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Enlightened Imagination

April 25, 2011

David Brown is Professor of Theology, Aesthetics and Culture, and Wardlaw Professor at the University of St Andrews. He has published numerous books on theology and imagination, including his five-volume series with Oxford University Press: Tradition and Imagination: Revelation and Change (1999), Discipleship and Imagination: Christian Tradition and Truth (2000), God and Enchantment of Place: Reclaiming Human Experience (2004), God and Grace of Body: Sacrament in Ordinary (2007), and God and Mystery in Words: Experience through Metaphor and Drama (2008).

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In contemporary theology it has become a commonplace to lament the Enlightenment as displaying too much confidence in reason and in consequence necessarily inimical to Christianity. By contrast, Romanticism, the movement that succeeded it in European thought, is praised for its emphasis on experience and on the imagination in particular. But such alleged differences are altogether too sharply drawn. To indicate as much I want to suggest two lessons that that earlier movement might still have to offer us today.

The first concerns the use of the imagination as a form of argument. It would be quite wrong to suggest that Enlightenment thinkers only ever employed rather dull, formal arguments. One reason Lessing wrote his play Nathan the Wise was to suggest that each of the three major monotheistic religions (Islam and Judaism as well as Christianity) offers access to God. Again Voltaire wrote his novel Candide to satirise Leibniz’s optimism about ‘solutions’ to the problem of evil. But such objections were not motivated by doubt about God’s existence. Indeed, when the French philosopher learnt of Diderot’s move towards atheism, it was again through the imagination that he chose to offer a reply, in his portrayal of an Anglican clergyman in his short essay Histoire de Jenni. Examples could easily be multiplied, but my point is simply this. Imagination may well be able to deal better with areas of human experience that defy easy conceptualisation, but that emphatically does not mean that reason must necessarily be set in opposition to the imagination. As many an Enlightenment thinker demonstrates, the same topic could in fact be approached both by formal argument and by a form of reason firmly embedded in the imagination.

For my second point let me turn to that brief period when Scottish universities outshone Oxford and Cambridge, in the Scottish Enlightenment. Because its best known figure (David Hume) was an agnostic (and perhaps even an atheist), it is easy to assume an irreligious tone to the whole, but this is very far from being the case. Hugh Blair, Adam Ferguson, Francis Hutcheson and William Robertson, for instance, were all ordained. Nor is it the case that the ‘finer’ arts were ignored. George Turnbull of Aberdeen (also ordained) defended the centrality of the study of art to education.[i] Narrative painting he suggested be regarded as a form of rhetoric (intended here as a complimentary term). Not only could it inspire the viewer, but it also was best treated as a form of language that inherently embodied its own truth claims. Not only that, but these were more important than historical truth. The latter was necessarily confined to the particular whereas a painting was capable of making universal claims, especially about morality or religion. So, for instance in respect of landscape painting, because the painter improved upon the scene upon which his canvas was based by abstracting key general principles of proportion, harmony and so forth, both painter and viewer received training in a better appreciation of the principles upon which the divine Creator had shaped our world. Hutcheson went even further and argued that our aesthetic sense is no less objective than ordinary perception.[ii] Given that Hutcheson even wrote a treatise on laughter, is it not time for Christians to adopt a more nuanced attitude to the Enlightenment?[iii]


[i] In his Treatise on Ancient Painting of 1740.

[ii] In his Inquiry into the Original of our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue (1725).

[iii] Reflections upon Laughter (1726).

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