life in the suture zone...

In the earthquake faults between tectonic plates, the suture zone is the in between place where they meet. I find in that a metaphor for the times in which we live... and invite your conversation in the suture zone.

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Location: Bakersfield, CA, United States

... a struggling, but mostly joyful, apprentice of Jesus.

Friday, July 22, 2005

holy imagination...

You can thank Judy Thomas for the genesis of these thoughts if you like them. (Please blame me if you don’t, for I wouldn’t want to blame her for my ramblings on a theme.) But something she said on her blog several weeks ago got me thinking about the lost place of imagination in the modern Western world. If you would like to check out her blog go to Musings. I try to go there most days.

In a response to something she wrote, I said…

“The absence of imagination is the failure of knowledge.”

Sometimes, when I am writing I just pop out with statements like that. I don’t know that I fully think them through (and this blog post is probably the beginning of my wrestling with whether I believe that statement or not.)

When I was growing up, the first Dragnet episodes were being taped and broadcast. There’s a signature line from that show. “Just the facts, ma’am.” One can’t find a better description of the pinnacle process of the modern era, in my opinion. We have been consumed with facts and their construction into what we would call “truths”. Truths are assembled to create systems and systems into worldviews. It’s just our way. Or at least it has been.

It’s not that the post-moderns I have had conversations with are throwing out reason. Nor is it that moderns during the modern era stuck with one objective scientific truth for all time. We have all been told of two of the scientific/philosophical bookends of the modern era, Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein.

As Brian McLaren has noted, until Newton, Ptolemy’s view largely held sway, at least as a system. Newton looked at the discoveries of Galileo, Copernicus and others, and, when Ptolemy’s world was crashing down around everyone else’s ears, Newton created a metaphor for science – the laws of nature – which largely resolved the issue for most of the modern era. Einstein’s reflections, upon imagining something other than Newtonian physics said it seemed as if the rug had been pulled out from under him. His eyes were opened to a new world.

There is a lot more of significance that could be said in regard to what each of these men discovered and how they characterized those discoveries. But, what I want to note is that both of these men had incredible imaginations that allowed them to think of the world in ways that no one else had thought of before. Both men, dealing with the same world, came to very different conclusions about physics, how the world began, what matter and energy are. The world did not stop because Newton didn’t imagine quantum mechanics. Quite the contrary. His view of the world enabled not only science, but government and society and religion and all other facets of human interaction and encounter with the world to continue. But it failed to fully describe the world and how it worked. Most of all it failed to ascribe meaning or value to existence. (Remember Jean Paul Sartre? Pretty depressing plays, aren’t they?) Einstein and Planck and their heirs have pushed us back toward mystery. The math of quantum mechanics fails those who wield it as they struggle to explain the complex relationships between the different forces that exist in our universe and matter. Take, for instance, that illusive unified theory. We still don’t understand gravity (though there are some scientists who believe they are close to a breakthrough).

It proves the axiom that the more you know, the more you know you don’t know.

For all those whose heads are swimming (like mine) right now, please note this simple truth: imagination makes the difference. From Ptolemy to Newton to Planck and Einstein, now to Sagan and Hawking and others, the ability to imagine the “facts” in different ways and relationships has allowed us to transport a single photon from one location to another. It has allowed us to look below the surface of protons, neutrons and electrons that were the smallest building blocks of matter when I was going to school (I know, this dates me!) to quarks and neutrinos and so forth. And below that? Some scientists postulate super string theory.

We’re still searching for appropriate metaphors, but a few have already developed. How about “the fabric of space and time”? How about this quote from a current scientist struggling with how all of this could be:

At the most fundamental level, all of the most important physical processes are, in part, determined by “factors” that have no detectable presence in the physical world. A range of possible outcomes are determined mechanically, but untold numbers of decisions are being made by “something” that from among these possibilities selects every actual outcome. And furthermore, each time a decision is made, all other probabilities are instantaneously adjusted and altered so as to keep the whole system within certain bounds. This is not a philosophical concept. This is a description of what has been shown, to the shock and horror of many scientists, in actual physical experiments. The only way to talk about it metaphorically is that there’s “something” that is not part of the physical universe, which sits outside it, and simultaneously orchestrates all events throughout the entire universe, according to principles we can’t know. My own particular angle on this is that if there is this effect that is sustaining the universe in an ongoing way, causing results, but itself has no prior cause, well, that is one of the oldest definitions of God.
-- Jeffrey B. Satinover

(Thanks to Marshall for this quote.)

So where is this post leading?

The only real point I want to make is that imagination is behind all of these thoughts we call facts.

While, in religious terms, imagination on its own is not infallible, knowledge without imagination is deadly. In my experience with the modern era, the loss of imagination and the dependence on “knowledge” has led to religion that is based on so-called “facts” that have little to do with God’s character and much to do with a closed system of beliefs, complete with checklists that help us avoid hell. All of this bears little resemblance to God’s interaction with people as recorded in the Bible (at least as I read it). Certainly behavior is important, but it is a byproduct of relationship, or at least the desire for relationship, more than something in and of itself. Also, the results of that closed system in so far as how it attempts to make us into better people are mixed at best and absolutely evil at worst.

Don’t get me wrong. I do not believe that God is unknowable, even in the midst of our religious systems. God has always revealed himself in the midst of human imperfection, if the Bible’s accounts can be trusted. Even Jesus, many of whose followers consider him to be God in the Flesh (yes, I am a committed Trinitarian after many years of waffling on it), lived among people sporting numerous imperfections, not only in behavior but in understanding also. As I said when I began this blog, I am a struggling, but mostly joyful, apprentice of Jesus. Since I also believe he is God revealed, I certainly believe God is knowable. However, “seeing God” in some kind of religious belief system of rights and wrongs and facts and checklists is difficult, sometimes impossible IMHO.

Well, this has become a ponderous post.

Enough to state my premises… first, imagination is sorely needed as God's people try to figure out what it looks like to be God's people in a post-modern world. There's a lot more that could be said about that. Second, imagination has an incredibly important place in a walk with God. Not imagination as wishful thinking. Instead, a faith that opens its eyes beyond the jail bars of systems of theology to its infinite God, who, though not observable in the same way you and I are, is still very much real, very observable, very close, and very much in love with every single person, every sparrow, and every wildflower that exists, has existed or ever will exist.

As with Leonard Sweet, that’s something that is too much for me to get my two-pound box of brains around.

Might take a good bit of imagination, you think?

Grace and peace,



Blogger Tim Lewis said...

Very nice thoughts Owen. I've pondered some of these same things. There is so much modern thought that says postmodernism throws out all knowledge and reason and truth. I totally disagree with this, for I think that it realizes that modernism cannot completely describe God. In fact, I think that it more fully realizes our need for God in its acceptance that we cannot fully know Him.

For me, postmodernism admits that there is absolute truth, however as imperfect, limited humans we cannot truly grasp the truth as it exists. We can get a narrow, simplified version of truth with input from our knowledge, culture, and Scripture, but it is admittedly not Truth in its fullness. If God is Truth and we cannot completely understand God, how can we fully grasp Truth?

Mind-bending awesomeness that is God!

12:59 PM  
Blogger judy thomas said...

Thanks for that wonderful quote, Owen. I guess it is a blessing to be as ignorant of science as I am--it does do us good to hear that scientists are finding out what we have know all along--God exists and he loves each of us as if we were his only child and loves others just as much.

1:11 PM  
Anonymous Marshall said...

I would like to discuss for a moment the concept of postmodern from a literary standpoint, as that is my academic discipline. It might prove useful to stir thoughts here in new and productive ways.

If we take a look at literature from, say, 1500 to the present, we can see fundamental changes in our view of reality. Literature prior to the late 1800s tended to be very orderly. Sonnets predominated in the realm of western poetry: 14 rhymed lines of iambic pentameter. Narratives were chronological. Writers seemed to assume that the world was knowable and orderly, and our artistic representations of reality followed suit. Similar situations predominated in the visual arts, in music, etc.

As we swept into the 20th century, the ground began to sway in earnest. Darwin brought forward evidence that our assumptions about our biological heritage were wrong. Einstein showed that time and space themselves are relative. Marx knocked over the table of economics and politics. Heisenberg gave us the uncertainty principle. WWII followed the War to End All Wars followed the Civil War. We learned to move faster than horses. We learned to fly.

The arts responded. During the period of “high modernism,” writers and artists still felt that the world was knowable, but acknowledged that it was non-intuitive. Thus Freud’s ideas that we might not know our own motives helped to produce James Joyce’s Ulysses, and the impenetrable Finnagins Wake. Picasso’s portraits began to resemble a child’s cut and paste project. “Classical music” became discordant. “Free verse” was born. The works, strange though they may seem to the untrained eye, were attempts to present life as it really is, rather than how it appears to our senses. Underlying these works is the faith that reality is knowable, merely non-intuitive.

Then we move into postmodern writings and works of art. One of my favorites is the novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, which reclaims the ancient storytelling ways of the author’s grandmother – it is essentially tall tales, equal parts accurate history and visions of magic. After a patriarch dies, it rains “tiny yellow flowers for three days.” The film Pulp Fiction is very postmodern. It is the work of a man who has realized that he is free to tell a story any way he pleases; thus, he chops events and splices them together without regard for chronology. The post-modern world has given us “language poets,” who use words without regard for conventional or consensus meanings.

Postmodern art springs from the realization that the world is not knowable. I would say that it represents the radical rebirth of mystery. Thus, if a story need not represent reality – because it can’t – then it is free to take any shape and chronicle any events in any way. The result is that literature becomes game-like. I heartily recommend Jonathan Safran Foer’s novels Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close – they will serve very well as introductions to the uninitiated.

Those two novels, by the way, deal respectively with two of the great tragedies of the 20th century – the Holocaust and 9/11. Neither novel denies the very real heartache those events created, yet neither pretends that those events are fully comprehensible or knowable. To my mind, postmodern art does not deny an objective existence, but does acknowledge that it is too great for us to grasp.

Which postmodern art must do. We live in an age in which scientists realize that there are limits on what we can know, not merely based upon our limitations, but based upon the nature of existence. We cannot “see” things smaller than particles of light, for instance. We cannot see further into the universe than time has allowed light to travel. We cannot measure the position of an electron precisely while also measuring its spin, because the universe does not allow it.

The postmodern age has been called “the age of irony.” Some might mistake that label as meaning something like the age of sarcasm, but that is inaccurate. “Irony” is created whenever stated meaning differs from actual meaning. Sarcasm can be ironic: “Oh, very graceful, princess.” But it can take more subtle forms, such as Hamlet saying he is not really mad, while his actions give us cause to wonder.

Postmodern literary theory teaches, I think, that there is always a distance between the signifier and the signified, thus “the age of irony.” Language is inherently limited. Applied to Christianity, this would mean that there may well be an actual objective God, but that all we can talk about is “God.” There was a historical Christ, perhaps, but all we can talk about is “Christ.” Just as we cannot measure an electron’s spin and position with simultaneous accuracy because science is inherently limited, postmodernists can acknowledge that our language has the same trait. I say “dog” and 10 people develop 10 different mental pictures. I say “tree” and one hearer pictures a redwood while another pictures a willow. I say "willow" and 10 hearers picture 10 different willows. I say “Jesus” and…

Mystery. An appreciation of mystery reemphasizes the humble, honest wisdom of the words “I don’t know.” I view this development as very healthy. Somewhere in Anne Lamott’s Plan B, she says that her mentor Tim told her that faith is not the opposite of doubt, but that the opposite of faith is certainty. Yes.

So where does this leave us? Perhaps - perhaps - it lends the thought that there is a game-like aspect to spirituality, as to art. And that truth leaves me free, I think. Rather than knowing that God hates fornication, I am left to say, “God, you know and I know that Trish is really attractive and available, and I think… But you said… But you may also have said... And what if…” I am free to converse with God, to build a genuine relationship with the God of the actual air I breathe rather than gritting my teeth to mold myself into a shape I don’t truly possess. “I know that Paul said, but look at Samson and…”

Because I don’t “know” God, I must rely on God. I can know him as I know, say, Owen, but I can't know him through and through. I don't own hime. My knowledge doesn't give me control!

Instead, I must trust that which I can’t control. Really trust. It’s no longer, "God will save me if I just don’t fail to… God, I promise I’ll never again…"

It’s now, Marshall, Is Jesus actually the incarnate son of God? ~ I think so. Maybe. There’s good evidence. I call upon his name. Sometimes, light seems to break into my darkness as a result.

Is God good? ~ Mostly. Well, he must be, I think. But I’m not sure that Christianity has explained the “shadow.” I have difficulty believing in Satan as a personification, particularly as he appears only twice in the Hebrew Bible (the serpent notwithstanding), and seems to be an explanation slowly formed. One of those times, by the way, the opening of Job, is frankly unbelievable as a literal narrative. Come on! God’s no more astute than to be suckered into a poker game by the devil?!

Where do you stand on gays? ~ I try not to stand on them. Their burden is heavy enough already. Seriously, I guess I wonder whether the Hebrew Bible's stand on this issue is simply outdated (like slavery), and whether Paul’s reasoning on the issue in Romans isn’t some of his weaker rhetoric. If I have to err on this issue, I plan to err on the side of love.

Is God threatened by my weakness and transparency? Nonsense! I find myself wanting to hear the testimonies of all the world.

Food for thought. Salúd.

12:45 PM  

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