I want to focus a bit more on what Bill Maher calls my “imaginary friend” Jesus. And let me emphasize, I love Bill Maher and think he is doing part of the prophetic function for our culture that the Christian church does not have the courage to do for itself.
Imagination is the human faculty that is often lacking in our experience of religion for it involves involvement of the body, connection with the body, which my experience in the Christian tradition discouraged. This is very much related to the Christian tradition of self-abnegation which usually focused more on denying the body’s appetites while allowing the appetites of the ego to run amok.
There is more to this relationship between imagination and cognition than I fully understand. Imagination involves “free play” between subject and object so that “life” can be given to cognitive images that our culture has given us. This “life” can be invigorating to these images and free them from the bondage of the “letter of the law” and make possibly a meaningful interpretation of dogma, not merely a sterile recitation of dead facts. For example, the sound “Jesus” can cease referring to a mere concept and can become a symbol and therefore capable of evoking an internal, subjective experience which is the “Christ child” within us all. But for this evocation to even be possible, there must be a heart that is subject to evocation. Shakespeare described this heart as one which is made of “penetrable stuff” and not one that is still “bronzed o’er” with the sterile dogma with which one has been enculturated. But a heart made of this “penetrable stuff” is scary and it is much easier to just mindlessly carry on with one’s routine life, comfortably ensconced in the Christian version of “well-worn words and ready phrases that build comfortable walls against the silence.” (Conrad Aiken) For, it is in the silence that the primordial word is found which is what Thomas Keating had in mind with this pithy observation, “God’s primary language is silence, everything else is a poor translation.”
ADDENDUM—This is one of three blogs that I now have up and running. Please check the other two out sometime. The three are:
A blogging friend of mine from Australia keeps me informed about many interesting spiritual things in the culture of her country. She sent me a Lent essay from noted Catholic priest and Benedictine Monk, Laurence Freeman, from which I clipped introductory thoughts re Shakespeare:
Shakespeare didn’t waste his energy inventing stories. The plots of his plays were already on his bookshelves. He had only to read them and by the power of his creative imagination to utterly transform them, lifting old tales and soap operas into the realm of timeless and unforgettable reflections of nature and the infinite, interactive shades of human character. In one scene he can show how a number of personalities respond differently to the same events
It is very interesting to note that it was Shakespeare’s imagination that is responsible for leaving us such a treasure trove of literary/spiritual wisdom. He took stories from his day and employed that vivid imagination of his to transform them into literary master pieces which have so deeply enriched the life of many, certainly including this bloke from the sticks of Arkansas.
He and other marvelous writers have helped awaken and energize my imagination since I “discovered” literature, and the power of metaphor three decades ago. My imagination had lain dormant since my very early years, possibly even early months, as I think being born into a linear thinking world stymies the imagination long before we learn to talk. And in recent years I have begun to use this imagination in my approach to the Bible and the Christian tradition, discovering that comedian Bill Maher is not wrong, Jesus is “our imaginary friend” in some very important way. Or at least He should be. If we don’t find the courage to employ our imagination in approaching faith, our spiritual experience will be confined to a very rigid interpretation from the cultural dictates of our early years. This will inevitably mean we re confined to “the letter of the law.” By using the imagination we bring a “personal” dimension to our interpretation to religion, “personal” in the sense of an interpretation that is influenced from that rich domain of our heart, that domain that is usually “crusted o’er” by habits of thought as Shakespeare noted in Hamlet. The “spirit” that is employed with this imaginative hermeneutical enterprise can begin to flow when our faith is no longer the “canned variety” but one that is the result of dogma being invigorated by this deep-seated “spirit”, a phenomenon described by W. H. Auden as what happens when “flesh and mind are delivered from mistrust.” I like to describe this as a work of God’s Spirit which might be described as the “enfleshment” of the Word, to use Christian terminology.
But a discourse like this is always fraught with the peril of having lapsed into Christian jargon. Words like “Bible” and “God” and “Spirit” and “enfleshment” usually mean something totally removed from human experience. That is not how I use them. Approaching Holy Writ as literature, and thus capable of being spirit infused, is about human experience and I think that is what the teachings of Jesus were about.