Imagination and the adventure of faith

Faith is the act of the whole person and has as its object a personal God. Faith cannot be less than personal and personalist categories are required to interpret it. Provided that we remember this, we may speak of the role of various faculties in conducing to faith: reason, conscience and imagination. It is the crucial function of the imagination in the venture of faith that I propose to explore in this chapter. Newman wrote in his Anglican days ('The Tamworth Reading Room', 1841) and quoted himself half a lifetime later in the Grammar of Assent: 'The heart is commonly reached, not through the reason, but through the imagination. Persons influence us, voices melt us, looks subdue us, deeds inflame us' (Newman, 1903, pp.92f.).

Faith is indeed the gift of God, as Ephesians 2.8 suggests, but it operates through human faculties, among which the imagination is pivotal. Belief involves several elements—cognitive, moral and volitional. The cognitive element in belief refers to the need to make a judgement on the basis of knowledge, to reflect on the significance of certain facts, normally concerning the Bible, the person and work of Jesus Christ, and the teaching and worship of the Church, together with what our own experience of life tells us, and to assent to the truth of the Christian gospel. The moral element is a prime source of motivation; it refers to our sense of spiritual need, of an emptiness that God alone can fill, conviction of our sinfulness, longing for forgiveness and to be made whole. The volitional element refers to the act of commitment or decision when we will to believe on the basis of thinking and feeling. However, it is imagination—the aesthetic element—that makes the final leap—but it is not an arbitrary one. 'We allow our imaginative assents to be brought into accord with trustworthy testimony and reliable inferences'(Coulson, 1981, p.80).

Beauty, truth and goodness can never be separated. It is questionable whether we can ever know one except in intimate connection with the others. In a potent combination of numinous ideas, the Psalter (at least in the older English translations) exhorted: 'Worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness' and many since have wanted to reverse the expression and speak of the holiness of beauty. There is a truth—a reality, an authenticity—about beauty and goodness. There is a goodness—a wholesomeness, salutariness, a sacredness—about both beauty and truth. There is beauty in truth—in its self-evidence, its simplicity, its transparency—and in goodness, especially in the comeliness of moral character.

Keats wrote that it was only the clear perception of its beauty that made him certain of any truth (Keats, 1954, p.207) and his 'Ode on a Grecian Urn' concludes: 'Beauty is truth, truth beauty' (Palgrave, 1928, p.332). Hegel believed that truth and goodness are intimately related only in beauty (Habermas, 1987, p.89). Von Balthasar suggests, in discussing Dante, that beauty is the expressive form of the good and true (Von Balthasar,

1982-9, vol. 3, p.103; Sherry, 1992, p.103). Newman claimed that divine revelation had 'a beauty to satisfy the moral nature' and had the attractiveness of intellectual beauty (Newman, 1895, vol. 1, pp.23, 282).

Von Balthasar, who has probably done more than any other theologian to restore beauty to its rightful place in theology, naturally does not overlook the need for the moral and cognitive aspects also (Von Balthasar, 1982-9, vol. 1, p. 118). Jesus Christ, the revelation of the form of God, is absolute truth, absolute goodness and absolute beauty (ibid., p.607). The beauty of divine revelation, which comes to perfection in the Christ, the centre of the form of revelation, is not given to us for mere aesthetic enjoyment but as a moral and truthful challenge to conversion (ibid., p.209). Beauty, truth and goodness come from God: when we encounter them together the glory (kabod) of God is revealed (cf. Harries, 1993, p.54).

Imagination—the holistic faculty—grasps the goal of the venture of faith as a whole, integrating all those elements that relate specifically to the thinking or feeling or willing faculties. Its heuristic power enables imagination to see the end from the beginning and to anticipate what it will be like to arrive at our destination. It is imagination that responds to the invitation in the Psalms: 'O taste, and see, how gracious the Lord is' (Psalm 34.8 BCP). It makes the object of faith real to our inward sight and testifies to our judgement that it is pleasing or desirable. Beauty allures us; because it only exists in this world in embodied form, it generates the desire to possess it or at least to be united with it. Beauty is expressive form: its nature is to communicate itself. It evokes a response, which Burke calls 'love' (Burke, 1834, p.47).

One of the attributes ascribed to beauty in the scholastic tradition is proportion or harmony: when we are receptive to beauty in the world or in art something of that harmony imparts itself to us. Another attribute of beauty is unity or integrity and when we open ourselves to beauty we find ourselves being reintegrated, knit together. Coleridge confessed: 'When I worship let me unify' (Coulson, 1981, p.13, no reference given). The third traditional attribute of beauty is radiance, splendour or clarity, and when we allow beauty to shine upon us we feel ourselves illuminated, elevated and purified. All these come together in Christ, the revealed and embodied form of the beauty of God—the beauty that is God. In him are united proportionate form, wholeness and unity, radiance and glory (for further discussion, see Von Balthasar, 1982-9; Sherry, 1992; Harrison, 1992; Murphy, 1995; Harries, 1993).

Through imagination we indwell the spiritual reality that Christianity postulates for our credence. 'Faith gives substance to our hopes and convinces us of realities we do not see' (Hebrews 11.1, REB). Belief becomes a possibility for the individual when the truths of faith are verified by the imagination. Things 'fall into place' and 'fit together'; they 'make sense' or 'add up'; the 'penny drops' and we see life 'in a new light'. Real assent, in Newman's sense, rises on the wings of the imagination. An aesthetic element belongs to all acts of spiritual perception, as Von Balthasar insists (Von Balthasar, 1982-9, vol. 1, p.153). Faith is a theological act of perception (ibid., pp.155, 466). Poetry can effect this assent because it is the voice of imagination. As Coleridge suggests, commenting on Shakespeare, poetry has the power, even by a single word, 'to instil that energy into the mind which compels the imagination to produce the picture' (Hawkes, 1972, p.46). 'The poet,' he says elsewhere, 'brings the whole soul of man into activity' (Coleridge, 1965, p. 173). Poetry has the power to suspend disbelief and to invite belief. In 'Dejection' Coleridge calls the imagination (or 'Joy'): 'This beautiful and beauty-making power' (Coleridge, 1969, p.365).

Coleridge's celebrated phrase 'that willing suspension of disbelief, which constitutes poetic faith' lends itself to this argument, but we should take careful note of the original context. The context in Biographia Literaria is a discussion of the innovative method of the Lyrical Ballads on which Coleridge and Wordsworth had worked together. Coleridge recalls that in the early days of their collaboration, he and Wordsworth had identified 'the two cardinal points of poetry' as, first, 'the power of exciting the sympathy of the reader by a faithful adherence to the truth of nature' and, second, 'the power of giving the interest of novelty by the modifying colours of imagination' (Coleridge, 1965, p.168). In their respective contributions to Lyrical Ballads the two Lakeland poets would attempt to combine both these features. Coleridge's assignment was a 'supernatural, or at least romantic' theme with the aim of transferring 'from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith' (ibid., pp.168f.). Coleridge is saying that it is the infusion of imaginative interest that gives passing credibility to such spectral figures as the Ancient Mariner and-Christabel. The poetry that makes them real evokes the sort of credence that Coleridge calls 'poetic faith'. Thanks to Coleridge's poetic gift they cast their spell on us and hold us spellbound just as the Ancient Mariner held the wedding guest riveted with his glittering eye.

Clearly what Coleridge meant by the willing suspension of disbelief that constitutes poetic faith is not immediately transferable to the religious context. Poetic faith is less than religious faith. The objects of religious assent are not 'shadows of imagination'—not spectral, eerie, or occult entities. Yet there is surely an analogy. The imaginative portrayal of religious truth brings aesthetic pleasure even to those who do not yet fully believe. It bypasses our intellectual difficulties and saps our habitual aloofness from religion. It may lead us to admire the beauty of form of religious truth, its sublimity or symmetry. It may even bring us to the point of wistfully wishing that it might all be true after all. Through imagination we are enabled to indwell the world of religious belief and to obtain a glimpse of what it might be like to live as though it were true. As Prickett says: 'Poetry makes religion live in the imagination' (Prickett, 1986, p.48). Noting that for Keble the word 'poetic' takes on many of the qualities that Coleridge had ascribed to the imagination, Prickett quotes Keble's lectures on poetry: 'Poetry lends Religion her wealth of symbols and similes: Religion restores these again to Poetry, clothed with so splendid a radiance that they appear to be no longer symbols, but to partake (I might almost say) of the nature of sacraments' (op. cit.).

Keats' oracular remark in his letter of 1817 sums up the power of the imagination or the poetic to conduce to belief: 'The imagination may be compared to Adam's dream— he awoke and found it truth' (Keats, 1954, p.49). The allusion is to Book VIII of Paradise Lost (Milton, 1913, pp.271ff.) where Adam dreams first of the Garden that has been prepared and its trees laden with fruit that evoked within him the desire to pluck and eat:

whereat I waked, and found Before mine eyes all real, as the dream Had lively shadowed.

Adam had a second dream in which in imagination he saw Eve fashioned from his rib:

Mine eyes he closed, but open left the cell Of fancy, my internal sight.

On waking he beholds her

Such as I saw her in my dream, adorned

With what all Earth or Heaven could bestow

Grace was in all her steps,

Heaven in her eye,

In every gesture dignity and love.

Keats' dictum that imagination foreshadows reality may be taken as an analogy of religious assent. Poetry—the pleasurable aesthetic—makes religion live to the imagination. And if it lives to the imagination, the battle for belief is more than half over.

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