Spiritual Imagination

By Jay Williams
Walcott D. Bartlett Professor of Religious Studies
Hamilton College
February 2010

In 1869, Horace Bushnell published an article commenting on the Bampton Lectures offered by Edward Garbett who was one of many theologians of that time who devoted themselves to extracting “sure and certain” doctrines from Scripture. Bushnell, who entitled his essay “Our Gospel: A Gift to the Imagination,” reminds his readers that the language of the Bible, indeed all language, is highly metaphorical and symbolic. Much of the Bible is poetry, parable, and folk tale and must be read as such. Forget the doctrines and dogmatic certitudes, he says, and use your imagination. Faith has nothing to do with accepting a particular set of dogmas. He writes,

It (our Christian Gospel) is a Gift more especially to the Human Imagination. It offers itself first of all and principally to the interpretive imaginings and discernings of faith, never, save in that manner, to the constructive processes of logic and speculative opinion. It is, in one sense, pictorial; its every line or lineament is traced in some image or metaphor, and by no possible ingenuity can it be gotten away from metaphor; for as certainly as one metaphoric image is escaped by a definition, another will be taken up, and must be, to fill its place in the definition itself.1

Unlike Samuel Taylor Coleridge who, in his famous Aids to Reflection, argues that Christians should avoid equivocal expressions that may be taken in different ways and that introduce thereby confusion in thought,2 Bushnell teaches that, given the metaphorical nature of language, such precision in thought is an impossible illusion. The Bible does not present us with doctrines to swallow but provides us with literature that addresses and evokes our spiritual imagination.

Happily today, fewer people comb the Bible just to abstract theological doctrines. Whatever Christian theology has become, at least it is no longer a matter of piling up doctrines for belief. On the other hand, much of our biblical study now has turned to historical questions: Did the event as recorded in the Bible happen? Can different accounts be reconciled factually? When was this text written and by whom? In many respects, the truth of the Bible has been firmly tied in our minds with its supposed factuality. Although most of us have been able to accept the idea that God did not create the world in 4004 B.C., the whole “mythic nature” of the Torah is still disquieting to many. Certainly the obvious discrepancies between the Synoptic Gospels and John are a cause for considerable concern among many Christians. How can anyone believe the Bible if it is not factually correct?

The truth of the matter is that if one is at all honest with the biblical materials it becomes quite obvious that much of the Bible is not factually accurate. Not only did God not create the world in six days in 4004 B.C., Moses could not have lived in the desert with more than a million Israelites for forty years, nor could Joshua have destroyed Jericho, a city that was already in ruins. The problems with the Jesus story are also too numerable to mention. John and the Synoptic Gospels just do not agree.

The question is: does that matter? If you follow Horace Bushnell it does not. For him, the Bible was not written to communicate facts but to provide stories and poetry to kindle our spiritual imagination. The fact that it is very unlikely that someone could live in the belly of a fish says nothing about the truth that the book of Jonah is meant to convey. Sadly, many have been so caught up with the problem of living inside a fish that they have not really appreciated the comic irony (and point) of the tale itself.

Studying the history of the “real” King Lear or the historical Macbeth may be of some modest interest to the student of English literature, but it has little to do with the truth being expressed by the plays of Shakespeare. Whether they are factually accurate or not is beside the point. The truth is in the story as it is told on stage.

The question is: can the same be said of the Bible? Does history really matter? Or does it just detract from the story itself? Should we not just read the stories for themselves as they are? Is it not right that we should just rely upon our own creative imagination?

Oh no, one might very well reply, such depending upon the imagination will lead to a great variety of interpretations and not to one unifying creed or theology. Who can imagine where the unleashed human imagination might go theologically? The imagination of some people will surely end in that most despicable of results: heresy.

The first point to make in response is that, paradoxically, it is the insistence upon one unifying creed that has invariably broken Christendom into opposing sects. It happened in the ancient world when Christians, now called upon to unify the empire spiritually, sought theological agreement about the person of Jesus and consequently fell into the most acrimonious disputes, and it has happened periodically ever since. One reason why Christianity exists in a million pieces today is that everyone has insisted upon finding the one unifying set of doctrines.

Moreover, it is also true that from the beginning, Christians have used their theological imaginations to find in the Bible truths relevant for them and for their age. Paul was an intelligent and saintly man, but when he read the Hebrew Scriptures he found “truths’ that few would imagine today. Who would any longer interpret the story of Hagar in the way that he did? (Galatians 5:21ff) The same may be said of Origen who found the idea of reincarnation in the Bible or of Augustine, who seemed to find hints of the Trinity on every page of the Old Testament. Calvin found what he regarded as obvious truths, but Menno Simons and George Fox found other, rather contradictory ideas central.

Finally, the truth of the matter is that the Bible itself does not seem to teach one clear set of doctrines. Compare, for instance, Numbers, Ecclesiastes, the Gospel of John, and Galatians. They all do refer to God, but he appears quite differently in the different books. So, the interpreter is actually required to use his or her imagination to interact with the text at hand. It is out of that interaction that faith springs. What undermines faith is the insistence that there is just one way to read the Bible, that there is one set of doctrines that are true, and that the Bible is factually and historically correct.

Ultimately, whatever truth there is, is a mystery beyond comprehension that can only be alluded to by myth and symbol. Language cannot accurately describe the mystery but can only metaphorically point. Humans want to reduce the mystery to facts and ideas and doctrines. We all want ego-security. We always want to know certainly. The Bible, however, will not allow that. It always points beyond itself to a mystery it can only adumbrate, but that we can never fully comprehend. We always “see through a glass darkly.” Reduction of the mystery to doctrine is foolish. Reducing it to factuality is even worse. I think Bushnell was on to something. What do you think?


1 Horace Bushnell, Sermons, ed. Conrad Cherry (New York: Paulist Press, 1985) p. 97.

2 Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Aids to Reflection, ed. Thomas Fenby (Liverpool: Edward Howell, 1877) p.30.

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