What is faith? Faith is that by which we are called to live out in awareness of something at times beyond immediate perception.
We live in a beautiful world, a world of wonder and amazement, you can feel it in the waves. It echoes in the wind, passes through the mountain peaks and into the valleys, fills the earth with life and green fields endless beauty on every side. We live in a world of color and inspiration, a world of music and sound and light, and warmth. We live in a world full of God’s glory. We can feel it at times, looking at the sunset, listening to the world around us at peace and rest. We find ourselves being in it, captured by it, alive through it, and reacting to it.
We live in a world full of chaos and greed. Full of vicious cycles of violence, where reason out strips beauty or ethics, where efficiency is king. We live in a world full of money, and slavery. Bloodshed is on every hand and the taste of blood on every lip. All are responsible. Nature is a competition and war zone for survival. Predators hunt prey daily and all nature itself knows is violence, terror. Politics rage around our heads as nations fling themselves at other nations and the threat of nuclear war shows us how much our own state of mind is fallen in the world today. We live in a world where people kill people for pocket change, where disaster lurks around the corner, and chaos is on our breath. We have bullet shaped teeth a penchant for violence, oppression in our every step, our institutions enslave us, we enslave others, and no one is free. We are a fallen world. Our planet decays under our cities, our strip mines destroy landscapes and our landfills hide our disasters.
The world is hideous. The world is beautiful.
Both of the above statements are true.
So what do we do about it? What are you and I supposed to do about a world that’s out of whack and thirsty for violence? It takes a move beyond the cursory glance into the news to do something about it. We live in a society where everything needs a microwaved, ready packed, do-it-yourself-in-seconds, prepackaged answer. But you cannot do that with life’s big issues. It takes moving out beyond the 30second attention span and into a meaningful reflection on what it means to be in the world.
So, what is the answer to our problem? I believe it is The Creative Imagination.
Art has the ability to bring with it presence, to create presence between the observer and the object being viewed. I think we can all agree that when we find a truly beautiful piece of art, we move beyond our everyday into something peaceful, serene, soothing, and tranquil. This does not mean all art is this way, but at the same time we can find those works that inspire us with their great beauty. Now, art is not just a frivolous and empty experience that makes us feel good about ourselves for a few moments. I believe that art is an integral part of humanity, and subsequently of Christianity. Why? Because through art, we experience the presence of something beyond ourselves, it takes us to a reality outside ourselves where we can admire our world with the beauty that it has. Furthermore, as a creation of beauty it glorifies the Creator God, who is the Triune Lord that we confess.
It would seem to me that art is going to play a central role in God’s reconciliation of all things. Because art is a means by which we can create beauty, observe the world, and celebrate what we see. This is not the only type of art though, nor does it need to be. While it is beautiful to paint a natural setting, there are other beauties, shapes, and forms, colors, shadows. Art can also show us darkness, the horrors of things past, nightmares from the minds of others, sadism, and death. But this is not the way art has been done before. Where modernity would seek to tell us to move along and be functional, rational and effiecient about the world, we must say ‘No.’ Where modernity would tell us that art is purely political, purely forms or minimalism, we cannot agree.
Art teaches us to stop, to breathe, to appreciate. It inspires us to see the world through different eyes, through another mind, through another perspective, through another heart. Art is not an aside to the Christian gospel, nor does it stem from scant and scattered verses about the arts in the Bible, rather it is integral to God’s plan to set things to rights within the created order. Art is the creation of repose, maybe secondarily, but how many of you have ever painted or taken a picture and found a rest and peace in that moment? The arts inspire us, bless us and heal us, they are a reminder of a world beyond modernity, beyond efficiency and offices.
Not just art alone though, because art can be done by anyone with talent. What it takes is Creative Imagination, inspired by the Creator.
The imagination is not a frivolous empty place where imaginary things hide in our closets and scare our children, the imagination is an active participant in the nature of human being. The imagination is an integral locus of what it means to be human. The imagination needs freedom to express itself and create beauty in our lives, without it we lose a pillar of our existence. The modernist pursuit of function actually served to our detriment, because the buildings of the era, like the thought of the era homogenize and reduce, alienate and divide. This is not supposed to be, created spaces should cultivate relationships and human interaction rather than divide people and separate them. The Creative Imagination can create these spaces.
For an assertion on the nature of Imagination, I briefly turn to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whose work and reflection on the imagination serve a great good in society, and whose voice and contemplation point to something higher than himself. For Coleridge, the Imagination mediates between a world of real objects and a real presence, an “I am,” if you will. But the imagination does not create reality, it creates poetry. It creates a willed experience of the real. It is consciously willed creative control of the potentials within something that characterizes and signifies what the imagination is to Coleridge. It is a conscious mediation between the real world and something other, through the exercise of creative control that allows the mind to create something new and beautiful between the real world and the mind perceiving it.
As Christians, we should call for architecture that speaks meaning, and as Christians in architecture, spaces need to be functional but should also capture relationality between people and the space, should inspire imagination and create a place of reflection and interaction. We need to exercise willed creative control of a space in order to properly imagine all that space could be. Art is not divorced from life but is part of it, creating the environments we live in, and the places we have our interactions. If In Him we live and move and have our being, should not the spaces where that living moving and being reflect the glorious splendor of the creator and inspire something within us?
Have you ever considered what the architecture of our age says about us? We have no open spaces, we have symmetrical monstrosities that make us feel crowded in and insignificant. Our architecture worships our intellect and the feats of humanity’s vertical achievement, but reduce horizontal space to a trivial necessity in order to go higher and higher. I’m not an architect, not a philosopher of architecture, but we cannot let industry create our world, so that there is “a coca-cola advertisement in every village”  and a megalithic apartment complex every three blocks. This is not they things should be, buildings have voices, and symmetrical anonymous, identical, faceless buildings impose conformity and oppression. An age that promised enlightened thinking has stripped us of our freedom, an age that sought to create the ultimate humans has alienated their individuality, and stripped them of their power.
Have you as an architect or building design engineer considered that function is important but buildings can be used to point to something greater? To God Himself? Not as an empty sort of homogenization of architecture into cathedrals or religious buildings everywhere, but each space as its own voice and way of expressing the glory of God. Each space should be cultivated to the full extent of what it can be in itself, not as a universal style of distinction, but within each space a maximization of space, utility and relationality creates the Christian vision of what architecture means to us. Colin Gunton claims that one of the chief failures of modernity is the lack of reconciliation between universality and particularity. What this means for architecture is simple, either our buildings all look the same or they are disjointed and fragmented spaces juxtaposed over each other in a struggle for supremacy. What culture, what architecture needs is unified diversity.
Postmodernism is attempting to restore to particularity those things which belong to it, such as individual significance and importance, however, we cannot allow postmodernity to flatten our sense of space, place and being so that all things are equally valid. When all things are equally leveled out, they are all equally reduced into identical categories, none can be more beautiful, more special, or even individual anymore, and thus they all become boring. It’s like school uniforms, even in the uniformity of everything, it’s the people with the accessories that stand out.
Art and its mediation of presence to us through a created reality draws out the beauty within our own imaginations and inspires us to do something more with ourselves than merely be functional. Functionality is death if it is all that we do. We cannot possibly attempt to have any meaning beyond our bank statements and credit history if we do not actively engage in something beyond functionality. What is the purpose of life?
Certainly it is not to edify and construct institutions at the expense of our identity, to be functional at the expense of ourselves. It is something above and beyond that, and mediating between the horrors of the world and what can be done requires imagination. It requires the creation of beauty in the world, yes in art galleries and on sidewalks and in the streets, on the highways, and byways, in the villages and towns, among the lower classes as well as the socially privileged. The horrors and evil in the world requires us to actively engage the world with imagination, to take control of the situation and create beauty where there was none. Not in the sense of buildings alone, or paintings and inanimate objects, rather the imagination should be used in every aspect of life, actively engaging the world and discovering ways to beautify and cultivate a richer experience from things for the individual as well as the community.
At the core of the imagination is not an arbitrary idea, nor an idealism that is fragile, for Christians the core of the imagination should be the dogmas that inspire us, for the sake of active engagement in the world while not being of the world. The Christian Imagination, that creative force of the will that resides within us and inspires us should look to God’s affirmations of what it means to be in the world for guidance. Christ came to redeem, restore and reconcile all things to himself. He will someday reconcile and redeem all things, and it has already begun in his disciples, the Church, this is a core dogma of our faith. What this means for our artistic merit is that we are called to reconcile all things to God actively, by the Holy Spirit and the active imagination we can participate in. Not that this should reduce art to paintings of Jesus and the disciples, or make everything about looking religious, but really, it’s a celebration not just of spiritual things but the entire creation. Everything has the potential to be beautiful, or redeemed into beauty.
Recently reading an article by N.T. Wright, he mentioned a sculpture of the tree of life, made entirely out of decommissioned weapons.
The world is good, and was created to be so. In acknowledging this we don’t need a specific apologetic for aesthetics, other than ‘for the glory of God.’ We can celebrate the goodness we already see within the world. We have the right to glorify God who created the beauty we do see. We have an imagination that can envision the way things should be, and point us to that reality.
The horrors of the world are real, but in the midst of them we can find peace in the One who is already Lord, and who will continue to bring reconciliation to all things by His Spirit. Christianity is calling…and is asking us to imagine what the world, redeemed and filled with God’s love looks like, and to do our part in making that happen, to create beauty that reflects the glory of God in what we do, the space we live in, the places and ways we exist.
Practically, we can say this: At the center of all the ugliness in the world is a sacrifice that calls us to change the way we think about things. There is for us a man on a cross, who shows us where God has entered into our pain, our suffering our emotional state, and said “enough.” There is a man who has entered into the heart of where the world feels pain, and he is calling us to go there too.
Imagination is not about feeling peppy, but rather is an active engagement in thinking creatively about reconciliation. The Christian Imagination calls us to enter into that same place where the world feels pain, and actively imagine what the love of God looks like there and to set about the task of expressing and ushering in that love, be it in architecture, music, art, sculpture, painting, reflection, philosophy, theology, conversation, ecology, and everything else.