Chapter 4: The Role Of The Imagination In Preaching

The Ecology of Faith
by Joseph Sittler

Chapter 4: The Role Of The Imagination In Preaching

Part Two

In our effort thus far to describe and illustrate the role of the imagination in preaching, we have considered two aspects of its power: the investiture of the Christian moral vision with such sensibility as sometimes enables it to enclose within the meaning of the Word of God the subtler perditions that stalk men’s lives; and the power to behold, and in part reenact, the architectonic structure of grace that is the subliterary matrix out of which the witness emerges.

In this lecture I propose to set out on the trail of two other, and trans-intellectual, powers of the imagination; and I confess that I am by no means certain of my ability to catch them in language. But the role they play in the preparation of the mind for preaching is so large and pervasive that it were better to fail to do adequate justice to them than to ignore their existence. It ought not be necessary to say that the process I am about to describe does not commonly take place in the absence of fundamental disciplines in theological work. In such disciplines freight is delivered at the unpublic back door of the mind, and is undramatically stored in the basement; it nonetheless determines what gets on the shelf and over the counter. Exegesis, and biblical-introductory studies do not guarantee a rich life to the imagination. But they do supply the mind with solid and responsible stuff, tighten thought to the particularity of the biblical speech, discourage that too-quick translation of quite specific terms into feckless generalities which makes much preaching both dull and inaccurate -- and dull because inaccurate.

Let us, therefore, boldly plunge into the first of these with an experimental proposition. If the outcome does not secure the fox it may at the least indicate the direction of his flight when last seen. The imagination has the power to extend intelligibility beyond the launching site -- where one can see and hear clearly, experimentally confirm confidently -- into nonverifiable orbits which are nevertheless continuous with the instantly intelligible.

Concrete analysis alone can be useful here. I ask you therefore to consider the first twenty-seven verses of chapter 1 of St. Paul’s Philippian letter. It was as a parish pastor preaching my way straight through this Epistle in a series of sixteen sermons that I first became aware of this orbit-tracking power of the imagination.

These verses are a rhetorical unit. The apostle, about to send back with Epaphroditus a letter to his particularly beloved Philippians, begins with a wonderfully warm and candid confession of how he feels and prays and hopes about them. He goes on to report that a jail which was intended to stop his witness has provided it rather with strange new occasions. The local situation is filled out in some detail; and in the course of this report, the more moving because unintended, the apostle discloses the mature stance of a man "in Christ" as he lives out his obedience in the midst of envy, rivalry, misunderstanding, and considerable interparty slugging.

Thus far the described situation can count upon confirmatory experience in the life of every man. Not many men, to be sure, win through to the surging victory of Paul of Tarsus as we hear him speak of his life within and simultaneously above a double imprisonment. He was literally imprisoned; and he dismisses the fact with the light phrase, "what has happened to me." And he was imprisoned with no opportunity to talk back to those who, taking advantage of the stilling of a vigorous voice, "proclaim Christ out of partisanship." Knowing what we do about Paul -- his impatience, his quick and searing temper, his earthy inclination to slap down the opposition -- we are the more edifyingly astonished by the utter levity of the phrase in which he sums up the whole miserable business and tosses it away. "Ti gar," he says; and the only idiomatic translation that does justice to that magnificent gesture is "So what!"

Now with all of that every man has experiences which, however limited, make Paul’s victory intelligible. Every man has that which responds to, because it is continuous with,

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, . . .

The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks

That flesh is heir to, . . . the proud man’s contumely,

The pangs of dispriz’d love, the law’s delay,

The insolence of office, and the spurns

That patient merit of the unworthy takes, . . .


(From Hamlet’s soliloquy, Hamlet [1603] , Act III, scene ii, lines 66 ff.)

We probably, however, have not been able to manage the apostolic freedom of the "Ti gar," much less the positive, tight-lipped breakthrough to the superlative fact that curls up all lesser facts -- " . . . whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed: and in that I rejoice." Not able, perhaps, to follow; but able to understand.

But follow now the curve of the thought as Paul without a trace of cant or self-consciousness takes off from the confirming field of our common experience and beats out the music of his ultimate joy. The authentic continuity and power of this utterance is enhanced because it is flung in the face of certain persecution, probable death. "Yes, and I shall rejoice. For I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, as it is my eager expectation and hope that I shall not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If it is to be life in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account." (Phil. 1:19-24.)

It would be untrue to call that passage intelligible to us in the sense that the preceding verses are intelligible. By participation in Paul’s Christ I too know something about liberation from the tyranny of environment, and some measure of liberation from the terrible interior tyranny of my own egocentricity. With both of these I have a measure of continuity in experience. When Paul says that because of Jesus Christ he will rejoice, I too, however faintly, can second the motion -- and out of comparable experience. The trajectory of the man’s thought sends his song of rejoicing into the black heavens of death, and sends back from his reflections upon it a gallant but only partly intelligible music.

This apostolic affirmation often has been wrongly compared with Socrates’ words in the Apology, or these of John Keats:

. . . for many a time

I have been half in love with easeful Death,

Called him soft names in many a mused rhyme,

To take into the air my quiet breath;

Now more than ever seems it rich to die,

To cease upon the midnight with no pain, . . .

("Ode to a Nightingale" [written in 1819] , vs. 6.)

It won’t do; and no analogy that does not center upon the concretion of love in Jesus Christ will do. Socrates died with poised nobility because that way of dying was alone congruent with his way of thinking; his surmise about life after death was a rational one, and he died supported by its power. In awful sobriety and total involvement with the ultimate issue he had made his choice. Keats’ gesture is gallant, too; but on different grounds. "O for a life of sensations rather than thoughts," he once wrote to a friend. And now, with the days running out and a fated love hopeless, he longs but to dismiss all possibilities together, to "cease upon the midnight with no pain."

Tautly drawn between life and death, both men decide; on different grounds, to be sure, but on grounds comprehensible from within the generality of human experience. But what meets us in Paul’s monologue about life and death is precisely the absence of any concern with these alternatives as ultimate at all! It is as if the twin tyranny of life and death had been already overcome, as if the monologue were being carried at a high remove. With an air that one can only call evangelical insouciance the man talks about living or dying as a mere tactical consideration of no central importance. The very language has the character of the muttering of a man at a hat counter hurrying to decide for the brown one or the gray one so that he might be off to some matter of genuine importance.

The point of this is that the entire orbit of the utterance is the creation of the gospel; what can be experientially confirmed does not reach the dimension of the ecology of the faith. The speaker is continuous with himself. The Paul whose participation in Christ enables him to talk about death in a way that is unintelligible to the preacher is the same Paul who talks about the praetorian guard in a way that is intelligible. And any understanding of preaching which would ignore the extension of the intelligible line and restrict Catholic witness to the dimensions of accidental experience is a thin and reductive misunderstanding.

For the gospel, when we attend to its rich and various working out in the testimony of the church has a morphology which is vaster than any man’s life and a momentum which unfolds beyond any man’s experience. What we know points the direction for, and in its fragments authenticates, what as yet we do not know. The gospel is not a holy box of divine propositions ranging from simple to complex; it is nothing less than the organic life of God confronting us now here, now there. But wherever we confront it we find it to be like an outcropping of a continuous vein of silver, and years and discipline and prayer and grace disclose its subterranean continuities. Or, to change the figure, it is like a tight unfolding chrysalis whose most huge promise is continuous with its most plain gift. "This, then," said Luther, "is the nature of faith: that it dares on the basis of God’s grace, and creates tranquillity and trust toward Him; and thinks without doubt that God will regard and not forsake it. For true faith doubts not God’s good and gracious will. Such a confronted trust, or repose in God -- that is Christian faith and good conscience in the scriptures. Faith does not demand anything but freely surrendered and joyously daring trust upon his unfelt, untried, and unknown goodness."(W A 10:2, p. 239.)

We conclude then our consideration of the first proposition: that the imagination has the power and, I would now add, the witnessing duty to extend intelligibility beyond the launching site where one can see and hear clearly, or experimentally confirm into non-verifiable orbits which are nevertheless continuous with the instantly intelligible. And add to our basic figure of the ecology of the faith a second drawn from mathematics. Extrapolation is defined as "the calculation, from the values of a function known within a certain interval of values of its argument, of its value for some argument value lying without that interval."

This extrapolation of a fragment of the knowledge of God into its full orbit is precisely the process by which the primitive Christians affirmed that God was in Christ. Distilled out of the centuries of Israel’s experience of the relentless and steadfast mercy of her God is the powerful and pathetic figure in second Isaiah. The shape of that fragment is extended to a full orbit when the community, made a community by the words, the work, the living presence of Jesus, bore witness to the size of the event itself. "God hath visited his people," say the Synoptics. "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us," says John. "For in him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell," says Paul. It is required of the preacher that he so master as positively to reenact this creative process whereby the witness was originally uttered that in his witness to it the epic be not lost in the episodes, the fullness forgotten in the fragments.

All that has been said thus far has been controlled by the figure with which we began -- the ecology of faith. So to understand the faith of the church leads one to understand the preaching task as a function of that context. Added to that in my own life is a strong historical consciousness, the dominant role of biblical theology, the catholic character of a liturgically nurtured piety always providing promptings that are secret because they are of the church’s wholeness. Inevitable, too, that one so placed and formed within the life of the church should practice preaching as an effort to rebuild the topsoil of memory on the eroded fields of faith in the hope that unfurnished poverty might be supplied.

But there are facts before us, and neither the richness of a tradition nor the vigor of a hopeful effort can evade them. Just as theological reflection is today dominated by the fact that the entire mental, emotional and image context of the past is eroded, so a way of preaching proper to that fact must be wrought out. Our preaching, as a matter of fact, is deepeningly directed; not as the New Testament writer has it, "from faith to faith," but from faith to unfaith. Most of my preaching in the last fifteen years has been in academic chapels. And while I know that the student group represents in a more aware way the erosion to which we have alluded, the process is general.

"The world," as Dietrich Bonhoeffer has said, "has come of age." Traditional cultural and intellectual companions of the Christian gospel have been either violently destroyed or gone silently out of mind. The venerable discipline of philosophical inquiry no longer makes affirmations beyond the methodological, has curved inward upon itself. The sheer vitalities of culture, once hailed as redemptive, have for a hundred years been unpacking the logos of contradiction that infects all historical life. The very ethos of religious sentiment has on the one hand become so disenchanted as to assess its former friendliness to Christianity as false, febrile, or indecent, or, on the other, undergone a transformation whereby its terms have been instrumentally debased into techniques for integrating the personality, or into glue to hold the republic together.

We were always able to say: ‘We are children of God,

And our Father has never forsaken His people.’

But then we were children: That was a moment ago,

Before an outrageous novelty had been introduced

Into our lives . . . .

Just how, just when It succeeded we shall never know:

We can only say that now It is there and that nothing

We learnt before It was there is of the slightest use,

For nothing like It has happened before.

W. H. Auden

("For the Time Being," Collected Poems [New York: Random House, 1945] , p. 410.)

Nothing constructive is accomplished by lamenting the dissolution of structures and sentiments that once were suasions within which the Christian story was relevant. There is, indeed, much that is diagnostic and clarifying in the exposure of their merely suasive and mutable character. The history of Christianity is the story of the waxing and the waning of these tactical and interim alliances. As these have arisen, flourished, affirmed adequacy, they have underlined congruities between the shape of the Kerygma and the shape of the mind and spirit of the age. But these alliances come and go; and knowledge of that fact does not depress the theologian in his work but rather clarifies what that work is, urges it to its doing, and defines its limit.

Protestant theology at this moment is employed in reconstructing its method in open disengagement from all previous alliances. This radical undertaking has been forced upon it by such a multiplicity of facts and forces as would go beyond the scope of these lectures and my competence to describe. But something of their character and force can be suggested by two generalizations: 1) the full range of biblical studies has so profoundly unfolded the matrix out of which the biblical witness was fashioned that the problem of hermeneutics is of absolute urgency; and 2) the very body of reactions and the vocabulary with which our time is aware of itself is so radically strange to the world view of the Bible and to the vocabulary of all previous theological discourse as to force us, both as preachers and as teachers, to fresh foundational work.

For engagement, then, with the powers of irrelevance, incomprehension, denial, and of sheer emptiness, a new work of the imagination is required both of the theologian and the preacher. When an age matures to a point where it displays a radical transference of interest, and when its very language reveals that what former times felt as fact are no longer so felt, then the central task is clearly exposed. Demythologization as a biblical program inevitably begets symbolization as a theological program. When, that is to say, it becomes the effort of biblical theology to penetrate to the divine realities, forms, and intentions that have been temporally invested in reportorial forms available to the moment, it becomes the principal effort of systematic theology to interpret the biblical story in amplest symbolic dimensions. When myth is the term for the story, symbol is its vocabulary.

The possibilities of this way must be responsibly exploited; to do so is the given theological task of our time. And protests against the effort can be constructive only if they participate in the effort, gather up into their own vision the deepening disclosure of the symbolic and transhistorical vitalities of historical fact. Only by a thoroughgoing exploitation of the relation of reported fact and reflectively engendered meaning can the church learn how to bear witness to the mystery of her life. And she need not fear, either, that radical phases of this program which seem to dissolve the very matrix of things given in time and place will prevail for the destruction of her message. For historical fact, while quiet and infinitely patient of flexion, is tough. Historical actuality is deceptively acquiescent, but it will not, like a family dog, roll over and play dead. For there is a built-in dialectic that controls the process of historical interpretation: Fact must be expanded to symbol in order fully to announce fact; and symbol must be rooted in fact in order to retain force as a symbol.

These considerations lead us to the second proposition of this lecture. Ultimate negations generate a strange addressability by ultimate affirmations. It is not proposed here to explain that proposition; its primal spring is nowhere this side of Credo in Deum Patrem Omnipotentem, Factorem coeli et Terrae! It is only proposed to state it, report upon evidences that it is so, and suggest how it specifies for the contemporary preacher his stance and his tactic.

Let us consider these terms in order. Stance is posture assumed in readiness for indeterminate but resolute action. It designates how a man stands in the midst of his time, both a product of his time and, because he has a burden and a duty, alert to address his time. Stance is both poised and utterly incalculable; poised because of a knowledge of what must be done, incalculable because the how of the doing is an emergent of a fluctuant situation. Michelangelo’s Moses has posture and presence, his David has stance.

The posture of the preacher is given in the substance of the faith; where he stands and what he has to say standing there are products of the attested gifts and the million-voiced responses of the centuries of the faith. But the stance of the preacher is determined by the depth with which he is penetrated by and participates in the vitalities of his time. Men of our time will not entertain as a possibility the redemption we proclaim if our stance does not reveal our involvement in the damnations they suffer. Nor will evangelical replies be accredited as possibilities if our presentation of them be not informed by involvement in the questions to which they are addressed. "God Himself Is Present" is no longer a sensible song for a congregation that is regularly addressed as if its members had never felt that God himself is absent! One need not, indeed cannot, go to school to all the lashing literature of our time in which the absence of God is celebrated. But by this means or another one must learn the lessons the schools talk about. One need not necessarily join Salinger’s Holden Caulfield in the Roxy gallery, watch the Rockettes make their peculiar obeisance to the Incarnation in a tinselled Christmas routine, and hear the lad remark, lonely and honest amidst the gurgling delight of the audience, "Good ol’ Jesus would a’ puked!" -- one need not know that particular incident. But one must by some means come to the place where he penetrates with his mind and learns his preaching stance by pondering the meaning of that bitter statement. For that trenchant remark discloses both the appalling insensibility of our time and a strangely persistent longing for righteousness.

Our proposition -- that ultimate negations generate a strange addressability by ultimate affirmations -- requires then a stance learned in existence always open and alive. But a stance is not a sermon. The actual sermon will be the effort we make -- the tactics we employ to set over against the negations, whether they be conscious and articulate or unconscious and weary -- the powers, claims, promises, and gifts of the Christian gospel. If the world has indeed come of age, and in that maturity left behind effective beliefs, remembrances, hopes that were once the humane context in which life heard the message of God’s redemption, how can one preach at all? What possible tactic is there for relating possibilities to negations?

A clue is given in an observation. If one reflects upon the literature of the last three decades or so in which Christian terms have been employed to suggest the redemptive truth of the Christian faith, he makes an important discovery. Neither the presumed religion of Jesus, nor isolated episodes of his career, nor specific items in his teaching are the substance being pondered by the writer. What is being pondered, and that with a power and a fascination altogether singular, is the congruity between the entire story as objectively related and celebrated in the Christian church, and the whole story of man’s passional subjectivity. The mighty descending, crucified, and ascending curve of love’s restorative action as it invades, reenacts, and lifts back up to itself the entire human situation -- this is the central theme of an impressive body of contemporary reflection. I name here a few instances, the list could be very long: He Came Down From Heaven and Descent Into Hell, by Charles Williams. Christmas Oratoria, with its poetic refashioning of the Kierkegaardian dialectic, and For the Time Being, by W. H. Auden. T. S. Eliot concludes his Four Quartets with lines which are both a summary of his analysis and an announcement of a salvation:

Who then devised the torment? Love.

Love is the unfamiliar Name

Behind the hands that wove

The intolerable shirt of flame

Which human power cannot remove.

We only live, only suspire

Consumed by either fire or fire.

(The Complete Poems and Plays, 1909-1950 [New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1952] p. 144)

These lines are a tight counterpoint in which a big theme is condensed: life’s affirmative fire is only to be redeemed from self-incineration when it is met by, controlled, and purified by the God who is a consuming fire, in his concreteness of love in Christ ("I come to bring fire upon the earth") and mediated by the Spirit,

. . . also a fire, Veni Creator Spiritus.

Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire,

And lighten with celestial fire;

And so, writes a contemporary poet,

. . . while the light fails

On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel

History is now and England.

With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this calling. (Ibid.)

There is a preacher in the Christian church, dead now for a hundred years, who better than any other can be our tutor as we seek to learn how to preach to our time. He saw with absolute clarity that preaching is neither the bestowal of faith nor the heavenly confirmation of human truth. He understood it as a kind of "indirect communication" whereby the sluggish self is made passionately aware that its highest perfection is its need for God. Sören Kierkegaard understood that preaching cannot deliver what the need discloses; it is the function of preaching rather so to tell the story that God’s deed becomes a possibility for man’s need. He understood that preaching is a kind of contrapuntal exercise directed not primarily to a cognitive relation to the declaration, but directed rather to such evocation of the passion of the self that it shall "will" to become the truth which Christ was and is.

There is a contemporary poem which illustrates our proposition: that ultimate negations generate a strange addressability by ultimate affirmations. Its title is "Elegy: Separation of Man from God." In the poem the fact of separation is not only acknowledged, but the terms in which it is objectified are named with stunning precision. The absence of God generates a negative capability to recognize the formal adequacy of God. In the first stanza the bitter identification of opposites suggests the shape and the depth of a need to which nothing less than eucharist will be redemptive:

These errors loved no less than the saint loves arrows

Repeat, Love has left the world. He is not here.

O God, like Love revealing yourself in absence

So that, though farther than stars, like Love that sorrows

In separation, the desire in the heart of hearts

To come home to you makes you most manifest.

The booming zero spins as his halo where

Ashes of pride on all the tongues of sense

Crown us with negatives. O deal us in our deserts

The crumb of falling vanity. It is eucharist.

George Barker

(Oscar Williams [ed.], The Golden Treasury [New York: Mentor Books, 1943], No. 90. Reprinted by permission of Criterion Books, Inc., New York).

In the last stanza the poet invents a series of epithets in which are flung out, in more brutal terms than the ordinary man would permit himself, what nevertheless the ordinary man knows to be his argument with God. The startling reversal in the last line, in which the word God, spelled backward, is dog, utters the promise that time and grace can disgorge the massive need of men’s souls out of their knotted negations, and find again a fierce salvation in the ancient story. Hear the epithets spat out in passion, and hear these current negations declare their kinship with all who, walking in darkness, have seen a great light. Darkness does not make a light out of sheer darkness, but darkness has a way of making light a term of passion.

Incubus. Anaesthetist with glory in a bag,

Foreman with a sweatbox and a whip. Asphyxiator

Of the ecstatic. Sergeant with a grudge

Against the lost lovers in the park of creation,

Fiend behind the fiend behind the fiend behind the

Friend. Mastodon with mastery, monster with an ache

At the tooth of the ego, the dead drunk judge:

Wheresoever Thou art our agony will find Thee

Enthroned on the darkest altar of our heartbreak

Perfect. Beast, brute, bastard. O dog my God!

Sometimes a spontaneous and uncalculated word may be more revelatory than one born of conscious reflection. Not long ago, in a class in systematic theology, I was speaking of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. The effort was to disabuse the mind of some students that the doctrine had been imposed as a kind of perverse sophistication upon the assumed "simplicity" of the religion of Jesus. After an indication of the multiple strands in the New Testament witness that made this assumption questionable, and some treatment of the primitive Christian experience of Jesus Christ which invited the mind to other than monodimensional terms for a just understanding of this encounter, we moved on to a consideration of the role of the doctrine in Christianity’s penetration of classical culture. I referred the students to Charles N. Cochrane’s lucid description of this process (In his Christianity and Classical Culture[New York: Oxford University Press, 1944]) and for about half an hour did an enthusiastic recapitulation of Cochrane’s argument: that the doctrine of the Trinity was alone a principle big enough to fill the intellectual, moral, and emotional space left by the waning ideal of Romanitas; and that it had, in fact, accomplished this for many men and for hundreds of years.

There sat before me a student who, in his own experience of an eroded Christian ethos and understanding and in his equally certain longing to find a faith with a magnitude equal to his problems, was a living symbol of millions in our generation to whom the gospel must be preached. When the lecture was finished -- and without meaning, I think, to be overheard -- he uttered a sentence monumental in its meaning for the preacher: "If it were true, ‘twould do!"

There you have it -- both the nature of the contemporary preaching situation and the implied tactic. We can cause no man to permit his life to be determined by the revelation of Jesus Christ as the coming of God to him. We cannot, that is to say, guarantee the victory of the truth by the telling of the story. To accomplish that is the work of the Holy Spirit. But we can so tell the story within the house of negation and emptiness that the great passion lay its hand upon the wan, quiescent, or aggressive passions that the hearer might exclaim, "If it were true, ‘twould do!"