Finally, I want to argue that the answer that we make together to God-in-revelation—that is to say, in the Church's worship—is also enacted in the mode of imaginative expression. The touchstone of liturgy is its imaginative adequacy. In its heights and depths, its profundity and simplicity, liturgy must be commensurate with our most treasured moments of knowing that we are in touch with a reality that is unconditional, infinite and eternal—and, moreover, is the source of our deepest well-being. Human religious experience typically speaks of such moments in metaphor, symbol and myth. Liturgy needs to acknowledge this.
When we worship through the Church's liturgy we know whether or not we have a deep sense of satisfaction, contentment and fulfilment that the liturgy is doing its job— performing effectively. Not only should it be adequate to express our most significant intuitions—our deepest hopes, aspirations and longings—but it should transcend them, poor and unworthy as they are, and impart to us a sense of being gathered up into an action and an event that is infinitely greater than ourselves—in fact into the timeless prayer of the Church, with 'angels and archangels and all the company of heaven' surrounding us as we pray (BCP service of Holy Communion). When the liturgy fails to be such a vehicle we experience frustration and feel short-changed. The liturgy has failed the test of imaginative adequacy. The truth of the imagination in liturgy will concern us in Chapter 8.
So when I say that the Christian faith lives from the imagination, I mean that Christianity is a faith that subsists in the symbolic realm and is appropriated through imaginative indwelling. All the vital practical expressions of Christian existence bear witness to this fact. Prayer, liturgy and theology, as well as the Bible, speak the language of the imagination and articulate their truths in metaphor, symbol or myth. Whether we consider the nature of divine revelation found in scripture, the way that it is interpreted in doctrines and assented to in faith, or the response that it draws forth from the believer in worship—the centrality of imagination is clear. Now the characteristic expressions of imagination are comprised in the three figurative genres of metaphor, symbol and myth. But these are the very substance of religious discourse. Our enquiry is generated by the question of how these can be the vehicles of true utterances about the sacred.
To claim that the Christian religion is best understood as the truth of imagination is totally different from saying that Christianity is an imaginary faith. The great reductionist thinkers of modernity—Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche and Freud—claimed that Christianity was an imaginary faith, in the sense that its beliefs were merely projections of unconscious psychological tensions or of social and economic conflicts. For these makers of the modern worldview, Christian beliefs were a world of illusion, created by compensatory wish-fulfilment. The persons of the Holy Trinity were imaginary beings; experience of the grace and presence of God was an imaginary psychological state; heaven and hell were imaginary places, and so on. For example, Friedrich Nietzsche claimed in The Anti-Christ that neither Christian morality nor Christian piety made contact with reality at any point. Imaginary, occult causes (God, spirit, soul) were supposed to produce imaginary effects (sin, redemption, forgiveness) within the framework of an imaginary purpose or teleology (kingdom of God, last judgement, eternal life) (Nietzsche, 1968, p.125; for further discussion, see Avis, 1995).
However, when I make the claim that Christianity lives from the imagination, that Christian beliefs are to be found embodied in metaphor, symbol and myth, and that the Christian faith can only be appropriated by a corresponding act of imaginative insight, I am asserting the opposite of the reductionist theses of Feuerbach, Marx and so on. I am defending the truth and reality of what the Christian faith postulates. The truth of Christian belief is not something that is purely immanent in and reducible to mundane, human and social factors, as the reductionists claimed; it infinitely transcends them—it remains ineffable. And because it transcends this-worldly factors, this truth and reality can only be grasped meaningfully in the realm of imagination which takes images of earth and uses them to evoke a realm beyond. The greatest truths can only be expressed in imaginative form—through images (metaphor, symbol, myth). We know the truth only through the imagination. Creative imagination, rather than some supposedly objective, rationally specifiable procedure that lies outside the domain of personal knowledge, is the key to knowing reality. The truth is contained in symbols and the symbols are materially embodied. That is, it seems to me, a corollary of the incarnational and sacramental character of Christianity.
John Keats wrote in 1817 at the age of twenty-two: 'I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart's affections and the truth of Imagination—What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth' (Keats, 1954, p.48). We know the truth through the whole person. As Newman wrote autobiographically, 'it is the concrete being that reasons...the whole man moves' (Newman, 1959, p.225). In his sustained reflections on how we know the truth in the Grammar of Assent (Newman, 1903), with its concept of the illative (truth-seeking, truth-sensing, truth-seizing) sense, Newman gave a central place to the imaginative grasp of the truth. Unlike Keats, Newman—an ascetic—could not fully trust himself to beauty. As Vargish has pointed out, there is a dichotomy in Newman's thought between truth as beauty to be enjoyed and truth as power to be obeyed. 'In Newman's epistemology the perception of beauty and the realization of religious truth are disparate intellectual actions' (Vargish, 1970, p.156). But imagination is for Newman, just as for Keats, the power that kindles insight into reality. 'Real assent' (or, as Newman had called it in an early draft, 'imaginative assent') is 'more vivid and forcible' than notional assent. 'Real apprehension ... excites and stimulates the affections and passions, by bringing facts home to them as motive causes' (Newman, 1903, pp.9f., 12). Whether as beauty (for Keats) or as moral claim (for Newman), the truth is embodied immanently in material symbols, including words which are linguistic material symbols.
Christian truth is both immanent in the world and transcendent of the world. Once we have dealt with the destructive distortion that restricts the truth of faith to a function of immanental processes, we must make the vital corrective claim that these processes, that are so firmly of this world, can become the sacramental channels of the truth of God. They may be persons (prophets, Apostles, saints, the incarnate Jesus Christ) or liturgical actions (poured water, broken bread, lighted candles, icons) or special words and propositions (metaphors, linguistic symbols, narratives, parables, myths). Newman believed that Christ lives to our imaginations by his visible symbols (Prickett, 1986, p.217). The ultimate logic of this is found in the Christian doctrines of creation, revelation, incarnation, sanctification and consummation. These doctrines are all of a piece. They presuppose that mundane, worldly, created realities can become the vehicles and means of divine presence and purpose. They affirm that the material, the human and the historical can reflect the glory of God. The world is bound to God in ontological dependence, yet preserved at an epistemic distance that gives scope for human freedom, created contingency and divine involvement in revelation and redemption.
These pivotal Christian doctrines, from creation to consummation, also confront the sort of high-sounding deistic dualism that denies that the ultimate reality can be encountered through contingent, historical and human forms. Such extreme transcendentalism cannot make sense of the idea of God being involved in the mess and muddle, the tragedy and futility of the human condition. It cannot cope with the notion of a God who is 'the fellow sufferer who understands' (in A.N.Whitehead's unforgettable phrase; Whitehead, 1929, p.497). It cannot see the point of the Church as a divine-human society with God-given ministries and sacraments to bring us through earth to heaven. It cannot make philosophical sense of the Creator indwelling the creation, the absolute implicated in the relative, the necessary involved in the contingent. Its misplaced motivation is to preserve God's dignity. It assumes that it is appropriate for us to decide what is suitable to God. It forgets Luther's great war cry: 'Let God be God!' This damaging dualism has lost its grip on the paradigm doctrine of Christianity—the incarnation.
The incarnation may be variously understood, but essentially it speaks of a unique, unsurpassable involvement of God in an individual human life. It designates a single contingent fact as God. But that unique involvement is offset against the background of God's action and presence in the whole created process: the shaping of creation, the providential ordering of history to bring good out of evil and manifest the salvific purpose of God, the calling and teaching of Israel which provides the essential locus within which Jesus could be (and could be known to be) the Christ, and the sending of the Holy Spirit to the Church in order to constitute it as a general participation (koinonia) in the relationship between God and humanity that is seen definitively in Jesus Christ. The pattern of God's universal redemptive purpose provides the backcloth, the matrix for that definitive and unique act in Jesus Christ. The scandal of particularity is not a function of the perversity of some Protestant theologians, nor does it derive from a desire to shock our inherited Platonic susceptibilities. It does not stand alone, but forms a polarity with the general involvement and self-giving of God in God's world. One lights up the other and sets it in relief. But Christianity is a creational, incarnational and sacramental faith or it is nothing.
The same transcendental, Platonic dualism underlies the suspicion of the symbolic realm in post-Enlightenment culture. The Enlightenment could not see how particular facts could be the key to universal truths. Lessing's dictum, 'Accidental truths of history can never be the proof of necessary truths of reason' (Lessing, 1956, p.53), sums up modernity's scepticism about the truth-carrying capacity of the particular. Fichte reinforced this dualism when he said that 'only the metaphysical can save, never the historical.' Kant, similarly, laid it down that the historical could serve only for illustration, not for demonstration. In modernity, symbols (which belong to the particular and historical) are regarded merely as rhetorical gestures created by human subjectivity. They cannot point beyond themselves to an ultimate reality. They can only point reflexively back to their subjective, socially conditioned source.
But Christianity, we have been compelled to acknowledge, is creational, incarnational and sacramental in its very essence. It therefore pins its truth to the particular. If we think about it, what is the alternative? What else is there that provides a sure foundation? Blake, of all people, said that 'Strictly Speaking All Knowledge is Particular' (Wilson, 1978, p.246). Historical events, given the interpretation, can become windows into eternity. Symbols, as Coleridge so often insisted, unite the particular and the universal. A symbol, he wrote, 'is characterized by a translucence of the Special in the Individual or of the General in the Especial or of the Universal in the General. Above all by the translucence of the Eternal through and in the Temporal' (Coleridge, 1972, p.30). It is no accident that the Coleridge who affirmed the truth-bearing capacity of symbols was the Coleridge who had moved from Unitarianism to Trinitarian orthodoxy, who believed that the Holy Trinity was the ultimate Idea (eternal truth, seminal symbol) and who at one point wondered whether it was right to say that the sacraments of baptism and the eucharist were an important part of Christianity when truly they were Christianity itself (Coleridge, 1884, pp.249f.).
Kierkegaard celebrated the paradox intolerable to human reason that eternal truth is located, through that Pauline foolishness of God which is wiser than the wisdom of men, in a particular moment—'the fullness of time'. Through passionate ethical intensity we may perceive that a moment is pregnant with eternal significance (Kierkegaard, 1946, p. 13; 1945, pp.505, 88, 138). David Jenkins, with his characteristic reiteration of the theme of 'transcendence in the midst', has well said that 'there is no contradiction between the universality, infinitude and absoluteness of God and his giving himself in, through and to historical particularities. Jesus Christ...confirms to us...that particular moments, historical processes and embodied persons are the places where God is met, known, received and responded to' (Jenkins, 1976, p.21).
The fundamental challenge is that the 'truth of imagination' (to use John Keats'
famous phrase), expressed in metaphor, symbol and myth, is cheapened and devalued in our postmodern culture just as it was in the modernity of the Enlightenment. For both ideologies, the symbolic belongs to the category of empty rhetoric. The challenge to a view of imaginative, figurative discourse as cognitive and capable of being the vehicle of true insight—to a notion of 'symbolic realism'—emerges from both quarters. In this book, I will contest the assumption made by both the Enlightenment and postmodernism that metaphors, symbols and myths belong to the realm of the trivial, the arbitrary and the false. I will show that symbols are not arbitrary or at our disposal, but powerful, cognitive and to be handled with care. I will claim that metaphors are the vehicles of fresh insight and thus constitutive of our apprehension of truth; that symbols mediate the transcendent because they participate in what they symbolise, and that myths, which are archetypal stories studded with numinous symbols, embody a sacral narrative of human identity in the face of the divine reality.
In the first instance, I will be arguing for 'metaphoric realism', then I will be moving on to 'symbolic realism' and from there progressing to 'mythic realism'. I will be arguing that the images that belong to these various kinds or genres, such as metaphor, symbol and myth, are first significant and to be taken seriously, though critically and with discrimination; second informative or cognitive, as embodying genuine insight into reality, albeit an insight that is shaped and conditioned by the psychological, social and cultural context, and finally unsubstitutable or irreducible, that is to say, incapable of being translated into some supposedly 'straight' or literal and non-figurative language.
What I will certainly not be claiming, needless to say, is that images are veridical—a perfect fit with reality. Figurative realism does not claim that images are descriptive of the world: there are incompatible symbol systems, for one thing. Linguistic symbols give insight into reality in the sense that they are the vehicle of our human imaginative apprehension of truth. But they do not guarantee the truth of that apprehension. That judgement, as to the truth of an insight, can only be made on other grounds, by applying criteria that bring our fresh insights into contact with our overall worldview and assess them by reference to science, history, experience, ideological criticism and so on. To put the point in Kantian terms, the truth of imagination is phenomenal, not noumenal. Linguistic images enrich our experience of the world. They are incremental in that they add to our understanding. We see more profoundly into reality through the truth of imagination than we do when we pursue the illusion of precise, specifiable, purely objective, literal description. So an analysis of metaphor, symbol and myth is not merely telling us about our mental processes—though it is at least telling us that—but it is showing how we attain reliable knowledge of the world. That penetration of reality is heuristic, not definitive; it is fragmentary, not total; it leaves the ocean of being largely unexplored. The knowledge it gives is not like the noonday sun, but (as Locke used to say) like the light of a candle in a dark room, sufficient to see our way—to make the moral commitment of faith that we are called to exercise as persons in a moral universe.
I attempt, then, to take the vital steps from metaphoric realism to symbolic realism and from there to mythic realism. Unlike some modern theologians in the Barthian tradition, I do not shy away from acknowledging substantial mythic elements both in the Bible (including the New Testament) and in Christian beliefs (including the Creed). In fact I hold that all the really important affirmations of the Christian faith are expressed in mythic form. Now this is a purely formal point, based on the premises that the central affirmations of the Christian faith tend to take a narrative form, that this narrative is not primarily historical in its intention and that it is studded with numinous symbols. It is simply a recognition of the conceptual, linguistic and literary modes concerned, though it has implications for how we interpret the narratives and it affects the sense in which we are able to claim that they are 'true'.
When we have accounts in narrative form, embodying potent symbols, concerning the encounter of humanity and God, describing realities that transcend our normal categories of space and time—to do with origins (the creation of the world and humanity), divine interventions (incarnation, atonement, resurrection, ascension) and destiny or consummation (eschatology)—we are compelled, I believe, to recognise the presence of myth. But we should not jump too hastily from epistemological premises to ontological conclusions. My claim that the really important affirmations of the Christian faith are expressed in metaphor, symbol and myth does not imply any pre-judgement on the truth-value or credibility of the message that those sacred and normative myths convey to us— though it does enable us to discern that the mythological stage scenery often belongs to a worldview that in any other context we would judge to be obsolete.
The mention of the notion of obsolete worldviews raises the spectre (as some would certainly see it) of Rudolf Bultmann and the concept of 'demythologisation'. I do not completely subscribe to Bultmann's demythologising programme and I will be arguing that the question of myth in Christianity is a separate issue from many of the presuppositions that Bultmann brought to it and that it should be detached from them. I also recognise the need for remythologising, for I do not believe that any culture or faith can hope to supersede myth entirely—nor, on my premises, is this either possible or desirable—nor do I believe that there is a higher mode of articulating the truths of faith than the mythopoeic. By exploring the examples of the incarnation, the resurrection and eschatology (among others), I hope to indicate what I am striving for here. So in my conclusion I will be focussing on the crucial question of how we are to understand the truth of Christian beliefs when those beliefs clearly have mythic elements. What sort of realism can we claim for Christian doctrines?
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