Monthly Archives: June 2021

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.