The Confused Catholic Imagination

It is commonplace to assume that the imagination is opposed to reality. This is not the prevailing understanding of the imagination in contemporary theory and theology.

Let’s start with the following classic rock lyrics to clarify the ties of the imagination to reality:

Imagine there's no heaven / It's easy if you try / No hell below us / Above us only sky / Imagine all the people living for today // Imagine there's no countries / It isn't hard to do / Nothing to kill or die for / And no religion too / Imagine all the people living life in peace . . . [1]

The alternative world imagined by John Lennon and Yoko Ono (“it’s easy if you try,” they say) is reminiscent of Isaiah’s Peaceable Kingdom (Is 11:1–9). However, like in a Flannery O’Connor novel, it is a Peaceable Kingdom without God, eschatology, and history. Implementing such a world would require the complete restructuring of politics, society, architecture, worship, and so on.

When the implications of the lyrics of the song “Imagine” are unpacked, then it is no surprise that some believers are intimidated by the future it proposes. For example, some associate the song’s message with the project of historical Communism, which imagined and then put into practice the destruction of religion in the Soviet Bloc. Conversely, if one truly believes capitalism pacifies the conflicts of religion and tribe, then putting the song into practice might entail transforming all churches into ATM depots or McDonald’s restaurants.

A recent cognitive science bestseller, The Philosophical Baby, argues that this ability to imagine a favorable or unfavorable future, and to enact or avoid it, is the hallmark of being human.[2] For example, imagine how much your life and the life of your community would have to change in order to apply the “Agrarian Insights on Ecological Conversion: Living Laudato Si.” Your daily habits—at home, at the market, at work—would have to be completely reimagined to fit into the needs of Creation, rather than endless consumption. Those who have attempted anything of the kind know that this sounds much more appealing in theory than in applying to everyday practice. It should be clearer after these two examples that the imagination is anchored in reality and is a useful concept for understanding possible ways of discerning being-in-the-world.

The second example brings us into the emerging field of reflection upon the “Catholic imagination.” This year’s Fordham Catholic Imagination Conference, which will be discussed in more detail in a piece tomorrow (now up), demonstrated both the usefulness of the “Catholic imagination” and the conceptual confusion surrounding it. The conference readings of literary luminaries such as Alice McDermott, Angela Alaimo O’Donnell, Dana Gioia, Philip Metres, and Ron Hansen radiated a dramatic sacramental vision seldom seen in the writings of their non-Catholic colleagues. At times, their readings became dramatic epiphanies of God’s presence in Creation. This was facilitated by robust cadence, form, and imagery that instinctively borrowed from, and led back to, the liturgy. These authors made clear that literature is one way of doing theology. Literature is a way of doing theology ironically overlooked in a Catholic tradition rooted in, as John Pfordresher reminds us in Jesus and the Emergence of a Catholic Imagination, Gospel accounts rich in natural imagery, parable, and dramatic gestures.[3]

The Catholic imagination makes a noticeable difference in the work of these artists. It would be difficult to imagine their voices without their distinctly Catholic faith. However, the Fordham conference was fuzzy how the Catholic imagination makes that difference. The conceptual confusion made itself apparent when a conference participant asked one literary criticism panel a deceptively simple question: “What is the Catholic imagination?” He received at least four conflicting answers, one from each panelist. There is nothing extraordinary about the theoretical confusion at the Fordham conference. It reflects a wider confusion among Catholic universities and their Catholic Studies programs. Each of these institutions, and there are many of them, appears to have its own working definition of the Catholic imagination that developed out of its own institutional needs and accents upon Catholic identity. These practical needs sidestepped much of the work of theologians on the Catholic imagination.

The Catholic theological imagination abhors the confusion of a systematic vacuum. The good news is that there is no lack of literature that could help these institutions fashion a unifying vision of the Catholic imagination while making allowance for Catholicism’s characteristic diversity. Systematization generally occurs as a response to controversies. The field of inquiry around the Catholic imagination finds itself in a peculiar position because the systematic thinking developed by theologians such as David Tracy, Andrew Greely, John Pfordresher, William T. Cavanaugh, and Michael Murphy mostly predated the institutional confusion. Now it needs to be applied to institutional and pastoral thinking. This post is the first in a series of four posts about applying the insights of this existing research systematically.

I will close with an example culled from the writings of Artur Grabowski, a Polish playwright, poet, and essayist. It reflects upon the strangeness and appeal of the Eastern Orthodox tradition to someone at home in the Western Catholic imagination:

A few days later I went into a tiny and dark Greek Orthodox church. There I felt an intense sense of presence. The icons seemed to gaze upon me with his gaze, and on them were the faces of Christ and the saints. Yet he didn’t seem so much to gaze upon me as observe me from on high. I found myself in a subordinate position, lowered (though, alas, not humble) in relation to him. My appointed place is under his icon. Perhaps my lack of humility comes from my particularly Latin pride of independence, or maybe it’s because I’m used to standing face to face with His image. But this low position, truth be told, gave me a feeling of strength. It is a calling to meet his demands, to change myself under his gaze, but at the same time it discourages me from self-sufficiency. No, I dare not approach him there.[4]

Future posts will concentrate more directly on how cultures of formation shape Catholic imaginations differently than Eastern Orthodox, Protestant, and secular imaginations.

For now it is enough to note in the passage cited above, like in Giotto's fresco, a characteristically Catholic affinity for the dramatic intermingling between God and man.

Featured Image: Giotto, Crucifixion from the Scrovegni Chapel, c. 1300. Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.

[1] John Lennon, "Imagine," Imagine, Apple, 1971.

[2] Alison Gopnik, The Philosophical Baby: What Children's Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life (New York: Picador, 2010), 19-33.

[3] John Pfordresher, Jesus and the Emergence of a Catholic Imagination (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2008), 1-86.

[4] Artur Grabowski, “Unapologetic Visibility,” IMAGE Journal 59 (2009), accessed online.


Artur Sebastian Rosman

Artur Sebastian Rosman is the Editor-in-Chief of Church Life Journal.

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