A Battle for the Imagination

The Last Supper Restored — Leonardo Da Vinci

James K. Smith, a prominent Philosophical Theologian, in a recent self-reflective article states the following: “The pathology that besets us in this cultural moment is a failure of imagination, specifically the failure to imagine the other as neighbor. Empathy is ultimately a feat of the imagination, and arguments are no therapy for a failed, shriveled imagination. It will be the arts that resuscitate the imagination.”

Ofcourse, the cultural moment he is referring to is the malaise and social dilemma that characterises North America. The stark polarizations along political, religious, and cultural lines has created a predicament that drives Smith to concede that he has “abandoned all hope that we can think our way out of the mess we’ve made of the world.”

While the ever changing tides in political and cultural discourses in the West is often the least of our concerns over here, Smith’s conclusions can reveal something about our own mess in Sri Lanka.

The Christian in Sri Lanka has two immediate concerns: (1) the increasing homogenization and volatility in the political and social realm and (2) the trajectory of the Christian church in relation to the former and heterodox divergences. The question is, can logical reasoning or neatly arranged rational argumentation alone turn the ignorant, cause a change of mind, and more importantly, create a change of heart? How must Christians respond to dangerous trends in the culture such that we can leave at least a dent in the political and religious life of Sri Lanka?

In the last two years, a sense of nervousness has returned with full force and is felt by many. Political moves are being made that on the one hand point to a strong, visionary leader and on the other hand alarm anyone who knows something about the horrors of history past. The silencing of dissenting voices, the rapid consolidation of power, the marginalization of certain communities and the rising militant-Buddhist nationalism pose a threat to the liberties afforded by a free society and democracy itself. A baffling fact is that the 21st century, the offspring of modernity and the enlightenment, has produced its fair share of autocratic leadership in both the East and the West. Sri Lanka has followed suit. So, where does the disconnect lie between the innumerable examples of failed and immoral regimes, and the recurring pattern of ignorance in the public that bring the same into power?

Sri Lanka for the longest time has boasted of its status as a country with one of Asia’s highest literacy rates. But what can such a statistic truly reveal? Are we the smartest people in Asia? Maybe the most informed people? Do we stand out in Asia in regard to our humanitarian strides? Probably not on every one of those counts! A true metric of knowledge and intelligence is often reduced to a rigorous evaluation for data retainment. This is especially evident in the parochialism of the Sri Lankan education system. Prof. Liyanage Amarakeerthi (University of Peradeniya) in a recent address (which can be accessed here) at the convocation of the Open University, made a gentle critique along these lines:

Teaching at a conventional university, I have had the luxury of meeting and teaching a group of brightest young men and women in our country. But all of them come into the university through a single, narrow opening called GCE (A/L). I wish I had students entering my own university through other legitimate doors making our student population even more diverse.

While the government Universities and institutions continue to produce scores of successful and “intelligent” graduates, it is yet to reflect a significant moral, social and ethical progress in the country. Smith’s point in his article, and Amarakeerthi’s as well in his speech, is that rational and cognitive forms of learning and knowing have been elevated to the neglect of other important faculties of the human person, like emotions, sensory experience and imagination. Such a neglect has also devalued certains disciplines (like the arts) and pursuits that stimulate and deal with the said faculties. The consequences of such an education system is a “literate society” that cannot hold its leaders and systems accountable. The Sri Lankan “social imaginary” has been constrained and compartmentalized, and hope for change will not come through traditional or enlightenment resources, but from poets and painters, the novelists and songwriters, who will dare to challenge our imagination.

Well, what is this imagination I refer to and what is a “social imaginary”? Smith describes it in the following way,

The imagination is not just our capacity to invent, to project something new. Imagination is more like our feel for the world. Think of it as a faculty of perception pitched somewhere between intellect and instinct. Instinct is our biological hardwiring that determines certain kinds of responses to our environment. Intellect is our capacity for theoretical reflection. But imagination is, in fact, our default mode of navigating the world — a perceiving that is intertwined with acting, a perception that is pre-theoretical and largely unarticulated…. Philosopher Charles Taylor talks about what he calls our collective “social imaginary”: “the way ordinary people ‘imagine’ their social surroundings” before they ever think about it, the way we perceive others and our collective life in an instant. Our “take” on others. [1]

“Imagination” is paramount for how people choose for themselves a social vision, for what society must look like, and thereby their leaders—a vision of the “good life.” Smith in his book, You Are What You Love, argues that

We adopt ways of life that are indexed to such visions of the good life, not usually because we ‘think through’ our options but rather because some picture captures our imagination.

The inherent human bent towards a goal (telos), the good life, is not motivated by “abstract ideas or pushed by rules and duties.” Rather, it is the alluring picture of what looks like flourishing “that attracts us, drawing us toward it, and we thus live and work toward that goal.” Therefore, the struggle to expel false notions of freedom, caricatures of the “other” and gullibility lies not in convincing the intellect, but rather in providing different options for imagining the good life. No one converts ideologically or spiritually merely based on cognitive reasoning, rather the imagination is captured, emotions are stirred and belief and actions follow. One has to see differently before they can think differently, and one has to be drawn in the heart before one is convinced in the mind.

Furthermore, as Smith points out,

our imaginations are susceptible to malformation depending on what images we feed them, what stories they soak up. It’s the imagination — well- or malformed — that determines what I see before I look. The question isn’t whether the arts will shape us, but which.

When the government has a monopoly on the “social imaginary” and politicians are the only public performers, social transformation will continue to tarry.

In his speech, Amarakeerthi, referring to the seminal work of American neuroscientist Antonio Damascio, points out that recent findings in neuroscience has shown that “though physically located in separate domains, the emotion-compartment of the brain is required for the reason-compartment in making sound decisions.” However, Smith as well as Amarakeerthi, do not reject the important role of the Natural Sciences and Philosophy that favor strict logical thinking. That the masses do not speak the language of Philosophy and the Sciences, and logic is not the language of the heart, necessitates a different strategy for social change. A strategy that is not primarily concerned with changing people’s minds but their imagination and beyond. As Smith rightly claims, “Poetry and literature and painting are a glossolalia that the imagination hears in its own language.” In other words, philosophies of education and modes of public engagement that have been heavily formed by Descartes’, “I think, therefore I am,” must adopt a different basis, “I feel, therefore I am.”

In 2019, writer Shaktika Sathkumara attempted to affect the collective “social imaginary.” He published a fictional short story in hopes of challenging the imagination of his audience. He sought to direct public thinking toward the plight of an ex-monk and the experience of so many in such situations. His story was an exercise in empathy for the “other.” Yet the government and some senior religious leaders flagged the story, arrested Sathkumara and indicted him under the auspices of the ICCPR. (He has since been released). Make what you will of the content of his story, but when freedom of expression is constrained and imagination is penalized, you are just a few steps away from totalitarianism. This is especially observable in the attack of modern Art in Nazi Germany by Hitler and the Third Reich.

Virtually any art that was unrealistic, abstract, experimental, or otherwise difficult to understand was deemed entartet–“degenerate”–by the Third Reich. They condemned paintings that supposedly showed qualities like “decadence,” “weakness of character,” “racial impurity,” or “mental disease.” Such art, they thought, wasn’t just aesthetically displeasing but was actually a threat to national security–potentially polluting minds and inciting rebellion. In a speech introducing the 1937 exhibit, Hitler declared a “merciless war” on cultural disintegration. [2]

The recent resurgence in charismatic piety in Christian circles, inspired by the hyper-Pentecostal prosperity preachers, also raise an important discussion on the subject of imagination. Pentecostalism, quite apart from other Protestant traditions, draws on the imagination and emotions of the individual. The very thing they are criticized for, namely sensationalism, is what makes them effective.

The allure of the prosperity preachers is that they propose a utopia in such eloquent fashion that make sophisticated and intellectual argumentation unnecessary and even unspiritual. These artists marry the longing of every human being for the transcendent and the inherent desire for the “good life,” by painting a picture in which individualistic-prosperity is not only a Godly goal, it is a tenable one. Academic theology and well constructed arguments cannot compete against such a project that targets the imagination.

Historically, the Protestant reaction to the Catholic church resulted in a form of iconoclasm that harmed the Protestant imagination. Certain segments within protestantism did away with art and images that were meant to incite contemplation and devotion entirely. Hence, the Protestant church was left with limited resources to communicate theology to the common man and woman. With the Puritan movement in the late 16th and 17th centuries, Protestantism slipped further into intellectualism and relied heavily on the preaching of the Word to the neglect of Sacraments and embodiment in worship. Naturally Christianity became the religion of the educated elite. The Pentecostal movement in some ways has offered a corrective while retaining a dualism that has not fully embraced the arts though it embraces the emotions it provokes.

Where do we go from here? I suggest that theologians and pastors, Christians in general, in Sri Lanka must go beyond employing analogies and anecdotes as the only vehicle to appeal to the human heart, to a whole new approach whereby theology and the arts intersect more robustly. A whole new project aimed at the imagination, a more appealing one, based on the Christian promise of the “good life” as expressed and exhibited by Christ in his life, death and resurrection. Seminaries have an important role to play in this regard as well.

How can the Christian communicate and do theology in light of the present political and spiritual concerns in Sri Lanka when the battle is not really intellectual, but is in reaching the imagination that in turn impacts everything else? Where are the Christian poets, writers, novelists, painters in Sri Lanka? Where are the C.S Lewis, the Marilynne Robinsons, the T. S. Elliots, G. K. Chestertons, or even the Sathkumaras of the Christian community in Sri Lanka? Where is the Christian faith and love embodied and demonstrated so as to be appealing to the heart, rather than defended logically to merely reach the mind? “Nothing true can be said about God from a posture of defense” is a quote found in Marilynne Robinson’s book Gilead. This very rightly points to the approach that is failing the Church. What we need is an alternate mode, namely an alliance with the arts. This is how the imagination will be shaped so as to rework political ideologies, social imaginaries and spiritualities that contradict God’s intended telos for world.

[1] https://imagejournal.org/article/healing-the-imagination-art-lessons-from-james-baldwin/

[2] https://www.fastcompany.com/3027675/the-great-art-the-nazis-deemed-degenerate

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Nathanael Somanathan

I spend my time reading up on hot topics in theology and culture. I enjoy a cold drink and a good book.