Imaginative Theology

Contents

Prolegomena

At root, all theology is imaginative. God is infinite and humans are finite. There is no way for the finite to grasp the infinite in its totality. In order to talk about God, humans must use representations of that which cannot be represented. Theology, then, also involves the making of graven images. And yet, Christian belief has recognized that there is a difference between idols and icons. While idols lead people to worship that which is not God—and not a few theologians have been tempted to worship the images of God that they have fashioned— icons direct people to the God who is beyond images.

When humans make icons, whether physical or mental, they are doing so in imitation of God, because God condescends to communicate to humans in images. The foremost image of God is Christ. Concerning Christ, the author of Colossians writes,“He is the image of the invisible God” (1:15). The Greek word for image there is εἰκών (eikōn), from which comes the modern word icon. Christ is the visible icon of the invisible God. By looking at him, humans see God. “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (Jn. 14:9).

While Christ is the very image of God, the world is full of images that present God’s attributes in visible ways. As Paul writes of God in Romans, “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made” (1:20). The Psalms and the prophetic books of the Old Testament would be much duller if images could not in some way represent aspects of God. Humans too bear the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27) We present a myriad of images for understanding the God who is both described in bodily terms and yet which no human can see and live (e.g. Exo. 33:20-23).

Most formal theology done now relies on concepts rather than on images. The preference for concepts over images is an old one in Western thought. People writing and thinking about God from Plato to Aquinas have conceived of God as the good. The difficultly with the good, as with any concept, is that it is difficult to grasp it in the mind as pure concept. It is like holding onto a perfectly smooth ball. An image always needs to be brought in to tack the concept down to something. The same is true for a concept like omnipotence where images of human strength quickly intrude. It is impossible to operate for very long in the world of pure abstract without having to turn to images. Instead of distrusting images, a conceptional types of theology tend to do, imaginative theology proceeds by embracing images.

Imaginative theology is a method that uses images to approach God.1 It is a via imaginis or way of images. In most cases we approach God via images that are like, yet unlike him, or through a dissimilar similarity.2 Images are both like God and not like God. To say that God is like a lion is not to imply that he has a golden mane and eats meat (cf. Hos. 11:10). Imaginative theology then is fundamentally a creative act. Generally it involves using existing images—there are really no new images—and arranging them in a new way, of making new connections between them and God.

In the following, I have stuck to examining imaginative theology in literature, particularly medieval literature, because that is my background. One could potentially look at imaginative theology in any type of art: painting, sculpture, dance, or music, to name a few. Literature is in some ways the easiest medium to look at for imaginative theology because its images are presented in words, the medium of most theology.3 Literature also resembles parables, which are familiar to students of theology. In uttering the words “the kingdom of heaven is like” Jesus was practicing his own imaginative theology.

The Divine Comedy

Dante’s Divine Comedy is imaginative theology par excellence. Dante’s journey through hell, purgatory, and paradise is full of vivid imagery placed within a systematic theological and philosophical framework. The poem’s encyclopedic nature, along with its reliance on Aquina’s Summa Theologica, have led it to be called a summa in verse. The Inferno is probably the most well known book of the Comedy because of its shocking and terrifying images. Who can forget the grove of the suicides where branches drip black blood or the damned who are frozen up to their eyes in ice? Yet Dante is also aware of the limits of images. The closer he moves to the dwelling place of God, the more his images starts to break down.

While Paradiso has some incredible imagery, it lacks the materialness of the Inferno and the Purgatorio. Speeches play a greater role in Paradiso, reflecting a shift from images to words. Light, something intangible, becomes a significant element in Dante’s descriptions. As he moves upward, Dante must continually apologize for his inability to fully describe what he is seeing. This change is only natural since Dante is trying to explain things that are beyond his earthly experience. To imagine hell, one only has to take the evil present in the world and intensify it. Showing perfect and untainted goodness is a more difficult imaginative task. However much one multiplies earthly goodness, it will always contain some imperfection.

Dante’s vision must be continually purified and strengthened as he moves higher, reflecting the view that we need God’s grace in order to see God. Even so, the things he sees can sometimes overwhelm his ability to take them in and at the end of Canto XXV Dante goes blind and must have his vision restored. He does at last have a vision of the Trinity and prefaces it with this apology:

From that point on, what I could see was greater
than speech can show: at such a sight, it fails—
and memory fails when faced with such excess.
-Canto XXXIII, (Lines 55-57)4

The images that confront Dante are beyond his ability to fully remember or put into words. After further apologies he finally gives a description of the three persons of the Trinity. He see them as three rings of light of equal circumference but different in color. In the midst of one of the rings, he sees the human image and tries to grasp with his eyes the dual nature of Christ.

and my own wings were far too weak for that.
But then my mind was struck by light that flashed
and, with this light, received what it had asked.
Here force failed my high fantasy (l’alta fantasia);
-Canto XXXIII, (Lines 139-142)5

The closer we get to God, the more our images break down. And yet, it is only by images that Dante reaches the height that he does. He has had an earlier glimpse of the nature of Christ when looking at a griffin (half lion, half eagle) reflected in Beatrice’s eyes (Purgatory, Canto XXXI).6 The higher does not stand without the lower and the lesser image prepares the way for the greater.7

The Dream of the Rood

Aristotle is sometimes criticized for basing his theory of tragedy solely on Oedipus Rex. Oedipus Rex becomes the perfect tragedy by being the definition by which all other tragedies are measured. For imaginative theology to exist as a category, I must show that it is not isolated to Dante or his Divine Comedy. If we move to the roots of the English language, I think we can do so.

The Dream of the Rood is potentially the oldest surviving poem written in Old English. It, like the Divine Comedy, explores theological ideas through images. The Dream of the Rood is a dream-vision in which the story of the Crucifixion is told from the perspective of the cross, i.e. the rood. Scholars have often examined the way the poem synchronizes one of the centrals event in Christian belief with a culture that would have looked on that event as a great shame. That the God of Christianity would allow himself to be executed on a tree by enemy soldiers was a difficult concept for the warrior mindset of the Germanic tribes to accept. Accordingly, the anonymous poet presents the crucifixion as a kind battle. Christ is a young hero who willingly mounts the cross, ready to face his enemies, while the cross acts as a member of his warrior band, ready to fight to the death at the side of its lord. Though the death of the Christ is presented in a more heroic light than in the Gospels, there is another layer to the imagery in the poem.

As it is still called in old hymns, the cross in the Dream of the Rood is frequently referred to as a tree. In four of these instances, it is simply called treow, while in a fifth it is called gealgtrēowe or gallows tree. Trees and gallows have a special resonance in Germanic and Scandinavian mythology. The most important tree in Norse mythology is Yggdrasil, a giant tree at the center of the cosmos. The name Yggdrasil seems to mean Ygg’s Horse, with Ygg being an alternate name for Odin and horse being a kenning for gallows.8 This relates to a story about Odin contained in the Poetic Edda, a collection of Norse mythology. (Odin’s name in Old English, Wōden, is where we derived the name Wednesday from). In the story, Odin/Othin hangs on a tree for nine nights in order to gain runes, which give him secret and powerful knowledge.

I wot that I hung on the wind-tossed tree
all of nights nine,
wounded by spear, bespoke to Óthin,
bespoken myself to myself,
[upon that tree of which none telleth
what roots it doth rise.]
Neither horn they upheld nor handed me bread;
looked below me—
aloud I cried—
caught up the runes, caught them up wailing,
thence to the ground fell again.
-“Hávamál” (Sts. 138-139)9

The parallel to Christ’s own hanging on a gallows tree is clear. It is so similar that it has raised suspicions as to whether this was an original part of Norse mythology or only developed on contact with Christianity. Since most of our written information about Germanic religions come via Christian authors or long after Christianity was prevalent, it is probably impossible to answer this question with certainty. Still, if we suppose that the story of Odin hanging on a tree at least dates back to early interactions between Christianity and the Scandinavian world, an interesting comparison is set up. Malcolm Guite draws attention to this in his discussion of the two poems in the book Faith, Hope, and Poetry.

For though Odin hung on Yggdrasil, though he visited the dead, though he gained the power of resurrection, he was no saviour. He could not meet or deal with human pain and alienation. Through his suffering he acquired personal power and magic knowledge, but he emerges in his resurrection as an incalculable one-eyed god exercising the power he learned from the runic alphabet, entirely at and for his own behest, not as a self offering to take away the dreamer’s sins and win him heaven.10

_MG_8065

A reproduction of one of the 10th century Jelling runestones. The image is of Christ wrapped in the branches of a tree, though the similarity to Odin is clear. From Wikimedia.

The anonymous author of the Dream of the Rood is not only presenting a more heroic Christ through the use of creative images, he is also presenting Christ as a superior alternative to Odin.

The Dream of the Rood brings up one potentially controversial aspect of imaginative theology; imaginative theology often makes use of imagery from non-Christian and pagan sources. Can Christian art draw on pagan images without smuggling in pagan ideas? Some Christian traditions try to isolate themselves from the world because of this fear. Yet such a fear takes a low view of God as creator, for if God is the source of all that has been made, all symbols and stories ultimately derive from him. The raw material with which cultures and religions throughout history have constructed their myths come from God. When Christians incorporate them into imaginative theology, they are re-appropriating and redeeming them. All points back to God in the end.

Pearl

British Library MS Cotton Nero A.x. (art. 3) f. 038 recto (illustration to Pearl)

An illumination from the Cotton Nero A.x manuscript which contains Pearl.

If we work our way up the tree of English literature, we come to another piece of poetry that uses images to do theology. Like the Dream of the Rood, Pearl is presented as a dream-vision. The Middle English poem begins with a father grieving at the grave of his young daughter. Exhausted, he falls asleep on the spot and is transported to a paradisiacal landscape where he sees her. A river separates them, but they are able to talk and he asks her questions about her current state. Some of the poem deals with questions that a grieving father might have, like why was an innocent girl allowed to die so young. Most of their discussion surrounds the nature of heaven and the afterlife. In a reversal of roles, the daughter lectures her father about how God rewards people and what society is like in heaven.

The poem is layered with symbolism, particularly relating to gemstones, with the titular pearl being the narrator’s daughter. (Pearls carried the idea of purity in the Middle Ages.) There are modern translations of the poem available, though they will probably never do justice to the original. The poem’s combination of alliteration with a complex rhyme scheme and an interlocking pattern of repetition are difficult to retain in Modern English.

At the Back of the North Wind

I have focused so far on medieval literature because that is where I am most comfortable. However, it is well to note that imaginative theology is not limited to the Middle Ages. Moving closer to our own time up the English tree, we find that many of George MacDonald’s works can easily fit into this category. Novels like Phantastes and Lilith show an imagination that was alive to the power of images. Since MacDonald was a pastor, his images are often inseparable from his theological ideas.

While the above novels are aimed at adults, At the Back of the North Wind is one of MacDonald’s children’s stories. The protagonist is another gemstone, a lower class boy in Victorian England named Diamond. The story centers around Diamond’s many adventures with the North Wind. Like Pearl, death is a theme in the narrative. At the Back of the North Wind goes farther than Pearl does in looking at how a good God who is all powerful can allow evil to take place. It is a testament to MacDonald’s incredible imaginative ability that he can present a theodicy in the midst of a children’s story.

At the Back of the North Wind was written at a time when literature aimed at children was becoming its own distinct genre. Imaginative literature became increasingly associated with this developing genre. Many of the great works of children’s and young adult literature during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are imaginative or fantasy literature.11 In contrast, works written during this same time period that are considered adult or serious literature by critics are overwhelmingly realistic fiction. Thus, for the modern era, realistic fiction became the primarily domain of adults and serious readers, while imaginative literature was written for children. This is not to say that their weren’t authors writing imaginative or fantasy literature for adults at the time. Rather, their works of imaginative literature tended to receive recognition and sales only when they were directed at children. This is certainly a long way from Dante calling his Comedy “l’alta fantasia.”

Fantasy literature geared towards young adults, like the Harry Potter series, but popular among adults, have opened the way for the popularity of fantasy aimed at adults. (Would the conversion of George R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series into the “Game of Thrones” TV series have been as successful without Harry Potter?) Comic books, which were originally associated with children and teenagers, are become blockbuster movies and popular TV shows. TV itself seems to be breaking away from realism into shows about vampires, zombies, superheros, the supernatural, and sci-fi.12 Of course, the popularity of imaginative stories do not mean that more writers are doing imaginative theology. American Authors, like Americans in general, are less likely to be familiar with the rich theological frameworks that Dante and George MacDonald had.

The Shack and the Future of Imaginative Theology

The most recent work of what could be considered imaginative theology that I am aware of is The Shack. In many ways, it is a modern version of Pearl. However, it produced an explosion of criticism from certain areas of American Christianity when it was published. The criticism it received has merit. However, one must consider the imaginative work that the author was trying to do. Portraying the Trinity is tricky business, even for the great writers. Dante played it safe by prefacing his description of the persons of the Trinity with multiple apologies and then portraying them as equal circles of light. Whatever Milton’s actually theological views were, his portrayal of the Father and Son in Paradise Lost will always make him vulnerable to accusations of Arianism. If William P. Young failed, it was because he dared to take his imaginative portrayal where one should fear to tread. The closer we get to God, the more our images tend to fail us.

And yet I sympathize with Young because he tried to write an imaginative work for adults about a difficult theological subjects. His book should have spurred a response in kind and we could have had some great works of imaginative fiction about the problem of evil and the Trinity, but it is far easier to criticize imaginative theology than it is to write it. I fear that to much and the wrong kinds of criticism of The Shack has the potential to discourage such work. It is also far easier to sit on our imaginative laurels than it is to try new experiments.

If we rest content with the works of C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and J.R.R. Tolkien, authors who have had an incalculable influence on my life and thought, imaginative theology will die. (Lewis himself was not without criticism for his work). Every new generation of Christians needs to exercise its imagination and that may mean going, like Bilbo, out of what is considered safe and proper in our insular communities. This is not the casting off of all restraint that it might appear at first. We may find ourselves, like Bilbo, being guided by a considerable amount of luck along the way.


  1. Imagination comes from Latin imago meaning image. Col 1:15 in the Vulgate begins “qui est imago Dei invisibilis”
  2. cf. Pseudo-Dionysius, “The Celestial Hiearchy,” in Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works, trans. Colm Luibhéid and Paul Rorem (New York: Paulist Press, 1987), 151–53.cf. also Charles Williams’s Dionysian ideas:Two spiritual maxims were constantly present to the mind of Charles Williams: ‘This also is Thou’ and ‘Neither is this Thou.’ Holding the first we see that every created thing is, in its degree, an image of God, and the ordinate and faithful appreciation of that thing a clue which, truly followed, will lead back to Him. Holding the second we see that every created thing, the highest devotion to moral duty, the purest conjugal love, the saint and the seraph, is no more than an image, that every one of them, followed for its own sake and isolated from its source, becomes an idol whose service is damnation. The first maxim is the formula of the Romantic Way, the ‘affirmation of images’: the second is that of the Ascetic Way, the ‘rejection of images’.C.S. Lewis, “Williams and the Arthuriad,” in Arthurian Torso (London: Oxford University Press, 1969), 151.
  3. I also can’t help noting that Christ is not only the image of God, but the Word of God. Imaginative literature combines word and image.
  4. Dante Alighieri, Paradiso: A Verse Translation, trans. Allen Mandelbaum, The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri, pt. 3 (New York: Bantam, 1986), 299.
  5. Ibid., 302–3.
  6. Just like the sun within a mirror, so
    the double-natured creature gleamed within,
    now showing one, and now the other guise.
    Purgatorio, Canto XXXI, lines 121-123

  7. What would the Comedy be without the image of Beatrice, or as the title of Charles William’s book puts it, The Figure of Beatrice? Dante would still be stuck on the ground.
  8. Lee M Hollander, trans., The Poetic Edda (Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 2011), 36; Malcolm Guite, Faith, Hope and Poetry: Theology and the Poetic Imagination (Farnham, England ; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2010), 39.Kennings are a couple word figure of speech in Germanic poetry that function a little like riddles. One could refer to a ship as a wooden horse or a sword as a battle-light. In a darkly humorous way, a gallows can be referred to as a steed or mount on which the condemned “rode.”
  9. Hollander, The Poetic Edda, 36.
  10. Malcolm Guite, Faith, Hope and Poetry: Theology and the Poetic Imagination (Farnham, England ; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2010), 39.
  11. Imaginative literature and fantasy literature can, in many cases, be used interchangeably. Fantasy derives from Latin phantasia, itself from the Greek φαντασία. The idea of an appearance or image is contained in both. However, the term fantastic theology doesn’t have the same seriousness that imaginative theology does.
  12. Simultaneously there is a shift from a primary consumption of stories through written mediums to performative mediums. The shift away from consumption of written stories is in one sense a medieval trend. While people in the Middle Ages didn’t have TVs, they did have stories that were designed to be read aloud in a dramatic manner, with or without musical accompaniment.
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