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A Cruciform Imagination, Part 2: Theistic Philosophy as Literary Theory

As the first part [1] of this post indicated, we cannot define the imagination as merely the faculty of pretending or making up the imaginary. This is for two reasons: first, such a definition shortchanges our ability to understand and employ the function of imagination within daily life, and secondly, as a result, it truncates our ability to comprehend how the production of imaginary scenarios could inform our lives. When we think of pretending merely as an escape or a playtime, then it seems like merely a pleasant diversion from the business of real life.[1] [2] A better definition of imagination, I think, is that it is the faculty of perception by which we see true patterns which exist between phenomena, and that it is therefore the imagination which allows us to reason about the data which we perceive through the sensory system. This definition can be derived from the theistic philosopher Boethius, who says the following in his Consolation of Philosophy [3]:

Man himself also, sense, imagination, reason and intelligence look at in different ways. For sense examines the shape set in the underlying matter, imagination the shape alone without matter; while reason surpasses this too, and examines with a universal consideration the specific form itself, which is present in single individuals. But the eye of intelligence is higher still (bk V).

In other words, our senses provide the experiences from which our imagination derives patterns, so that we can then reason about the significance of those patterns. Literature, under this understanding, is thus a pattern seeking effort on the part of the imagination to derive shape without matter from our experiences, so that we can think more clearly about those experiences. Tolkien echoes this philosophical understanding of imagination in On Fairy Stories [4], where he provides his understanding of fantasy:

The mental power of image-making is one thing, or aspect, and it should appropriately be called Imagination… Art [is] the operative link between Imagination and the final result, Sub-creation… Fantasy… does not destroy or even insult Reason… On the contrary. The keener and clearer is the reason, the better fantasy will it make (47-55).

Under this view, the goal of writers of literature should not be to fabricate lies, but to use the power of imagination to make more explicit the patterns of life. However fantastic the productions of imagination may be, they ought to be fantastic to the end of making vivid perceptions which the writer deems efficacious at illuminating some truth which ordinarily can only be glimpsed in day to day life.

According to the conception provided by Tolkien and Boethius, therefore, the purpose of crafting or encountering vivid imaginative experiences is to provide our reason with richer patterns that allow us to contemplate logical truths about God and His creation more deeply. It may be asked, however, why one might use theistic philosophy for literary interpretation rather than applying biblical theology to texts directly. As shall be seen, the theistic philosophers attempt to understand those truths which Scripture says are known even to the Gentiles without the special revelations of the Holy Spirit as found in the Bible. Romans 1, for example, teaches that the unbeliever has no excuse; Acts 17 teaches that it is possible even for pagans to know that it is in God in whom we live and move and have our being; and if every good as well as every perfect gift comes from the Father of Heavenly Lights, as James wrote in his epistle, then it is possible to know goodness through God’s created order even apart from Scriptural understanding. One can believe this and also believe, as I do, what is stated in many descriptions of Christian faith, such as the 39 Articles of Religion: “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation” (The 1928 Book of Common Prayer [5], 603).

This is not to undercut the necessity of Scripture within the Christian life, but rather to underscore that Scripture itself points us to epistemic resources in the world by which we are to better know God and by extension to understand His Word. We could not, for example, understand Christ’s parables if we had no knowledge of how the world worked. Scripture provides the final authority by which we learn God’s Truth, yet all truth belongs to God, and we should avail ourselves of those resources wherever they prove useful to increasing our knowledge. Augustine’s preface to On Christian Doctrine [6] provides a powerful articulation of this point, explaining that if God chose to reveal His perfect truth through men rather than through angels, then we should expect to learn as well, however imperfectly, from other men, and not boast that we can ourselves interpret Scripture perfectly without assistance from the community of the Church: “No, no; rather let us put away false pride and learn whatever can be learnt from fellow men” (Preface [7]).

Philosophy is also helpful for reading literature for two reasons: it helps us to acknowledge problems of interpretation, and it allows us to read literature without falling prey to the instinct to simply allegorize literature to force from it a Scriptural meaning (or alternatively to assume it is flatly contrary to Scriptural meaning). Of course, Christians must realize that the inerrant truth of God’s Word does not mean that our interpretation of Holy Writ is inerrant, and so philosophical interpretation of other texts can hone our skills for proper interpretation of the Bible. Secondly, although the purpose of literature is not necessarily always to illustrate Christian truth, this does not mean that it is antagonistic to Christian truth.[2] [8] Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, for example, labors to interrogate the evils of racism that undergird the institution of slavery, and while Twain’s perspective is notoriously far from Christian, the conscientious follower of God can nonetheless learn a great deal from reading his narrative carefully. Theistic philosophy can help us to investigate the way in which natural revelation (as depicted in Scripture) emerges from productions of imagination.

Theology as an approach to literature certainly can be and has been fruitful, but it is, in Boethius’s epistemic terminology, two orders higher than the faculty of imagination – it uses revelations from the divine intellect to study productions of human imagination. Using instead the constructs of human reason, guided by faith in divine imagination, to interpret human imagination allows for a more thorough exploration of natural revelation as it may appear within the context of metaphor and narrative. Descartes puts it this way: “Divine authority is to be given precedence over our perception; but, that apart, it is not fitting for a philosopher to assent to anything he has not perceived” (Principles of Philosophy, Art. 76). Anselm calls this approach “Faith seeking understanding,” where the individual uses reason to explore how to understand a Scriptural teaching from within the framework of human epistemology, a process which requires recourse to the epistemic power of imagination. Anselm’s humble approach to theistic philosophy is an inspiring example for the Christian intellectual to follow: “I do not try, Lord, to attain Your lofty heights, because my understanding is in no way equal to it. But I do desire to understand Your truth a little, that truth that my heart believes and loves. For I do not seek to understand so that I may believe; but I believe so that I may understand” (Proslogion [9], 87). This approach allows the interpreter of literature to avoid excessive allegorizing of a text’s symbolism to force it to accord with specific doctrines (although exploring how they may or may not accord is of course valuable and even essential), while still allowing the Christian to use the given piece of literature as an occasion to contemplate her relationship with God and neighbor.

In an upcoming three-part series, “Tolkien’s Hobbit and Theistic Philosophy,” I will present a concrete application of this perspective.



Anthony G. Cirilla is an assistant professor of English at College of the Ozarks in Branson, MO, where he lives with his beloved wife, Camarie. He writes articles about theistic philosophy in medieval literature, modern fantasy, and videogames.



[1] [10] David Smith and Susan Felch make this point in the context of centering the importance of imagination for pedagogical purposes: “We often associate imagination with creativity or fantasy… But that’s only one side of what our ability to imagine allows us to do. Exercising imagination need not mean inventing things; it’s also a way of putting things in context and knowing where we really are… This side of our imagination is active every day as we process the perspectives on the world that come at us from others and frame our own intentions and actions” (Teaching and Christian Imagination [11], 3).

[2] [12] This is why, as Jeffrey and Maillet argue, it is necessary to have a Christian philosophy of interpretation, not simply Christian beliefs: “[A] Christian literary theory should be guided by clear philosophical principles and methodology appropriate to a faithful interpretation and evaluation of literary texts” (Jeffrey & Maillet, Christianity and Literature [13], 36).


Blog Banner Image: Oma erzählt Märchen (Grandmother’s Tales), painted by Rudolf Carl Gottfried Geißler. 1866. Public Domain [14] {{PD-US}} by age, resized by MR.