The Surprising Imagination of C.S. Lewis - page 2


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From the Fall 2016 issue of Knowing & Doing:  

The Surprising Imagination of C.S. Lewis

by Mark Neal
Author and Speaker

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  However, the imagination as truth-bearer is often misunderstood. We relegate its function and primary use to that of childhood or to the strictly imaginary (which we might equate with falsity), thereby debasing it of any meaning or significance. We rarely understand that our imaginations are a vital source of meaning. The American poet and author Wendell Berry corrects this misapprehension:

Worst of all, the fundamentalists of both science and religion do not adequately understand or respect imagination. Is imagination merely a talent, such as a good singing voice, the ability to “make things up” or “think things up” or “get ideas”? Or is it, like science, a way of knowing things that can be known in no other way? We have much reason to think that it is a way of knowing things not otherwise knowable. As the word itself suggests, it is the power to make us see, and to see, moreover, things that without it would be unseeable. In one of its aspects it is the power by which we sympathize. By its means we may see what it was to be Odysseus or Penelope, David or Ruth, or what it is to be one’s neighbor or one’s enemy. By it, we may “see ourselves as others see us.” It is also the power by which we see the place, the predicament, or the story we are in.2

  Reason provides only half the story. Imagination makes up the difference. It enables us to see not only the manifest reality of the world around us, but the greater story in which we are participants: the story that is being told for all time, past, present, and future. And this ability to perceive the story we are in is critical in matters of faith.

Imaginative Faith: The Assurance of Things Not Seen

  When we exercise faith, what else do we use but our imaginations? We wrap words around things in the world to define them and gain greater clarity. The word definition means “of the finite.” Thus, we use our reason to understand the particulars of our world. But God is infinite; He breaks the category of definition. We can’t wrap words around Him, and our reason collapses in attempting to apprehend Him. To understand God at all, we must speak by what the medieval scholastics called the way of analogy. Jesus Himself spoke about the kingdom of heaven only in parables or similes. That is, He used depictions of the imagination that would allow us to grasp, in human terms, a dim idea of God’s attributes.
  Thus Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed. Like yeast. Like treasure hidden in a field. Like a merchant looking for fine pearls. Each of these is a depiction of a thing from human experience using an analogy that allows us to apply our imaginative grasp of that thing to God.
  We see, when we see at all, only through a glass darkly. Scripture informs us that faith is the assurance of things not seen; that is, things that cannot be discovered through discursive reasoning. The imagination helps us maintain and grow this tenuous position. It enables us to speak of heaven and of sehnsucht, of all that we yearn for that cannot be fulfilled on earth. So we need a greater understanding of and respect for the imagination and how it can provide truth about reality in ways that our reason alone cannot.

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