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Are Faith and Imagination Compatible?

Because cultural forces have hijacked our imaginations, this author challenges the faith community to engage in their re-education and reap the benefits.


As Executive Director of Imago an initiative for Christians in the arts in Canada, I spend a fair amount of time interacting with artists and thinking about art and faith. In this and subsequent weblog submission I will address the broad theme of the arts in the context of faith. The subject of the imagination seems a good place to start.

Imagination takes us further than ordinary perception and enables us to move beyond...

We live in a culture shaped by a style of thinking which has marginalized the imagination. I refer, of course, to the western culture and its long history in which rational thought has been central. We have been assured that cool rationality is the proper guide to lead us out of the wilderness of ignorance and into the promised land of true knowledge. A long list of influential western thinkers have been advocates of reason while having little or no confidence in imagination as a resource for knowing. This is not to suggest that reason is a problem, but only to say that it is not the whole story when it comes to human knowing. While reason abstracts, imagination is concerned with personal interface with the world as we experience it.

I have come to believe that the imagination is a significant resource in helping us get a better grasp on things and in assisting us in getting to the truth about the world. This is of course contrary to popular opinion, which commonly sees the imagination as our best resource for fantasy and illusion. I don't doubt that the latter is a way in which the imagination can be employed, but it is not its chief role. (Even fantasy can help us to see the truth more clearly—but that is a subject for another time.) Imagination takes us further than ordinary perception and enables us to move beyond a simple copy of things to a deeper, more holistic grasp of the world.

When one thinks of imagination in this way it is not a very large step to discern the link between imagination and faith. Faith too is meant to aid us in coming to a deeper and more coherent sense of the world. I contend, therefore, that faith requires imagination.

Faith too helps us to order reality, to make sense of our experiences and to give meaning and an enriched texture to our lives. It puts us in touch with a larger reality and helps us to discern meaning and significance in places and in ways we had not anticipated. We might say that faith is one way imagination does its work. What we commonly call a worldview is perhaps best understood as an image—a giant metaphor. To live aright we need to insure the adequacy of that image—that worldview. Pascal knew that the imaginations of the heart ruled reason when he said "the heart has reasons that reason knows not of."

It has been claimed by some that in our contemporary world we have lost our imagination. But it would seem that it is not loss we suffer, but rather a serious bombardment of the imagination by an army of resources in the service of a consumer culture. Our imaginations have been hijacked by cultural forces encountered at every turn. Television, film, newspapers and magazines, music, the constant presence of advertising, and more, all converge to influence and shape our imaginings. The imagination is as active today as it ever has been, but it is not well. It is sick. Sick from a steady diet of junk-food—tyrannized by media-driven consumer society. We are sinking under the weight of too many profane products of the imagination. It is just such a situation that provides a challenge for the faith community to engage in a re-educating of the imagination.

The contemporary imagination is in need of a fresh vision that will be food for the hungry spirit. If, as Hebrew scripture scholar Walter Brueggemann suggests, since we are exiles in a foreign land, we need to be careful not to succumb to the current consensus about what is real and what is unreal, what is important and what can be ignored (see The Hopeful Imagination. The exercise of faithfulness will instead offer an alternative reading of the world that is born of an active and engaged imagination shaped by the biblical story.

Evident signs today indicate that there is a desire to recover a place for the imagination so that it might play a more significant role in the life of our faith communities. In his book All in Sync: How Music and the Art are Revitalizing American Religion Robert Wuthnow documents a strong positive relationship between participation in the arts and interest in spiritual growth. For other examples check out the Vancouver Arts Network website, or Christians in the Visual Arts or a whole host of Christian books and websites on contemporary film.

For too long we have lived with an inadequate understanding of our humanity...

The call that confronts us is a call to educate the imagination in a way that is consistent with the biblical story that tells us who we are and where meaning can be found. The imagination is in need of a fresh empowering that will enable it to be a rich resource for offering a biblical alternative to the current consensus in our culture. Artists can certainly play a role in this, but the work of imagination is not confined to the arts. All aspects of life may draw upon the imagination—indeed require its resourcefulness. For too long we have lived with an inadequate understanding of our humanity, an understanding which marginalized the great gift of imagination. Current trends both inside and outside the faith community, suggest that many have lost patience with this notion of a reduced humanity and are now intent on recovering our full human capacity through fresh engaging of the imagination.

John Franklin is Executive Director of Imago. See www.imago-arts.on.ca He can be reached at franklin@ultratech.net.

 

 
 
 
 

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