Imagine being Christian in a rational world


Earth and clouds from spaceThe core statements of Christian faith have never been self-evident. They have always been disputed. They have also been tenaciously reasserted by Christian authorities. For many observers the exercise of power and the claim of tradition offer a sufficient explanation of why they have been defended. But that leaves unasked a more interesting question: what would be lost if these positions were softened or abandoned?

I believe that what is at stake is the operative imagination: the way we see the world, from which follow consequences for our inner conversation and actions.

We may, for example believe that germs exist but never think of them or take them into account in the way we eat and wash. This shows that they are not part of our operative imagination.

As it is described in Scripture and experienced by Christians subsequently the operative Christian imagination holds together in a dramatic story a number of large convictions about God and the world. They stand in strong tension with one another and with any conventional wisdom.

They may be summarised in this way. God takes exuberant delight in the world and loves each human being. This love lies behind the metaphysical mayhem involved in the Son of God becoming human. His brutal sending out of the world by crucifixion reflects the human capacity for evil. His rising from the dead shows God's unconquerable love and the hope we have beyond death.

The characteristic energy of Christian faith comes from holding together these elements in the imagination. God's love is shown both in becoming human and in rejection. Human murderousness is the step towards Christ's rising and human hope. The tension between total love, total rejection and total reaffirmation expresses itself in the defiant and exultant Pauline cry that nothing can separate us from God's love. The depths of the 'nothing' have been fully weighed, and the result is a faith that cheerfully touches all aspects of life and fate, however grim.

The persistent Christian defence of a personal God, of Christ's divinity, of the power of sin, of Christ's resurrection, and of life after death underlines the importance of the imagination. If God is seen as distant and Jesus as just a good human being, or if life after death is written out, faith will lack its original power and energy.

It is difficult to maintain high tensions in any operative view of the world. We naturally move to harmonise the elements of our view of the world. The Christian imagination is marked both by internal tension and by tension with prevailing forms of rationality. Our culture leaves little room for a determining reality beyond the empirical world, let alone a personal reality.

The possibility of such a God becoming personally present in an individual human life and destiny, intervening in natural processes by rising from the dead, and offering human beings a life beyond the confines of this world is held to be equally implausible.

These tensions are often dealt with by harmonising. The exuberant love of God is tamed and measured out to reward or punish exactly the human response. Or the desperate human situation as mirrored in the crucifixion is domesticated. In response to naturalistic philosophies, God is made more remote, Christ is seen as no more than a good human being, and the resurrection and eternal life purely as images of human possibility within this world.

The challenge facing those who arrive at these harmonising versions of faith is to find sufficient sustenance for the imagination to allow them happily to stake their life on their faith.

The challenge of maintaining the tension inherent in the Christian imagination is to live creatively within the inconsistency between the Christian imagination and conventional wisdom. This requires reflecting on the wisdom of the culture, recognising its strengths in celebrating and exploring the natural world, and also its limitations in handling human questions and realities that are not completely susceptible to empirical exploration.

Living cheerfully and non-polemically in the middle with such tensions has its own challenges. But that, after all, is what the Christian imagination should prepare one for.

Andrew Hamilton headshotAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Earth image from Shutterstock

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, theology



submit a comment

Existing comments

A few years ago now I was participating in a Bible study when discussion turned to the topic of how we came to faith. Even as I was articulating my contribution I was thinking "This sounds lame." I told of my strong feeling of a rope tied around me and connected to God. A man nearby said "Once God gets a hold, He doesn't let go." (Sweet person!) My numerous failures, flaws and inadequacies can probably be rationally explained - human weakness, shallow character etc. But the deeper reality for me is 'the rope'. Just as in our closest personal relationships our relationship with God doesn't come under the heading 'Rational Feelings'. And those relationships of love over-ride conventional wisdom.
Pam | 06 June 2013

Some superb writing here Andrew. Your phrase about God;s exuberant love reminds me of one I read recently about God's insane love for us. This is Eureka Street at its best, Well done and thanks.
grebo | 06 June 2013

Philosophy and science must be accepted as partners in our human quest for understanding and fulfilment. It seems we are still living with a church who has its laws and rules rooted,cemented, in its own medieval philosophies (imaginations). So, the church prescribed faith as fact and its version of creation,God,as something non-negotiable.Something unquestionable. It was deemed heretical to explore the facts. Faith became a way to accept the hierarchal order of feudal societies.The Ikon ( rooted in the word economy) was harnessed when the church and political rule was the same. Icons, images, held transformative (miraculous) power.We have arts and imaging, continually describing the 'indescribable'.Arts and Sciences are traditionally studied separately only to harness fields of knowledge, but we are now making links and connections,(RMIT has cross pollination in art and science in architecture,landscape,textile,fine art painting, sculpture)and with science we are more aware of the boundlessness. Imagination necessary for exploration and cannot be fixed within certain (religious) boundaries.
Catherine | 06 June 2013

john frawley | 06 June 2013

It is a matter of great fascination to me that Rationalists, as they like to be called, argue that they are simply using rational thought, unlike the people they criticise, like Christians and others. This, as we know, is symptomatic of Enlightenment views about the supremacy and in fact finality of human reason to explain everything. As those with an understanding of history know however, reason itself is just one of the gifts that we have and which we are expected to use in an imaginative and responsible way. People in the Middle Ages talked about reason as one of the means to greater understanding of faith itself. Rationalists are terribly keen about evidence, they all the time want closure and definition. Even when gazing upon the universe, they want it in their pocket. It has to be written down definitively in their latest publication. Whereas when people (even Rationalists, thank God) are confronted with God, absolute closure is in fact beyond the question. The words of the Creed are fairly dogmatic, until you ask what each of the clauses is really saying: they are more than the sum of their words. The words of the parables are a serious affront to the idea of evidence and closure. A person who turns the other cheek, a person who walks the extra mile, a person who ponders the results of the mustard seed – this is all too much for mere Rationalism. Yet we are being asked to consider these words as the way to go. We all share the planet, but is it all just evidence, or is it in fact sacred?
PHILIP HARVEY | 06 June 2013

Andrew, I look forward eagerly to your contributions,but today's is one of your best.
John O'Kelly | 06 June 2013

In my experience there are no religious people I know who would dispute that philosophy and science are accepted partners in our human quest for understanding and fulfilment. They serve such a purpose, and rightly used bring great benefit. There are also very few people today who see laws and rules as cemented in medieval philosophy, unless they happen to be students of medieval philosophy. It is a long time since the church, or anyone really, deemed it heretical to explore the facts. Faith itself has nothing to do with the acceptance of a hierarchal order or feudal societies. Such a perception reveals a very serious lack of basic understanding of personal faith. Catherine’s views on church and religion are the ones stuck in the past, back in the 18th century. I become annoyed with Catherine when she claims that Ikon is rooted in the word Economy. Ikon is a Greek word meaning Image. The central purpose of the icon is as a means of prayer. One has to be extremely careful when saying that “Icons, images, held transformative (miraculous) power”, as though this were an accepted fact of history: iconoclasm happens when people think this is what icons are about. The arts and sciences have worked together since Antiquity, not just the last five minutes. Also, in my experience of religious people, there is only agreement to the proposition that imagination is necessary for exploration and cannot be fixed within certain boundaries. It’s going on all the time, every day.
PHILIP HARVEY | 06 June 2013

I love the fact that the core statements of our Xtian faith lead to "metaphysical mayhem"! In 2013 faith is expressed with a power and energy which out-weighs that of the traditional "mayhem". It is the power and energy of Wonder. To truly watch an infant grow to manhood, To see the night sky and the nurturing sun, To feel pain and joy and to cry, To watch one family thrive and another disintegrate, To lear of cultures and ideas that come and go, To know greed and power and compassion and justice, To know life, ours, our ancesters' and the life of our contemporary and past sharers of our animal life, To know that our responses to our world matter; they matter to the whole whatever it turns out to be. Wonder and awe, curiosity and action sustain those of us who couldn't cope with the "mayhem".
Mahdi Wilson | 06 June 2013

Superb article Andrew. What really got me was that you came to the same place between "the world" and "Christianity" through understanding of the nature of paradox. Both Chesterton and Jung (the latter, as far as I am aware, not formally a Christian, although I would argue that, to some extent, he embodied an aspect of Western Christian consciousness, including an understanding of its specific Mysticism) came, in their own ways, to this place which is the true place of "magic" (understood in its Christian sense as "the miraculous") and transformation. I always think it a pity that, in the Latin Rite, the Catholic Church has, more or less pushed historic Western Christian Mysticism ( which is quite legitimate and non-heretical) aside as "too difficult" for "the simple faithful". Fortunately neither Orthodoxy nor Eastern Rite Catholicism have done this. The Jesus Prayer lives and flourishes there. I think Modern Western Christianity (including its Catholic manifestation) is far too cerebral and not really into what the mystics call "the heart". Lest it be thought I am advocating some sort of emotionalism, I should point out that I think both John Donne and Ignatius of Loyola, both men of considerable intellect and totally sane, came as much from "the heart" as "the head". I think we need to rediscover this balance. It takes a Teilhard de Chardin or Michel Quoist to do so. We need exemplars like them.
Edward F | 06 June 2013

What a beautiful, profoundly cheerful piece. I'm going to stick it to the wall as a reminder that the depths of the nothing have been fully weighed. Thank you!
Annmarie | 06 June 2013

I was glad to see so many positive responses to this article because all the time I was reading it I was thinking this article is so "culture-bound" - a not very useful descriptor from my study of Sociology many years ago. I was fortunate enough to live and work with Scheduled Tribes in India many of which were Christian. As Animists they had no difficulty in accepting the core statements of the Christian faith. However they would be tested like gold in the fire of religious persecution. Thanks to the work of Christian missionaries and their catechists they proved themselves to be of the purest metal. No harmonising of tension here. Simple faith produced great courage - with the help of the Holy Spirit - a concept which they seemed to have no difficulty in accepting.
Uncle Pat | 06 June 2013

Thank you Andrew, for your challenge to Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians to walk the tight-rope of creative tension in embracing the practical and symbolic realities of our relationship so tarnished with distrust, so etched with suffering, so devoid of imagination but so full of potential healing, hope and recognition. I believe it's in humble listening that truth reveals itself, embedded in that creative tension so endemic and definitive of Truth and Reconciliation work. Have we the Statespersons of integrity, imagination, courage, humility, wisdom and articulation to lead our country in such a work? What would it take and from whom to bring us all to our knees in recognition of our common human frailty, our deepest human longings, our highest sense of calling and to raise us up, as one strong, united people intent on wanting the best for each other. Is not tough truth-telling the precursor and blood brother of human dignity, the shalom that refuses to capitulate to hollow harmony but is something willing to count the cost of vulnerable love and respect as a harbinger of hope.
Gail Pritchard | 06 June 2013

One of the great symbols of Christian renewal is the phoenix rising from the ashes. Much of what purported to be "Christian" has been tried and burnt to a crisp. I think what is happening now, in certain places and certain quarters, is real Christian renewal. This article is, I think, a poetic insight into this. Poetry "sees" far more clearly than prose viz. Donne; Dante; George Herbert; Gerald Manley Hopkins and T S Eliot to name but a few. I think the late, great Archbishop Michael Ramsey of Canterbury, a far greater incumbent of the position than Rowan Williams or Justin Welby could ever be, was a theologian who also had poetic insight into essential Christian truth. Your article is so much better than the normal rubbish preached at churches every Sunday in this country Andrew. I wish there were more like you.
Edward F | 06 June 2013

Marie-Jose Mondzain's book "Image,Icon, Economy-The Byzantine Origins of the Contemporary Imaginary"(Stanford Press 2005) explains the political and religious harnessing of 'ikon' (greek - referring to household ) and the icon seen as an image of God's (the sacred) gaze.She explains how The image is more powerful than The word and this was the sticking point, the schism for the early church. I wonder about 18th century attitudes too Phillip. The Vatican is still a church-state,and people are still ex-communicated for heresy. I wonder about the French revolution, the Crusades and wars being fought today. I wonder if Divine Right found in ancient civilisations, still reigns in the Vatican with its laws and sovereignty, yet this church now established in all other nations cannot be sued because it is not an entity, it is beyond, above all other laws of the land. Science, in exploring the void,that is, God, shares with artists the transformative power of emptiness, and kenosis. Religion is still about political power I'm afraid, but I hope Pope Francis may open the borders of minds and imaginations.
Catherine | 06 June 2013

I agree with Edward F. "I think Modern Western Christianity (including its Catholic manifestation) is far too cerebral and not really into what the mystics call "the heart"." Faith demands our heart. Debates can be hilarious because you can use logic to take you down ridiculous blind alleys, building straw men.
Frank S | 06 June 2013

"But that leaves unasked a more interesting question: what would be lost if these positions were softened or abandoned?" An even more interesting question is "What could be gained if these positions were softened or abandoned?" The positions in question are human constructs to assist in bridging the gap to the divine. They are like the lower rungs of a ladder. If we are below them, we need to reach up to them, but having achieved them, we need to put them under foot and rise above them to a more spiritual awareness of our relationship with God. If they are simply removed, many will not be able to achieve any ascent. The human mind is not capable of comprehending God, but by embracing Goodness and Truth we gain an awareness of the presence of God within us. If we cultivate this awareness, everything else will fall into place.
Roberet Liddy | 06 June 2013

Andrew, I'm a very ordinary under-educated Australian. I'll presuppose that my reading informed me that there's a dichotomy between an older historical culture of mystical belief, and of a present culture of logical belief. And, that the question is, how does a Christian believer ascribing to that old time religion of the mystical spirit, balance living in a present world of logical determinism? The present that has overwhelming numbers of proponents that have never, and will never as they don't wish to, embark on exploration of the difficult world of the 'heart'. It seems so fundamentally counter intuitive from my headspace, and yet I'm drawn, and I don't believe that anybody is not uniquely unchallenged by this in their life, to respond from the heart. The unique gift of Jesus of Nazareth was not that he provided a mystical tension to our lives, as that already existed in His religion, but that he codified a new way of being, that of the mystical and unfathomable God, of the Infinite. Art and Science, and Law, has always and will always attempt to encapsulate that. The tension!
MoJoCo | 07 June 2013

I add my voice in congratulating and thanking Andrew for a magnificent piece. I note a couple of commentators find the Catholic Church too cerebral, thereby missing the spiritual bounty available to those capable of, and daring to, imagine in the sense Andrew expresses. I agree that our Church demonstrates a suspicion of human imagination, including perhaps a fear of mysticism. But I cannot agree the Church is too cerebral; it should indeed be more cerebral! Banning books which propose alternative interpretations of Jesus, sacking bishops who suggest intelligent approaches to maintaining enough priests to serve the people of the Church, hiding the criminal behaviour of some priests and religious - these are not the actions of a cerebral church. These are the defensive reactions of a church which, for a century, has set itself against the modern world which it defined as evil. A more cerebral church would have welcomed the fresh perspectives and institutional transparency developed during Vatican II and accepted the challenge of nursing the more traditional-minded through the necessary modernisation. But for almost fifty years, we shored up our past, secure behind impenetrable Vatican walls. We need more imagination and we need to be more cerebral.
Ian Fraser | 07 June 2013

Bravo Andrew. A piece to send us soaring. A group without imagination, creativity and love is doomed to ordinariness. And faith is never that.
jorie Ryan | 07 June 2013

Here I am writing on the feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. What a challenge to the imagination is that? St Augustine may have written "Our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee" but that the heart of Jesus - the incarnate word of God - should burn for love of us? That's incredible! Thank God, I can believe it.
Uncle Pat | 07 June 2013

Thanks Catherine for Marie-Jose Mondzain, that’s good. Economy is certainly about ‘household’. As Rowan Williams has written recently, if the economists and politicians and business people treated the world as ‘household’ with good housekeeping, we would be in a better place than we are. Mondzain’s theories are worth studying, though we need to differentiate between the Image of the World and the Image of the Divine as represented in the holy works known as icons. Byzantium was a unique imperial construct; also, Byzantium was not the early church but what happened to the East and the Church after Constantine. Christianity has always been bigger than Byzantium, or the Vatican. They are certainly powerful expressions of what happens when religion and state join forces, but casting either of them as irredeemably corrupt and unaccountable is a mistake, really. It’s okay to say religion is still about political power, especially if you hold the view that everything is politics. The question is, what kind of politics? There are some seriously more dangerous and destructive forms of politics in the world today that have little or nothing to do with religion. One of the errors here is the naïve belief that religion should be above politics. Anyone who reads the New Testament knows that politics is going on the whole damn time. Point is, what do we render to God, what do we render to Caesar? We are being asked this question every day. I personally don’t wait around for Pope Francis to give me the answer, though I am open to what the fellow has to say.
PHILIP HARVEY | 07 June 2013

I take inspiration from Nicodemus's search for meaning as he followed Jesus and tried to make sense of his words and actions. Being rational didn't always help him when it came to some aspects of faith. “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”
AURELIUS | 07 June 2013

Andrew, not for the first time you have offered us a gem. It's a wonderful invitation to resist facile harmonisation, with its risk of forfeiting what is most distinctive and most deeply inspiring in the Christian Good News.
Chris Mostert | 07 June 2013

'Imagine being a Christian in a rational world'? No sweat. But, imagine being a rationalist in a Christian, or any other theocratic, world. Now that really is frightening.
Ginger Meggs | 07 June 2013

"The unique gift of Jesus of Nazareth was not that he provided a mystical tension to our lives, as that already existed in His religion, but that he codified a new way of being, that of the mystical and unfathomable God, of the Infinite." Being who He was means that Jesus didn't need to "codify" anything. What He was doing, if you look at the action and parables of His in the Gospels, was to "release" religion from the stilted, formalized, dead, over-codified, straitjacketed bonds of its time. I think there is one thing we need to remember about religious codes. It isn't that we don't need them. They need to be lived in the spirit of God's Love. That doesn't mean that other aspects, like His Justice, don't come into it. It's just that Christianity (which is what Jesus brought despite what some dubious "scholars" outside Christian orthodoxy say) is lived in the balm of God's Love. Jesus was the Real Manifestation of this. One of the interesting things about all the deepest Christian Truth, such as the Incarnation, is that, in Christian Tradition (which, as far as they are concerned, is the only tradition which matters) they are termed Mysteries of Religion because they are far, far too deep for the human intellect to fathom. "Mysticism", in the Christian sense, is the graced apprehension of this to the extent a person is capable of. Because we Latin Christians see things in a legal context (Scholastic Philosophy and Theology) we sometimes don't apprehend it as simply and clearly as those coming from an Orthodox or Eastern Catholic background (without the Scholastic "spectacles", which are only a means of explaining the Truth, not the Truth itself) do. We need to be simpler and humbler.
Edward F | 10 June 2013

Thank you Edward,you express beautifully the way we have tried to codify God. Christ gave us a new way of seeing, being.Religious roots stem from ancient times when faith and law were inseparable and regional. I feel art and science can help us understand Christ's message of the kingdom within, as He demystified God and our own sacredness was now an image of God. Paul Johnson's book "Art: A New History" (Harper Collins,London,2003) explores art as the first language and I feel it is more potent than words. Art transports us beyond superficial constructs of reality with imaging and through "infinity of the line",and science continues to explain deep mysteries making the invisible visible and knowable. There are many ways to experience and express The sacred, it's beauty cannot be contained, bound or possessed.
Catherine | 12 June 2013

Similar Articles

Good and evil faces of child labour

  • Andrew Hamilton
  • 13 June 2013

I met a young woman who had been sold as a domestic servant when she was five, and later on-sold for sex work in Bangkok, Malaysia and Australia. I also met a girl in a village of El Salvador: for generations her family had lived by making rope from cactus fibre. Her work contributed substantially to the family income and made her a valued member of her society.



Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up