‘Landscape With Dragons – and Angels’

Stratford Caldecott, author of Secret Fire: The Spiritual Vision of J. R. R. Tolkien, provides the perfect antidote to the excesses of Michael O’Brien in his explanation of “Finding the Wise Imagination in Children’s Literature.” It speaks a Thomistic and Aristotelian language where I prefer Coleridge but it is about the Imagination as an edifying human faculty when oriented to the spiritual and I cannot recommend it highly enough.


  1. This is fantastic. It is very enlightening and even empowering. Thanks!

  2. korg20000bc says

    I feel edified after reading that.

  3. Hieromonk Damascene, citing Gregory of Nyssa, argues clearly that imagination is a faculty that is aligned with man’s fallen nature, and is not edifying to indulge or cultivate.
    Either, or both, (if I remember correctly) Macarius the Great and Evagrius relate imagination to a distortion of the concupiscible power of the human soul; again, hardly edifying.
    Adam had hardly any imagination. He saw things mostly as they were, rather, he experienced these things as they were. This was a more single-pointed approach, rather than the movement to fractured thought, as imagination attempts.
    If edification is illumination on a path toward our Creator and imaginative thoughts are chimera, I can hardly see how imagination is edifying in any way.

  4. revgeorge says

    Which just goes to show that the Church Fathers aren’t always correct.

  5. korg20000bc says

    Adam named all the animals. Highly imaginative work, that.

  6. revgeorge says

    Dickens wrote about the effects of inculcating in children a total lack of imagination, or fancy as he called it. Check out Hard Times.

  7. Hieromonk Damascene, who has read the Fathers, knows that “imagination” as used by the writers of the Philokalia and Evergetinos, is ‘mental fancy picturing the passions’ (we would say “visualizing”). This indulgence and fastening the attention to conceptual images is the one of the first steps of sin and chief obstacles to purification of the heart in the practical or moral stage of spiritual life, acquiring the virtues.

    Imagination as it is understood in the English high fantasy tradition, in contrast, is the fostering of the human ability to see reality as transparencies, St. Maximos the Confessor’s ‘physical philosophy,’ an essential step in moving from the virtuous life to communing with God in His Energies. See the ‘Centuries of Love’ by St. Maximos for this — and his assertion that a nominalist or empiricist understanding of created things rather than grasping them in terms of their ‘inner essences’ or logoi makes it impossible to be receptive to God’s graces (2nd Century of Theology, #43).

    Imaginative literature was born in reaction to the final victory of the philosophical nominalists in the so called ‘Enlightenment.’ It fosters spiritual vision, an activity of the noetic faculty (Coleridge’s Primary Imagination is the Logos, ‘”recreation of the eternal I AM,” within us), which faculty already fallen, in our materialist times, is horribly misshapen and atrophied due to the focus on quantities rather than qualities in every facet of our education and culture.

    That Christians quote the Fathers of the Desert on Fancy as argument against imaginative literature betrays (1) no little ignorance of Patristic psychology and anthropology, (2) a sad indifference to or neglect of western intellectual history, and (3) forgive me, something of a fundamentalist understanding of ‘why reading fiction matters’ (by suggesting that it doesn’t matter, or, worse, that it dissipates spiritual focus.

    Forgive my direct speech here, and please be sure I am not claiming to know the Fathers better than Peter, Hieromonk Damascene, or even Michael O’Brien. I do think all of these men, however, more pious and spiritually accomplished than I will ever be, have decided that Coleridgean imagination and Patristic fancy are the same faculty in the human person.

    They aren’t.

  8. John cites patristic sources on fanciful representation correctly, though the Fathers had more to say about imagination than just this. We must look at this also with philological spectacles, and how the Fathers interpreted phantasia. Did they always refer to the Aristotelian definition, centered on objects, or did they also reference a Ryleian ‘non-imagination’? I think they, and Fr. Damascene did both.

    Patristic mappings of the human faculties are just that. Maps, not being the territories, are, at best apophatic representations. I don’t think that Macarius or Maximos the Confessor would have claimed their mappings to be comprehensive, nor did they explicate Coleridgean imagination. The Evagrian three-fold division of the rational power (with its subdivisions) is considerably more perfect than Coleridge’s Primary and Secondary Imagination map. Some mappings flatten, and dumb down, some add dimension, no?

    In fact, Coleridge is a diest to Wordsworth’s pantheism. Where was the panentheist of this age? Coleridge’s ‘multeity in unity’ is exactly what the physicists at CERN are searching for – singularity in many bosons. To suggest Coleridgean reconciliation between disparate elements without Jesus Christ is error, and will result in further errors. To suggest that reason, imagination, or any noetic faculty without Jesus Christ as ‘Logos’, and in order to know the true ‘I AM’, we have to come to Him in love, is error.

    Coleridge’s consideration of beauty is still consideration; that is, a comparison with that which is not beautiful. or less beautiful. Adam lived in ineffable beauty, but did not think it so – he just experienced it. I know a guy who has a collection of John Wayne Gacy paintings that he thinks are beautiful – and he has a fine arts degree!

    It is also error to suggest that because our age appears more technologically advanced, or that contemporary academy operates under a nominally empiricist, methodological naturalist paradigm that it is any more misshapen than the psycho-social realm of patristic times. We are no more (or less) fallen than the Fathers.

    A faculty of the higher rational mind is to be in communion with our creator. This has driven men to imagine a monism; physicists looking for their singularity, Coleridge through his vague reconciling discursive ‘imagination’. Monism isn’t what is needed – Christian trinitarianism is. All else, especially fantasy literature, leaves an open door to delusion and deception, and away from God.

    I confess that I am as ignorant, indifferent, and fundamentalist as John points out, probably more so. It’s one thing to have your kids read Harry Potter and then exegete it for them, quite another to have adults reading them many times over. Lord, teach us to number our days, and have mercy.

    Handing my kid a prism, or have him melt the heads off army men with a magnifying glass, I can explain optical caustics and have him imagine life, death, original sin, salvation, and the Trinity contained in these. I can exegete fantasy literature, but his mind may go back to the representations in the literature, and not my exegesis.

  9. korg20000bc says

    The main issue I have with your post, Peter, is that your arguments, while certainly learned and full of Christian thinking, don’t actually leave much room for God. Your last paragraph really makes it clear. God may do more in your child’s mind with the representations than your exegesis ever could.

  10. Actually I’m a heretic and a fool and I need you to help me see this. Thank you.

    God doesn’t need room, He’s in all places, fills all things, always has, and always will.

    The problem isn’t leaving room for God, or “edifying human faculty when oriented to the spiritual”. What kind of spiritual? The problem, if there is one, is not edification, or spirituality. It is eminently theological, and by extension, physical and practical. More spirituality or theology isn’t what is needed. What is needed is correct theology.

    A tragic example might be Thomas Merton. With a lifetime steeped in books, theology, and even post-modern asceticism, he became unhinged and concluded his life by initiating into Tibetan Buddhism, the ultimate atheism. Maybe Merton didn’t chop enough wood in his time.

    My point is that, while much pleasure and good can come from wrestling with abstractions of all sorts, too much focus on this will cause the human to become unbalanced and ill, literally. I can’t say whether an adult reading a child’s book multiple times might be ‘too much focus’. Literary prestidigitation, even of the best fiction or poetry, is too much like staring at inspired icon for so long that you start to see it wink at you. We are material beings, and there are great windows into the transcendent through this materialism, unstained by deceptive sigils and fervent, but corrupt explications.

    Before enlightenment, you chop wood and carry water…
    After enlightenment, you chop wood and carry water…

    I would add that by chopping wood, etc., one can gain enlightenment.

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