Imagination and History

by F. Thomas Trotter

A graduate of Occidental College (AB) and Boston University (STB, Ph.D), Trotter was Dean and Professor of Theology at the Claremont School of Theology. Later he was General Secretary of the Board of Higher Education and Ministry of The United Methodist Church and President of Alaska Pacific University. His special interests are in religion and the arts and religion in higher education.

This essay appeared in Loving God With One’s Mind, by F. Thomas Trotter, copyright 1987 by the Board of Higher Education and Ministry of the United Methodist Church. Used by permission. This document was prepared for Religion Online by William E. Chapman.


Trotter uses The Dean Earl Cranston Lecture at the School of Theology at Claremont on September 12, 1983 to explore the role of history and imagination in human experience. As Trotter builds his case for the recovery of imagination, he draws on a wide variety of sources in developing a careful and challenging proposal for fresh understanding and appreciation of the significance of a liberal arts education. Trotter also makes a case for why Christians should adopt such a stance in today’s world.

To President Cain and Dean Hough I want to express my thanks for the invitation to be the Cranston Lecturer for 1983. Some of you know that this is a homecoming for me. Not only do I know most of the faculty and staff here, but I appointed many of them also. In that regard, I have always felt most proud of Claremont and my role here. A school is its faculty. A great faculty makes for a great school. Earl Cranston was my dean when I came from a pastorate to this faculty. I joined the same year as Cobb, Robinson, and Clinebell. We like to think it was a good year. Earl and Mildred Cranston were dear friends. They lived out their Christian commitments as scholars, missionaries to China, college teachers and seminary leaders Mildred was a leader in public education in one of the most difficult times for liberals, the McCarthy period in Pasadena. Earl had a gentleness with students and colleagues that was balanced by a toughness on issues of justice and integrity that was always available. He had an encyclopaedic memory and rapid-fire delivery that was the wonder of school. I marveled at his ability to speak extemporaneously in ten-minute sentences without ever losing the verb. He was a kind and great colleague and we honor ourselves by honoring him.

In one of Nicholas Monsarrat's marvelous novels of the British Navy in World War II, he describes the scene in a public house. Here a man is recalling his exploits in the dramatic and dangerous evacuation from Dunkirk, when British forces escaped across the Channel from entrapment by the Germans. The storyteller told of the cold and the smells and the raw courage of his mates as they fought their way across the water to safety. The fact was, however, he was not at Dunkirk and each of his auditors knew that he had been a worker in a factory in the Midlands throughout the war. But no one complained, because, said Monsarrat, "Every Englishman was at Dunkirk."

To be able imaginatively to enter history is one of the great gifts of being human. It is also fundamental to being intelligently religious. It is the basis of all art and poetry and, in a special sense, history. In the Middle Ages, the word imagination had a somewhat wider usefulness than in recent centuries. It had to do with creating mental images, conceiving reasons for things. When God was described as Divine Reason, it was not intended that God was to be understood as "inductive process," to quote Dorothy Sayers. She suggests that what was intended was much nearer to what the Russian theologian Berdyaev meant when he said: "God created the world by imagination."

Subsequently, reason has come to be used more exclusively in Connection with scientific method, where the emphasis is on precision of argument, while imagination has been relegated to fanciful reflection. We are familiar with the cautionary phrase, "Don't let your imagination run away with you!" Meanwhile, the enormously successful scientific method has refined reason into increasingly precise linguistic and mathematical formulae that have severely narrowed the definitions of the usefulness of other ways of apprehending and describing the world. For some time now, the artist has been seen as a decorator or an illustrator, because the artist's vision has been perceived to be fanciful and, in our society's judgment, disposable.

This fracture of the seamless cloth of imagination has had particularly unfortunate consequences in religion. Fundamentalism is a byproduct of this phenomenon. But so is what we formerly called liberalism. Both shared a positivist view of the scriptures. Both were "rationalistic," although starting from somewhat different assumptions. Both emphasized the historical person of Jesus, while tending to neglect the wider riches of the Christian traditions. Both were grounded in an ethic that tended to be conditioned more by culture than by transcendent norms. And, let's face it, both have had a difficult time with imagination.

The root of the word religion suggests "tying things together." It has to do with the way we justify our experience of the world with our fullest sense of the purposes of the world. We create our own worlds by an act of imagination. There is implicit in this definition a quest for wholeness, tying things together. The theology of Psalm 8 is the theology of imagination. Martin Luther King, Jr., was creating a new world through an act of imagination grounded in the history of prophetic religion. One may justify moral courage and commitment to the vision of a world made new through peaceful social change by rationalization, but that is not likely to have the power for change and newness of life. Wonder, awe, joy, and the inner logic of a vision provide authority and power.

The university itself exists at the intersection of imagination and history and is a product of this religious sensibility. We have come to think of education as related exclusively to autonomous social goals, such as good citizenship and preparation for careers in the workplaces of society. In fact, so pervasive has been that view that the university has become an important element in the democratization of contemporary societies. It has, at the same time, become strongly influenced by the demands of an increasingly technical society so that its various schools are answerable not to some vision of human wholeness, but to the often conflicting claims of competing public and private enterprises. In Clark Kerr's famous phrase, the university is now a multiversity. The various schools of the university are connected not by a common vision but mainly by a central heating system, and the most critical issues for faculty debate involve parking privileges rather than discussion of the moral uses of the university.

In its ideal form, if that was ever anything more than an imaginative vision, the university expressed religiously the human need for wholeness and the unity of knowledge and the discussion of the moral uses of knowledge in the service of God and the human family. This was the vision of Newman, whose "Idea of the ~University" remains the classic expression of the "religious" character of higher education. It continues in two truncated but still identifiable forms in American higher education: the church college and the theological school.

In the church college, there remains the vestige of the earlier vision in the colleges' commitments to the so-called liberal arts. This remains an embattled but still visible element of the quest for wholeness in learning. It implies that the goals of learning have to do with humaneness, with social good, with visions of renewal in the world's weary institutions. Against the urgent tides of careerism, some colleges are abandoning their commitments to wholeness for competition with the other elements of the system that do, in fact, directly and efficiently prepare persons forjobs in society. The hard choice for the church college is to determine the tolerance for survival in its historic mission or risk isomorphism in veering toward marketplace recruitment.

The theological seminary is the "last university" in the tradition of Cardinal Newman. It is a community of learners and teachers who have a common world view, a shared history, and a vocational commitment involving the social goals of a religiously defined vision of the future. But, of course, all of us know that even here, in the last university, we experience the ambiguities of specialization, extra-academic loyalties, and the ironies of careerism. The possibility of an academic community living out the religious vision of a learning community, embracing several disciplines, and holding itself accountable to wholeness and unity of knowledge and faith still resides here in a theological school.

What begins as indifference to the need to bind things together through an imaginative act of learning becomes, in the long run, the disposal of those very institutions invented to maintain wholeness and critical distance. You who have children about to enter college or you who have recently been through the process will probably agree with my observation that the recruiting materials from even splendid colleges have very little to say about historic purposes of imaginative learning, such as personal wholeness and social responsibility. More likely your experience is as mine. We are urged by reasons more understandable as marketing strategies to attend the college of our choice. Wistful mottos linger on the gateways: "Be afraid to die until you have won some victory for humankind" (Antioch). "Let only the eager, reverent, and thoughtful enter here" (Pomona).

What has all this to do with imagination? In a world that is profoundly skeptical of any kind of unity and wholeness, there must be some institutions that continue to provide the possibility of that vision. George Hunston Williams of Harvard in a famous monograph noted that society grants certain immunities to three orders: the law, the university, and the church. Judge, Professor, and Priest are allowed by custom to wear robes to signify this immunity. They are assumed, however, to exercise the reciprocal responsibility of providing the society with imaginative criticism. Disintegrating societies attack jurists, professors, and priests. Healthy societies not only tolerate but encourage them. They provide the possibility of wholeness in a world that otherwise would fly apart.

But what if there is no vision and the people perish? Vision is itself a product of the imaginative uses of history and tradition and wisdom and experience. Rather than add to the confusion of tongues and disciplines, the church college and the theological school need to reclaim their historic role in providing learning and discourse within an intentional community aimed at the goals of wholeness and unity and human worth. This will mean working hard at providing a context for wholeness in a world that not only does not value that explicitly, but may not be able to discern it. It will mean recovering the generous and spacious view of multidisciplinary learning. It will mean recovering the Platonic view of the teacher as the questioner instead of the answerer.

Let me suggest some random connections that express my vision at this point. Science and literature are required for wholeness. Science deals with what one sees; literature deals with what one constructs: the way things are versus the way they might be! It seems to me that a person wrestling with the nature of technological change ought to be familiar with Aeschylus's Prometheus. When asked by the chorus what medicine he had given to humankind for the fateful gift of technique, he replied, "I gave them blind hope." For the discussion of theodicy, not only the great tragedies but also the classic film comedians like Chaplin in City Lights illuminate and humanize our understanding. One can reach the fringes of another culture or community through imagination, as in the powerful novels of Baldwin and Ellison and in the more recent works of the Japanese novelist Kenzaburo Oe.

Jacob Neusner has written movingly about imaginative teaching with undergraduates, but really he is speaking about the uses of imagination and history with all persons in our time who are lonely and afraid and puzzled:

What stirs me most about our students, when we first meet them, is how limited is their range of emotions, their expectations of themselves. Having endured and survived the terrible trial of adolescence, they huddle together, bound within their own flat and narrow circle of permissible aspirations of career, not character. It is as if surviving is all that one can ask of humanity. Striking out on one's own is dangerous and demands courage. Imagination is for fools. Anguish, failure, self-doubt are to be dulled. Tears and laughter are permitted only in careful measure about some few things.

It is for such as these that Socrates meditates upon the requirements of conscience, that Job speaks of his dead children. For them we tell the story of the Cross and all it stands for, for its part; and the suffering and enduring Israel, the Jewish people, for its part; the blacks and their historic record of toughness and inner power, for theirs; . . . it is the closed ears we want to open, dull eyes we want to educate, confused minds we want to clarify and expand. Without some self-conscious effort to ground our work in a living tradition, our schools will contribute to the growing alienation of our society from its intellectual and moral sources. (Chronicle of Higher Education, January 29, 1979)

It was Macbeth who could not distinguish between the imaginary and the imaginative. He depended upon the weird sisters for his visions of the future. Shakespeare's troubled Scot succumbed to a private vision of history which is the sickness of every dictator, including Marcos and Pinochet today. But for the Christian scholar, the imaginative dialogue with history is made possible by the vision of a world created for good and pointed toward the reign of love in history itself. That leads not to tentativeness but to freedom. This freedom is the condition of learning itself. It is the context of creative imagination. It is the ground of love to one's neighbor. It is not disposable, and without this freedom through Christ, there can be no wholeness in the world.

In the Synoptic story of Jesus debating in the Temple, our Lord is seen to be engaged in an academic debate. What a mess the absence of imagination has made of these texts (Matthew 22) After parrying scripture with questions about church and state, resurrection, and levirate laws, Jesus is asked to sum up the law in twenty-five words or less. He quotes the Shema Yisroel. Love God with your whole heart, soul, and strength. But in Matthew and Luke, a new phrase is added: "Love God with your mind." The Greek word is dianoia which is not, interestingly, nous. It suggests rather the "imagination," coherence, the way things are put together. That is, let us do away with proof-texting of all types, sophisticated or naive. Let us be done with party spirit in religion and learning. Let us find the freedom that comes from loving God imaginatively, with our dianoia. The story ends with the comment, "No one dared ask any more questions."

I want to end this lecture as I began, paying homage to my dear friend and senior colleague Earl Cranston. Part of the reason for lectureships is to keep vivid the memory of the person for whom the lecture is named. This is especially important when that person had such an influence in the character of this school. But more than that, Cranston had the sophistication of a scholar but also the innocence of a true learner. He was to his colleagues a model of that Wesleyan hope of uniting knowledge and vital piety, truth and love, and I thank you for the privilege of declaring this in this place;.