I am going to attempt more of an essay here than I normally do. Fun fact: Essay means try. That’s an oversimplified version of the truth. I had a professor explain it in a personal nonfiction class once, and a cursory Google study tells me the etymology is from Middle French, which makes sense because “essayer” is a French verb that means “to try.” So fun. Hope you think so too, and I’m not the only nerd here. All that to say, my first sentence is redundant.
I recently attended a conference on Apologetics and the Christian Imagination. Very niche, I know, but also great. It’s a theology conference for the likes of me: obsessed with fiction, in love with ideas, always wanting to know more about philosophy than I actually attempt to learn, etc.
One seminar I attended was called, “Imagination in the Western Philosophical Tradition: A Select History”. It was taught by a philosophy professor from a local university. She was engaging, funny, and very good at teaching. She’s one of those people that can make you rethink what you’re doing because what they’re doing seems so obviously interesting and important. (Note: I am always rethinking because everyone else usually seems to be doing great things.)
It is a constant struggle for me to focus on what is in front of me – not to spend so much time (like the last 20 minutes) researching something that matters but doesn’t matter THAT MUCH for what I’m currently doing, which is TRYING to write something in the time I have. I just investigated which translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy I should order when I decide to purchase it. The philosophy professor spent a lot of time talking about it as a prime example of imagination used in Christian philosophy. That’s where I’m going with this.
In the Divine Comedy, Dante writes of a pilgrim’s journey through hell, purgatory, and on to paradise. I haven’t read it, so I am regurgitating what I’ve learned. (This makes me feel phony, which is why I spent so much time researching him/it just now.) Dante uses poetic images to evoke emotions in the reader, which leads to understanding of the moral lessons he is teaching. Like rationalistic philosophers, he values reason. Like romantic philosophers, he values emotion. He uses both to prompt an ethical response from readers: being afraid of this vision of hell should prompt one to hate sin and root it out. The Divine Comedy is from the fourteenth century, and it is still being translated, studied, and viewed as one of the most important written works of all time.
We need imaginative renderings of the Christian life and Christian concepts. If our imaginations are stimulated, we can see ourselves and life in general more clearly, and we can move toward real knowledge of the truth. I don’t want to imagine what it would be like in hell, but doing so might give me more reason to pursue righteousness. Imagining what it might be like in paradise, and seeing it in contrast to hell, might give me more reason and urgency to talk to people in my life about real things – about God, grace, and morality. Imagination is important.
I have been slowly reading a book called Seeing Through Cynicism, by Dick Keyes. It occurs to me that cynicism has become a large aspect of the Western, postmodern philosophical imagination. In the “Western Philosophical Tradition” (what my seminar presented), we talk about the likes of Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Rousseau, and Aquinas. Keyes talks about Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, and their greater influence on the philosophical air we breathe. (I also want to recognize and emphasize that I’m talking big-picture and “Western” here. I recently read a book in which it was recommended that we never say “culture” or “the culture” because that could mean a zillion different things. SO, when I say “philosophical air we breathe”…I know that’s a little problematic.) I also realize that we are in an interesting period of time currently…in which it doesn’t necessarily seem accurate to say postmodernism is central…but I’m not an expert. I’ll come back to this.
The ideology critique that is used by Keyes’s philosophers tries to undermine the Christian faith. The critique says that Christianity is used for unsavory purposes or to meet basic human needs, but it is not real. For these more recent philosophers, it is some sort of projection. It is an aid to the human imagination because it provides a story that helps people out of despair. It provides a narrative that justifies weakness and suffering (for the weak or for the powerful, in different ways). They approach Christianity with cynicism. Postmodernists approach all belief systems with cynicism. This is why no one can make claims of ultimate truth without facing derision. Because we can’t know anything for certain, we have to have a hermeneutic of suspicion. Anyone is entitled to believe what they believe, as long as those beliefs don’t have teeth – as long as they don’t impact anyone except the believer. Of course, it’s impossible to believe something that doesn’t have an impact on others. You can pretend it doesn’t, sure, but the fact that you are Buddhist means that you believe something in particular about the universe. You can allow me to be Christian. You can be “tolerant” all you want, but if you ultimately believe in Buddhism, you ultimately believe I am wrong. You know I’m not going to reach nirvana if I continue believing what I believe, but you don’t want to convince me. Only one thing happens after we die. We don’t get to choose our own adventures (i.e., nirvana for you, heaven for me).
I want to return to the question of whether or not “postmodern” is an accurate label. It seems so at times. Relativism is the explanation for so much. Yet, when push comes to shove in the political sphere, we see very clearly where everyone stands…and how universalized they want their beliefs to become. The rise of cause-supporting and activism in recent years has also shown me that cynicism is not thoroughgoing. The phrase “silence is violence” has made me feel so guilty that I am not an internet activist that I’ve had to deactivate social media at different times. Yet the discourse to be had there seems less than productive, to put it mildly. All that aside, people are passionate about political causes, promoting social justice, and making a difference in the world. Perhaps cynicism is only a good coping mechanism for so long – after awhile, we need a change. Apathy and irony seem very hipster…which is a very millennial thing. What happens when millennials start to care about ethical consumerism and gentrification? Not saying we ALL do…but there are contingents.
Perhaps people would stop viewing the church with cynicism if the church became more active in the fight for justice – more akin to the early church that we don’t talk much about anymore. Less obviously hypocritical on a national/public level. The philosophical place that Christians can occupy (according to the professor), is one that values both rationality and emotionality. We should be both contemplative and active. But do our beliefs have teeth – do they have real meaning for our lives and how we engage with others? Are we prepared for that to be seen as unacceptable, or are we prepared to sacrifice the concept of truth for acceptance? Keyes states, “Earnestness and seriousness are out” (62). If they are starting to come back “in”, is there room for us to be earnest and serious? I think so – if we are not hypocritical, harsh, or overbearing. I don’t really think there is another way to live the Christian life besides being earnest and serious about following Christ.
In college, I took a class called International Human Rights in which it was a tremendous struggle for my fellow students to come up with any reason why human beings deserve to have rights. What distinguishes human beings from animals? What determines what human rights should be? There was a huge rejection of the concept of a soul, and people seemed confused and frustrated as to why we needed a reason. Why were we even discussing this? In addition to its being important, I think it was partially because our professor was Jewish and believed humans to be God’s image-bearers. He argued that there was no way to find specific reasons apart from some spiritual/religious belief.
There has been a cultural (mainstream American?) emphasis on the idea of storytelling lately. I love this and hate this. It’s great because I have always loved stories. I’ve been addicted to books since day one. I get obsessed with movies and television shows because of the stories and the characters in them. I want to know the story of every person I meet immediately, and it’s frustrating that I have to do that over the course of a whole friendship (even though I don’t tell my story up front, no way). Stories are special and personal and wonderful, and we can learn so much from them.
Yet, everyone has become obsessed with telling their stories. In some sense, this is a result of postmodern cynicism. “Any meaning that I have must be generated by me, for me and from my own resources: my story is all there is” (Keyes, 63). Our experiences are paramount. My reality dictates my truth. I can listen to and possibly appreciate your story, but it remains your story. Your truth belongs to you.
As a Christian, I’m to see the collective story as well as the individual stories within it. (What is the Bible, amiright?) I am given the story of the world and its savior. I am connected to the people in this story, and my story has a place. I occupy a place in the story, but my story isn’t of primary importance anymore. My story has a greater meaning or purpose because of the person at work in my life – the author himself. It is connected to a deeper truth, and I can find meaning in my story by looking to this truth.
I have tried to weave a lot of different threads through this little “essay”. Each attempt is an effort to keep learning through this written form of processing. Thanks for reading. I’m going to end with a quote from The Valley of Vision, which is a book of old prayers.
“May the truth that is in him illuminate in me all that is dark,
establish in me all that is wavering,
comfort in me all that is wretched,
accomplish in me all that is of thy goodness,
and glorify me in the name of Jesus…
Teach me that Christ cannot be the way if I am the end,
that he cannot be Redeemer if I am my own savior,
that there can be no true union with him while the creature has my heart,
that faith accepts him as Redeemer and Lord or not at all.” (168)