The Secret Garden: The Book of Nature and Religious Pluralism

At any given time, I am reading a non-fiction book and a work of fiction literature. I never choose one based on the other, but occasionally I am surprised by a marked correlation between the two. That very thing happened to me over the past two weeks as I read The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett and The End of Christianity by William A. Dembski.

One of the more prominent themes in The Secret Garden is the beauty, mystery, and rejuvenating qualities of nature. Throughout the story, two of the main characters (Mary and Colin) find emotional and physical healing  through the nurturing of green growing things and playful interaction with the indigent wildlife. The children come to believe that there is a Great Magic at work in and through nature; that it is responsible for bringing about the wondrous seasonal awakening of the flowers and trees as well as the remarkable strengthening of the children’s previously weak, atrophied bodies. They exalt in this Magic as they run, play, and garden in the fresh air and sunshine within the high stone walls of their secret place. Colin says:

‘When Mary found this garden it looked quite dead…Then something began pushing things up out of the soil, and making things out of nothing. One day things weren’t there and another they were. I had never watched things before and it made me feel very curious. Scientific people are always curious and I am going to be scientific. I keep saying to myself, ‘What is it? What is it?’ It’s something. It can’t be nothing! I don’t know its name so I call it Magic…Sometimes since I’ve been in the garden I’ve looked up through the trees at the sky and I have had a strange feeling of being happy as if something were pushing and drawing in my chest and making me breathe fast. Magic is always pushing and drawing and making things out of nothing. Everything is made out of Magic, leaves and trees, flowers and birds, badgers and foxes and squirrels and people. So it must be all around us. In this garden–in all the places. The Magic in this garden has made me stand up and know I am going to live to be a man.”

[Notice how the author capitalizes the word Magic.]

This passage, and many others, speak of a positive force, a “white Magic” at work in all of nature. The children sense that there must be more in the world than meets the eye, and from observing the natural order, they deduce that whatever (or whomever) this “Magic” is, it is good and powerful.

This reminded me very much of what Christian theologians refer to as The Book of Nature or Natural Revelation,  the idea that God has revealed himself through the natural order. As Romans 1:20 and Psalm 19:1 tell us, we can sense God and his glorious attributes through the things He has made. This Book of Nature does not bring us all the way to Jesus Christ, only to the realization that there must be a Creator. To have a complete picture of reality, though, we need a second book–one of direct, special revelation. The Book of Scripture and The Book of Nature together comprise what is referred to as “Two Books Theology.” I appreciate the way William Dembski articulates this approach in The End of Christianity:

God gave humanity two primary sources of revelation about himself: the world that he created and the Scripture that he inspired…As distinct witnesses to the work of God, these books can be read individually or together.

The key thing to remember is that by using Two Books Theology, we gain a much more complete understanding of the world. For instance, the Bible doesn’t tell us about the laws of physics and chemistry, but the exploration of the natural order does. The converse is also true: nature can tell us many things, but it cannot tell us about the redeeming power of the blood of Jesus.

Now, back to “the Magic.”

In a rather New Age-y scene in The Secret Garden, Colin begins to pay homage to the Magic through a chant:

“The sun is shining–the sun is shining. That is the Magic. The flowers are growing–the roots are stirring. That is the Magic. Being alive is the Magic–being strong is the Magic. The Magic is in me–the Magic is in me. It is in me–it is in me. It’s in every one of us…Magic! Magic! Come and help!”

Later on, an aged gardener who is in on the garden secret, suggests that the children sing the Doxology as a joyful praise to the Magic. One of the children (neighbor boy Dickon) knows it from church and sings it:

“Praise God from whom all blessings flow,

Praise Him all creatures here below,

Praise Him above ye Heavenly Host,

Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

Amen.”

Colin responds:

“It is a very nice song…I like it. Perhaps it means just what I mean when I want to shout out that I am thankful to the Magic.” He stopped and thought in a puzzled way. “Perhaps they are both the same thing. How can we know the exact names of everything?”

Do you notice the red flag here? If not, here is a later scene, near the end of the book, that waves the flag much higher. Colin is speaking with the mother of the child who sang the Doxology:

“Do you believe in Magic?…I do hope you do.”

“That I do, lad,” she answered. “I never knowed it by that name but what does th’ name matter? I warrant they call it a different name i’ France an’ a different one i’ Germany. Th’ same things as set th’ seeds swellin’ an’ th’ sun shinin’ made a well lad an’ it’s th’ Good Thing. It isn’t like us poor fools as think it matters if us is called out of our names. Th’ Big Good Thing doesn’t stop to worry, bless thee. It goes on makin’ worlds by th’ million–worlds like us. Never thee stop believin’ in th’ Big Good Thing an’ knowin’ th’ world’s full of it–an’ call it what tha’ likes. Tha’ wert singin’ to it when I come into th’ garden…Th’ Magic listened when tha’ sung th’ Doxology. It would ha’ listened to anything tha’d sung. It was th’ joy that mattered. Eh! Lad, lad, what’s names to th’ Joy Maker.”

Now, this sounds very lovely and very spiritual, no doubt. The mother speaks of  “The Big Good Thing” and the “Joy Maker”, as being one and the same, synonymous with the Magic. Furthermore, she says that different people call it by different names, and that “us poor fools” are the ones that think this matters. The implication here is that all roads lead to the same Power, we’re all climbing the same Mountain whose pinnacle is ultimate reality, we’re just ascending from different sides. This view is known as religious pluralism. (It is symbolized in the “COEXIST” bumper sticker that has become so popular.)

The problem is, religious pluralism is a philosophically incoherent belief system.  To claim that the name used for the Highest Power is irrelevant is grossly misleading, for it is necessary to specify  exactly who the name is  referring to. The “who” is identified by its attributes. If one person is referring to an entity that is not a Trinity, that did not humble himself through incarnation to be born Jesus of Nazareth, then they are not talking about the same entity I am talking about whenever I say “God.” We are talking about two different entities with two different sets of characteristics. To say that we are both talking about the same entity breaks the law of logic known as the Law of Non-contradiction: A cannot be both “A” and “Not A” at the same time. Jesus Christ cannot be the only way to reconciliation with God and at the same time NOT be the only way to reconciliation with God. Only Christianity teaches the former, other monotheistic and polytheistic faiths teach the latter. They cannot all be correct, because that would be incoherent. When it comes to all of the different religions of the world, there are only two options: 1) only one view is true, or 2) none of them are.

This is precisely why we must have BOTH natural and special revelation–both the Book of Nature and the Book of Scripture–to arrive at the essential truth of the matter. The Book of Nature, by itself,  is insufficient. It tells us that there is a Creator and that something has gone terribly wrong with the world, but it does not get us to the facts about the redemption available to mankind and the coming redemption of all creation.

I can’t say for certain that Frances Hodgson Burnett meant to promote pluralism in her beautiful story. I can say that The Secret Garden is a wonderful reading experience, but one made all the richer by understanding the underlying philosophical themes.