Monthly Archives: April 2021

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.