Reforming the Moral Imagination – 2

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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