The primary goal for us who study theology is to plumb the depths of the mysteries of our faith. In order to begin our exploration, we need to set ourselves up for success. The chief instrument to ponder these mysteries is the intellect, not the imagination. The intellect is concerned with the action of the soul to know truth.
The chief enemy of the intellect is the imagination. How does it sabotage the intellect? As strange as it may sound, the fact remains that the intellect hates to function at all since the fall of man. We prefer to imagine something first then I believe I may know that thing.
What is the imagination? It is the power to make mental pictures with sense data from the material universe. It has definite limits because it may only perceive matter. It does not care about the will but only the intellect.
It interacts with the intellect by censoring it and encouraging us to make the terms uniquely suited for intellect and imagination interchangeable. We need to choose our words carefully.
Upon further consideration, we realize that there are things that are unimaginable. How do we imagine the eternal exchange of love in the Blessed Trinity? How do we imagine an eternity outside of time and space? How do we imagine love or justice without utilizing its expression? These require a function that is not reliant upon matter and the imagination.
The pondering of ideas, per se, is the intellect and the verb for its action/function is: to conceive. Thus, we are able to conceive and begin to understand, through the application of our intellect. And yet, we also understand that there are concepts that are inconceivable. It is not possible for us to conceive a triangle with four sides nor could we conceive a perfect god that is able to do evil.
It is not a contradiction in terms to be able to conceive some-thing without imagining it. When we consider love – we imagine the expression not what it is. Maybe we should consider justice. Consider the victim of an accident. The victim who receives the appropriate compensation for the act committed against them call justice. Even a child understands when an injustice has occurred! Every parent hears that ear-piercing complaint, “That’s not fair!”
The Imagination Filter
The imagination censors the intellect by forbidding the intellect to accept something without it’s help. It purposes that the Trinity is:
- just a math problem or
- just a shamrock.
The image may make this profound doctrine of the faith palatable and easy to swallow but doesn’t allow us to understand it nature or what and who it is that we are considering. In the case of St. Patrick’s shamrock, the image does provide a practical symbol for the faith but does not direct us to the truth of the faith. At the end of the day it is not the truth.
Restoring the Intellect to its Rightful Place
The intellect must do its own job. Are there reasonable solutions? We need to accept that the intellect must do its own work. Our first step is to straighten out our vocabulary by applying our mind and using words that are precise and avoid sensory analogies.
Secondly, we should to strive to keep our intellects clear from sensory distractions. The traditional term we use for this disciplinary practice is custody of the senses. Just for a moment, let us consider images and sound.
See no evil
Images taken in by sight (television, computer, movies) strengthen the imagination to suggest images at the most inopportune times. Think about the times when you watch a show or movie and then sit to pray. The images enter in like a flood. When we attempt to consider concepts these images many times present themselves…better yet, impose themselves to keep us tied to this earth.
Hear no evil
Scientists tell us that the sense of sound is the most susceptible of all the senses. And music, it is the most addictive of all the pleasures that could be presented to the ear. A reasonable person quickly realizes that they do not need to be actually listening to music for us to sing it. For this reason, we use music to teach.
Movies, television, and music, none of these are bad in and of themselves. And yet, we rely too heavily upon them. So, how do we look to find this balance? The ideal is to…nay, that is the wrong exhortation. It is mandatory for recovering our humanity to strive to order to powers of our souls correctly. The Church has assured us that we can and do know how the designer intended us to operate.
The Proper Order of Our Design
We were designed for the intellect receive truth and inform the will to choose rightly. Once that has occurred, the imagination conforms to the perception of the intellect and the emotions confirm the acts of the will. Of course, since the fall, this has all been messed up. Practical example? Have you ever had to deal with a teenage girl crying because Richie Rich has never noticed her even though they have never met? Or, to be fair, the young man who sulks because he cannot get a date with his “soul mate” even though he has never asked her out?
However, cannot accomplish these simple and innate tasks on our own. The damage of the fall is too great, and yet, hope remains. Out of humility, let us submit ourselves to the action of the Father’s grace in prayer. Let us submit ourselves to the disciplines of the senses. Let us rule our senses and not let them dominate us. Our life needs to be steeped in His presence on His terms.
We also need to take time for leisure in the traditional sense of the word. Modern society defines leisure as going out and doing what you want. Remember the old adage, “Those who work hard should play hard.” But that is not our tradition. The word leisure comes from the Greek word skohl. This word does mean leisure but the ancients defined it as the action of learning through reflection and re-creation. For those who claim Christ as their Lord, Sunday has been set apart as the Lord’s Day for just this purpose.
Lastly, and most importantly, we must submit our mind to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5) and be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect (Rm. 12:2). Many of us are too attached to our opinions. We like to argue for the sake of arguing. Conversely, we should seek to learn from every conversation and interaction. I guess that is why our Lord provided us two ears and one mouth. There is some practical wisdom here.
Hopefully, we may glean a few tips out of this short reflection. Next steps? Apply, reapply, pray and then give our Lord praise for the small victories.