Tag Archives: imagination

Marilynne Robinson on Subjectivity, Dissent, Rationality, and Faith

Marilynne Robinson is one of the most astute social critics and feminist writers in our contemporary world.  In the current edition of The New Republic she has an article about Martin Luther and the dissent that he introduced which led to the Protestant Revolution.  She points out that Luther was a very conflicted soul, certainly “haunted” and driven by forces he was not aware of, but appearing at a ripe moment in history and has proving to be a pivotal figure in Western Civilization.  I also can see how one could even argue that the direction he led us was not even in the best interest of mankind, given our present day capacity to allow “dissent” to become such a way of life that even a “rational” body like the U.S. Congress is anything but rational.

Even in her youth Marilynne was a thoughtful sensitive soul, very “aware” of her own subjective experience and the world in which she lived, even that of flora and fauna. The following is from an article in Christianity Today magazine about Robinson’s keen spiritual sensitivity.  The writer pointed out that she developed a keen sense of observation, including the Ineffable, recalling that she could sense God’s presence there long before she had a name for him. “I was aware to the point of alarm of a vast energy of intention, all around me,” she writes, “barely restrained, and I thought everyone else must be aware of it.” Perhaps they were, but in a culture in which “it was characteristic to be silent about things that in any way moved them,” the young Robinson was, in her deepest experiences, alone.”

“There were mentors, though. She remembers her grandfather holding an iris blossom before her, quietly commending its miracle of form, and the “patient old woman who taught me Presbyterianism,” offering Moses’ burning bush and Pharaoh’s dream of famine as wonders to contemplate. In their reticent attention, both mentors gave Robinson a way to stand before mystery and gradually behold it. “It was as if some old relative had walked me down to the lake knowing an imperious whim of heaven had made it a sea of gold and glass, and had said, This is a fine evening, and walked me home again.”

Her subjective “aliveness” is best illustrated in her first novel, “Housekeeping” in which an Aunt cares for two young nieces and leads them into her eccentric, “hippy” world of myth and magic.  One of the nieces eventually rejects this life for the “normal” while the other takes off with her aunt for a vagabond life of adventure in an ethereal world of which most of us are oblivious, where distinctions are nebulous.  The most memorable line in this novel for me is, “Emptiness can blossom into all the compensations it requires.”  Robinson knew, and still knows, that the realm of the imagination holds riches untold for humankind if we are but willing to find the courage to venture there, allowing our intellect to be refreshed by the energy that lies there.

Here is the context from, “Housekeeping,” in which the aforementioned quotation occurs, “For need can blossom into all the compensation it requires. To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savors of ripeness and earth, and when do our senses know any thing so utterly as when we lack it? And here again is a foreshadowing-the world will be made whole. For to wish for a hand on one’s hair is all but to feel it. So whatever we may lose, very craving gives it back to us again. Though we dream and hardly know it, longing, like an angel, fosters us, smooths our hair, and brings us wild strawberries.”


Imagination and God

When I was very young my family lived in the sticks of Arkansas and had no running water.  During the summer we would take a bath in a galvanized-tin “bathtub” on the front porch since we had no neighbors nearby.  One day when a long dry spell in the weather was breaking and it was beginning to sprinkle, a sister of mine who had a more active imagination than I did innocently noted,“God is pouring his bath water out.”  Neither of us took this literally but the image has always stuck in my mind.  And I’ve always regretted not having become pompous at that time for I would have reminded her that God does not get dirty and does not need to take a bath.  Furthermore, I would have dismissed the notion that Jesus walked around heaven with a baby sheep under one arm and a lightning bolt under the other.

Human imagination is a very important dimension of our heart and is critical in our religious experience.  Without it we are left with sterile cognitive images of our Source and it reveals just how sterile and barren our heart is for the “heart” is more than a bunch of ideas floating around in our head. And I find it very interesting currently how that many Christians who deny the “imaginary” nature of their Friend have now voted with great passion for someone who has, and is expressing the part of their imagination than they have never acknowledged.  For, imagination does include unsavory “stuff” and it is our fear of this forbidden material that deters us from utilizing the “mind’s eye.”  In Donald Trump all Americans need to consider, “Out of the abundance of our heart our mouth now speaketh,” to paraphrase Jesus.

Poet John Masefield wrote a sonnet that reveals so much about the role imagination has in our ideological formulations of God:

How many ways, how many different times
The tiger mind has clutched at what it sought,
Only to prove supposed virtues crimes,
The imagined godhead but a form of thought.
How many restless brains have wrought and schemed,
Padding their cage, or built, or brought to law,
Made in outlasting brass the something dreamed,
Only to prove itself the things held in awe.

The Moon is Made Out of Cheese!

This is just a whimsical notion I’ve tossed around for years to illustrate lunacy. And our imagination is a myriad of whimsical notions some of which are occasionally more outrageous than that one. This dimension of the human heart is the birthplace of everything that makes up the world, everything from the wheel to bread-ties. Without the capacity to imagine we never would have even made it to the Stone Age.  And, yes one is free to imagine that the moon is out of cheese but hopefully the notion would not find lodging in too many minds!

My mind/heart is now teeming with these whimsical notions as I have taken giant strides towards escaping the linear logic of the “literallew” of my youth. And, I feel that these whimsies are fine as they are just that—“whimsies.” But, some of them aren’t so nice…to put it mildly…and fortunately I have the “faculty of judgment” available which empowers me to not pay any attention to them. And if our imagination is in play, there will be a myriad of fancies that flutter past our mind’s eye and we cannot be dismayed by the unpleasant ones.

History is the tale of visionaries who have dared to imagine the impossible. One simple example is that unknown soul who dared to imagine that the earth was not flat back in the 16th century. Whoever he or she was must have been hesitant to share this “crazy notion” and when it was first shared the outcome was certainly not pleasant. The “tyranny of the way things are” holds us captive and it takes bold individuals to dare and question that “psychopathology of everyday life.”

I think religion should have a role in challenging this “tyranny” and does on occasion though usually the insight of the challengers is quickly co-opted and turned into dogma. Scientists are often earth-shakers as they are willing to think outside of the box and bring new dimensions to our consciousness. And art provides my favorite “earth-shakers,” people who are not only able to think outside of the box but at times outside of the box that the box is in!!!

The imagination is very much related to the body. One whose imagination finds the freedom to flow will be in touch with his/her physicality and will be comfortable with it. The unconscious, the gut-level dimension of the heart, will be allowed to speak its truths some of which are occasionally very dark at first glance. As Ranier Rilke put it, “The heart has its beastly little treasures.”

Jesus is “Speaking” to Me!

Now, He does not “literally” speak to me.  I don’t hear voices or anything like that.  If it should happen I would refill my prescription of industrial-strength Haldol quickly! But my imagination, so long dormant or even imprisoned within tyrannical linear thought is finally coming out to play and from time to time I like to interpret a few things I’m learning in the realm of spirituality with the following refrain, “Jesus said unto me….”

For example, in the mid eighties when I was knee deep in my “great depression” and was walking past a large Baptist church to get my favorite comfort food, ice cream, and I just noticed that for the first time in my life I had no tinge of guilt for not being there in that moribund house of worship, for disobeying the biblical injunction to “forsake not the assembling together as  the manner of some is,”  And this tid-bit of freedom has been burgeoning through my life since then, slowly working away on that deep-seated core of guilt and shame that had kept me in Christian bondage. And there on that street that summer night, Jesus told me, “Hey Louie, its ok!  You don’t have to do that anymore!  You are free, my son!  You’ve done your time, done your penance…a penance you never did have to do in the first place; for, after all, that’s what I was about.  Remember?  Remember?  Remember?”

And Jesus continued to speak to me and to tell me, “Hey, that whole Christian thingy.  You don’t have to do that any longer.  I paid the price for your freedom from all bondage, even the bondage to “me”….which by the way I never had in mind!”  I began to explore this vein of thought and realized that in the way I had been taught in my youth, I was no longer a Christian and Jesus was telling me it was ok.

So I wondered in that wilderness for years, knowing that I was not an atheist or even agnostic even with this radical vein of thought coming to me from Jesus, of all people.  For, yes I had lost my religion, I had lost my family, I had lost my childhood friends, I had given up professional employment and was living on a meager income, barricaded in the basement of an office building.  I had “lost” everything.  But, I then realized that Jesus and the Christian tradition was still there even though “it” had lost its grip on me.  I no longer “had” to be Christian but realized that I still believed fully that Jesus walked the face of this earth and trotted out a lot of marvelous ideas….and lived them, embodied them!  Now it is true, dealing with “loss” of this type…and speaking now as a clinician…can lead to radical loss which is known in my trade as psychosis.  But I knew that history was still present for my scrutiny and that Jesus had been here in history in some shape, form, or fashion and though we know little about Him, we can surmise that he was a powerful spiritual teacher and I found that his teachings had great value for me, greater value for me than ever before.  And I realized that this meant that I was a Christian and always had been and this “loss” I had experienced was the “loss” of the letter of the law which in the subsequent decades has allowed the “spirit of the law” to begin to flow in my heart and life.

 And since then, Jesus has said occasionally, “Hey Louie!  You are beginning to get it!  You find me only when you lose me, you find me only when you lose the “idea” of me and discover me deeply in the inner depths of your own heart, discovering that the Kingdom is within.  And, Louie, this “loss” you experienced is an ongoing experience but this is only the loss of your ego self which is what I had in mind when I taught that you can find yourself only when you are willing to lose yourself.

 Since then I’ve come to realize why most Christians hyper-ventilate with the Mel Gibson “Passion of Christ” stuff for with that imagery they can allow the story of Jesus, his death, burial, and resurrection to remain…in their mind…an historical “fact” and miss the point that he was “the lamb slain before the foundation of the world.”  This allows them to keep Him and the whole story a mere conceptual narrative which has nothing in the least to do with the depths of their heart where the real “death, burial, and resurrection” must take place.  They cling tenaciously to the “idea” of Jesus just as they cling to the “idea” of their own identity for to let go of the “idea” and embrace the experience would mean letting the ego die, it would mean following the advice of W. H. Auden who encouraged us to, “climb the rugged cross of the moment and let our illusions die.”





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But with this vein of thought, I always am brought to the realization that I have just condemned them all to hell!  By that I mean, in the old-brain mind-set of “literallew” they do not believe the “right way” and therefore are “lost as a goose in a hail storm.”  But the marvel of the Jesus story is that…as the old evangelical hymn puts it, “Jesus paid it all.”  Sure, they don’t get it “right” but guess who else does not get it “right”?  C’est moi?  None of us get it “right” but the message of Jesus is that we are forgiven nevertheless!  And as far as getting it “right”, please define right for me?  “Right” will always be a rational construction, a formulation arising from the depths of the heart which always has a deep-seated need to legitimate its preconceptions.  And that is why Christianity has often been a laughing-stock, easy fodder for late-night comedians such as Bill Maher who see readily through the non-sense and confront them with reality.  But, being confronted with reality, most Christians have a built-in escape, captured by W. H. Auden with this note, “When Truth met him, and held out his hand, he clung in panic to his tall belief and shrank away like an ill-treated child.”