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.