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, perceptions, presuppositions, 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. We believe that 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 our perceptions, a Christian interpretation of meaning 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.
About David de Bruyn
David de Bruyn pastors New Covenant Baptist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is a graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Minnesota and the University of South Africa (D.Th.). Since 1999, he has presented a weekly radio program that is heard throughout much of central South Africa. He also blogs at Churches Without Chests.