2 Comments

    Homepage








In his poem, “In Italy,” the great contemporary Caribbean poet Derek Walcott makes a curious comment. Observing the qualities of the Mediterranean world and comparing them in his mind to his native Caribbean, he realizes that we are never perfectly settled in our particular moment in time and space:

I have come this late
to Italy, but better now, perhaps, than in youth
that is never satisfied, whose joys are treacherous,
while my hair rhymes with those far crests, and the bells
of the hilltop towers number my errors,
because we are never where we are, but somewhere else,
even in Italy
. This is the bearable truth
of old age; but count your benedictions—those fields
of sunflowers, the torn light on the hills, the haze
of the unheard Adriatic—while the day still hopes
for possibility, cloud shadows racing the slopes [1]

Years ago I was driving with my son to a distant soccer tournament and called my wife to chat. When she realized that I was alone in the car with my son but busy talking shop with her, she abruptly ended the conversation and said, “Be present with the one you are with.” I was not where I was either, which was in a car with a son who needed and deserved my undivided attention. Maybe you have noticed this struggle as you attend the temple, or sit in sacrament meeting, or listen to a lecture or read an essay online. Our mind is on the move. It wanders.

Our mind wanders for many reasons, either because of boredom, lack of discipline, or perhaps just because of the lazy carnal mind which only seems to notice appearances or wants escape into fantasy. Or maybe because of the kind of ADD we all seem to be developing from the disruptions of texts and emails and the allurements of an entertainment-obsessed society. While a real concern, this isn’t exactly the problem that Walcott is describing. We could say that he describes not a mind that wanders but a mind that wonders. Walcott, for example, thinks on his errors as he listens to the church bell and sees his upbringing in the Caribbean as he tours an Italian village in his old age. This isn’t mere distraction. This is thoughtful, intentional self-reflection. This is the activity of the imagination, one directed at gaining as much as possible from experience. This wondering imagination, I would suggest, is what allowed President Spencer W. Kimball, for example, to insist that he had never been to a boring sacrament meeting. Clearly he had heard some less than satisfactory talks over the years (how could he not?!), but his claim suggests that the quality of our experiences has as much or more to do with the kind of activity we engage in internally as it does to what is going on around us.

Imagination is the faculty that allows us to formulate new ideas and new understandings rather than just being passive observers or passive believers in other people’s accounts of reality. In this sense, imagination does not detract from but adds to our experience in essential ways. This is certainly the kind of activity Walcott is describing. Let’s look again at this passage in the poem with a slightly different focus:

I have come this late
to Italy, but better now, perhaps, than in youth
that is never satisfied, whose joys are treacherous
,
while my hair rhymes with those far crests, and the bells
of the hilltop towers number my errors,
because we are never where we are, but somewhere else,
even in Italy. This is the bearable truth
of old age
; but count your benedictions—those fields
of sunflowers, the torn light on the hills, the haze
of the unheard Adriatic—while the day still hopes
for possibility, cloud shadows racing the slopes

Walcott seems to suggest that a youthful mind is perhaps more quickly seduced by what is new than an older mind. But because a youthful mind is so easily allured by newness, it quickly moves on to something else, hence the treachery. Maybe your children have spent seven hours on Christmas day as has my son assembling a new Lego with zeal only to never touch it again. Children have trouble following a church talk not because their minds wonder but because their minds wander. We older folks, we reflect and compare and remember and yearn and sorrow, all in a matter of a few minutes. The beautiful scene before Walcott is beautiful and more meaningful precisely because he isn’t quite present but is instead busy processing what he sees and wondering about its relationship to his personal experiences, allowing the beauty of the sea and hills and flowers before him to take on a much deeper and even spiritual meaning.

The Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke saw the mental activity of the imagination as one of our most challenging and defining human qualities. Our humanness manifests itself precisely in the activity of our conscious mind, our fleeting and changing memories, and the ways in which we experience our biological existence as if from a distance of distracted observation. In his great poem “Duino Elegies,” Rilke says that we always “find ourselves in the attitude/ of someone going away.” “So we live,” he writes, “forever taking our leave.” [2] Thus, our consciousness and our agency can never be determined or confined by our immediate physical context. He compares the shifts of nature that move through seasons with the way our peripatetic mind is always looking back or anticipating what is to come:

O trees of life, when does your winter come?
We’re not in accord. Not attuned, like
the migrating birds. Overtaken and late
we abruptly crowd ourselves on a wind
and come down on some uncaring pond.
We’re conscious of blossoming and withering both at
once….
But we, giving ourselves to one thing,
feel it’s at the expense of another. Conflict
is our nature. [3]

You will notice here that he seems rather discouraged by this quality of our mind. We aren’t like the seasons and the plants and animals which seem to synchronize their moods and movements according to laws that are fixed and immovable. For Rilke, this can have tragic consequences as it might mean we miss entirely the meaning of our lives. The key is learning to marshal that mental energy for the greatest benefit, and one of the ways to do this, he suggests, is to imagine your life as if from the perspective of those who have gone before us or those perhaps who died young. If we imagine ourselves as angels looking back on our lives, this detached position from experience might actually assist us in relishing life more intensely than if we were merely thoughtlessly romping our way along. The accumulation of memories and experiences and the wisdom of an increasing awareness of mortality teach us to transform our mundane experiences into rich and meaningful moments of connection to what matters most. This is what the great poet Wallace Stevens meant when he said that “death is the mother of beauty.” [4] We savor things and feel the poignancy of their beauty as we become more aware of their transience. I remember as my grandfather got older, arriving at the age of 93 before he died, he wept more openly over the simplest pleasures and beauties, usually beside a river or overlooking Salt Lake valley. My 81 year-old father has been doing a lot of the same lately. It’s even started for me at the young age of 51. A growing awareness of our mortality and a rich inner life of imagination have a way of teaching us, as Rilke concludes, that “being here is glorious.” [5]

We are free agents, and part of what makes us free is the capacity to imagine alternatives, to see life otherwise than how it presents itself to us. And the arts are the highest expression of this imagination. Imagination is the gateway to vision, to deeper and more creative interpretation. Our minds are not content to remain still and static, even in our sleep. Dreams, you may have noticed, have a way of taking the materials of life and remaking them into stories or images that are more than mirror reflections of reality. Of course that is what makes them weird and difficult or embarrassing to share with others. I have seen fish and trees and met people in my dreams that though drawn from my waking life, are entirely new creations. Although this capacity for imagination can sometimes lead to escapism and denial of reality, it is nevertheless part of what the Lord depends on in order to communicate with us and to teach and inspire us. Imagination is what allowed Lehi to dream about his sons. He saw things he had never seen before: a tree, water, a building, a rod of iron, and people walking in darkness and, when accused by his wife of being visionary (by which she means delusional) he openly confesses: “I know that I am a visionary man; for if I had not seen the things of God in a vision I should not have known the goodness of God, but had tarried at Jerusalem, and had perished with my brethren.” (1 Nephi 5:4).

Precisely because of the ways in which God’s will and God’s reality can seem so distinct from anything we experience in daily life, it is often challenging for a casual observer to distinguish between a madman and a prophet. We shouldn’t be too defensive about this. Lehi wasn’t. Let’s face it. There are fanatics in the world. There are deluded people who make utterly absurd and false claims about reality. And some of them are religious. So vigilance and healthy suspicion are necessary. But a transcendent reality, such as the reality of God, is by definition not our reality, which is why religion makes claims that are, on their face, absurd to a great many people. All that suggests is that unless you want to insist that reality can only consist of what is patently obvious to a casual observer, imagination is necessary to understand truth. We can learn from the difference between how Nephi and his brothers respond to Lehi’s dream. While his brothers dismissed it out of hand as the product of a frenzied mind, Nephi sought to know “the interpretation thereof” (1 Nephi 11:11). He imagined there had to be more to it. He didn’t just accept it at face value but asked himself and asked the Lord if it pointed to something yet more profound and more true. And in the end, arguably he understands the dream even better than his father had.

Oliver Cowdery was also eager to interpret the plates like Joseph Smith, but he made a crucial mistake. The Lord explains: “Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me. But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right.” (D&C 9:7-8). What was it, exactly, he was supposed to study out in his mind? Whether he was looking at characters he did not know or looking into a seer stone, we have to wonder what was it he was supposed to “study out in his mind”? How else can we understand this except as the Lord’s call for him and for us to be imaginative enough for him to reveal new things to us?

Revelations, then, require imagination not only be received but also to be interpreted. An imagination, of course, nor for that matter any of the greatest arts provide any kind of guarantee that we will come unto Christ, but it is clear that we cannot come unto him without faith and that faith requires at least a minimal exercise to imagine that truth lies beyond the surface. I believe this kind of mental work is what Nephi signifies when he urges us to “liken” the scriptures unto us. He is not advocating willy-nilly interpretation or suggesting that we can make scriptures mean whatever we want them to mean. As it says in Alma 13:20: “Behold, the scriptures are before you; if ye will wrest them it shall be to your own destruction.” Wresting the scriptures seems to mean various things, but one possible meaning is reading them as if their meaning were patently obvious and obviously about us. To liken, on other hand, is to engage in comparative thinking, a way of imagining similarities while recognizing obvious differences in order to achieve a successful and meaningful translation. I would submit that Nephi is calling for a creative dialogue between the scriptures and our own thoughts, between revelation and lived experience. I believe the Holy Ghost is best able to help us, as it did Nephi, when we are first willing to imagine and respect the reality, dignity, and subjectivity of other people and their experiences. That is the first step in being open to a truth that transcends your own limited experience. Nephi was not dismissive of his father’s dreams but drawn to understand them better. Just as was the case in his relation to his father’s dream, each of us has experiences, memories, feelings, and insights that are relevant to the interpretation of truth. And the humanities—coupled with a life of committed discipleship and fidelity to covenants—provide artful, conscientious, and intentional ways of ordering our wondering minds and feelings and directing them in meaningful dialogue with others, with God, and with reality itself. That is, in essence, why the humanities are vital to our spiritual growth and that is also why keeping covenants is vital to harnessing and directing the powers of our imagination to salvational ends.

I wish to turn to the contemporary American novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson for some additional insights that might help us to understand why acknowledging and respecting the role of the imagination is so important to Christian theology. As a novelist and as a model Christian thinker, Robinson has engaged in a long argument with what is referred to as scientism. Scientism is the belief that science can explain all reality. She and others have often noted, however, that this is not exactly good science because even by the most rigorous scientific standards, we could reasonably conclude that such exhaustive explanations of reality are an impossibility. She is not against science but the positivistic culture that assumes with a kind of dogmatic confidence that science can know things definitively for us, without having to make wagers or without having to use our own imperfect judgment.

And where this scientific positivism particularly fails us is in its utterly inadequate account of the individual experience of human consciousness and imagination. She argues that this over-confidence is everywhere— in science, social science, certainly in politics, and even sometimes in religion. Religious people make this mistake, for example, when they assume they can adequately judge another person and determine the value of a soul based on “cosmic acceptance or rejection, [but] having little or nothing to do with that miraculous thing, the felt experience of life” [6] So for Robinson the key to any way of knowing has to be respect for the “experience and testimony of the individual mind” or “the felt life of the mind,” which is really respect for the mystery of another person. [7] Despite Jesus’s warnings about judging others, we judge them nevertheless in an attempt to demystify them, to reduce the messiness of the particularities of others as well as to deny their potential. When we engage in the humanities, when we confront a philosophical argument or read history or a novel, we are asked to suspend judgment long enough to be able to face the particulars of human lives honestly and directly.

Much is at stake in developing this capacity. For Robinson, the uniqueness of conscious experience, this “felt experience of mind,” is the very seat of the human soul. So if we fail to respect the conscious activity of the human mind, we risk running roughshod over our deepest meaning as human beings. And again, science isn’t the only problem. Sometimes “theology… has tended to forget the beauty and strangeness of the individual soul, that is, of the world perceived in the course of a human life, of the mind as it exists in time.” [8] So our mistake would be to objectify the soul and “measure creation’s worth on conditional terms rather than on the merit of being created and sustained by a mindful creator.” [9] The “merit of being created” in God’s image is the inherent worth of a human soul. So what would such objectification look like in practice? It might look like appraising a person’s worth, either positively or negatively, based on appearances, race, sex, sexual orientation, political conviction, class, religion, or national origin. In religion, as she suggests, it is what we do when we condemn, fear, or otherwise dismiss the challenge of loving the one; it is also what we do when we thoughtlessly idealize others. To see others or even ourselves as we are seen by God is to see honestly, completely, but with love. Without God’s help and without imagination, this is impossible to do. We end up flattening out, numbering, grouping or otherwise erasing the individual person in the interest of quick judgment. Judgment is a silencing gesture, one that wishes to muffle the unique experience of each person’s inner life.

Of course the rub is that it is tremendously challenging if not impossible to actually know or concretely sum up or define that uniqueness. But the point isn’t to know it, merely to imagine it and then respect it. People will and should surprise us. We will surprise ourselves. And this shouldn’t be surprising. The humanities at their best cultivate this kind of surprise, since they help us to do the work of imagining that inner life without pretending to know a person completely or even adequately. We all operate in what Robinson calls a “small model of reality,” small because it is based on our lived experience in a particular culture, in a particular time and place, and with a particular history. [10] Which means that the very thing that makes us unique also makes us separate and limited in what we can see and understand.

So what helps to get outside of ourselves? Service, travel, education, worship, and love are all essential but so too is imagination. Serving someone whose soul we cannot glimpse or respect is hardly service. Travel and education without the capacity to imagine the inherent value of other perspectives and ideas and values is to end where we started in ignorance of the world around us. Consider Alma’s teachings on the word of God as a seed. When he counsels us to “experiment upon the word,” he is asking us first to imagine that the word is true; he is asking us to suspend our disbelief long enough to see what fruit it bears instead of rejecting the word of God outright. Suspension of disbelief is what we use when we encounter the arts, it is what we do whenever we encounter difference or newness. That is, it is what we should do. Otherwise we simply dismiss newness out of hand and become impervious to new ideas, new experiences, the uniqueness of other human beings. We therefore cannot claim that we properly see others in their full humanity or the full truthfulness or even falsehoods of other ideas until we have engaged in this experiment.

And this applies to our relationship with God. Worshipping a God who is no more and no less than the sum of our fantasies about who he might be is a God fashioned after our own image. We should never assume we know enough about divine power and divine love. We can’t possibly claim to know all there is to know about the personality of God. We are asked to believe in God, but to believe, as Isaiah reminds us, that our thoughts are not God’s thoughts (Isaiah 55:8). Like Nephi, we can know the most essential thing there is to know about God, that God loves his children, but nevertheless we do not know nor need to know the meaning of all things (1 Nephi 11: 17). Ironically a failure to acknowledge limits to what we can understand is a failure to acknowledge our small model of reality, which is to fail to acknowledge our own personhood and felt experience of life, the very seat of our own soul. In other words, respecting mystery in others and in God will also help us to respect our own rich inner life and our own mystery. The mistake would be to live in our small model of reality and “mistake [it] for reality itself.” [11] Faith requires trust in a higher order and a higher knowledge, but also for precisely that reason it means humility, self-questioning, and careful and deferential regard for God, for others, and for the world. Again, this means that to have faith requires that we imagine our own limits.

But this acknowledgement doesn’t mean we are condemned to our small models of reality. Robinson insists that as the seat of the soul, our human conscious activity becomes the very substance or spark of the divine within us and our means of coming to understand God and others around us. In the work of artful imagination, we learn to bear witness to our own felt experience but we learn to see it not as reality itself but “a little island of the articulable.” [12] What helps us to escape our entrapment in this little island is the act of communication. As we artfully imagine and express the experience of our lives, we become aware of a “reciprocal relationship between limited human consciousness on one hand, and, on the other, whatever it is that sustains this model and makes it, as I have said, stable, usable, testable, and thick.” [13] In other words, that which sustains our little model of reality and gives it legitimacy as a working model is divine providence. So paradoxically, we are only conscious of ourselves precisely to the degree that we discover “we are somehow a little enclave of qualitative [and experiential] unlikeness,” in comparison to something much greater that we imagine, reach after and begin to intimate. [14] Consciousness feels separate, different, our own, but when used creatively it also teases out—like a man feeling walls on his way to his bedroom in a dark house—the outlines of other people’s subjectivity and the possibility of other realities, other truths.

So we can send out our little articulations—the words we speak, the diaries we keep, the emails we write, the love we express—hopefully with enough creativity and sensitivity that we can probe and discern the outer limits of our own being and of others. Again, we shouldn’t be surprised to discover that others and the world around us are not what we expected, that they bump and bruise us or that even in our relation to God, we have to undergo major revisions of what we thought we understood about Him. Robinson wants us to think of this more like how we send out satellites or probes into space: “when we fling some ingenious mock sensorium out into the cosmos so that it can report back what it finds there, inevitably it provides human answers, data addressed to notions of relevance that, however sophisticated, are human notions. We will never know what we don’t know how to ask, which is probably almost everything.” [15] Of course a novel would be one of the highest forms of a “mock sensorium” but any attempt to imagine the inner life of the soul and to give it expression and share it with others, is at some fundamental level the same effort. If our articulations engage the full range of “our inventiveness, our imagination,” the more likely that, like a good satellite or probe or like the studying out the Lord commended to Oliver, they will bring back better information from more distant spheres about who and where we are. [16]

In this mutual exchange of felt experiences—as we read, study, experience other cultures and entertain and test other ideas and values in the humanities—our spirituality, our soulfulness is most manifest. It is as if our own sense of soul is enhanced to the degree that we cultivate greater and greater awareness of the expansiveness and diversity of forms in the universe and the many souls—the myriad islands of the articulable— all around us. When I think back on my freshman year in college, reading The Odyssey and the Bible and Ovid and Martin Luther and Darwin and James Joyce, and discussing these books late into the night with my dorm mates, each of whom saw and read things differently than I, I think of those exercises as more than intellectual. They were exhilarating soul-expanding and deeply spiritually fulfilling experiences. I wasn’t necessarily arriving, at least not yet, at certainty about some things—in fact many questions were opening up—but I was relating to others and discovering the diversity of experience around me. The most impoverished human soul is the one who does not understand the rich uniqueness of one’s own lived experience as well as the diversity and richness of experiences all around us.

Robinson has often wondered what a strange and miraculous thing it is that we are capable of, even compellingly drawn to, imagining fictional lives and communicating those lives to others. This work of dramatizing the human experience stirs the soul of readers to a deeper awareness of the mystery and beauty and dignity of just one ordinary human life, of each and every little island of the self. The fact of our fascination is evidence of love, she seems to suggest, underwritten by the presence of God. And Robinson insists that fictional characters emerge from the everyday action we all engage in of “watching” live persons, “from reading emotional significance in gestures and inflections.” [17] Think of how often we do this, even with those we know most intimately. What did my wife mean by that glance she gave me across the dinner table last night? How should I interpret the silence of my daughter on the drive home from school? Why are those two strangers on the bus laughing? This is the compassionate work of listening, and as we make our most imaginative guesses and send out our signals to see what response they might inspire, we are doing artistic work, albeit in primitive and perhaps simplistic form. With enough imagination and attention to the strangeness and wonder presented by the physical presence of another human person, “these moments of intuitive recognition float free from their particular occasions and recombine themselves into nonexistent people the writer and, if all goes well, the reader feel they know.” [18] This compassionate work of the imagination is the emergence of the sacred—like smoke from ashes— from the very seedbed of our lives, the rising up of repurposed, remembered experience as art. Art, then, becomes a witness to an encounter with the sacred mystery of human life and consciousness. Perhaps for this reason Robinson, like so many authors before her, has compared writing to prayer, since prayer too is a way of imagining God and imagining ourselves with Him, in order to tease out a real and living relationship.

We start to see here an argument that imagination is not just necessary to faith but that faith is in fact a form of imagination—if it is evidence of things not seen, we might say that faith expresses itself in those acts of imagination that bear fruit, that have begun to reveal what cannot be seen. This by no means lowers the dignity of faith. To my mind, it shows us how important our own creativity is to making revelation possible. As we saw with Oliver Cowdery, revelation requires a reciprocal exchange of gifts in which the Lord reveals and we offer, repurpose, and consecrate our own mediated weaknesses, the very conditions of our lives in imaginative and passionate acts of communion with God. We might say that in a more spiritually aware state of mind, we are simultaneously more aware of the divine and the profane, of our heavenly and earthly conditions.

Novels, of course, are much more mundane than scriptures but that doesn’t mean we can’t find holiness in them. I love that surprise. A novel might not have anything explicitly to do with Christ or the importance of covenants, but if we read with the love of Christ as both our motivation and our desired object and we are covenanted with him to “lay hold of every good thing,” it is more likely that what we read will assist us in seeing life more as He sees it (Moroni 7: 21). Some of the most moving parts of scripture, by the same token, are when holiness comes unexpectedly, as for example in the story of the two men walking on the road to Emmaus. They hadn’t anticipated Christ would be present at their own ordinary meal in their own ordinary home. Quite the opposite. They were mourning his absence and yet there he was. Literature, art, music have a similar way of exposing the most extraordinary and perhaps invisible in what is most ordinary and visible before us. And in probing the most ordinary, the most hourly and daily of human experiences, the arts help us to “sense what cannot be said.” [19] The arts resonate most with artistic imaginations that wonder enough to see the mystery of existence and of earthly life itself. When I weep at the bittersweet beauty of, say, the poetry of Robert Frost or at the pain and suffering in a Cormac McCarthy novel, I find myself oddly filled with hope for my own ordinary life.

So then arises the perennial Christian question: where do I draw the line? Is there no such thing as profane art that should be avoided? Is all human thought worthy of my attention? My short answer would be of course not, but the question pertains to how we think about people. Some live with great dignity and integrity and shed love and goodness in the world as they wittingly or unwittingly do God’s work and others harm, exploit, and abuse others without compunction. So clearly not all human beings are worthy of emulation nor would make good companions. However, it is also never easy or even correct to see others as purely good or purely evil. Our covenant with Christ does not permit us to disrespect, objectify, categorize or otherwise dehumanize individuals, even when we identify danger or evil resulting from their actions. We are to pray for and love our enemies, to see them as Christ sees them. This alone requires faith, charity, and hope for others as well as for ourselves that is born of an imagination capable of seeing potential, some shred of goodness that we might not see clearly yet but can imagine and hope is still there.

We are commanded to read the best books, not bad ones. I like to think I am getting closer to knowing the difference, but I have learned through sad experience that I simply cannot get everyone to agree with me about what is good and what is bad. The truth is, I am not always sure myself. Why can’t we just all agree on what is lovely, virtuous, or of good report? I value the pursuit of truth, beauty, and virtue, but I have come to understand that the pursuit alone helps me to form bonds of affection with those sometimes unpredictable facts about others and about myself I wouldn’t otherwise see if I gave up on truth altogether. So by all means, we should seek the best books, but we might want to be patient with the process and avoid premature and false judgments by listening more carefully to one another. Too much of our energy is misspent trying to convince one another about how we ought to see and experience the world when our time would be better spent listening to one another to learn what it is we like or dislike and why.

Consider again Robinson’s metaphor of the probe and how like an experiment it is to sift and sort as we move forward. Moroni tells us that something comes from God if it inspires is to do good; if it inspires us to do evil, then it is of the devil. And if we remember President Kimball’s injunction about sacrament meetings, we are reminded that we have the greatest responsibility for what nourishes and or what diminishes us. Jesus said that it is not what goes in us that condemns us but what emerges from the depths of our deepest desires. This highlights the responsibility of our own individual consciousness to mediate and make good sense of the world. It also suggests that our love of truth and our faith in God and in the restoration behoove us to embrace the process of the search for more truth and to tolerate tensions that arise from our differences of interpretation. After all, Moroni tells us that we should “ye should search diligently in the light of Christ that ye may know good from evil; and if ye lay hold of every good thing, and condemn it not, ye certainly will be a child of Christ” (7:19).

The priority then is on active engagement of our imagination in the searching for and laying hold of every good thing. This proactive approach is quite different from an embattled fear of being attacked or of being wrong or deceived. Love of truth must be greater than fear of error, just as our love of God must be enough to love our enemies. It seems to me that this places us in a position of openness to others and to ideas while remaining anchored by our covenant in Christ. In the gospel, we are circumscribed not by a fence that keeps truth free from error, but by a commitment to become true children of Christ who lay hold of every good thing. Our objective is not to be right but to be good. We cannot be successful defenders of the truth if we are more concerned about how we think than about how we act. That is not to say that ideas are not important or that the thinking life and the pursuit of truth do not matter. Far from it. Precisely because transcendent truth matters so much, a healthy distrust of our own minds and the ease with which we can deceive ourselves would help us not to over-sponsor our own thoughts and listen carefully enough to learn new things. Anchored in fidelity to covenants, we can wander through the world and wonder at what we see in great safety and strength, capable of seeing the good in as many places as it can be found, especially the surprising ones.

Let me conclude with a passage from Robinson’s masterpiece, Gilead. This is a story of an aging minister who has married and had a child late in his life. He knows his time is short and so he finds himself, like Rilke had expressed, imagining his life is already over and looking back on it with fondness. From this special vantage point, he is in a unique position to communicate to his son what his existence has meant:

This morning I have been trying to think about heaven, but without much success. I don’t know why I should expect to have any idea of heaven. I could never have imagined this world if I hadn’t spent almost eight decades walking around in it. People talk about how wonderful the world seems to children, and that’s true enough. But children think they will grow into it and understand it, and I know very well that I will not, and would not if I had a dozen lives. That’s clearer to me every day. Each morning I’m like Adam waking up in Eden, amazed at the cleverness of my hands and at the brilliance pouring into my mind through my eyes—old hands, old eyes, old mind, a very diminished Adam altogether, and still it is just remarkable. [20]

So our minds, which wander, are capable of the one thing that perhaps makes us exceptional in the creation: we wonder. And in our loving wondering, instead of becoming passive in our experience of life and shaped and controlled by circumstance, we begin to see that we have the power to place ourselves in a kind of paradise—here and now—if we will but imagine how to see life from that divine distance that looks upon us in our ordinary and imperfect conditions with love. I have to think this is perhaps what Isaiah hints at when he reminds us that the “whole earth is full of God’s glory” (Isaiah 6:3). If we fail to see the inherent worth of souls, each and every one including our own, let alone the worth of bees or grass, the lilies of the field, or field mice, to understand that our Father has “created [us] from the beginning, and is preserving [us] from day to day, by lending [us] breath, that [we] may live and move and do according to [our] will, and even supporting [us] from one moment to another” Benjamin warns us that we will be “unprofitable servants” (Mosiah 2:21). This is the kind of grateful heart, lit afire by the glory of God’s creations, that is the least likely to be offended or compromised by contact with a fallen world. I leave you with this idea shared with me by a friend: Jesus walked comfortably among all people and when a bleeding woman touches Jesus’s garment, although he feels grace leave him, he is neither diminished nor rendered impure. Instead he stanches her bleeding and makes her whole and holy. That to me is the redemptive power of a consecrated Mormon as she engages the wide variety of peoples and cultures of the earth.



NOTES:

[1] Walcott, Derek. White Egrets: Poems, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 29. [Back to manuscript].

[2] Rainer Maria Rilke, The Essential Rilke, Selected and Translated by Galway Kinnel and Hannah Liebmann (New York: Ecco, 2000). p. 99. [Back to manuscript].

[3] The Essential Rilke, p. 129. [Back to manuscript].

[4] From this poem, “Sunday Morning.” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/resources/learning/core-poems/detail/13261 -- [Back to manuscript].

[5] The Essential Rilke, p. 119. [Back to manuscript].

[6] Robinson, Marilynne. The Givenness of Things: Essays. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 8. [Back to manuscript].

[7] Givenness, p. 22 and p. 35. [Back to manuscript].

[8] p. 35. [Back to manuscript].

[9] p. 113 [Back to manuscript].

[10] p. 221 [Back to manuscript].

[11] p. 21 [Back to manuscript].

[12] p. 21 [Back to manuscript].

[13] p. 221 [Back to manuscript].

[14] p. 220 [Back to manuscript].

[15] p. 220 [Back to manuscript].

[16] p. 227 [Back to manuscript].

[17] Robinson, Marilynne. When I Was a Child I Read Books. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2012, p. 6. [Back to manuscript].

[18] Ibid. [Back to manuscript].

[19] When I Was a Child, p. 20. [Back to manuscript].

[20] Robinson, Marilynne. Gilead. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2004, p. 66-7. [Back to manuscript].



Full Citation for this Article: Handley, George B. (2016) "Faith and the Imagination: Lessons from the Humanities for Latter-day Saints," SquareTwo, Vol. 9 No. 3 (Fall 2016), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleHandleyFaithAndImagination.html, accessed <give access date>.

Would you like to comment on this article? Thoughtful, faithful comments of at least 100 words are welcome. Please submit to SquareTwo.

COMMENTS: 2 Comments

I. Dan Belnap

I’ve been teaching for awhile now that imagination is an integral part of exercising faith, though I’ve approached it from Alma 5 where the introspective passage beginning in verse 14 includes the following imaginative scenarios: “Do you look forward with an eye of faith and view this mortal body raised in immortality?...I say unto you, can you imagine to yourselves that ye hear the voice of the Lord, saying unto you, in that day: Come unto me ye blessed?” If exercising faith is a cognitive experience, and associated with recognizing the unseen even when reason says otherwise, then imagination is essential to doing so effectively.

_____________________________________________________________________________

II. Thomas F. Rogers

George Handley has written a deeply insightful essay. Much as I concur with what both he and Marilynne Robinson tells us about the value and importance of better understanding and appreciating the ‘other’ through the mediation of literature and the arts, my own take—see “The Sacred in Literature” in both Literature and Belief 1 (1981): 57–69 and in Thomas F. Rogers, Let Your Hearts and Minds Expand (Provo: Neal A. Maxwell Institute, 2016, pp. 255–269)—has as much tended toward our thus acquiring a closer recognition of the commonalities—of what we and the ‘other’ have in common and with which we can personally identify, disposing us to be less judgmental and uniting us with greater empathy and, yes, divine compassion. In that respect, the humanities also render the ‘other’ less other.

Years ago I mentioned to the late Arthur Henry King—our august British, former Quaker member of the BYU English faculty who had earlier been awarded Tolkien’s chair at Cambridge (or so he claimed) and later, as a Mormon, also served as president of the London Temple—that I thought imagination played a significant role in faith, with which Arthur readily concurred. (One summer the leaders of ASBYU also sponsored a debate in the Wilkinson Center courtyard between King and myself, at the time Honors program director, on the topic—“Should there be censorship at BYU?” More conservative than I, Arthur argued the affirmative.)

At the conclusion of the panel I moderated this past September at UVU in commemoration of DIALOGUE’s fifty year jubilee—our panel including film maker Sterling Van Wagonen, our brilliant novelist and short story writer Jack Harrell (now on the BYU English faculty), two noted LDS playwrights Eric Samuelsen and Scott Bronson, and the avant-garde artist Brian Kershisnick—it occurred to me to cite Lowell Bennion’s maxim that in our daily life --and not just as artists or writers—we should ALL be creative. Which further affirms the important role in our thinking and meditation of imaginative speculation.

But—as with the artists and writers I just mentioned—such speculation (however seriously and sacredly held) is only each individual’s own personal ‘Truth’—unless others sufficiently respond to it. Or unless that individual is himself a prophet.