by Frank Muller
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CS Lewis once said, “For me, reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning. Imagination, producing new metaphors or revivifying old, is not the cause of truth, but its condition.”
This is an extremely deep and profound insight into one of the great mysteries of human consciousness and our sentient nature. Take the time to consider his statement carefully and do not casually pass it by.
This intersection of truth and meaning has enormous implications not only in our moral and ethical choices but certainly it moves us to carefully consider the ordering of things and why.
It is with great sadness that I hear “sola fide”, that is faith alone as a defense for a belief. This circular logic asks us to set aside our rational reasoning powers and, in the process, lose the meaning of a thing. This then reduces a thing to a soundbite that feels good but is foundationally illogical. This is the great trap in certain Christian and philosophical traditions that sets aside reason in the name of faith alone though it is for certain that this is not the Christian tradition of the early Church.
Reason is the mechanism we are given in the natural order, and we are the only known creatures with this transcendent power. Animals and plants can seek their instinctual drive by thinking but there is no evidence that anything else occurs above that instinctual thinking level.
So often we can look at our pets and marvel at how “smart” they are and then we assign human descriptions to our pets because we set aside our reason for the faith that their actions must have some meaning as we understand it. Science proves again and again that many creatures can think in alignment with their instincts but there is not any significant evidence that shows an animal can understand the meaning of things and its’ why.
The reason for this is that imagination is the conduit upon which our reasoning can rise to meaning. This is why people love stories that tell truths within the context of those stories. This fires our brain in a very special way that other creatures do not experience. It is through the use of imagination that we can construct new worlds and ways of penetrating the meaning of things. Science is in fact built upon this faculty and scientists dream and construct hypothesis’s and then test them against that reason.
Turning to Scripture, when we read Scripture with the active use of our imagination – that is – we place ourselves actively into the scenes imagining the temperature, the feel of the wind, the sounds, the smells, the touches then we begin to unlock the brains’ remarkable ability to reason through the puzzles of human relationships and what is happening and its’ true meaning.
It is not a coincidence that our Creator uses tangible objects and parables of tangible things to explain Truth. These sacramental signs (which means to use something tangible to speak of something intangible) are the bedrock of the Creator’s revelation of Himself to us through what our reasoning minds can process and our imagination can then unlock the meaning.
In fact, he reveals to us what we already know about ourselves and experience if we carefully consider. Our minds can take us to enormous flights of fancy and these flights can be applied to matter that is good and beautiful or to matter that is ugly and perverse.
This natural order can be applied to learning economics, a second language, tasting wine, and millions of other intellectual activities. It is what makes the ordinary, extraordinary. It does not set aside reason; it embraces it but in an imaginative way to unlock its’ actual meaning.
Children learn syllables and word ordering not just by reasoning but by playing games with their imagination. Watch preschool and kindergarten teachers make learning imaginative and fun. This way of learning should not be limited to just children but to all of us since we are all children if we are seeking the Truth.
Below is a link to a fabulous author and academic discussing this topic more fulsomely. I encourage us to watch these videos and I pray that reading great works of literature that teach meaning through imagination is a gift that will last a lifetime for each of us.
Dr. Bainard Cowan, Director of the Donald and Louise Cowan Center and Archive and Louise Cowan Chair Professor of Literature at the University of Dallas sits down with Dr. Jessica Hooten Wilson, Louise Cowan Scholar in Residence at the University of Dallas, Hiett Prize winner (2019) and author of the recently released The Scandal of Holiness: Renewing Your Imagination in the Company of Literary Saints, for a conversation on the writing life, its rewards and difficulties, and its role in our time.
See the first in a series of conversations below or through our portal at the University of Dallas website:
May Peace be with us all.