Reforming the Moral Imagination – 4

We have said that the imagination operates on three levels. First, it enables us to function in the world, where our existence requires that we be able to visualise things beyond our immediate sensory experience. Second, it enables us to share and receive experiences of the world with their resulting affections through the medium of art. The third way that the imagination functions is the broadest, and perhaps deepest way. The imagination is the way we envision reality.

We tend to think that we perceive reality directly. In fact, none of us does. Whatever we perceive with our eyes, ears or other senses is filtered through and compared with our mental image of reality. Some people are more aware of their ‘mental map’ than others. Nevertheless, each person has some idea of what life really is, who God is, who others are, where things are going, what makes life work, where satisfaction lies and why things are as they are. We build this picture up from our earliest years. Our parents play a huge role in shaping it. Our culture shapes it (and, in turn, is shaped by the collective imaginations of its members). Our teachers shape it. Our experiences shape it. Our modern media shapes it in a frighteningly powerful way. Art shapes it. Entertainment shapes it. Observing life shapes it.

The problem is, our view of reality may not correspond to the reality that is. Once the map is faulty, all the sensory impressions are going to be filtered through a wrong grid. And that grid is going to mean the man keeps bumping, or more accurately, crashing, into reality as God has truly constructed it. It is absolutely critical, that our imaginations correspond to reality as it is.

For the Christian, the primary source of shaping this image of reality is revelation, that is, Scripture. As we read Scripture, and experience illumination by the Spirit of God, we are obtaining the mind of God on the world we see. As we have already seen, a Christian must also be interested in the meaning of art, for art communicates affections, which are so central to worship and Christian living. This is also a key part of understanding reality as it is.

Beyond that, a believer must become interested in the meaning of all things. The believer must shun the unexamined life and begin to parse all things for their meaning. That means thinking about the meaning of language. It means considering the meaning and power of culture. It means considering the various cultural phenomena – media, technologies, cultural trends, current events.  Conservative Christians consider the meaning of clothing, architecture, worship styles, ministry philosophies, unbeliever’s attitudes – the list is possibly endless. Conservative Christians consider the meaning of things.

If we are interested in the meaning of all things, that includes humanity. If we want to understand humanity, we will learn something of the humanities – history, the arts, language, economics or government. Once again, no one is calling us to be experts in any or all of these area – but why must we retreat to exaggeration to avoid the point? Conservative Christians might be accused of narrowness of mind due to our insistence upon the fundamentals of Christianity. But the critic should never be able successfully to make the charge that we are narrow in our interests. We should be interested in what it means to be human, and join a conversation that has lasted thousands of years.

If we are interested in meaning, then we will also be interested in ideas. That is, we will want to know the origin of the most popular ideas in the world today. Why do people think they way they do? Where did they get their ideas from? A study of the history of ideas is the study of philosophy. For thousands of years, men have been talking about the nature of reality, the nature of beauty, the nature of reason, the nature of knowledge and the nature of morality. Of course, God’s Word is the final word on the matter. But conservative Christians do not plug their ears and chant Scripture into the wall. We listen, participate and respond with the truth.

Given the kind of education most of us received, the body of knowedge might seem overwhelming: language, music, poetry, literature, the plastic arts, philosophy (with its various branches), history – not counting our own study of Scripture and its related disciplines of exegesis and theology. You could lock yourself in a study 24/7 and not emerge for a long, long time before you had made a dent in all the literature out there.  The correct response is not to abandon the pursuit of meaning. It is to remember that reality is indeed very complex and mysterious, and we will have something like an eternity to keep learning about it. But our education begins now. The more we understand of reality, the better worshippers we can be, and the better servants we can be in the world. Let’s take up the challenge to understand the world around us, and worship God in the discovery.

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