THE IMAGINARY VS THE IMAGINATIVE

5 April 2013 No Comment

I’m reading Alister McGrath’s new critical biography of C.S. Lewis (thanks to Mavis for the signed copy!). I was not sure that we needed another bio of Lewis, but am finding it useful and insightful because he engages Lewis’s writing more fully than the other bios, sort of a cross between “the facts” of earlier bios and the account of Lewis’s intellectual development in Alan Jacob’s The Narnian. I recommend it.

One of the ideas McGrath discusses is the distinction in Lewis between “imaginary” and “imaginative.” The imaginary is something “that has no counterpart” in reality (such as government budget projections). The imaginative is “something produced by the human mind as it tries to respond to something greater than itself, struggling to find images adequate to the reality.” In this sense, says McGrath, the world of Narnia is an imaginative one, not an imaginary one. (Same with Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.)

I think this a very useful distinction in thinking about matters of faith. It requires the imagination to even begin to understand God and the story of faith. Analytic reason has a role to play, but it is not up to the task of mediating our understanding of and relationship to God (a central theme in my The Skeptical Believer: Telling Stories to Your Inner Atheist.)

When we approach God (or God approaches us) through story, poetry, art, ritual, and the like, we are doing so not in order to “beat around the bush” or because we are afraid to tell it straight, but because these have proven the most effective ways to get glimpses of the truth that resists frontal approaches. We “tell it slant” (Emily Dickinson) because “slant” gets us closer to where we need to get.

Daniel Taylor

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