“Everybody does not see alike”, writes William Blake. “The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eye of others only a green thing which stands in the way”. Blake’s blood was up: he was responding in a letter to a Reverend Dr Trusler, of Hercules Buildings, Lambeth, who had commissioned artwork from his neighbour, but found it too fanciful. A stick thrust into the swirling hive of his imagination, Blake’s riposte fizzes with stinging insight. “Why is the Bible more entertaining and instructive than any other book?” he presses: “Is it not because (it is) addressed to the imagination, which is spiritual sensation?”
That the imagination was our highest faculty for apprehending truth was an article of faith for the Romantic movement, and one with deeply theological implications – as Coleridge, in particular, was later to expound. Modern thought had increasingly grounded metaphysical flights, deifying the rational mind: Coleridge had different ideas. Indeed, for him, the biblical portrayal of God as Trinity was ‘the idea of ideas’, from which all others proceeded. Human reason was not supreme, but a reflection – an emanation – of the divine mind and character. “We see all things in God”, he considers, in the Biographia.
Dismissing believers as those with ‘an imaginary friend’ is a commonplace taunt (to the fore in this week’s episcopal forays into political debate), but one worth embracing, I think. For the plain truth is that God, not being visible, must be imagined – and it is surprising, therefore, that our sermons give so little space for considering its central place in realising faith. All of our friends – on earth or above – are, in part, at least, imaginary: we cannot conceive them otherwise. The question is how much of what we imagine is true, and what is fanciful as fairies on a foxglove.
Our ideas are trialled by experience: will their bright wings bear our weight? Equally, by where they transport us, or the world they construct. Coleridge separates our basic (or ‘primary’) imagination – the everyday picture of life we frame – and highlights the ‘secondary imagination’ as the creative ability to reassemble this collage of images into something new and meaningful. But the matter is the same: whatever we see – whether a tree, train or trombone – is filtered, tinted and re-touched by each person’s perception.
Many have found in this impulse to re-create an echo or expression of the divine image in humanity. Indeed, the premise of scripture is that we are God’s idea before he is ours: hatched from his matchless imaginings, sparked into life. Our six-day labours to make something of what has been given us thus begin in the heart and mind. The talentless slave in Christ’s parable fails, not by his actions primarily, but in how he imagines the master. “As a man is”, remarks Blake to Dr Trusler, “so he sees”.