We have seen why the imagination is important. We have also seen how imagination is not always the same thing. The moral imagination functions differently than the idyllic imagination, and both function differently than the demonic imagination.
We have also discussed the various tools that imagination has at its disposal. Memory, simple fantasy, and speculative fantasy are all aspects of recalling and rearranging images that have been stored by the mind. The primary and secondary imaginations are evaluative and expressive.
What difference does this discussion make for Christian life and ministry? I suggest that its implications are far-reaching indeed. Drawing out those implications would take a separate series of essays, but the lessons may be summarized rather briefly.
First, imagination is of paramount importance. It is the mechanism through which we understand the world. Without imagination, we would have only a collection of isolated sensations. We would not be able to correlate those sensations. We would not be able to understand the realities to which they point. Nor would we be able to grasp the order (including the moral order) of the universe.
Therefore, if we wish to be fully Christian, we have no choice but to attend to matters of the imagination. We must understand how the imagination is shaped and how it, in turn, shapes our image of the world. We must be prepared to assess the effect of everything that alters the imagination. In a word, we need to take the imagination seriously.
Second, not all imagination is created equal. The moral imagination, the idyllic imagination, and the demonic imagination all pay attention to different things. They impose different forms of order (or disorder) upon the individual’s consciousness of the world. As they work, they proceed in different ways.
Only the moral imagination seeks to understand an order that it receives from above. It alone takes God as a starting point and appropriates revelation seriously. Consequently, only the moral imagination has the power to discipline the appetites. Both the idyllic and the demonic imaginations abandon God as the starting point. No other starting point, however, has proven adequate to integrate all of the facts and to render them in their proper relation to one another. Therefore, the idyllic and demonic imaginations are powerless to contain the appetites and, in the long run, end up being shaped by them. Without a standard of value, the idyllic and demonic imaginations eventually become immersed in the sentimental, the brutal, or both.
These three forms of imagination produce radically different understandings of the world. They envision the material order of the universe differently. More importantly, they envision the moral order differently, or else abandon it altogether. Ultimately, they understand God differently. Only the moral imagination has the vigor to sustain the theological imagination.
A third lesson is that we must foster the moral and theological imaginations. These two go hand in hand. One will never be right without the other. Furthermore, we ourselves will never be right in our view of reality without both.
While fostering the moral and theological imaginations, Christians must repudiate the idyllic and demonic imaginations. Admittedly, it is impossible and undesirable to avoid all contact with the productions of idyllic or demonic imaginations. Nevertheless, those productions must not be allowed to shape the consciousness of God’s people. Particularly in its worship, fellowship, discipleship, and ministry, the church must deliberately select those productions that most nourish the moral and theological imaginations, while eschewing those that embody the perspectives of idyllic or demonic imagination.
The fourth lesson is that the choice of moral, idyllic, or demonic imagination will shape the use of every imaginative tool. As we have seen, even memory is influenced by imagination—indeed, so-called “false memories” may be constructed entirely by the imagination. As we progress through the various stages of simple fantasy, speculative fantasy, primary imagination, and secondary imagination, the choice of metaphysical dream and the corresponding choice of imagination exert greater and greater influence. This choice has far more room to work at the level of primary and secondary imagination than it does at the level of memory.
A fifth lesson follows, namely, that no imagination is amoral. At the end of the day, we choose how we will imagine the world. This choice both flows from and results in desire. If our desire is for God (i.e., if we begin by fearing and loving Him), then we will choose to imagine the world as He reveals it. Furthermore, we will relish those images in which He reveals Himself, and we will savor them for their full meaning. We will end up loving Him, not merely more, but more truly.
If, however, we begin by rejecting God (which is also a matter of desire), then different desires will soon take over. These desires will not reflect the moral order of the universe. They will be inordinate. They will derange our image of the world and disorder our loves. Under the influence of such inordinate affections, we will spiral downwards until we can love nothing as it ought to be loved.
The final lesson is that whoever controls the symbols rules the world. Suppose we lived in a culture that viewed shepherds only as symbols of exploitation (perhaps a culture dominated by PETA). Under those circumstances, the image of God as shepherd would backfire. It would evoke almost exactly the opposite response of the one that David wanted in the Twenty-Third Psalm.
Of course, true shepherds are not exploiters, and David’s psalm rings true to our experience. More than that, David’s poem is so powerfully crafted that it can reshape our perceptions of shepherds in general, not merely our perception of God as a shepherd. In a certain sense it has the power to teach us what shepherds are by showing us what it means that God is a shepherd.
Recall Wordsworth’s “Composed upon Westminster Bridge.” If our view of sleeping giants is that they are entirely stupid and evil, and consequently that they are better left asleep, then Wordsworth’s imagery will also backfire. We will not see in London a latent heroism, but rather the potential for destruction (though it is again worth noting that Wordsworth’s poem is so powerfully done that it can probably reshape our perception of sleeping giants in general).
In the kingdom of the mind, imagery and symbols are the coin of the realm. Whoever controls the minting of these symbols will largely control the perceptions of the age. It is in this sense that poets (as Shelley suggested) are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. If we are guided through the world by an inner map, and if that map is a function of the imagination, and if the imagination works through symbols, then whoever controls the symbols controls the world.
This is the reason that the church must not surrender the creation of symbols to the world. We cannot entrust the mapping of the Christian mind to secularists. We cannot trade upon symbols that have been invented primarily to inflame the appetites. Others may control the remainder of the world, but we must take charge of the symbols of Christianity. If the symbols should be corrupted, then our ability to perceive rightly and to feel rightly would be lost.
The applications with which I have closed this presentation are perfunctory at best. My main concern has been to attempt to provide us with an anatomy of the imagination that will allow us to discuss the subject more intelligently. In detailing that anatomy, I have borrowed freely from many sources. I have attempted to credit those sources at least by name, if not by page number.
What is clear to me is that American Christians in the beginning of the Twenty-First Century have barely begun to discuss the imagination. We are hardly cognizant of the discussion that has taken place in generations past. One of the characteristics of a genuinely conservative Christianity must be the attempt to recover that conversation and to understand how the imagination does its work. Our motivations are two in number. First, we wish to produce works that will both reflect and evoke ordinate affections. Second, we must be able to critique intelligently the works that bombard us.
Thomas Campion (1567-1620)
Follow thy fair sun, unhappy shadow!
Though thou be black as night,
And she made all of light,
Yet follow thy fair sun, unhappy shadow!
Follow her, whose light thy light depriveth!
Though here thou liv’st disgraced,
And she in heaven is placed,
Yet follow her whose light the world reviveth!
Follow those pure beams, whose beauty burneth!
That so have scorched thee
As thou still black must be,
Till her kind beams thy black so brightness turneth.
Follow her, while yet her glory shineth!
There comes a luckless night
That will dim all her light;
And this the black unhappy shade divineth.
Follow still, since so thy fates ordained!
The sun must have his shade,
Till both at once do fade,—
The sun still proud, the shadow still disdained.
This essay is by Dr. Kevin T. Bauder, president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). Not every professor, student, or alumnus of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.