Imagination is one of the most under appreciated faculties of the human experience. We start out in our youth with a rich imagination, willing to dream about anything. As we grow, we begin to “get serious,” which usually means that many of our childhood dreams are proven to be wrong or our parents try to make us “buckle down” when beginning school. Growing up as a dreamer, I began to see that the “Josephs” of the world, wrapped in their “coats of many colors,” often have a hard go of it in modern society. Though my brothers never threw me into a cistern or sold me into slavery, I began to learn an unfortunate truth about life: The world can be very harsh on those who dream, daring to contemplate a world beyond themselves and invite others to do the same.
The deeper truth, however, is that this “demystification” of imagination as a childish trait does not need to happen. In fact, imagination is central to every aspect of daily life. Without our imagination, we would not be able to survive, debilitated and buried under a world of “raw data.” There needs to be, in the human person, some type of interpretive “organ” to take this data and turn it into something that is meaningful. C.S. Lewis explored this very question in Mere Christianity and a lesser known article entitled “Bluspels and Flalansferes: A Semantic Nightmare,” defining imagination as the “organ of meaning.” (Check out this summary from the C.S. Lewis Institute entitled, “The Importance of Imagination for C.S. Lewis and Us.”) Drawing upon the power of metaphor, Lewis argues that imagination allows us to grow in truth through the use of image, both in science and in faith, leading the mind to refine its understanding of the world we live. From this standpoint, imagination emerges not as the childish fantasies of a hopeless dreamer that needs to be discarded, but is a necessary, childlike quality of the soul, leading to a deeper understanding of God and the world.
How does this understanding of imagination as the “organ of meaning” apply to faith and science? It may be a little bit of a stretch, but I find a parallel when exploring the role of imagination in interpreting images of the night sky and in interpreting the Bible. As a hobby astronomer, I have always wanted to be able to take images of what I see in my telescope to study, but also to admire as something beautiful. The deceptive part of astrophotography is that many of the images that you see on the internet or in books are “false images.” With the advancement of digital editing software, one can take an image of the night sky and manipulate every aspect of the picture. Therefore, a debate emerges in the astrophotography community over the difference between “true color” images and “false color” images. Now, the use of the words “true” and “false” automatically intuits an ethic of right and wrong. However, one must be careful not to over simplify this distinction when it comes to night sky photography. For example, most high quality images of the night sky are not one image, but a “stacked” composite containing a number of images. One way to do this is take monochrome images of a galaxy or nebula through a green filter, a blue filter, and a red filter. These three images will initially come out gray. However, what you really have in these three “false” images are different sets of true data about the object that is being studied. Scientists who have been trained to interpret this data can use these filtered images to study the science of the stars, image by image. Therefore, even though theses filtered pictures are not a complete image on the night sky object, they contain a great deal of truth that is of great valuable. At the same time, the scientist knows that the one, filtered image they are studying does not tell the “whole story” of the object at hand. Eventually, these images, or data sets, need to be combined to get a true image.
That being said, just because these stacked images bring all the measurable data of an object together, the final image can still be altered dramatically based on the person who is combining the data. One astrophotographer, for example, may want their image to appear more blue while another wants their image to appear more red. Both astrophotographers will use the exact same data to “create” their images, but it can look very different based on their personal tastes and motivations behind why they are creating this image in the first place. In light of this, the astrophotographer needs to be in constant recognition of the influence their “organ of meaning” has upon interpreting their image of the night sky. Are they trying to create a true image of what the object looks like with the naked eye or are they trying to study certain chemical elements of an object that lay hidden from sight? Are they constructing an image that is meant for a professional periodical of scientific research or are they creating art that will hang over a fireplace in someone’s home? What we learn from this illustration is that having the raw data about a deep space object is not enough. We need to interpret the data in such a way that leads us from one level of understanding to a deeper level of understanding. Put another way, a well developed, well refined scientific imagination is essential for the hard sciences to explore truths of the physical world.
A parallel I see between interpreting astrophotography and faith is the Bible itself. If we use the analogy of our three monochrome images of the night sky, we find in the New Testament four Gospels that present us with four “images” of the life of Jesus Christ. The Church has accepted these Gospels as the Inspired Word of God, giving us a dependable “data set” about who the person of Jesus Christ is for us and the world. However, each Gospel highlights different dimensions of Jesus’ ministry and speaks to different segments of the early Christian community. Treated in isolation, one can learn a great deal about the life of Jesus Christ, his teaching, his ministry, and come to understand certain aspects about our Lord. However, if we think that one Gospel is enough to understand Jesus, we are stuck with a “black and white monochrome image,” removing the rich color and vibrancy that a “stacked image” of the Gospels presents. Therefore, similar to the astrophotographer who sits at her computer drawing out different data sets to create a color image of a galaxy or nebula, the Christian (and non-Christian) interacts with Scripture in such a way that begs a whole range of interpretive questions: What is the “real image” of Jesus Christ? How do we understand his human nature? How do we understand his divine nature? How do we understand Jesus as the Second Person of the Trinity? How do we understand Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection? What was Jesus’ role in creation? What does it mean to follow Jesus Christ? The interpreter of Scripture, then, needs to draw upon the rich Tradition of the Church to understand how the Bible was interpreted or “imaged” in the past. There is an accepted “data set” that all scholars draw upon to deepen their understanding of what it means to say Jesus is Lord. However, there is also a point when the “image” can become so distorted that it ceases to be a valid interpretation, leading to a more childish interpretation of Jesus Christ instead of a childlike interpretation of our Savior based on a refined sense of wonder. Put another way, a well developed, well refined Christian imagination is essential for someone to explore the truths of Christianity.
Reflect this week on how you imagine the world. Do you see the importance of a well refined, dreamer’s heart or have you fallen into the trap of thinking that imagination is only for the childish day dreamers of the world? Engage your “organ of meaning” this week and refine this tool of human experience so you might be able to obtain a childlike wonderment of the truths of our world.