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The Moral Imagination, Part 1

Eighteenth century philosopher and statesman Edmund Burke wrote about the need for a “moral imagination.”  Russell Kirk explained what he meant by that phrase:

By this “moral imagination,” Burke signifies that power of ethical perception which strides beyond the barriers of private experience and momentary events “especially,” as the dictionary has it, “the higher form of this power exercised in poetry and art.” The moral imagination aspires to the apprehending of right order in the soul and right order in the commonwealth.

In other words, the true purpose of art is not a light escapism or mindless entertainment, but to reflect and to produce an understanding of what it means to be truly human, and for humans to live together rightly.  The “highest form” or this moral imagination, Kirk and Burke argue, is not found in propositional statements of truth (though those are necessary), but in “poetry and art.”

Madeleine L’Engle expressed a similar sentiment.  Noting, in Walking on Water, that when she observes injustice, neither theology nor philosophy help her much, she writes the following:

The painters and the writers who see the abuse and misuse of freedom and cry out for justice for the helpless poor, the defenseless old, give me more hope; as long as anybody cares, all is not lost. As long as anybody cares, it may be possible for something to be done about it; there are still choices open to us; all doors are not closed. As long as anybody cares it is an icon of God’s caring, and we know that the light is stronger than the dark (117).

It’s not that the theology and the philosophy are not needed and helpful explanations. It’s that we need the “icons of God’s caring” as well, because the icons – the symbols – reach us at the level that rational explanation cannot.  Propositional theology is always attained at the surface, moral, and allegorical levels of meaning – which is not a bad thing in the least; it’s just not all there is.

This is why imaginative fiction, and the Bible itself, have a transformative effect on us – they take us through journeys not just of words and explanations, but of actions, metaphors, and symbols which powerfully move us.  C.S. Lewis, for example, framed his entire Narnia series on the imagery of medieval cosmology – the seven heavens.  He framed his Ransom Trilogy on the symbolism literary alchemy – a practice as old as Shakespeare (Romeo and Juliet) and as new as J.K. Rowling.

This is why fairy tales are more than just kids’ stories. This is why fantasy fiction isn’t just a fringe genre for geeks. Any story that helps us escape not “from the real world,” but “to more permanent things,” as Tolkien said, is worth the journey through its pages. As Tolkien wrote:

Why should a man be scorned, if, finding himself in a prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?


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