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.