Arts and Culture

Imagination Enables Faith to Flourish and Deepen

by Father Robert Lauder

READING Father Michael Paul Gallagher’s Faith Maps: Ten Religious Explorers from Newman to Joseph Ratzinger (New York: Paulist Press, 2010, 158 pages, $16.95) has been an enjoyable experience in more ways than one. First it has been enjoyable to become reacquainted with thinkers I have studied previously and to see how Father Gallagher summarizes their thought and which of their insights he chooses to emphasize. It has been even more enjoyable to become better acquainted with thinkers I have heard of but have never had the opportunity to study. Finally it has been enjoyable to discover which thinkers are the original sources of some interesting and challenging ideas that I have previously embraced without knowing their origin.

More than anything, like Father Gallagher, I want to make the insights of some great thinkers accessible to more people. That’s why I am writing this series of columns. Theology is an exciting discipline and in the Church at this moment we need more not less theological knowledge. Reflection on the mysteries of the faith should not be left to only the professional theologian.

Accessible Insights

Each of us to some extent should try to see the implications of our religious faith in our life. Many of us might not have the time, the energy or the educational background to read the scholarly works of some theologians. That is one reason why a book like Faith Maps is so valuable: Father Gallagher makes wonderful insights accessible for us.

One of the insights of John Henry Cardinal Newman that Father Gallagher makes clear is Newman’s insight into imagination. He writes the following about Newman’s notion of imagination:

“The focus is not on pure thinking or some separated version of rationality, but on the process of discovering truth and acting on it. This is what is implied by Newman’s favorite term ‘real.’ The opposite of the real is the notional, indicating an intellectualism remote from the drama of decision and commitment. Here Newman was being courageously counter-cultural. He wanted to unmask the illusion of neutrality that has come to captivate his contemporaries (and ours) as the only credible way to truth. In its place, and somewhat in the spirit of St. Augustine, he explored the more personal drama of our seeking and finding…

“If Newman had lived a century later, he might well have used he term ‘existential’ in place of ‘real’….For him the function of imagination was literally to ‘realise’  faith, in the sense of making God real in a person’s life.” (pp. 14-15)

The key to Newman’s notion of imagination and the importance he gives to it is, I think, that it enables faith to flourish and to deepen. How do I imagine myself as a priest? How does a Catholic imagine himself or herself as a believer? Of course by imagination Newman does not mean the imaginary in the sense of fantasy or wishful thinking. In fact he means almost the opposite. I think for Newman imagination enables faith to become incarnate in a person’s everyday life.

Examples help me to understand the importance that Newman gives to imagination. Suppose I think of being a priest as being someone who was ordained to administer sacraments but whose ministry or apostolate has little if anything to do with his living in this world. This would be a situation in which my imagination should broaden to understand more deeply what it means to be a Christian believer and more deeply what the meaning of priesthood is. If my imagination does that, I may come to see that however I imagine the priesthood, the meaning of being a priest will always be more than and better than anything I can imagine.

Another example would be a member of the Catholic laity whose understanding of the sacrament of baptism focuses completely on entrance into heaven, almost thinking of the sacrament only as a ticket to heaven. That person’s imagination should broaden so that the person can see that the meaning of the sacrament should transform our lives in this world.

Inspired in Different Ways

The broadening and deepening of our faith is a lifelong task for most of us. Each of us may find that the Holy Spirit inspires us in different ways

For example, I have found reading Faith Maps not only intellectually stimulating but inspiring. Whenever I am with my friends I want to talk about the book, about the insights that Father Gallagher offers, about how some of the ideas may be useful to us in trying to spread of the Good News. Someone else reading the book might have a very different reaction. Even if a person liked the book, even thought the book to be theologically and philosophically profound, he or she might not find the book inspiring. The Spirit blows where it will.[hr] Father Robert Lauder, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn and philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, writes a weekly column for the Catholic Press.