T-Minus 27 Days - Reality & Imagination: When Myth is Truer than Matter

Feast of St Julian the Martyr of Tarsus

Lewis_Square_5.jpgCOMMENTING ON the contemporary resurgence of scientific atheists, physicist Stephen Barr noted that “the conflict is not between religion and science, it is between religion and materialism” (Modern Physics and Ancient Faith). The word scientia refers simply to knowledge, which is not the exclusive territory of empiricism. Spirituality, for example, is not prohibited by science, but it is prohibited by materialism. The materialist worldview has been so prominent in our modern culture that we have ceased to trust our imaginations. Being non-material and non-observable, we assume that our imagination must also be non-rational. We do not trust our imaginations, and we assume works of imagination to be merely fanciful, and utterly meaningless. The libraries of our minds strictly categorize ideas as either fiction or non-fiction, and our mental librarians allow for no comingling of the two. Imaginative stories from the great Christian tradition can help us cross the aisles, so to speak, and bridge the gap between the shelves. 


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C. S. Lewis recognized what he called a “realizing imagination—a way of seeing or picturing reality that is faithful to the way things actually are” (The Discarded Image). During his lonely years at boarding school and his experiences of the horror of World War I, Lewis had created a strict separation between the world of his imagination, which was filled with beauty and justice, and the cruel, ugly, and meaningless world of his experience. On his journey towards Christianity, Lewis began to realize that, contrary to his previous belief, the world of his imagination wasn’t just a fanciful world of his own invention; it was the real world. In the early stages of his conversion, Lewis, a gifted philosopher, was able to come to a rational understanding of the theory of religion, but still found himself unable to grasp the significance of that theory. His friend J. R. R. Tolkien helped him appreciate the power of myth to tell us about ourselves and the world. It was in this way that Lewis finally found his way to the Christian faith. One of his recent biographers, Alister McGrath, notes that Lewis came to see “theory as secondary to reality—in effect, as intellectual reflection that arises after something has been apprehended or appreciated, primarily through the imagination.” According to McGrath, “Lewis grasped the reality of Christianity through his imagination, and then began to try and make rational sense of what his imagination had captured and embraced” (C.S. Lewis: A Life). 

Like Lewis, we ought to recognize that when our perception of the world is false, it is only the imagination that speaks the truth. When our worldview becomes distorted, it is only the imagination that heals our vision and restores true sight. While there will always be a privileged place in Christian intellectual tradition for the study of theology and philosophy, in some ways literature is the more effective tool for evangelization, conversion, and mystagogy. Those former disciplines ”lift us out of our existence in the world of chance and change,” said author Daniel McInerny, “while literature immerses us in it—though not without a guiding truth to light our way” (“Literature as a Form of Resistance”). Literature that engages and forms our imaginations allows knowledge of the head to become knowledge of the heart; situated not in cold abstraction but in a way that is integrated and organic. This type of knowledge doesn’t just change our minds, it changes our lives. Fictional worlds may consist of things which do not exist materially (e.g. hobbits, trolls, elves, dwarves, fairies, wizards, and talking animals), but are built of real transcendentals like truth, justice, and beauty, and in this way can be truer worlds than our own. When we can see that fiction is sometimes fact, we come to understand our experiences in a new and more meaningful way. Emotions such as courage and desire, awe and enchantment, sorrow and guilt, long since dismissed by materialists as simple biological mechanisms, can be true guideposts for a life of faith. And if we are willing to enter this newfound story, we see that the author is none other than God himself, and he has written it just for us.


Dusty Gates currently serves as the Director of Adult Education at the Spiritual Life Center for the Catholic Diocese of Wichita, KS, and as an adjunct Professor of Theology at Newman University in Wichita, KS, where he resides with his wife and two children.

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