Imagination, Illumination and Faith: a Proposed Connection

We have already showed the importance of imagination for shaping on overall Christian outlook and sensibility. Still, for many Christians these things seem abstract and somewhat arcane. But what if what we are calling imagination is very close to, or identical to the biblical concepts of faith and illumination? If imagination is either identical to or at least crucial to faith and illumination, then the cultivation of imagination becomes vital to Christian living.

Consider some surface similarities. Faith is described in Scripture as the “substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1). Faith understands reality in a certain way, and believes in unseen realities that shape what is seen. Faith is not restricted to believers, for all people rely on faith-assumptions about reality to even begin to navigate it.
George MacDonald said that faith seeks to understand the divine harmony that integrates and explains all of reality.

This all sounds strangely similar to imagination: the ability to see unseen realities, worlds, or events. Imagination is a synoptic vision of life. Imagination is not merely the “sight” of unseen reality, but its interpretation.

Of course, faith is more than analogical knowledge and interpretation. Faith includes trust, submission, and love. In other words, faith is not less than imagination, but it is more. Imagination supplies meaning, but not the voluntary acts of love. We might say that imagination supplies faith with its fuel. Knowledge of reality is mediated through the imagination, which might be thought of as faith’s architectonic, its inner structure. If this “metaphysical dream” is shaped by Christian revelation and Christian cultural production based on that revelation, its analogies and metaphors will convey meaning that corresponds to what is real, and that faith will be in what is true.

Illumination is the experience that faith often brings. According to Augustine, faith in God places the perceiver in a posture to receive illumination, and to fully participate in and understand the world. Jonathan Edwards regarded illumination as part of “the sense of the heart”: the regenerated capacity to understand and love the things of God. C. S. Lewis saw illumination as vital, as seen in his oft-quoted remark: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else”.

Illumination is the Holy Spirit’s work of communicating spiritual realities to a Christian’s spiritual eyes by opening the eyes of a believer’s affections (Eph. 1:18) to recognise and experience the reality and beauty of truth about God. When illuminated, a believer sees spiritual reality, which is to say that the believer sees what ought to be loved, and to what degree. This is the state of being the apostle Paul calls being “filled with the Spirit” (Eph. 5:18) or being “filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:19).

A. W. Tozer said, “The value of the cleansed imagination in the sphere of religion lies in its power to perceive in natural things shadows of things spiritual…When Christ came with His blazing spiritual penetration and His fine moral sensitivity, He appeared to the Pharisee to be a devotee of another kind of religion, which indeed He was if the world had only understood. He could see the soul of the text while the Pharisee could see only the body, and he could always prove Christ wrong by an appeal to the letter of the law or to an interpretation hallowed by tradition…I long to see the imagination released from its prison and given to its proper place among the sons of the new creation. What I am trying to describe here is the sacred gift of seeing, the ability to peer beyond the veil and gaze with astonished wonder upon the beauties and mysteries of things holy and eternal.”

For Tozer, while illumination is a work of the Spirit, the human side of the equation is the power of imagination to furnish insight. Insight reveals connections where they were missed. Insight provides fresh perspectives on truths grown stale through over-familiarity. Insight sees proportions of scale between images or analogies and the truths they represent. The combination of insight through the hard work of imaginative meditation and the Holy Spirit’s act of bringing gracious enablement will be high affections for God.

What then? The cultivation of Christian imagination through careful selection and conscientious meditation is fundamental to faith and the illumination that brings love and zealous worship of God.

Discerning the Christian Imagination: Consensus and Canonicity

Determining if a poem, hymn, musical piece, novel, devotional work, painting or other work should be considered a helpful work of Christian imagination is mostly an act of considering its meaning. Does its content agree with the truths of Scripture? Does its form remain consonant with that content, and shape the appropriate responses in us? There is a circularity involved here: we must already know the appropriate responses in order to detect if a work is evoking them. And yet this circularity is implied in Scriptures that state that the ones doing God’s will end up knowing God’s will (John 7:17, Colossians 1:9-10), or that more truth is given to the one who already has it (Mt 25:29).

There is, however, a second way that we verify if something is a helpful work of Christian imagination: the Christian consensus. The Christian consensus is a combination of popular use, the winnowing effect of time, and a broad catholicity of agreement of a work’s beauty and usefulness. Some works are hugely popular during their time, but die out altogether in another era. Some works are loved by a particular group, sect or denomination, but never find life outside their ghetto. Some works are loved and praised by a small minority, but few others find them edifying. It is the works that survive hundreds of years of use, across multiple nations and continents, and continue to bless and edify believers of varying sub-traditions that deserve our special attention. These make up a “Christian consensus” of genuinely helpful works of Christian culture. They sometimes are referred to as ‘classics’.

Perhaps the Protestant understanding of the canonicity of Scripture is the best
explanation of how this phenomenon occurs and functions. Believing that Scripture is self-authenticating, Protestants hold that the church of the first few centuries was able to
identify Scripture, because existing Scripture had already taught it to do so (note again the circularity). As early Christians recognised the divine qualities of Scripture (beauty,
power, and efficacy, and doctrinal, thematic, and structural unity), along with the apostolic
testimony, they corporately recognised a particular book as part of the canon of Scripture.

This corporate recognition functioned as a kind of consensus on what counted as self-evident Scripture. The consensus confirmed what was already true. It did not decide or declare what was Scripture; it recognised and then declared the church’s unanimity. It could not make a book Scripture or not, but it could state what the church’s consensus was. That consensus guarded the church from impulsive or eclectic judgements.

In so doing, the early church recognised a distinction between Scripture as the
absolute norm of authority, and other sources as important but secondary sources of
theological authority (such as received tradition or the agreement of councils) that could
recognise Scriptural authority. Christians who lived generations after those of the first four centuries were simultaneously accepting Scripture’s authority and the secondary authority of the Christian tradition of the canon. To accept the canon, is at the very least, to accept one post-biblical tradition, and (at least tentatively and practically) to submit to its authority.

In a similar, but not identical way, Christian imaginative forms (hymns, poems, devotions, songs, prayers, liturgical practices, and spiritual disciplines) have also developed over the centuries. Where the community best understood and practiced the Word, they chose worship and devotional forms that best captured and expressed the Word. Once again, we witness the circularity present.

These forms of liturgy and Christian imagination have been passed down, and deserve the considered attention of those seeking the best of Christian imagination. Where they have survived and continue to edify the church at large, they should likely be considered part of the Christian consensus.

Time is a big factor here. Imaginative forms are shaped through a reciprocal relationship between a religion and a culture. As the Word penetrates a culture, it begins reshaping the imagination of that culture. As the culture then worships using the Word, it develops forms commensurate with that imagination. The longer this process goes on, the more one can expect forms that better approximate ordinate love for God.

Those forms of worship and devotion that have arisen recently, out of a society immersed in the narcissism and sentimentalism of popular culture deserve careful and discerning scrutiny before being adopted. Modern Christians can still reach into the past, before popular culture arose, and become familiar with the forms of historic Christian culture. Those spiritual disciplines and works of imagination deeply rooted in historic Christian communities of reverence will likely turn out to be universal, timeless works of Christian imagination.

The Christian consensus is not authoritative the way Scripture is. But it is instructive and carries the weight of the judgements of thousands of souls, who may have lived in eras more friendly to the Christian imagination. If, as Chesterton said, tradition is the “democracy of the dead”, we should ask what works of imagination the believers of hundreds of years ago would vote to be included in our corporate or private worship or collections of Christian imagination.

Discerning the Christian Imagination: Analogies and Proportion

If Christians should grow in their ability to discern superior Christian works of imagination, how should they do this? Must every Christian pursue some kind of music appreciation, literary criticism or aesthetic theory in order to recognise Christian from non-Christian or sub-Christian imagination? Likely not, though no Christian should scorn the pursuit of knowledge, wisdom and understanding, particularly in those areas that communicate a Christian outlook.

Instead, Christians can pursue better understanding in these areas by becoming attentive to the form of music, poetry, literature, painting, sculpture, history, or other humanities that shape imagination. By form, we mean its actual shape and composition: the sum total or result of its components parts that communicate its message, be those colours, shapes, notes, harmonies, or words.

One way to approach this is to use the idea of proportion or scale. Consider a miniature. A miniature car, ship, plane, or village pleases us because it preserves the proportions of the original object in a much smaller scale. The better the proportions, the truer the miniature as a scaled-down version of the original. In many ways, works of imagination function similarly. Metaphors reduce the large-scale realities of God, the world, and self to a miniature version of a poem, a hymn, a symphony, a novel, an allegory, a sculpture, a painting, or another work of imagination. Of course, the work of imagination can never be a miniature of all of reality. Instead, it seeks to faithfully capture some small section of reality: a truth, an affection, an ethical obligation or some other reality. Imaginative materials are not (typically) metal, plastic, or paint. They are words, poetic tropes, meter, notes, melodies, harmonies, rhythms, tone colours, narrative genres, plots, characters, dialogues, paints, oils, and so forth.

The important thing is whether the metaphor seems to represent in artistic miniature what is true in reality. How would this be so? Consider how Scripture does it. When wanting to evoke particular understandings and responses to God, it invokes certain images. When trust, contentment and security are the correct responses, it invokes the image of a diligent shepherd (Psalm 23). When carefulness, respect and caution are the correct responses, it invokes the image of a powerful and violent warrior (Deuteronomy 32:34-43). The analogy contains a kind of proportion between God and what God is being compared to, the Scriptural analogy. The Bible does not compare God to cute puppies or to a venomous snake. The issue is not simply the chosen analogy for the analogue, but if the analogy communicates an appropriate response and affection. Works of imagination fail when they distort what Reality is, and what the appropriate response is to the Reality portrayed.

For example, music for worship that communicates a shallow kind of self-comfort, or a narcissistic pseudo-intensity, or a faux edginess, or a thinly disguised sexual appeal has failed to capture the proportions between Creator and creature, between Redeemer and redeemed. The musical analogies should communicate and evoke reverent joy, sober admiration, reflective wonder, humbled gratitude, triumphant hope, contrite gladness, among many others. We might then say that the musical analogy is faithful to what it purports to represent. It is a miniature that faithfully represents greater realities. The same might be said for a hymn or a poem, a sermon or a prayer, a novel or a painting.

The difficulty arises in that believers need to grow simultaneously in two areas: an awareness of what responses God deserves, and an awareness of how works of imagination communicate. To fail in the first area is to allow the profane, the blasphemous and the false to enter the Christian imagination, by virtue of not knowing God as He is. To fail in the second area is to allow the cheap, the trivial, the shallow, the irreverent, and the sentimental to enter the Christian imagination by virtue of imbibing pop culture as our imaginative lingua franca. Both are dangerous and insidious. In the first, we may offend God because we do not realise who He is (Psalm 50:21). In the second, we may offend God because we do not consider what our symbolic actions are communicating (Malachi 1:6-14).

Furthermore, both end up affecting the other. Wrong views of God lead to poor musical, poetic, or literary analogies. Poor analogies lead to wrong views of God. In sum, Christians have a responsibility to discern not only the cognitive, theological content of what they imbibe for worship and edification, but the affective, imaginative form in which it is delivered.

Shapers of Christian Imagination

How is Christian imagination shaped? A true but not very helpful answer would be to say, “everything shapes imagination”. Visits to the doctor, watering the garden, schoolwork, housework, trading and every other activity shapes our outlook on reality in small or big ways. But it is also true to say that certain actions imprint the imagination in far more vivid ways. These make up the heart of a culture, and it is our reciprocal give-and-take from our culture(s) that have the greatest effect upon imagination. While everything shapes one’s worldview, certain actions are formative in decisive and more permanent ways. Here let me suggest the four most important.

Worship. At the very top of imagination-formation is worship, and corporate worship in particular. Private and family worship are similarly vital, but they flow out from and down from what is done in corporate worship. In the act of public worship, we unite our hearts and minds around the imaginative Word of God, as it is preached, read, prayed, sung and proclaimed in the ordinances. The active participation in worship, the shape of the liturgy, the very form of the music and poetry, and the affections evoked by the elements of worship all represent the highest and strongest form of imagination-formation. In no other context is our imagination shaped and formed as it is when we present our ultimate love towards what we believe is ultimate. J. K. A. Smith argues that even the secular have a “liturgy” that they use for worshipping what they believe is ultimate. Whatever we worship, we become like (Psalm 115:8).

Community. “It is not good for man to be alone”, because we were made for community: be it marriage, family, friendship, membership in the local church, partnership in business, or citizenship in a nation. It is in our experience of community that we are profoundly shaped to understand reality. Here the metaphors are not words and songs, but living examples. The roles in marriage and the home and church and life shape imagination with their hierarchy and responsibilities and example.  The routines we live by suggest the priorities and rhythms of what is important. The manners and etiquette for eating and speaking and dressing and so forth demonstrate our view of our status as image-bearers. Our rituals and ceremonies around birth, growth, coming of age, membership, graduation, marriage, and death all deeply shape the Christian imagination.

Vocation. What we are called to do in the world regarding family, church, and career shapes our imaginations. Here we order the world, ideally turning what is chaotic into what is true, good or beautiful. We subdue the earth and shape it towards a vision of what we believe is good, when it is in the power of our hands to do it.

Leisure. Leisure does not refer to mere idleness. Leisure is that state when we are freed from the pressing demands of providing for our physical needs. What we do in these increasingly large amounts of time (in the modern world) deeply shapes our imaginations. It is in these moments that many Christians fill their minds with recreations that are mere time-wasters, with “entertainments” that are either trivial amusement or positively destructive to Christian virtue. Christians must use these moments to meditate on and create genuinely Christian art, and to choose those hobbies, avocations and recreations that do not conflict with a Christian vision of the good life.

Each of these four profoundly shape our view of ultimate reality. Some of what we encounter in these may be beyond our immediate control. For example, we may not be in leadership in a church, and so do not control what happens in worship or in the life of the church. The society we are in is shaped by countless influences beyond our control. Our “job” may not be exactly what we believe to be our ultimate vocation. Nevertheless, the individual Christian has control over what degree he voluntarily participates in and embraces cultural elements that are hostile to true Christian culture. He can choose to not sing profane songs. He can choose to not submit to unethical practices at work. He can choose what he watches or listens to or does in his free time.

What is then vital is that the individual Christian develop his discernment for recognising Christian patterns of imagination, particularly in art. We’ll consider this next.

Christian Imagination Fleshed Out

What does the Christian imagination look like when it is fleshed out? We can imagine it as a spectrum, beginning with Scripture itself and working its way out from the explicitly biblical to what is only implicitly so.

The Bible. Scripture itself is the archetype of all Christian imagination. Its content and form are the our model for Christian imagination. Here God takes in all of human history (synoptical), explains the right and wrong way to respond to Him (moral), and communicates it in a metaphorical form: narratives, poetry, prophecy, apocalyptic, with plenty of imagery in the wisdom, epistolary and Law forms as well.

Quasi-biblical. Drawing from Scripture, believers through the ages have created works of imagination that distill, capture, or communicate something identical to or very close to Scripture. These include liturgies for worship, sermons, versified psalms or Scripture portions for singing, hymns based upon Scripture portions, sacred music (the setting of Scriptural texts to musical forms such as plainchant, masses, cantatas, oratorios), written prayers drawing deeply on the Psalms, and paintings, sculptures, illustrations of biblical scenes.

Christian extra-biblical. By extra-biblical we mean not “unbiblical”, but works of imagination that, though not paraphrases or depictions of Scripture itself, nevertheless capture Christian ideas, theology and experience. Hymns and spiritual songs, Christian verse (poetry with Christian themes or devotion), Christian epic poetry (such as Dante’s Inferno or Milton’s Paradise Lost), Christian allegory (such as The Pilgrim’s Progress or The Holy War), musical works themed after Christian theology (think “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring”), devotional works (writings that seek to explicate Christian spirituality, such as The Ascent of Mount Carmel or The Pursuit of God), histories, biographies and autobiographies that explain the history and experience of Christians, various other Christian treatises, apologies and theologies, and a host of paintings, sculptures, carvings and other plastic arts that depict and illustrate Christian truth.

General semi-biblical. Many imaginative works are not explicitly Christian, but they carry the marks and imprint of a Christian culture. The attitude is birthed in, and consonant with, a Christian understanding of reality. These include many novels and much belletristic literature, poems, music, art, architecture, and for some, theatre and dance.

Taken together, what do we call this collection? The answer is simple and surprising: we call it Christian culture. The artefacts of a Christian imagination are what emerge from a Christian culture. Conversely, these artefacts come to define the contours of that culture, meaning that they are the symbolic embodiment of the culture: they give it its tone and identity. These works of imagination are both shaped by the people in the culture and shape those people who use and make them. This is how culture works: it cultivates around a cultus. The central religious vision of a culture leads its members to symbolise it in works of imagination, and the works of imagination reinforce and embody the central religious vision.

Christian culture is what Christians have cultivated to shape their judgement and flesh out their metaphysical vision over two millennia, and stretching back further to the founding of Israel. The Christian tradition is Christian culture stretched over time. It is the great conversation among Christians that shapes Christian sentiment, and prepares young minds to think Christianly. It is the works of imagination and reason that Christians should live in, be educated in, and speak of to one another.

Perhaps you can see the dilemma of being a Christian within a secular culture. The works of imagination that reinforce our secular culture’s central religious vision are powerful and compelling movies and TV shows, popular songs and music, immersive computer and console games, widespread advertising imagery (moving and still), and malls, restaurants and whole cities built and shaped around a similar vision. Christians then find themselves being shaped by competing synoptic, moral and metaphorical visions. There is the secular imagination all around them in the workplace, the mall, and through every media portal they use; and there is the Christian imagination found only at church (hopefully), and in ageing books, poems and music. Those who go rummaging for more Christian culture find they are almost always looking into the past, and soon find themselves accused of being hide-bound traditionalists, nostalgics for the past, or irrelevant.

The result is the eclectic non-culture of most contemporary Christians: a pastiche collection of movies, music, novels, websites, hymns, histories, paintings and other imaginative forms which are chosen for their entertainment value and for how free they are of offensive elements. The fact that they are chosen from cultures hostile and alien to each other isn’t really a problem for most, which explains why Christians complain of feeling “detached” from their faith, and feeling like they compartmentalise their faith into separate boxes of work, school, family, and church. It isn’t that surprising: if you try to juggle hostile views of reality in your mind, a fragmentation must either be nagging at the edges of your mind, or end up producing an all-out crisis of faith at some point. I’ve argued this is part of the explanation for youth drop-outs from the faith.

Questions remain. What do Christians do with these works of imagination or works of Christian culture? How do we receive and “make” Christian culture? And by what standard should we regard a work as friendly to the Christian imagination, or hostile to it?

Imaginative Knowledge

If Christian imagination is the best way of referring to how Christians know and perceive the world, does thinking of it this way have any practical effect on our lives? Much in every way.

If imagination is the ultimate way that we understand reality, then this affects how Christians communicate the faith to believers, to their own children, and to unbelievers. It affects not simply the content of that communication, but its form. How so?

When communicating the faith, Christians should aim for the synoptical. That is, Christians should want to take in as much explanation of reality as possible: Creation to Christ, Genesis to Revelation, ultimate questions, the larger narrative. That does not mean we cannot ever focus on particulars, or expound on small details. There is a time to do that. But Christianity is nothing less than an explanation of reality, which means our goal is to the tell The Greatest Story Ever Told. We are to give the explanation of the whole, not get lost in details over minutiae.

When communicating the faith, Christians should aim for the moral, ethical and aesthetic, not merely the ‘factual’. We are not Eustace Scrubbs or Thomas Gradgrinds who believe that the “real” knowledge consists of “hard, neutral, objective” facts. Christians believe there is no such thing as a brute fact. We believe all facts are interpreted ideas nested in a massive network of interpreted ideas (hence the need to be synoptical). But more than requiring “the whole” to interpret individual facts, we also believe facts are only meaningful when we understand purpose, design, beauty or goodness. We want to understand not just the tree, but what the tree is for, why the tree exists, if the tree is good or beautiful. These are moral, ethical, and aesthetic questions. Christians should not seek “neutrality”, but deliberate, honest Christian interpretations of God’s world. Whether talking about science, economics, culture, music, politics or art, Christians must give “the facts” as they fit into God’s world, as explanations of truth, goodness and beauty.

When communicating the faith, Christians should aim for the metaphorical. That is, since we believe reality itself is analogical, we should take our cue from that and seek maximum explanatory power through the use of metaphor. I’m using the word metaphor in a broad sense, to signify the use of analogies: symbols that point to realities beyond themselves. These symbols or metaphors can be musical, or literary, or visual, or otherwise. Richard Weaver said that “a developed culture is a way of looking at the world through an aggregation of symbols, so that empirical facts take on significance and man feels that he is acting in a drama”.

Very importantly, the choice of symbol, analogy or metaphor is vital. Symbols that do not communicate the correct “proportion” between sign and signified end up distorting understanding. The Bible calls God “a high tower”, not “an impenetrable prison”, a “Good Shepherd”, not a “friendly innkeeper”. The image matters, because it provides us with proportions of distance and affection between God and us, and helps us truly understand the nature of unseen reality.

If these three approaches to communication seem abstract, the best way to see them in action is to think of the ultimate communication from God to man: His Word. The Bible is the best example of these in action. The Bible is a synoptic explanation of reality: who God is, what man is, how the world came to be, the problem of evil, the meaning of grace and redemption, God’s ultimate plan, and how the world will both end and continue. The Bible is also a moral explanation, always explaining what pleases God, what is excellent and what is evil. And finally, the Bible, as we have seen, has been given in a form dominated by narrative, poetry, prophecy and graphic imagery and word pictures.

It is from the very form of Scripture that Christians should model how they communicate the faith. In other words, to be truly “biblical” in our sermons, hymns, apologetics, evangelism, we should pay attention not only to the content, that the information corresponds to what is revealed in Scripture. We should pay attention to the form of the information: that the very shape of what we say or write or play has elements of, or is characterised by, synoptical, moral and metaphorical forms of communication.

Imaginative Knowing

If “Christian imagination” is really another way of saying Christian knowing, or Christian knowledge, why persist in calling it imagination? Why not simply call it by the more regular words, such as knowledge, worldview, understanding, presuppositions or, for the more philosophically inclined, epistemology?

The answer is that the Christian (or true) way of knowing is fundamentally different to secular, or unbelieving ways of knowing. To put it another way, the Bible describes human knowing in ways that contradict many current assumptions about how we know the world. The way we know is best captured with the word imagination, and not with the words cognition, perception, presupposition or others.

How is this so? It has to do with the very nature of reality.

First, the Bible teaches that we know truly when we know the whole, so as to understand the parts. Whereas the scientific method insists we examine individual factual phenomena, and work our way up to a bigger picture of reality, the Bible insists that the only way to properly understand the details of life is to first believe the grand idea of the whole. To put it another way, non-biblical ways of knowing start with doubt, and examine individual puzzle pieces, and try to build the puzzle. The Bible says that you must first, by faith, obtain the picture on the puzzle box, and then you will know how the pieces fit together. We see this in texts which tell us that the grand idea (knowing and loving God) is the way to understand the rest of life.

“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov. 9:10)

“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge” (Prov. 1:7).

“Evil men understand not judgment: but they that seek the LORD understand all things.” (Prov. 28:5)
“The secret of the LORD is with those who fear Him, And He will show them His covenant.” (Psa 25:14)

As we have already seen, imagination is a better term to carry the idea of a synoptic vision of life, an encompassing vision of the whole. Christians should prefer the term imagination, because we are not empiricists, trying to build up our knowledge fact by fact, or rationalists, trying to deduce conclusions, one premise at a time. We are given the grand reality from Genesis to Revelation, and from there, we begin plugging in all the puzzle pieces.

Second, the Bible teaches that the world is a moral world. Morality is not merely something humans practise; morality is as real and embedded in the creation as colours, shapes, and sounds. On the very first pages of the Bible, we read that God does not only create the physical world, but declares it to be ‘good’. That is, the physicality of creation is bound up with a moral, ethical, and even aesthetic reality. Creation is not only matter; it is also beautiful. It is not only light or dark, hard or soft, hot or cold, it is also lovely or severe, pleasant or fierce, and after the fall, clean and unclean. C. S. Lewis makes this point in The Abolition of Man. A waterfall is not simply H2O cascading over rocks; it is also sublime in its very nature. Beauty is not merely a human, psychological reaction to inert matter; beauty is bound up and inseparable from with the physicality of the waterfall, whether or not we see it. To understand the truth, goodness, and beauty of facts and objects is a moral and spiritual work of the human mind, best termed imagination. Without this faculty, we can know very little about reality at all, for we must not only know the “fact” of things, we must know what things are for. We must know their meaning, their purpose, and how we should love them. This means all things we know or encounter must be known imaginatively.

Third, the Bible teaches that reality itself is metaphorical in nature. That is, what humans see, hear, touch, smell, taste or feel is not necessarily what is “there”, so to speak. Our scientific instrumentation has revealed that our eyes in fact see colour in the opposite of what an object “is”, i.e. a “red” chair is absorbing all wavelengths of light except red, and thus our eyes see it as red. In reality, the chair is every colour except red. In other words, there isn’t direct correspondence between what we sense and what is out there. Much of what we experience seems to be accommodated to human senses, so that we see it and experience it in a certain way. What way is that? The way that communicates all the meanings God wanted.
In other words, the world and all its phenomena are signposts that point beyond themselves, explaining ultimate things to us. The Bible is full of pointing out the analogies that nature and the created order give to us. Spotting and understanding these signs means having a mind attuned to analogical knowledge, one that sees not only what is in front of us, but what it is like, what it seems to teach, or reveal. All of this is the work of imagination.

To say it in a sentence: the shape of reality is known imaginatively. It is a moral reality. It a metaphorical reality. And it is a comprehensive reality, known by faith from general to particular. Since this is the case, only the way of knowing we are calling imagination can know reality rightly.

Imagination and Understanding Reality

Should Christians persist in referring to “Christian Imagination”? Since we are concerned with truth, should we not avoid terms that have connotations of what is merely fantastical or unreal?

We may choose to drop the term Christian imagination. If we do, however, we will have to use several other terms in its place, to capture what the one word “imagination” conveys. These terms include worldview, interpretation, understanding, perceptionspresuppositions, faith, and disposition. Perhaps imagination may yet be a useful word.

We can see how imagination can capture all these ideas when we remember that humans participate in the world around them in three ways.

First, all humans interpret and understand our immediate perceptions. It’s how we ‘image’ what we see and hear. The Enlightenment taught people that humans perceive and sense the world directly, like tabula rasas that record what we see and hear. Christianity disagrees with this view of man. From the Bible’s point of view, what our senses perceive goes through an interpretive filter that orders and makes sense of what we are perceiving. This interpretation of everything around us happens so quickly and so imperceptibly, we tend to confuse it with perception itself. Imagination is that act of the human being that can filter, integrate, synthesise, and give meaningful cognitive shape to all that is perceived. Without interpretation, raw sensory data would remain a meaningless welter of impressions. George MacDonald said that imagination is that faculty “which gives form to thought—not necessarily uttered form, but form capable of being uttered in shape or in sound, or in any mode upon which the senses can lay hold. It is, therefore, that faculty in man which is likest to the prime operation of the power of God, and has, therefore, been called the creative faculty, and its exercise creation.”

The imagination is the whole mind working in certain ways. The imagination selects from the mass of material with which the mind is ordinarily confronted and concentrates upon the salient and significant features. Imagination synopsises and integrates all it selects. It creatively and constructively puts together diverse elements into unitary form.

Second, to make sense of the sensory data, humans are continually seeing beyond and behind the sensory data: they see worlds and realities not present to the senses. It’s how we ‘image’ beyond what we can see and hear. Memory is the first of these, along with anticipation of the future. Seeing what was, and what may be, though it is not visible in the present, is how we make sense of the present moment, and this is done through imagination. Similarly, to make sense of what we are doing, we must often imagine what is absent to us: what is happening to others in other places, other places on Earth, or in the universe. Imagination enables understanding the landscape of Antarctica, the terrain of Mars, or the state of one’s relatives in another city. Indeed, to act with a purpose is to see things that are not but may be or should be: different worlds, perfect worlds, fantastic worlds, transformed worlds, the world as it might be. All of this is vital to the Christian: to enter the biblical world, to picture the promised world coming, and to understand the unseen realities of God, Heaven, truth, hope, love. All ultimate truths and moral realities are invisible realities that require imagination. In short, imagination goes beyond interpreting the sensory data around us, and fills each moment with meaning, from the real or imagined past, present or future.

Third, to understand the world, all humans have a background “image” of reality. Everyone carries around a deep, mostly unvoiced, idea of what the world really is. Richard Weaver called it “a metaphysical dream”. The word dream reminds us that it is not always a conscious vision, as much as a vision that stands as the background of all conscious choice. The word metaphysical suggests that it deals with reality: the understanding of things as they truly are. This is your synoptic vision of the whole of life, your great interpretive index, that gives moral meaning to all that is encountered. Some writers prefer to call this “worldview”, and while this is helpful in some respects, it fails to recognise that imagination is not simply a mental stance, or a chosen Christian filter through which we look. It is an overarching “sense” of what the world is, and what it is for.

Once imagination is defined in these three ways, you can understand how vital a Christian imagination is. Christian imagination, defined this way, becomes a Christian understanding of the perception, a Christian interpretation of the world, and a Christian belief in spiritual realities. In other words, when we speak about Christian imagination, we are very close to meaning Christian interpretation or even Christian faith.

Jesus once pointed out that the lamp of the body is the eye, and if the eye is faulty, the whole body suffers in darkness. In other words, the eye is the window of the whole person, and a damaged window affects the experience within the house. In context, Jesus was speaking of desires: that where the treasure is, there the heart is also. If the Christian “eye” has been warped by secularism, unbelief and the idols of this age, then the whole Christian life will be affected by that damaged eye. That eye, put simply, is the Christian imagination.

Christian Imagination Is Not Imaginary Christianity

Christian imagination is not a term that will immediately draw approving responses. These days, Christianity is on the back foot anyway, and anything that sounds as if Christianity is dabbling in the unreal, the fantastical, or the faked, seems unhelpful. But G. K. Chesterton reminds us,

“But imaginative does not mean imaginary. It does not follow that it is all what the moderns call subjective, when they mean false. Every true artist does feel, consciously or unconsciously, that he is touching transcendental truths; that his images are shadows of things seen through the veil. In other words, the natural mystic does know that there is something there; something behind the clouds or within the trees; but he believes that the pursuit of beauty is the way to find it; that imagination is a sort of incantation that can call it up.”

The term imagination has been used by theologians, philosophers and artists to refer to something real, not unreal. Its connotations of fantasy and inner creativity are unfortunate, because it remains one of the best terms to describe how the human mind understands the world.

Why should Christians give special attention to the idea of imagination? Four important reasons make this a central, and not peripheral concern.

First, the form of God’s Word is imaginative. That is, most of the Bible is written in forms we would call imaginative, rather than discursive or speculative. Over a third of the Bible is poetry. Over 43 percent is narrative and Gospels. Wisdom literature is full of analogy, comparison and metaphor. Prophetic and apocalyptic writings are full of imagery and poetic language. The Law itself is graphic and narrative. The slim section of epistles contains theological imagery in almost every line. Put simply, the Bible is a work of imagination par excellence. You could not have written a less discursive book if you’d tried. The reason that the disciplines of systematic theology and philosophical theology exist is that they need to convert the graphic, analogical truth of Scripture into logical, discursive, conceptual categories. But that is not how Scripture was breathed out, and it is not accidental or a fault that it is in the form it is. Without cultivated imagination, Scripture will be frustrating, or even appear deliberately elusive or obfuscatory.

Second, reality itself is primarily a spiritual and moral reality. That is, Christians believe that the most important realities (God, Heaven, love, good or evil, truth, beauty, spirit) are not tangible, sensible or visible realities, at least with our current bodies. If so, the most important forms of perception will be those that can “see” these realities. That faculty is imagination. Without the faculty of Christian imagination, we will be deluded into equating invisible with unreal.

Third, man is an imaginative creature. Perhaps this is part of what it means to be in the image of God. Unlike animals, we continually turn creation into symbols: words, paintings, stories, poems, songs, sculptures, miniatures, structures, decorations. What are we doing? We turn the raw stuff of creation into things that carry meaning. We create entire cultures filled with symbols: rituals, manners, customs, art and so on. This is the first thing Adam did in the Garden: he named the animals, giving them meaning to his own mind. This was not mere labelling; it was understanding, interpreting, symbolising, even creating. God creates ex nihilo; man orders and tends and keeps that creation through imagination.

Fourth, God Himself is known analogically. God is ineffable and transcendent, meaning He is infinitely beyond us. He is not another, more advanced type of creation, but infinitely perfect and beyond it. Nevertheless, God explains Himself using analogies from within creation. He calls Himself a Shepherd, a Bridegroom, a Father, a Door, a Vine, a Tower, a Mediator, a Redeemer, a Judge, and so forth. God uses images and analogies from creation, as bridges, from the known to the unknown.

Without these, all of our theology would be apophatic theology: being able to speak only of what God is not, and refusing to speak on what God is, or what God is like. Too much of the apophatic borders on an impersonal, unknowable God, hardly the covenant-making and thereby self-revealing God of Scripture. We can know God, but we cannot know Him as God knows Himself. We can know Him through the many analogies and images He gives us to comprehend what He is like.

For these four reasons, Christians ought to prioritise the Christian imagination. This should then push us to a definition. What do we mean by Christian imagination? We’ll consider this next.

34. Conclusion: Beauty as Love

In this series, we have considered the meaning of beauty, objections to beauty, and how beauty is to be sought. We’ve answered the objections that beauty is “subjective”, or that it is nothing more than personal preference.

We have also found that parallels exist between finding beauty in general revelation, and finding it in special revelation. Christian spirituality can learn from some of the postures and techniques used by those seeking beauty in art.

Our survey of ideas regarding beauty decided that Jonathan Edwards, channeling Augustine, has the most comprehensive view of beauty. God’s beauty is God’s perfect desire for Himself. The spiritual beauty of Christians is their answering desire for God. God’s love is His beauty, and love for God is the experience and apprehension of this beauty.

This love is developed in four ways: through the implantation of a new nature, the cultivation of a profoundly Christian imagination, the regular practice of direct and indirect communion with God, and the repetitive use of spiritual disciplines that shape and develop the Christian’s sense and experience of the other three.

Perhaps these findings are surprising. Perhaps we were expecting that beauty should be defined as some combination of harmony or clarity or luminance. But in the end, beauty is so much more than visually pleasurable sights or pleasing music. Beauty existed when there was no world, and no humans with five senses to perceive it. Beauty is ultimately personal: the very person of God delighting in Himself. The effulgence of this beauty may lie at the heart of why God created: as gift to Himself.

Believers may sometimes scorn New Age talk of “being in harmony with the universe”. But a grain of truth lies within that deception. Believers are meant to be in harmony with deepest reality, which turns out to be loving God with God’s love. This is subjective and objective beauty in one, and man’s deepest purpose.