The Moral Imagination, Part 1

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Eighteenth century philosopher and statesman Edmund Burke wrote about the need for a “moral imagination.”  Russell Kirk explained what he meant by that phrase:

By this “moral imagination,” Burke signifies that power of ethical perception which strides beyond the barriers of private experience and momentary events “especially,” as the dictionary has it, “the higher form of this power exercised in poetry and art.” The moral imagination aspires to the apprehending of right order in the soul and right order in the commonwealth.

In other words, the true purpose of art is not a light escapism or mindless entertainment, but to reflect and to produce an understanding of what it means to be truly human, and for humans to live together rightly.  The “highest form” or this moral imagination, Kirk and Burke argue, is not found in propositional statements of truth (though those are necessary), but in “poetry and art.”

Madeleine L’Engle expressed a similar sentiment.  Noting, in Walking on Water, that when she observes injustice, neither theology nor philosophy help her much, she writes the following:

The painters and the writers who see the abuse and misuse of freedom and cry out for justice for the helpless poor, the defenseless old, give me more hope; as long as anybody cares, all is not lost. As long as anybody cares, it may be possible for something to be done about it; there are still choices open to us; all doors are not closed. As long as anybody cares it is an icon of God’s caring, and we know that the light is stronger than the dark (117).

It’s not that the theology and the philosophy are not needed and helpful explanations. It’s that we need the “icons of God’s caring” as well, because the icons – the symbols – reach us at the level that rational explanation cannot.  Propositional theology is always attained at the surface, moral, and allegorical levels of meaning – which is not a bad thing in the least; it’s just not all there is.

This is why imaginative fiction, and the Bible itself, have a transformative effect on us – they take us through journeys not just of words and explanations, but of actions, metaphors, and symbols which powerfully move us.  C.S. Lewis, for example, framed his entire Narnia series on the imagery of medieval cosmology – the seven heavens.  He framed his Ransom Trilogy on the symbolism literary alchemy – a practice as old as Shakespeare (Romeo and Juliet) and as new as J.K. Rowling.

This is why fairy tales are more than just kids’ stories. This is why fantasy fiction isn’t just a fringe genre for geeks. Any story that helps us escape not “from the real world,” but “to more permanent things,” as Tolkien said, is worth the journey through its pages. As Tolkien wrote:

Why should a man be scorned, if, finding himself in a prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?


10 Comments

  1. Profile photo of Andrew Peterson

    Andrew Peterson

    @andrew

    Great thoughts, Travis. I had time to reflect on a lot of these ideas in Omaha last week, talking to several hundred kids about the Wingfeather Saga. The way the kids lit up whenever I talked about Fangs and dragons and adventure points to the truth in what thou sayest. (Don’t know why I just drifted into Olde English. It felt right.)

  2. LauraP

    I love that notion of “icons of God’s caring” reaching us at the level that rational explanation cannot. From His heart to ours — a sudden flash of understanding and recognition. ‘Twas very cool to watch those sparks flying between AP and his audiences last week.

  3. Profile photo of S. D. Smith

    S. D. Smith

    @sdsmith

    Dang you, Prinzi. I had a post ready with a similar idea, but you intimidate me with your eloquence.

    I am struck by how I am still drawn to your concept of the necessity of moral imagination (and indeed I recently wrote something similar..only in Pig Latin) and yet my belief in the importance and power of propositional truth only increases as well. I appreciate you touching on that.

    I suppose we need to hear these truths many different ways and I know this is a recurring theme here at the RR. It’s an element that drew me in from the start.

  4. Benjamin Wolaver

    ‘Briefly, you can only find truth with logic if you have already found truth without it.’ – G.K. Chesterton

    Nuff said…

  5. Mark Nikirk

    Travis,

    “It’s that we need the “icons of God’s caring” as well, because the icons – the symbols – reach us at the level that rational explanation cannot”

    Just curious, at what level (referring to the four levels of a story) do you think this starts to work on us? Also, do you think that once a story is ‘peeled back’, and its icons are exposed, does it still communicate truth in the same way…or is it even richer?
    -Mark Nikirk

  6. Tony Heringer

    While taking my son, also named Travis, to the dentist this afternoon, I pondered the thoughts in this post. It reminded me of Spurgeon and his use of illustration.

    Here’s an excerpt from an article talking about his use of story (for the full article go here
    http://www.internetevangelismday.com/spurgeon.php):

    “A sermon without illustrations is like a room without windows,” he commented. He was constantly on the lookout for illustrations and filed them away for use. He read secular books widely, as well as drawing parallels from nature, medicine, agriculture and the wider world. He was very much in touch with the culture of his day. One of his students remarked how hard it was to find illustrations. “Yes,” said Spurgeon, ”if you do not wake up, but go through the world asleep, you cannot see illustrations; but if your minds were thoroughly aroused, and yet you could see nothing else in the world but a single tallow candle, you might find enough illustrations in that luminary to last you for six months.”

    I’ve heard elsewhere that he called illustrations or stories the hooks upon which you hang truth or the hook used in being a fisher of men. The Rabbit Room is a place where we can work to “thoroughly arouse our minds” for the glory of God and our greater good.

  7. Profile photo of Travis Prinzi

    Travis Prinzi

    @travis

    Mark, finally getting back to this. I’m thinking of the four levels of human existence, corresponding with the four levels of interpreting Scripture or any work of art. So, the “icons of God’s caring” reach us at the deepest, the anagogical level.

    Good question about peeling back the layers. It’s very easy to overanalyze anything. It might be a fun intellectual exercise to uncover the alchemical framework of Perelandra, for example, but does this cause it to lose its power? I don’t think so, because the work in the soul is still a mysterious work.

    But none of it is ex opere operato. It still has to land on good soil.

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