Forging a Relationship Between Revelation, Scripture, and Imagination (part two)

This is part two of a two-part piece. In part one, released yesterday I identified two problems evident in much of the church's use of Scripture: 1) revelation is conflated with the Bible, 2) the Bible is forced to serve as epistemic ground for all subsequent Christian doctrine. I proposed that we needed to untangle Scripture and revelation by focusing on revelation as God's communicative self-disclosure for the purposes of conforming human imagination to the hope of God. In today's piece, I turn to the human side of revelation, taking seriously the role of imagination, and the questions raised in cross-cultural encounter. What we need is a non-competitive, complementary relationship that welcomes, rather than suppresses revelation that takes place outside of the imaginative worlds that shaped the Bible. Enjoy!

 

FORGING A RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN REVELATION, SCRIPTURE, AND IMAGINATION

Compatibility of Revelation and Imagination

“The bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed” (Exod 3:2). Katherine Sonderegger places this burning bush at the centre of dogmatics to show that “God is compatible with His creatures.”[1] The metaphysical reflection is that “The Lord God can Himself dwell with creatures, and the creatures endure, abide, speak.”[2] As God reveals God’s own being to humankind, humankind is not annihilated, human imagination is not consumed. Because God cannot speak in a way that steamrolls the imaginative capabilities of the human who hears, revelation is limited by human imagination. Compatibility can both be seen as condescension on the part of God, and an act of what Telford Work calls, “linguistic kenosis.”[3] Just as Jesus, “the immortal second person of the Trinity makes himself mortal”, so linguistic kenosis means that God reveals through the frailty of human language, taking on its inherent risks, whilst demonstrating the power to save.[4]

Imagination shapes, and is shaped by, revelation and Scripture. Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom of God serves as a helpful example. When Jesus teaches of the basileia (‘kingdom’/‘reign’/‘rule’) of God, his choice of language reflects both the imaginative world of Jesus of Nazareth (a Mediterranean Jew under Roman occupation in the First Century, Common Era) and the imaginative world of his hearers (who were familiar with reigns and rules and kingdoms). Biblical imagery is thus shaped by the imaginative world of human participants in divine revelation. The appropriate translation of basileia in a contemporary globalised democratic context is contested, as is the validity of a concept (a regal kingdom) that is inevitably outside of the imaginative worlds of, for instance, Australian First Peoples living at the same time as Jesus, on the other side of the world. This demonstrates a limitation and fragility on the part of the language.

Revelation, and thus its recording in Scripture, is shaped (and so limited) by the imaginative capacities of the human individuals and communities with which God communicates. Yet, teachings on the kingdom of God also demonstrate how revelation seeks to shape imagination, casting the vision of something new or unexpected, and so conforming human individuals and communities to the hope of God. Kevin Vanhoozer explores this move in his work on imagination in theology, “Jesus’ parables… describe the kingdom of God in terms of ordinary life. Yet Jesus’ imaginative lessons subverted the worldview of his hearers, redescribing reality not to gain scientific knowledge of its surface features, but to awaken hearts to its eschatological depths.”[5] Human imagination is the field where God plants the seeds of revelation. This limits the kinds of seeds that can be planted, but also shows the capacity for the landscape to be drastically altered by the process. “Christian faith” Trevor Hart argues, “as a gift of the Holy Spirit is a matter of having one’s imagination taken captive and reshaped, such that one comes to see and taste and feel the world anew.”[6]

Because there is no “imaginative experience… in the absence of words,”[7] doctrines of revelation and Scripture require an acknowledgment of the importance of context and human authorship in the experience and expression of revelation. The limit of human imagination does not mean we dismiss Scripture as ‘simply human’. John Webster counters this reduction, writing about Scripture as sanctified. Sanctification points to the “work of the Spirit of Christ through which creaturely realities [the imagination and words of individuals and communities] are elected, shaped and preserved to undertake a role in the economy of salvation.”[8] This process of sanctification entails “no suspension of creatureliness”, the voice of the prophets and apostles are not suppressed, but ‘lifted up, energised, and purged.”[9] Revelation is the gracious self-communication of God with humans, which respects the boundaries of human imagination while transforming that imagination with the creative potential of a world redeemed. Scripture, in some sense, is the example, par excellence, of this dance between divine initiation and authorial imagination. But to make this point, we need to turn to the role of imagination in the process by which tradition became canon.

 

Imaginative Remembering and the Canonising of Tradition

Walter Brueggemann argues that the Old Testament came about through a process of imaginative remembering. Not content with simple reportage, the writers and redactors of the Old Testament remembered and passed on their history in ways that spoke to the contemporary circumstances. “Remembering” he writes, “is itself shot through with imaginative freedom to extrapolate and move beyond whatever there may have been of ‘happening’… in order to permit the memory to be pertinent to a new generation.”[10] Scripture is “a relentless act of imagination” where the oral and written tradition is brought together to articulate the world “with YHWH as the defining character.”[11]

This process of canonising disparate and often contradictory traditions is emblematic of the way imagination functions. Synthesising different definitions of imagination, Hart concludes that it has “something to do with a human capacity to make sense of things by locating them within some wider pattern or order.”[12] The process of tradition(s) becoming canon demonstrates this, as the writers and redactors wrestled to understand how a nation’s history could also be God’s salvation history. The New Testament follows this pattern, taking shape as “an immense act of interpretation of the Old Testament”[13] which sought to read multiple gospels, occasional letters, and a story about early believers back into the story of Israel and forward into the imminent eschaton. 

The relationship of revelation and imagination offers a way to appreciate the messy process by which the Bible came to be, while still seeing it as a faithful product of God’s communication. Rather than promoting fear of historical-criticism, Brueggemann believes that “this act of imaginative remembering… is the clue to valuing the Bible as a trustworthy voice of faith while still taking seriously our best critical learning.”[14] Webster is careful to explain that a text with creatureliness and ‘natural history’ may still function within the “communicative divine economy.”[15] The Bible itself attests to this through stories of those who come to know and believe in Jesus because of human testimony (for example, John 4:39). Comfortability with the process is made possible by locating the doctrine of revelation and Scripture in God’s economy of salvation. For instance, Fowl, leaning on pneumatology shows that the “Spirit’s work as the operation of God’s providential ordering of things sanctifies the means and processes which lead to the production of scripture, turning them to God’s holy purposes without diminishing their human, historical character.”[16] Human authorship affects but does not consume God’s gracious self-communication.

Brueggemann’s proposal also provokes consideration as to how revelation and imagination relate to the ongoing imaginative remembering of Scripture. Amos Yong puts the question well:  “Did not the apostolic writers under the Spirit’s guidance reinterpret the Old Testament message in light of their new experiences of Christ, and if so, are not Spirit-filled believers since similarly invited to follow not only the apostle’s words but also their example?”[17]  

 

Interpretation and Encounter in the Contemporary Context

The agent, content, and purpose of Scripture (and revelation) lie beyond itself; therefore, the process of reception, interpretation, and translation is never final. The interpretation of Scripture is “inseparable from and dependent upon God’s desires for humanity.”[18] Again, imagination is pivotal in our attempts to translate ourselves out of our circumstances and into another’s for the purpose of understanding the text. It functions similarly in the alternate direction, as textual pericopes are proclaimed and interpreted to intersect meaningfully with our daily life. This is characteristic of the nature of imagination, turning pieces into patterns.

Wilda Gafney writes about the similarity of Jewish midrash and the “sanctified imagination” in African American preaching. Like midrash, which,

 "…discern value in texts, words, and letters, as potential revelatory spaces… [reimagining] dominant narratival readings while crafting new ones to stand alongside — not replace — former readings… the Sanctified imagination is the fertile creative space where the preacher-interpreter enters the text, particularly the spaces in the text, and fills them out with missing details: names, back stories, detailed descriptions of scenes and characters, and so on."[19]

Sometimes these details are historical; other times they are anachronistic, splicing in details from the imaginative world of the congregation. Importantly, the preacher reaching into their sanctified imagination is “very careful to signify what he or she is preaching is not in the text but is also divinely inspired.”[20] Revelation comes through this act that reinterprets or re-remembers Scripture, providing new imaginative possibilities into which God can communicate. With Rudolf Bultmann, we can never speak of revelation that “has occurred, but the revelation that is occurring.”[21] This process is faithful to the “excessive and inexhaustible character of Scripture’s communicative power,”[22] reflective of the God of revelation who cannot be contained or fixed. 

If imagination limits revelation, then different imaginative worlds (in different cultures or historical epochs) set different limits. The shifting imaginative borders of cross-cultural encounters provide greater imaginative potential to receive, interpret, and remember God’s gracious self-communication. This allows for a non-competitive relationship between Scripture and revelation in different times and places outside of the history of Israel and the Church. An example of this emerges from the Australian context. As the Rainbow Spirit Elders recorded, “God the Creator Spirit has been speaking through Aboriginal culture from the beginning… speaking to us through the law revealed in the land.”[23] God’s economy of salvation is active before and beyond the production of Scripture and its pilgrimage to lands far from its birth. Because the Creator Spirit has been present since the beginning for Aboriginal people (as much as for the people of Israel) then the culture is a key source of doing theology. This gracious revelation of the Spirit is a gift for the whole of the church. Drawing on Jesus’ parable of the householder with old and new treasure, Aboriginal Christians remember their ancient sources with the “hope to bring out these treasures to enrich our theology, and teach them to our children.”[24] As the work develops, the Elders point out that this revelation is for the whole church. A non-competitive, complementary relationship between Aboriginal sources of theology and Western tradition makes possible a true Australian Christian theology. The cross-cultural movement of Christianity gives God new soil for new seeds, furthering imaginative potential through which to reveal a vision of the world redeemed.

 

Conclusion

A view of revelation that is conflated with Scripture, and a doctrine of Scripture based on inerrancy cannot receive this testimony. When a creation narrative outside of the Bible is granted a level of ‘truth’ it undermines Bible’s ability to epistemically support all other Christian truth claims, and so the ability to know and trust God is jeopardised. This is emblematic of the broader issues we have identified throughout these posts. The isolation of revelation and Scripture from God’s economy of salvation necessarily resists the role of human imagination, and the limitations, messiness, and potential located therein. Yet, when we think of revelation as God’s self-communication, graciously and excessively poured out in all creation, received and interpreted in the realm of human imagination, with the purpose of creatively inspiring new imaginative possibilities of a world redeemed, then God’s salvific mission is emboldened, not undermined, by Spirit-empowered remembering, reinterpretation, and imagination.   

 

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[1] Katherine Sonderegger, Systematic Theology vol. 1 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 81.

[2] Sonderegger, Systematic Theology, 81.

[3] Work, Living and Active, 98.

[4] Work, Living and Active, 98, 99.

[5] Kevin Vanhoozer, “Imagination in Theology,” in New Dictionary of Christian Theology: Historical and Systematic, ed. Martin Davies et al. (London: IVP Academic, 2016), 442.

[6] Trevor Hart, “Imagination,” in Dictionary for Theological Intpretation of the Bible, ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer et al. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic and London: SPCK, 2005), 323.

[7] Paul Avis, God and the Creative Imagination: Metaphor, Symbol and Myth in Religion and Theology (London: Routledge, 1999), 35.

[8] Webster, Holy Scripture, 26.

[9] Webster, Holy Scripture, 38.

[10] Walter Brueggemann, An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination (Kentucky: Westminster John Know Press, 2003), 7.

[11] Bruggemann, Introduction to the Old Testament, 9.

[12] Hart, “Imagination,” 321.

[13] Bruggemann, Introduction to the Old Testament, 12.

[14] Brueggemann, Introduction to the Old Testament, 8.

[15] Webster, Holy Scripture, 19.

[16] Fowl, “Scripture” 351.

[17] Yong, Renewing Christian Theology, 337.

[18] Fowl, “Scripture,” 351.

[19] Wilda C. Gafney, Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne (Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017), 3.

[20] Gafney, Womanist Midrash, 3.

[21] Rudolf Bultmann, “General Truths and Christian Proclamation,” in Journal for Theology and the Church 4 (1967), 154.

[22] Yong, Renewing Christian Theology, 352.

[23] Rainbow Spirit Elders, Rainbow Spirit Theology: Toward an Australian Aboriginal Theology, Second Edition (Adelaide, ATF Press, 2007), 11.

[24] Rainbow Spirit Elders, Rainbow Spirit Theology, 16.