Imagination, Christian Formation and Icons
Prayng with icons is almost as ancient as the faith itself. From top: Virgin of the Sign, Russian iconographer Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Three Visitors (Genesis 18), and St Peter.
By Tim Perry
ONLY THE HARDIEST evolutionary biologists (known as “eliminativists”) would dispute the claim that the mind is designed not merely to survive, but also to know the world – all the way from galaxies to atoms. Although we often take this capacity for granted, just a moment’s pause will invite wonder that it should be the case. Why is the world capable of being known? Why are our minds fitted to know creation, and not merely function in it? There is no reason that either our world or our minds should be constructed in the way that they are. And so, when we see this “fittedness,” we are compelled to make the bold and daring claim that we are designed to know our world.
This claim derives from the Christian doctrine of Creation. We cannot read it off the biblical page, but it follows hand-in-glove that if the world is the product of a Mind, then that world would be rationally structured. And further, that if our minds are products of the same Mind, then there should be a symmetrical relationship among all three. Ironically, those evolutionary biologists who insist there is no mind, but only complex survival skills, must presume something like what I have just written before they can begin their work denying it.
Of course, there is much more to our human mind than its rationality, its capacity to know the truth about things (let us call this faculty ‘reason’). The Christian doctrine of Creation makes two further similar claims: our minds are also ordered to know the good – how to conduct ourselves in our world (we might call this faculty ‘conscience’). They are even ordered to know the beautiful – they give us a sense of the whole, of why we are in our world (we might call this faculty ‘imagination’).
Human beings are designed to desire and to know the True, the Good and the Beautiful. We are designed to reason, to morally weigh and to imagine – and through the right use of all three faculties, to come to know God.
I’ve spent some time spelling this out because of our modern tendency to reduce minds to reason or, on a good day, reason and conscience. For now, let’s set conscience aside. Even in Christian discourse, discussion of beauty is shrunk to matters of mere preference. Imagination has fallen on hard times. It is far too often equated with make-believe or sheer invention; at its best it takes us to unreal places, which we must leave to return to the real world.
I’m not sure that’s true. In fact, I’m coming to believe just the opposite: that this neglected faculty is necessarily part of an engagement with the real world. The apologist Holly Ordway puts it this way: “Imagination is the cognitive function that assimilates sensory data into images.” In other words, imagination is that cognitive faculty that assembles the pieces into a whole that shows us how, where, and why those pieces fit the way they do. And in this capacity imagination is, C. S. Lewis argued, the organ of meaning and the condition of truth.
Ordway herself is an example of what I’ve been talking about. An English professor and ardent atheist, Ordway found that she couldn’t make sense of John Donne’s poetry. It was obviously beautiful literature. So beautiful, she was drawn to it. But the world from which it sprang – a very Christian one – was closed to her. As she continued to interact with Donne and later, with other Christian writers like G.K. Chesteron and C.S. Lewis, she came to “see” the world from which they wrote. Certainly Christian, but not irrational, this world was philosophically astute and aesthetically persuasive. Her imagination enabled her to enter this world, even if as a visitor at first. Finally she discovered – to her initial shock – that this world was in fact the real world. In her memoir, Not God’s Type (Ignatius Press), she tells the story of how God converted her imagination first. Her reason and conscience then followed.
What does this have to do with Christian formation?
Just this: in a world dominated by images which, whether we are aware of it or not, combine to tell a very different story than the Christian one, serious Christian formation will have to take the role of the imagination seriously or it will fail. Indeed, it is failing.
Much ink has been spilled over churched youths who lapse when they come of age or have no appreciable Christian background at all (the “nones”), and over adults who, after a lifetime in church suddenly find the faith irredeemably foreign and leave (the “dones”). One theme common in many of their stories is not so much that apologetic arguments stopped being good arguments, or that the Christian moral vision ceased to be clearly grounded or even practicable. Rather it was that the culture stopped providing a “social imaginary” in which those arguments and that vision made sense. One could believe in Jesus, but why bother? One could adopt the Christian moral vision, but . . . really, who’d want to? Questions like these arise from people who’ve lost a sense of the whole, a sense of how the apologetics and morality cohere in a larger beautiful picture of God and God’s world. They are voiced by people whose Christian imaginations have atrophied.
If this description rings true at all, then pastors and priests, youth and children’s ministers, all involved in discipleship training or Christian formation should be reflecting on the arts as much as they do on apologetic and moral arguments. In what ways does the entertainment we consume, in whatever format, shape our imaginations? How does it “form” the social world in which we live, move and have our being? How can we cooperate with God’s Spirit in the conversion of the imagination – in our lives and in the lives of those for whom we care?
Space prohibits a full treatment of these questions. Instead, I want to suggest one way of addressing them involves the incorporation of a more imaginative method of Christian formation than is typical in evangelical Protestant, and evangelical Anglican congregations: praying with icons.
The practice is almost as ancient as the faith, and was made a matter of dogma (!) in 787 at the Second Council of Nicea, the last of the Seven Ecumenical Councils. Against those who, under the threat of an expansionist Islamic empire, hoped to lessen tension by removing visual imagery from Christian worship, the assembled bishops insisted that icons of the Lord, biblical characters and events and the saints should be found not only in churches, but also in homes and along the roadside. They did so in the hope that those who paused to ponder them would be led to contemplate not the physical icons themselves, but the divine realities and truths to which they pointed. The icons were, in other words, signs, pointers, or even windows to the divine. They are aids intended to revitalize our imaginations, and in so doing, help us listen and speak to God.
My own favourite icon, to which I regularly return, and about which I have written previously, is the Virgin of the Sign. Contemplation of this icon reminds me that the Church is prefigured in Mary, the first to welcome the Word of God incarnate. It reminds me that if I would commune with the One she bears, I must be a part of the Bride whom she prefigures, the Church. It reminds me that I must be more like Mary in her obedience, her perseverance and her active holiness, as these are described by Luke. It reminds me that the One who himself brings blessing (note his right hand) and teaching (note the scroll in his left) is no mere human baby, but Christ the Lord, who blesses in his own Name and, indeed, is the Truth he teaches. It reminds me, finally, that this contemplation has a missional purpose. Both Mary and Jesus, in their respective gazes, do not seek to draw me in, but to turn me around and send me back out into the world that they love and would see reconciled to God. Thus I am incorporated into the very mission of God.
This is only one example, and a bare sketch at that. I could add more. I keep an icon of Peter in my office, whose downcast gaze never fails to strengthen me when the challenges of pastoral ministry are greater than I can handle. (This is about seven days a week.) I am also deeply moved by the Russian iconographer Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Three Visitors (Genesis 18), understood as a prefigurement of the Holy Trinity.
An icon communicates knowledge, surely. But it does so in a way that is not merely rational. It is also imaginative. It gives a sense of the whole, a greater picture of God, and God’s world, and our place therein such that we have an imaginative space within which the apologetic arguments and moral vision can be set forth in a persuasive way.
Of course, training our imaginations need not be only through such obviously spiritual exercises. Holly Ordway was engaged and converted by poetry. And notably, she was not reading to be evangelized. Donne’s poetry did not function like some sort of pre-modern Four Spiritual Laws. The Holy Spirit, through Donne’s poetry, awakened her imagination. Explicit evangelization only came later. Just so, we contemplate icons not “to engage in Christian formation,” but to pray. We submit ourselves to the Spirit of God as an echo of the Blessed Virgin’s submission: “Let it be to me as you have spoken.”
The cultural ground beneath our feet has shifted radically. If we would engage with people, whether inside or outside explicit faith, whether in terms of formation and discipleship, or indeed evangelization, we are wise if we lead with beauty, with imagination. TAP
Dr. Perry is Rector of the Church of the Epiphany, Sudbury, Ont. This is his summary of the workshop he gave on Oct. 23rd at the Desiring the Kingdom Conference.