J. R. Tolkien, the famous novelist, was one of the persons who helped C.S. Lewis to accept Christianity. As a man of considerable imagination he was not one to easily denigrate this faculty.
Yet he clearly knew its limits. One night, after hours of listening to Lewis object to certain aspects of the faith, Tolkien suggested to him that his resistance was not so much a question of belief as it was of imagination: “Your inability to understand stems from a failure of imagination on your part.”
There is something very important in that statement. It tells us that the seat of our faith does not lie within our imaginations and that we cannot sustain our faith by our imaginations. To forget this can leave us open to a dangerous confusion. Let me try to explain this by way of an example:
Recently, at a retreat, a woman approached me for spiritual counsel. Her’s was a curious quandary: She felt both full of faith and full of doubt all at the same time.
She began by telling me that she was, in her mind, a very orthodox Roman Catholic; somewhat pious even. Yet, try as she might, she could not believe that Christ physically rose from the dead, nor that we will one day rise from the dead .
“I believe that Christ lived on after his death, in some way, but his body rotted in the grave. I don’t believe the tomb was empty. Likewise with us. I believe in immortality, but not in resurrection. If I can’t believe that, and I can’t, and I know I never will, does that make me an atheist? Am I losing my faith?
Looked at superficially, it might appear that she is losing her faith, at least in that she is unable to believe in some non-negotiable part of the creed. Such a judgment, though, can be quite simplistic.
My suggestion to her was somewhat in the line of Tolkien’s comment to C. S. Lewis. Her struggles were much more with her imagination and its incapacity to give her a mental construct of resurrection than they were with believing in the resurrection. What is the difference?
Contrast these two scenarios:
Imagine yourself lying in bed some night. You have just had a very good time of prayer. You are flooded with feelings and images about God. You have strong, clear feelings that God exists. On that particular evening you have no faith doubts – you can feel the existence of God.
Now … imagine another night, a darker one. You wake up from a fitful sleep and are overwhelmed by the sense that you don’t believe in God. You try to convince yourself that you still believe, but you cannot. Every attempt to imagine that God exists and to feel his presence comes up empty.
You feel empty and you feel the emptiness of the world itself. Try as you like, you cannot shake the feeling that you no longer believe. Try as you like, you can no longer regain the solid ground you once stood on. Try as you like, you can no longer make yourself feel the existence of God.
Does this mean that on one of these nights you have a strong faith and on the other you have a weak one? No! On the one night you have a strong imagination and on the other you have a weak one.
On the one night you can imagine the presence of God and on the other night you cannot imagine it. Imagination is not faith.
Daniel Berrigan, in his usual colorful manner, states the issue laconically, crassly, but accurately: Where does you faith live? In the head? In the heart?
Your faith, he assures us, is rarely where your head is at, just as it is rarely where your heart is at. Your faith is where your ass is at! Where are you living? What are you doing? These things – our actions, our charity, our morality – are what determine whether we believe or not.
Passing strange, and strangely true, the posterior is a better indication of where we stand with these than are the head and the heart. For we all have the experience of being within certain commitments (a marriage, a family, a church) where, at times our heads and our hearts are not there – but we are there!
The head tells us this doesn’t make sense; the heart no longer has the type of feelings that would keep us there; but we remain there, held by something deeper, something beyond what we can explain or feel. This is where faith lives and this is what faith means.
The woman who sought spiritual counsel from me did believe in the resurrection because, by almost all indicators, she lived her life in function of it.
Her problem was that her imagination could not picture it. She, like all of us, suffers the poverty of a finite imagination trying to picture the infinite. This, however, should never be confused with the loss of faith.