Reforming the Moral Imagination – 1

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.


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