David

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.

33. The Practices of Correspondent Love

The practices, or disciplines of the Christian life function to nurture correspondent love. The disciplines are not themselves the sum and substance of communion with God. Instead, they are the gymnasium, or rather the exercises, that develop and strengthen ordinate love for all of life. The process of experiential communion with God extends to family life, vocation, avocation, recreation, evangelism, and discipleship. It is not merely an exercise in one’s private devotions or in corporate worship. One can love God correspondently in all of life. Nevertheless, the disciplines are concentrated, repetitive forms and practices that nurture that love. The disciplines provide the greenhouse in which desire for God thrives. How so?

First, these disciplines provide the opportunity for communion with God to occur. The spiritual disciplines, rightly used, are the moments when one can give clearest attention to the process of communing with God, confessing sins, and conforming one’s life to Christ. It is no wonder that some have mistaken these means as ends, for they provide some of the most concentrated experiences of communion with God.

Second, the spiritual disciplines form and shape the Christian imagination, filling the mind with analogies and metaphors by which to understand invisible and ultimate realities. The spiritual disciplines are not simply conveyors of information. They shape the imagination on a non-cognitive level through their form. The pattern of correspondent life is imprinted on the mind. They also create a rhythm of life that shapes the imagination (Deut. 6:6–9).

Third, the spiritual disciplines unite the pattern, position, and process of the Christian life in one act. They shape and strengthen the other three pillars of correspondent love. Like those tasks in life that require one to combine and co-ordinate several actions at once, practice is necessary. Practical disciplines give the soul practice at combining these.

Many spiritual disciplines have been suggested. We suggest three major categories of practices: the prescriptive practices of corporate worship, the derivative practices of private worship, and the formative practices of developmental worship. Why these three? The first two were considered the “means of grace” by the first Puritan generation. The third is derived primarily through the Lutheran and Moravian traditions.

1. The Prescriptive Practices of Corporate Worship

The Regulative Principle of Worship states that only what the Word positively prescribes to be used in corporate worship should be included. The prescribed elements of corporate worship are then concluded to be the public reading of Scripture, the preaching of Scripture, public prayer, song, the collection, and the ordinances. This holds for corporate worship, since that is where the consciences of God’s people are bound to the shared practice. Corporate worship stands at the head of all practices, because of its powerful shaping influence.

Although the elements of corporate worship have been prescribed, the circumstances have not. The circumstances refer to the form each of these will take: the kind of music, the type of prayers, the length and presentation of the elements, the shape of the liturgy, the architecture of the meeting place, and so on.

2. The Derivative Practices of Private Worship

Private worship refers to acts of communion performed alone or (where available) in solitude. The prescriptions for corporate worship do not necessarily apply when it comes to private worship, but the practices of private worship are assumed by example (Dan. 6:10; Ps. 1:2; 5:3; Matt. 6:6; Mark 1:35; Eph. 1:16) and commanded in the form of principles (Col. 4:2; 1 Thes. 5:17). Private worship derives its practices from corporate worship: some form of reading Scripture, meditating on Scripture, praying, or singing (which is a form of prayer). Added disciplines such as memorisation of Scripture or journaling are really additional ways of meditating on Scripture. Missing from private worship are those elements that cannot function in solitude: the Lord’s Supper, baptism, and the collection.

3. The Supportive Practices of Developmental Worship

The supportive practices are those practices that aid in developing the skills, judgement, discernment, and aesthetic literacy that support corporate and private worship.

Christians have not only taught the people they evangelised to read (so as to read and comprehend the Word), they have taught them to sing and make poems (“psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs”) and tell their stories. Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:19 imply that Christians are to make music and poems.

The arts are not mere embellishments for cognitive and didactic truth; they are formative and substantive. They are a transmission of emotional knowledge. One cannot worship without art, and one cannot then worship intelligently unless some aesthetic literacy is present. Public and private worship are hamstrung without aesthetic literacy. The advent of audio and visual recording, and storage and playback technologies have increasingly turned much of the modern population into art consumers, rather than producers.

What aspects of beauty or art should Christians produce? At least two are suggested by Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16: music and poetry. A third can be implied by the dominance of narrative in Scripture: Christian stories and histories. Christians should be hearing, learning, and making music, poetry, and stories that reflect the Christian imagination.

These practices are supportive in the sense that they support and shape the prescriptive and descriptive disciplines. They are not themselves prescriptive: it would be tenuous to say that Scripture commands all Christians to cultural production in the same way that corporate worship is commanded. J. K. A. Smith asserts that “[M]usic and singing whilst not of the esse (i.e., essence or being) of the church are vital for the beneesse (i.e., the health or well-being) of the church”.

Some presence of these practices is, however, assumed by Scripture as normative. Christian history has similar examples of this artistic production. The Lutheran tradition is one. Luther made sure musical training was present in all three divisions of Lutheran schooling.
Similar to the Lutheran tradition, American Moravians wove musical literacy into the education of their young. At all four levels of instruction, nurseries, primary schools, academies or seminaries and the ‘choir’ houses of Single Brethren and Sisters, music was integral

Where and when these supportive practices have waned, corporate and private worship have suffered. Lacking these practices on a widespread scale, Christians are cut off from a living tradition, and default to the aesthetic production of their surrounding popular culture. Without these supportive practices, Christians lose aesthetic judgement, and must borrow the judgements of their leaders, who themselves may be aesthetic illiterates.

As artistic production ceases, the choices for circumstances of worship are cast upon an evil choice: to seek to repristinate fossilised ancient practices, or to attempt to “Christianise” artistic forms foreign to historic Christianity and lacking in reverence.

Christians steeped in these supportive practices develop aesthetic judgement, gaining the skill not only to worship more meaningfully, but better to judge the circumstances of corporate and private worship. When a large groundswell of Christians standing on the shoulders of their tradition are making music and poetry, emerging from the mass will be a few works of high excellence, that enter into the worship of the church universal.

The prescribed practices of corporate worship, the derived practices of private worship, and the supportive practices of developmental worship find their support in Scripture and Christian history. These will greatly nurture correspondent love for God, through which we know and love God’s beauty.

32. The Process of Correspondent Love

Love for God’s beauty is known not only by imagination and through changed nature, but also by exposure. The writer of Theologia Germanica wrote, “And he who would know before he believeth, cometh never to true knowledge…We speak of a certain Truth which it is possible to know by experience, but which ye must believe in, before that ye know it by experience, else ye will never come to know it truly” (Theologia Germanica, XLVIII).

Though the believer is in ontological union with Christ, loving God’s beauty is a matter of experientially seeking that union, of consenting or desiring to live in experiential union with God. This experiential union with God requires the ontological union, but ontological union with Christ does not automatically lead to experiential union. Instead, believers are commanded to live in God’s presence, as seen in Christ’s command to “abide” (John 15:1–7).

What does this experiential union look like? A wise option is to investigate the “shape” of corporate worship, since corporate worship is the most distilled and unified form of worship.
The common pattern of the order of worship in the historical church actually reflects the progress of the gospel in the heart. First, the worshipper recognises who God is in adoration. Once that is realised, it leads to an understanding of self, and therefore to confession. The gospel then assures of pardon, so that the worshipper is led to thanksgiving, petition and more devotion. God provides his Word in response to the desire for aid, and the worshipper heeds the instruction, leaving with the charge to do so and the promise of God’s blessing.

This gospel-shaped process can be adapted for the experience of loving God’s beauty in all of life. This process necessarily includes public and private worship, but it also includes family life, service, discipleship of other believers, evangelism, one’s vocation, education, avocation, recreation, and entertainment. All of life is to be lived in a love for God (1 Cor. 16:14, 10:31).

This state of communion is often experienced as the Spirit of God does his work of illumination. 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). The Spirit is himself the communion between Father and Son, and he is the means of experienced union with Christ for regenerate human beings (John 15:26). In the place of illumination, a believer is loving God ultimately, loving what God loves, and loving in expansive joy.

Experiential communion is life lived coram Deo, in God’s presence or before God’s face. Christian mystical writers have spoken of the ideal of unbroken communion with God or practising his presence at every waking moment. Some of these writers have set up an unattainable goal, asserting that such unbroken communion should always be direct; that is, a Christian’s conscious communion with God should never cease, even when going about work, solving pressing problems, or communing with other human beings. Very few people, however, have the ability to have their inward focus on more than one thing at a time. As Michael Polanyi noted in his epistemology, physical eyes are able to see many things in one’s peripheral vision and in the background, but they focus on one object at a time. Communion with God may be a focal awareness or a subsidiary awareness. Communion with God does not require that the Christian always be praying, meditating on the Word, or otherwise adoring God directly. Indirect communion with God will include loving what God has made by admiring God’s handiwork. Indirect communion includes serving God by focussing on the task at hand, or by focusing on the person one is serving for God’s sake. In these circumstances, Christians are actually turning their gaze from direct communion with God to something or someone else, while retaining God in their subsidiary vision. They do their work well, or consider carefully creation, or love another person, while keeping God as the ultimate, though presently indirect, end of all their actions. Richard Baxter said, “The intending of God’s glory or our spiritual good, cannot be distinctly and sensibly re-acted in every particular pleasure we take, or bit we eat, or thing we use: but a sincere Habitual Intention well laid at first in the Heart, will serve to the right use of many particular Means” (Works, Vol.1, 266). This means that the process of ordinate love comprehends all of life.

Correspondent love is cultivated through actual experience. The experience of communing with God, when illuminated by the Spirit, is that experience. Therein, the believer loves God ultimately, loves what God loves, consecrating all things to God. When he or she falls, there exists the option of confession, cleansing, followed by a deeper conformity to Christ.

How is this process to be deepened, and its posture strengthened? The fourth aspect of cultivating correspondent love supplies much of the answer.

Why Churches Can’t Agree on Civil Disobedience

The current conflict between Christians over responses to government during the pandemic does not really come down to whether we believe in civil disobedience. Likely, we all do. The conflict is about the application of the doctrine of civil disobedience to two other matters: the future of religious liberties, and how the church is treated relative to other public bodies or societies.

1) The first matter has to do with how governments will treat churches and religious liberties in the future. There have been two opposite beliefs about the future of religious liberties. Those who have tended towards complete submission to government emergency regulations believe that this whole situation is an anomaly, and is in no way a harbinger of things to come. If these regulations are simply emergency management rules, then we cannot judge a government’s long-term plans or intentions by its laws during a crisis. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and there is nothing sinister afoot. Once infections levels subside, once the vaccine covers more than 70% of the population, life as we used to know it will return.

Those who have tended towards partial or total civil disobedience believe that this situation is the beginning of a new normal. Powers that governments receive during emergencies are not easily surrendered; they are usually channeled into benign-looking regulations and rules after the emergency is over. The pandemic has provided opportunities for centralisation and greater regulation, all in the name of protecting life. Those on this side of the argument do not believe these restrictions will disappear any time soon. Even if the immediate threat of the pandemic lessens, there will always be the threat of another pandemic breaking out, and therefore preventative measures could become semi-permanent. Prevention of a future pandemic can create a world as restrictive as the one we are in now.

Both of these positions are trying to anticipate the future. On the one hand, those who believe the situation is an anomaly believe that civil disobedience is unwarranted. “Why risk fines and jail-time if this will all pass in a year or so?” On the other hand, those who believe this is the new normal believe that civil disobedience is necessary. “Why accept unfair restrictions in the hopes of restored liberties that may never materialise?” Of course, neither position knows the future. Both are doing their best to anticipate based on knowledge, history, and experience. But both must admit that they lack knowledge of the future, and are acting in light of what they believe to be the most likely outcome. That should chasten the certainty with which we act and speak.

2) The second matter has to do with the relative treatment of the church. The issue is not whether the church is restricted, but how restricted it is relative to other similar public organisations. Theatres, casinos, restaurants, shops, conferences have been allowed to operate, while churches have been told to close. Airplanes, taxis and buses can be filled to capacity with no social distancing, but churches must be restricted to 50 or less with social distancing. Churches have been told that they are super-spreader events, but large gatherings eat and drink without masks, sit closer on aeroplanes, and squeeze more people into their shops, conferences and venues.

Once again, there are two opposite responses to this treatment. The first is to feel no particular burden about this lopsided treatment of the church. Some might smart a bit and perhaps sense the injustice and unreasonableness, but accept it as part of the pain of the moment. Some even agree with the government’s assessment that church gatherings are highly dangerous, due to the tendency to hug, shake hands, sing and so forth. But overall, the discomfort does not rise to the level of conviction in the conscience that one is participating in evil.

The second response is to be convicted in conscience that to participate in the government’s treatment of the church is to disobey the Lord. Whether or not unbelieving governments regard the church as essential or treat it fairly is not the issue. Whether Christians are willing to personally believe and support that assessment becomes a matter of personal submission to Christ. For example, the fact that the government is happy to have unmasked patrons of restaurants eat and drink any day of the week but crack down on worshippers on Sunday is a matter between government and God – they must answer to God for that. But if a Christian goes to restaurants during the week, and yet avoids church on Sundays or believes the government’s assessment of church gathering, this has become a matter between the Christian and God. He is no longer merely submitting to government’s regulations; he is submitting to government’s assessment of worship. His conscience must agree with government in order to act that way. He must believe that going to restaurants is worth the risk, and going to church is not; or he must believe that assembled worship is some of the most dangerous activity in the world during a pandemic. Either way, he must come to several judgements in himself on the importance of worship, the kind of risks worth taking, the comparative value of various social activities. For those on this side of the debate, to submit to the world’s estimate is to be disloyal to God, to demote His importance, to participate in the denigration and marginalisation of God.

Unlike the first matter, this matter has nothing to do with the future, and everything to do with what is right in front of us. Frankly, from my perspective, the only way a Christian cannot be smitten in conscience about this comparative marginalisation of God is if he believes that livestreaming, webcasts and Zoom are allowing true worship to continue.

Therefore, it is not surprising to see the following combinations of beliefs:
1) Those who believe the restrictions are temporary, that the Christian conscience need not be injured by the restrictions, and that livestreaming, Zoom and “virtual” church are valid forms of gathering.
2) Those who believe some of the restrictions will become permanent, that the Christian conscience is necessarily offended by the restrictions, and that gathering means gathering, with actual people in each other’s actual presence.

It is not hard to understand why those who hold the first matrix of beliefs have no problem with submitting to (most) everything the government has ordered during the pandemic, and those who hold the second matrix see no possible way to submit to all government says and remain faithful to God.

Since none of us knows the future, discussing government’s intentions is not likely to bring any agreement. We should focus our discussions on two things: are web technologies valid substitutes for embodied worship, and should the individual Christian conscience tolerate the public marginalisation of Christian worship?