Thursday, 22 September 2011

Faith, reason, and imagination

The French poet Paul Claudel once wrote:
"The evil we have been suffering from for several centuries is less a split between Faith and Reason than between Faith and an Imagination become incapable of establishing an accord between the two parts of the universe, the visible and the invisible."
The quotation comes from an excellent article on Claudel by Michael Donley in the Temenos Academy Review for 2005 (p. 45). How might this thought be expanded? What is the role of the Imagination?

The imaginative faculty mediates between the sensory and the intellectual world in its own way just as the reasoning faculty does. But like all mediators it is ambiguous. It has two sides or faces, depending in this case on its relationship to the higher spiritual faculty. When the imagination faces "upwards" towards the archetypes of reality, assisted by the active imagination, it is capable of mediating and transmitting truth, as it does in the true visions received by prophets, and also in the works
of the great artists and poets. In such cases the "matter" that it receives from the senses and holds in the memory is transformed and raised up into a symbolic form, luminous with the reality of the higher world. One sees this in Byzantine icons, or great works of art.

But when the imagination is turned downwards, it can dissolve and obstruct our perception of truth, leading us away from a world of order into a desolate and chaotic landscape of shadows. Some of the less uplifting products of the surrealist and expressionist movements in art might provide examples of this. Fantasy that is oriented in this direction leaves the soul feeling bereft, melancholy or even unclean. An extreme example would be pornographic images, which focus the mind on the human body as such, virtually excluding any consideration of the spiritual dimension or the person as a whole. 

Implicit in what I have been saying is a theory of askesis or spiritual purification, according to which human desire must be progressively redirected. From facing downward it must be turned towards the light, the only direction in which true human fulfilment is possible. This is not the same as trying to escape the body, as if it were an evil trap. On the contrary, our bodies must be raised up to the level of spirit - in token of which both Christ and his Mother were assumed into heaven.

S.T. Coleridge once said, "The primary imagination I hold to be the living power and prime agent of all human perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I Am". No wonder Blake identified the Imagination with Christ himself. But the Imagination is situated in a hierarchy of levels and may face either way. When correctly oriented in accordance with sanctity, it “repeats”—to use Coleridge’s word—in the finite mind the eternal act of God, which is not merely to create, but to incarnate the Invisible. Yet the goal of this incarnation is to unite the material cosmos with the God who transcends it. As Chesterton said in his book on Blake, "the highest dogma of the spiritual is to affirm the material". God and the spiritual realities are not less solid and definite than we are but more so.

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