Tag Archive for imagination

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.

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.

29. The Dilemma of Commanded Love

If God’s beauty is perceived through correspondent, or ordinate love, we face a dilemma. Love is not merely a mental choice between options. One cannot simply choose to love as a naked act of the will. As Tozer said, “[E]very man is as holy and as full of the Spirit as he wants to be. He may not be as full as he wishes he were, but he is most certainly as full as he wants to be”. That is, Christians may wish that they loved God more than they do, but they currently love him with as much inclination as they do. Such a statement is not meant to be deliberately tautologous. It merely affirms what Edwards writes in The Freedom of the Will: the strongest inclination is the choice one makes, and that choice is the same as the will.

As we’ve seen, some of the problem began when the Enlightenment introduced a three-faculty view of human psychology. It also began viewing the will as a neutral faculty. In Edwards’ view, the human will is not the faculty that decides, it is the decision itself. Edwards’ two-faculty view of human psychology suggests that the mind knows the objects of desire, and the heart chooses, or loves, what it sees as the greatest good. The greatest motive always prevails as the thing chosen. In other words, what the will chooses is precisely what it loves. This is why it is not strictly correct to speak of “choosing to love”, for one is really thereby saying “choosing to choose” or “loving so as to love”. Logically, one would be forced to ask, what inclination is leading one to desire such an inclination? The same thing would need to be asked of that inclination, till one has an absurd infinite regress of choices to choose, with apparently no starting point.

The will does not choose to love; the will chooses what it loves. One’s chosen desires reflect what one thinks it best to choose. Loves can be formed and shaped, but they cannot simply be willed into being. In a real sense, as has been shown, love is the will in the direction of what it sees as good. One may speak of choosing the good or loving what is most beautiful, but not of choosing to love.

Here then is the problem: if correspondent love is fundamental to apprehending God’s beauty, how can his love be experienced, if love cannot simply be willed into being? In other words, how is this love to be obtained? Love cannot be willed. Desires can, however, be cultivated. Four ways of cultivating this love will be our focus, going forward.

1) Correspondent love is cultivated through a vision of what is beautiful. Humans are always inclined towards a vision of something they believe is good.  This picture is not a set of abstract ideas, as much as it is an aesthetic idea, an affective, sensible picture of what reality is really like or should be like. This corresponds to what we call imagination. This is not speculative fancy; it is the non-cognitive picture of the deep structure of Reality.

A Christian imagination is absolutely fundamental to cognition, perception, and interpretation. If correspondent love is the key to perceiving God’s beauty, and imagination is fundamental to perception, it follows that a Christian imagination is fundamental to correspondent love. This is the telos to which the human heart is inclined; it is its treasure, to which one will always find the heart inclined (Matt. 6:21).

2) Correspondent love is cultivated through a change in spiritual nature. In his Treatise on Grace, Edwards writes that “the first effect of the power of God in the heart in regeneration, is to give the heart a divine taste or sense, to cause it to have a relish of the loveliness and sweetness of the supreme excellency of the divine nature”
Indeed, it may be a form of Pelagianism to assert that the affections can simply be commanded by an act of human thought or willpower. That is, an implantation of the divine nature has to be given for the human soul to find relish and inclination toward God.

The spiritual beauty of the saints is their consent to God’s being, but this consent comes only because something of God’s being has been created in the human being. Holy love for God cannot come without a new nature. “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love” (1 John 4:7–8). Ontological union with Christ provides the new nature, the new position from which ordinate love for God can grow. The second area of cultivating correspondent love will be through the presence of a new nature, or position of the Christian life. This new position must be present and remembered.

3) Correspondent love is cultivated though exposure. The new nature or position is meant to be fleshed out and experienced. The New Testament’s call to Christians is to become what they are, to practice their position, to cause their nature to affect their posture (Rom. 6:10–12; Eph. 4:1). Through this actual exposure to God’s love, love is cultivated through the experience of it. Edwards reminds one that beauty is not known in the abstract, but through exposure: “It is evident therefore by this, that the way we come by the idea or sensation of beauty, is by immediate sensation of the gratefulness of the idea called “beautiful”; and not by finding out by argumentation any consequences, or other things that it stands connected with; any more than tasting the sweetness of honey, or perceiving the harmony of a tune, is by argumentation on connections and consequences” The third area of cultivating correspondent love will be through exposure to the beauty of God through experiential communion with God, which one might term the process of the Christian life.

4) Correspondent love for God is cultivated through repeated practice or nurture. Habit is what shapes the heart. Liturgical practices, habitually repeated in acts of private and public worship, give physical form and memorable expression to an idea of ultimate reality. The human heart needs regular nurture in those spiritual practices that give form and expression to correspondent love. The fourth area of cultivating correspondent love will be through regular spiritual disciplines, which one might term the practices of the Christian life.

Chestless Churches

What would ‘Churches Without Chests” look like? To use a strictly Lewisian definition, it would be groups of professing believers without ‘the spirited element’. In plain language, that would be believers who have profoundly under-developed parts of their souls.

Chestless churches would be:

Churches Without Beauty. The music, the poetry, the rhetoric in the sermons, the architecture of the meeting places, the prose of such Christians could be laid side-by-side with Bach, Herbert, Spurgeon, Wren, and Austen and it would be obvious that a profound uglification had taken place. In place of the sublime would be the glossy, in place of the profound would be the emotive, in place of the sober would be the maudlin, in place of the simple would be the trivial, in place of the magnificent would be the flamboyant. In fact, these churches would not stop to consider if their worship was beautiful. They would ask only if it was doctrinally correct, and broadly similar to other churches within their tribe.

Churches Without Judgement. The bigger problem would be that such churches would be largely unable to tell the difference between the beautiful and the banal, indeed, they would be unlikely to even think in those categories. An atrophication of moral judgement would have created Christians agnostic on the question of beauty, shrunken in their capacities to feel and express admiration, and largely addicted to the cheap thrills of popular art.

This profound lack of judgement would show up in other ways, too. Churches with nothing to mediate between their rationalistic (head) knowledge of propositional truth, and their appetites (the belly), would be at the mercy of their appetites. In a contest between what they’d know about lust, and their appetite for porn, the appetite would win. In a contest between what they’d know about covetousness and their appetite for consumption, the appetite would win. In a contest between what they’d know about reverence, and their appetite for amusement, the appetite would win. The result would be ‘trousered apes and urban blockheads’ in the pulpit and pew.

Churches Without Imagination. The judgement would be missing because the deepest part of these Christians would be malformed – their image of ultimate reality. Having been shaped by churches without chests, these Christians would have a hodgepodge of competing ideas, unproven assumptions, and fairly secular ideas about reality. They would be the oddest hybrid of all – evangelical modernists. As such, they’d have little time for the symbolic, for ceremony, for art, for this would just be getting in the way of ‘the facts’. They’d imagine that they have unmediated access to reality, and tear aside any symbol, ceremony, ritual, custom, or art form that didn’t give them the effect of immediacy.

Churches Without Culture. The imagination would be secular because the churches would be without Christian culture. That is, their churches would be adrift in the sea of mass culture, picking and choosing bits and pieces from the anti-culture of secularism. There’d be no sense of the Christian vision of reality and its consequent judgements. Each church would be an exercise in eclecticism, home-spinning its judgements, with little idea of what Christians had made, thought, said, and decided before that moment. The worship would be secularised, the wandering star of relevance would provide navigation, and inane statements about contextualisation would prove that they had long ago been set adrift from Christian culture. Propositions from Scripture would be the supposed norming norm, but continued fragmentation in the church would prove that such propositions were little more than disembodied ideas without form, once Christian culture had been abandoned.

Churches Without Tradition. The churches would be without Christian culture because they had been seduced by modernity, and were now obsessed with contemporaneity, in love with the new, mesmerised by the latest, and slaves to the relevant. They would have little love for the Christian past, and so be strangers to their own culture. They would not measure their own judgements, ideas, affections, or works by the standard of the church triumphant. They would use the authority of Scripture as an excuse to dishonour their parents in the faith – to ignore Christian tradition altogether, or to pay it the occasional, patronising compliment. In the name of evangelism, they would ignore the collective judgements of 2000 years of church history, and use those of 21st century pagan marketers, media professionals, and celebrities.

No beauty because of a lack of judgement. No judgement because of a lack of imagination. No imagination because of a lack of culture. No culture because of a lack of tradition. These would be churches without chests.

Know any?