Chapter 3: The Role Of The Imagination In Preaching

The Ecology of Faith
by Joseph Sittler

Chapter 3: The Role Of The Imagination In Preaching

Part One

As we now, in this chapter and the next, inquire into the role of the imagination in preaching, we may seem to have shifted from any further concern with the ideas thus far submitted and to have entered a fresh area of reflection. To do that has not been the intention; it is rather proposed in these two sections to ask and make an effort to describe and illustrate how the notion of faith as maturing in the ecology of the history of the people of God requires of preaching a vigorous and controlled use of the imagination. We have indicated under the figure of ecology in the world of nature the complex and intimate relationships operative in that process whereby Christian affirmations are made in terms integral with their status in the witnessing and remembering community, and also heard in terms which prevent their distortion into rationalistic, moralistic, naturalistic, or psychological categories. In the course of the argument the noetic force of time in the process of apprehension and the significance of the revival of liturgical worship as the church’s pedagogy have been pointed out. The claim has been made that worship which thus fuses the present with the remembered past is the rich and allusive theatre within which Christian affirmations are made with an amplitude proper to their nature, and responses are invited at a level proper to their gravity.

Before we get into the argument at all it is necessary to make clear in what sense the term imagination is here used. This clarification is necessary because the term has been so debased, particularly in discourse about preaching, that it were better not to use the word at all if another were available. But no other word is available. What one must do, then, is strip from the word those connotations which make its popular use perilous for our present purpose and re-present the term in its naked intention.

Imagination is not used here to designate that mere vivacity of the mind whereby unlikely juxtaposition of things or notions imparts startling cleverness to discourse; it is not a quality produced by the accidental endowment of the temperament with whimsicality. Contemporary preaching is full of dramatic and piquant turnings of the text, irresponsible arbitrariness in strained if ever so personable interpretations of biblical figures, events, and statements. That these practices are indulged in does not define imagination; one might be so unkind as to suggest that they define the preacher. (ThePrimacy of Faith [New York: The Macmillan Company, 1943], p 138.)

Imagination in its proper meaning is never an addition, it is an evocation. It is perception, not piquancy. Its work is not cosmetical or decorative; it is a function of percipiency. It is exercised not only in the perception of new qualities in things, but also in the discovery of hitherto unseen relationships between things. Richard Kroner, the Gifford lecturer in 1942, concluded a long chapter on the function of the imagination in the life of faith with this paragraph:

Imagination owes its power to its peculiar nature. It is not, like sensation or intellect, confined to either the realm of sense reality or of intellectual notions and general concepts, but it belongs rather to both realms, and it is, therefore, suited to span the gulf between them. The imagination is at home in the sphere of change as well as in the sphere of changeless ideas; it is rooted as much in the visible as in the invisible world; indeed, its peculiar excellency consists exactly in its capacity of making visible what is invisible and of detecting the invisible element in the visible situation. Imagination binds together what the thinking separates; or, more precisely, it maintains the original unity of the elements separated by abstract thought. Imagination is as realistic as it is idealistic; it is as sensuous as it is intellectual; it moves in a medium in which the extremes are still united and undissolved. (The Primacy of Faith [New York: The Macmillan Company, 1943], p. 138.)

We move even closer to the definition of the role of imagination in preaching when we proceed from that judicious statement about general religious discourse to affirm that specifically Christian discourse is intrinsically needful of the same thing. For the central revelation of God in an Incarnation of grace in a world of nature inwardly requires that all discourse inclusive of these two magnitudes is of necessity dialectical. And imagination is the name for that category-transcending and fusing vision and speech which is proper to the given character of God’s self-disclosure. The problem of proper Christian statement may be put in another way.

The "power and the truth" of the Christian gospel is in the level and the dimensions of its assault upon the hurt God-man relationship. When once it is acknowledged that man is a creature of nature who nevertheless cannot settle for the natural and that he is an object of grace who nevertheless must celebrate grace in the natural -- it is at the same time settled that any adequate theological explication must forever be two sided; that is, dialectical. Its statements will always have to walk the knife edge at the frontier or fuse together the magnitudes of nature and grace.

This double character of Christian communication, if lost or blurred by oversimplification, banalization, or moralization, can perhaps achieve a hearing -- but usually at the cost of the truth. Every simple term of the faith must be set forth in such a way that the multiple dimensions of its own content are exposed.

Faith, for an instance, is related to man’s nature and his need. But if presented as simply engendered by nature and need and not as a faith in the faithfulness of God -- that is, as trust in its object -- it is distorted into a psychological reassurance, or degraded into some sort of bonding agent which can then be exploited as a necessary adhesive for the wholeness of the personality.

Love is related to man’s nature and need. But if presented simply as a free-flowing human resource, itself in no need of the fires of redemption, it becomes a name for the most adored illusion ever to seduce mankind. Christian love is born not simply of love itself as expanded, sensitized, or even cauterized by suffering, but out of the love wherewith we are beloved, wherewith we are made "acceptable in the Beloved." In the understanding of the New Testament the passive form of the verb is always the womb of the active.

Hope, in the Christian understanding, is not simply resolute hopefulness. It is a "living hope" to which men have to be "born again." Its source is not in a religiously informed and optimistic reading of history or in the solitary human career as this may be temperamentally disposed toward the bright side of things. Its source is again its object, the "God of hope" who, we pray, may "grant us joy and peace in believing."

Only this double character of the Christian faith and life can make sense of the strange speech of the New Testament. The world is there called our proper place of obedience, the place where we are to "go and do likewise," the theatre in which Christ is to be obeyed by service to "the least of these, my brethren." And this same world as nature and as history is called "no abiding city," a place of pilgrimage. It is given us as our house precisely on the ground that it does not become our home. Every confession of Christendom stresses this double character of the Christian hope. "Not yet . . . yet even now."

These considerations add up to the judgment that while it is possible to make undialectical single statements about general idealism, for instance, it is quite another and a more imaginative task to expose the inner core of faith which looks like and works like idealism but is compounded of utterly different stuff. It is possible to expound simple moralism; it is another matter to communicate that kind of moral gravity which has no faith in morals but, being justified by faith, has a dynamics for moral responsibility that is forever confusing to the moralist! It is possible to make a moving sermon out of "bear ye one another’s burdens." It is also possible to make a second equally moving sermon out of "every man must bear his own burdens." The task is considerably complicated however by faith’s knowledge that both statements are fused and made concrete in a burden bearer of God’s own choosing. "Then Jesus, knowing that He came from God and went to God, took a towel and girded Himself and began to wash the disciples’ feet."

Because preaching presses for a God-determined and Christ-realized ethicality, and because the gift of grace whereby this possibility is bestowed is ensconced in a holy story, the character of Christian preaching is a unique kind of discourse. Current philosophical preoccupation with language analysis cannot, indeed, say what this discourse should be. It can, however, by its critical scrutiny designate the differences between propositions aimed at logical cognition and propositions aimed at the exposure of specifically the Christian and Christianly-ethical alternative.

Paul Holmer, in his article on "Kierkegaard and Ethical Theory," (Ethics, an International Journal of Social, Political, and Legal Philosophy, Vol. LXIII, No. 3 [April, 1953] , p. 63.) analyzes the difference in type of discourse between ". . . those who claim cognitive significance for ethical claims and those who claim ethical and religious and metaphysical significance for logical discourse." In his exposition of Kierkegaard’s writings on ethics, Mr. Holmer speaks as follows:

Ethicality is not a matter of searching for conceptual truth; it is rather a matter of seeking to become the truth. . . . The end of the process is not, therefore, understanding as it is in the instance of all propositional truths but is rather ‘becoming’ something different than one was. Ethicality does not produce objective truths -- it transforms the subject. The aim in ethics and religion is not to know the truth but to become it. . . . To the ethical and religious man there is no need to weep if the cognitively delineated cannot properly be called reality. . . . Needless to say this implies no derogation of science or gnosis -- it means only that one does not apply intellectual criteria to all things human and that one states in a new way that man is not only a subject for knowledge but is also a subject in the process of making his own existence. Further, Kierkegaard insists that there is a kind of structuralization within the emotional cosmos, the inward life, too. Swenson has very aptly remarked that Kierkegaard has shown ‘. . . that the life of feeling has inherent structure and system, that valuations fall into coherent systematic groups, that emotions are not merely a structureless mush. . .’ He believes there is a kind of logos obtaining within subjectivity.

By an elaboration of two propositions I hope to illustrate the role of the imagination as it has been defined and asserted to have a proper role in preaching. The first proposition is this: that imagination invests the specifically Christian moral intelligence with perceptive sensibility.

There are places in the scripture where this "logos obtaining within subjectivity" must operate to make the mind permeable to central meaning. When Isaiah protests that "the heart of this people is fat," he is lamenting something that cannot be equated with mere intellectual lethargy, recalcitrance, or even moral perversity. He is reporting a particular instance of what is general enough to have caused the ancient Litany of the church to cry:

In all time of our tribulation;

In all time of our prosperity;

In the hour of death;

And in the day of judgment:

Help us, good Lord.

There are dynamics of damnation resident in prosperity, and they are of so sinuous and powerful a nature as to deserve acknowledgment in a series that includes tribulation, death, and judgment. There is a fat as well as a gaunt way to go to hell. There are stupors that obtain because of the decay, or the sheer blubber-encasement of some natural percipiency. For this situation Isaiah could only say that hearts are fat!

The investigation of the relationship between fat and perception is not a matter, I suppose, that formal epistemology concerns itself with; but in its words about the knowledge of God the biblical account is steeped in it. And if the imagination of the preacher does not pierce through the chinks of formal concepts and inwardly recreate what hides there, the moral heart of the matter will remain inert. Take, for an instance, Moffatt’s vigorous rendering of Eph. 4:17-19. The writer is on the trail of something that shows itself at the level of torpid intelligence, loss of purpose, and the decay of common animal decency. But he knows that these manifestations are symptomatic of some fracture that is below and anterior to them all. He writes, therefore, to ". . . insist and protest in the Lord that you must give up living like pagans, for their purposes are futile, their intelligence is darkened, they are estranged from the life of God by the ignorance which their dullness of heart has produced in them."

There is a difference between a fat heart and a dull heart. The fat hearted are likely to be dull, but all the dull are not fat. There can be a virtuous kind of dullness of heart; a tight-lipped, efficient, decent, and unimaginative refusal to let facts be facts or, rather, a so contented existence within one’s chosen and familiar world of fact that equally obvious but unexpected facts are dismissed with the same brisk impatience as a good mechanic reveals when a bumbling apprentice hands him a wrench when he needs the pliers. It is one among the many values I have for a long time gained from the work of Joseph Conrad that he perceives and pictures this grey kind of damnation with peculiar clarity. Here he is in Typhoon, introducing the Captain: (Joseph Conrad, "Typhoon," Portable Conrad [New York: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1959] , pp. 1, 207. Reprinted by permission of J. M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., London.)

Captain MacWhirr, of the steamer Nan-Shan, had a physiognomy that, in the order of material appearances, was the exact counterpart of his mind: it presented no marked characteristics of firmness or stupidity: it had no pronounced characteristics whatever, it was simply ordinary, irresponsive, unruffled.

The captain’s ship was on her way to a port with some cargo and 200 Chinese coolies returning to their village after a few years of work in tropical colonies. When the typhoon struck, these men, trapped in a lower deck amid a catapulting inferno of loose sea chests and other gear, were pounded to a wounded mass of misery. And all the time, as during the crucial hours before, the captain simply stared at the falling barometer in sheer refusal to open his stolid mind to the knowledge of what, even before the storm came, he ought to have done. Conrad has, in the body of the tale, the following paragraph. It speaks of the China Sea and of a captain; it also speaks of the deep and undramatic damnations wrought in the world by the dull and heavy-lidded men of good will who will not look!

The sea itself had never put itself out to startle the silent man, who seldom looked up and wandered innocently over the waters with the only visible purpose of getting food, raiment, and houseroom for three people ashore. Dirty weather he had known, of course. He had been made wet, uncomfortable, tired in the usual way, felt at the time and presently forgotten. So that upon the whole he had been justified in reporting fine weather at home. But he had never been given a glimpse of immeasurable strength and of immoderate wrath, the wrath that passes exhausted but never appeased -- the wrath and fury of the passionate sea. He knew it existed, as we know that crime and abominations exist; he had heard of it as a peaceable citizen in a town hears of battles, famines, and floods, and yet knows nothing of what these things mean -- though, indeed, he may have been mixed up in a street row, have gone without his dinner once, or been soaked to the skin in a shower. Captain MacWhirr had sailed over the surface of the oceans as some men go skimming over the years of existence to sink gently into a placid grave, ignorant of life to the last, without ever having been made to see all it may contain of perfidy, of violence, and of terror. There are on sea and land such men thus fortunate -- or thus disdained by destiny or by the sea.

There is a second way in which this proposition -- that imagination invests the specifically Christian moral intelligence with perceptive sensibility -- authenticates itself. We cannot come at it more bluntly and accurately than Buffon did: "The style is the man himself!" Suppose that the substance of the sermon is a section from one of the Epistles of St. Paul. The substance and the style are here so wedded that the full-blooded personal substance of what the man is saying cannot be apprehended if the imagination has not been quickened and informed by the style of the utterance. There are ways of saying this, but we shall be better instructed if we test Kroner’s statement that "Imagination maintains the original unity of elements separated by abstract thought" by testing it against a concrete instance of the Pauline style.

In the whole of scripture there is perhaps no passage in which is so tightly compressed and interwoven a more various company of massive ideas as in the eighth chapter of Romans. To make a unity out of that complexity, a symphony out of that baffling polyphony of powerful voices is a task before which the dissecting intelligence feels its incompetence. And yet one has to know little of Paul to know that he, who wrote this, was in no confusion. His mind, though intricate in its matter and process, was no chaotic jumble of high epigrams. The task then is to seek from the inside of that passage its vital motif, its invisible cohesive element. And it is in this task that the imagination, if it has been informed by acquaintanceship with the ways of men as immemorially they have uttered in speech their turgid and passionate hearts, may silently and in strange ways come to an apprehension of what otherwise eludes the mind.

With the character of that passage in Romans in your memory, consider this: that there is here exhibited a quality of the mind in its working which is not permeable to the merely analytical intelligence. Here is a quality that inheres as much in the how of a man’s speech as in the what of it. The prose is forward leaning, eager, exuberant -- a manifestation of that end-over-end precipitedness that Deissmann remarked in Paul’s writing, and caught in the phrase "his words come as water jets in uneven spurts from a bottle held upside down!" By imaginative association of this peculiarity of Paul’s prose with other evidences of this quality in experience we can come close to knowing what it was that made him write so. And when we know that, we shall perceive in this particular instance the value claimed for the imagination in our first proposition -- perceptive clarity. For is not this exuberance precisely what nature regularly exhibits at every moment of arriving at something? A horse runs with a new rhythmic vitality when he turns the last curve and straightens out on the home stretch. This vitality is due not only to the drive to win but arises out of something elemental -- the combination of joy and release, the sudden realization of a long and burdening task almost done. An intricate piece of music draws its diffuse parts together in its last pages and in a muscular and positive coda resolves its far-wandering voices. Mighty Burke, when he "arrives" at the end of his persuasive paragraphs, gathers together his powers of thought and language for coalescence into final words of authoritative eloquence.

To have "gotten through" to have come to the end, to sense the laborious process of "working toward" about to break through into an "end achieved," is a feeling we all know. I once worked in a shop where it was my job to operate an electric drill, boring holes at marked intervals in four-by-four timbers. For the first three and half inches, it goes its way with a steady, dull growl. And then the sound becomes more open, the machine gains speed, small splinters fly as the bit bites through the last solid stuff and spins and whines with singing ease. All "arriving," all completion has this quality, whether it be a four-inch timber, a symphony, a running horse, or a work of the mind. Can you, I wonder, have failed to observe that our minds have this quality in their working? -- or can we fail to catch the tempo of "arriving" in these paragraphs of the apostle? For thirty-four verses Paul’s powerful mind twists and turns and torments with as mighty a complex of ideas, actions, heavenly wonders as ever lived together in a sane man’s mind. His language, like thought, is muscular, contorted, and tense -- but always leaning forward . . . boring . . . boring into the hard deeps of his great subject. And then, at the thirty-fifth verse, "at last he beats his music out" in that amazing march of affirmations: "What shall we say to these things? . . . . If God be for us, who shall be against us. . ." and passes into that song of intolerable joy that ends the chapter.

Here is imagination operating exegetically to do for a passage what studious mastery of its individual parts could never accomplish. For the imagination understands that this chapter is not only argument but adoration, not a series but a sequence, not an order but an organism. Meanings "by the way" are only to be understood from the peak of spiritual song which is the brave conclusion. The ideas here are not unrelated equals pitched into a rhetorical concatenation by enthusiasm; here is, rather, the sovereignty of grace battering its way to victory through all the torments and doubts and opacities of this man’s embattled soul.

In a second proposition it is possible to state how the imagination, immersed in the Pauline substance and peculiar style, works to prepare the preacher for more lively and fuller utterance of the writer’s intention. The proposition is this: Imagination is the process by which there is reenacted in the reader the salvatory immediacy of the Word of God as this Word is witnessed to by the speaker.

The peculiarity of the style mirrors the fierce dialectic set up in the psyche by the invasive Word. The strange jump, the quick, unself -conscious corrections, the contradictions -- these, which bring pain to the teacher of composition, bring theological light to the preacher. The natural-religious man can make a clean explication of his case; and the beatified child of grace could, presumably, write untroubled prose descriptive of his life in God. But the Epistles of Paul stand at the intersection of nature and grace. They are the utterances of a man drawn taut between the huge repose of "a man in Christ" and the huge realism of a man of flesh and earth. It’s the same man at the same time bearing witness to an inseparable movement of faith who can say: "Wretched man that I am. . . . There is therefore now no condemnation." "I don’t care what you think of me. . . . I am troubled about what you think of me". Work out your own salvation in fear and trembling because no man can work out his own salvation and does not have to, for God is at work in you!

Preaching dare not put into unbroken propositions what the tormented peace of simultaneous existence in nature and grace can utter only in broken sentences. What God has riven asunder let no preacher too suavely join together. When we find, as we regularly do, that Paul stops the forward rush of active-voice statements to crack the integral structure of the affirmation with a joyous and devout regrounding of everything he is saying in the ultimacy of the passive voice, then we are obliged to stop with him. The salvatory power of the Word of God is eloquent precisely at the embarrassed halt. Where grammar cracks, grace erupts.

"I know," says Paul. And then he reflects upon what he knows, how he came to know it, and what kind of a religious confidence it was within which such knowledge occurred. The reflection stops the assertion cold, and he writes, "I mean, rather, that I have been known."

"I love," says Paul. And then he reflects upon how he came to the point where he can say that, by virtue of what startling and reconstitutive convulsion it has been made possible, and he stops the active voice in the remembrance of ". . . this Son of God who loved me, and gave himself. . .

"I accept," says Paul. And then the reflection! And in the course of it the remembrance of the forgiving madness of the Holy which is the creator of all sanity, the huge and obliterating acceptance by God which empowers all acceptances among men. The passive both destroys and recreates the active in its own image; and the Christian life is spun on the axis of this holy freedom whose one end is sunk in the accepting mercy of God, its other end in the need of man for an ultimate acceptance.

This transformation of the realm of the active by the power of the passive is a key not only to isolated fragments of Paul’s witness, but also to an understanding of the man’s total bearing within the world of nature and history. A peculiarly illuminating instance of this transformation is the memorable passage near the end of the Philippian letter. "Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things."

This paragraph, occurring as the summary of the argument of the entire Epistle, is strange. It’s almost as if Paul had forgotten what he had written, or taken back what he had so passionately affirmed, or suddenly replaced his intense and consecrated gaze by a genial and relaxed smile. For three chapters he has hacked away at the adequacy of all the confidences and solidities of religion, morality, culture. I count everything as loss . . . even as refuse, he says -- and drills through to the "surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. . . . that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead."

And then the shift. From the packed and intense inwardness of that statement, which locates the dynamics of the faith-full life of the Christian within the enacted morphology of the Incarnation and resurrection he passes, after sundry personal and admonitory asides, to the blithe and humane: "Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely. . .

This change in tone is not a shift in center. It is, in fact, not a shift at all. It is simply the language of a man who raises his eyes from the center to the circumference. It is the maturation of centered faith into a kind of evangelical humanism. It is rhetorical celebration of a basic Christian paradox: The way to breadth is by the road of narrow concentration; the road to beauty, graciousness, justice is a road that begins with the beauty of holiness, the graciousness of Grace, the justice of judgment. The really humane is a function of the fully human; the fully human is beheld and bestowed in the new man who is the second Adam who, obedient in Gethsemane, restores to God and to himself the first Adam, faithless in Eden.

These too brief samplings of the Pauline style, while sufficient perhaps to make our formal point, suggest further and more subtle things to be learned from the Apostle to the Gentiles. To these we shall give some attention in the next. But these do suffice to bring under question the venerable practice of preaching from isolated texts, or even brief pericopes. This practice, perilous enough when exercised upon the Gospels, is intrinsically disastrous when applied to the Epistles of Paul. For to a degree unmatched in the world’s literature, anything the man wrote has to be made luminous in the glow of everything he wrote. The apparent unsystematic of his language must be inwardly controlled and ordered by the central systematic of his passion. And he is the first to protest that this passion is a passive; that it is God’s before it is his, and that it is his only because God’s passion became a historical fact in a locatable garden.