Reawakening the Catholic Imagination

Keith Barltrop FAITH Magazine July-August 2006

The Ambiguous Power of Imagination In Times of Social Crisis

One of the most fascinating signs of the times today is the revival of interest in fantasy stories, and the images associated with them. The Lord of the Rings, Narnia, Philip Pullman’s work and Harry Potter are among our best selling novels and films, while angels, fairies, mermaids—and demons—are in vogue as never before in greetings cards, web sites and the growing interest in Japanese manga.

All this represents a turn to the imagination at a time of cultural crisis and conflict. With our own European culture well past its “best before” date, and with so many competitors in the field, the imagination, as represented above all by story and image, seems a more promising field than that of rational truth to those seeking a creative way forward.

Such an approach has deep resonance for Christians, especially for Catholics, as well as raising serious questions. The greatest Catholic theologian of our times, Hans Urs von Balthasar, turned in his magisterial Herrlichkeit (The Glory of the Lord), to the theme of beauty as a way of reviving a theology sterilised by rationalism and narrow scholasticism. In England many of the great imaginative writers of the last 150 years were Catholics or sympathisers: Chesterton, Hopkins, Dorothy Sayers, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, drawing, as Balthasar was aware, on a peculiarly English appreciation of the role of the imagination whose sources lie in Blake, Coleridge and Newman, to go back no further.

As Stratford Caldecott has written in the latest number of the Chesterton Review (p. 1), “every civilisation is the product not only of the human imagination but of a religious worldview. Some kind of faith in the transcendent is necessary for people to be inspired to look beyond themselves and form a community that has the power to bind them together.” At a time when the European Union, with Britain and France in the forefront, cannot bring itself even to admit in its Constitution the pivotal role of Christianity in forming our culture, popular instinct turns to fantasy to fill the void of meaning and transcendence.

Lack of Imagination in the Local Church

How is the Church to respond to this development, and how prepared are we to recognise these signs of the times?

It was said of a great Russian pianist during the 1940s that she played Bach’s Forty-eight Preludes and Fugues, the very acme of a normally sober classicism, with such intensity that critics were moved to ask why: “Because we are at war!” she replied. Does the Church in England and Wales show any comparable signs of awareness of crisis in the way it plays the great themes of Catholic faith to today’s audience?

Positive signs are not lacking, but it must be said that the overall impression is of a complacency and failure to grasp the situation that borders on the unbelievable. Since in many ways this is itself a failure of the imagination, it is difficult to convey faith this impression by argument alone: it is something that you have to come to see, and which, once seen, cannot be forgotten.

It is noteworthy that Jesus accused his contemporaries precisely of such a failure in the realm of the imagination, and linked it to a moral failure, for the moral and the aesthetic are deeply intertwined (Balthasar again). “You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky; but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” (Lk. 12:55)

Christian Imagination as Spiritual Insight

As for Jesus himself, his human power of imagination was fully alive and in harmony with what we may by analogy call his divine imagination or creativity. Nowhere is this better seen than in Matthew’s beautiful description (9:36) of Jesus’ way of seeing the people: “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” Where the Pharisees saw a useless rabble, and the disciples a problem, the imagination of Jesus penetrated to the reality, he was moved with compassion, and acted accordingly.

The world of advertising, both commercial and charitable, knows this power all too well. Conjuring up a tropical beach immediately arouses in us the desire to get away from it all, while portraying starving children in Africa has us reaching for our credit card. But how does the Catholic imagination portray the spiritual state of England and Wales and what action does it lead to?

Catechetical Incoherence and Evangelical Paralysis

The general lack of what Pope John Paul II called a “new ardour for the new evangelisation” among us argues persuasively that our imagination has wandered down the wrong paths. When I was working for the bishops on the creation of a new agency for evangelisation, which eventually became CASE, a Catholic layman working for the Church actually said to me, “Why on earth do you want to get Catholics involved in evangelisation, when there are so many non-Christians already living the values of the Kingdom?” What in heaven’s name is the picture we have allowed ourselves to create which leads to such incoherence and paralysis?

I admit this is not a question admitting of simple answers, but it is precisely the role of the imagination to grapple with such difficulties and create something new: in that it shares in some way in the Creator’s creativity. Our picture of the Church and the world used to be very much a matter of black and white, so that the classic image of evangelisation was a St Francis Xavier struggling heroically from morning to night to baptise Indian babies JULY/AUGUST 2006 in order to save them from hell. Such a picture will not work in a multi-cultural society or in a Church whose most recent Council encouraged us to look for the positive signs of the Spirit’s presence in the world as well as his all-too-obvious absences.

Indeed, our whole understanding of the relationship between grace and nature, retrieved so painstakingly from the Tradition by de Lubac and others, and enshrined in the Council, demands new pictures to do it justice.

Where are we to find such pictures? I would suggest two main sources, distinct but closely related.

Source of Imagination: Wonder at the Gift of Being

The first I have already hinted at in referring to the compassion of Jesus. The Navarre Bible, that wonderful commentary which has done so much to seed the wasteland of contemporary Biblical scholarship, refers in connection with the passage I quoted from Matthew (9:36) to words of St Margaret Mary Alacoque: “This Divine Heart is a great abyss which holds all good, and he commands that all his poor people should pour their needs into it. It is an abyss of joy in which we cast away all our burdens; an abyss of humility in which we discard our pride. It is a fount of mercy for the wretched, an abyss of love in which to drown our weakness.”

In other words, it is very much the role of what are sometimes called popular devotions to furnish the imagination with pictures of God which appeal not just to the head but also to the heart and so stir us to action. The Sacred Heart and the Divine Mercy are examples of such devotions, as of course are the many forms of devotion to Our Lady, St Joseph and other saints.

The attitude of many Catholics in England and Wales to such devotions is breathtakingly negligent and contemptuous. All too often they are written off as the preserve of a few strange people who happen to like such trifles. But as Bishop Malcolm McMahon pointed out recently in a meeting of CASE, if you go to countries such as Poland, the Divine Mercy is mainstream, particularly among young people. When popular devotion is lacking, the heart dries up, and the will loses its energy to live and share the Gospel in its fullness.

One reason popular devotions have withered in England and Wales since the Council is a mistaken idea that the aim of catechesis is to promote an “adult faith”. This highly ambiguous notion has done a great deal of harm, and has all too often been used to pour scorn on anything that can be labelled simplistic, overly dependent on authority, or—that other great bogey of today’s Church—“fundamentalist,” which is usually a code word for anyone who believes the Gospel might actually be worth believing and acting on, especially if they belong to one of the new ecclesial movements.

"Adult" Faith and the Death of Devotion

The repeated use of precisely the opposite image, that of childlike trust, by Jesus should immediately arouse suspicion of the agenda hidden behind this whole notion of an “adult” faith. Returning to our theme of fantasy literature, it was Chesterton who pointed out that most fairy tales portray a world of delights which is, however, bounded by an unexplained moral injunction: Cinderella can go to the ball but must be back at midnight, Pandora has a magic box but must not open it, etc. So, too, Adam and Eve are placed in a paradise, but must not eat of a certain tree. The one who tries to argue them into an "adult" faith has the name of Satan.

The whole point of this, Chesterton argues, is that it is the very existence of things which should excite our wonder and reverence, the wonder of the child. We did not create the world, and it is not for us to question its fundamental rules, but to marvel at the gratuitous fact of our being here at all.

This is the heart of the child, awaking to wonder, as Balthasar was fond of saying, at its mother’s smile, so far from today’s world where people make and break their own rules ten times a day, re-invent even their own gender if they so decide, and dress in a way that, far from expressing any self-transcendence or even self-enhancement, reduces everyone to an androgynous blur.

Of course, there is another sense in which the child should indeed evolve into an adult, in the realm of faith as well. We must learn to take responsibility for our actions and their consequences; we must face the inconsistency between our sinful dispositions and the holiness of God, and take the medicine, bitter at times; we must face the complexities both of human behaviour and of faith. But if by doing all that we lose the heart of the child, we have lost the plot itself.

Confronting Reality: A Shock to the System

To return to the recreation of the Catholic imagination today, I would point to the film The Passion of the Christ as a prime example. Whatever one’s personal feelings about the film, it seems clear that Mel Gibson was trying to deliver a cardiac shock to the imagination, Christian and non-Christian, of our times; saying in effect, “Look in graphic detail at what God’s Son did for you. Can you see these images and remain indifferent to his love? This is the very fact on which our civilisation is built: how can you say it is of no significance? Better to spit in his face with the Roman soldiers than ignore him.”

Another way of putting this is that the contemporary Church in England and Wales has tended to opt for Martha over Mary. The lives of many of us simply mirror the frenetic business of today’s culture rather than standing as a counter-sign to it. Martha is alive and well at countless meetings at which there is no vision, consultations at which there is no passion for an authentic ecclesial life, planning groups in which there is no strategy based on the Gospel.

Where Mary languishes, not encouraged to contemplate with burning heart the abyss of the Saviour’s mercy, “is it any wonder that pastoral plans come to nothing and leave us with a disheartening sense of frustration?” (Pope John Paul II, Novo Millennio Ineunte 38).

The Second Source: Recognizing Spiritual Poverty

If rekindling through imagination a sense of Divine Mercy is one side of the task, the other is surely imagining our world in ways that lead to authentic evangelisation. What is the spiritual and cultural equivalent of the picture of starving children that will move us to action? As the founder of Opus Dei said, commenting on the same passage of Matthew, “If we were consistent with our faith when we looked around us and contemplated the world and its history, we would be unable to avoid feeling in our own hearts the same sentiments that filled the heart of Our Lord.”

To have a comprehensive picture of our world belongs to God alone: human beings, even with the aid of grace, must be content with snapshots. Such insights are not lacking in the novels, films, and art of our time, but we must create the time and space to reflect on them, both alone before the Lord and with others in the Church. The teaching of Pope John Paul II and his successor are filled with suggestions for such meditation.

How many people, for example, who have seen contemporary films such as The Matrix or The Truman Show have reflected on the images they provide us with of human beings trapped in the very plethora of images their technology has created? How many who pass an enjoyable hour in our art galleries see mirrored in the art of the last 100-200 years vivid portrayals of the desolation and yearnings of humanity today?

Novels also furnish many images which can stir the heart of a Catholic. One of the most unforgettable for me is the passage in Douglas Coupland’s Life After God, where three twenty-somethings go to spend time in the desert near Las Vegas simply to tell each other stories, because they have come to realise that it is not healthy “to live life as an isolated succession of cool moments.” How much is conjured up about today’s culture in that phrase.

The Courage to Imagine a Pro-Life World

This recreation of a Catholic imagination has many aspects which I will have to leave readers to work out for themselves, but I want to allude particularly to its relevance to issues of life and sexual morality. No treatment of our contemporary Catholic malaise can fail to mention the devastating effect on the coherence of our faith of the related issues of abortion and contraception.

With abortion, as Aidan Nichols has written in his Christendom Awake, the problem is that our courage fails in the face of repeated failures to change the law. Our imagination also fails at the thought of the sheer scale of the problem. How can we begin to assess the devastation wrought at the hidden (and not-so-hidden) levels of our society by so much murder disguised as therapy or lifestyle solutions?

Comparisons with the Nazi or Stalinist murders are just indeed, but not unproblematic: they are both similar and different, yet the essential dilemma is surely the judgment of posterity: how will future generations view our inaction in the face of such evil, when we ourselves judge harshly the complicity of previous generations in the evils of their time? If violent protest is not the answer, how can the Catholic imagination be stirred to see this issue and its resolution in the light of Christ’s passion and the sufferings of his martyrs?

Contraception: Daring to Challenge The Erotic Idol

Although contraception is on a different level of moral gravity than abortion, its widespread acceptance in the western Catholic world has no less devastating effects. Here I am not just thinking of contraception as a practice but as a mentality, a way of thinking about sexuality which severs the affective from the procreational, and the physical from the spiritual.

Sexuality has become a god who must be worshipped in today’s society. Enthroned on his altars, whether “straight” or “gay”, he must be honoured and served on every possible occasion. Anyone who dares confront him or call his bluff will be treated with fury. This is why any suggestion that Humanae Vitae is still valid, or that celibacy for the priesthood still makes sense, or that handing out condoms might not be the best way of combating AIDS, is treated not just with contempt but with thinly disguised rage, not only by self-confessed secularists but by nominally Catholic journals such as The Tablet.

Once again, it is not just the head, but the heart and the imagination that will have to provide the answer. Rehearsing the arguments of Humanae Vitae, excellent and compelling as they are, is not of itself enough. A new way of seeing and picturing authentic human sexuality has to be found.

Fortunately we do not have to do this from scratch: the rudiments of it are there in Pope John Paul II’s magnificent Theology of the Body. But the reception of this teaching in the Catholic Church here has been disappointing, to put it mildly, enamoured as we still seem to be with the same tired slogans about the primacy of individual conscience and the need to adapt to today’s mentality.

Beyond Modernism: A Truly Catholic Renewal

To conclude; the way we picture God’s mercy and the way we imagine today’s world are closely related. We do not know what sin is until we glimpse God’s holiness. We have no idea of human misery unless we know we are destined for glory and communion with God and his saints. The works of Tolkien and Lewis frequently contrast the innocent world of the hobbits or the enchanted planet, with the world of Mordor or “that hideous strength.”

But another connection the Catholic imagination needs to make is where the whole enterprise is going for us in England and Wales. The phrase “conversion of England” used to galvanise our energies, admittedly towards a goal that was rather narrowly conceived. We need a post-Vatican Two equivalent, something both truly Catholic and yet usable in our multicultural society, something that will get us out of the ghetto we are still largely in, but not in order to conform to middle-class culture, rather to call it to conversion, alongside Christians of other Churches moved by the same zeal.

We could do worse than begin with the call issued by the American bishops a few years ago to their people, in which they announced the aim of their evangelisation initiative as “to let every American know they are freely invited to join us in the fullness of Catholic faith”. Orthodox Catholic belief, as Chesterton and countless others have stressed, is the reverse of boring: it has all the “Splendour of Truth”, the excitement and adventure of exploring the countless riches hidden in Christ.

To invite others—all others—in our society to Christ and his Church is not coercion, manipulation, or spin; it is simply to invite them to awaken in heart and mind to what human beings are created for, since, as Gaudium et Spes tells us (no. 22), it is only Christ who fully reveals man to himself.

Faith Magazine

July - August 2006