Poets also speak eloquently. Malcolm’s Guite’s recent biography of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) makes a case for the restoration of the imaginative cosmological vision of Christianity, using the framework in Coleridge’s great work, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, to tell the story of his life. It could have been a tragic life but was redeemed by Coleridge’s steadfast refusal to let go of his Christian faith, and, in the end, a willingness to rely on the kindness of others to help him. Coleridge had profound philosophical and theological insights into the hazards of an unimaginative scientific rationalism typical of his era. In his Biographia Literaria of 1817, Coleridge wrote (using his capitalizations): “The primary IMAGINATION I hold to be the living Power and prime Agent of all human perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the external act of creation in the infinite I AM.” Recall that “I AM” is God’s proper name told to Moses in the story of the burning bush in Exodus 3:14.
What Coleridge means is that the little “I am’s” that “we are” participate through our active imaginations (imaging God) in the great “I AM,” in Whose Imagination (the Mind of God) are all things that are. All things participate in an inexhaustible depth of being that is granted them by God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the eternal Source (arché, “beginning” in John 1:1) of all there is. Our imaginations participate in a small and finite way in the creative power of the Creator as our minds obtain their grasp on the reality in which we live. This is why science is possible, why we can know Reality. Both the Creator and our creative perceptions have a role to play in how we participate in the being that is granted to us. This is how Guite puts it in his book, Mariner: A Voyage with Samuel Taylor Coleridge:
For Coleridge, the physical universe, which is the supposed ‘object’ of our perception, is not something that merely strikes us from the outside, but something that is, as it were, being formed continuously, both from our side of it by our perceiving imaginations, and from an apprehended but as yet unknowable other side beyond it. … Even so seemingly so simple a thing as perception itself, let alone composition or art, results from the active powers of our imagination, meeting and reflecting the active power of that Imagination which is always causing all things to be.
Coleridge’s profound insight coheres with Thomas Aquinas’s understanding of our “active intellect” through which our “intellectual soul” (to Thomas) “in some way is all things” (see previous class).
How does one see the hand of God in the world? See with your active imagination and receive the gift you were made to see. As Malcolm Guite, an Anglican priest himself, says it is his poem, O Sapienta, pointing to divine Wisdom (Sapentia), “Come, hidden Wisdom, come with all you bring, Come to me now, disguised as everything” (you can find the full poem at this link). That single line of poetry captures well the essence of the Christian vision of reality that people like Paul Tyson, Hans Boersma, Andrew Davison, and Simon Oliver are telling us about.
Poetry can say things that a vast amount of prose can never reach. It is appropriate to end with a line from Dante, one of the world’s greatest poets. This comes from a sermon given in 2016 by Richard Chartres, the Anglican Bishop of London (now retired):
To give shape and meaning to life we need to inhabit narratives capacious enough to permit development and to accommodate new themes. Not only stories are needed but communities to inhabit them. …
… Christmas is the breaking through of a vision for this world and the world to come which embraces all other visions and which the greatest poet of the Christian West, Dante, saw and celebrated at the conclusion of his great poem, the Paradiso:
“All the scattered leaves of the universe bound together in one volume by love.”
How, by looking at the universe, and all the things in it, can we come to “see” its scattered leaves bound together by love? Scripture’s story of the love of God in the face of Jesus Christ is a capacious story. It has the compelling beauty and intellectual depth to inspire us to see how all things hold together in Christ. The story shows us a path to put head and heart, faith and reason, science and faith, love and knowledge, public and private together again in a world where goodness, truth, beauty, and love have true weight and meaning.
There are many things that can be said to cure the blindness of the modern mythos. The voices introduced in these classes offer help in that direction. The Christian community needs to relearn how to inhabit its story of Trinitarian love confidently, for the sake of the world.
[Use the page numbers at the bottom to navigate back and forth between pages for this class. Use this link to return to the Introduction page for all 4 classes.]