Soul Killing (Part 4 of “IMUD” Series)

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Soul killing.

This is the term C.S. Lewis used to describe the notion that meaning is relative and personal.  We might add also that understanding that truth is primarily revealed by logic and reason might have been seen as one of the common tools used to steal life away from living, breathing truth.  Logic and reason have a place, no doubt, and are in dispensable tools in the search for meaning just as fiber is an indispensable part of a healthy diet.  A diet of fiber only, though, will cause some serious problems!  Likewise, reason and logic without the accompanying balance of anecdote, story, creativity and imagination can cause serious deficiencies.  When reason and logic become the sole tool of meaning AND this meaning is deemed true only for the individual who reasoned so then that is the death of the soul. 

In the human body every cell carries with it the DNA of the physical body of which it is a part.  This DNA is the “indisputable truth” of the physical existence of the person.  Even in today’s rapidly advancing scientific world where the potential for DNA alterations may exist, it remains true that the DNA of a person must be found identical in each cell all throughout the body.   Should every cell contain a different combination of the amino acids that combine to form DNA, the body will die.  The individual cell does not decide what is true about the body as a whole.  It cannot.  On the universal level, then, we might say that we, as individual cells of a much larger body, cannot determine on our own what is ultimately true and meaningful.

So, meaning is not only beyond ourselves but the way in which we understand, communicate and express this truth must also go far beyond the bounds of mere logic and reason.  This is where the power of Lewis’s fiction comes into play.  His works of fiction—most notably the Chronicles of Narnia and the Space Trilogy—are full of truth and meaning that flow from a fountain of imagination and creative expression.  In these books we clearly seen the power of story and imagination.

Some have concluded that Lewis, in writing the Narnia books, intended to write a clear and direct allegory of the Christian story; to teach or preach the Christian message through story.  This is not exactly true.  One of Lewis’ primary objective was to “rehabilitate the modern imagination.”  We live in an age of rapid change, Lewis observed (and if he throught it true more than half a century ago, we can only imagine what he would say about the current rate of change in our version of the modern world), and “media’ed experience.”  Even in an age before computers, tablets and cell phones Lewis observed that people mostly live in a world created by humanity rather than the natural world.  Great numbers of people have little interaction on any kind of regular basis with the natural world.  This change of environment from past generation and eras has brought with it massive changes in the default settings of thinking, relationship and the delivery of information.

In a world where everything is written down in words, where important truths are remembered in catchy phrases and soundbites, and where the patient work of thinking through an issues thoroughly is a skill unpracticed and forgotten by many, the power of imagination has been altered and reduced to mere creativity and the exaltation of the imaginary.  Our modern society experiences no lack of creativity and the imaginary—movies, books, internet, and more all provide floods of images.  We inundated with images of what was, is and could be.  Or, better said, what advertisers tell us could be, even if the image they project far beyond the realm of likelihood or even possibility.

But Lewis’s use of the word “imagination” is different.  His intention with his fiction works is not to simply be creative (though the stories are very much so) or to create an imaginary world (which he does so masterfully) but to spark the imagination, the pre-cognitive part of us that creates in us thoughts, images, impressions and reactions long before we have time to use our tools of reason and logic.  The pre-cognitive, or “pre-thinking,” part of our being operates on the default settings of our intellect—opening up doors of understanding in the subconscious.

Rapid change messes with default settings.  Therefore, Lewis’ reasons for venturing into the world or fiction were to (1) resensitize people to what was true; (2) restore a sense of wonder of the ordinary; (3) restore the power of myth and ancient stories that held great meaning; (4) liberate the imagination from superficial excitement that is easily multiplied by technology; (5) liberate the imagination from entrapment to the immediate gratification where the higher and highest is easily lost, stuck in the mundane.

Lewis wanted to grab the readers imagination.  He was uneasy talking about the purpose behind his fiction and steadfastly denied that his intention was to illustrate Christian ideas.  Rather, as he created worlds and the characters he wanted to open the readers imagination to what was possible, not in a meta-physical sense, but to the meanings and deep truths that were our world but so hard to see in the fast-changing media saturated world.  In doing so he was able to share our-world truth through the lens of another world. 

Lewis did not start with a pre-determined end in mind but rather let the moral truth of the story come through naturally as he was in the writing process.  In a sense the moral truths within Lewis shaped the story while at the same the time writing process refined the moral truths that came through the story.  Lewis desired to create a simple story but with such texture and deep meanings that multiple re-readings of the story would continue to reveal new ideas and wonderment.

Where reason and logic work in generalities, stories point to particulars and specific examples of truth played out in the world, whether that world is real or imaginative.  Stories give us experiences we ourselves have never had.  The point of fiction, then, is not to present a book report on life but rather to add a new experiences to life.

For example, in the Narnia series Aslan is not a fictitious representation of the doctrine of God or an abstract picture of God.  Aslan is Aslan.  Nothing more, nothing less.  Yet, in the character of Aslan shines forth something that reminds us of God—a God who is good, but not safe.  It would be going too far to logically align every word and action of Aslan to the Biblical understanding of God.  That’s not the point.  But through Aslan the imagination is able to circumvent a dry and worn-out familiarity with known doctrinal statements about God and recover the sense of amazement, joy, and wonder that comes with a new, unsuspected realization of a truth about God revealed through an imaginative creature, like Aslan.

In the human characters, such as Edmond and Lucy, we see people very much like us; people with quirks and imperfections that remind us of the same things that trip us up.  One of the most powerfully exciting features of Lewis’ Narnia stories is that the main characters are primarily children.  These children find themselves in the midst of amazing adventures of discovery, new experiences and danger.  Children love discovery, newness and danger!  Where adults hesitate, wait, evaluate, and contemplate while children will run full steam ahead without fear in full confidence that their parents are watching out for them and will be there when needed.

Jesus said, “Unless you become like little children you can have no part in the kingdom of God.”  Maybe this was not an admonition to be simple or immature but rather full of the wonder and excitement that comes with being a child.  Maybe Jesus was telling his disciples to go!  Discover!  Experience!  And stand with wide-eyed wonder at the world even in the midst of the unsafe situations of our world.  For again, Aslan was not safe…but very good.

Perhaps what we need in our hyper-media’ed world of hyper-speed change are not more logically reasoned statements of faith and books of doctrine that attempt to address every possible situation is a constantly changing world, but rather a commitment to the two laws that Jesus gave—Love God and love your neighbor—and lots of wonderful stories that speak to our imaginations, showing what that kind of love looks like.

Imagination and Reason (Part 3 of “IMUD” series)

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For Lewis, however, reason and imagination were not separate intellectual tools.  Rather, for Lewis, reason rests on imagination and cannot work without it.  Reason is, by its very nature, imaginative, as it lives in the realm not of “what is” but “what should be” and “what could be.”  Imagination does not exist only in the world of fiction.  Fiction is imaginary, but imaginative thinking helps us to see that which reason alone cannot envision.

Take George Bailey for example.  George, the main character in the classic movie It’s a Wonderful Life, is going through rough spot in his life and decided to ends his life.  Before he can jump to his death into the frigid river God answers the prayers of many of George’s family and friends by sending Clarence, and angel, to help George.  Clarence could have sat down with George over a hot chocolate to discuss reasonably all of the reasons that George should not end his life.  Instead, Clarence conceives of a fantastic imaginative experience that brings George to the well of self-discovery and the awareness of the overwhelming blessings in his life and the realization that his life was wonderfully meaningful.  Clarence accomplishes this by simply allowing George to see the world that would have been would he never have been born.

Clarence’s efforts to explain to George that he was never born are met with confusion and denial.  But when George kneels in front of the tomb of Harry Bailey, his younger brother who died at the age of 8 because George was not there to save him when he fell through the ice as a young boy, the vision of a world in which he was never born begins to become real.  Clarence did not find success through a reasoned defense of the meaningfulness of life but rather by providing a powerful imaginative picture of the world without George.  Through this imaginative picture George gains a very real and reasonable understanding of the important ways that God had used him throughout his seemingly meaningless life.

Of course, this imaginative scene is played out within the movie, which is itself an imaginative story designed to give the viewer a very important message; a message that could be explained logically but is much more powerfully conveyed through story, the first tool of imagination.  The billions of dollars spent on the making and watching of movies and television should give us ample evidence of the power of story and imagination.  It’s a Wonderful Life—and all stories, movies and other forms of story—could properly be called “myth” (though the modern world rarely uses this term in this way).  Myths may or may not be factually true—a factually true story can also be referred to correctly as myth—but they contain an important message or lesson for their intended audience.

People often gain more spiritual truth and satisfaction from myth than from the written doctrinal codes of their own religion.  In story, the imagination is activated and the door is wide open for meaning and understanding to enter in.  The reading of and adherence to doctrinal statements, can be accomplished without any real understanding or personal commitment.  The moment we move from the logical statement to the question “What does this mean for me?” we have moved into the realm of imagination; of looking at things that are not, but could be or should be.  This is what Lewis referred to as the “imaginative embrace.”

We need not look any further than Jesus who utilized “living language” as the foundation of his life and ministry.  He always “did” before he “said” and what he said was frequently in the form of metaphor, word pictures and stories.  His stories were not always factually true but were always full of meaning and truth.  When he did move to a move logical and fact-based form of communication it was with a solid foundation of “living language” and meaningful stories in the form of parables and word pictures.  Even his most reason-based statements, such as “love your enemies and pray for those that persecute you”, are founded on his own lived language that has already been observed by those who knew him.  He connects the new truth to previous understanding—“you have heard heard it said eye for an eye”—and we can be sure that his statement, though seemingly straight forward, immediately released a flood of images of what it would mean to love ones enemies.

The Bible is not always primarily factual as much as it is descriptive and imaginative.  By reducing Scripture to cold, hard facts meaning is lost.  This is one of the dangers of the modern push to insist on a literal interpretation of the whole of Scripture and ambition among many Christian groups to insist on full and complete inerrancy.  Spiritual truth is abstract, full of nuances and the kind of thing that must be adapted and lived out in varying contexts and situations.  Meaningfulness is the key.  Factual statements can be obeyed or disobeyed without any understanding of the meaning behind the statements—ask the Pharisees of Jesus’ day about this or ask any modern Christian about any number of church-related traditions—but Jesus continually points to the heart, to understanding and meaningfulness.  A heartless faith is not the example Jesus gave us and will, unlike George Bailey, be found to have very little influence and meaningfulness in the world.

There is no use arguing for anything until there is meaning and shared understanding.   Meaning must precede action, change and decision.   Without meaning and understanding a decision may be vocalized but never realized in the heart and lives of the decision-maker.  A true decision, then, is not found in the vibrations of the vocal cords but in the reverberations of grace that are lived out in our lives.

For those who are outside of the faith, our primary form of outreach is through becoming a meaningful witness through our “living language” that provides a meaningful picture of faith to the people around us.  We must become the word picture that opens the door of their heart and mind.  Our words, when used, must meet them where they are and—through the use of story, metaphor, testimonies and appropriate explanations—give meaning to the actions, attitudes and life that has already has already been lived faithfully in and among them.

For those in the church, or born into the church, we must also focus our time, attention and resources on discipleship and growth of understanding.  Most churches do not do this.  Many churches invest heavily on the worship service and Sunday programs to accomplish three tasks—worship, outreach and discipleship.  The worship service, by itself, is not adequate all by itself for outreach and discipleship and, when diluted with these two objective, sometimes falls short as meaningful worship as well.  This is a significant problem.

Finally, with regard to children and childhood conversions.  If a young child prays a prayer and says the magic words “I believe in Jesus” or “I accept Jesus into my heart” is that the end of the story?  In my own experience, and from the stories I have heard from others, childhood “conversions” are inevitably followed-up by often multiple follow-up decision points at various stages of life.  As an adult I have sometimes struggled with understanding why there seems to be a continued struggle for my faith—“Didn’t I take care of that a long time ago,” I ask myself.  I have come to see that my faith is intimately connected to my understanding—my understanding of my own self, the world in which I live and the eternal truth that God reveals in various forms.  At each point of growth in understanding I face a new crisis of belief—will I continue in the path I have chosen in the past or will I seek out a new path, perhaps abandoning the faith of my younger self?   Not only does a decision require understanding to truly be a decision, but conversely new understandings and experiences requires renewals (or abandonment) or previous decisions.

The faith of a child or of someone hearing the gospel story for the first time may be simple, if not incomplete, but we can rightly say that their faith is “perfect” given their level of understanding and spiritual maturity.  But children grow, gain wisdom, increase in their understanding and accumulate an ever-growing collection of experiences that require a rethinking of faith.  The faith of the child (or a new believer) may now be less-than-perfect if it no longer impacts the way in which they live their lives.

Therefore, for both the not-yet-believer and the maturing already-believer, it is not reason and argument that carry the power for transformation, change and the continued perfecting of faith.  Rather, both imagination and reason are necessary to direct the will of the person.  For example, a man in the midst of a mid-life crisis may well be at a point of reconsidering his faith and his previous commitments to his career and his family.  The experiences of frustration and disappointment may be throwing darts of confusion and discontent, causing him him to consider a radical change of direction—a sudden decision to pursue a long-desired career in the movies or running away with a young woman who makes him feel special again.

It is the imagination that brings to him these new options and makes them seem plausible and enticing in spite of the cautions of reason and reality.  If he makes such a life-altering decision it will be a function of his imagination, of how much better he imagines things might be in another yard where the grass is greener.

However, this man may also have strong sense of wanting to do the right thing in spite of the waves of temptation and visions of a better life.  Reason and truth may play a strong role in giving him pause before making such a drastic decision, but it will be imagination, once again, that gives him the power to stay the course.  It might be a vision of an older version of himself sitting with his partner of 50 years reminiscing over their many shared experiences.  It may be a vision of the broken hearts of his children should he choose to leave.  It might be a vision of being able to share with his children and grandchildren as they grow into young adults the challenges he faced and giving thanks to God for helping him through.  It might be a vision of the person he desperately wants to be but has not yet become.  Even the very truth-oriented “Thou shalt not commit adultery” may play a strong role, but it will inevitably be accompanied by a vision of disappointing God or, depending on one’s theological tradition, angering God and perhaps even a vision of the fires of hell.  All of these are imaginative in that they give a vision of what is not….or what is not yet…but what could be or should be.

The “imaginative embrace” brings understanding and breathes life into reason and logic.  Together they bring about change, transformation and the perfecting of a faith that reaches into the very depths of the heart and mind while also flowing out into our daily lives in the world.  Imagine that.

Meaning and Understanding (Part 2 of “IMUD” Series)

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The opposite of “meaning” is not “untruth”.  The opposite of “meaning” is “nonsense” also known in some circles as nonsensical, gibberish, baloney or gobblygook.  In other words the opposite of “meaning” or “meaningful” is that which has no clear meaning.  Meaning is the pre-condition for both truth and falseness.  In other words, if there was no clear meaning then one could not judge a thing to be either true or false.  By the same token, we could also say that when a person does not understand a thing (so therefore there is no meaning) they cannot be expected to make a genuine decision about that thing.

  • A mathematics student that does not understand the meaning of fractions may have much trouble deciding whether it is best to accept 1/3 or the chocolate pie or 1/9 of the pie.
  • A young husband may foolishly answer his wife’s question, “Do I look fat?” with an honest, “Yes, you’ve put on a few pounds,” because he has not yet learned to understand the question behind the questions.
  • A Hindu or Muslim who does not truly understand the meaning of the Christian faith, person of Jesus Christ and the deep truth found in Christian Scripture (which are often hidden behind Christian platitudes and hit-and-run evangelism techniques, unfortunately) cannot truly make a judgment on the truth or falseness of the Christian faith. If they reject Christian faith without understanding it’s meaning, then have not rejected Christ, but rather a false and/or deficient understanding of him.  We should not force anyone into anything that they do not understand, nor keep them from rejecting what they do fully understand (though, it would seem, this is less often the case).  In the same way, we should not encourage people to accept something they do not fully understand without the opportunity for continued growth of understanding.  

Lewis understood Imagination to be the organ of meaning.  By imagination he did not mean what we often mean by imagination, that is “make believe.”   For Lewis the term imagination was more like a dream or vision of something that wasn’t, but could be.  Imagination could also come through a fictional story that, by use of imagination, could point to a real truth.  Lewis’ Narnia series—and even moreso the parables told by Jesus—all worked through the imagination to help people find meaningful truths.  Sometimes these truths were visions of what would be, could be or should be.  Through imagination, reason and will are transformed, as unseen truths become clear and visions for what can and will be come into focus.

Doctrine, for example, is not the foundational truth about Christianity but rather translations and succinct statements that digest the much wider truths of what God has revealed to us through the “lived language” that is recorded in the Christian Scriptures.  This “lived language” of God is not the Bible, properly understood, but rather the real, historical and personal story of God and life of Jesus Christ that was actually played out in history and time.  Christian Scriptures, inspired by God, are not exhaustive of this “lived language” (they don’t tell us every story and every event than happened) but they do tell us—using rational power of history, the affective power of prose and the imaginative power of story—all that God needs to tell us about Himself and his work throughout history.

Doctrines and systematic theologies are developed from the wide breadth of Christian Scripture for the purpose of helping us understand.  Doctrines, however, are less true than the actual story of God and His work among the people around the world that has been revealed throughout history.  Not everything that is true can be adequately represented in the language of theology and doctrine.  Narrative and “lived language” are far more powerful for teaching and gaining full and true understanding.  A culture of rule-based doctrine leads to a lack of understanding.

For Lewis, the Gospel story was the essence of the Christian story.  There were many myths[1] and stories that pointed to deep truths through utilization of imagination, but the Christian story was the true myth that pointed the full understanding of truth and purpose through their use of reason and personal experience.  Imagination was lower than reason, but reason could not stand without imagination.  The myths and stories that that exist in every culture, language and people group hold in them truths that could be recognized through the power of imagination.  We, as Christians, might understand this to be a part of the prevenient grace of God that is poured out to all people, everywhere.  There is no one, anywhere, that is without some level of truth and understand—incomplete, to be sure, but not fully absent.

God is the Father of all light so there is not reason to deny the truth that exists among the pagan myths and other religious teachings.  Rather, we should seek out this truth and fan it into flame!  Paul pointed to the pagan gods—not saying “you’re wrong” but “your partly right”—to express a deeper understanding of what was true and to provide an opportunity for new and deeper understanding.  There is no need to denigrate, put-down or reject that which is not fully true or, more importantly, that which we do not fully understand.  Rather, we can look into a culture, a religious system or into the eyes of the person sitting across from us and say, “you have something good here, but there is more.”  We can meet them at the point where they are, at the point of meaning that they already possess and help them move—often slowly—in the direction of deeper understanding that can, in time, lead to a real decision.

The only basis for a proper interaction and encounter with the world around us is a proper respect for other ways of life, belief systems, philosophies and religions.  “Respect” means to look back at something in order to understand or know.  When we respect someone we look back to where they are for the purpose of understanding them and moving ourselves to where they are, even if we might perceive ourselves to be more advanced, more civilized or in a better place than they.  We willingly submit ourselves to their authority or their ways of being and doing.  When interacting with other cultures and people of other religions we must respect them—move to where they in order that we might better understand them AND that they might better understand who we are and why we live the way we live.

[1] A proper definition of “myth” does not imply falseness or untruth, but rather a traditional story of allegedly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon.  The designation as “myth” alone does not imply truth or falsehood.  Many myths, even if historically or factually false, contain deep truths.

Soul Killing (Part 4 of “IMUD” Series)

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Soul killing.

This is the term C.S. Lewis used to describe the notion that meaning is relative and personal.  We might add also that understanding that truth is primarily revealed by logic and reason might have been seen as one of the common tools used to steal life away from living, breathing truth.  Logic and reason have a place, no doubt, and are in dispensable tools in the search for meaning just as fiber is an indispensable part of a healthy diet.  A diet of fiber only, though, will cause some serious problems!  Likewise, reason and logic without the accompanying balance of anecdote, story, creativity and imagination can cause serious deficiencies.  When reason and logic become the sole tool of meaning AND this meaning is deemed true only for the individual who reasoned so then that is the death of the soul. 

In the human body every cell carries with it the DNA of the physical body of which it is a part.  This DNA is the “indisputable truth” of the physical existence of the person.  Even in today’s rapidly advancing scientific world where the potential for DNA alterations may exist, it remains true that the DNA of a person must be found identical in each cell all throughout the body.   Should every cell contain a different combination of the amino acids that combine to form DNA, the body will die.  The individual cell does not decide what is true about the body as a whole.  It cannot.  On the universal level, then, we might say that we, as individual cells of a much larger body, cannot determine on our own what is ultimately true and meaningful.

So, meaning is not only beyond ourselves but the way in which we understand, communicate and express this truth must also go far beyond the bounds of mere logic and reason.  This is where the power of Lewis’s fiction comes into play.  His works of fiction—most notably the Chronicles of Narnia and the Space Trilogy—are full of truth and meaning that flow from a fountain of imagination and creative expression.  In these books we clearly seen the power of story and imagination.

Some have concluded that Lewis, in writing the Narnia books, intended to write a clear and direct allegory of the Christian story; to teach or preach the Christian message through story.  This is not exactly true.  One of Lewis’ primary objective was to “rehabilitate the modern imagination.”  We live in an age of rapid change, Lewis observed (and if he throught it true more than half a century ago, we can only imagine what he would say about the current rate of change in our version of the modern world), and “media’ed experience.”  Even in an age before computers, tablets and cell phones Lewis observed that people mostly live in a world created by humanity rather than the natural world.  Great numbers of people have little interaction on any kind of regular basis with the natural world.  This change of environment from past generation and eras has brought with it massive changes in the default settings of thinking, relationship and the delivery of information.

In a world where everything is written down in words, where important truths are remembered in catchy phrases and soundbites, and where the patient work of thinking through an issues thoroughly is a skill unpracticed and forgotten by many, the power of imagination has been altered and reduced to mere creativity and the exaltation of the imaginary.  Our modern society experiences no lack of creativity and the imaginary—movies, books, internet, and more all provide floods of images.  We inundated with images of what was, is and could be.  Or, better said, what advertisers tell us could be, even if the image they project far beyond the realm of likelihood or even possibility.

But Lewis’s use of the word “imagination” is different.  His intention with his fiction works is not to simply be creative (though the stories are very much so) or to create an imaginary world (which he does so masterfully) but to spark the imagination, the pre-cognitive part of us that creates in us thoughts, images, impressions and reactions long before we have time to use our tools of reason and logic.  The pre-cognitive, or “pre-thinking,” part of our being operates on the default settings of our intellect—opening up doors of understanding in the subconscious.

Rapid change messes with default settings.  Therefore, Lewis’ reasons for venturing into the world or fiction were to (1) resensitize people to what was true; (2) restore a sense of wonder of the ordinary; (3) restore the power of myth and ancient stories that held great meaning; (4) liberate the imagination from superficial excitement that is easily multiplied by technology; (5) liberate the imagination from entrapment to the immediate gratification where the higher and highest is easily lost, stuck in the mundane.

Lewis wanted to grab the readers imagination.  He was uneasy talking about the purpose behind his fiction and steadfastly denied that his intention was to illustrate Christian ideas.  Rather, as he created worlds and the characters he wanted to open the readers imagination to what was possible, not in a meta-physical sense, but to the meanings and deep truths that were our world but so hard to see in the fast-changing media saturated world.  In doing so he was able to share our-world truth through the lens of another world. 

Lewis did not start with a pre-determined end in mind but rather let the moral truth of the story come through naturally as he was in the writing process.  In a sense the moral truths within Lewis shaped the story while at the same the time writing process refined the moral truths that came through the story.  Lewis desired to create a simple story but with such texture and deep meanings that multiple re-readings of the story would continue to reveal new ideas and wonderment.

Where reason and logic work in generalities, stories point to particulars and specific examples of truth played out in the world, whether that world is real or imaginative.  Stories give us experiences we ourselves have never had.  The point of fiction, then, is not to present a book report on life but rather to add a new experiences to life.

For example, in the Narnia series Aslan is not a fictitious representation of the doctrine of God or an abstract picture of God.  Aslan is Aslan.  Nothing more, nothing less.  Yet, in the character of Aslan shines forth something that reminds us of God—a God who is good, but not safe.  It would be going too far to logically align every word and action of Aslan to the Biblical understanding of God.  That’s not the point.  But through Aslan the imagination is able to circumvent a dry and worn-out familiarity with known doctrinal statements about God and recover the sense of amazement, joy, and wonder that comes with a new, unsuspected realization of a truth about God revealed through an imaginative creature, like Aslan.

In the human characters, such as Edmond and Lucy, we see people very much like us; people with quirks and imperfections that remind us of the same things that trip us up.  One of the most powerfully exciting features of Lewis’ Narnia stories is that the main characters are primarily children.  These children find themselves in the midst of amazing adventures of discovery, new experiences and danger.  Children love discovery, newness and danger!  Where adults hesitate, wait, evaluate, and contemplate while children will run full steam ahead without fear in full confidence that their parents are watching out for them and will be there when needed.

Jesus said, “Unless you become like little children you can have no part in the kingdom of God.”  Maybe this was not an admonition to be simple or immature but rather full of the wonder and excitement that comes with being a child.  Maybe Jesus was telling his disciples to go!  Discover!  Experience!  And stand with wide-eyed wonder at the world even in the midst of the unsafe situations of our world.  For again, Aslan was not safe…but very good.

Perhaps what we need in our hyper-media’ed world of hyper-speed change are not more logically reasoned statements of faith and books of doctrine that attempt to address every possible situation is a constantly changing world, but rather a commitment to the two laws that Jesus gave—Love God and love your neighbor—and lots of wonderful stories that speak to our imaginations, showing what that kind of love looks like. 

*This is Part 4 of a series entitled “Imagination, Meaning, Understanding, and Decision”

Part One ,  Two ,  Three

 

Imagination and Reason (Part 3 of “IMUD” series)

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Many people have the notion that reason and imagination are mutually exclusive, completely separate cognitive faculties and, as a result, not connected to one another in any meaningful way.  Reason might be seen as the tool of the intellectual, the academic or the theologian; a high form of intellectual exercise that deals in facts, figures and cold logic.  Imagination, on the other hand, is sometimes relegated to the realm of fantasy and children’s stories; a much lower form of thought that deals in stories, metaphors and word pictures.

For Lewis, however, reason and imagination were not separate intellectual tools.  Rather, for Lewis, reason rests on imagination and cannot work without it.  Reason is, by its very nature, imaginative, as it lives in the realm not of “what is” but “what should be” and “what could be.”  Imagination does not exist only in the world of fiction.  Fiction is imaginary, but imaginative thinking helps us to see that which reason alone cannot envision.

Take George Bailey for example.  George, the main character in the classic movie It’s a Wonderful Life, is going through rough spot in his life and decided to ends his life.  Before he can jump to his death into the frigid river God answers the prayers of many of George’s family and friends by sending Clarence, and angel, to help George.  Clarence could have sat down with George over a hot chocolate to discuss reasonably all of the reasons that George should not end his life.  Instead, Clarence conceives of a fantastic imaginative experience that brings George to the well of self-discovery and the awareness of the overwhelming blessings in his life and the realization that his life was wonderfully meaningful.  Clarence accomplishes this by simply allowing George to see the world that would have been would he never have been born.

Clarence’s efforts to explain to George that he was never born are met with confusion and denial.  But when George kneels in front of the tomb of Harry Bailey, his younger brother who died at the age of 8 because George was not there to save him when he fell through the ice as a young boy, the vision of a world in which he was never born begins to become real.  Clarence did not find success through a reasoned defense of the meaningfulness of life but rather by providing a powerful imaginative picture of the world without George.  Through this imaginative picture George gains a very real and reasonable understanding of the important ways that God had used him throughout his seemingly meaningless life.

Of course, this imaginative scene is played out within the movie, which is itself an imaginative story designed to give the viewer a very important message; a message that could be explained logically but is much more powerfully conveyed through story, the first tool of imagination.  The billions of dollars spent on the making and watching of movies and television should give us ample evidence of the power of story and imagination.  It’s a Wonderful Life—and all stories, movies and other forms of story—could properly be called “myth” (though the modern world rarely uses this term in this way).  Myths may or may not be factually true—a factually true story can also be referred to correctly as myth—but they contain an important message or lesson for their intended audience.

People often gain more spiritual truth and satisfaction from myth than from the written doctrinal codes of their own religion.  In story, the imagination is activated and the door is wide open for meaning and understanding to enter in.  The reading of and adherence to doctrinal statements, can be accomplished without any real understanding or personal commitment.  The moment we move from the logical statement to the question “What does this mean for me?” we have moved into the realm of imagination; of looking at things that are not, but could be or should be.  This is what Lewis referred to as the “imaginative embrace.”

We need not look any further than Jesus who utilized “living language” as the foundation of his life and ministry.  He always “did” before he “said” and what he said was frequently in the form of metaphor, word pictures and stories.  His stories were not always factually true but were always full of meaning and truth.  When he did move to a move logical and fact-based form of communication it was with a solid foundation of “living language” and meaningful stories in the form of parables and word pictures.  Even his most reason-based statements, such as “love your enemies and pray for those that persecute you”, are founded on his own lived language that has already been observed by those who knew him.  He connects the new truth to previous understanding—“you have heard heard it said eye for an eye”—and we can be sure that his statement, though seemingly straight forward, immediately released a flood of images of what it would mean to love ones enemies.

The Bible is not always primarily factual as much as it is descriptive and imaginative.  By reducing Scripture to cold, hard facts meaning is lost.  This is one of the dangers of the modern push to insist on a literal interpretation of the whole of Scripture and ambition among many Christian groups to insist on full and complete inerrancy.  Spiritual truth is abstract, full of nuances and the kind of thing that must be adapted and lived out in varying contexts and situations.  Meaningfulness is the key.  Factual statements can be obeyed or disobeyed without any understanding of the meaning behind the statements—ask the Pharisees of Jesus’ day about this or ask any modern Christian about any number of church-related traditions—but Jesus continually points to the heart, to understanding and meaningfulness.  A heartless faith is not the example Jesus gave us and will, unlike George Bailey, be found to have very little influence and meaningfulness in the world.

There is no use arguing for anything until there is meaning and shared understanding.   Meaning must precede action, change and decision.   Without meaning and understanding a decision may be vocalized but never realized in the heart and lives of the decision-maker.  A true decision, then, is not found in the vibrations of the vocal cords but in the reverberations of grace that are lived out in our lives.

For those who are outside of the faith, our primary form of outreach is through becoming a meaningful witness through our “living language” that provides a meaningful picture of faith to the people around us.  We must become the word picture that opens the door of their heart and mind.  Our words, when used, must meet them where they are and—through the use of story, metaphor, testimonies and appropriate explanations—give meaning to the actions, attitudes and life that has already has already been lived faithfully in and among them.

For those in the church, or born into the church, we must also focus our time, attention and resources on discipleship and growth of understanding.  Most churches do not do this.  Many churches invest heavily on the worship service and Sunday programs to accomplish three tasks—worship, outreach and discipleship.  The worship service, by itself, is not adequate all by itself for outreach and discipleship and, when diluted with these two objective, sometimes falls short as meaningful worship as well.  This is a significant problem.

Finally, with regard to children and childhood conversions.  If a young child prays a prayer and says the magic words “I believe in Jesus” or “I accept Jesus into my heart” is that the end of the story?  In my own experience, and from the stories I have heard from others, childhood “conversions” are inevitably followed-up by often multiple follow-up decision points at various stages of life.  As an adult I have sometimes struggled with understanding why there seems to be a continued struggle for my faith—“Didn’t I take care of that a long time ago,” I ask myself.  I have come to see that my faith is intimately connected to my understanding—my understanding of my own self, the world in which I live and the eternal truth that God reveals in various forms.  At each point of growth in understanding I face a new crisis of belief—will I continue in the path I have chosen in the past or will I seek out a new path, perhaps abandoning the faith of my younger self?   Not only does a decision require understanding to truly be a decision, but conversely new understandings and experiences requires renewals (or abandonment) or previous decisions.

The faith of a child or of someone hearing the gospel story for the first time may be simple, if not incomplete, but we can rightly say that their faith is “perfect” given their level of understanding and spiritual maturity.  But children grow, gain wisdom, increase in their understanding and accumulate an ever-growing collection of experiences that require a rethinking of faith.  The faith of the child (or a new believer) may now be less-than-perfect if it no longer impacts the way in which they live their lives.

Therefore, for both the not-yet-believer and the maturing already-believer, it is not reason and argument that carry the power for transformation, change and the continued perfecting of faith.  Rather, both imagination and reason are necessary to direct the will of the person.  For example, a man in the midst of a mid-life crisis may well be at a point of reconsidering his faith and his previous commitments to his career and his family.  The experiences of frustration and disappointment may be throwing darts of confusion and discontent, causing him him to consider a radical change of direction—a sudden decision to pursue a long-desired career in the movies or running away with a young woman who makes him feel special again.

It is the imagination that brings to him these new options and makes them seem plausible and enticing in spite of the cautions of reason and reality.  If he makes such a life-altering decision it will be a function of his imagination, of how much better he imagines things might be in another yard where the grass is greener.

However, this man may also have strong sense of wanting to do the right thing in spite of the waves of temptation and visions of a better life.  Reason and truth may play a strong role in giving him pause before making such a drastic decision, but it will be imagination, once again, that gives him the power to stay the course.  It might be a vision of an older version of himself sitting with his partner of 50 years reminiscing over their many shared experiences.  It may be a vision of the broken hearts of his children should he choose to leave.  It might be a vision of being able to share with his children and grandchildren as they grow into young adults the challenges he faced and giving thanks to God for helping him through.  It might be a vision of the person he desperately wants to be but has not yet become.  Even the very truth-oriented “Thou shalt not commit adultery” may play a strong role, but it will inevitably be accompanied by a vision of disappointing God or, depending on one’s theological tradition, angering God and perhaps even a vision of the fires of hell.  All of these are imaginative in that they give a vision of what is not….or what is not yet…but what could be or should be.

The “imaginative embrace” brings understanding and breathes life into reason and logic.  Together they bring about change, transformation and the perfecting of a faith that reaches into the very depths of the heart and mind while also flowing out into our daily lives in the world.  Imagine that.

*This is Part 3 of a series entitled “Imagination, Meaning, Understanding, and Decision”

Part One ,  Two

Meaning and Understanding (Part 2 of “IMUD” Series)

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The opposite of “meaning” is not “untruth”.  The opposite of “meaning” is “nonsense” also known in some circles as nonsensical, gibberish, baloney or gobblygook.  In other words the opposite of “meaning” or “meaningful” is that which has no clear meaning.  Meaning is the pre-condition for both truth and falseness.  In other words, if there was no clear meaning then one could not judge a thing to be either true or false.  By the same token, we could also say that when a person does not understand a thing (so therefore there is no meaning) they cannot be expected to make a genuine decision about that thing.

  • A mathematics student that does not understand the meaning of fractions may have much trouble deciding whether it is best to accept 1/3 or the chocolate pie or 1/9 of the pie.
  • A young husband may foolishly answer his wife’s question, “Do I look fat?” with an honest, “Yes, you’ve put on a few pounds,” because he has not yet learned to understand the question behind the questions.
  • A Hindu or Muslim who does not truly understand the meaning of the Christian faith, person of Jesus Christ and the deep truth found in Christian Scripture (which are often hidden behind Christian platitudes and hit-and-run evangelism techniques, unfortunately) cannot truly make a judgment on the truth or falseness of the Christian faith. If they reject Christian faith without understanding it’s meaning, then have not rejected Christ, but rather a false and/or deficient understanding of him.  We should not force anyone into anything that they do not understand, nor keep them from rejecting what they do fully understand (though, it would seem, this is less often the case).  In the same way, we should not encourage people to accept something they do not fully understand without the opportunity for continued growth of understanding.  

Lewis understood Imagination to be the organ of meaning.  By imagination he did not mean what we often mean by imagination, that is “make believe.”   For Lewis the term imagination was more like a dream or vision of something that wasn’t, but could be.  Imagination could also come through a fictional story that, by use of imagination, could point to a real truth.  Lewis’ Narnia series—and even moreso the parables told by Jesus—all worked through the imagination to help people find meaningful truths.  Sometimes these truths were visions of what would be, could be or should be.  Through imagination, reason and will are transformed, as unseen truths become clear and visions for what can and will be come into focus.

Doctrine, for example, is not the foundational truth about Christianity but rather translations and succinct statements that digest the much wider truths of what God has revealed to us through the “lived language” that is recorded in the Christian Scriptures.  This “lived language” of God is not the Bible, properly understood, but rather the real, historical and personal story of God and life of Jesus Christ that was actually played out in history and time.  Christian Scriptures, inspired by God, are not exhaustive of this “lived language” (they don’t tell us every story and every event than happened) but they do tell us—using rational power of history, the affective power of prose and the imaginative power of story—all that God needs to tell us about Himself and his work throughout history.

Doctrines and systematic theologies are developed from the wide breadth of Christian Scripture for the purpose of helping us understand.  Doctrines, however, are less true than the actual story of God and His work among the people around the world that has been revealed throughout history.  Not everything that is true can be adequately represented in the language of theology and doctrine.  Narrative and “lived language” are far more powerful for teaching and gaining full and true understanding.  A culture of rule-based doctrine leads to a lack of understanding.

For Lewis, the Gospel story was the essence of the Christian story.  There were many myths[1] and stories that pointed to deep truths through utilization of imagination, but the Christian story was the true myth that pointed the full understanding of truth and purpose through their use of reason and personal experience.  Imagination was lower than reason, but reason could not stand without imagination.  The myths and stories that that exist in every culture, language and people group hold in them truths that could be recognized through the power of imagination.  We, as Christians, might understand this to be a part of the prevenient grace of God that is poured out to all people, everywhere.  There is no one, anywhere, that is without some level of truth and understand—incomplete, to be sure, but not fully absent.

God is the Father of all light so there is not reason to deny the truth that exists among the pagan myths and other religious teachings.  Rather, we should seek out this truth and fan it into flame!  Paul pointed to the pagan gods—not saying “you’re wrong” but “your partly right”—to express a deeper understanding of what was true and to provide an opportunity for new and deeper understanding.  There is no need to denigrate, put-down or reject that which is not fully true or, more importantly, that which we do not fully understand.  Rather, we can look into a culture, a religious system or into the eyes of the person sitting across from us and say, “you have something good here, but there is more.”  We can meet them at the point where they are, at the point of meaning that they already possess and help them move—often slowly—in the direction of deeper understanding that can, in time, lead to a real decision.

The only basis for a proper interaction and encounter with the world around us is a proper respect for other ways of life, belief systems, philosophies and religions.  “Respect” means to look back at something in order to understand or know.  When we respect someone we look back to where they are for the purpose of understanding them and moving ourselves to where they are, even if we might perceive ourselves to be more advanced, more civilized or in a better place than they.  We willingly submit ourselves to their authority or their ways of being and doing.  When interacting with other cultures and people of other religions we must respect them—move to where they in order that we might better understand them AND that they might better understand who we are and why we live the way we live.

[1] A proper definition of “myth” does not imply falseness or untruth, but rather a traditional story of allegedly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon.  The designation as “myth” alone does not imply truth or falsehood.  Many myths, even if historically or factually false, contain deep truths.

*This is Part 2 of a series entitled “Imagination, Meaning, Understanding, and Decision”

Part One