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Posted September 20, 2007

A Crisis of Faith or of the Imagination?

By Ron Rolheisser



J. R. Tolkien, author of Lord of the Rings, was one of the key persons who helped C.S. Lewis accept Christianity. As a man of considerable imagination he was not one to easily denigrate this faculty. Yet he knew its limits. One night, after hours of listening to Lewis object to certain aspects of the faith, Tolkien suggested to him that his resistance was not so much a question of belief as it was of imagination: "Your inability to understand stems from a failure of imagination on your part."

There is something very important in that statement. Imagination isnít faith. For example:

Some of the intimate letters of Mother Teresa, recently published for the first time, would seem to indicate that she suffered painful doubts in terms of believing in the existence of God. She shares, again and again, how she can no longer imagine Godís existence and the pain that she feels about that. A simplistic judgment can then be made that she ceased believing in God, that she lost her faith. Is this true?

Looked at superficially, it might appear so, at least in that she was unable to imagine that God exists. But such a judgment is too simple. We need to understand the depth of Tolkien's comment to C. S. Lewis. Her struggles were much more with her imagination and its incapacity to give her an imaginative picture of Godís existence than they were with the actual belief that God exists. Why? Because every action in her life gives us the indication that, as she aged, her faith grew deeper rather than weaker.

But how do we know this? How is our inability to imagine Godís existence different than atheism? Consider these two scenes:

Imagine yourself lying in bed some night: You have just had a very good time of prayer and are flooded with feelings and images about God. You have strong, clear feelings that God exists. On that particular evening you have no faith doubts; you can feel the existence of God.

Now, imagine another night, a darker one. You wake up from a fitful sleep and are overwhelmed by the sense that you don't believe in God. You try to convince yourself that you still believe, but you cannot. Every attempt to imagine that God exists and to feel his presence comes up empty. You feel an overwhelming emptiness inside because of that feeling. Try as you like, you cannot shake the feeling that you no longer believe. Try as you like, you can no longer regain the solid ground on which you once stood. Try as you like, you can no longer make yourself feel the existence of God.

Does this mean that on one of these nights you have a strong faith and on the other you have a weak one? Not necessarily. It can just as easily mean that on one night you have a strong imagination and on the other you have a weak one. On one the night you can imagine the presence of God and on the other night you cannot imagine it. Imagination isnít faith.

Daniel Berrigan, in his colorful manner, puts this crassly, but accurately: He was once asked: "Where does your faith live? In the head or in the heart?" Faith, he assures us, is rarely where our heads are at, nor where our hearts are at. In his words: "Your faith is where . . . are you living? What are you doing?" Our commitments, our actions, our charity, and our morality ultimately determine whether we believe or not.

Passing strange but strangely true, the posterior is invariably a better indication of where we stand with faith and belief than are the head and the heart. We know this from experience: We all have had the experience of being inside of certain commitments (marriage, family, church) where, at times, our heads and our hearts are not there, but we are there! The head tells us this doesn't make sense; the heart lacks the proper warm feelings to keep us there; but we remain there, held by something deeper, something beyond what we can explain or feel. This is where faith lives and this is what faith means.

Mother Teresa, for long periods of time, suffered anguish inside of her head and heart every time she tried to imagine the existence of God; yet by every indication she lived her whole life in function of Godís existence. Her problem was with the limits and poverty of the human imagination. Simply put, she couldnít picture how God exists.

But nobody can because the finite can never picture the infinite, though it can sense it and know it in ways beyond what the head can imagine and the heart can feel.

Not being able to imagine Godís existence is not the same thing as not believing. Our actions are always a more accurate indication of faith than are any feelings about God on a given day.