Imagining the Transcendent
We have already emphasized the distinction between immanent reality (the here-and-now, sensible order) and transcendent reality (the eternal order that is outside of and above immanent reality). As Christians, we must be careful not to deny either the actual reality or the fundamental goodness of the immanent order. That is the error of Gnosticism. Nevertheless, we do deny its ultimacy. We recognize that the transcendent is prior to and above the immanent. If we wish to know the world as it ought to be known, then we must have at least a glimpse into the mind of God.
In order for us to get that glimpse, it must be given to us. It must come from God’s side. If God does not speak to us, then we shall forever remain ignorant of the eternal world, and consequently, we shall remain doomed to misconstrue the world in which we live.
Philosophers have asked certain questions about our dependence upon revelation. Is it possible for God to communicate with us? Is the eternal of such a nature that it can be grasped by human minds? Is human language even capable of bearing genuine revelation? These are important questions.
We need not speculate about the answers. We need merely to point to the Bible. The Bible is genuinely God’s message to us. It allows us to glimpse God’s mind and to discern enough of transcendent reality in order to let us understand immanent reality. For those who know and love God, there can be no questioning of the Bible’s authority.
In the process of glimpsing God’s mind and discerning transcendent reality, however, we are once again cast upon the imagination. In our present state, we are not permitted to look into heaven or hell. Concepts such as sin, atonement, and forgiveness are abstractions that can never be examined directly. For that matter, God Himself is an unseen reality. Imagination is necessary because all of these realities are invisible and intangible. Yet, if we are to think about them at all, we must assign some mental image to each one.
By “mental image,” I do not mean “visual image.” When we have done our best work we shall still not be able to say what God looks like. He does not look like anything. The unseen realities of the transcendent order present no outward schema to us, and when we attempt to represent them in an outwardly schematic fashion, we cross the line into idolatry: “Take ye therefore good heed unto yourselves; for ye saw no manner of similitude on the day that the LORD spake unto you in Horeb out of the midst of the fire.”
To say that we possess no visual image of God, however, is not to say that we are without images. When we open the Bible, we discover that God presents unseen realities to us through a dazzling array of images and word pictures. The Lord is pictured as a shepherd, a rock, a tower, a farmer, a mighty king, a jilted husband, a warrior, a shield, a dwelling place, a banner, a consuming fire, and (most significantly) as a father. Christ is depicted as a branch, a stone, a mother hen, a lamb, a lion, a road, a builder, a lawyer, a good shepherd. Sin is envisioned as missing the mark, leaving a path, and stepping across a boundary. Salvation is described as release from slavery, payment of a debt, adoption as an heir, a judge’s proclamation, a new birth, and a peace treaty. God is depicted in bodily terms as opening His hand, putting His feet on a stool, throwing His shoe, inclining His ear, writing with His finger, winning a victory with His arm, hiding His face, and opening His eyes. He rides on a cloud, casts a shadow, girds Himself, lays a foundation, changes His vesture, battles the monster Rahab, sings with joy, and walks on the wings of the wind. These images all open ways of envisioning realities that are otherwise invisible to us.
The categories by which we conceptualize God and eternity, heaven and hell, sin and redemption must be imagined in order to be understood. In a certain sense, our entire knowledge of God depends upon images that we encounter within experienced (immanent) reality. How, then, does our construction of transcendent reality differ from that of the modernist who, under the influence of the idyllic imagination, insists that belief in the transcendent must be established by some appeal to the immanent?
The first difference is that we do not reason our way to God. Instead, He has revealed Himself to us. He has graciously chosen to use analogies to help us understand aspects of His character. In each of these analogies, one analogue is located in the immanent world. God Himself is the one who makes the connection between each this-worldly analogue and the aspect of His character that He wishes to place on display. Such revealed images are very different from those that might be discovered (or, worse, made up) by self-appointed prophets sitting around a campfire and trying to explain God.
Second, we must assume that the analogues were placed in the created order by God in His wisdom, knowing full well what use He would make of them. For example, God did not decide at some point in time to select the human hand as an arbitrary symbol of His activity. Rather, knowing that He would someday reveal His activity to humans, He created them with hands so that the analog would be available when He wanted it. “He that planted the ear, shall he not hear? he that formed the eye, shall he not see?”
The transcendent reality remains prior to and independent of the creaturely analogue. Contrary to Freud, we do not begin with a vision of human fatherhood and then invent a Celestial Father. Rather, God is the real Father of whom all human fathers are limited imitations. God is the real shepherd of whom all human shepherds are imperfect copies. God is the real warrior of whom human warriors are flawed shadows. God’s power of perception is the reality of which the human eye is a dim reflection.
In the same way, the pavement of the New Jerusalem gleams with the first real gold that we shall ever see. The flames of hell blaze with that real fire of which our earthly conflagrations are mere shadows. The daily realities that surround us are freighted with symbol and meaning. We can look at them because they are real, but because they are not ultimate, we can also look through them to something beyond.
As with the immanent world, transcendent reality must be inwardly mapped and construed. This mapping and construing depends entirely upon the reception of a revelation from God. Once that revelation has been received, however, it must be appropriated and acted upon by the perceiving mind. The faculty for doing so is the imagination or, more specifically (if I may be permitted to adapt a phrase), the theological imagination.
The theological imagination and the moral imagination are closely related. They differ in that the moral imagination constructs a map of immanent reality with reference to the transcendent, while the theological imagination constructs a map of transcendent reality. This mapping of the transcendent is based upon revelation. It employs analogues from immanent reality. God chose those analogues to allow us to understand Him and His ways. Abstractions that appear in both the transcendent order and the immanent order (justice, freedom, mercy, etc.) require both forms of imagination to work together.
The imagination is crucial for our grasp of imminent reality. It is just as vital for our understanding of transcendent reality. Given the importance of the imagination, Christians of all people ought to be interested in its operations. Our imaginations must be functioning properly in order for our Christianity to be true. That being so, the next several essays will examine the way that the imagination itself works.
After Prayers, Lie Cold
C. S. Lewis (1898-1963)
Arise my body, my small body, we have striven
Enough, and He is merciful; we are forgiven.
Arise small body, puppet-like and pale, and go,
White as the bed-clothes into bed, and cold as snow,
Undress with small, cold fingers and put out the light,
And be alone, hush’d mortal, in the sacred night,
—A meadow whipt flat with the rain, a cup
Emptied and clean, a garment washed and folded up,
Faded in colour, thinned almost to raggedness
By dirt and by the washing of that dirtiness.
Be not too quickly warm again. Lie cold; consent
To weariness’ and pardon’s watery element.
Drink up the bitter water, breathe the chilly death;
Soon enough comes the riot of our blood and breath.
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.