Francis Gardom asks us to take the classical Christian understanding of mystery and imagination more seriously

When Edgar Allen Poe called his short stories Tales of Mystery and Imagination he was unwittingly employing terms fundamental to the Christian faith. No doubt he meant mystery and imagination to have the meaning they popularly bear today. In day-to-day speech saying ‘I’m sure I put my keys in my pocket – but I must have imagined it,’ or (of someone’s self-esteem), ‘he imagines himself to be a great poet/scholar/musician’ is effectively saying that these statements are not true. Hence ‘imagination’ implies ‘something that proves on inspection not to be really true’. But in the Christian vocabulary imagination, and particularly its verbal antecedent, image, mean something very different from this.

It has been rightly said that we can only know about God by revelation and by analogy – that is, by comparing Him-whom-we-cannot-know with something or someone that we can know. Terms like King, Shepherd, Father, Husband, Friend, Creator, Judge, Saviour are just a few of the analogical images through which God has revealed himself, each one illustrating (though some more completely or perfectly than others) one facet of his divine nature.

How to think of God

So, far from our imagination leading us to believe something that isn’t really true about God, the use of imagery is the only way we can think about him at all and, as Hebrews 1.3 states, it is only in Jesus Christ can there be seen ‘the express image of his [God’s] Person.’ This should convince us that in our understanding of God, and coming to know him personally, our imagination will have a vital part to play.

Of course imagination, like all God’s gifts, requires a measure of self-discipline. If we rely too exclusively on one particular image, our thinking about God will become seriously distorted. Take, for instance our image of ‘God the Father’. God’s Fatherhood (of us) is not the result of his having created us, but of his making us his children by adoption, grace and new birth in baptism. We must distinguish between creation and procreation – two different things.

Just as we humans beget children of one substance with ourselves, but make chairs and aeroplanes from wood and metal with which we have little or nothing in common, God the Father begets God the Son (who shares his substance), whereas he creates the universe and everything in it, ourselves included, of a different substance altogether. Moreover, when we use words like ‘create’ and ‘beget’ about God, they are analogies – which don’t have precisely the same meaning in everyday speech.

Analogy and reality

Failing to distinguish between analogy and reality, or applying the wrong analogy to describe some aspect of God’s nature has one invariable result: Man creates God in his own [man’s] image. Many people do not bother to think about God at all; but of those who do the phrase ‘God the Father’ may suggest little more than a benevolent family-man. From this it is widely assumed that God has the same characteristics, ideas and preferences which are approved by secular society today.

Thus God must believe that democracy is the best way of deciding what is true and false. He supports equality, and understands that men and women only differ in their ‘fittings’. He isn’t too concerned about our shortcomings providing we ‘mean well’ and don’t do too much harm to others. He is a God of multi-culture, multi-faith, and, above all, of universal contentment and well-being. When we die (one of the problems, incidentally, which he has so far been unable to tackle successfully) then, contrary to all the visible evidence, he will ensure that each and every one of us enjoys an eternity of gratifying self-fulfilment even though we may have spent our lifetime ignoring him!

Failing to use our imagination in the service of God will reduce our faith to dry, moralistic platitudes; using it irresponsibly will create in our minds a God who is little more than an imaginary being.