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Monday, 13 July 2015

Discover & explore: Imagination

A.N. Wilson has written that, in the first half of the twentieth century, there were artistic giants in the Anglican Church. He was thinking people such as T.S. Eliot, C.S. Lewis and Dorothy L. Sayers.

Sayers, best known for her fictional detective Lord Peter Wimsey, was also, like C.S. Lewis, a popular Christian apologist. Her most interesting apologetic work is perhaps The Mind of the Maker (1941) where she explores the creative act itself in the Trinitarian terms of Idea (Father), Energy (Son), and Power (Spirit):

“For every work [or act] of creation is threefold, an earthly trinity to match the heavenly.

First, [not in time, but merely in order of enumeration] there is the Creative Idea, passionless, timeless, beholding the whole work complete at once, the end in the beginning: and this is the image of the Father.

Second, there is the Creative Energy [or Activity] begotten of that idea, working in time from the beginning to the end, with sweat and passion, being incarnate in the bonds of matter: and this is the image of the Word.

Third, there is the Creative Power, the meaning of the work and its response in the lively soul: and this is the image of the indwelling Spirit.

And these three are one, each equally in itself the whole work, whereof none can exist without other: and this is the image of the Trinity.”

If the relationships within the Trinity provide the model for our creativity as human beings, this suggests that our creativity itself comes from God. Sayers remarks in the book that the one thing we know for sure about God at the point that he makes humanity in his own image is that he is creative: “The characteristic common to God and man, is … the desire and ability to make things.”

God is the ultimate creator, who created from nothing. Sayers quotes Nikolai Berdyaev approvingly when he says, "God created the world by imagination" and we get an insight into God’s imaginative work of creation through the passage from Job (38. 4 - 21). As those made in the image of God, we are sub-creators, able to, as Sayers puts it, "rearrange the unalterable and indestructible units of matter in the universe and build them up into new forms."

These ideas, which see human creativity and the creative act itself as being formed and framed by God, lead us to view art and the imagination as a gift from God. Max Lieberman & Michael McFadden note that the:

“idea of the artist as instrument of the divine, or acting with divine inspiration, has been an archetypal theme espoused by great artists attempting to express the processes of their work. Kahlil Gibran, the great 20th century mystic poet and artist touched on two of the metaphors of antiquity, to describe the process of an artist's creation in writing, "Am I a harp that the hand of the almighty may touch me or a flute that this breath may pass through me?" Gibran perhaps unconsciously, refers to the Ancient Greek metaphor of the Aeolian Harp and the Hindu myth of Lord Krishna's flute … The Aeolian Harp represents the artist, whose finely tuned and sensitive soul responds to the divine breeze of the Holy Spirit as it blows through the strings, turning what is invisible and intangible to most, into beautiful enchanting music to move the minds and hearts of those who might be otherwise insensitive to the movement of this divine force … The artist is similarly conceived as a musical instrument in an Ancient Hindu myth … The great artist is conceived as the hollowed-out instrument of God, emptied of egoism and selfish desire, and thus able to transmit the experience of their union with the divine through the enchanting "music" of their artwork.

Some years ago I encountered the same idea in a book called Written In My Soul, a series of interviews with some of the most well-known singer-songwriters from the 1950s onward, where I was struck by the extent to which these great artists – Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Van Morrison and others – felt that their songs were given to them in moments of revelation, that their songs were already written and ‘came through them as though radio receivers – without much conscious effort or direction.’ More recently, the singer-songwriter Bill Fay has released a track called ‘Who is the Sender?’ in which he asserts that his songs are delivered to him by the unknown sender. Songs aren't written, but found. "Music gives," he says, and he is a grateful receiver.

MIA, the artist who work we were exhibiting at St Stephen Walbrook at the beginning of this service series, has identified similar words of Paul Klee as describing her own creative process: “Everything around me dissolves and interesting works emerge as if of their own accord. My hand is entirely the instrument of a distant sphere. It isnʼt my head that is working, but something else, something higher, something somewhere more remote. I must have great friends out there – obscure, but also brilliant - and theyʼre all very good to me.”

Samuel Taylor Coleridge was in a similar moment of inspiration while writing Kubla Khan. He wrote: “In the summer of the year 1797, the Author, then in ill health, had retired to a lonely farm house between Porlock and Linton, on the Exmoor confines of Somerset and Devonshire. In consequence of a slight indisposition, an anodyne had been prescribed, from the effects of which he fell asleep in his chair at the moment that he was reading the following sentence, or words of the same substance, in 'Purchas's Pilgrimes:' 'Here the Khan Kubla commanded a palace to be built, and a stately garden thereunto: and thus ten miles of fertile ground were inclosed with a wall.'

The Author continued for about three hours in a profound sleep, at least of the external senses, during which time he has the most vivid confidence, that he could not have composed less than from two to three hundred lines; if that indeed can be called composition in which all the images rose up before him as things, with a parallel production of the correspondent expressions, without any sensation or consciousness of effort. On awakening he appeared to himself to have a distinct recollection of the whole, and taking his pen, ink, and paper, instantly and eagerly wrote down the lines that are here preserved. At this moment he was unfortunately called out by a person on business from Porlock, and detained by him above an hour, and on his return to his room, found, to his no small surprise and mortification, that though he still retained some vague and dim recollection of the general purport of the vision, yet, with the exception of some eight or ten scattered lines and images, all the rest had passed away like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone had been cast, but, alas! without the after restoration of the latter.”

The gift of imagination is one given in moments of inspiration which cannot be repeated. Such experiences can be described as experiences of the Holy Spirit inspiring or coming on the artist. Certainly that has been my experience both in creating and preaching. I will often reflect or meditate on an experience, a song, an image, a Bible passage, by putting it in my mind, carrying it around in my mind over several days or weeks, reminding myself of it from time to time and just generally living with it for a period of time and when I do that then I find that, at some unexpected moment, a new thought or idea or image will come to me that makes sense or takes forward the experience or song or image or passage on which I had been reflecting. To my mind that is the Spirit coming and making connections, bringing clarity, making sense.

That was also Coleridge’s understanding of imagination. He was part of the Victorian Romantic movement, which features in the Guildhall Art Gallery’s collection, where visualising the distant past and opening up worlds of imaginative possibility offered “much needed escapism from the harsh realities of everyday life.” For Coleridge, though, imagination is the intuitive, unitive faculty in us that sees the whole behind the parts; the one and the many. Where reason analyses and reduces into parts, imagination puts the parts together into a whole and takes us to the hidden metaphysical unity behind multiplicity. For Coleridge, as for Sayers, this is not simply “much needed escapism from the harsh realities of everyday life” but instead “a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I Am.”


John Rutter - Look At The World.

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