In his essay “Transpositions,” C.S. Lewis told an allegorical fable about a woman thrown into a dungeon. There, she gives birth to a boy who grows up having never seen the beautiful outer world. The woman takes to drawing pictures of mountains, streams, and valleys for her son, trying to help him imagine the indescribable beauties of a world he has never known. Despite her best efforts, the mother soon realizes that the boy expects the real world to be only made of pencil lines and marks. Her son cannot fathom the reality that the drawings are mere glimpses into a greater beauty. The pictures are never as real as the world above, for “In reality it lacks lines because it is incomparably more visible.”
This legend articulates the significance of the imagination in the Christian life. Without the imaginative capacity to wonder, we risk falling into the delusion that this world represents the apex of existence. But the spiritual role of imagination is a long-debated topic among theologians and scholars, some siding with St. Ignatius of Loyola’s lectio divina model of conducting the imagination as a mode of prayer and holy meditation. Others, like many iconoclasts, rejected the unharnessed imagination, for fear that it could lead to imagining God the Father, a form of idolatry.
So what is the role of the imagination in the Christian life of the mind?
Sacramental or Dialectical?
Historically, for artists and academics alike, a divide existed between the Catholic imagination and the Protestant imagination. Where the Catholic imagination has been deemed sacramental—due largely to the church’s value of the seven holy sacraments—the Protestant has been seen as dialectical, focusing on logic and sensibility. The dialectical imagination by definition tends to stress our distance from God, the chasm between our sin and His holiness, the paradox of grace, while the sacramental imagination sees God’s presence and holiness as revealed through the material world.
“The central symbol (of religion) is God,” wrote Reverend Andrew Greeley, former Archdiocese of Chicago. “One’s ‘picture’ of God is in fact a metaphorical narrative of God’s relationship with the world and the self as part of the world … The Catholic ‘classics’ assume a God who is present in the world, disclosing Himself in and through creation. The world and all its events, objects, and people tend to be somewhat like God. The Protestant classics, on the other hand, assume a God who is radically absent from the world, and who discloses (Himself) only on rare occasions (especially in Jesus Christ and Him crucified).”
This sacramental imagination is also rooted in Medieval exegesis and the four traditional “senses of Scripture.” The Catechism of the Catholic church cites this couplet outlining the senses: Lettera gesta docet, quid credas allegoria, moralis quid agas, quo tendas anagogia. (The Letter speaks of deeds; Allegory to faith; the Moral how to act; Anagogy our destiny.) This Catechism underscores the reality that Scriptural passages abound with layers of complex meaning, which can be sought through literal exegesis, understanding allegory, and moral imperatives to action. Where the sacramental imagination lies is in the anagogical interpretation, that which seeks to reform our view of reality in light of the incarnation and the eschaton. It is a complete transformation of thought, desire, imagination—one which writers and artists alike employ to lead one, in the words of scholar Peter M. Candler, “through the contemplation of future glory to the reimagination of temporal existence in light of the Incarnation, as imbued with the grace of divine creation…”
We also see this sacramental imagination take poetic and artistic form in the writings of John Donne, George Herbert, and Gerard Manley Hopkins, who famously described the incarnation as “God’s infinity / Dwindled to infancy.” One scholar noted that writers from this tradition viewed the world as God’s “playground” or the dominion where His holiness is unveiled and richly present.
The novel Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, for example, is stock full of sacramental scenes as the Congregationalist minister John Ames reflects on life, death, fatherhood, and faith, describing many natural moments as blessings and charged with holiness: when lightning struck the church, holding his infant daughter, observing his son playing with Tobias, watching a sunset with his father.
Within contemporary art and literature, there is a strong resurgence in the sacramental imagination’s presence. And with this comes a startling lack of the dialectical imagination, which on the surface renders a more pessimistic portrait of God’s relationship with His people.
While the sacramental imagination is represented by writers like Flannery O’Connor and books like Ulysses by James Joyce, there are stark few representatives of the Protestant imagination. Since the discourse of the Catholic sacramental imagination pushes toward analogy and metaphorical language, this naturally encourages the portrayal of the sacramental imagination in literature, art, poetry. On the other hand, the Protestant tendency is to identify the disconnect in metaphor, to illustrate the difference between God and man, His reality and our imperfect ability to imagination beyond the realm of our material world.
But need there be such a divide between dialectical and sacramental? Can the Protestant employ such a sacramental view of the world while maintaining a reformed interpretation of sacraments within the holy church?
Revelation Through Christ
The Protestant dialectical imagination does not diametrically oppose the sacramental. Instead, it acknowledges God’s presence in the world in the person and life of Jesus Christ. Many Protestant scholars and philosophers invoked such a sacramental worldview while maintaining Protestant theological beliefs.
Runar Eldebo, a Swedish seminary instructor and writer, made an addition to Greeley’s distinction between the sacramental Catholic imagination and the dialectical Protestant one. He invoked Karl Barth as an example of a scholar employing sacrament. Barth’s The Epistle to the Romans, emphasizes materiality as the sphere of God’s interaction with His people, and incites believers to seek Him through creation. The difference is the sacramental imagination here is anchored in the cross: “The known plane is God’s creation, fallen out of its union with Him, and therefore the world of the flesh needing redemption, the world of men, and of time, and of things—our world. This known plane is intersected by another plane that is unknown—the world of the Father, of the Primal Creation, and of the final Redemption. The relation between us and God, between this world and His world presses for recognition, but the line of intersection is not self-evident.”
It is this pressing for recognition which necessitates the imagination, the life of the Christian mind. Whether one is a scholar or an artist, in business or at home, employing our mental energy to seek a robust vision of God is part of our command to love the Lord our God with all our heart, all our soul, and all our mind. The sacramental imagination can be distinct from the seven Catholic sacraments, and it can be centered on the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Christ as the ultimate example of God meeting us in our materiality. God became flesh. He lived, suffered, and died in a human body. And the two Protestant sacraments—baptism and the Eucharist—are further examples of God’s continued presence, which mirror the incarnation. Every time the Eucharist is given, it functions as a meeting point between God and man in the material world, and it represents how Christ became enfleshed.
By itself, the dialectical imagination perhaps places too great an emphasis on God’s distance from His people, especially considering the presence of the Holy Spirit within the church. We know that God comes to us through materiality, but we also should be wary of a sacramental view which could deem sacred anything that is material. Instead, the two views can be reconciled at the cross.
With this reconciliation, comes the freedom to employ the senses of our minds to imagination and hope for the beauty of eternal reunion with God.
As Lewis famously put it, “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.” If we strive for a glorified imagination, then we may possess a better comprehension of what really is meant by that holiday at the sea, and we better understand that the world outside a dungeon is not merely pencil marks but something far more beautiful.