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Why Reason is not enough    

13 May 2022

In a newly published book, Malcolm Guite argues for the importance of the imagination


William Blake, The Sun at His Eastern Gate, watercolour painting over pen and ink, illustration (1816-20)

William Blake, The Sun at His Eastern Gate, watercolour painting over pen and ink, illustration (1816-20)

WHY does the imagination need defending? To answer this question, we need briefly to look at the huge changes in the way we think and know, changes in the roles of reasoning on the one hand and intuition on the other, which occurred during the Enlightenment period and came to define the modern era. These changes, which helped to establish the scientific method, and have undoubtedly brought many benefits, did not come without a cost, and the rigorous scepticism that might be appropriate to one sphere of inquiry cast a long shadow over other important areas of human life.

The Enlightenment ushered in a mistrust and marginalisation of imaginative and poetic vision, and a particular suspicion of the ambivalent or multivalent language of poetry. Instead of acknowledging, as many thinkers do now, that the way we know, the language through which we know, may be an essential and helpful part of knowledge itself, some philosophers of the Enlightenment thought that image and imagination simply clouded and obscured the pure dry knowledge which they were after.

This attitude is often traced back rhetorically to Francis Bacon, who wrote, “For all that concerns ornaments of speech, similitudes, treasury of eloquence, and such like emptinesses, let it be utterly dismissed” (The Philosophical Works of Francis Bacon, ed. John M. Robertson, Routledge, 1905) — although Bacon himself could not say anything without constantly availing himself of metaphor and symbol; nor can there be any scientific discourse without them (see for example Mary Midgley, Science and Poetry, Routledge, 2001).


ONE of the most telling and influential writings of this period is the preface to Thomas Sprat’s History of the Royal Society. Here we see a clear stand against poetry and the poetic imagination as ways of coming at truth, which was to have enormous influence. Sprat urged his readers “to separate the knowledge of Nature, from the colours of Rhetoric, the devices of Fancy or the delightful deceit of Fables” (A History of the Royal Society of London, for the Improving of Natural Knowledge, first edition, 1667, taken from the facsimile edited by Cope and Jones).

The new philosophers and scientists had declared war on the imagination and the consequence of that war was a kind of cultural apartheid. The entire realm of “objective” truth was to be the exclusive terrain of Reason at its narrowest: analytic, reductive, atomising; and the faculties of Imagination and Intuition — those very faculties that alone were capable of integrating, synthesising, and making sense of our atomised factual knowledge — were relegated to a purely private and “subjective” truth. If it can’t be weighed and measured, these men were saying, it’s not really there. How prophetic Blake, the great rebel against this division, was when he wrote: “‘What,’ it will be Question’d, ‘When the Sun rises, do you not see a round Disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea?’ O no, no, I see an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying, ‘Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty’” (William Blake, “A Vision of the Last Judgment,” Descriptive Catalogue (1810)).


SO, WE were left torn between an increasingly bleak reductionism that gave us data but no meaning, and an increasingly dislocated and orphaned imaginative and intuitive life crying endlessly for meaning but finding no actual purchase on the facts. This had terrible consequences both on the way we see the world, which came to be seen more and more as an agglomeration of dead stuff to be exploited, and also on the faith.

Given this divide, Christians themselves were divided, with some of them driven to a mere literalism, which treated the whole vast poem of scripture as though it were some kind of literalistic science manual, and others abandoning any real historical and factual core to the gospel and just agreeing to treat it as a set of symbols which they could reinvent or reinterpret in any way that suited them.

Coleridge grasped the problem when, in “The Stateman’s Manual”, his great lay sermon on the importance of the Bible, he wrote: “A hunger-bitten and idea-less philosophy naturally produces a starveling and comfortless religion. It is among the miseries of the present age that it recognises no medium, between Literal and Metaphorical. Faith is either to be buried in the dead letter, or its name and honours usurped by a counterfeit product . . . ” (Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lay Sermons, ed. R.J. White, Princeton University Press, 1972).


BUT we can come closer to our own age for an expression of this dilemma as we feel it now; for C.S. Lewis felt it in in the days of his atheism. Of his life as a philosophy tutor in the Oxford of the 1920s, he wrote: “The two hemispheres of my mind were in the sharpest contrast. On the one side a many-islanded sea of poetry and myth; on the other a glib and shallow ‘rationalism’. Nearly all that I loved I believed to be imaginary; nearly all that I believed to be real I thought grim and meaningless (C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, Geoffrey Bles, 1955).

Many of us will resonate with those words, but we have hope! We are living through another of the great shifts in our way of thinking as we come to the end of the Modern Period and there is a chance to heal this split and dislocation. I want to make the case for a recovery and reintegration of the imagination together with the reason as modes of knowing, and, further, I want to affirm that the healing of that split, the reconciliation of that division, is to be found in the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He comes not only to save us from our sins, but also to heal the tragic fracture in our ways of knowing.

This is an edited extract from Lifting The Veil: Imagination and the Kingdom of God by Malcolm Guite (Canterbury Press, £14.99 (Church Times Bookshop £11.99); 978-1-78622-454-5.

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