Imagination ignites our understanding in areas reason cannot
Written by Finney Premkumar
“We have a rational faith,” many Christians cry as a gut reaction against the slim and naturalistic arguments of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett, the three horsemen of atheism, who use science for their ideological purposes.
Sadly, Christian efforts to restore the rationality and credibility of our faith within academia and culture leads many believers (especially those involved in apologetics) to succumb to these detractors, to argue only within the limits of atheist prejudice.
The predominance of rationalism today, conceived largely during the Enlightenment, propelled the “exact” sciences (physics, chemistry, and biology) to a place of unjustified prominence at the expense of the other disciplines. As a result, the foundation stone of most institutions and the syntax of much rhetoric after the Enlightenment asserted the sovereignty of reason exemplified in scientific terminology.
The unintended consequence of this reductionism was that it stripped us of abundance. We settled for pure mechanics. To quote the philosopher Immanuel Kant, it was an effort to fit everything within the “bounds of reason,” a pathological attempt to scientifically comprehend all of reality in the definite and final vocabulary of mathematics. This has led to a search for a “theory of everything” in physics envisioned by Einstein and taken up in recent times by other physicists (especially Stephen Hawking).
This emphasis on rationalism has cleansed most people of any remnants that might re-ignite their senses to consider the transcendent realm of art, beauty, and imagination. Accordingly, we have become the “walking dead” reflecting the motions of those in the dominant (rationalistic) crowds with whom we move to survive.
G.K. Chesterton, the great English journalist, once said, “The trumpet of the imagination is like the trumpet of the resurrection. It calls the dead out of the grave.”
We as Christians need to become architects of hope through our redemptive imagination in a world where the orthodoxy of a purely scientific vision still holds sway.
The Christian, more than anyone else, is positioned to offer the rich and colourful delights of heaven’s alternatives to a world that is colourless under the imperialistic grip of scientism. Rather than perpetuating the colonizing effect of reason by expressing oft-repeated phrases like “think your way through rationally or scientifically” in every possible scenario—as if nothing is hidden from view or mysterious in nature—we need to be reoriented at the core of our being in order to help others regain wonder in a world that has become mundane.
Let me make two brief comments regarding the reductionistic tendencies of a culture enticed and encumbered by a single scientific vision.
First, reality seems to embody multiple dimensions beyond those captured and nourished by the sciences. Just because a given phenomenon may have a scientific/physical explanation does not necessarily make it comprehensive. For instance, if a crime were to occur, we can describe it in terms of the collision of atoms, specific biochemical reactions in the body of the killer, perhaps the trajectory of the bullet if a gun was involved or the force exerted if a knife was used.
These features may draw the mentioned components into a coherent explanation that is purely physical/scientific. However, what occurred can be explained in sociological terms as well. Namely, that the crime is unacceptable in a society that extols civility and adherence to certain societal norms.
Notice though that the sociological explanation presupposes the physical/scientific one while transcending it. Further, there could be a moral explanation that judges the occurrence according to various ethical theories and does so precisely by presupposing the physical/scientific as well as the sociological dimensions but also by transcending them both.
Finally, there could be a spiritual explanation that sees the parties involved in the crime as persons who bear the image of God and the occurrence itself as a verifiable expression of sin. The spiritual explanatory model presupposes the physical/scientific, social, and moral dimensions while transcending all of them in the process.
But what if the scientific/physical explanation we began with were to be rigidly proposed as the exclusive, exhaustive, and sole dimension for explaining the crime? Well, we would certainly dismiss it as a silly conjecture resulting from a limited vision.
We recognize the flaws in this approach precisely because it would be an unwarranted manifestation of scientific imperialism, revealing an inadequate sense of reason—and more importantly, a total lack of imagination. The world is too rich and fluid, the result of a Creator who constantly lifts His creation above the calculated efforts of those who seek not to see beyond the reflections of their own faces.
This brings me to the second point. Reality, the encasing of the world, seems to be multidimensional and open-ended. It seems that as we transcend the dimensions (physical to social to moral to spiritual) much of the language of science appears to display a certain sort of inadequacy in capturing these multiplied realities.
This leads to the natural conviction that science does have its place, but as one intimation of the real. If God is not merely rationally accessible in a cognitive sense but also sacramentally present such that we can feel and experience Him in succeeding dimensions, then imagination, creativity, and art become possible mediators of His presence.
Through the mediums of art, poetry, and music we encounter and apprehend the work of the Spirit of God as ruach, the creative breath in and through all things, and as shekinah, His divine presence in our midst. This ushers in an experience of rich abundance which invites speech while rendering us speechless, engendering our hearts to break out in song or poem, attuning us to a new way of seeing the world.
In a moment of sudden revelation, we stand before a wide canvas ready to apply colours we never indulged in.
Things that we once missed when reading the Scriptures or in moments of contemplation begin to awaken a deep sense of awe in us.
The unsurpassable beauty of Eden, the design of the massive ark, the tabernacle and its elaborate furnishings—all the way to Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam in the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel—all reveal what God has been eagerly wanting to instill in us: that we are creative collaborators with Him. That He has created us to be creative in turn.
The boredom of reductionism, the disillusionment of a scientific single vision, the stringent borders of purely mathematical deductions, and the distorting effects of rationalism are redeemed by recasting the imaginative and creative as the boundaries within which reason properly functions and thrives. It is the creative act of God in Genesis 1:1 that encircles His creation and sets the contours of the world that then begins to operate in predictable (rational) ways.
The Scriptures reveal divine truth to be inseparable from beauty and creativity as we trace the flow of biblical history which ultimately culminates in the grandeur of the incomparable Christ. The entire drama of divine revelation—from the cradle to the cross and the glorious resurrection from the grave—makes plain that God defies not just our rational propensities but also our modest expectations.
As followers of the resurrected Christ, it should dawn upon us that the fundamental problem with the world is not necessarily a lack of reason but a regrettable lack of imagination. Seeing this, however, requires eyes larger than ours.