Wednesday 20 November 2013
A new way of reading
The Inklings did a great job vindicating mythopoesis. They believed that truth can be expressed imaginatively, poetically, mythologically. Can we apply this insight to these marginal theological writers and mystics? To do so we must be able to appreciate the voice of the imagination.
This does not mean accepting it as authoritative. Quite often the imagination addresses us with a magisterial tone, as if to say, "I have seen this for myself: therefore it is true." The Gnostics provide a handy example of what I mean, and
of the pitfalls into which we can very easily fall.
I am not saying that we should read Boehme or Steiner, Blake or Tomberg as authorities. They may well have seen things, but the truth they have seen is clothed in images derived from a particular culture or tradition. In pursuing truth, we must not be distracted by every form it takes on. The imagination uses images drawn from the memory, and therefore from the surrounding cultural and natural world.
Understandably viewing the imagination with suspicion, most Christian mystics, including the hesychasts of Mount Athos and Carmelite mystics such as John of the Cross (though they employ images in their own writings), teach that we should go beyond anything we can conceive or imagine if we want to approach God. This is true, because God lies beyond both imagination and intellect.
It is therefore a delicate and dangerous path – a knife-edge – that we walk when we make use of these imaginative mystical writers. It can only be recommended to those who have a strong anchor already established in the teaching of the Church. We must have a primary commitment not to the enjoyment of images but the search for absolute and transcendent truth. This commitment will enable us to pick our way through the visionary landscapes of the mythopoetic writers.
Imagination is important. The Bible appeals to the imagination more than it does to the intellect. The historical, poetic, and prophetic books of the Bible reveal truth to those who have the eyes for it. We must learn to read these accounts, this poetry, in the right way, if we are not to fall into a kind of literalism or fundamentalism that is becoming all too common. But once we have developed this ability, we can apply it also to the mystics, provided we do so with care.
There are three worlds: spiritual, imaginal, and corporeal, perceived by the intellect, the imagination, and the senses respectively. We take too little account of the imaginal, which is the world of the soul and of visions. We may also make too much of it, as Henry Corbin did, falling into a docetic Christology. Our best protection against these extremes is the serene acceptance of the Church's authority and guidance.
Illustration: Jan Provost, Christian Allegory (1510-15).
Posted by Stratford Caldecott at 14:39