Imagine That

Michael Metzger

When promised she would soon be pregnant, Mary asked How can this be? A particular aspect of Gabriel’s message didn’t make sense. It was implausible. Plausibility is a sticking point in the post-Christian world. Mary’s question reminds us that the path to reasonable faith begins with widening the imagination.

Mary’s quandary is a case study in how frames trump facts. She grasped most of what Gabriel said – she will conceive, bear a son named Jesus, God will give him the throne of his father David and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever. “His kingdom will have no end” (Luke 1:32). Got it. What Mary couldn’t grasp is how a virgin could conceive. It was beyond her imagination. Gabriel’s reply widened her imagination.

Louise Cowan, a University of Dallas Professor of English, defines faith as “a widening of the imagination.”1 That’s a shrewd insight, particularly as it relates to the post-Christian world. By definition, post-Christian means most folks have heard about Jesus but they’re so over him. They know many facts – Jesus died, rose again, blah, blah, blah. Got it. The facts lack meaning. They sit outside what many imagine is the real world. “In the post-Christian world,” notes Michael Ward, a fellow at the University of Oxford and professor of apologetics at Houston Baptist University, “our challenge is not so much to prove that Christianity is true as to show that it has meaning, that it is not gibberish.”2

Ward sees C.S. Lewis as lighting a way past the post-Christian world. Like Lewis, he believes the path to reasonable faith begins with imagination. And like Lewis, Ward believes the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries dismissed the importance of image, assuming we can reason our way to truth without the aid of imagination. Ward writes that the Enlightenment fostered a “dichotomy between reason and imagination. Reasonable people don’t need imagination. Imaginative people don’t need reasons.”

Two of the Enlightenment’s forefathers fostered this fallacy – Sir Francis Bacon and clergyman Thomas Sprat. Bacon wrote, “All that concerns ornaments of speech, similitudes, treasury of eloquence, and such like emptiness, let it be utterly dismissed.” Sprat also spat at imagery, calling it “Fancy” or “Fables.” In The History of the Royal Society of London, he urged readers “to separate the knowledge of Nature from the colors of Rhetoric, the devices of Fancy or the delightful deceit of Fables.” Both men saw reason as sufficient, imagination as risky. Lewis saw no such dichotomy. He believed we benefit from imagination and reason, but only in that order.

“For me,” wrote Lewis, “reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning. Imagination is not the cause of truth, but its condition.” Lewis believed imagination precedes reason. We don’t grasp the meaning of a word until we have a clear image to connect it with. Frames trump facts. Context is king. “Imagination has to operate before reason,” writes Ward. “Reason depends on imagination to supply it with meaningful things that it can then reason about.”

Mary’s quandary reminds us that the believable is always bound up in the plausible. Nullus quipped credit aliquid, nisi prius cogitaverit esse credendum is how Augustine put it – “no one indeed believes anything, unless he previously knew it to be believable.” Gabriel widened Mary’s imagination and the fact that a virgin can conceive became believable. Mary submitted (Lk. 1:38), and later with Elizabeth celebrated her pregnancy (1:46-55).

Mary’s quandary also reminds us of the benefits of getting back to the basics. According to biographer Colin Duriez, Lewis believed “the imaginative man in him was more basic than any other aspect.”3 Wise Christians recognize this. “If we’re made in the image of God,” notes Cowan, also a Lewis fan, “it’s not so much in our analytical reason, as it is in our imagination.”4 Gabriel widened Mary’s imagination, and his prophecy became plausible. Wise Christians do the same, first widening the imagination of those in the post-Christian world. In so doing, the implausible can become plausible. A sticking point can get unstuck. When that happens, post-Christian people are more likely to see the light of the world, submit, and see Christmas for what it truly is. Imagine that.

Follow me on Twitter: @Metzger_Mike

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1 Louise Cowan, “How Classics Address Our Imaginations” Mars Hill Audio Journal 1998. Vol. 34.
2 Michael Ward, “How Lewis Lit the Way to Better Apologetics,” Christianity Today, November 2013.
3 “C.S. Lewis, the Sneaky Pagan,” interview of Colin Duriez by Rob Moll, Christianity Today, June 28, 2004.
4 Caroline J. Simon, “On love, destiny, and imagination,” Mars Hill Audio, Volume 30 Jan./Feb. 1998.

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10 thoughts on “Imagine That”

  1. Merry Christmas, Mike.

    “God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth and that every imagination (framework) of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually”.

    Your commentary tied “imagination” and “framework of thoughts” together for me. This is a new way for me to think about the imagination; it is not simply impotent day dreaming.

    Your commentary also makes me think differently about the term “reframing” more as “reimagining the meaning” of something rather than “reorganizing the facts” about something.

    I am struck that “the earth being filled with violence” was proceeded from “the imagination of the thoughts of men”; imagination is powerful and changes the world for better or for worse.

    Connecting imagination and faith is delightful to meditate upon.

    It leads me to restate the gospel as “The just shall live by the righteous imagination of their thoughts”.

    Thank you for such a timely edification.

  2. Mike, an illustration: A few years ago I was sharing in a Communist country. I asked the group to imagine the coming of God’s will being done in their country. One member, a self-confessed believer, said she could not. On further discussion it truly seemed she had been so brainwashed that she couldn’t. At that time I realized how difficult if not impossible it would be to commit oneself to a proposition that you can’t imagine.

  3. Mike, how is your commentary here not saying ‘it is reasonable to think that imagination is reasonable enough to give you rational knowledge’? To me, this makes it hands-down, self evident that reason guides the imagination, helping it from becoming myth or fairy tales; This is what Bacon and Sprat were referring too because they found religion to be nothing but a myth.

    Second question:
    If your above argument is correct, imagination precedes reason what does that get you?

  4. Mike Metzger

    Mark:

    Good questions. As to your second one, when imagination precedes reason, we stand a better chance of making sense, or deriving shared meaning. Example: what do most folks imagine the word “gay” means? However, in “White Christmas,” filmed in the 1940s, when Vera Miles asks Donald O’Connor, “Don’t you find me gay…” what did most (if not all) moviegoers imagine she meant? Big difference in meaning, all due to how the word was – and is – imagined.

    As to your first question, just as the Spirit of God whispers to us from behind, so too reason guides us… but generally from behind. Imagination precedes.

  5. You have only given reason it’s interior ability to define what is true and have avoided the exterior ability. The Spirit, I agree, whispers to us through rational measures but This also suggests that you could only be rational or privy to reason if the Holy Spirit lives within you; what then of those who don’t except Christ can they not know anything?

    The exterior ability of reason is the system of logic where by we can know something because truth after all is a proposition stating a certainty of the way something is. God’s created order put this in place by his very nature.

    In your above example is seems to me that those who would have thought “gay” suggests a certain sexual disposition derived from their current worldview. I would be interested in hearing from you sometime the difference between a worldview and imagination and their perspective roles!

  6. From another angle on this theme, Seth Godin recently wrote this. It might be a bit stronger perspective if he wrote more about enduring “oughts” and not cajoling “supposed toos.” But the point remains.

    “Am I supposed to like this?”

    If we think we are, we probably will.

    We’re more likely to laugh at the comedy club. More likely to like the food at a fancy restaurant. More likely to feel like it’s a bargain if we’re at the outlet store.

    Am I supposed to applaud now? Be happy? Hate that guy? Use a fork?

    Judgments happen long before we think they do.

    And successful marketers (and teachers and leaders) invest far more into “supposed to” than it appears.

  7. Great post, Mike.

    My friend was in a spiritual conversation with someone in a large communist country in East Asia. She framed the conversation in terms of imagination, asking this question: “If there was a God, what would you want Him to be like?” This initial inquiry spoke to the person’s heart issues, stirring up a felt need, and eventually led to her seeing Christianity as plausible.

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