The Conversion of the Imagination

I am convinced that whatever the field of endeavor, whether philosophy, psychology, theology, or whatever, that each field of study or form of discourse hits the same wall or encounters the same failure, characteristic of failed human thought. The failure will show itself through a full stop: conversation stops, questions cease, imagination is halted, because the form of thought is not alive, it is not dynamic. Movement ceases because it presumes or desires too much and ends with too little. The Western philosophical/theological project, attempting to say it all, ends in nihilism; a positive theological scholasticism (to think God) ends in a purely negative apophatic theology; an attempt to pin down the master signifier of the law ends in perversion (to be the phallic object of desire) or hysteria (despairing over the lost object).  In theological terms, God is turned into an object to be contained within human knowledge while human knowing is assigned, simultaneously, a God-like power to shed its finite bonds (Martin Heidegger’s characterization taken from Kant, “ontotheology,” describes this modern project). In this ontotheological mode of thought, one would think himself out of the world, which freezes thought as it locks onto a static, impossible, object.

For example, Anselm’s cosmological argument begins by comparing differences in the world (some horses are fast, but there is a fastest horse) so that his argument depends upon differentiation which works its way to the ultimate difference. The ultimate act of differentiating locates God in a category of incomparable difference (a denial of recognizable difference). Thus, at the same time God is proven, he is also put beyond thought. The ultimate difference, God, is an unthinkable or empty thought. All the world is reduced to nothing in comparison to the being of God, and the mode of differentiating thought is exhausted on the “nothing” side of the ontological divide.

His ontological argument, (the name for God is “something than which nothing greater can be thought”) starts where his cosmological argument ended and consists of the same move. There is a name or a thought of God but “nothing” serves to define the “something” in the name. Anselm would “see God” (the absolute “something”) and only “finds darkness” and “nothing,” in his own words, as God is beyond any normative thought. Rather than bring heaven and earth together, as in the biblical cosmology, the characteristic of natural arguments tend, like Anselm’s cosmological and ontological argument, to introduce a gulf of separation between God and the world due to the form of the argument. Each of the “natural arguments” for God, leave God on the other side of an ontological divide, but also posit an uncrossable division within reality, which will come to characterize modern thought.

Kant posits the ever illusive noumena (the unthinkable and unattainable thing-in-itself) and leaves us only phenomena, while Hegel presumes the process of thought is the thing, always on its way but never arriving. In one instance, the focus is on an unobtainable object (the thinking thing, the noumena, the subject of the law, the master signifier), while the other is focused on a frustrated movement of thought (the “I think” portion of the cogito, the Geist or spirit). Maybe this helps explain how, for many, virtual reality now serves in place of reality. At the least, the philosophical impasse illustrates the full stop disengagement with reality marking this cultural moment. It is not simply the beatific vision, the hope for heaven, but earthly reality that has gone missing.

While this displacement of reality with a delusion is peculiarly sharp in this cultural moment, it is precisely this simulacrum Paul equates with the dynamic of desire aroused by the law – the law is falsely assigned a fulness of reality. Lacan, in a more prosaic turn of phrase, describes this impossible desire as the search for the maternal phallus. The diagnosis might focus on the disproportionate desire: to be the primal father (having all the women), or to stand in place of the law, or to penetrate the final mystery. Or the diagnosis might focus on the impossibility of the object: God is either posited as a thing in the world to be known, like an object of sight, or is consigned to an absolutely transcendent unknown (inherent to Paul’s description of the functioning of the law).

 In turn, thought takes on the characteristic of a “totalizing vision” (with the emphasis falling on “vision”) in which experience (the senses, personal experience, historical experience, the experience of others, etc.) and dynamism (in other words, reality) are subsumed. What surreptitiously takes place, as Marx noted, is the privileging of a particular stance (a particular culture and a particular place in that culture) as if it is universal. After Freud and Lacan, this has been dubbed “phallocentric” thought as it reifies the (male) symbolic order (law, the superego, language, the father) as it drives toward mastery and represses absence and incompleteness (the feminine).

The resolution to this form of thought, first articulated in the modern period as a conversion of the imagination by C. S. Lewis, is easier to describe than the various diagnoses (as illustrated in my abbreviated and hectic summary), but in order to understand the work this resolution is performing we need the diagnoses. The resolution offered in narrative or historical theology invokes a different standard (a call to justice, beauty, and love) and is relocating every element of the problem (God and Christ as object, the role of language, the adequacy of knowledge) but it is also giving rise to an alternative set of emotions, experience, and desire, captured in the notion of the conversion of the imagination. Lewis describes his conversion as “a baptism of the imagination,” by which he meant not merely the addition of God to a world already in place, but a transformation of every aspect of experience into a reworked world.

Following Lewis, we could picture the problem and solution in terms of types of stories. A failed or limited story, as with the failed imagination, might be said to engage a portion of reality, a level of experience, or form of thought. These stories are not necessarily untrue, though they may be, but they lack truth in the same way as some characters fall short of the truth. Lewis portrays failed characters as incapable of discerning the voice of Aslan or incapable, even when confronted with paradise (i.e. Narnia), of inhabiting it. Uncle Andrew only seeks magical power, Edmund wants Turkish Delight, and the White Witch, in her great beauty, is a type of the deceiver of Ezekiel, who would falsely proclaim herself Queen over Narnia. (Like the creature in Ezekiel, she has great beauty and cunning wisdom, both of which are deployed for deception and evil.) Each of these small or evil characters would use Narnia to fulfill their own unimaginative desires. They each order the world according to the shape of their desire and understanding, while we as readers recognize, Narnia is better, more complete, and differently ordered than these characters realize. They each make choices based on their failed understanding. As Stanley Hauerwas describes it, the moral life does not consist simply of correctly choosing but of being trained how to see. Moral notions expand character (and characters) so that they are up to the task of rightly perceiving reality. Through moral development the weak or small characters, such as Edmund, become attuned not only to the voice of Aslan, in Lewis’ world, but they come to love him. The development of moral insight comes then, with a training in the imagination which can only come about by being schooled in and initiated into an ever-expanding narrative.

If we only know one kind of story and are trained only to see a certain flatness, it may be that we are impressed with stick figure characters (and arguments). What we need (and I am not making an absolute claim as to how this might work) may be exposure to a fuller reality rather than more or bigger stick figures. Imagine trying to describe the music of Yo-Yo Ma to those who have never heard his music. You might use mathematics and a black board, but the medium would kill the message. Better let them listen to his music and experience it full on. True, there are those who may not have ears to hear or eyes to see: think of trying to illicit appreciation for Dostoevsky, or Wendell Berry, or even the children’s tales of C. S. Lewis, in a modern Trump-like character, devoid of any but the most insipid imagination. But to translate every tale into this world would reduce everything into idioms of power or variations on “greed is good.” Uncle Andrew, in The Magician’s Nephew, can only hear the roar of Aslan and cannot make out his talk, but maybe it is better to expose him to the roar and to let him see the comprehension of others.

As Tyler (who has young children) put it to me in conversation, Teletubbies may be perfectly adequate for a limited or constrained mentality but for developing and feeding a mature life and imagination they are inadequate and boring. The form fails to engage the fulness of reality and imagination (while it may be perfectly adequate for very young children (I don’t actually know, being unfamiliar with the show) precisely because of this failure). If we find ourselves in the midst of such a truncated story, we can only hope that it would end (setting aside the book, turning the channel, or committing suicide, depending upon the circumstance and our personal resources and investment in the story).

A profound story, however, such as The Brothers Karamazov, puts the full range of human experience and possibility on display. We can see the depths of depravity in the father, Fyodor Pavlovich. His sons, Dmitri and Ivan, represent the possibility of pure evil and greed, and raw intelligent skepticism, respectively, while Alyosha, guided by the good but worldly-wise Zosima, counters (though he may not answer) the darkness of the world of his brothers with a profound goodness and love. To be Alyosha, is to see the world lit up with beauty and goodness, though he is surrounded by and takes account of the depth of evil. Here is a story that enlarges the imagination by offering a picture of enslavement to the realities of darkness (every form of lust greed and wantonness), which only sharpens the hope for the alternative order and the longing for justice, beauty, and love, glimpsed in Zosima and Alyosha.[1]

In this artful presentation of reality, reality is assigned a depth of meaning, so that the story engages the reality of the world while providing a vision of God. It does not float free of the cosmos (as in the various arguments for God), but reads a depth of meaning into the world. The danger, in a less than true story, is that the world of the story falls short of reality, or in the language of theology, God and the world are made completely separate by the form of thought. According to Maurice Blondel this is the problem with neo-Scholastic arguments and reason; this form of thought made God extrinsic, rather than an intrinsic part of the natural world. As a result there is a depletion of desire for God, fostered by the very arguments which would prove his existence, as the form of thought is flat and boring.

To recover God must mean a simultaneous recovery of the world, a recovery of curiosity and participation, and an alternative deployment of language. We might picture it as a recovery of the language of Adam prior to the fall, in which Adam works with God in bringing order out of chaos by naming and assigning value as a co-participant in creation. Or we might picture it in terms of the Jewish Temple, as a microcosmos, with God and the world conjoined, and God emerging, through the mediation and work of his priests, from out of the Holy of Holies into the cosmos (see here for a fuller picture of this). Likewise, new creation “work” is a creativity assigned to human mediators and priests who serve in the Temple of creation to usher in, to represent, to witness to the movement of God out of the Holy of Holies into the Holy Place and into the created order.

 Do we not recognize this in the work of the artists we admire and would emulate? Or maybe we are not even up to admiring directly – but we learn to admire. I am thinking here of my good friend Jason’s fascination with Wendell Berry. Jason has been a priest to me of the beauty of an imagination of which I was not aware. I would like to think I was not a complete idiot but that I had been primed, and many of us have been so primed by Hebrew scripture, to the spiritual depth, to the fingerprint of God, or to the shining of the glory of God. “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge” (Psalm 19:1-2). This is not a language or speech that one recognizes “naturally,” as “They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world” (19:3-4). As the Psalmist explains, one hears this speech due to the working of Torah: “The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple. The precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart. The commands of the Lord are radiant, giving light to the eyes” (19:7-8). The word of God resonates with the world, bringing it to life for the simpleton.

This is a different order of language from that which would divide off from the world and render all that is created a dead, cold, mechanical, system (Newtonian Theory, exploitative consumer economics, or simply “art” which renders the world a dead object). There is a “dead letter” which kills or there is a living word which animates, creates, and brings to life. The dead letter stops you in your tracks, turns you inward (“close the door of your room and close the door of your mind” Anselm advises, in order to conceive of his ontological God), while the living word calls you to quest further, to go deeper, to find the fulness, not in frustration, but in the joy of the unfolding and opening up of the conversion of the imagination.


[1] Thanks to Matt for the gift of a new translation I have undertaken rereading the story.

Please be Offended

“What a great sermon! Now, if we can just do that!

I remember that Sunday as we drove away from church. My father, a young (and remarkably self-absorbed) preacher in his thirties had just delivered what he had intended to be a scorcher. His brand of preaching was, unquestionably, motivated more by frustration than love: frustration that after graduating summa cum laude from Bible college he had not “made a difference” right out of the gate; frustration that no matter how hard he tried, no one seemed to be listening; and I think frustration that (as much as he tried to understand it) his own faith never really could provide truly satisfying answers to the real wrongs of the world he so desired
to right—he never felt like he thought he should feel like.

Being a narcissist didn’t help him either.

But the thing about my father, as a preacher, that I actually do still identify with is the sense in which he never could abide people pretending you said something different from what you said. My father was never a very profound theologian, but when he stumbled on a point that he thought was important, he was pretty sure he wanted you to understand it. And every preacher knows the Ecclesiastes-style-vanity of the moment when, after repeating your main idea a dozen times just like they taught you in basic preaching class, the people shaking your hand on the way out the door thank you for saying something completely different than you actually
said.

Such was the case that Sunday when, after preaching a message of desperation to get his little non-instrumental church to actually commit to something other than semi-regular Sunday attendance in the pews, a message in which he had said, “All you need to do is make a decision to give more to the church and we can make a difference in this neighborhood!”

“Thank you, Ray. Now if we can just do that.”

I heard her say it and watched him rest his head on the steering wheel on the way home.

I get it. I get pouring your heart into a point that the people who are “hearing” you just can’t hear. As someone who came to believe that following Jesus means *gasp* being unwilling to kill someone, my own preaching experience was even harder. I have found that belief in Christian non-violence is such a contradiction to most American Christians that, unless one says it in the clearest of terms, the listeners will almost invariably assume you didn’t mean what you said.

I’m sure there’s a high falutin psychological term for the phenomenon, one which I should probably know off the top of my head. But I’ve found that most people’s basic assumptions about what is real, true, right, and good are so deeply ingrained that the message of a peaceful Gospel just bounces right off. You can say, “Put down the sword Peter,” a thousand times and everyone in the audience will nod and say “amen” about Peter and his sword and then go home and practice shooting human-shaped silhouettes in the event of a home-invasion without the slightest sense of
irony.

As a result, when I was preaching and sometimes when I’m teaching when I make a point that I fear will be missed, I’ll say, “Now, I just said ‘x,’ but it’s possible you’re thinking, ‘surely he didn’t mean x, surely he meant y.’ Just so you know, I actually meant ‘x.’”

Even then…it can bounce off.

I’ve discovered, however, that there is a tool we have at our disposal that is very effective at breaking through that cognitive dissonance (I think that’s the term I’m looking for). The tool is to be willing to offend people’s sensibilities—sometimes even to hurt their feelings. What do I mean?

One of the ways we actually make it easier for people to hear something different than what we mean is that we try to be as nice as possible when we say it. We don’t want people to think we don’t like them or that we’re trying to insult them. So, we broach subjects tenderly and softly, handling everyone with a sort of codependent “kid gloves” approach that is sure to “let them down easy.” However, as any girl who’s tried to break up with a boyfriend who doesn’t get the hint knows, “letting someone down easy” can easily become a euphemism for not making it clear the relationship is over. And it can cause problems.

Personally, I refer to the prophets a lot and I think that people who know me best probably think it means I’ve got delusions of grandeur. But I think those guys and gals knew this very carefully. They were masters of making themselves understood with as little ambiguity as possible. It takes a lot of…courage…to stand up in front of a group of Ninevites and say, “y’all got 90 days before God levels this city.” It takes some…hubris…to say, “God’s name for you isn’t Pashur, but ‘Terror on Every Side.’” as Jeremiah did. It takes…forgive me…balls…to be baptizing people in one moment and then see the Pharisees making their way to the water in another and say, “Who
warned you to flee the coming judgment, you bunch of snakes?”

John the Baptist knew it. Mincing words wasn’t going to get the job done. Sparing feelings wasn’t going to communicate the truth in a way that made it unmistakable. Peacefulness doesn’t mean we’re always “being nice,” in fact, sometimes it means being downright brutally honest. As Stan Hauerwas has said, “Any peacefulness that [doesn’t make the truth clear] is accursed.” Further, he’s also referred to “southern civility” (a reference to a style of passive-aggressiveness that all of us who live in the south can identify quickly but which is by no means only practiced in that region) as “the most calculated form of cruelty ever devised.”

Hauerwas’ complaint, I think, is that avoiding saying something truthful that may cause the person listening pain for fear of offending them is a way of valuing sentimentality over truth, and allowing what isn’t true to rule. And it does nothing but continue to foster violence.

Christian non-violence will require us to speak honestly, truthfully, and clearly in such a way as to avoid misunderstanding. This means that we may (as anyone who knows an autistic person can attest) end up looking a little anti-social. But so much of what counts for sociability in our culture is a way of telling one another (and ourselves) little lies to save face. This is something autists, to their credit, simply cannot understand, and I envy that of them.

I’ve discovered that saying something so clearly that it offends people has a way of breaking through the BS layer and getting to the heart of things. It keeps people from being able to simply ignore what you say. They may reject it. But we’re told most people will. Might as well get it out of the way, right?

And it doesn’t mean you’re being a…jerk…although people will think so. You can love someone and say, “I love you, but that’s stupid, bro.”

I recently wrote a poem about carrying weapons in public. I tell you, I’m tired of pretending like carrying a gun to Waffle House isn’t rooted in fear and childishness. I shared it and offended my cousin, among others. I’m ok with that. I wanted it to offend. I’m tired of people pretending that being a pacifist means being “passive.”

Why “Walking Theology”

kierkegaard walking quote

Theology is, of course, meant to be a walking form of life, even as it is     undertaken by Jesus. The two on the road to Emmaus are not going to end up in Emmaus and Jesus is certainly not going to Emmaus. The walk and the discovery unfold together, just as being a disciple of Jesus always does. The two, at first, have a set destiny, and then the talk becomes a destiny, as Jesus explains how the narrative journey of the Old Testament is an ongoing travel narrative in which this very walk figures as explanation. When they arrive at their evenings lodging it is at once a terminal point and a reversal of their journey – as afterward they head back to Jerusalem. They have walked nowhere in particular and only thus have they discovered where they are going. This comes at the end of their walk, and the “burning” lesson of the journey sets them on the edge of recognition. It is only when the travelers sit and Jesus breaks bread that they are able to ingest the lesson of who he is. The walk and the discovery go together as journey and sustenance must. Continue reading “Why “Walking Theology””