The Unimaginable

“No one has ever seen God,” the Prologue to John’s Gospel concludes, and the reverberations of that statement are registered in 1 John 4:20. For though the epistle opens with the assertion about God incarnate being heard, seen and touched (1 John 1:1), Christian life is pitched in realms where the seen and the unseen intersect. And even though the relationship with Christ is the basis for any Christian identification, Christians live (unlike those first witnesses to the historical Jesus) in the modulations of presence and absence announced by the angels outside the empty tomb: “He is not here” (Matt 28:6). So any scriptural pronouncements about the nature of the material revelation of God in Jesus Christ are stippled with invisibility. They are mediated, interpreted, and wrestled with through texts. Jesus Christ, as the historical revelation of God, is available only in modes in which visibility and invisibility cohere amidst the drifting clouds of unknowing. In the scriptures and the sacraments (most significantly, the Eucharist) we treat what we don’t fully understand and cannot grasp. That does not prevent, in fact, it stimulates, imaginative fashionings of the Godhead. And these fashionings open up the essential relationship between faith and the imagination.

In De Trinitate Augustine writes:

We cannot help our imaginations fabricating something with the shape and outline of bodies . . . Anyone, surely, who had read or heard what the apostle Paul wrote or was written about him, we fabricate a face for the apostle in his imagination, and for everybody else whose name is mentioned in these texts. And every one of the vast number of people to whom these writings are known will think of their physical features and lineaments in a different way, and it will be quite impossible to tell whose thoughts are nearest the mark in this respect…Even the physical body of the Lord is pictured with infinite variety by countless imaginations, though whatever he was like he certainly only had one (Book VIII.7).

For someone like Augustine, who is perennially preoccupied with the dangers and deceptions of the imaginary (imaginarium and phantasmata), only a theological anthropology rooted in Christ can span the paradox of our pervasive ignorance and its endless inventiveness, on the one hand, and, on the other, that we are creatures made by God in such a way that some knowledge of God is accommodated to our human capacities. There is a consonatia. It is this consonance, inhabited with prayerful discernment and subject to our vulnerability to deception, that enables there to be a seeking of faith for understanding. There would be no theological task, nor any theology, then, without our capacities to believe and to imagine. Imagination is that fundamental, and it operates in and with faith as continual entrustment to what is given to us; as an openness that forms a deepening relationship to Christ within us so that we will know even as we are known (1 Cor 13:12).

Theologically, with both faith and imagination, we trade in opacities lodged intimately within us while infinitely transcending us. Both capabilities work in the hinterlands between cognitions and the inchoate (moods, feelings, impressions) where thought looses itself in the reception of what is sensed. This is the domain of the perhaps and maybes; of awarenesses so subtle they are wordless pulses; seams of something molten and quickening. This is the domain of insights, where the meaningful bubbles and gives timbre to the voice beneath utterance. We register the timbre in intimacy; that communication rising up to thought with heart-beat and breath. Prayer arises and returns here.

I began to explore the theological anthropology this sketches in Unbelievable: Why We Believe and Why We Don’t by looking as the evolution of belief, its physiology, psychology and neuroscience, and its operation socially and culturally. It was not explicitly a theological book, though it ventured into the religious understanding of belief and its relation to faith (in many languages these are the same word) as a social and cultural phenomenon. What I attempted in that book was the presentation of a multi-leveled account of an everyday activity, arguing on the basis of embodied cognition that the activity of believing was prior to knowledge. We live in and create worlds in which the generation of and trading in beliefs goes on continually. Beliefs are made, and continually being made and re-made. There are organs and institutions responsible for the production and persuasive power of belief. The Church is one such organ and institution, but there are any number of others—from political parties to advertising, from a novel as it is read to a performance on stage. Faith, I argued, is a self-conscious commitment to believing; a recognition of the fallibility and fragility of our knowledges. It is not something unusual in itself. It is not a sacrifice of rationality. Rationality, in fact, emerges from the ongoing activity of belief manufacture and modification; though, theologically, I said, Christian belief is held to be also a gift sustained by grace: “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24). In pursuing this line of thought I was questioning divisions between nature and grace, by providing an anthropology in which religious believing was a phenomenon of being the kind of creatures we are and asking they questions we do: what am I? Where do I come from? Why am I here? Believing gropes to understand what it is to be a human being and what gives our life meaning; why it is meaningful at all? It is not satisfied with certainties. Its intuition of complexity makes it skeptical of certainties. So it pushes at the edges where believing entertains the unbelievable. That is where the theology begins, and I developed an account of how believing continually seeks for understanding theologically in my next book: How The Light Gets In: Ethical Life I.

But in pursuing the question of what makes a belief believable I was only examining one aspect of our human nature. Two other fundamental aspects remained round the corner that announced a larger Ecce Homo project. One of these I will not unveil until the final book in this anthropological trilogy. But the second of these aspects, as I said above, is the work of the imagination; because belief is never without content. It is always belief in, belief about. And that is exactly the point where believing is engaged with what we can imagine and our capacity to imagine. Unimaginable: What We Can Imagine and What We Can’t is my examination of this key aspect of our human species.

The investigation of the imagination in Unimaginable: What We Imagine and What We Can't is conducted structurally along the same lines I found useful in Unbelievable: examining its archaeology and its evolutionary development, physiology, psychology and neuroscience (or what I call the ‘architecture’ of the imagination), before turning to the work of the social and cultural imagination. Once more, this is not an explicitly theological book, though it treats religious questions as they arise in and through the work of the imagination. The more theological examination will follow in the book I am working on now: Another Kind of Normal: Ethical Life II that explores the relationship between creation, Christology and salvation. But Unimaginable attempts to present a multi-leveled account of the way we are created, the way we live our lives day to day, and how God works with this human nature to bring about not only our salvation, but the salvation of the world. Here I will develop what, in the first volume, I described as theology as deep dreaming. And we all dream. In fact, dreaming has been recognized by sleep scientists as the imagination in default mode.

As with Unbelievable, Unimaginable opens with a biographical incident that brings the central questions to the fore. There it was the intervention of a ghost at Peterhouse in Cambridge while I was Dean. Here it is one of the most formative experiences of my teenage years.

A Night in Norfolk

It is August and I am eighteen. This is the summer vacation and, for once, the summer is gloriously, amazingly hot. A group of us from the industrial north of England go down to Norfolk on a fuggy train. Five friends swaggering like men along a dusty road laden with backpacks. We were heading for a place called Walsingham, driven by a desire to be by the sea. We went youth hostelling in Cambridge, we went youth hostelling in Norwich, and the plan was to end up youth hostelling in London. But then the heat got to us and, collectively, primitively, what we wanted was water; great stretches of water with heavy waves and fine, fawn sand. None of us had heard of Walsingham before. In a pub in Norwich with the maps of East Anglia spread across a table and one of us holding open the Youth Hostelling Handbook we scanned the coast from King’s Lynn to Dunwich, and discovered a hostel in a place called Walsingham that looked about five miles inland from the sea and a place called Wells. So the next morning we boarded a train and set off. Only without a car there is no way to get to Walsingham except by walking miles from a sleepy mediaeval town called Fakenham.

We were dropped off by a local bus; dropped into a landscape none of us have ever been in before: acres of corn and sugar beet whitening under the relentless glare of the sun and a sky of petrol blue. It is late afternoon or early evening. We are trekking along a single-track asphalt road; no cars come one way or go the other. The sun is on its descent, a large flaring disc on a silver arc. Hungry and thirsty, we trudge, engulfed by light, overawed by the enormous sky, with the silence that presses in upon us making us silent too. And eventually we arrive at a tiny village of stone weathered cottages and walled gardens overflowing with apple, pear and plum trees. Ripe fruit hangs so low our faces can brush their bodies and smell the sweetness of the sun and rain that fattened them. We eat large Victoria plums, their purple skins splitting and oozing, looking about to see if someone is going to accuse us of stealing. But they are in abundance and rotting on the pavement.

From the back-to-backs and high-rise flats north of Manchester, Walsingham seems to us an ancient village of sudden and unexpected grandeur: low Tudor yeomen’s houses with exposed black beams split and dry; stone pillared porches crusted in lichen; a huge wooden facade to a ruined abbey in which a smaller door is inserted; and an inn beside it with an impressive oak tree overshadowing a scatter of Formica-topped tables, each empty except for an aluminium ashtray. The door to the pub is closed. Not yet opening time. So we turn at a signpost with a green triangle enclosing YHA to the youth hostel. It’s in a cobbled side street. There is one room left in the roof of a converted barn. We take it. Four beds, but we will toss for who sleeps top to toe. We roll out our sleeping sheets and head for the inn. The sun is still setting in unearthly scarlets.

We eat, I think; we certainly drink outside: pints of dark East Anglian ale as the stars flower and other drinkers arrive. These are stars like we have never witnessed before: thick and bright and throbbing in a deep, sultry darkness. The skin on our arms, legs and foreheads glows with the sunlight we have absorbed throughout the day. At some point, closing time is announced by a bell and we start walking, but away from the village, along a lane. And then somehow we are on the other side of a stone wall, helped by an overhanging tree, and in the enclosed grounds of the abbey. Ruined Gothic windows stretch up into a night that is moonless. Rain-eaten pilasters lie on the ground, and lintelled doorways, carved and free-standing, are entries into nowhere. The beer and a day of fresh air make us stop in a field looking down on the relics of a past we have been told nothing about at school. Instinctively we lie upon the ground. It too shares the warmth of our bodies, runkled and spiky under our backs, and heady with the sweetness of cut, dry grass. The day is over, limbs ache, bellies are full of beer, minds are swirling with fantasies of seascapes, and the dizziness of sleep is descending. Above us the constellations turn about Polaris with awesome grandeur and startling detail, and the Milky Way, the first time we have ever seen it as such, spreads out like a cloud, high and misty in the density of its stars.

"Up there," Ian says, his arm upraised—a lad who will eventually go on to Edinburgh University to read astronom—"Up there, on the very edge of the Milky Way they say there’s a great black hole."

No one says anything in reply; we just look. The words do not mean much even though they sound technical. But we see "black," powerful and distending, and we know what "hole" is. In the vastness of space and the infinite enormity of hole my mind shatters, upwards. And I stare, stare, stare—in the direction of that great dark cavity in the universe. Not seen. Impossible to see. Unimaginable. But I know it is there, because somehow it is also inside of me.

I walk, mainly, on my own now. Down bracken sheep tracks in summer in the Hebrides, the sea below me, the ground strewn thick with clover, daisy and yellow pimpernel; along winter chalkscapes the hawthorn black and pencilled on my right and left, bounding the sweep of churned fields of heavy clay and knuckled flint; by rivers in spring, on towpaths trodden in the past by horses and muddied now by the bicycled coaches called out across the swollen water to rowers whose bodies steam in the early morning. And always when I walk I imagine, for imagination is a walk, a journeying; and that is where the stories come from, the narrative paths where dreaming, daydreaming, fictional tellings and autobiographical retellings pick up and rethread the traces of those who walked this path before and those who will walk it afterwards. And they all meet in thought that strays and, in straying, heals . . . somehow.


So what connects my first encounter with black holes to the imagination? Me. Us. Us as human beings thrust continually beyond ourselves in a desire to grasp the ungraspable. It is not just curiosity that propels us. That is too intellectual. It is more some half-recognized consonance between the vast strangenesses within and the vast strangenesses without. And imagination swells and sparks within those strangenesses. Imagination feeds upon the ungraspable; the not-known but yet still felt . . . somehow. It conjures and creates and transforms—bushes into bears, trees into shrieking banshees, star-patterns into constellations and zodiacs. Self and land and sky and cosmos work upon each other in and through the imagination and memory.

Wordsworth would have seen my account of the summer’s night in Norfolk as a "recollection in tranquillity." He recognized, as he lay on his daybed in Westmoreland, in pensive mood and scenting the onset of the poetic, that such imaginative recollecting was transformative. It is transformative in multiple ways. It transforms that Norfolk memory of mine, for a start. For there are other memories, such as the awful sunburn to my legs that late afternoon walk caused, which meant a week of smearing them with calamine lotion so they looked like bloated, pink marshmallows. I walked down the streets watching dogs and children salivating for a bite. Of other things I have no memory whatsoever. What happened to sea, for instance? I have fragments of memories of walking down a disused rail track, between banks of yarrow and buddleia, but none of reaching the sea. None at all—as if, for me, that was not the point of what we were about. My account is washed down with the beer and the camaraderie to some very bare, narrative bones held together with muscular bright memories.

But the bones betray what was transformative about the memory for me. It certainly was not my first exposure to the deep English countryside, but it was my first experience of such overwhelming skies, the way light falls and drenches the landscape, and the way darkness makes shadows portentous and clear, mild nights awe-inspiring. The recollection in tranquility focuses but abstracts what most affected me. And who can say what effects follow from such an experience, or from any experience? The memory has been worked upon by imagination; but the imagination now of a much older man. I cannot recall what I imagined exactly when that school friend spoke those words "black hole" and pointed with an index finger to a vicinity of the heavens in which no stars shone. I have a book on my shelf that I picked up in the late 1990's by John Taylor called Black Holes: The End of the Universe. I no doubt picked it up because of that Norfolk experience. But this event took place twenty years before I discovered something about the nature of black holes from cosmologists. I do not know where my school friend even picked up the idea. There was no consensus among cosmologists and theoretical physicists such things existed until the 1980's. But, in February 1974, six months before our Norfolk trip, two American astronomers, Bruce Balick and Robert Brown, first detected the black hole at the center of our galaxy using a radio telescope. It is now called Sagittarius A.

Memory is deeply implicated in imaginative processes, and that is to be explored. But the recollection of those few days in Walsingham is not just of a black hole. The black hole formed what cosmologists would call an "event horizon" (the bright plasma ring edging a black hole) for a series of experiences. Maybe a lifetime of experiences. And just as my imagination now works with a different set of understandings of black holes, so my imagination brings now to that recollection other secret workings upon my mind and affections; other imaginative immersions and appreciations: the different mystical lightscapes, cloudscapes and landscapes of Turner of Oxford and Samuel Palmer, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Vaughan Williams’ settings of English folk songs. These verbal and nonverbal evocations enrich not just the language that saturates and conjures the recollection, but its tone, sensibility and power to stir. Deep, concealed immensities, not just of the cosmos but in me, emerged as they did in Wordsworth on that night he borrowed a rowing boat and stole across Ullswater to encounter first the "craggy ridge" and then the "huge peak, black and huge" towering above him. The effect is haunting:

huge and mighty Forms, that do not live
Like living men mov’d slowly through my mind
By day and were the trouble of my dreams (Prelude, 127–9).

Dreaming too cannot easily be separated from imagining—one seeps into another. As I said, dreaming is the imagination in default mode. The couch in Wordsworth’s study where he lay in pensive mood between past event of the dancing daffodils and his present articulation of much that is half-expressed connects the two. It is in the interweaving of encounter, imagination and remembrance that the mountains meld into "living men" beneath rational thinking. In the subconscious and preconscious, time bends like light under the pressure of gravity; a star dies and another star, in a different vicinity, is born. The point here of beginning with the memory of an evening in Norfolk is that maybe we have always been searching for black holes in outer space because they resemble the dark, chthonic gravities of our own imaginations.


Unimaginable explores those gravities that open fundamental questions about what it is to be human. For we are far more than little islanded egos, and our capacity to imagine shows us this. So, caught in these subtle webs of relation between earth and sky, cosmos and mindfulness, what are we—we who imagine far more than we reason? This book mines that question by exploring the evolution, nature and work of our need to imagine; a human activity more primitive (like belief) and more powerful than knowledge, calculation or certainty.

Since the early eighteenth century there have been many books written about the imagination: its history, its workings, its impact on certain cultures (like Romanticism), and the various forms it takes in the arts and sciences. The recognized exercise of the imagination in theoretical physics and cosmology can be compared to its exercise in music, in mathematics, in dance and architecture. But this is not a book like those books. I have very little to say or add to what already has been said about Romanticism. Rather, this book informs by performing; by persuading the imagination to explore something of the gravitas of its own force field. To appreciate the power of the imagination it seeks to stir, evoke, and prime that power. The book is being imaginative, and so it works across and associates any number of fields of enquiry from archaeology, literature, psychology and film to the captured minds of suicide bombers. It does not argue so much as excavate; excavate the way self, land, sky and cosmos work to make us what we are.

That summer evening in Norfolk showed me that the imagination is powerful, transformative, and textures every awareness of what is in us and outside us. In trace its evolution; its emergence from sentience itself, its animal beginnings and its early development in the various species of hominid that anticipate Homo sapiens. That way, we get at how primitive imagination is as it tunes into the instinctive and turns it into the intuited. The imagination evolves as creative and embodied minds evolve; as being human evolves. Animals exhibit degrees of imagination—levels of imaged experience that stir in their dreaming. But through the long aeons of evolution and adaptation hominid species and human beings discovered and unlocked imagination’s potential.

How and why did they do this? In all the cut, thrust, and inseminations of survival how and why was the cultivation of imagination so fundamental? Why does the erratic course of adaptation blow gently, over millennia, on the spark, the filament of fire, which will encourage the conflagrations of the imagination? And with what consequences? These are the questions that preoccupy the opening chapters delving into what it meant to stand upright and become a migrant, to grasp with two hands and begin to manipulate and make sense of the world. From the formation of feet and advances in manual dexterity we enter the caves of northern Spain and southern France. I examine the painting and carving and stenciling of exquisite forms that give tangible expression to the powerful and transformative working of the imagination.

Once we have understood something of the evolution of the imagination and how it relates to the development of the brain, we look closer at how it works. Through the research of biologists and neuroscientists we can appreciate the ways in which the imagination is deeply woven into our physiologies, desires, emotions, and cognition. But far from being a just mental process, it is rooted in the way we are barometers of atmospheres, tones and rhythms of which we are barely, if ever, conscious. And in this way imagination folds out from and folds into memories locked not just in our brains but our bodies. It saturates dreams that are inseparable from the inner workings of our physiologies and from the emotional content of what we desire and what we hope for. Imagination relates us to the worlds we inhabit and fashion around us.

As I said, the book does not perform a theological task. That comes later. Rather, it probes that penumbra between the imagined and the unimaginable where, theologically, the cataphatic encounters the apophatic, and the mystery of God is made known to us. It is, to my mind, a profoundly Augustinian study, and Augustine makes an appearance at night in his studium, dictating to his various amanuenses in the smoky lamplight. The vast Sahara desert stretches out beyond the mountains that encircle Hippo Regius, the home of demons and angels, and consonant with his own understanding of the imagination. He waits for a word he knows will come; for his life is hidden within it.

Featured Image: PIA04963: Richat Structure, Mauritania, Perspective View, Landsat Image over SRTM Elevation; Source: Wikimedia, PD-NASA. 


Graham Ward

Graham Ward is the Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Oxford and former Head of the School of Arts, Histories and Cultures at the University of Manchester. Among his books are Cities of God (Routledge), Unbelievable (I.B.Tauris) and How the Light Gets In (OUP). He is also the translator of Carl Schmitt’s works along with Michael Hoelzl. His next book, Unimaginable, will be published by I.B. Tauris in late 2018.

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