In his excellent essay, “Enchanting Children,” David Mills writes that the imagination is “the faculty that controls what we, and especially children, think the world is like.” In other words, one of the primary functions of the imagination is to control how we see—how we image—the world.
A moral imagination, then, is one that allows us to see the world in moral categories. It gives us, as Russell Kirk explains, an “ethical perception which strides beyond the barriers of private experience and momentary events.” A boy who has been raised on stories of chivalrous knights—stories of courage in battle and compassion for the weak—can transcend his immediate schoolyard dramas to see his playground from a far broader perspective, one that demands a particular response to this bully here and another to that friendless recluse there, standing alone by the swings. The boy has been given a moral and ethical vision by which he makes sense of his world.
This moral imagination is an excellent thing, so far as it goes. But I don’t think it goes far enough. And as much as I value what seems to be a renewed interest among Christians in the moral imagination, I think there’s also cause for concern.
German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that “Christianity is an amoral religion.” This does not mean that there are no moral implications for the Christian life, but that, at its core, Christianity is not a story of right and wrong, of good and bad. Rather, it is the story of all wrongs righted and the world made new again through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Christian parents who raise only moral or ethical children have failed. Instead, our goal is to raise our children in such a way that they develop a vibrant, life-changing relationship with the living Christ. Our goal is to raise our children so they see the world not from a moral perspective only, but from a peculiarly Christian perspective.
To do this, we must shape their imaginations in such a way that Christianity’s claims about the world are believable. In other words, we must give our children a Christian imagination.
This Christian imagination is bigger than the moral imagination. It includes moral and ethical ways of imaging the world—the virtues of duty, self-restraint, love; a genuine appreciation of the beauty to be found in poetry and physical form—but it is also far bigger. It is resurrection and costly grace given unearned; it is existence spoken out of nothing by the Word who was and is and is to come; it is the imago Dei that gives its bearers purpose and worth and weight; it is an ending foretold in a feast and a wedding, in a final, glorious consummation at the end of days.
In his essay, David Mills writes of the Christian imagination. George MacDonald famously baptised C.S. Lewis’ imagination. And here at Story Warren, we speak often of the holy imagination.
All of these and others—Christian, holy, baptised, redeemed, sanctified—are more appropriate to Christian ends than is the term “moral imagination.” So let Christians lose this talk of the moral imagination and speak of a holy imagination instead.
Featured Image by Paul Boekell