Review: Imagination and the Playfulness of God

Robin Stockitt, Imagination and the Playfulness of God: The Theological Implications of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Definition of the Human Imagination (Eugene,OR: Pickwick Publications, 2011).  179 pages.

In The Imagination and the Playfulness of God, Robin Stockitt undertakes both a theology of the human imagination and an ontology of the imaginative God.  Following S. T. Coleridge, Stockitt rightly sees that these two tasks cannot be carried out in isolation.  Stockitt digs deeply into Coleridge’s suggestion that the imagination is “a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM,” and he offers a compelling pictures of the human and divine imaginations.

To get the obvious out of the way: this book is excellent.  If you’re interested in the relationships between Christianity, the imagination and art, buy this book.

The more complicated question that interdisciplinary projects such as this raise is, ‘what sort of reader is implied in this book?’

Of course, those familiar with the English poet-philosopher S. T. Coleridge will be interested.  Stockitt engages well with secondary literature on Coleridge’s thought, and his own positions emerge clear and well defended.  But even those not acquainted with Coleridge will find Stockitt’s exposition to be lucid and interesting.  He is remarkably good at making a dense and complex writer accessible.  As an introduction to Coleridge’s thought on the imagination, I cannot recommend this book more highly.

Is this book written for artists?  Artists may find Stockitt’s exposition of Coleridge’s views on the imagination stimulating for there own thinking about their work.  Stockitt also engages with various art forms – especially poetry, music and drama – extensively.  But Stockitt’s project is clearly a work of theology through the arts, and not theology of art.  What I mean is that Stockitt is primarily interested in saying things about theology, and only tangentially interested in saying things about the arts.  This is nothing against Stockitt’s project, but artists should be warned that they will likely feel that the author does not grant enough time to the issues that concern them most.

So, then this book is for theologians, right?  Well … the answer is yes and no, again.  The second half of Stockitt’s book engages in an exciting exercise in constructive theology by using Coleridge’s understanding of the imagination as a model for God’s being and action.  In other words, it is an exploration of what one might mean by the ‘imagination’ of God.  As a model for God’s being and action, the imagination provides exciting avenues for thought.  But, as with most treatments of theological models, Stockitt’s exposition is more general in character, and so those interested in technical metaphysical questions may ultimately be disappointed.  For example, Stockitt’s model offers some exciting ways of speaking about God’s action as both free and constrained.  Instead of exploring the metaphysical implications of his view more deeply, Stockitt is content to simply avoid the extremes of a God who is absolutely free and a God who is externally constrained.

My only real complaint about this book is that it needs a longer section articulating and defending Stockitt’s methodology.  Stockitt’s engagement with others who write about theological models, or paradigms as he prefers, is surprisingly minimal.  This is surprising because Stockitt’s methodology is, itself, rooted in a robust understanding of the imagination, the very subject of the book.  Although it seems clear that Stockitt intends his model to refer to the objective reality of God, he chooses not to indulge in a discussion of realism, anti-realism and the territory in-between.  Although he makes extensive and careful use of scripture and tradition in his theological exposition, he offers few thoughts on these sources of theology as a warrant for his particular model.

Most peculiar is the sudden appearance of Johan Huizinga’s work on play as a paradigm for God.  Although Stockitt finds much affinity between Huizinga and Coleridge, it is not exactly clear to me how the imagination and play are related to each other.  Is the imagination always playful?  Does play always involve the imagination?  Which category, play or imagination, is Stockitt using as his model of God?  It would seem that Stockitt uses them both, but does he do so as complementary models or does one model have priority over the other?

Overall, this book deserves high praise.  What Stockitt achieves is a fresh way of thinking about a host of theological questions.  He uses Coleridge’s understanding of the imagination to shed light upon everything from the Trinity to theological anthropology.  This book is exciting because of its scope, coherence and clarity of thought.  I’m sure that Stockitt’s book will serve as a guide for other theologians interested in the arts and the imagination, and it will be a stimulus for much further thought.

Author

  • Jim Watkins is the assistant editor and a regular contributor at Transpositions. Originally, Jim is from southern California and southeastern Texas, but sometimes he feels most at home in the landscape and coffee shops of the Pacific Northwest. He met his wife Emily at Wheaton College in Illinois, where he studied Studio Art (concentration in painting). For his PhD research, he is examining the relationship between divine and human creativity from the perspective of divine kenosis.

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