebrew poets call the works of His [God’s] hands.”[11] “For in everything that God has made,” he suggests, “there is layer upon layer of ascending significance.”[12] Arguably the pinnacle of God’s handiwork is man, fallen but also glorious, crowned a little lower than the angels, “the roof and crown of things.”[13] For MacDonald, the only way to interpret man’s significance and the significance of the universe, as well as the tacit dialectical tension between man’s sense of royalty and his unmitigated sense of despair, is in “following and finding out the divine imagination in whose image it was made.”[14] How to cosmically reconcile both man’s kingly and beggarly natures, for MacDonald, requires man to imaginatively seek after God through the created realm, through what He has made. “All that moves in the mind,” MacDonald suggests, is symbolized in Nature. For Nature is to him “an inexhaustible wardrobe for the clothing of human thought.”[15] And through Nature, through living in a fallen world, man is stretched through trial, through thirst and despair, being taught to understand that “what can be known must be known severely,” constantly paying attention to his surroundings to uncover what God is doing.[16] [17] “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter,” King Solomon observes, “But the glory of kings is to search out a matter.”[18] According to MacDonald, creation, “like a golden dish set with shining jewels, and adorned by the hands of the cunning workmen, stands finished before us” ready to give us a meaningful poetic defense and expression for the hope that is in us.[19] For “it is God’s things, his embodied thoughts, which alone a man has to use, modified and adapted to his own purposes, for the expression of his thoughts.”[20] And man, the fallen king with his lowly but glorious crown, thus begins to “learn to imagine greatly like God who made him, himself discovering their mysteries.”[21] Whether we rejoice or whether we suffer, the created realm is a storehouse of treasures for the divinely gifted imaginative faculties to convey to our fellows the true meaning and the wonder of the unseen realm. Look around! Look up! Our redemption is closer and more wonderful than we’ve yet imagined.[22]

In Psalm 42, for example, we encounter a man, weary from toiling in a fallen world, overtaken by a deep spiritual thirst for God, crying out for relief. He longs to put off his heavy burdens of mortality and drink from water which will eternally quench his thirst. But how best to express this? How to convey what remains invisible, the spiritual thirst, to his fellows? For MacDonald, it requires the imagination. Psalm 42 might serve as a singular example of how MacDonald viewed the role of man’s imagination, as it begins with a simile linking man’s sufferings to the created realm and continues with several poetic allusions to water throughout. The writer compares his soul to that of a thirsty animal. “As the deer pants for the water brooks, so my soul pants for Thee O God.”[23] Even in the midst of his troubles, the psalmist’s imaginative faculties are at work. “Gazing about him in pain, he suddenly beholds the material form of his immaterial condition,” MacDonald says of the man who is at once gripped by trial but who is also imaginatively in tune with his surroundings. He sees a panting deer and realizes “There stands his thought! God thought it before him, and put its picture there ready for him when he wanted it.”[24] The parched deer the psalmist thus “seizes as the symbol, as the garment or body of his invisible thought,” whereby he “presents it to his friend, and his friend understands him.”[25] For MacDonald, this simile of invisible spiritual thirst is one ultimately “born of the spirit and not of the flesh, born of the imagination and not of the understanding, and is henceforth submitted to new laws of growth and modification.”[26] To pay attention to the created order, MacDonald argues, is to recognize that “there is the perception that this or that form is already an expression of this or that phase of thought or feeling.”[27] Through the divine gift of imagination, a man can not only articulate the “invisible” to himself, but to his fellow sufferers as well. As MacDonald notes, “A right imagination, being the reflex of creation, will fall in with the divine order of things as the highest form of its own operation.”[28] In having an expression in nature of our innermost difficulties, the burden has been somewhat eased.

For MacDonald, though, the imagination is not just for finding metaphors to express our troubles, but also to help us, to strengthen us, through the difficulties, through the fires and the waters that threaten to overwhelm us.[29] So what “orts” within the vault of the heavens and the earth might not only help express a man’s sorrow but also provide a means toward relieving it? Turning once more to Psalm 42, we see the writer expressing the depths of despair as being inundated by “breakers” and “waves.” More poetic references to the waters of earth, something by which all of mankind is surrounded. But at God’s command, they “stand up like a heap”, they are spoken to and they obey, “Thus far you shall come, and no farther.”[30] [31] With the use of such imaginative descriptions, these passages create a “noble unrest,” within man’s soul, “an ever renewed awakening from the dead, a ceaseless questioning,” that there is something, someone, above the mass of unruly seas.[32] [33] Like the fearful and wondering disciples we too might be prompted to ask, “Who then is this, that He commands even the winds and the water, and they obey Him?”[34] The fishermen were well acquainted with the tumultuous nature of the winds and waves. It is plain they learned a truth of Christ’s lordship over all of creation “severely.” By being placed directly within the tempestuous fury of Nature, they had seen “true visions.”[35] They didn’t just encounter their own helplessness, but a remedy for that helplessness. They learned by experience who ultimately stills the turbulent roaring of the winds and waves.[36] In the psalmist’s despair, he too understands what it’s like to be overwhelmed by “breakers” and “waves”, imaginatively equating despair to that same terrifying helplessness one experiences in the midst of a storm at sea. Again, as with the deer, the psalmist, “Gazing about him in pain … suddenly beholds the material form of his immaterial condition.” This time the material form is a significant amount of wind-tossed water. And it is out of the very center of this diluvial eucatastrophe that man’s “ceaseless questioning” arises.[37] We turn, not to a deer or to a ram caught in a thicket, but to God Himself, though we scarcely know it and cry out. “Do you not care that we are perishing?”[38] Here man is thrown into the midst of the seas where “An intermingling of Heaven’s pomp is spread / On ground which British shepherds tread!”[39] Heaven’s “pomp”, as is the case for our beleaguered psalmist and the storm-tossed disciples, often takes the form of chaos, on dry land or upon the waters. It is an “education” designed to awaken us.[40] It is thus the questioning man caught in the midst of a menacing tempest, who is perhaps most “in harmony with nature.”[41] His desperate interrogatives first cry of an awakening, a severe “searching out the things of God.”[42] He is on the narrow road which will eventually end in God wiping away his tears.

But without “regarding aright the imagination of God, in which the imagination of man lives moves and has its being,” according to MacDonald, man is consequently “shut up in speechlessness” and a great “Loneliness comes with it, for he would share his mind with his friend, and he cannot.”[43] The mortar and pestle of modernity crushes the divine imagination, dividing and separating man from himself and others. “Caught” in the invisible “hand” of a scientifically and fiscally oriented culture, the divine imagination is turned “to an insignificant, ugly thing.”[44] We don’t see God anywhere, not in nature, not in the heavens and certainly not in the daily grind of our everyday lives. A rigid, one-dimensional, purposeless causality takes over the interpretive reins. The cosmos was not created. Man is an accidental by-product of impersonal yet selective mechanisms, his blighted scientific imagination only able to picture himself as a “thin film of life on an obscure and solitary lump of rock and metal.”[45] When we suffer, we turn to science and not the sacraments. Our culture has lost its ability to imagine the deeper meanings of bread and wine and has come instead to believe and trust in the efficacy of the laboratory and not the altar.

“But how,” MacDonald asks, “can the imagination have anything to do with science? That region, at least, is governed by fixed laws” whereas the imagination ought to be solely confined to fairy tales, to merely “run riot” through “all the undiscovered, all the unexplored.”[46] To that modern sentiment, MacDonald resolutely says, “No.” Imagination is not dreaming up whatever simply comes to mind, it’s not something limited to just the land of make-believe, but it is rather a means by which man is fashioned more and more toward Christlikeness – to the will of God for the glory of God. “Licence [sic] is not what we claim when we assert the duty of the imagination to be that of following and finding out the work that God maketh.”[47] MacDonald’s imagination is a truer science; a much more imaginative and deeper examination of the rich, loamy soils of creation. Our universe is far more than its material constituents. For MacDonald, the imagination’s “duty” is to “understand God” before “she attempts to utter man.”[48] Without a proper understanding of God, man never can imagine going “beyond dull facts.”[49] This is where science leaves us, with factuality that means nothing beyond a complex interaction of chemicals. MacDonald cautions that even without reference to God,

The imagination will yet work, and if not for good, then for evil; if not for truth, then for falsehood; if not for life, then for death . . . The power that might have gone forth in conceiving the noblest forms of action, in realizing the lives of the true-hearted, the self-forgetting, will go forth in building airy castles of vain ambition, of boundless riches, of unearned admiration.[50]

These “airy castles” of a monotone materialism are where the dead and dying scientific imagination transforms the heavens into empty space and the earth into nothing more than a stage upon which man pursues vainglorious ambitions of fame and fortune, acquiring all he can before dissipating back into a loamy amalgam of atoms and the void. The lawless imagination takes no thoughts captive to the obedience of Christ, and for MacDonald, this tragic failure of the imagination is actually the terminus of man’s entire existence. The imaginative pharmacopoeia emanating from the mortar and pestle of scientific materialism is finally death itself. “Nothing lawless,” he warns, “can show in the least reason why it should exist.”[51] Overwhelmed with despair, modern man has no imaginative constructs with which he may compare or inquire more deeply into the meaning of his trials. The deer? Just another mammalian by-product of natural selection. The wind and waves? Random cosmic forces over which no one has any control. The end result of such heart-wrenching despair is often suicide. If the heavens and the earth are purely happenstance artifacts of impersonal forces, then man cannot show in the least reason why he should exist.

What “orts” then might be served from MacDonald’s dish that could potentially help to begin the process of reorienting such widespread cultural despondency? For the unbeliever wrestling with despair, caught in the death throes of a meaningless universe, MacDonald’s thoughts on imagination might seem trite and superfluous at first glance. But nothing could be further from the truth. They can actually help us renew and reorient our minds back to our Creator.[52] MacDonald reminds us that God “begins with the building of the stage itself, and that stage is a world — a universe of worlds”; the two-tiered stage of the heavens and the earth.[53] And for MacDonald, if we are to be apologists aglow with divine efficacy, we too must begin where God begins. The entirety of the cosmos is both at once the logos and poiema of the Logos. It is upon His stage where He “makes the actors” from “the dust of the ground” itself who do not act, but “are their part.” History is thus a record of how God “utters” men “into the visible world to work out their life — his drama.” As MacDonald believes, “a man is rather being thought than thinking.”[54]

It is essential then for Christians to be exceptional students of the “script” of creation, to see the “very goodness” in what God has made, not only for himself but for the sake of his fellow man. The book of creation, for MacDonald, is where “instead of writing lyrics” God “sets birds and his maidens a-singing,” and gives us the “sky…as the true symbol of eternity.”[55] [56] We need to be rereading, with painstaking detail, the exquisite chapters of Nature’s book, written by the very fingers of God Himself. The best sort of “scientist” who desires to understand and alleviate human suffering wears not the lab coat, but vesture from the “inexhaustible wardrobe” of Nature, the “clothing of human thought.”[57] Christians, in other words, must not be constrained by the straightjacket of scientism. We must be clothed in righteous thoughts which enable us to see “the swaying of the woods” not simply as an atmospheric phenomena of air pressure, temperature and wind velocity upon a collection of trees, but also as a “picture of a well-known condition of the human mind.”[58] And that sort of sight cannot be accomplished without the intervention of the divine imagination. It must be given to us. By ourselves we are blind to the treasures hidden within creation, suppressing the truth in unrighteousness, we go about this world as if it is the only one. But as MacDonald notes, “so many are the relations involved in every figure, so many the facts hinted in every symbol.”[59] Eternity is everywhere for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear. The cosmos is a deliberate arrangement of facts hidden in symbols, spiritual and heavenly truths concealed in the simplest artifacts of Nature; an awe-inspiring adornment of bread and birds, of wine and water, of seeds and stars, begun and sustained in the imagination of God.[60] And this particular arrangement is something to which Paul attests in the opening chapter of his epistle to his brethren in Rome. God’s “invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature,” he writes, “have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.”[61]

The Christian apologist, in essence, must imaginatively turn the world upside down if he is truly desirous of God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven. He’s got to see the uncommon in the common. In deer, in the sun, moon and stars, in the roaring seas, even in food or in the tears of a hurting soul, we have to read between the lines of Nature’s fairy tale in order to bring out and reflect the glory of God. Daily bread must be reimagined afresh as “manna from heaven.”[62] The “crumbs” which fall from the Master’s table, the “fragments” of “leftovers” which fill twelve baskets — these are divine “orts” from “a golden dish set with shining jewels.”[63] But man cannot live on bread alone. It is not enough to be filled with the food which perishes. Yet it is this simple food which imaginatively serves as the basis for one of the most talked about metaphors ever spoken or written — “I am the bread of life.”[64] An eternal treasure hidden in plain sight — bread and the kingdom of heaven! “As if,” MacDonald notes, quoting Bacon, “according to the innocent play of children, the Divine Majesty took delight to hide his works, to the end to have them found out.”[65] Here Jesus seems to exemplify all that MacDonald has thus far said of the imagination. In taking bread “as the symbol, as the garment or body of his invisible thought,”[66] the Lord Jesus “presents it” to His friends. His body in exchange for ours. Bread is now “employed with a new meaning  . . . born of the spirit and not of the flesh, born of the imagination and not of the understanding and is henceforth submitted to new laws of growth and modification.”[67] Communion, then, is not just a Sunday ritual, but a reminder, a remembrance and an embrace of the incarnational brokenness given to us by our Lord and Savior as a gift.

After the supper John tells us Jesus “poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet.”[68] A basin. A dish. A golden bowl set with shining jewels; the vault of the heavens, the inexhaustible riches and inheritance of the poor, comes down to earth and is overturned, filled to overflowing for our cleansing and redemption from death. The one who created the vault of the heavens comes to earth and demonstrates to us how to turn the cosmos itself upside down. Love and serve one another. The greatest will be the least. The last will be first and the first will be last. If the kingdom of the heavens has come down and adorned Himself with the vesture of carpentry and servitude, overturning the luminous vault of celestial glory for our sakes, how much more so should we likewise “come down” and imaginatively use the language of simple things to once more turn the world upside down?[69] Humble service, done without a desire to be seen by anyone else but God. It’s a lesson I’ve not yet even begun to understand.

Above this humble upturned basin, the Spirit of God hovers over the waters once more, commanding them yet again, “Here your proud waves shall stop.”[70] It is a dish filled with orts beyond what a man could ever imagine. Water, cleansing, life-giving living water poured out for us, cleansing us from all unrighteousness. The One whose fingers created the sun, moon and stars washes our feet and toes. Being “girded” with just a towel, Jesus’s strength is hidden, even from His disciples. The Maker of the heavens and the earth stills the tempestuousness of our thoughts with meekness and servanthood, giving us hope. Divine strength hidden in the weakness of man. In His cleansing, we too pass through His “breakers” and “waves”. Our thirst is fulfilled.

As MacDonald attests, this miraculous “embodiment” is “not the result of the man’s intention, or of the operation of his conscious nature.” Who could have imagined, on their own, the Architect of the Cosmos coming down to earth as a man in humility and servitude, allowing the very hands He knit together to be the very weapons used to eventually put Him to death?

No one.

For the noetic effects of sin have wreaked havoc on our ability to properly imagine what God hath wrought. MacDonald says that such an act of divine condescension is given to us, from a place “where time and space are not,” where the truth of what it all means suddenly appears “in luminous writing upon the wall of [man’s] consciousness.” We do not deserve to see, but our eyes are opened. “God sits in that chamber of our being in which the candle of our consciousness goes out in darkness, and sends forth from thence wonderful gifts into the light of that understanding which is His candle.”[71] “Let there be light” is repeated once more over the formless void of our trials. And because of this luminous grace “the child of the kingdom,” MacDonald writes, “may pore upon the lilies of the field, and gather faith as the birds of the air their food from the leafless hawthorn, ruddy with the stores God has laid up for them; and the man of science:

‘May sit and rightly spell

Of every star that heaven doth shew,

And every herb that sips the dew;

Till old experience do attain

To something like prophetic strain.’[72]

Citation Information

Daniel Ray, “Old MacDonald’s Dish: A Hearty Serving of George MacDonald’s Thoughts on the Imagination and its Relevance to Contemporary Apologetics,” An Unexpected Journal: George MacDonald 3, no. 4. (Advent 2020), 107-130.

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[1] Psalm 42:7 (NASB). Or cast down.

[2] Num. 23:23. (KJV).

[3] George MacDonald, “The Imagination: Its Function and Culture” in A Dish of Orts: Chiefly Papers on the Imagination, and on Shakespeare (Lexington: Editora Griffo, 2015), 6.

[4] MacDonald, “The Imagination: Its Function and Culture” in A Dish of Orts, 6.

[5] George MacDonald, “Preface” in A Dish of Orts: Chiefly Papers on the Imagination, and on Shakespeare ( Lexington: Editora Griffo, 2015) 4.

[6] “The Imagination: Its Function and Culture” in A Dish of Orts, 8.

[7] Ibid, 7.

[8] Romans 5:5.

[9] MacDonald, “The Imagination: Its Function and Culture” in A Dish of Orts, 9.

[10] Ibid, 25.

[11] Ibid, 11.

[12] Ibid 182.

[13] Ibid, 23.

[14] MacDonald, “The Imagination: Its Function and Culture” in A Dish of Orts, 10.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid, 21.

[18] Prov. 25:2 (NASB).

[19] MacDonald, “The Imagination: Its Function and Culture” in A Dish of Orts, 26.

[20] George MacDonald, “The Fantastic Imagination” in A Dish of Orts: Chiefly Papers on the Imagination, and on Shakespeare ( Lexington: Editora Griffo, 2015) 183.

[21] MacDonald, “The Imagination: Its Function and Culture” in A Dish of Orts 21.

[22] Prov. 18:24; Luke 21:28; Eph. 3:20.

[23] Ps. 42:1, (NASB).

[24] MacDonald, “The Imagination: Its Function and Culture” in Dish of Orts, 9.

[25] MacDonald, “The Imagination: Its Function and Culture” in Dish of Orts, 9.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid, 8.

[28] Ibid, 25.

[29] Is. 43:2.

[30] Ps. 78:13 (NASB).

[31] Job 38:11 (ESV).

[32] MacDonald, “The Imagination: Its Function and Culture” in Dish of Orts, 6.

[33] Ps. 93:4.

[34] Luke 8:25, (NASB).

[35] MacDonald, “The Imagination: Its Function and Culture” in A Dish of Orts, 22.

[36] Ps. 65:7 – “who stills the roaring of the seas, the roaring of their waves, the tumult of the peoples” (ESV).

[37] MacDonald, “The Imagination: Its Function and Culture” in A Dish of Orts, 6.

[38] Mark 4:38.

[39] MacDonald, “The Imagination: Its Function and Culture” in A Dish of Orts, 16.

[40] Ibid., 6.

[41] Ibid, 15.

[42] Ibid.

[43] MacDonald, “The Imagination: Its Function and Culture” in A Dish of Orts, 9.

[44] MacDonald, “The Fantastic Imagination” in A Dish of Orts, 183.

[45] Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot – A Vision of the Human Future in Space (New York: Random House, 1994), 6.

[46] MacDonald, “The Imagination: Its Function and Culture” in A Dish of Orts, 11.

[47] Ibid.

[48] MacDonald, “The Imagination: Its Function and Culture” in A Dish of Orts, 11.

[49] MacDonald, “The Imagination: Its Function and Culture” in A Dish of Orts, 20.

[50] Ibid., 21-22.

[51]  MacDonald, “The Fantastic Imagination” in A Dish of Orts, 179.

[52] Romans 12:1-2.

[53] MacDonald, “The Imagination: Its Function and Culture” in A Dish of Orts, 7.


[55] MacDonald, “The Imagination: Its Function and Culture” in A Dish of Orts, 7.

[56]Ibid, 8.

[57]Ibid, 10.

[58] Ibid., 10.

[59] MacDonald, “The Fantastic Imagination” in A Dish of Orts, 183.

[60]John 1, Col. 1, Heb. 1.

[61] Romans 1:20 (NASB).

[62] Ps. 78:24.

[63] Mark 8:19.

[64] John 6:48.

[65] MacDonald, “The Imagination: Its Function and Culture” in A Dish of Orts, 28.

[66] MacDonald, “The Imagination: Its Function and Culture” in A Dish of Orts, 9.

[67] Ibid.

[68] John 13:5 (NASB).

[69] Ps. 19:1.

[70] Job 38:11.

[71] MacDonald, “The Imagination: Its Function and Culture” in A Dish of Orts,, 19.

[72] MacDonald, “The Imagination: Its Function and Culture” in A Dish of Orts, 28.