CNA - Saint of the Day

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Essay 7 - Submitted Essay - despite the increasing secularisation of the modern day, the religious imagination still has a significant part to play in contemporary society.

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, in his last homily before election as Pope in 2005, spoke of the threat that “the dictatorship of relativism”[1], because it “does not recognize anything as certain and … has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires”[2]. Ireland is not immune to these attitudes. Scandals of recent years along with the rising tide of secularism have fuelled the collapse of trust and the rise of suspicion in and towards institutions. Indifference to religious practice and theological illiteracy, have challenged “the religious and moral traditions of Ireland, the very soul of Ireland”[3] and in a certain way have veiled the message of the Gospel and “its powerful effect on mans conscience”[4]. These varied social changes “have profoundly altered our way of looking at the world”[5] and have left many at the mercy of imaginative experimentation. These changes have created a vacuum where “there is a glaring need for a form of the transcendent in contemporary secular Ireland.”[6] There is much interest and experimentation in a range of new and ancient religious options; we witness “the fetishisation of sport and spectacle which provides a communal outlet for people to express a sense of the beyond themselves”[7], the proliferation of problems linked to the drugs scene and the acceptance of new forms of social existence.

From the midst of this conflict and change, emerges of the realisation “that there is more to life than that which meets the empirical eye.”[8] Perhaps when one feels that organised religion has become too narrow, too limiting or cold, the power of imagination kicks in and gives life to important things on which we deeply depend since it is the imagination that “gives trust, opens … hearts for love, and warms … lives in times that are cold and bitter.”[9] The expression of imagination has become more intense primarily because it appeals to the private person and fuels individualism, It pervades all aspects of society, boldly stating that religion is still important but that its consumption and practice has become privatised.[10] One hears many times repeated the ‘I’m spiritual but not religious’ mantra which rejects the formal for the more sensual and informal. Yet the statement still reveals an “emotional desire for religious experience”[11]. Deep down within each individual there is a place where God is active since “God … has already communicated Himself in His Holy Spirit always and everywhere and to every person as the innermost centre of his existence, whether he wants it or not, whether he reflects on it or not, whether he accepts it or not.”[12] The encounter with God in this secret place is unique and therefore can only be expressed through use of the imagination proving that, in its raw and primal origins and power, “the imagination is religious [and] religion is imaginative.”[13]

If the power of the religious imagination is to be embraced, and its creative power unleashed for the good of all, then it must be promoted and employed in a responsible manner. Chesterton acknowledges that “true imagination - and most especially Christian imagination - is grounded solidly in the soil of humility. . . . Pride is directly inimical to creativity.”[14] Proper use of the imagination saves religion from being either “a mere system of rational statements on the one hand or an unsystemised mélange of experiences on the other.”[15] If religious imagination is allowed to fall in line with the totality of ideas, perspectives, attitudes, images and other phenomena that are deemed preferred, it does little else but promote secularism. Engaging with the preferred tends to open up the possibility of promoting two interrelated directions: the sacralisation of the secular and the secularisation of the sacred. These two positions are neither set against one another nor against religion in general because “secularisation does not exclude sacralisation”[16] as can be seen in the increasing number of pilgrims going to Knock, Lough Derg and Croagh Patrick and the unparalleled three million people who went to see the relics of Saint Thérèse in 2001. Yet, both positions working together “might shift the authority away from the institution to other elements of society.”[17] As the Institutional Church loses authority we also tend to find religion expressed with new vivacity outside it in secular cultural forms like literature, film or art. So even if religious institutions lose authority, the power of religion does not diminish in scope: the location of that power might, however, shift in focus. The interplay of secularisation and sacralisation may indeed be “coordinate processes that, viewed over time, are part of the same set shaping modern experience.”[18]

Despite increasing secularisation, it is apparent that the religious imagination still plays a significant role in contemporary culture. The medieval Irish sought, with agile and impudent imagination, to find room for as much as possible of their old religion within the framework of the new, sometimes with exotic or indeed unorthodox results.[19] So it is with the modern: the spiritual dimension of each individual must be nourished by religious experiences and the central ingredient to religious experience is the imagination because “we are more than our rationality. We have depths to our nature emotional, aesthetic and spiritual, and if we lose touch with them we diminish and distort our humanity.”[20] The influence of the religious imagination on popular culture will anger some, enthral others yet leave none indifferent, uniting emotionally those who in respect to institutional religion, are quite polarised.

Much of our life is concerned with survival, routine, chores, frustration and anxiety, and within the human heart there lies awareness that life as we experience it is not the life that we were created for.[21] That awareness this creates a yearning similar to the longing for home, a longing for a “reality that is more real than the one in which we live”[22]. These sentiments resonate with C.S. Lewis’ idea of the grass in heaven being harder than our feet are used to[23] , or the movie What Dreams May Come, (1998) which dramatises Heaven being a place that allows one to experience that which the eye has seen and the ear heard but in far greater and deeper detail. This desire for life as it should have been is the desire for the transcendent: a desire for that which is real, whole, peaceful, exciting, awesome, beautiful, and majestic. This desire may be temporarily satiated through music, silence, visual stimulation or chemical stimulation which gives one a feeling of ecstasy, oneness, rapture, awe, energy, in short an experience that is out-of-this-world. The desire to extend the experience stimulates the use of transcendent or poetic language since it is the only mode of communication that does not presuppose the definiteness of one's present environment. It is speech which “creates its own environment and makes its own horizons.” It is eschatological and vocational speech that sees the internal and external connection between events by making metaphors and drawing analogies. One only has to think of Margaret Thatcher quoting the prayer of St Francis on entering office[24]; Nicolas Sarkosy recently referring to the Christian heritage of France[25] or Brian Cowen on leaving office quoting poetry “ó pheann Raiftearaí, an file” [26] on St Brigid’s Day.

Imagination enables us to develop something we desperately need in today’s world, namely, tolerance and love throughout human society; qualities that build up a sense of peace. We long to forget our momentary struggles, and find a way to leave them outside, ceasing our striving, forgetting our anger, and rising above our petty differences. We strive for a sense of connection. In a world dominated by violence and inhumanity one to another, imagination “removes from us the taking of pleasure in cruel things”[27] The arts refine our sensibilities and the imagination behind them sensitises us. They are, by their very nature, a kind of appeal to the mystery. Even when they explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects of evil, artists give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption.[28] Albert Einstein sums this up when he says: “The most beautiful experience is to meet the mysterious. This is the source of all true art and scholarly pursuit. He, who has never had this experience, is not capable of rapture and cannot stand motionless with amazement, is as good as dead. His eyes are closed.”[29]

To conclude, the use of the imagination in assisting us to live out the future that is often so dimmed by negative prophecies may well be the primary task of art and religion in this time in history. “The fundamental task of imagination in ordinary life is to produce out of the society we have to live in a vision of the society we want to live in.”[30] Indeed imagination, together with faith, serve to move all into the future with a vision of reality that unites together with the present. For this very reason alone, despite the increasing secularisation of the modern day, the imagination, indeed the religious imagination will always have a significant part to play not only in moulding life experience, but in keeping the quivering flame of hope and the bruised reed of faith alive at the core of our very being. 

[1] Homily given at the Pro eligendo summo Pontifice Mass on 18-04-2005, St Peter’s Square Rome

[2] Ibid, n11

[3] Homily of John Paul II given in Galway 30th September 1979

[4] Evangelii Nuntiandi n4, 2.

[5] Benedict XVI Moto proprio Ubicumque et Semper, n2

[6] Eugene O’Brien “Catholicism, Deconstruction and Postmodernity in Contemporary Irish Culture” p47 of “Irish and Catholic?” Columba Press

[7] ibid

[8] Dermot Lane The Challenges facing religious education in contemporary Ireland (Dublin: Veritas, 2008) pp45

[9] Runar Eldebo “Roman Catholic Imagination According to Andrew M. Greeley” 

[10] John Littleton & Eamon Maher “Contemporary Catholicism in Ireland – A Critical Appraisal” p82

[11] Eugene O’Brien “Catholicism, Deconstruction and Postmodernity in Contemporary Irish Culture” p47 of “Irish and Catholic?” Columba Press

[12] Karl Rahner “Foundations of Christian Faith: An introduction to the Idea of Christianity” p139

[13] Andrew Greely “The Catholic Imagination of Bruce Sprinsteen” America Magazine; 

[15] F. Thomas Trotter “The Use of Imagination in Religious Experience” 

[16] James Holsten “Alternative Modernities: statecraft and religious imagination in the Valley of the Dawn” 

[17] Conrad Eugene Ostwalt “Secular Steeples” p5

[18] James Holsten “Alternative Modernities: statecraft and religious imagination in the Valley of the Dawn” 

[19] John Carey “King of Mysteries” Early Irish Religious Writings p 10

[20] Rogier Bos “The meaning of Trancendence in the Post Modern World”

[21] John Eldridge “Waking the Dead” p75

[22] Rogier Bos “The meaning of Trancendence in the Post Modern World”

[27] F. Thomas Trotter “The Use of Imagination in Religious Experience”

[28] The Religious Imagination: Theology and the Arts (Film)

[29] Albert Einstein “The World as I know it” par6

[30] Northrop Frye “The Educated Imagination” p 140

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