The Primacy of the Imagination

MC Escher - Concave and Convex
Reformed Christians have traditionally tended to operate in terms of the primacy of the intellect. Even when we deny that we are doing so, our worship and the message that we preach are primarily directed at the mind. Much of our teaching and evangelism operates on the assumption that reality is primarily grasped with the mind. I have long regarded such assumptions and the forms of pedagogy that have resulted from it as fundamentally misguided.

If we are going to talk about the ‘primacy’ of anything in man’s grasping of his world, let us speak of the primacy of the imagination. The very act of perceiving our world necessarily involves the imagination. There is no such thing as mere perception. We do not merely ‘see’ our world; every act of perception is an act of ‘seeing as’. The imagination is that which governs our ‘seeing as’. The facts that the mind deals with are never ‘brute facts’, but facts that result from the imagination’s engagement with the world. The ‘reality’ that the mind thinks about is a reality that has already been processed by the imagination in the act of perception. The imagination provides the foundation upon which the mind and will build.

The imagination provides us with the lenses through which we view the world. Whether we are aware of its activity or not, it acts nonetheless. Those who underestimate the role played by the imagination will become its prisoners. People with incredibly sharp minds, trapped within a false picture and story of the world will often never get out, just digging themselves deeper into the hole that they are in. All of their thinking merely tightens their grip on a false perception of reality. There are few people more frustrating to debate with; not only are they often incredibly arrogant in their conviction that they are right and everyone else is wrong, they are also unable to understand how anyone could really see things differently.

The great leaps in thought almost always result from the activity of the imagination. Many of us have experienced paradigm shifts in our own thinking. Such shifts are achieved by the imagination, enabling us to see everything in a new way. Our rational faculty then tightens our new grip on our reality. Training the imagination is very important if we are to arrive at a deeper apprehension of God’s truth. A trained imagination is better able to purposefully and consciously attempt to re-imagine the world. Those with a trained imagination will be better equipped to imaginatively see the world through the eyes of others and will be better able to come to an understanding of and overcome the limitations of their own vision. The ability to consciously re-imagine our world, to see things differently, is one of the most important abilities that we can develop.

The lack of an appreciation of the essential role played by the imagination and the lack of any training for the imagination seriously weakens theology. Even the sharpest mind can be of very limited use in the absence of a trained imagination. Mere logical consistency seldom solves much, as logic generally operates within the reality that the imagination grants us. Logic merely strengthens or slightly corrects our grip on a particular way of viewing the world; by itself it does not enable us to do what the imagination permits us to do: change our way of viewing completely.

By working in terms of an anthropology that presumes the primacy of the intellect, Reformed Christians have often failed to develop and harness the power of the imagination. We talk a lot about ‘worldviews’, but worldviews are generally understood in very ideological terms. A ‘worldview’ is seen as a set of propositions or a conceptual construct that shapes the way that we view reality. However, such ideological grids do not play anywhere near as much of a role in our vision of reality as Reformed people generally presume. Mere reflection on our day to day lives should expose the weakness of the notion that our engagement with reality is primarily mediated by ideological systems.

In reality, ideological systems only play a relatively limited role in our engagement with, and way of seeing reality. By thinking that practically everything can be reduced to thinking, we have made a huge error. The way that we see and engage with reality has far more to do with practices that we engage in unreflectively, the stories that we live in terms of, the symbols that are significant to us, the technologies that we use, the cultural artefacts that we produce, the communities that we belong to, the questions that we ask, etc. Our ‘worldview’ is, thus, a matter as broad as culture itself and is quite irreducible to mere ideology.

By failing to appreciate this, Reformed churches have often tended to produce a lot of ideologues with stunted imaginations and little in the way of a distinct culture. In addressing their message to the mind and failing to address the imagination, they have left Christians dangerously ill-equipped to engage with the world as Christians. In other Church traditions a rich liturgy, sacramental form of worship, use of the Church calendar and regular readings from the Gospels and OT narratives powerfully form people’s imaginations. Reformed Christians lack almost all of these things.

The Reformed faith centres on slogans (e.g. justification by faith alone, TULIP, the solas, etc.), rather than stories. We focus on a doctrine of justification, often at expense of a story of justification. Our worship does not convey a vision of the world, or even a powerful narrative so much as a mere disembodied set of ideas. Practically every part of Reformed worship is addressed to the mind. Even the sacraments are treated as if they were pictures of ideas. When the Eucharist is celebrated, great effort is often expended to ensure that people know what the rite means and, more importantly, what it doesn’t mean. In most Reformed churches the congregant doesn’t participate much with their body. There is no kneeling, no kiss of peace, no walking, etc. The body is treated as if it were primarily a mind-container.

There is also little engagement with the narrative of Scripture. Bible readings are frequently subordinated to the sermon. The narrative is there to be analyzed from without. We also tend to downplay the biblical narrative in favour of the doctrines of the epistles, abstracting the latter from the former. Even when we do treat the narrative parts of Scripture we tend to focus on extracting the important ideas or moral lessons from the narrative. Seldom do we really encounter the narrative as narrative. In other parts of the Church the Church calendar, for instance, encourages people to read the story of Scripture from within. The sort of relationship that one develops with the narrative of Scripture in a liturgical church is very different from the sort of relationship that one develops in the ideological church, where everything is subordinated to preaching. In the latter type of church the narrative of Scripture tends to become obscured pretty quickly and the idea that the Scriptures narrate a world for us to inhabit seems quite bizarre.

The reason why all of this is so significant is due to the fact that liturgy, ritual and the narrative of Scripture are primarily directed, not to the mind, but to the imagination. Mark Searle expresses the purpose of liturgy and ritual well:

By putting us through the same paces over and over again, ritual rehearses us in certain kinds of interaction over and over again, until the ego finally gives up its phrenetic desire to be in charge and lets the Spirit take over. The repetitiousness of the liturgy is something many would like to avoid; but this would be a profound mistake. It is not entertainment, or exposure to new ideas. It is rather a rehearsal of attitudes, a repeated befriending of images and symbols, so that they penetrate more and more deeply into our inner self and make us, or remake us, in their own image.

Kneeling, for example, is not an expression of our humanity: it is more an invitation to discover what reality looks like when we put ourselves in that position. The texts of Scripture and the images of the liturgy are not didactic messages wrapped up in some decorative covering which can be thrown away when the content is extracted. They are images and sets of images to be toyed with, befriended, rubbed over and over again, until, gradually and sporadically, they yield flashes of insight and encounter with the “Reality” of which they sing. Their purpose is not to give rise to thought (at least, not immediately), but to mediate encounter. As Heidegger said in another context: “The point is not to listen to a series of propositions, but to follow the movement of showing.”

So there is a discipline of listening, looking, and gesturing to be learnt: ways of standing, touching, receiving, holding, embracing, eating, and drinking which recognize these activities as significant and which enable us to perform them in such a way that we are open to the meaning (the res) which they mediate.

Where such a liturgy is absent, we should not be surprised to find that a Christian imagination is also lacking.

As a result of our neglect of the imagination, when it comes to the arts, I think that Reformed Christians are in real danger of seriously underestimating their significance. The most powerful voices in any society are those prophetic voices that present us with new ways of viewing our world. The prophet or visionary presents people with a vision or picture of the world and people begin to live in terms of this new picture. The prophet tells stories and paints pictures, stories and pictures that reshape people’s ways of seeing their reality. This was one of the purposes of Jesus’ parables, for instance. It is not accidental that movements in philosophy are often deeply born out of movements in the arts. Postmodernism is a wonderful example of this. Movements in art and architecture in many ways prepared the ground for and presaged the later movements in ideas. As the artists developed new ways of seeing the world, the philosophers begin to articulate the inner logic of these new ways of viewing the world.

If I am right in my claim that a true ‘worldview’ is practically identical to ‘culture’, it is worth questioning to what extent we can speak of a Reformed worldview at all. Reformed Christians have an ideological system, but an ideological system is not sufficient to constitute a worldview. If we do have a worldview, it gives us a narrowly intellectual and insubstantial vision of reality. As one poet once claimed, Calvinism takes the Word made flesh and makes it word again. Rather than embodying a new culture, we proclaim a rather abstract doctrinal system. Our message is one of disincarnate ideas and our chief contribution to culture may well be capitalism, which despite all of its benefits, is hardly the product of a particularly rich vision of society.

Largely as a result of its neglect of liturgy, the Reformed faith has not really produced many great artists, poets and writers. Distinctly Reformed contributions to culture are few and far between. The great Christian imaginations tend to arise from Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox communities. Those in Reformed circles who do possess deeply Christian imaginations and ways of looking at the world have generally spent formative years in one of these communions, or come from Reformed churches with richer liturgies. Despite the confused character of their faith in many respects, I must acknowledge the strong purchase that Christianity has on the imagination of many of the people I know who have been brought up in churches with rich liturgies. Even many of the great non-Christian writers owe much to the visions of the world given by medieval Christianity, for instance. In the Reformation Reformed Christians corrected dangerous errors in the medieval understanding of Christian truth, but lost much of its imagination and vision.

Not recognizing the full significance of the imagination in shaping us, evangelicals and Reformed Christians are at particular risk when it comes to films and literature. Lacking a deep Christian imagination and intuitive sense of the Christian story we are more vulnerable to being misled by the weak stories and visions that our society presents us with. The right ideas alone cannot protect us from the subtly persuasive power of such visions of reality. On the other hand, we are at risk of failing to appreciate the great benefit that can be gained from reading really good literature. A deep faith needs to draw upon far more than theology volumes and the incarnate truths that we encounter in godly visions of reality in literature and the arts are extremely important for us.

The Christian faith presents us with a beautiful story and a compelling vision of the world. Christianity’s hold on the Western imagination is great, even among those who try to reject the faith. The Christian message appeals to our imagination before it addresses our logic and reason. Unfortunately, the vision of the world that most Christians operate in terms of today is quite anaemic and lacks the fullness of classic Christian thought. This, I suspect, is one of the reasons why Christianity is becoming less and less of a force within our society. People regard Christians as ideologues rather than as people with a rich cultural vision and grasp of the ‘good life’. Christianity is seen as a set of disincarnate ideas, rather than as a world-encompassing story that we can truly be at home within, a form of renewed life and a fertile vision for culture and society. A Christian recovery of the arts and classic Christian literature is an important step toward reformation in this area.

I am convinced that only Christian faith is capable of sustaining a healthy and robust imagination. Only the Church presents us with a story that is truly big enough to inhabit and a story that fertile enough to enable us to grow. In a society that is losing its imagination, the Church has much to offer as an alternative culture. However, before we seek to reach the world we must first cultivate a new culture and vision of the world within the Church itself. We must recover our own imaginations by re-engaging with the Story of Scripture and immersing ourselves in the liturgy. As our imaginations are reformed and we begin to incarnate a rich vision of life and culture within the Church, people will see Christian faith as God intended it to be seen. In light of all of this proper engagement with the arts and cultivation of the imagination is probably one of the key tasks awaiting any Church concerned about mission. We need to recapture the imagination of our society and to do so we must regain our own and begin to understand the reasons why the imagination of the world around is failing.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in The Church, Theological, Worship. Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to The Primacy of the Imagination

  1. Angie says:

    Good stuff, Alastair.

  2. Paul Baxter says:

    All quite right. There’s probably, no, certainly, much more to developing the imagination than you’ve touched on here. Perhaps imagination is tied closely to longing for what is not present. Relating that to theology, perhaps there is a mistake in thinking that ALL the knowledge we need for a comprehensive theology is available immediately to us, rather than longing for that understanding.

    Just an idea. There’s a lot of directions you could go from here. Childlike faith would be one.

  3. Al says:

    You are quite correct. I am merely scraping the surface in this post.

    Your point regarding theology is a very important one. It is at this point that the eschatological orientation of the liturgy is particularly significant. The liturgy addresses itself principally to the imagination. As we repeatedly inhabit the liturgy we will find it revealing flashes of insight of a reality that lies beyond our present theological, cultural and ideological structures. The celebration of the Eucharist is especially important in this regard. In addressing our imaginations, the liturgy conforms us and our understanding to an order that transcends the current order that we find ourselves in. Faithful practice of the liturgy will yield the sorts of epiphanies that help the imagination to grow. The liturgy corrects our vision and enables us to see things differently.

    The problem that we face is that the liturgy has become so thoroughly ideologized, that it merely reinforces our current theological and cultural structures, rather than relativizing or calling us beyond them in any real sense. The liturgy, which is designed to play an important critical role, is increasingly silenced as it is subordinated to our particular theological understandings. One of the things that I love about good liturgical churches is that, however bad the preaching is, the consistency of the liturgy provides a critical voice within the service itself.

    Childlike faith is indeed significant here. Often children can have a deeper intuitive and imaginative grasp of Christian truth than gifted theologians. I like the way that T.F. Torrance puts this:

    While there is evidently no way through mere logical analysis or logical construction to understand the ordered field of dynamic onto-relations with which we are concerned in Christian theology, we do have access to the set of conditions within which the distinctive order they embody spontaneously manifests itself, and by indwelling that order we can come up with the anticipatory conceptions or basic clues we need in developing our cognition of it. These conditions are found within the church of Jesus Christ, the worshipping community of God’s people. It is there in the midst of the church, its fellowship of love, its meditation upon God’s self-revelation through the Holy Scriptures, its Eucharistic life, and its worship of the Father through the Son and in the Spirit, that we become inwardly so adapted to God’s interaction with us that we learn, as Origen used to say, how to think worthily of God, that is, in a godly way appropriate to God. Just as a child by the age of five has learned an astonishing amount about the physical world to which he has become spontaneously adapted — far more than he could ever understand if he turned out to be the most brilliant of physicists — so we may learn far more than we can ever tell about God within the fellowship of the church, insofar as the church, of course, is genuinely committed to responsible participation in the gospel. It is as within the communion of the Spirit we learn obedience to God’s self-giving in Jesus Christ, and instead of being conformed to the cultural patterns of this world are inwardly transformed through a radical change of our mind, that we are able to discern the will of God and acquire the basic insights we need if we are really to develop our knowledge of him in a clear, articulate way. That is to say, within the interpersonal life of the church as the body of Christ and its actualization of corporate reciprocity with God in the space and time of this world, we find not only that we ourselves are personally assimilated into the onto-relational structures that arise, but that our minds becomes disposed to apprehend God through profoundly intelligible, although non-formalizable (or at least not completely formalizable) relations and structures of thought. We are spiritually and intellectually implicated in patterns of order that are beyond our powers to articulate in explicit terms, but we are aware of being apprehended by divine Truth which steadily presses for increasing realization in our understanding. As far as I can see from the writings of the fathers, that is how classical patristic theology, such as we find coming to expression in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan creed and the conciliar theology that grew out of it, actually developed as it laid the foundation upon which all subsequent Christian theology rests.

    It is, I believe, still within the matrix of the Eucharistic worship and meditation upon the Holy Scriptures, and evangelical experience in the fellowship and mission of the church, that the empirical and theoretical components in our knowledge of God are found fused together, in a kind of stereoscopic coordination of perceptual and auditive images, and thus provide us with the cognitive instruments we need for explicit theological understanding of God’s interaction with us.

  4. DLE says:

    An astonishingly profound post, and a good word for all evangelicals, not just those in the Reformed camp.

  5. Matt J. says:

    Great post. My main contact with the reformed faith has been through the writings and (local) congregations of D. Wilson and Leithart. It seems to me that they have attempted to develop a higher view of imagination. What do you think?

  6. Al says:

    I quite agree. Unfortunately, people like Leithart and Wilson tend to be the exception, rather than the rule. In fact, Leithart in particular has made many claims similar to mine in this article and elsewhere.

  7. Paul Baxter says:

    Perhaps Christians just need to read The Little Prince once a year or something.

    One of our pastors said something interesting a while back about Santa Claus. He said, contra to many Christians these days, that he encouraged his children to believe in Santa in order to encourage their imagination. Of course parents are free to judge that one on their own, but I loved the thought.

    I remember some of the novels I read when I was fairly young and how I would create quite a bit that the writer never mentioned through my imagination. I’m sure the same novels would seem quite different, and not nearly as good, were I to read them today. Too much intervening time developing “critical reading skills”.

  8. Al says:

    I am cautious about identifying imagination so much with a childlike state and idealizing the imaginations of young children. The imaginations of young children are immature and are not what we ought to aspire to.

    The young child often has a sort of naïve and undeveloped imagination. Whilst they may not have yet succumbed to a flat literalism, they operate in terms of something similar to that which Owen Barfield terms ‘original participation’.

    The very young child doesn’t consciously exercise its imagination. Rather, the imagination unbidden creates a superfluity of connections, in which there is often a sort of naïve identification between sign and reality and the two often collapse into each other.

    The connections and metaphors formed by the imagination of the young child are frequently inappropriate. The free identifications formed by young children’s imaginations are not focused or guided. The imagination of a child is like a horse that needs to be broken and brought under control.

    The idealization of the imaginations of young children can lead us to regard the imagination itself as fanciful, largely concerned with the production of baseless fictions and fantasies. In young children this is generally the case. Children’s imaginations often run away with them and they cannot control them properly. Imagination is not consciously exercised as a means of arriving at a deeper grasp of reality. However, this is what we need to be working towards.

  9. The Scylding says:

    Well, you missed Lutherans in your list of those who create with imagination – so maybe I’ll add a quote from Goethe? It actually illustrates what you say quite well:

    To understand the living whole
    They start by driving out the soul;
    They count the parts, and when all’s done,
    Alas! the spirit bond is gone.

    from Faust, pt1

    In all seriousness Alastair, this might be one of the most important pieces you ever wrote. In my own way I’ve been struggling against Rationalism (in me) and Rationalsits (around me).

    Some might say that the reason the reformed tend to be like that is that after all, Calvin was a lawyer, and a celibate one at that. Be that as it may, conservative Christianity has sold out to the “Enlightment” long ago. Therefore I also distance myself even from the Creationists, since they want to fight their enemies, and “prove” Christianity, with a toolbox full of rationalist/modernist tools.

    But getting those rationalsit glasses off is not easy at all.

  10. Al says:

    Thanks, Louis. I have always liked that Goethe quote.

    Perhaps one of the reasons why Reformed Christians never really developed a deeply Christian imagination has something to do with the fact that, in emphasizing our differences with Roman Catholicism, we failed to preserve many of the good things that we should have taken from them. Also, the liturgy and sacraments became key issues of dispute, with the result that what one thought about the liturgy and sacraments began to obscure the actual practice itself.

    I think that there is also a particular tendency among movements as they enter their second generation (which is where Calvin might fit in, although I think that the explanations for the Reformed lack of imagination are far more complex than the following argument might suggest). In the first generation of a movement, people want to stress neglected truths. However, they often have a breadth of experience and learning that qualifies and balances out those truths in various ways. The problem comes in the second generation. Second generation people within such a movement do not have the same breadth of experience and have been brought up in a context where the neglected truths that the first generation stressed represent much of the teaching that they have received. However, they often have not learned many of the things that the first generation members took for granted from their background.

    This can be seen in many movements. For example, many early charismatics had received a breadth of Bible teaching in their denominations. Taking that teaching for granted, they emphasized teaching about the gifts of the Spirit, with the result that the breadth of biblical knowledge that the first generation possessed was not not enjoyed by later generations of the movement.

    I think that the FV movement is in particular danger in this respect. Some first generation FV thinkers may be far more balanced in their personal understanding of the faith than they are in the subject matter of their teaching, which seeks to correct misunderstandings that they have grown up with. However, for those who have not come from the background that these ‘first generation’ teachers come from, the teaching received in such a context may prove to be dangerously unbalanced. They lack knowledge that first generation teachers consciously or unconsciously take for granted and, as a result, fail to learn important truths.

  11. Ariel says:

    Great post. I often have similar thoughts, but haven’t fleshed them out to this extent. I think you just won a place on my blogroll.

  12. Angie says:

    You said: “Perhaps one of the reasons why Reformed Christians never really developed a deeply Christian imagination has something to do with the fact that, in emphasizing our differences with Roman Catholicism, we failed to preserve many of the good things that we should have taken from them.”

    Reminds me of this Chesterton quote:

    “Amid all the great work of Puritanism the damning indictment of it consists in one fact, that there was one only of the fables of Christendom that it retained and renewed, and that was the belief in witchcraft. It cast away the generous and wholesome superstition, it approved only of the morbid and the dangerous. In their treatment of the great national fairy-tale of good and evil, the Puritans killed St. George but carefully preserved the Dragon.”

  13. Pingback: Imagination and the Christian @ Cerulean Sanctum

  14. Peter Smythe says:

    Alastair, I appreciate your essay. Your recognition that redemption is founded more in story than isolated doctrinal statements goes a long way toward imagination.

  15. Al,

    The imagination abhors a vacuum even more than nature does. Because we have failed to tell the great drama, many Christians have had their imaginations captured by truly pathetic dramas (e.g. the “Left Behind” series).

    We erroneously think that we can correct such poor theology simply by pointing out where it is wrong – without offering the true drama, authored by God, in its place.


  16. One of my readers gave me the link to this discussion. I write Christian fantasy. I think that my years of teaching Sunday School saved me from being too “intellectual,” and lacking in imagination. My favorite students are the young ones whose mouths drop open and eyes get wide when you describe a fleece that is wet one morning and dry the next. Or dry one morning and wet then next. (I’d have to review the story before telling it, obviously.) Thank you for this bit of dialogue that has forced me think through how I perceive things and make some leaps of my own.

  17. Al says:

    Thanks for your comment, Donita. Teaching children Bible stories can be a lot of fun. It can also do us a lot of good; we are never too old for Bible stories.

    One of the best sermons I ever heard was a simple retelling of the story of Esther. I have heard dozens of sermons on the book of Esther, identifying the various theological truths that the book teaches us and the moral lessons that we can learn from the characters. However, this sermon avoided all of that and just told the story. In so doing it had a far more powerful effect on me than any theologically-driven sermon would.

    I suspect that this is an area where gifted public readers of Scripture are needed. There are some people who can read in a manner that makes their text come alive. If the story of Scripture has gotten beneath the skin of a person, you can often tell when they read the Scriptures aloud. Whatever way we go about it, we need to excite people with the story of Scripture and recapture their imaginations.

  18. Adam says:

    Alastair, thank you so much for this piece. You hit the nail fairly and squarely on the head, and express half baked thoughts in my own mind better than I ever could. May God help our churches to engage our intellects and our imaginations!

  19. bedell says:

    The Scylding don’t forget Idelette.

  20. Aaron says:

    This is the type of post that you save to your hard drive in case the Internet crashes.

    Thanks Alastair. Excellent stuff.

  21. Pingback: The Marriage of Word & Image | Cerulean Sanctum

  22. Kathy says:

    This was really thought-provoking. You referred to “a trained imagination” in a couple of places. What are your thoughts on “training the imagination”?

  23. David says:


    If you haven’t read them I would recommend reading Jacques Ellul’s Humiliation of the Word and Ioan Couliano’s Eros & Magic in the Renaissance.

    Between the two of them they deal with both sides of this debate. Couliano’s work gives a historical analysis of the change in the Church between the premacy of the imagination to the premacy of the word. Ellul’s work is an interesting analysis of the eschatological implications of the image.

  24. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for these good thoughts…wonder if and how imagination differs in the sensory-deprived.

  25. Pingback: Ten Years of Blogging: 2006-2007 | Alastair's Adversaria

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