Archive for May, 2009

Reforming the Moral Imagination – 2

May 27, 2009

To properly deal with the moral imagination, we must understand what we mean by it. This is not an easy task, for the term imagination is used almost exclusively in our time to refer to ‘fanciful thoughts’. We should think of imagination as a part of the human mind (and therefore soul), one which functions in three ways. 

First, the imagination is used simply to make sense of the world. It does this by using memory and fantasy. When you think of a past event, you must imagine it, for it is no longer occurring in front of you. For that matter, to understand an event which has not yet occurred or an object you have not seen, it must be imagined. You must take the images currently stored in your mind, and arrange them so as to imagine something you don’t know. To describe an animal you haven’t seen, a meal you haven’t tasted, an experience you haven’t had all require imagination. Here, the mind combines stored and recalled images. In fact, every time you look at the world, what is really happening is your imagination is is recognising and classifying the the things you are seeing. A second form of fantasy is the imagination’s ability to envision things that never were and never will be. These tools of the imagination are simply ways of making sense of the world around us. We might think that we perceive reality directly, but we do not. All sensory input is processed and arranged by the imagination. 

Second, the imagination is used to evaluate and express reality. Once we understand that we are actually spiritual beings put together to perceive the world in a particular way, we begin to realise that we are meant to interpret reality, not merely ‘look at it’. God has made us to see the sky as blue, not as it might look to an infra-red camera or an x-ray telescope. That’s significant. God has made us to see one another clothed in skin and hair, not as masses of blood vessels and internal organs. That’s significant. God has made us to see objects as brown or red, hard or soft, rough or smooth – not as masses of colourless atoms spinning together. That’s significant. In other words, we are not simply recorders of brute facts (no such things exist); we are interpreters who are supposed to take what we experience and try to understand it and explain it.  Those experiences are deeply and profoundly spiritual. Animals do not reflect on why the world keeps pointing to something beyond its own materialism. To keep looking beyond the sense impressions shows we are made in God’s image. These spiritual insights resist being communicated in cold, propositional terms. Nevertheless, we want to express those perceptions about what reality is. When do try to express it, our imaginations are producing art. We are taking an affection or an insight about the world which cannot properly be expressed verbally or propositionally; we instead seek to evoke the same affection or insight in others by using analogical things like music, poetry, painting, sculpture, architecture, literature, dance and the like. Notice that we are not merely trying to mimic reality by using these things; we are seeking to depict it and present it to other interpreters so that they may arrive at the same understanding of reality that we have. Thus, the imagination seeks to evaluate and express the nature of reality. 

Third, the imagination is used to give the human a ‘big picture’ of reality. The imagination helps a man function in everyday life. It helps him reflect on the meaning of his experiences. In the largest sense, however, it gives a man a mental image of reality. Every human has this, whether he or she realises it or not. Every one of us lives according to an internal ‘grid’, a mental map, a blueprint of reality.  For the Christian, this is the moral imagination, or the theological imagination, or the religious imagination. It is the understanding of reality as given by God in the Word, and further explained by a right use of creation. 

As you can see, each level builds into the next. Simple memory and fantasy help us make sense of sense impressions, ‘artistic’ imagination helps us evaluate and express it, while the moral imagination grows  out of (and feeds back into) the other two, being a final and overarching worldview which the human relates all of his experiences back to. He thinks his thoughts out of the fountain of his big idea of reality. 

What this all amounts to is this: you cannot escape the imagination. It is how God made you. You cannot think a thought without the imagination. You cannot remove the imagination and perceive reality directly. You cannot ignore the imagination and think that you will come to a right understanding of God, yourself or the world. You cannot ignore the power of art. You cannot simply ‘make up’ the right view of God. The imagination is part of being made in God’s image.

As Christians, it is our duty to understand how the imagination has been shaped historically, how it is shaped today, and how it shapes our view of God, ourselves and the world.

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Reforming the Moral Imagination – 1

May 18, 2009

The affections are shaped by exposure, by example and by imagination.

The aspect of the imagination completes our study of the aspects of conservative Christianity. Conservative Christians are concerned with the shaping and reforming of the moral imagination.

The word imagination has about the same effect as the word tradition, for most of us. It seems hostile to propositional truth. It seems flimsy, unreal, fantastical and not at all like the black-and-white propositions stated in the Word of God.

However, this is a tad naïve. Upon closer inspection, we find that very little propositional truth could ever be understood without the imagination.

Take Ken Myer’s illustration. Imagine you were raised in Las Vegas, where the only weddings you had ever seen were the shotgun, drive-through weddings that the city is famous for. Likewise, the only meals you had ever eaten were at McDonalds, with your food served in cardboard or polystyrene boxes.

Now with that background, what will you understand by the text ‘the marriage supper of the Lamb’? The chances are, your picture of that momentous event will be so far below the reality intended by those words, that the only thing you and the author of that Scripture have in common is that you can both speak human language. However, what he intended and wrote, and what you received, are very different things. This is not because you have a bad Bible version, or because you deny inerrancy, or hold to a erroneous hermeneutic. It is not because you fail to understand analogical language.  It is not because you have a problem with grammar and syntax. It is because your moral imagination has failed to provide the correct images to match the analogies given in the black-and-white text of Scripture . The moral imagination is precisely what enables you to understand those analogies, and to envision them correctly, or as the case may be, incorrectly.

In fact, any time we are dealing with something heretofore unknown, the only way we cross from unknown to known is over the bridge of an analogy (There – I did it again!). You take something that is known to the hearer, compare it to the unknown thing, and it helps the hearer visualise, conceptualise, imagine – call it what you will – the unknown thing. Whether it is an object that is not known to us, an experience we have not had, an idea we have not considered, we must come to the unknown through the known. This is to take nothing away from propositional truth. However, propositional truth will not help you when the meaning of the propositions still remain completely foreign to you. Their absoluteness is not under question; the ability to unlock those absolute propositions is the work of the moral imagination.

Now when we come to God’s truth, we find that this is the case nearly all the time. After all, we are dealing with a Person we cannot see or otherwise experience with our physical senses. In fact, God is like nothing we know. This is why He takes pains to compare Himself to many things to help us to understand something of what He is like: Father, King, Master, Shepherd, Lord, Vine, High Tower, Captain, Judge, Advocate, Lamb, Lion, Fire, Light, and so on.

The spiritual realities of the Christian life happen in a realm mostly unseen. Therefore, the Bible creates understanding by comparing these realities to things we know: salvation (rescue), justification (acquittal in court), redemption (buying back), regeneration (birth), forgiveness (debt cancellation). Indeed, the great themes of the Christian life, such as love, truth, justice, nobility, beauty, goodness cannot be understood except by the imagination. Unseen and invisible realities are not helped merely by swearing allegiance to the absoluteness of propositional truth. We need to be able to correctly understand the unseen reality that God is communicating in those propositions, and we do so through the moral imagination.

The moral imagination is what drives the affections. We might believe certain facts. But we are moved to action by the images that come to mind around those facts. Therefore, the moral imagination must become to us a kind of control-centre, where the input of special and general revelation is processed into correct images, resulting in the output of ordinate affections.

To understand the moral imagination and shape it correctly, we must do several things.

First, we must understand what the moral imagination is, as opposed to other faculties of mind or ways of thinking.

Second, we must understand the things, attitudes, and actions that shape and inform this imagination.

Third, we must become intensely interested in the meaning of all the things that inform the imagination, one way or another.

The Attitude of Respect for Christian Tradition – 4

May 10, 2009

What follows is a list of works spanning the 2000-year history of the church. They do not all agree with each other perfectly. Their views of the Christian life sometimes differ from one another. Their theologies would not line up like a military parade. They reflect the church’s struggles, travails and groans to come to maturity. Reading through them will acquaint you with Christianity as it has been before the dark pragmatic times we now live in. You owe it to your own Christian maturity and intellectual adulthood to read them.

While some are longer (and harder to read) than others, most adult Christians could work their way through the writings on this list in two years (if you read slowly). When you think about the avalanche of books flooding out of modern Christian publishers, my counsel would be to give your reading attention to some of the ancients before jumping on every new book on the block. We have limited time on this earth. What would you rather do: chase down every ‘latest’ book (though it simply rehashes the shallow thoughts of the day), or give yourself to the books which have deeply nourished and warmed the hearts of pious Christians for two millennia?

With the exception of the most modern of these books,  all are in the public domain, and can be found on the Internet. If you’d prefer to read it in your PC, I can email you a copy of any or all of these books. Furthermore, you can probably find most of these books in hard-copy if you start looking.

I have listed them chronologically (that is, by the approximate dates of writing), which is no indication of the order in which they should be read. Pick any one and start.

The Didache (110)

Confessions – Augustine (397)

The Enchiridion on Faith, Hope and Love – Augustine (420)

On Contempt for the World – Eucherius of Lyons (430)

On Loving God – St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1150)

Meister Eckhart’s Sermons (1320)

Revelations of Divine Love – Julian of Norwich (1343)

The Cloud of Unknowing– Anonymous (1370)

The Imitation of Christ – Thomas à Kempis (1400)

Theologia Germanica – Anonymous (1516)

Dark Night of the Soul – St. John of the Cross (1585)

The Practice of Piety – Lewis Bayly (1631)

The Letters of Samuel Rutherford (1630)

Pensées – Blaise Pascal (1650)

A Divine Cordial – Thomas Watson (1663)

The Devotions of Bishop Andrewes (1675)

Pilgrim’s Progress – Bunyan (1678)

The Practice of the Presence of God (1685)

Spiritual Progress Francois Fenelon (1700)

Autobiography of Madame Guyon (1710)

Hymns of Gerhard Tersteegen (1729)

A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life – William Law (1728)

The Psalms and Hymns of Isaac Watts (1730)

Religious Affections – Jonathan Edwards (1746)

Unspoken Sermons – George MacDonald (1867)

Orthodoxy – G.K. Chesterton (1908)

My Utmost for His Highest – Oswald Chambers (1917)

Mere Christianity – C.S. Lewis (1944)

The Knowledge of the Holy – Tozer (1963)

This would be a significant start. Other authors to read would include: Polycarp, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Novatian, Gregory of Nyzansius (and other ante- and post-Nicene church fathers), Anselm, Thomas Aquinas, Balthasar Hubmaier, Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, John Wesley, George Whitefield, John Owen, William Gurnall, Richard Baxter, Richard Sibbes, Thomas Brooks, Stephen Charnock, Henry Scougal (and other English Puritans), J.C. Ryle, Charles Spurgeon, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, J. Gresham Machen.

This can at first seem so daunting as to cause us to recoil at the task. However, remember that the goal is not to ‘get through’ these writers. The goal is to live with them. The goal is to make the atmosphere of historical Christianity the air we breathe. There is no hurry here. If we spend our lives reading the gems of the church, we will not have wasted our lives. On the other hand, if we use that time to read trashy religious fiction, contemporary ‘hot’ books aimed at selling millions or the ‘latest’ work by some famous writer, we may just be choosing the lesser over the greater.

The Attitude of Respect for Christian Tradition – 3

May 5, 2009

Once we agree that the Christian tradition and culture is something to be valued and relearned, we are faced with another question. How do we determine which parts of that tradition are helpful or useful for shaping ordinate affection, doctrinal understanding and ministry methodology? The situation is, we have nearly 2000 years of church history to sift through. Not all of it is useful. The worship, doctrine and ministry methods of the church have taken some pronounced twists and turns. The Christian tradition is not a straight line from the apostles to conservative Christians. It is a winding pathway. Sometimes the pathway is almost lost altogether, and then it once again appears.

What are the criteria we are to use when deciding if something represents the best of Christian culture? Should we ask the questions of the pragmatist (“Did it work?” “Was it popular?” “Did it create a bigger audience?”)? Should we ask the questions of the aesthete (“Was it beautiful?” “Was it well-formed?”) What kinds of questions should we use to test the traditions of the Christian past?

One advantage we have is that our very distance from the past allows us to judge those traditions from the vantage point of observers. We seldom detect our own excesses or imbalances, nor could those in the past detect theirs. However, from the perspective of Christians no longer embedded in those traditions, we can view the traditions with a measure of objectivity.

With that in mind, we have almost 2000 years of church history to sift through.  How do we find the true, the good and the beautiful in all that?

First, we should naturally seek only what is true. That does not mean we will expect every saint to cross every t and dot every i, doctrinally speaking, as we would. It does mean that we can only extend Christian fellowship to fellow Christians, albeit dead ones. While we can learn from unbelievers in many areas, the most helpful teachers of the church are going to be the ones who were truly regenerate and submitted to the gospel of grace. Certain eras were known for their purity or recovery of truth. The very early church fathers, the Reformation era, the era of the Great Awakenings – these are eras where truth was not banished to dwell in the deserts. It is likely that we will find much to learn from in these eras.

That is not to say that the later church fathers, the medieval period, or even the modern period have nothing to contribute to Christian tradition. In times where false doctrine has made a desert of Christendom, there have always been oases of true love for God. In fact, those very oases were often the instruments that led the church back into an era where truth flourished. The point then is to seek out sources that communicate truth, whether the era they emerged out of was friendly or hostile to that truth. There will be no value in learning the hymns of the Arians. There will be no value in the prayers of the Mariolaters. No Christian benefit (except to recognise error) will come from reading the writings of the Gnostics, Socinians, the Swedenborgians, the Neo-Orthodox or the Finneyites.

On the other hand, we will be able to glean much from the Ante-Nicene Fathers, many of the post-Nicene Fathers (notably Augustine), some of the medieval evangelical groups and writers, the Swiss Anabaptists, the German Pietists, some of the Radical Reformers, the Reformers themselves and their disciples, the English Puritans, the Great Awakeners and some from the modern era.

A second way of testing the value of the various Christian traditions is to test if the tradition was received and practised by the church over the centuries. That is not the same as asking, was it popular? Popularity often has to do with immediate relevance to the appetites of a particular generation; the consensus of the church of the ages has to do with permanence. If a particular prayer, hymn or writing has timeless value, it is sure to speak to many generations spanning many eras. That which is permanent and eternal is not anchored to the shifting sands of a particular century. This is why we still have the writings of Irenaeus, the hymns of Ambrose, the Confessions of Augustine, the writings of Thomas a Kempis, or the prayers of the Reformers. Certainly, some works would not have been received by the generation they were made in, the generation being hostile to truth and ordinate affection. That is why we look to their enduring value. Indeed, if they survive to this day, that can possibly be one sign of their value to pious saints of earlier times.

As we apply these tests, we are helped to parse the Christian tradition of the past. In the next post, we will list some of the works which Christians ought to work through at some point.