Don’t give up on your imagination
It was at the beginning of my time in seminary that I first came into contact with someone who was a reformed Christian. Prior to that, Calvinism was a mysterious belief system derided by some as totalitarian or worse.
I found in reformed theology a way of following Christ that paid serious attention to the intellectual and doctrinal as well as the experiential. I needed a way of being a Christian that allowed my mind to be part of the journey as well as my heart.
This isn’t, of course, to say that there are no other parts of the Christian family that do this, only that I came to reformed theology before others and now I am a minister in a reformed body, the Presbyterian Church (USA).
One of the other significant influences on my Christian identity has been C S Lewis, certainly no Calvinist. In Lewis I found just as much intellect and reason as in the greatest reformed theologians, but something else in addition: imagination.
For Lewis, the imagination is the most important faculty preceding reason yet reasonable all the same. In my experience many reformed Christians are more than a little frightened of the imagination. Calvinism is known more for producing theological treatises than poems, paintings, or literature.
Like caricatures of the Puritans, many reformed Christians expect that the imagination will more likely lead them astray than help to redeem them. However, there are limits to reason. G. K. Chesterton once wrote that the perfectly rational man lives in an insane asylum. Interestingly, being nothing but rationality or intellect is actually less than fully human.
This is where Lewis is so helpful. He uses story to powerfully enact his theology in a way that helps it to work deeply into our souls, even to get around our intellectual resistance. There’s a limit to how deeply a truth can penetrate us through the mind. Real knowledge, the sort that truly shapes and forms us, comes about through the integration of heart and mind and through enacting and embodying that truth in a physical and sensate way. This is the power of liturgy and ritual*, two good words that are rich with meaning and need to be recaptured by reformed Christians.
Several months ago I came across a list of books on the spiritual life that C S Lewis had recommended in his correspondence. You can find that list here.
I have reproduced it below:
Thomas Traherne, Centuries of Meditations
Thomas a Kempis, The Imitation of Christ
George Herbert, The Temple
William Law, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life
G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man
Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy
Richard Hooker, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity
George McDonald, Unspoken Sermons
John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress
Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love
Edwyn Bevan, Symbolism and Belief
Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy
Dante, The Divine Comedy
Walter Hilton, The Scale of Perfection
Charles Gore, The Philosophy of the Good Life
Athanasius, On the Incarnation
Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene
Thomas Browne, Religio Medici
Jeremy Taylor, The Whole Works of Jeremy Taylor
Joseph Butler, Sermons
Coventry Patmore, poetry
Essays Catholic and Critical, ed. E.G. Selwyn
Francois Mauriac, Life of Jesus
Charles Williams, The Descent into Hell
Dorothy Sayers, The Man Born To Be King
Of course, not all of these books are primarily imaginative. It seems that Lewis read widely and used what he read to form and shape his imagination which in turn shaped and formed his rational mind.
I have to confess that I have read less than a third of these, which is sort of embarrassing. Much of my recent reading has been in the areas of leadership, missional theology/ecclesiology, and some biography. I need to put some fiction into the lineup and also to consciously integrate some spiritual reading into it too.