Imagination: An Other Avenue to Truth - Luci Shaw
Imagination: That Other Avenue to Truth
by Luci Shaw
When God reasons with us it is not by creed or abstract propositions of dogma, but by images.
Truth is a touchy topic, a daunting word. It sounds so ultimate, so solemn, with nothing whimsical or casual about it, so that we cannot joke about it without feeling uneasy. It demands our serious thought, our total commitment-and still we're baffled by it. After all, thinking people have been searching for truth for eons and it has proved eternally elusive, defying definition.
Although its shape escapes us, we sense its relation to the way things really are, actuality beyond mere fact, the core, the root of things, the rock bottom. (But notice how, to get at a definition of truth we are forced to use metaphors like core, root, rock, bottom. Because of its disconcerting abstraction, its largeness and inscrutability, we must choose symbols to make it seem more manageable, more concrete.)
Truth also connotes consistency. Unchangeable in any final sense, it is never discontinuous, and though daunting, it is generally perceived as desirable, a remedy for our insecurity and restlessness because it promises something sure and firm. Consider two statements, which reflect two ways of coming at the essence of truth:
1. "Only propositions have the quality of truth .... The only significant view of revelation is rational-verbal .... Truth is only propositional" (Carl F. H. Henry in God, Revelation and Authority).
2. "So, the world happens twice- / once what we see it as, / second, it legends itself / deep, the way it is" (William Stafford).
On the first view, truth is presented as an abstraction, which we must attempt to tie down by means of analysis, reason, logic, and verbal symbols (words) that are themselves abstract. Words and propositions are empty when divorced from their referents. They are about something else. And the bridges built by abstract propositions between our minds and ultimate reality don't quite make it across the river.
The second example, from the work of a contemporary poet, shows us "the world" at two levels. First, it appears superficially, "what we see it as," and then "deep, the way it is." The key word in this more profound revelation is' 'legend, "used here as a verb, which stands for the other route to truth - through myth, story, imagery. The statement that the world legends itself also implies that truth .. is actively self-revealing - an exciting but hardly new idea for the Christian. Remember - "The heavens are telling ... the firmament proclaims .... Day unto day pours forth speech. Night unto night declares knowledge" (Ps. 19).
But these disparate avenues to ultimate reality seem mutually exclusive, or at least incompatible. We find ourselves taking sides: the objective versus the subjective, cognition versus intuition, linear thinking versus the leap of imagination. The two approaches also seem to be represented by different personality types: those who stand back, coolly analyze, and then organize information to conform to the patterns they recognize in matter and thought; and those who feel deeply, get emotionally involved, act impulsively in response to a gut feeling that demands response and expression. Poet-biochemist Walter Hearn, who participates in both worlds, informs us, in the Fore Word to Eugene Warren's poems, Geometries of Light, that "modern brainwave detectors have located two distinct modes of mental activity in different halves of the human brain." Distinguishing between intuitive/sensitive “right-brain" people and rational/analytical "left-brain" people, he admits that "so far, the neuroscientists confirming the dichotomy have done little to help us become 'wholebrain' people. Most poets aren't much help either."
In an increasingly technological society that sees science as the paramount source for solutions to all problems, it seems that the power is swinging into the hands of the "left-brains." It is here that poets, artists, intuitive thinkers may be helpful our society, righting the imbalance by calling us all to recognize, develop, and properly exercise the imagination.
The word imagination names our ability to see and bring into focus mental images. The word image, in turn, is derived from imitari, to imitate, and is akin to the word symbol, meaning "the same as." Metaphor adds the idea of a transference of meaning from one object over to another, linking the two by analogy. An image or symbol is a likeness to reality. It is like and also unlike (it is not identical). Real enough in itself, a symbol points to a more meaningful reality. For instance, in Holy Communion, the symbols of bread and wine speak to us of Jesus' body and blood. Bread and wine are physically real and almost universally recognizable as the archetypal food and drink. And while they are like Jesus' body and blood (in color, in texture, in form-solid and fluid) they are also unlike it. For bread and wine are common but Christ's body and blood are unique, broken and poured out "once for all." It is our imagination that transfers the stark symbols of body/blood to another level, on which we perceive their meaning-Jesus himself, broken and made available for our spiritual life and nourishment.
As at his dark birth and death
we had his body in our fingers,
now, again, we split the whiteness
of his loaf by turns, and tasting
his imaged life against
the cup's cool rim
we take him in.
(From the author's poem "Bethany Chapel.")
Jesus reminds us of the importance of having "eyes to see." An inventor will see something in his mind and then reproduce it in steel or plastic. A Composer like Moussorgsky will write: "On a snowy day, seen through my window, suddenly appeared a colorful group of peasant women laughing and singing. The image this picture left on my mind became a musical form." C.S. Lewis commented on his facility for creating story: "Everything began with images .... " and again, “With me the process is much like bird-watching ... I see pictures.”
Here's an exercise. When you read the word "winter" what do you see in your mind? If you had been with me during the infamous winter of '78 you would see, by means of memory, the weight of the windblown snow on the roofs, the clogged streets, the sidewalks narrow as tunnels. (What I remember best is the huge, bread-shaped loaf of snow that rose on our back porch!) But imagination does more than recall. Rightly exercised it gives us clues to the meaning of experiences. What does winter signify to you?
Under the snowing
the leaves lie still.
Brown animals sleep
through the storm, unknowing,
behind the bank
and the frozen hill.
And just as deep
in the coated stream
the slow fish grope
through their own dark,
Who on earth would hope
for a new beginning
when the crusted snow
and the ice start thinning?
Who would ever know
that the night could stir
with warmth and wakening
for sodden root and fin an fur
and other things lonely
and cold and sleeping?
(From the author's poem “Under the Snowing.”)
The clues in this simple nature poem all point to a deeper reality: all of deadened creation is waiting for the spring of redemption, for the Creator's wakening touch, for revival, in its ultimate sense. And here meaning has been derived from a natural phenomenon or image because imagination jumps the gap from the surface reality of winter to a meaning that lies beyond it, at another level.
Thomas Howard, in Chance or the Dance, observes that "it is in the nature of things to appear in images-royalty in lions and kings, strength in bulls and heroes, industriousness in ants and beavers ... terror in oceans and thunder. ... The inclination to trace correspondence among things transfigures those things into images of one another so that on all levels it is felt that this suggests that." One of the symptoms of our age is its tunnel vision, by which we fragment the universe. Because of its extraordinary complexity, we cannot handle more than a few facets of existence at a time. The result is that we each do our own narrow little thing-politicians. farmers, housewives, musicians, merchants, socialites, mechanics, neurosurgeons. Not even a Buckminster Fuller or an Isaac Asimov or a C. P. Snow can pull it all together. It is my hope that the creative Christian may, by means of his “baptized imagination," help integrate the universe by widening and sharpening his focus, by" seeing through God's eyes, by observing man and his environment and saying, "Yes, I see. This is like that, and it is significant." Here the artist and the analyst, the poet and the pragmatist can collaborate, joining reason with imagination.
Imagery in the created world around us speaks truth to us. This is God's general revelation, for "ever since the creation of the world, his invisible nature, his eternal power and deity have been clearly perceived in the things that have been made" (Rom. 1:20). The word poet means "maker," and God, the First Poet - in his special, direct revelation, the Bible-sets his stamp of approval on the imaginative-mode of perceiving truth by his constant use of imagery to link earthly phenomena with spiritual verities at the core of truth.
Jesus said this is like that: sower and seed, lost sheep found, precious pearl, wheat and tares. (Robert Frost, speaking of parable, defines it as "a story that means what it says and something besides. And in the New Testament, that something besides is the more important of the two.") We are asked to visualize the church as a human body, as a bride, as a building formed of living stones, as salt, as light – varied but vivid pictures in which we see ourselves and understand more readily our roles as Christians. See the Lamb and the Lion. The Lamb says: simplicity, meekness, white fleece: smallness, innocence, purity, helplessness, submission to sacrifice. The Lion says: strength, size, untamed power, golden mane, grandeur, courage. How paradoxical that both images speak of Christ' Neither is a perfect image; each symbolizes different characteristics of the same infinite Person.
The righteous, God-related person is imaged by David as a green olive tree; by Isaiah as an oak, planted by God; by Jeremiah as a riverbank tree. And in Hosea, God compares himself to an evergreen tree that provides his people with fruit in all seasons. Remember the sheep and the shepherd. Remember the Morning Star. Search out and visualize for yourself a thousand other truth-revealing metaphors of Scripture.
And when God reasons with us, his people, how does he do it? By a creed? By a rational, abstract proposition of dogma? No. In Isaiah 1: 18. he projects for us an image we can all see: "Come now, Jet us reason together .. though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow: though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool" - a vivid picture we can neither ignore nor forget because it prints itself on our imagination. God says: this is like that; our sin, a stain as deep as a dye, has been bleached out and we are seen by God as snow-pure or fleece-white in the light of divine atonement and forgiveness.
Imagery holds a key to truth as God exposes himself to us in a thousand images stronger than words that leap into life to embody truth.
Annie Dillard speaks of Christ
corked in a bottle: carrying the wine
to communion in a pack on her back
she feels him lambent, lighting
her hidden valleys through the spaces
between her ribs. Nor can we
contain him in a cup. He is always
poured out for our congregation.
And see how he spills, hot, light,
his oceans glowing like wine
flooding all the fjords among
the bones of our continents.
Annie Dillard once asked: How
in the world can we remember God?
(Death forgets and we all die.)
But truly, reminders are God's
business. He will see to it
flashing his hinder parts, now,
then, past our cut in the rock.
His metaphors are many, among them
the provided feast by which
our teeth & tongues & throats
hint to our hearts of God's body,
giving us the why of incarnation,
the how of remembrance.
(From the author's poem “Two Stanzas: the Eucharist.”)
Published in Christianity Today January 2, 1981