The Christian imagination, unlike the imaginations of the Far East or the pagans, calls the mind upward into the vast expanse beyond the stars to meet with God face-to-face.
As the eyes are the windows to the soul, so is imagination a highway to God. The imagination is what distinguishes humanity from the rest of the animal kingdom; as John Milton poetically captured in Paradise Lost when Satan, fallen to earth, looked upon Adam and Eve, “Of living Creatures new to sight and strange: / Two of far nobler shape erect and tall, / Godlike erect, with native honour clad / In naked Majesty seemed Lords of all.” Milton’s emphasis on humanity’s erect nature and head directed to the stars, like the pilgrim Dante in Divine Comedy, is a critical moment to notice. For man, differentiated from the rest of the animals, has his head situated to gaze upon the infinite expanse of space and be called to communion with the God of inexhaustible abundance.
Giacomo Leopardi, the great nineteenth-century Italian poet, was prophetic in his analysis of the malaise of modern man in comparison with ancient man. Leopardi believed that ancient and medieval man was superior to modern man because of his imagination. Either in its pagan or Christian iteration, the man of previous epochs had an imagination that drove him to Trojan and Lavinian shores, lifted him up to see God face-to-face, and spurred him to create buildings which placed one at the center of an infinite and ever-expanding cosmos. The imagination of the ancients crossed the world and ascended toward the stars.
C.S. Lewis noted that mythological consciousness was important as a sort of praeparatio evangelica—preparation for the gospel. The pagans, for all their faults—which there were many—had a strong understanding of sacramental, enchanted, and mythic consciousness. They were saturated in stories. And, as Lewis said, they were saturated in poetry. They looked out at a world that was deeply mystical and enchanted; a world pulsating with life at every turn that was once beautiful and terrifying all the same.
Where the pagans went wrong was in identifying the signifiers for the thing-itself. The pagans turned the creation, which was a majestic sign pointing to God, into the Divine itself. Ironically, this materialization of the infinite also shackled their imaginations to the corporeal realm and therefore couldn’t reach to infinity and beyond, but hit the moons and stars and stopped there. The imagination ascended like Phaeton only to fall back down to earth and be shackled by it.
It was, ironically, this divine materialism which cut the pagan heart, and mind, off from the infinite. The gods, as Augustine explained in his critique of the Roman pantheon in City of God, were nothing more than personifications of natural forces at work. The pagan imagination, rich and powerful as it was, was not an infinite imagination. It was an imagination grounded, structured, and limited to the finite. For in its materialist theology it could not see beyond the created order (or eternal cosmos) to the infinite expanse of the Trinity and the abounding creativity and love existing in the Triune Godhead beyond space and time. As Augustine also stated in De Trinitate, it is the Christian imagination that moves beyond the beauty of the material realm and into the illuminated magnificence of the immaterial world because the human imagination is tied back to God which Christianity liberates from finitude to the infinite.
This mythological consciousness, however, was an important steppingstone to the infinite imagination. For it helped ease the transition from the limitations of the finite to the ever-expansive. Christian art, architecture, and literature most poignantly captures this infinite reality.
Pagan stories of pilgrimage and sojourning never ended with the arrival into infinite heaven, but a temporalized city of earth. Even the abodes of the gods were limited to the finite sphere. The pagan family too, though praised, was shackled to earth. Pagan aesthetics and architecture, despite all its grandeur, has an unmistakable carnality to it as if bearing down onto the viewer rather than inviting the viewer to the infinite vanishing point as is the case with Christian aesthetics and architecture. It is overwhelming and overburdensome rather than inviting and calling one to participation. The pagan aesthetic of the sublime, to borrow from Edmund Burke, was about astonishment, amazement, and vast dimensions. Just look at the Coliseum or the Parthenon for such evidence.
One of the peculiarities with the new paganism sweeping historically Christian cultures is that the paganism of contemporary neo-pagan fantasy is still tied, and indebted, to Christianity. The great paintings detailing the pagan histories and divinities were commissioned by the Catholic Church and Catholic artists. The preservation of Greco-Roman and Nordic-Germanic stories was because of the Church’s Christianized reception of these stories. The great operas harkening back to the pagans swam in currents with Christian themes and symbolism throughout. As Sir Roger Scruton has said of Richard Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung, it was “more or less Christian” in its deeper message and symbolism despite having the aesthetic veneer of Germanic paganism. The emphasis on estrangement from nature, suffering temptation, and the renunciation of power for love, were all born of the Christian seed rather than the rage of Valhalla.
The paganism of heroic humanism, sacrifice, and beauty is a paganism baptized in the water of Christianity because the sacrificial signification of the pagan heroes was not a fatalistic conceit but a true gift of self to others in love. The loss of Christianity, then, entails the loss of all that was good in paganism. The exhaustive result is a “paganism” of a dog-eat-dog struggle reminiscent of social Darwinism more than the imagined baptized paganism seen through a Christian prism which is the lens of redemption out of the darkness.
Part of the crisis of modernity is that moderns lack an imagination, just as Leopardi recognized long ago. Moderns are glued not to the wonders of the created world and, by extension, the invisible world which the created world signifies, but to the crudeness of technology and digitized screens. Moderns are equally depreciated in seeing only matter and nothing more than matter. Here, even the pagans were superior for at least they had a sense of the mythic, the divine, and dialectic, in the matter they observed and dwell in. There was a divine vitalism to their material cosmos rather than the empty and bleak materialism of today.
From head erect and mighty to head down and gloomy. From eyes peering at the infinite expanse of creation to eyes glued to artificial digitization made by human hands and programming. Oswald Spengler, hardly a Christian, nevertheless said that one of the defining features of Western (Faustian) civilization was its obsession with the infinite. Western man, owing to his Christian imagination, reaches higher and higher to the noumenon and beyond. Western man, and Western civilization, is what it is because of the medieval Christian inheritance and not the soulless and reductionist unimaginativeness of atheism and leftwing censorship and deconstruction.
Walk into any traditional church and cathedral and you immediately experience a sense of not merely the transcendent, but the infinite which is tied to transcendence. There is a mediation between man and the infinite God. The architecture directs one’s gaze upward to the infinite vanishing point. Walking the spacious flooring and looking in all directions makes you feel like you’re in the center of the cosmos with inviting space in all directions inviting you up to the heavens.
Sacred music, too, is infinite. Sacred music in its harmonious and otherworldly melody and tonality lifts the soul up toward heaven rather than being a burdensome and overbearing clamoring of sound that bears down on the person like Atlas being forced to hold up the world on his shoulders or Sisyphus constantly struggling to push the boulder up the hill only to have it fall down and be forced to repeat this process forevermore. Augustine, in hearing the chanting of the Psalms during Liturgy, was so moved that he recounts in Confessions how sacred music was one of his first experiences of God calling him back to the straight and true.
Christian art, architecture, and aesthetics is supreme in this regard. It recreates the truth affirmed in Scripture and Christian anthropology that man is at the center of the universe—not as a pompous and prideful narcissist, but as a creature called to communion with the Divine. From the sanctified Christian perspective, Love is at the center of the universe and humans are made in the image of Love. After all, the raison d’etre for the cosmos God’s loving relationship with man and man’s loving relationship with God which invites participation with the infinite Divinity. Christianity is a story for this reason. It is the story of God’s love for man and man’s ascent to see God face-to-face and mouth-to-mouth to be lost in the zeal of adoration.
Moreover, stories entail imagination. Stories awaken the soul and, in turn, awaken the imagination. The history of the Christian imagination showcases this most superbly from the epics of Dante and Milton to Tolkien and Lewis. One of the important tasks of Christianity in the new century is to pierce into the slumbering soul and dead imagination of moderns and awaken it in resurrection. The imagination is sacred. It is a gift of God to humans. And there is nothing imaginative, or sacred, with repacking unimaginative political slogans sprinkled with holy water.
The Christian imagination, unlike the imaginations of the Far East or the pagans, does not locate praxis in matter but in the infinite. The Christian imagination is infinite because it calls the human person upward into the vast expanse beyond the stars to meet with God face-to-face. The gaze of the Christian into the vast expanse of the horizons of this world, or space, is a gaze into the eyes of God which calls man up to divinization—that union with the God beyond space and time because the created order, properly seen through Christian eyes, is a sacramental reality pointing beyond itself to the infinite Godhead calling man to union with Him.
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The featured image is “The Ancient of Days” (1794) by William Blake (1757-1827), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.