We have already showed the importance of imagination for shaping on overall Christian outlook and sensibility. Still, for many Christians these things seem abstract and somewhat arcane. But what if what we are calling imagination is very close to, or identical to the biblical concepts of faith and illumination? If imagination is either identical to or at least crucial to faith and illumination, then the cultivation of imagination becomes vital to Christian living.
Consider some surface similarities. Faith is described in Scripture as the “substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1). Faith understands reality in a certain way, and believes in unseen realities that shape what is seen. Faith is not restricted to believers, for all people rely on faith-assumptions about reality to even begin to navigate it.
George MacDonald said that faith seeks to understand the divine harmony that integrates and explains all of reality.
This all sounds strangely similar to imagination: the ability to see unseen realities, worlds, or events. Imagination is a synoptic vision of life. Imagination is not merely the “sight” of unseen reality, but its interpretation.
Of course, faith is more than analogical knowledge and interpretation. Faith includes trust, submission, and love. In other words, faith is not less than imagination, but it is more. Imagination supplies meaning, but not the voluntary acts of love. We might say that imagination supplies faith with its fuel. Knowledge of reality is mediated through the imagination, which might be thought of as faith’s architectonic, its inner structure. If this “metaphysical dream” is shaped by Christian revelation and Christian cultural production based on that revelation, its analogies and metaphors will convey meaning that corresponds to what is real, and that faith will be in what is true.
Illumination is the experience that faith often brings. According to Augustine, faith in God places the perceiver in a posture to receive illumination, and to fully participate in and understand the world. Jonathan Edwards regarded illumination as part of “the sense of the heart”: the regenerated capacity to understand and love the things of God. C. S. Lewis saw illumination as vital, as seen in his oft-quoted remark: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else”.
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).
A. W. Tozer said, “The value of the cleansed imagination in the sphere of religion lies in its power to perceive in natural things shadows of things spiritual…When Christ came with His blazing spiritual penetration and His fine moral sensitivity, He appeared to the Pharisee to be a devotee of another kind of religion, which indeed He was if the world had only understood. He could see the soul of the text while the Pharisee could see only the body, and he could always prove Christ wrong by an appeal to the letter of the law or to an interpretation hallowed by tradition…I long to see the imagination released from its prison and given to its proper place among the sons of the new creation. What I am trying to describe here is the sacred gift of seeing, the ability to peer beyond the veil and gaze with astonished wonder upon the beauties and mysteries of things holy and eternal.”
For Tozer, while illumination is a work of the Spirit, the human side of the equation is the power of imagination to furnish insight. Insight reveals connections where they were missed. Insight provides fresh perspectives on truths grown stale through over-familiarity. Insight sees proportions of scale between images or analogies and the truths they represent. The combination of insight through the hard work of imaginative meditation and the Holy Spirit’s act of bringing gracious enablement will be high affections for God.
What then? The cultivation of Christian imagination through careful selection and conscientious meditation is fundamental to faith and the illumination that brings love and zealous worship of God.