Imaginative Theology

[I]t must not be supposed that I am in any sense putting forward the imagination as the organ of truth. We are not talking of truth, but of meaning: meaning which is the antecedent condition both of truth and falsehood, whose antithesis is not error but nonsense. I am a rationalist. For me, reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning. Imagination, producing new metaphors or revivifying old, is not the cause of truth, but its condition.
                                C. S. Lewis, “Bluspels and Flalansferes,” Rehabilitations.

John Calvin distrusted speculative theology. He seems to have thought that it was disrespectful. There are many things in theology that are mysteries; they must simply be pondered. The longer you sit with a mystery the more deeply you may move into it, but you will never be able to walk all the way around it, define it, measure it, or solve it. When confronted with a mystery, Calvin always counseled silence. As an example of this, you will look in vain for any description of heaven in his writings, even though he mentions the reality of heaven fairly often. He was not a great fan of “producing new metaphors,” as Lewis advocates doing in the quotation above. He was distrustful of imagination.

There is something admirable about this approach. It is certainly true that when confronted with a mystery we need to speak with humility, and often we end up saying more about what is not true than about what is true. We call this approach the negative way, and it can be very powerful, especially when speaking about God Himself. There are many times when we need to say “God is not this,” or “God is unlike us,” or “God does not share this quality with us,” and then leave it at that.

But that is not quite the same thing as silence. In our present pluralist context, silence communicates something quite other than what it communicated in Calvin’s sixteenth-century European context. John Calvin lived in world where almost everyone believed in God, and there were very few people who wanted to deny the existence of the supernatural, so claiming that something was too mysterious to be understood made sense to most people, even those who didn’t agree with a particular Christian doctrine. In our time and place, Calvin’s sort of silence has a different meaning, suggesting that what we believe is irrational and that we are believing it blindly. In a disenchanted world, people expect to be able to explain and ultimately to control everything around us. In our context, if your only response to a challenge to your faith is “It’s a mystery,” that looks like intellectual surrender.

In the quotation at the top of this post, C. S. Lewis defends reason as the proper tool for discovering the truth, but then says that “imagination is the organ of meaning.” In other words, what we believe to be true must be rooted in our reason, but when it comes to figuring out why those truths matter and what they mean for us, we need to use our imaginations. Lewis uses his imagination in many ways. Often, he crafts helpful illustrations or metaphors, like the idea of God’s work in our life being similar to building a house. But sometimes he uses his imagination in a more speculative way. In his book Miracles, C. S. Lewis unapologetically speculates about many of the supernatural events that are described in the Bible. So, for example, when he discusses Jesus’ ascension into heaven after His resurrection, Lewis brings in the concept of dimensions and imagines what it would be like to move into a world that has more dimensions than our own. The reality of the new life that Jesus already inhabits is certainly more complicated than that, as Lewis makes sure to point out, but Lewis’s way of imagining that new life is sufficient to show that believing in it is not ridiculous nor is it irrational.

Many of you are probably familiar with Lewis’s most extensive exercise of speculative imaginative theology: The Chronicles of Narnia. The Narnia stories are a long exercise in speculating, since they are what Lewis called “a supposal.” When he sat down to write The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which is the first Narnia story, he asked himself a question: “Suppose that there are other worlds, and suppose that they are also fallen: how would God rescue them?” This is why some of the things in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe are very similar to the story of salvation in the Bible, but other things are very different: it’s was an imaginative exercise. Lewis thought that such imaginative re-examination of Biblical truths from a new angle could help us to avoid the “watchful dragons” that make it hard to understand Christian teaching, especially for young people. He talked about how easy it is to assume that everything in the Bible must be fiction, and even worse how easy it is to be bored by the Bible when we don’t really understand it and are being made to read it anyway. For many of us, Narnia helped to awaken our love of the spiritual world and our desire to seek after things like honor and duty, beauty and goodness, wonder and awe.

In other areas of life, we know the value of imagining how things might have been or how they might be in the future. When we try to see a situation from another person’s point of view, we are using imagination in this way, and even if we may be wrong about some of the details the exercise is a good one if it helps us to understand that not everyone shares our own experiences. When we try to make a decision about the future, we use imagination to think about the consequences of different choices that we might make, and even if we will certainly be wrong about the details of how such choices would actually play out the exercise is a good one if it helps us stop to think beyond our momentary impulses. Obviously, imagination can be used well or badly, and not every exercise of the imagination will offer insight. But there is no other faculty so apt for pondering things that are not yet true, or things not immediately available to our own experience.

The word “mystery” is especially significant in Christian theology. Paul says that the apostles are “stewards of God’s mysteries” (1 Corinthians 4:1), and he frequently explains his own calling in terms of sharing the mystery that God has revealed in Christ (Ephesians 1 Corinthians 15:51; Ephesians 1:9; 3:3-9; 6:19; Colossians 1:26-27). A mystery is different from a problem in that problems can be solved. If I set you a math problem, the proper response is to find the answer and then move on to other questions. But the mysteries that God reveals to us are not like that. We cannot come up with one simple answer to solve the mystery so that we may then move on to the next question. We cannot walk all around a mystery, to define it, or map its contours, or master its contents. We will spend all of eternity contemplating the mystery of who God is without ever coming to an end. The mystery of Christ’s love for us is not something that we finish pondering, and the longer we meditate on it the more insight we receive. Because so many of the topics of theology are mysterious, we must approach them with humility and an awareness of our own limits. Calvin’s impulse to be silent is understandable, but it is also understandable that we might break out into ecstatic and poetic praise. Ecstatic praise that spills over into our imagination.

An imaginative approach to theology is one way to engage mystery. Imagining a possible answer for a theological question while at the same time admitting that we can’t know the full, true answer can serve as a type of thought experiment in which we are able to go deeper into the mystery behind that question, while acknowledging that we are not able to reach a firm answer. With all due respect to Calvin, I’d encourage us to bring our imaginations to our theological discourse. It may lead us into new levels of understanding, but even more it may enable us to share some of the joy of faith with those for whom it is otherwise unintelligible.