In John Biguenet’s short story, The Vulgar Soul, an atheist who is unexpectedly experiencing the stigmata is speaking to a psychiatrist, who asks,

‘“What about religion?”

“Well, I’m Catholic — at least I was raised a Catholic — but of course I don’t practice.”

“Why not?”

To believe in God, he patiently explained to the psychiatrist, one has to be willing to close his eyes to a great deal. “Isn’t that what they mean by faith — refusing to accept the obvious, refusing to accept what has always been right there in front of our eyes.”

“But that’s exactly what believers say,” she countered. “God has always been right there in front of us. We just won’t open our eyes.”

“Maybe it’s not so easy to see what right in front of our eyes.”

The psychiatrist laughed. “That’s certainly true, Mr. Hogue. I’d be out of business if that weren’t true.”’

Faith is an act of seeing what God reveals. As seeing, it is an act of the imagination. The tradition speaks of the “eyes of faith” that see what the “light of faith” reveals. Seeing and believing are complementary. By believing one can see and by seeing one can believe. The phrase “blind faith” is profoundly misleading. God cannot bypass the senses, and since the senses lead to knowledge through the imagination, God cannot bypass the imagination, the means by which the eyes of faith see the form/gestalt of God’s revelation, Jesus Christ. The form is the incarnate, yet risen, human reality of Jesus. The risen Jesus is absent to the physical eyes, but is visible to the eyes of faith. John says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” But those who believe now see. Jesus must be imagined to be believed in, or if he is believed in, Jesus is then imagined. To the eyes of the believer, the risen Jesus is not imaginary, but is indeed imagined, and thus the whole world is seen as transformed. If the world is transformed by the resurrection of Jesus, then a living faith must be Catholic, where “Catholic” means “through the whole.” The dynamic imagination of Catholicism, “through-the whole-ness,” cannot rest short of attempting to see and then understand everything.

Daniel Sheridan is Professor of Theology at Saint Joseph’s College of Maine and former Director of the Online Theology Program.


3 thoughts on “Imagine

  1. Dr. Sheridan, what you say makes sense until I think of the critics who say that faith is, indeed, a figment of the imagination, an opium of the people, and therefore not to be taken seriously. I am curious how you would respond to this in light of your post? We are all involved in theology because we have “seen” God and know his “realness” and “goodness.” Yet, this is something that simply doesn’t make sense to those without “eyes of faith”: hence, non-believers accuse believers of craziness. Would you say this “imagination” or “eyes of faith” is like a sixth sense developed through an ongoing “yes” to deeper reality which you call “whole-ness”?

    • This reply is from Daniel Sheridan:

      I don’t think I would say that the eyes of faith are like a sixth sense, rather they are an intensification of the ordinary five senses, as in all knowledge comes through the senses. Faith doesn’t take us out of this world. It brings closer to the world. Revelation which is the object of faith comes to us through the world. Thus we need the senses which are the basis for our knowledge. God can be seen, God can be heard because we in the first place can see and in the first place can hear. Faith is rooted in the real world. I wouldn’t make too much of the cultured despisers of our faith. We are not the ones who are crazy.
      Today, some scholars [David Tracy, Andrew Greeley] distinguish between a Catholic imagination based on manifestation and a Protestant imagination based on proclamation. Thus the person with a Catholic imagination is a “see-er of the form;” and the imagination is analogical. The person with a Protestant imagination is a “hearer of the word;” and the imagination is dialectical. Historically, the culture informed by a Catholic imagination is a visual/sacramental culture. The culture informed by a Protestant imagination is an aural/literate culture. Of course, these two imaginations are not totally distinct; they are two family tendencies within the larger Christian imagination with traces of each from the beginning of Christian history. Both may be found in the New Testament. In a very real sense, for a fully Christian imagination and culture, they both need each other. However, the two are not symmetrical. It is my contention that a dynamic Catholic imagination/culture cannot settle for less than totally encompassing the truths and values of the Protestant imagination/culture. Anything less is a failure of its Catholicity.
      The Catholic analogical imagination sees or senses inclusive similarities and unities, similarities-in-differences, both/ands, and relationships in hierarchical order, whereas the Protestant dialectical imagination sees exclusive differences, differences-without-similarities, either/ors, and relationships in horizontal order. The Catholic imagination is tempted to superstition and syncretism. The Protestant imagination is tempted to secularism and disbelief. The Catholic imagination is, in James Joyce’s words, “here comes everybody.” The Protestant imagination is “here comes the elect.” The Catholic analogical imagination relies on faith and reason in a dialogical relationship; thus God is near, present in the world. The Protestant dialectical imagination relies on faith alone in a dialectical relationship with reason clearly subordinated; thus God is far, absent from the world.
      Obviously, these contrasts are not pure types. Instead they are illuminating models. In the real world they are all mixed up. But, as Andrew Greeley’s research shows, if large enough groups of people are considered, sociology can find the difference between the two imaginations in real people. In Greeley’s words, “Catholics [used to] live in an enchanted world, a world of statues and holy water, stained glass and votive candles, saints and religious medals, rosary beads and holy pictures. But these Catholic paraphernalia are mere hints of a deeper and more pervasive religious sensibility that inclines Catholics to see the Holy lurking in creation. As Catholics we find our houses haunted by a sense that the objects, events, and persons of daily life are revelations of grace.” This imagination is analogical because it has found that created reality is metaphorical; it is always speaking of something beyond itself. The way to that beyond is metaphorical because the beyond is in some way similar to the universe humans see all around them. If this analysis is correct, then metaphors, the basis for an analogical imagination, are an effective means of reaching the beyond. If this is the case, then everything “in creation, from the exploding cosmos to the whirling, dancing, and utterly mysterious quantum particles, discloses something about God and, in so doing, brings God among us. The Catholic imagination loves metaphors; Catholicism is a verdant rainforest of metaphors.” Greeley looks for the Catholic imagination in the commonplace among ordinary Catholic people. I think we need to be part of a Catholic intellectual tradition with a proactive philosophical and theological imagination that is still in formation for a task not yet realized. The students and faculty of Saint Joseph’s College’s theology programs have a role to play.

  2. I cannot remember a time when I wasn’t aware of God’s presence in everything. I cannot remember a time when I wasn’t aware of the Holy Spirit’s presence in me. I am certainly no pantheist. I don’t believe God is everything; I believe that God’s presence is made manifest in all of creation.
    Sometimes I believe faith is a gift, a grace, and we cannot do anything to encourage its presence in our soul. However, I think some people forget that a great longing for a faith they do not yet feel is, in its own way, faith, itself, manifested in St. John of the Cross’ dark night of the soul. Perhaps God does not want us to get too attached to the beautiful feelings of infused contemplation lest we forget how to love and worship him when those feelings are not present.

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