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 describes Himself having hands, eyes, and a mouth. He describes Himself as being jealous, grieved or delighted. He calls Himself a Shepherd, a Bridegroom, a Father, a King, a Door, a Vine, a Tower, a Mediator, a Redeemer, a Judge, and so forth. Here God uses analogies and images 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.