What part does imagination play in your spiritual life?
You might think it should have no place at all. We should be about truth. Many of us know people who cook up all kinds of funny ideas about God and his will for their lives using their imaginations—exactly the kind of thing that the Bible specifically denounces in places such as Ezekiel 13 and Jeremiah 23:16-17. The imagination (or heart) is a thoroughly unreliable source for theological knowledge.
An Imaginative Book for Imaginative Hearts
Even so, the Bible is full of imagination. When it describes God as building his house above the firmament, or coming down to judge, or smelling sacrifices, or carrying Israel like an eagle, or running to meet us like a bereaved father, or preparing a feast for his Son (etc etc etc!), these are all appeals to our imagination. When we hear of the humans likened to mists that vanish or adulterers scooping fire into their laps, or the devil as a lion or dragon, we are seeing theological truth through an imaginative lens.
Imagination is vital to revelation. It turns abstract truths into concrete images. It sends us postcards from realms that are invisible and ineffable. It is part of the way God lisps to us like a nursemaid lisping to a child.
Imagination is vital to revelation. It turns abstract truths into concrete images. It sends us postcards from realms that are invisible and ineffable.
But the imagination is vital to Christian spirituality too. As James K. A. Smith argues in Desiring the Kingdom (and even more in Imagining the Kingdom) we are creatures governed by our imaginations: “our action emerges from how we imagine the world … we live into the stories we’ve absorbed.” (ITK, 32)
For Smith, the primacy of the imagination elevates it above the intellect. What we really need is a Christian education that spends less time on “the saturation of our intellect” and more time on “transforming our imagination.” (DTK, 18) His proposed solution (among many other things!) advocates a more embodied, artistic and liturgical faith.
In a recent post on this channel, Peter Orr signals the danger of this approach. The more we look to cultural innovations outside Scripture, the more we undermine our confidence in the Word which comes with its own [S]piritual power to transform our inner lives.
I think Orr is justified in this concern and correct to point back to Scripture. Yet I also think we need to address the entirely legitimate protest that Smith raises against intellectual Christianity that fills the head without touching the heart. If we want to commend the sufficiency of Scripture we need to work out what’s going wrong here and propose some solutions.
We need to address the entirely legitimate protest against intellectual Christianity that fills the head without touching the heart. We need to work out what’s going wrong here and propose some solutions.
Truth and Meaning
One key, I suspect, lies in the distinction between truth (the facts of God and the world) and meaning (how that truth strikes and moves us). In an essay on metaphors, C. S. Lewis puts it like this:
…reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning. Imagination, producing new metaphors or revivifying old, is not the cause of truth, but its condition.
Notice here how Lewis relates truth to the imagination. Truth is primary—and reason too, since that’s how we come to know truth (in the previous sentence Lewis describes himself as a “rationalist”). But we also need to grasp the meaning of that truth. We need to understand that truth in concrete terms. For that, we need our imaginations to re-express, illuminate and illustrate the truth in fresh ways.
Lewis, of course, is a master of this himself. Both his fiction and his (highly rational) essays glitter with imaginative fragments; passing similes and metaphors that help us see God’s truth and God’s world. Surely this is a large part of why we love him.
We should note in passing, however, that Lewis manages to do it without literal images. Pauline Baynes notwithstanding, Lewis comes to us through words. We don’t have to literally (or liturgically or sculpturally) embody and enact Mere Christianity or God in the Dock. Lewis warms our hearts through the virtual reality of our imaginations—through the intellectual exercise of reading. He re-presents our embodied existence to us through written words in the light of Christian truth.
A Promising Model
Surely this is a most promising model for the heartfelt Christianity that Smith (and others like him) are calling for. It also stands in a great tradition. Set-off by observations made by Tim Keller and others, I’ve recently been noticing how the Puritans do the same sort of thing; how they are continually translating truth into concrete metaphors and applications that come with their own emotional savour. Here are some random examples from my own notes and highlights:
- Jeremiah Burroughs likens the futile attempt to find satisfaction in this world to children running from hilltop to hilltop thinking they will be able to catch the sun. Elsewhere he exhorts us to consider ourselves as men at sea—working sailors who don’t expect much in the way of comfort because we know it waits for us at home.
- Richard Sibbes comforts struggling Christians to think of themselves as acorns—not much to look at now, but valuable for what (through Christ) they will grow into.
- John Flavel challenges us to reject sin as the thing that killed Jesus—just we would reject a knife that had stabbed our father in the heart.
- Thomas Watson urges us to consider Ephesians 3:20 by imagining the greatest things that we might “ask or think”:
Stretch your thoughts as much as you can … God is said to do abundantly for us, above all that we can ask. What can an ambitious spirit ask? He can ask crowns and kingdoms, millions of worlds; but God can give more than we can ask, nay, or think, because he is infinite. We can think, what if all the dust were turned to silver, if every flower were a ruby, every sand in the sea a diamond; yet God can give more than we can think, because he is infinite. Oh how rich are they who have the infinite God for their portion!
Like Smith, the Puritans believe that there is a great danger of biblical Christianity lapsing into mere intellectualism. But they believe that the antidote is deeper—and more imaginative, though they wouldn’t normally put it like that—reflection on Scripture itself.
The Puritans believe that there is a great danger of biblical Christianity lapsing into mere intellectualism. But they believe that the antidote is deeper reflection on Scripture itself.
This important feature of Puritan teaching has a corollary for the individual believer. The secret weapon of Puritan spirituality is private meditation—a practice that involves deliberately reflecting on God, life and the world in the light of Scripture.
There are different paths such meditation can take.
- Most often it will begin with Scripture as the believer tries to draw out the glorious implications of the text: what does passage show me about God or my place in his plans etc.?
- Sometimes it will begin with a reflection on the Christian’s own circumstances, character or sins.
- Sometimes it will start with a sermon or devotional book.
- Occasionally it will take aspects of the created world as its point of departure.
Whatever the path, the goals are the same: the conversion of intellectual knowledge into heartfelt meaning; the kindling and inflaming of the heart by the operation of the understanding (to paraphrase Edmund Calamy).
The Puritans think this is essential. If our hearts are unmoved by God’s great truths, it’s probably because we are only reading and not meditating on their glories. As Thomas Watson writes:
The devil does not care not how much we read—so long as we do not meditate on what we read. Reading begets knowledge—but meditation begets devotion.
The reason why our affections are so cold to heavenly things—is because we do not warm them at the fire of holy meditation. As the musing on worldly objects makes the fire of lust burn; and as the musing on injuries makes the fire of revenge burn; just so, meditating on the transcendent beauties of Christ, would make our love to Christ flame forth.
Now this is partly overstatement. The Holy Spirit is not limited by the sincerity of our reading. Yet Watson’s charge resonates with what the Psalmist says about the blessedness of the one who “meditates night and day” (Ps 1:2). His warnings echo what James says about forgetful reading that does no good (James 1:22-25). And the upshot is the same as what Jesus says: “Pay attention to what you hear: with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Mark 4:24)
Watson also reminds us that there is a battle we must fight between conformation and transformation (c.f. Rom 12:2) Like Smith, he observes that the world is continually threatening to colonise our imaginations. But his first response is more directly theological; not embodied, communal action, but holding the self up to God and his Word.
None of this is to deny that there is a place for physical signs and communal traditions. The Bible is for God’s gathered people as well as for individuals; Jesus gave us sacraments, bodies, neighbours and lives as well as a book.
But the imaginative approach of Lewis and the Puritans keeps Scripture at the centre of things. It promises to help us get a truer sense of the Bible as well as these other realities. It is a higher-level habit of the heart that seeks to transfigure everything in the light of Scripture. We would do well to consider it.
Appendix: Some Suggestions
What can you do if you’d like to try it? Here are some suggestions for individuals.
- Think about the sermons you hear. Unless your minister is completely inept, he is already doing this for you as he does the imaginative work of illustrating and applying Scripture. Take some time to look over your notes and try turning these things into prayer, praise and self-exhortation.
- Be more deliberate and imaginative in your quiet times. Ask questions like: what would it look like for me to live according to this and to NOT live according to this? What vision of God do I get from this? What does this tell me about my life, the world, the future?
- Spend some time telling God about your life and struggles: go into detail about the logic of your situation and what you think the Bible says about it (if you are unsure, tell him about that too and explain why). Tell him that you want to believe him, trust him and live according to his Word and ask him for help.
- Find out more about Puritan meditation. Listen to this great talk by Joel Beeke, or read this short book on the topic by Thomas Watson.
- Read some Puritan pastoral works. Richard Sibbe’s The Bruised Reed or Jeremiah Burroughs’ The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment (or Bunyan’s Pligrim’s Progress if you haven’t read it!) would be a great places to begin.
- Try to prepare for it. This might mean praying for your morning quiet time before you go to bed, and/or reading a psalm at the other end of the day from when you normally read and pray. The Puritans often note that the longer we leave between sessions the harder it gets.