Audiobooks open up to me a realm of books I wouldn't usually read, including this children's story by George McDonald, written in 1872. George McDonald was C.S. Lewis's guide through Heaven in The Great Divorce, the Virgil to his Dante if you will, and C.S. Lewis expresses gratitude to McDonald in his autobiography for his influence on his life.
The fantasy genre has evolved a lot since then and sometimes McDonald's world and story seem naive to people who have read J.R.R. Tolkien or even The Chronicles of Narnia. Though there is a dash of suspense and horror, one always feels invited to laugh at McDonald's goblins in a way one could hardly dream of laughing at the Nazgul. Nevertheless, the book has enough of the magically unexpected, the whimsically mysterious, the intimations of real-life meaning to stay interesting.
Most interesting of all is the role of belief at several points in the story, and especially at one point, when-- at the risk of spoiling the plot-- a character is rescued from death trapped in a cave, by someone who, knowing nothing of the person's captivity, follows an invisible string first into the cave and to the exact spot, and then out of the cave. The rescued person is ambivalent at first, then disbelieves in the existence of the invisible string. Later, however, someone points out that he has no account of how the rescue could have occurred at all, so maybe he ought to believe the story he is told.
I think this parable contains a lesson both for those Joyless Moralist would call "modernists"-- or at least a subset of them, scientific-material atheist evolutionists etc., who dismiss religion; that must not be exactly what JM means since she considers me a modernist, but I suppose scientific materialists are a subset of what she calls modernists-- and for a certain type of conservative/traditionalist Christian inclined to be dismissive of modernity.
It is a fact that we have all sorts of good things that mankind lacked a few centuries-- reliable food supplies in greatly increased quantity and quality and at far lower prices in labor terms, near-universal literacy, longer lifespans and cures for countless disease, far greater scientific and geographical knowledge, cheaper and more comfortable and abundant clothing, indoor climate control, better communication and transportation that allows us to communicate with distant relatives and tour the world's natural and man-made wonders-- and also that we are spared many horrors of the past-- we (in the West at least) no longer suffer high rates of infant and child mortality, no one lives in slavery or serfdom, there are no Inquisitions and very limited religious persecution, aristocracy and class and caste systems are gone and there is probably less economic inequality, child labor has been nearly eliminated, and war and violence are far less likely to affect most of our lives than in the past.
Why? Somehow, we've been led out of a dark cavern, but how, we don't really know. What we can see is (a) that this burst of progress occurred in the wake of Descartes and the Enlightenment, and (b) that it was primarily the work of a Christian civilization. The Christian civilization existed for centuries without achieving the breakthrough to economic growth and liberal democracy, so anyone who enjoys the benefits of modern civilization (anyone in America, for example) ought to be prepared to give some credit, at least tentatively, to the Enlightenment. If the Enlightenment did not play a role, why did the breakthrough to modern economic growth and liberal democracy occur just then? On the other hand, it is precisely and uniquely in the Christian civilization of the West that the breakthrough occurred. The contribution of non-Christian regions of the world has, frankly, been minor (though European Jews contributed a lot) and those regions have had patchy success at best even in mimicking what the West has achieved. Proper epistemic scruples, then, compel wise "modernists" and Christians each to give the other provisional credit for the amazing prosperity and freedom which a part of mankind has, in the past few generations, suddenly come to enjoy.
Leave it to me to spoil a charming children's story by drawing out lessons for historiosophy and geopolitics.