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On Holy Imagination

This reflection flows from muddled-up digestions of CS Lewis, NT Wright, Alister McGrath, and the wonderfully odd Malcolm Guite.

[Note: This is a more challenging read.]

Personally, for me, it forms part of a decades-long fascination with rational and imaginative ways of comprehension and perception. I believed and converted to God firmly based on imagination; it took me months before I understood the rational theology of the gospel. Every bit of faith that kills and disillusions me grows out of reason.

With my conscious, rational mind, I can only see 100º, but my imagination can fill in the remaining 260º. Here we are at this particular age in the story of the western culture, post the reformation and at the end of the enlightenment, in this culture of rational angst.

Seemingly the last centuries theologised believers into a deathly stupor. Our heads burst with do's-and-don'ts but our hearts shrivel in thirst. Faith becomes powerless and largely ineffective, curling up into a defensive pose. How many people fall out of conviction or exchange god-centred belief for lessor spiritualities?

Maybe the paradox of incarnation, the 'theotica' (God-bearing), got lost along the way. Jesus reconciles humanity to God but also reunites time to eternity. Jesus in himself is the concourt of all that incredible depth and height, all the ensuing innerness and outerness. The consummation of this concourt is hoped for and has not yet fully arrived. We need tools of anticipation to peer ahead and stay full of hope.

But it is through and by our imagination alone that we can sometimes body-forth glimpses of that incredibly potent potential truth that we have not yet come to by reason.

We are shown the shape of something through our imagination before we can rationally comprehend the substance of what it actually is. The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge called it the sacred power of self-intuition.

Just think about this observation by Coleridge: "Imagination is the living power and prime agent of all human perception."

Make the shape in our imagination of the original latency in Christ that the Reconciler will fully complete until it becomes reasonable. And by imagination, delineate everything the Reconciler has to do and does for us.

Through imagination, feel in one-self the flight of a winged creature, even while still a grub, anticipating the shape of the future antenna we have not yet got.

To learn the art of 'mythopoeic' imagination that can light up the hypothetical stage of human thought (prior to scientific thought).

In this way, Christ reconciles the broken parts and severed dimensions of our divided being:

  • The height

  • The depth

  • The outer

  • The inner

  • The reason

  • The imagination.

Who is the Reconciler? What is that profound and integrative theology of incarnation? His death and resurrection summon the deepest imaginative and mythic response in us. But the story of his incarnation brings imaginative myth on the one hand and actual history to be grasped by reason on the other hand together, to become the myth-made history.

There we partake in the process of imaginative anticipation, which reason has not yet attained to. Our imagination was, in a certain sense, baptised. The rest of us, not unnaturally, took a bit longer.

Imagination is not just some decorative extra but the sweetener of the doctrinal pill. Our full awareness, our attestation of all, is a fabric filled with the weave of imagination.

Owen Barfield encourages us to restore our faculty of awe, to rediscover the soul's depth or height. "To allow God to prick with needles of His eternal light", our contemporary culture, which is already half-numbed to death by reason's wintery breath. Can we take time to re-learn how to yearn for that golden life-rays streaming through the threads of that dull cloth over our culture's head?

If we can first agree that 'romanticism' is not a form of abuse, but also that romanticism has to come of age. Then the roles that the two giant romantic poets, Wordsworth and Coleridge, agreed together to assign each other:

Coleridge: "Transfer from our inward nature a human interest and semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for a moment which constitutes poetic faith.

Wordsworth: "Work at means to "give the charm of novelty" to everyday things. Stir up our imagination and excite a feeling analogous to the supernatural. Use imagination to awaken the mind's attention from the lethargy of custom and direct it to the wonders and the loveliness of the world before us. The world is full of inexhaustible treasures, but in consequence of the film of familiarity and selfish solicitude, we have eyes that do not see, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand."

This is what TS Elliot tightly calls "Auditory Imagination." What Malcolm Guite describes as the "bodying forth of our imagination."

An interviewer asked Philip Larken why his works are always so dark. He answered, "Happiness writes in white" (and becomes invisible on paper). But what if joy, inexpressible and full of glory, burst out into refracted colours? What if the prism of our lives is that refracting lens? What will we and all those around us not celebrate to encounter?

Can we learn to pay attention to the sheer, particular goodness of things so that we can almost taste and touch it all as if for the first time? Can our lives be re-enchanted by removing blind familiarity and awakening the mind's attention as a conscious striving?

But this demands true, godly imagination.

There is a false imagination. False imagination is simply a daydream of ego-pleasing, mere wish fulfilment, as an escape from the disappointments and humiliations of this real world, that sends us back to the real world, still undivinely discontented. Godless imagination simply flatters the ego, like some cheap shopping and sex novel.

Contrast this ego indulgence with the proper form of 'holy imagination' that arises a longing for "who knows what". It stirs up and troubles us to a life-long enrichment with that vague sense of something just beyond reach. Authentic imagination is far from dulling or emptying the actual world but gives it a new dimension of depth. Imagination that does not contradict or despise the real world because of seeing enchanted worlds but makes all existing worlds just a bit more enchanted.

Philip Pullman accused that kind of religion that drains this world of all its goodness, spilling out through some holy drain, all the love, concern, care and minute particular attention that we should give to all the inexhaustible wonders of our being here.

The enchantment from a holy imagination re-enchants all things here to come close to our world. In this world, reason is the natural organ of truth, but imagination is the natural organ of meaning. We cannot have one without the other. We must respect their differences to get reason and imagination to work together effectively.

CS Lewis encouraged us to appeal to both imagination and reason. "Who makes imagination exploring touch dim, ever report the same as intellectual sight, but who manages to bring back different reports from a far promised country, will enrich the world with the divine."

More than reasons thought, we need holy imaginations sight. But, imagination that does not become reasonable is fraught. Catherine Kuhlman, that great charismatic healer and intercession, constantly ascribed imagination as a critical conduit for the flow of the Spirit's power to make on earth as it is in heaven. If we are overdosing on an earth that is non-like heaven, then we must first get healed that holy form of imagination that can summon the invisible kingdom.

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Stephan Vosloo
Stephan Vosloo
Aug 06, 2022

Cynthia Bourgeault (from the Wisdom Tradition) extrapolates the "holy imagination" to an "imaginal realm". Could it be that what you described so well, could in some instances be a momentary connection through the veil into the "Imaginal Realm" that enfolds us (the witnesseses of Hebr 12:1 comes to mind) like a cloud? (See the Aramaic in The Passion Translation)

Here is an intro:

"In recent centuries we moderns have come to regard ourselves as cosmologically insignificant: a chance arising in a remote corner of a random galaxy. But the ancient Wisdom roadmaps unanimously proclaim a different truth: that this small planet of ours is neither unintended nor unimportant. These perennial maps depict our world as nested within a “Great Chain…

Joe de Swardt
Joe de Swardt
Aug 06, 2022
Replying to

What talks to me specifically from the above is "our contemporary maps are simply too flat, too narrow, and too cerebral to allow us to really see.."

and: "If practised at all, these are all too often simply private pieties, no longer the powerful viaducts of cosmic exchange they once were known to be."

Understanding takes enormous brain power and thought. Therefore it is very limited (important but within a very restricted bandwidth), whereas 'holy' imagination (when inspired and circumcised) uses little bandwidth and therefore stretches out far more into things, the height, the length, width, and breadth.

But, when imagination returns from its vast outreach, it lays at the feet of reason all the samples it collected for analysis,…


Stephan Vosloo
Stephan Vosloo
Aug 04, 2022

This is so brilliant! Thank you so much Joe - there is still much to say about this topic.

Someone said this:

"We show up drenched in divinity and, if we're lucky, may grow into the desire to find our way back from whence we came."

William Wordsworth described the source of the holy imagination beautifully:

"Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting.

The Soul that travels with us, our life's Star,

Hath had elsewhere its setting,

And cometh from afar:

Not in entire forgetfulness,

And not in utter nakedness,

But trailing clouds of glory do we come

From God, who is our home "

Sometimes, toward the end, that glory begins to shine even before we return.

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