Just My (Christian) Imagination Running Away With Me

This article was originally posted by the John Jay Institute, as part of an online […]

Will McDavid / 11.3.17

This article was originally posted by the John Jay Institute, as part of an online symposium it held on Christian Imagination a couple years back. It’s been lightly edited.

It’s embarrassingly difficult to find oneself largely without answers but with questions, especially in the context of beautiful reflections on art, liturgy, the imago dei, and other affectively-charged elements of the Christian imagination. For example, the question of the imagination’s being ‘fully redeemed’ is one that a stubbornly literal-minded person cannot quite wrap his head around. Awash in thoughts of family farms sold, inheritances forfeited, and next-of-kin pawning them back, such etymologically-constrained readers can be taxed by unfamiliarity with the contemporary, figurative tradition about various conceptual realities being ‘redeemed’. More embarrassing still, the rare reader may find himself a little experientially out-of-touch with the “large-mannered motions” (Wallace Stevens) signaling joy, paradise, and personal forward progress.

As another slight point of embarrassment, I had to look up the meaning of the word ‘imagination’, and hopefully providing a definition here would not come across as too basic. Philosophically, the best I could do was: the human faculty for envisioning phenomena not physically present in one’s visual horizon, containing, too, all of the situations and scenarios with which such a faculty allows us to play around. Furthermore, we could maybe distinguish between assisted and unassisted imagination: for the first, a book’s words might guide my mind toward envisioning something akin to what the author imagined as she wrote it; for the second, as I stand in the shower I might conjure up, all my own, a scenario in which I adroitly argue with an ex-roommate, leading him to a submissive apology for a past wrong.

In this layman’s starting-point of defining imagination, doubtless unnecessary for most, something further needs to be said. Edmund Husserl, along with many philosophers in the phenomenological tradition, believed that there can be no act of intentional perception in which affection does not play a role. This applies to my noticing a pretty girl on the other side of the street, for looking at a flower, and for imagined objects. I direct my imagination toward berating an ex-roommate because my righteousness, and his recognition of it, feels good. Anything we imagine has an irreducible affective component; we turn toward something because it interests us.

In such a view, imagination’s moral component starts to look similar to that of desire: fundamentally good, but perverted, distorted, out-of-proportion, occluded, defaced, or any of those other metaphors which theologians have used to describe how the state of the imago dei after the Fall could be appropriated for imagination. The idea also begins to look a little more grounded: all imagination must be rooted in physical phenomena; it uses remembered perceptions as its raw material.

Finally, Christian imagination: does the Holy Spirit change our imaginations? The layman would see no reason why that could happen, if our unassisted imagination is a function of imaginative capacity and desire. There’s no reason to think the former is true, unless Joss Whedon, Salvador Dali, and George R.R. Martin are Christians. In fact, a worryingly disproportionate amount of imaginative art has come from those in reaction against Christianity, or who are merely ambivalent toward it. As for the second, we would just speak of changing desires; imagination, in that context, is only a means of their expression. As for imagination being redeemed, which to the etymologist means bought back from the pawn shop by a relative, and to the layman means a vague turning-towards-good, probably not. Apart from a vague tendency toward the unfashionable Jesus-buying-us-back-from-Satan atonement model, it makes little sense: the role of imagination in the promised visio facialis is dubious.

It would seem the last role for the Christian imagination to play would be as a means for God’s in-forming our desires. This, of course, is where its role is unassailably good. Who can doubt that the biblical stories, the beautiful worlds of C.S. Lewis, or the complex motions of Christian liturgies reshape our desires? That is solid ground. The question of imagination’s role in various settings is secondary; the main question is, for the layman, what we should direct it to, and for the preacher or theologian, what images, metaphors, and rites will best serve the layperson? Fortunately, the liturgy question was admirably settled for liturgical churches by Church councils and Thomas Cranmer. And other traditions, such as Reformed, are doing well to try to assimilate the liturgy; recent works on the importance of imagination are helping this effort. For which images to direct it toward, it’s a shame that the Index was phased out at mid-century. Bloggers, pastors, and the Mann-Booker committee can fill part of that void.

There is one final problem which suggests that more of the imagination than we think could be entrusted to the Holy Spirit. James K.A. Smith, a recent lynchpin of smart Evangelicalism in America, has embedded a myth in the conversation about imagination and desire: “compelling visions, over time, seep into and shape our desire and thus fuel dispositions toward them” (Desiring the Kingdom). This idea, seemingly, lay behind Smith’s defense of Christian schools in the wake of a Christianity Today blogger making a well-articulated apology for sending her kids to public schools. Smith:

“That’s why, based on the evidence, we keep pointing out that a Christian education is a ‘public’ education and serves the common good—more, in fact, than so-called ‘public’ (i.e., state-run) schools do. If we want to change the social architecture for future generations, we need to seriously consider educating them in Christian schools… The vision of Christian education is rooted in a conviction that learning is always informed by some worldview or faith commitments, which is why we should be intentional about teaching and learning from an explicitly Christian starting point.”

The idea flows naturally out of Smith’s linear, accretive view of desire-shaping. Master Koolhaas’s Academy for Kuyperian Youth can feed children the ‘right’ images, appealing to right desires, and shaping their imaginations accordingly. The public-school child’s Christian imaginary lags just a bit behind; on average, he is less interested in the common good.

Obviously, if it were true, this linearity would be problematic. But we needn’t worry (certainly not about the “evidence”, ceteris paribus being impossible there), because the Spirit works often through counter-formation. That is, our imaginations are sometimes repulsed by what they consume or envision, and this movement – the biblical shorthand would be ‘repentance’ – is perhaps even stronger than Smith’s accretive mechanism. Sometimes we rebel against the good: Thomas Mann, a Nobel Laureate, wrote a famous story, Death in Venice, about an acclaimed author enamored of the true, good, and beautiful, who, after a long life of austere disciple, becomes equally enamored with a ten-year-old Polish boy on the beach, and dies as a result. William Inge writes a play, with echoes of the Prodigal Son, in which a man tells his wife, truly, that her vision of domestic order makes him want to go out and raise hell all over again, just to prove to himself that he’s free. And in personal experience, we all know of people who went to Christian schools and are now in the most fervent rebellion.

But there is a redemptive element, too. For Flannery O’Connor, it happens through such strange vessels as the theft of an artificial leg and a grandmother’s murder. Gustave Flaubert’s rendition of the St. Julian story features a man becoming holy as a result of remorse from killing thousands of animals, along with his father and mother. Leo Tolstoy’s “Father Sergius”, a model of self-righteousness as he tries to become holier, finally becomes a saint through repentance after seducing a much younger, disabled girl in his cell. If the world’s greatest imaginations have anything to teach us here, it’s that formation rarely occurs in a direct or linear manner. But we twenty-first century Americans are relentlessly positive, and our Christian imaginations are by no means untouched by the American Dream. Inasmuch as our imaginations are touched by our desires, they are sinful to the same extent that we are. There is much to commend in the Christian ideal of setting our minds on what is good, but if spiritual formation becomes yet another technique, yet another results-driven process, yet another thing to be controlled and carefully manicured, we risk glossing over the recognition of our frailty which lies near the heart of the Christian message.

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