By: Tish Harrison Warren
We associate beauty with the best things in life. Sunny days. Ripe strawberries. Incense filling the sanctuary. Poetry and mystery.
We can sometimes, quite subconsciously, set beauty and truth—imagination and orthodoxy—in opposition to each other.
While beauty thrills us, we see truth as linear, heavy, black and white, logical. It’s the stuff of scientific study, theological debate, and left-brained assertion in dull books. We can think of the truth of the gospel as a sharp-elbowed, doctrinal argument and beauty as its softening ornamentation.
I gravitate toward beauty, and quietly—in my gut—feel that truth, doctrine, and orthodoxy are religious buzzkills that sour a pure encounter with transcendence. But truth, if we are to ever really know it and believe it, cannot simply be rational assertion, something we affirm with our brains. Truth must capture our imaginations.
The ancient creeds we say together each Sunday show us the way to be most human, most alive, most flourishing. These doctrines that can seem so dry and obscure are vital to the life most luminous, most vivid, most gracious, most glorious.
Converting Our Imagination
A reductionist and overly-rational view of truth leads us (possibly) to believe things with our brains, and even proclaim them with our mouths (or computer keyboards), when all the while our imaginations are captured by another, lesser, beauty—another picture of “the good life.” We may stand and proclaim the doctrines of the faith on Sunday, but our imaginations are shaped by nationalism, consumerism, or technology—by shopping or sitcoms or Instagram celebrities.
Last month, my husband and I tragically lost a baby to miscarriage. We had seen our baby in sonograms, dancing and twirling, growing and moving, with her perfect face, two little arms, two little legs. We loved her, named her, and were eager to meet her. Then, during a follow up sonogram, the sonographer’s face betrayed a look of horror. A sonogram seemed to show some severe developmental abnormalities in our baby. We were referred to a genetic specialist for further testing. One panicky doctor wanted us to hurry so we could terminate the pregnancy.
For a week, our bishop, pastors, and friends gathered at our house with healing oil and fervent prayers. We begged for God’s healing and sat in uncertainty. We wondered: Are we going to spend our lives caring for a special needs child? Is our baby going to be very sick, unable to nurse or grow or see or read? What kind of life awaited her—and us?
As I prayed I began to see that though my brain was convinced of the gospel, my imagination largely remained unconverted. I said the creeds, I affirmed that God was in control. I professed that he ran to the weak, that he blessed the suffering. But what captured my imagination was my own hippie version of the American dream—travelling, hiking, writing, lots of space for quiet, ease, and comfort, a life unburdened by significant suffering and struggle.
To my own astonishment, I realized that when I pictured Jesus, I could not picture his as “the good life.” I believed he is Truth. But I did not picture him as joyful. My mind may sign off on every Christological doctrine, but my imagination was not captured by his ethic, his teaching about what true life is and where abundant life is found. I could not imagine Jesus’ life of suffering—or, potentially, my baby’s and my own—as a life that was joyful, thriving, flourishing, or beautiful.
My brain believed the truth, but my heart, my intuitions, my loves, my imagination were an unreached people group. If I am to grow in truth, my imagination has to be changed. I need to be formed by these creeds I proclaim more than by the doctrines of American consumerism, which I have imbibed.
When Doctrine and Practice Embrace
Truth is not simply a rational idea to which we assent (or not). Living by truth is ultimately living according to what Stanley Hauerwas calls “the grain of the universe.”
Truth is, simply put, what is most real.
Whatever we profess, our actual and ultimate understanding of reality will shape our whole selves. Truth or untruth do not merely shape our mental understanding. In a profound way, they shape our hearts, our minds, our wills, our desires, and our imaginations. We are never simply “right or wrong” about truth or untruth; we are made or unmade by them; we are formed or malformed by them.
I spent most of my twenties thinking and teaching about how Christians must embrace social justice in order to be truly orthodox. Now I’m spending my thirties insisting that social justice must still cling to orthodoxy—to truth—in order to remain just. I remember going to a conference full of young social justice radicals and hearing a speaker confess his fear that he was raising his daughter to be committed to recycling, but not necessarily to the gospel of Jesus.
I’ve seen this same trend in the spiritual formation world of which I am a part. We love talking about practices of faith—fasting, silence, prayer labyrinths, and pilgrimages—but talk of orthodoxy and doctrine can feel abstract, dry, unwelcome, or even troubling.
It is wrong to separate the doctrinal truth of the gospel from justice or Christian practice—not just because it tells a false story about justice and formation, but because it is untrue. Justice and spiritual practice are never free floating ideas untethered from larger claims about reality: about the gospel, about who humans are, who Jesus is, and what he has done.
The Beautiful Truth That Frees
Truth is comprehensive reality.
If our view of truth is truncated—if it does not encompass the fullness of the human person, if it does not infuse our minds, our bodies, our ethics, our views of justice, our sense of wonder, our imaginations—we will inevitably live by a false reality. And false reality always diminishes, always oppresses, always imprisons.
That’s why Jesus promised that the truth will set us free. He didn’t say, “The truth will make you right” or “The truth will make you rational.” By its very nature, truth frees us. Living in Comprehensive Reality is the way to be most human, most humane, and most alive. If we truncate truth, we truncate freedom, and we truncate the abundant life that Jesus promises.
In his book The Cruelty of Heresy, C. FitzSimmons Alison wrote, “We are susceptible to heretical teachings because, in one way or another, they nurture and reflect the way we would have it be rather than the way God has provided, which is infinitely better for us. As they lead us into the blind alleys of self-indulgence and escape from life, heresies pander to the most unworthy tendencies of the human heart” (emphasis original). Heresy always, inevitably, proves to be cruel.
But truth frees us—not just our beliefs or ideas, but the whole of us. To the extent that my own imagination about “the good life” was shaped not according to Comprehensive Reality but to the American consumerist dream (even my own hippie version if it), I was bound and imprisoned.
I need to learn, ingest, imagine, and submit to truth, and as a church, we must proclaim truth, not so that we can “fall in line” or, worse, pat ourselves on the back, but because this big, sweeping, full Comprehensive Reality sets us—and indeed the whole world—free.
Dorothy Sayers said, “There was never anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy, nothing so sane and so thrilling.” This is orthodoxy when our imaginations have run away with Truth. And it is unimaginably beautiful.