Just Imagine

© 2015 Bryan Dowd 

We welcome yet again the thoughtfully intriguing guest reflections of University of Minnesota Professor Bryan Dowd.  His savvy reflections ought to cheer us every time we hear news about higher education gone awry.  The news may be true, but there are a few, like Professor Dowd, who shine brightly in the darkness.

In 1990 A.N. Wilson published C.S. Lewis: A Biography (Fawcett Columbine: New York). Lewis was a professor at both Oxford and Cambridge Universities.  After his conversion to Christianity, chronicled in his autobiography Surprised by Joy, he became one of the most erudite, beloved, and influential Christian apologists of the 20th century. He was a true “cross-over” author, earning appointment as Professor of Medieval and Renaissance English at Cambridge University while simultaneously authoring the Narnia Chronicles, The Screwtape Letters, Mere Christianity and countless other best-sellers.  His writings have encouraged millions of Christians, doubtlessly led millions to Christ, and brought many skeptics to the point that they at least can understand “what all the fuss is about.”   

At the time Wilson wrote his biography of Lewis, Wilson was an outspoken atheist and I expect he realized the danger of writing about a popular adherent to a theological position that he did not share.  (Wilson later converted to Christianity.)  Nonetheless, in the course of researching and writing the book, one senses that Wilson, an accomplished and prolific author in his own right, developed a genuine respect for Lewis’s intellect and the volume of scholarly and popular literature he produced. 

The reason I bring up Wilson’s biography of Lewis is one memorable line in the text. At Oxford, Lewis was close friends with J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy.  Tolkien was influential in Lewis’s conversion to Christianity.  As Wilson put it: 

“Tolkien had taught him (Lewis) that the inability to believe in Christianity was primarily a failure of the imagination.” (p. 135 – Wilson’s emphasis).

… and that is what this blog is about.  The word imagination has three meanings in the Merriam-Webster online dictionary: 

1.     The act or power of forming a mental image of something not present to the senses or never before wholly perceived in reality

2.     a : creative ability

b : ability to confront and deal with a problem

c : the thinking or active mind

3.     a : a creation of the mind; especially an idealized or poetic creation

b : fanciful or empty assumption

Were atheists to read Wilson’s quote, I think they might assume that Tolkien was referring to definition 3b, or at best, 3a.  But I think that both Wilson and Tolkien had something closer to the first definition in mind, perhaps augmented by 2a. 

Imagination is one of three “i” words that have special places in all our lives and especially our thinking and, in my view, do not get the attention and respect they deserve.  In addition to imagination, the other “i” words are intuition and inspiration.  (We might add innovation, since innovation often is the product of imagination, intuition and inspiration.)  We use these words frequently when admiring creative genius, but less often when we we’re referring to “rational” thought processes.  That strikes me as odd. 

“Rationality” often is juxtaposed with “faith” as though rational, axiomatic thought, as opposed to “blind” faith, ultimately will prove to be a reliable guide to all of truth.  But we’ve known that’s not true since 1931, when Kurt Godel published On Formally Undecidable Propositions of Principia Mathematica and Related Systems.  (Ernst Nagel and James Newman provide a readable explanation of the proof.)  Godel showed that no matter how complete a set of axioms, there always will be statements that we can know are true, but that cannot be proven to be true using those axioms.  If pure axiomatic “rational” reasoning doesn’t provide a means of accessing all of truth in mathematics where it would seem to have its best chance of success, it seems unlikely to me that we should rely exclusively on it in other settings where truth matters. 

Go to the mathematics department at your local university and ask the faculty about the importance of imagination, intuition, and inspiration.  Anyone who has struggled with a difficult mathematical concept can relate to the experience of the “lights coming on,” making the solution to a complex relationship suddenly clear.  I have experienced it in many different applications, but it’s a sharper divide, at least to me, in quantitative problems.  A natural reaction for many people is to want to run out and explain the solution to someone else – which can be frustrating since the lights don’t always come on in the same way for everyone. 

If we can recognize the important role of the “i” words in the most rigorous and precise reasoning tasks we undertake, why not recognize their importance in reasoning that requires reflection and introspection?  An analogy I find helpful is viewing a beautiful painting.  Consider “Evening Calm” or “Evening Gold” by Gerald Coulson or “View of Dedham“ by Thomas Gainsborough.  A materialist might stand in front of one of these paintings and declare, “What we have here is a combination of textiles and petroleum products.”  They would not be wrong and it would be pointless to try to convince them otherwise. 

A technician might look at the same painting with a deep appreciation of the skill that went into the composition and execution of the painting.   That certainly is engagement with the painting at a deeper level than the materialist, but there is a still deeper level. 

Obviously, the painter was inspired first by the thought of the scene that he painted.  Perhaps he saw it in person; or he visited the actual place, but imagined a version of it even more beautiful than the scene in front of him; or perhaps it was entirely in his mind.  Some viewers of the painting might be moved to say, “Yes, I easily can see why the artist was inspired to create such a beautiful scene.  I am profoundly grateful that he chose to transfer it from his mind to the canvas so that it could be shared with others.  I could even imagine myself in such a beautiful place enjoying the reality of a landscape like that, and I would love to tell other people about this painting in the hope that they could have the same experience.”  That level of appreciation takes imagination.  I think that level of appreciation and engagement with the artist and the painting certainly would surpass that of the materialist and even the most accomplished technician.

Now consider an analogy between the beautiful painting and the Gospel of John, followed by the Book of Acts in the New Testament.  I don’t think it takes much imagination to read those two books of the Bible as though they were accurate accounts of actual historical events.  Even a “materialist” could do that.  In fact, I think one needs a much more vivid imagination to read them as anything else.

Nor would the “technician” need a great deal of imagination to marvel at the poetry in opening sentences of John, the minute historical details in Acts, or the sweep of history in the two books combined.  In those two adjacent books we are taken from the dawn of creation to arrival of Christianity in Rome, then the capitol of western civilization.  By the end of Acts, Christianity, which began with a small group of devotees to one of many “messiahs” in the Palestinian backwash of the vast Roman Empire, had within 100 years of the death of Jesus swept the Empire like wildfire and was poised to leave its indelible imprint on all of Western civilization.  Today’s reader probably needs less imagination than the first people who heard the Gospel because we know what happened next.  If you need a refresher on what happened next, David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions or one of Rodney Stark’s many books would be helpful. 

 But even with our historical advantage, we still are likely to need a vivid imagination in order to grasp how, had the pagan pre-Christian world continued uninterrupted to our time, our lives and our world would be so different.  Unwanted infants, mostly girls, would be left to die of exposure or be eaten by wild animals; there would be no sense of societal obligation to care for the widows and orphans; we would have no modern research universities, because there would have been no monasteries to preserve them in the so-called Dark Ages; kings still would rule by divine right; the English and Americans still would be engaged in the slave trade, and there never would have been an American Civil Rights movement.  The reason it is so difficult to imagine such a world (and to underestimate Christianity’s impact on our world) is because Christianity has so pervasively transformed our consciences that a world minus the Christian revolution and its accompanying values is beyond our comprehension.

 But just as the person viewing the Coulson or Gainsborough landscape can imagine standing in the actual setting portrayed in the painting, so the Gospel of John, Acts and the entire Bible can be read with an even deeper level of appreciation.  With the help of the inspiration, imagination, and intuition produced by what Christians call the Holy Spirit, we can see that we are reading not merely an historical document, but the preface to the story of which own lives are the continuation.

 In that story, we are not the purposeless products of random mutation and natural selection, here by accident and destined for the compost heap.  Instead we were knitted together in our mothers’ wombs and fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139) so that our chief purpose in life is to glorify God and enjoy him forever (the Westminster Shorter Catechism).  We live not in dread of a God that waits passively to condemn our sins, but a God that was so intolerant of our sins that He chose to die for us rather than live without us.  If you read the Bible like that, what difference would it make in your life?  Just imagine.