Readings at the Intersection of Culture and Faith Unlikely Theologians and the Coleridgean Imagination

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Readings at the Intersection of Culture and Faith Unlikely Theologians and the Coleridgean Imagination

Books Discussed

The Future of the Universe: Chance, Chaos, God? By Arnold Benz. New York: Continuum, 2002. 176 pp. $19.95 (paper).

Against Love Poetry. By Eavan Boland. New York: W. W. Norton, 2001. x + 53 pp'. $21.00 (cloth); $12.00 (paper).

God: Stones. Edited by C. Michael Curtis. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1998. xiv + 400 pp. $15.00 (paper). Reprinted edition with discussion guide, 2003.

Sacred Time and the Search for Meaning. By Gary Eberle. Boston: Shambhala, 2003. xvi + 222 pp. $14.95 (paper).

Flannery O'Connor: Spiritual Writings. Edited by Robert Ellsberg. Introduction by Richard Giannone. Modern Spiritual Masters Series. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis, 2003. 173 pp. $15.00 (paper).

A Celestial Omnibus: Short Fiction on Faith. Edited by J. P. Maney and Tom Hazuka. Boston: Beacon Press, 1997. 338 pp. $18.00 (paper).

Dragon's Lair. By Sharon Kay Penman. New York: G. P. Putnams Sons, 2003. 324 pp. $23.95 (cloth).

Poems to Read: A New Favorite Poem Project Anthology. Edited by Robert Pinsky and Maggie Dietz. New York: W. W. Norton, 2002. 352pp. $27.95 (cloth).

Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life. By Philip Simmons. 2000; New York: Bantam, 2002. xvi + 157 pp. $16.95 (cloth); $12.95 (paper); $11.50 (ebook).

Margaret Atwood adeptly explains what most creative thinkers discover the hard way, as she did. "It took me a long time," she laments, "to figure out that the youngest in a family of dragons is still a dragon from the point of view of those who find dragons alarming."1 Ten years ago, I was pleased to discover that Jim Griffiss did not find me at all alarming. In fact, he thought that my thinking counted as "theology." We argued the matter over lunch one day, until I found myself in the odd position of disputing the scope of "theology" with the future canon theologian to the presiding bishop. This was not an argument I wanted to win. So I backed down, turning my attention instead to an excellent salmon salad. Those who remember Jim will easily imagine the satisfied glint in his craggy face. In honor of the passing of a veiy great dragon, then, I hereby claim poetic license to assert that all these books count as "theology."

According to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, such a claim depends upon a proper understanding of imagination. Coleridge (and others) argue that imagination is more than simply the faculty whereby writers and other artists do their work. At a mundane or less conscious level, imagination also shapes even the most ordinary levels of perception. Imagination is the power whereby the human mind in part creates what it in part perceives, shaping or contributing to what we (naively) take to be the fixed or given realities of an objective world.2

Coleridge goes on from this eighteenth-century commonplace to contend that the creative power of the human imagination is also "a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM" who created heaven and earth.3 Imaginative work, so broadly conceived, embraces far more than what we ordinarily regard as literature or the arts. It includes any work (in any genre) that successfully portrays some aspect of the human encounter with the sacramental dimensions of reality or the immanence of a transcendent, triune God.'* Imagination in its highest development can speak to us of God with uncanny clarity and persuasive power. It is the human capacity to create and to perceive sacramental realities; it is the imago Dei within us whereby we come to know, love, and worship God.

Faith and the sustenance of faith traditions have always depended upon individuals blessed with that power. From the Rrst storyteller of Genesis to the stained glass of the great cathedrals to the gospel choir burning hope into weary souls, religion has always depended far more deeply upon artists than upon philosophers. …