Saturday, March 29, 2014

Lecture Notes: Christianity, Imagination and the Arts / 1

Lecture Notes:  Gene Veith on the Imagination
Edmonton, March 2014
Taken down and summarized by me, Brigitte.
The video will be available on-line, at some point.

Cognition is most commonly discussed in terms of the mind and feelings.  Others want to bring in the will, emphasizing our choosing and moral agency.  However, the imagination, has been neglected in relation to speaking about cognition.  The imagination is the ability to picture things in the mind.

With this imagination we are able to make present things that happened in the past, are current or in the future.  We can picture events that have not happened yet.  We are able to conjure things up by the power of the mind.  They can be daydreams, memories, revelries, the reliving of an experience.  It is really quite incredible.  It can help us with planning and goal setting.

The imagination has been neglected because we have associated with special people, as if regular people did not have any.  But NO.  The imagination may be more prevalent overall with all of us than the intellect.  Imagination takes up more of our lives.  Much of what goes on in the mind is imagination.  Also when we speak to others we often appeal to their imagination.  We address the imagination of the audience.

This is precisely the point where Luther picks up against the iconoclasts.  This very thing brought him out of seclusion on the Wartburg.  When we read the Bible, we are always forming mental images.  We are always picturing it.  This is the basis of the defense of images.  If we are forming images in the mind, why can we not look at art?  Art comes from the imagination.  The iconoclasts are wrong.

Art and the imagination is often marginalized or glamorized.  But no. The liberal arts have freed human creativity.  It comes from the creative part of the mind. It contributes to free people. They do not exist primarily for financial rewards.  It is not servile in this way.  It is free.

The mechanical arts and physical labor also involve creativity, but fine arts are seen to exist for their own sake. This is a focus of this present conference “Christianity and the Fine Arts.”  We plan, make and create things.

Art addresses all the parts of the cognition.  It addressed the intellect:  “What does it mean”, etc. It addresses the will.  “What will be the moral response?”  But also:  “What is it doing to me?”  The imagination sinks things deep, deep into the heart, interacting with our personal identity and our social identity.  Our worldview interacts with what we imagine.  It acts as a lens.  What we believe shapes what we imagine.  And the reverse also happens.  The books we read, the movies we watch... all have a profound influence on us.  What we take in can make us more compassionate, increase our empathy.  It can also hurt us and increase our anxieties and worries. Only one thing can really happen, at most, in the end, but in our imagination we see all the possible outcomes and can worry about everything.  It can lead to paralysis. We imagine things and react with fear and misery. 

In Genesis, with the account of Noah, we hear that wickedness had greatly increased and that the imagination of man’s heart was wicked continually.  We have such a thing as an evil imagination.  Jesus talks about this in the Sermon on the Mount.  It is an offense to be angry, to despise and to hate your neighbor.  This is the soul’s state of a murderer.  We are responsible for this.  It is sin.  He makes it clear.  Then there is the lustful fantasy...

The Gospel also repairs our inner lives.  It redeems also our imagination.
There was the idolatry on the Aeropagus.  We are God’s offspring, but not like the image.  God makes us.  We don’t make him from our imagination. He is not ours to control and manipulate.
Ideologies are false idols.  We want to get our own way.

Neither is art going to save you.  The sooner you realize it, the better for you, artist.  Isaiah speaks about the craftsman who with his skill fashions a “god”.  He makes it with his hand and then prays to it “Deliver me!”  Artists can come to this point.  But it leads to despair and even suicide at the height of artistic achievement.  This is a danger for the artist.  The sooner he realizes the danger, the better.

Christ redeems the imagination, and also the tangible. Christ is God as human being.  Redemption by Christ is also for the tangible.  Somehow he took this to the cross.  The atonement is physical.  The sacraments are physical. 

Simple water.

To proclaim. To reach us. To apply to us.  He gives us his Word.--Reading is the best exercise of the imagination. It is a wonderful training for forming the images oneself---stories, parables, descriptions, symbols, visions.
In addition, God ordained the art that went into the tabernacle, and calls by name the artist who was to make it.  This is not just given to anyone.  He was filled with the Spirit of God, with skill, intelligence, knowledge of craftsmanship.

There is so much art in the church.  The Christian imagination is so big.  Christianity has expressed itself in any possible style that ever came along. Singing is practiced more in church than anywhere else.  There is the liturgically rich language.  There are the rich gestures.  There is the full range of emotions:  sorrow, joy, recognition of evil and goodness, law and gospel.  This can all nurture you and the imagination.

If, on the contrary, all you are taking in is nihilistic, it is going to make you a nihilist.  If you are going to take in the hateful, it will make you hateful, if you don’t watch it, if you are not careful.

A great thing about art is that it can make us notice things we normally neglect.  It can defamiliarize our experience.  

Familiarity can lead to boredom.  It can go so far that we care about nothing and no one.  Our marriage can die.   It can be a hellish condition. – Art can counter that.  Art can break through that. It can make us aware of our world, our relationships and ourselves.  It can help us bring out the capacity to love.  We may learn to weep with those who weep and laugh with those who laugh.  There is a healthy spiritual discipline.  It is the vocation of the artist to always love the neighbor. He does not practice his vocation to corrupt the neighbor.

There is great freedom in the Gospel.  Art can revive faith, compassion and love. 

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