The Imagination between Beauty and Goodness

100_1079In Visual Faith, William Dyrness entertains two questions concerning the uncomfortable, and at times awkward, relationship between beauty and goodness. The first: “Do pursuits of justice and beauty compete for our attention?”[1] And the second: “How can I enjoy quiet moments of beauty when the world is full of suffering?”[2]

As a PhD Candidate working in an office that overlooks the St. Andrews Cathedral, questions like these have been lurking in my mind; particularly as increased media attention is given to war and religious persecution in the Middle East. Put simply: I have more recently felt the tension between my interest in beauty and the extreme forms of injustice which are “a kind of ugliness” – a distortion of beauty and of hope.[3] Dyrness argues that “both values belongs to the call of the Christian.”[4] The question I want to address here concerns the role that the imagination plays in trying to bring these two, at times opposing values, into conversation.

Early suspicion of the imagination can be traced through the ancient Hebraic and Hellenic narratives which tended to see the imagination as deceptive, thus widening the gap between beauty and goodness. Richard Kearney, for example, points to the Adamic and Promethean narratives to illustrate why the “imagination is characterized by an act of rebellion against the divine order of things; it dismantles the harmony of nature as pre-established by the gods.”[5] He adds: “It is thus marked from the outset by an essential ambiguity.”[6] More well known, perhaps, is Plato who understood forms of imitation “at third remove from the throne of truth,” but the contemporary situation seems to be much more concerned with the constructive imagination, where all meaning is created; thus, challenging the divine origins of the imagination.[7] Kearney rightly observes that “deprived of the concept of origin the concept of imagination itself collapses.  For the imagination always presupposed the idea of origination: the derivation of our images from some original presence.”[8] What distinctions need to be made for an understanding of the imagination working somewhere between the representative and constructive, or even unifying space?

According to Patrick Sherry, it was Samuel Coleridge who advocated a “distinction between imagination and fancy.”[9] According to Sherry, “fancy consists in rearranging things in new combinations,” characteristic of a “memory emancipated from the order of time and space.”[10] At the same time, James K.A. Smith comments, “I do think it is crucial that we be able to imagine the world otherwise than how we ‘receive’ it.”[11] So there must remain creative tension between new configurations and past developments. For Coleridge, the imagination was “not a part of the mind, but rather the whole mind working in a certain way, involving perception, feeling, and reasoning.”[12] Sherry suggests that, even going beyond the creative arts by making connections between the imagination and inspiration, people can be given “a new moral vision.”[13] Political leaders, for example, need the imagination to envision a different world.  On Sunday, I was reminded of this relationship between beauty and goodness, while listening to someone pray along these lines, “please, Lord, give us leaders with the creative imagination to help bring resolve where there is injustice.”  In this light, the imagination pulls beauty and goodness a little closer together.

Timothy Allen and his family reside in St. Andrews, Scotland, where he is writing his PhD dissertation under the supervision of Professor David Brown.  Currently, Tim’s research focuses on the dialogue between theology and popular culture – more precisely, on the role of the imagination in theological constructions of the doctrine of heaven.


[1] William A. Dyrness, Visual Faith: Art, Theology, and Worship in Dialogue, ed. William A. Dyrness and Robert K. Johnston, Engaging Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 149.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.  Here, Dyrness is referring the work of Elaine Scarry, 151.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Richard Kearney, The Wake of Imagination (London: Routledge, 1998), 80.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Plato, The Republic, trans. Desmond Lee, 2nd ed. (Baltimore: Penguin Classics), 425.  Also, see “Imagination’s Truth:  An Interview with Richard Kearney.”
[8]  Kearney, The Wake of Imagination, 253.
[9] Patrick Sherry, Spirit and Beauty: An Introduction to Theological Aesthetics (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), 113.
[10] Ibid.
[11] James K.A. Smith, Imagining the Kingdom:  How Worship Works (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), 17n35.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid.

2 Comments

  • Hannah Corson says:

    This tension between imagination and truth that you talk about describes my husband and I’s relationship. He is highly pragmatic and sees things exactly as they are: no fluff whatsoever. I see things in a more restorative sense; as they could be. Being the one who sees hope in most things, I too have been devastated by the recent violence in the Middle East and have really struggled to enjoy the things of beauty. I think apart from a continually active, dynamic opportunity for faith, I would be in a constant state of depression. Thanks for sharing your thoughts 🙂

  • Tim M. Allen says:

    Hannah,
    Thank you very much for reading the piece and for your thoughtful response! Indeed, current events alarming us of increased religious intolerance and persecution call for our attention, reminding us of this tension. I hope to write a follow up piece next month describing what I see as the important theological relationship between aesthetics and ethics. Thank you again for your thoughtful comment!

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