Imagination and Reason

[Part 3 of 4]

Many people have the notion that reason and imagination are mutually exclusive, completely separate cognitive faculties and, as a result, not connected to one another in any meaningful way.  Reason might be seen as the tool of the intellectual, the academic or the theologian; a high form of intellectual exercise that deals in facts, figures and cold logic.  Imagination, on the other hand, is sometimes relegated to the realm of fantasy and children’s stories; a much lower form of thought that deals in stories, metaphors and word pictures.

For Lewis, however, reason and imagination were not separate intellectual tools.  Rather, for Lewis, reason rests on imagination and cannot work without it.  Reason is, by its very nature, imaginative, as it lives in the realm not of “what is” but “what should be” and “what could be.”  Imagination does not exist only in the world of fiction.  Fiction is imaginary, but imaginative thinking helps us to see that which reason alone cannot envision.

Take George Bailey for example.  George, the main character in the classic movie It’s a Wonderful Life, is going through rough spot in his life and decided to ends his life.  Before he can jump to his death into the frigid river God answers the prayers of many of George’s family and friends by sending Clarence, and angel, to help George.  Clarence could have sat down with George over a hot chocolate to discuss reasonably all of the reasons that George should not end his life.  Instead, Clarence conceives of a fantastic imaginative experience that brings George to the well of self-discovery and the awareness of the overwhelming blessings in his life and the realization that his life was wonderfully meaningful.  Clarence accomplishes this by simply allowing George to see the world that would have been would he never have been born.

Clarence’s efforts to explain to George that he was never born are met with confusion and denial.  But when George kneels in front of the tomb of Harry Bailey, his younger brother who died at the age of 8 because George was not there to save him when he fell through the ice as a young boy, the vision of a world in which he was never born begins to become real.  Clarence did not find success through a reasoned defense of the meaningfulness of life but rather by providing a powerful imaginative picture of the world without George.  Through this imaginative picture George gains a very real and reasonable understanding of the important ways that God had used him throughout his seemingly meaningless life.

Of course, this imaginative scene is played out within the movie, which is itself an imaginative story designed to give the viewer a very important message; a message that could be explained logically but is much more powerfully conveyed through story, the first tool of imagination.  The billions of dollars spent on the making and watching of movies and television should give us ample evidence of the power of story and imagination.  It’s a Wonderful Life—and all stories, movies and other forms of story—could properly be called “myth” (though the modern world rarely uses this term in this way).  Myths may or may not be factually true—a factually true story can also be referred to correctly as myth—but they contain an important message or lesson for their intended audience.

People often gain more spiritual truth and satisfaction from myth than from the written doctrinal codes of their own religion.  In story, the imagination is activated and the door is wide open for meaning and understanding to enter in.  The reading of and adherence to doctrinal statements, can be accomplished without any real understanding or personal commitment.  The moment we move from the logical statement to the question “What does this mean for me?” we have moved into the realm of imagination; of looking at things that are not, but could be or should be.  This is what Lewis referred to as the “imaginative embrace.”

We need not look any further than Jesus who utilized “living language” as the foundation of his life and ministry.  He always “did” before he “said” and what he said was frequently in the form of metaphor, word pictures and stories.  His stories were not always factually true but were always full of meaning and truth.  When he did move to a move logical and fact-based form of communication it was with a solid foundation of “living language” and meaningful stories in the form of parables and word pictures.  Even his most reason-based statements, such as “love your enemies and pray for those that persecute you”, are founded on his own lived language that has already been observed by those who knew him.  He connects the new truth to previous understanding—“you have heard heard it said eye for an eye”—and we can be sure that his statement, though seemingly straight forward, immediately released a flood of images of what it would mean to love ones enemies.

The Bible is not always primarily factual as much as it is descriptive and imaginative.  By reducing Scripture to cold, hard facts meaning is lost.  This is one of the dangers of the modern push to insist on a literal interpretation of the whole of Scripture and ambition among many Christian groups to insist on full and complete inerrancy.  Spiritual truth is abstract, full of nuances and the kind of thing that must be adapted and lived out in varying contexts and situations.  Meaningfulness is the key.  Factual statements can be obeyed or disobeyed without any understanding of the meaning behind the statements—ask the Pharisees of Jesus’ day about this or ask any modern Christian about any number of church-related traditions—but Jesus continually points to the heart, to understanding and meaningfulness.  A heartless faith is not the example Jesus gave us and will, unlike George Bailey, be found to have very little influence and meaningfulness in the world.

There is no use arguing for anything until there is meaning and shared understanding.   Meaning must precede action, change and decision.   Without meaning and understanding a decision may be vocalized but never realized in the heart and lives of the decision-maker.  A true decision, then, is not found in the vibrations of the vocal cords but in the reverberations of grace that are lived out in our lives.

For those who are outside of the faith, our primary form of outreach is through becoming a meaningful witness through our “living language” that provides a meaningful picture of faith to the people around us.  We must become the word picture that opens the door of their heart and mind.  Our words, when used, must meet them where they are and—through the use of story, metaphor, testimonies and appropriate explanations—give meaning to the actions, attitudes and life that has already has already been lived faithfully in and among them.

For those in the church, or born into the church, we must also focus our time, attention and resources on discipleship and growth of understanding.  Most churches do not do this.  Many churches invest heavily on the worship service and Sunday programs to accomplish three tasks—worship, outreach and discipleship.  The worship service, by itself, is not adequate all by itself for outreach and discipleship and, when diluted with these two objective, sometimes falls short as meaningful worship as well.  This is a significant problem.

Finally, with regard to children and childhood conversions.  If a young child prays a prayer and says the magic words “I believe in Jesus” or “I accept Jesus into my heart” is that the end of the story?  In my own experience, and from the stories I have heard from others, childhood “conversions” are inevitably followed-up by often multiple follow-up decision points at various stages of life.  As an adult I have sometimes struggled with understanding why there seems to be a continued struggle for my faith—“Didn’t I take care of that a long time ago,” I ask myself.  I have come to see that my faith is intimately connected to my understanding—my understanding of my own self, the world in which I live and the eternal truth that God reveals in various forms.  At each point of growth in understanding I face a new crisis of belief—will I continue in the path I have chosen in the past or will I seek out a new path, perhaps abandoning the faith of my younger self?   Not only does a decision require understanding to truly be a decision, but conversely new understandings and experiences requires renewals (or abandonment) or previous decisions.

The faith of a child or of someone hearing the gospel story for the first time may be simple, if not incomplete, but we can rightly say that their faith is “perfect” given their level of understanding and spiritual maturity.  But children grow, gain wisdom, increase in their understanding and accumulate an ever-growing collection of experiences that require a rethinking of faith.  The faith of the child (or a new believer) may now be less-than-perfect if it no longer impacts the way in which they live their lives.

Therefore, for both the not-yet-believer and the maturing already-believer, it is not reason and argument that carry the power for transformation, change and the continued perfecting of faith.  Rather, both imagination and reason are necessary to direct the will of the person.  For example, a man in the midst of a mid-life crisis may well be at a point of reconsidering his faith and his previous commitments to his career and his family.  The experiences of frustration and disappointment may be throwing darts of confusion and discontent, causing him him to consider a radical change of direction—a sudden decision to pursue a long-desired career in the movies or running away with a young woman who makes him feel special again.

It is the imagination that brings to him these new options and makes them seem plausible and enticing in spite of the cautions of reason and reality.  If he makes such a life-altering decision it will be a function of his imagination, of how much better he imagines things might be in another yard where the grass is greener.

However, this man may also have strong sense of wanting to do the right thing in spite of the waves of temptation and visions of a better life.  Reason and truth may play a strong role in giving him pause before making such a drastic decision, but it will be imagination, once again, that gives him the power to stay the course.  It might be a vision of an older version of himself sitting with his partner of 50 years reminiscing over their many shared experiences.  It may be a vision of the broken hearts of his children should he choose to leave.  It might be a vision of being able to share with his children and grandchildren as they grow into young adults the challenges he faced and giving thanks to God for helping him through.  It might be a vision of the person he desperately wants to be but has not yet become.  Even the very truth-oriented “Thou shalt not commit adultery” may play a strong role, but it will inevitably be accompanied by a vision of disappointing God or, depending on one’s theological tradition, angering God and perhaps even a vision of the fires of hell.  All of these are imaginative in that they give a vision of what is not….or what is not yet…but what could be or should be.

The “imaginative embrace” brings understanding and breathes life into reason and logic.  Together they bring about change, transformation and the perfecting of a faith that reaches into the very depths of the heart and mind while also flowing out into our daily lives in the world.  Imagine that.

See other posts in this series:

  1. Where is Meaning Found?  (11 Jan, 18)
  2. Meaning and Understanding  (19 Jan, 18)
  3. Imagination and Reason  (27 Jan, 18)
  4. Soul Killing  (Feb 4, 18)

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