Sanctified Imagination: Part 1 – Problems and Possibilities

I have come to believe that imagination — specifically, a holy, sacred, or sanctified imagination — is one of the greatest tools at our disposal to build resilience, faith, and that most elusive of all virtues, hope.

This idea has bubbled up again and again this year on the blog: when I contemplated re-enchanting my world, as I reflected on the mystical visions of Julian, St. Hildegard, and St. Teresa, and, since June, as I’ve revisited Black theology and explored how the Gospel challenges power structures. All of these have demonstrated the transforming power of a sanctified imagination.

And yet, the role of imagination in the spiritual life has always been controversial within Christianity.

A positive understanding of the potential for imagination in the life of faith has been the ‘minority report’ of the Christian tradition, promoted really only in the Western mystical tradition — and even there, St. John of the Cross, despite his own powerful metaphors and symbols, spent quite a bit of ink warning people against using the imagination in their spiritual life. And as for the East, the words of one Orthodox writer, when asked her opinion of St. Ignatius Loyola’s imaginative Gospel Contemplation practice, speak volumes: “The last thing I want is to play pretend with my faith.” As a general rule, the Eastern mystical theologians not only did not advocate imaginative spiritual practices, but actually warned against putting any stock in them whatsoever.

I’m certainly no expert in epistemology (the study of knowledge), but as far as I can tell, the logic behind Christian discomfort towards the imagination goes something like this: If Christianity claims to be true, then it must deal exclusively with what is; therefore anything that engages with what is not — whether an imagining of an alternative present or the future — cannot be of God. There is a lot about this that makes sense. Anyone who has ever been carried away by a flight of anxious imagination and convinced themselves that their best friend hates them or that they’re about to be fired after making a small mistake knows how unreliable our imagination can be; and if that’s true of our waking minds, far more unreliable and, well, strange are the projections of our dreams!

And yet, even with this important criticism in mind, I remain convinced that the imagination can be a powerful ally and tool in the life of faith. In the next few posts, I’d like to explore how some of the traditions I’ve explored on this blog — mysticism, contemplative prayer, Black theology, and more — demonstrate just this.

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