By Jeremy Begbie
Much is said these days about the importance of the imagination for virtually every human activity, from mowing a lawn to composing songs. And when it comes to the creationist-evolutionist disputes, it won’t be long before one side accuses the other of lacking imagination. Usually it’s the evolutionist who blames the Bible-reading creationist for a plodding literalism. And this is just where the arts are needed, so it is said, because they help us take myth, symbolism, and fictional narrative seriously—just what we need if we’re going to read Genesis properly.
But matters can’t be this simple. I’m inclined to think that if there is a problem with the imagination in the current evolution debate, it is not so much a lack of imagination as an over-active or over-ambitious imagination, and this afflicts both sides in the debate. If you have children, it’s likely you will have said to them at some point—“you’ve got an over-active imagination.” We’re saying their imaginations have got out of hand, with the result they’re out of touch with the way things really are.
Something similar, I’m suggesting, is evident in the fights over evolution. And if the arts can help us here, it’s not so much to ignite the imagination as to help the imagination operate more responsibly.
Among many things, the imagination seems to work in two ways. First, it can find and construct patterns that help us make sense of things. I look at your face—I see eyes open, a slight wrinkling of the forehead, your head nods every now and then. All of that makes up a pattern which tells me that I believe you’re awake, perhaps even listening to what I’m saying. We don’t experience the world as a jumble of disconnected events; we link things together, and perceive other things in the light of wholes. That’s the work of the imagination.
Second, the imagination takes us beyond our immediate experience. In much of life we’re dealing with things that aren’t immediately experienced. I remember a phone call I made just before I left home. I am aware it will soon be Easter. I am not experiencing these things now; it’s the imagination which brings them to mind.
The imagination works below the level of conscious reflection, but it makes things easier to believe and understand (it makes “sense” of things), and especially when it uses metaphor. (Just think of the popularity of the metaphor of nature as “mother.”) Most important, in its keenness to discern and establish connections the imagination can get out of hand: the paranoid schizophrenic uses his imagination, but in ways that make him believe in connections that don’t exist (“that man over there is trying to kill me”).
In other words, the imagination can become undisciplined, untethered to the way things are, sometimes with dangerous results.
My hunch is that both sides of the evolution debate tend to be captive to what Charles Taylor would call an “imaginary,” a pre-conscious way of perceiving the world that in this case has arisen from being over-impressed by the power of science to deliver truth, deriving in large part from the Enlightenment. The imagination, that is, has got out of hand. The result is that both science and Christian faith are misrepresented.
Turning now to the evolution debate, most of us know that at least some of Charles Darwin’s contemporaries in the nineteenth century, and many since, believed his theory of evolution undermined Christian belief. But fewer realize that the outlook it threatened was far removed from classical or biblical Christianity. It was encapsulated in the well-known and highly popular “natural theology” of William Paley (1743-1805) —which Darwin knew well.
According to Paley, the world showed overwhelming evidence of design, and was created by God in the beginning to be much as we find it now. Darwin’s theory of natural selection did indeed threaten this religious vision. In addition to being struck by the sheer brutality seen in nature, Darwin was convinced that many of the supposedly designed features of living things did not come about by being individually designed by a Creator in the beginning, but through law-governed natural processes over a long period.
In fact, Paley’s theory was not required by science, and certainly not by orthodox Christianity. It was the product of an over-ambitious imagination, one over-enamored with the metaphor of the world as a machine—as many Christians in the nineteenth century (including John Henry Newman) clearly saw.
The sad thing is that an over-active imagination soon got to work on Darwin, taking his theory far beyond what he himself held. One of the first signs that something was getting out of hand was the appearance in the late nineteenth century of an outlook eventually labeled “social Darwinianism,” in which biological concepts are applied to politics and social arrangements. In an extreme form, it is held that we are justified in destroying the physically or mentally handicapped since this helps the “natural” evolutionary process along.
We should be very clear at this point: the view that what we can build our ethics simply by observing a “natural” biological process is not one required by science (nor, of course, by biblical faith); again, it is the product of an over-active imagination.
More notoriously in recent times, the so-called “new atheists” (Richard Dawkins et al.) have elaborated an “imaginary” that sometimes go by the name of “naturalism” or “reductionism.” Behind the colorful rhetoric it’s a vision that turns out to be bleak in the extreme. Dawkins is quite insistent: evolutionary theory requires atheism (something Darwin himself never believed). The universe is a closed system, entirely explicable by the natural sciences, one without any ultimate meaning or purpose, destined to futility.
Again, we should be clear: this kind of all-encompassing vision is not required by science itself. Science is simply not qualified to address the issue of ultimate meaning, the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” That the world has no purpose is not something that can be verified, deductively or empirically, on scientific grounds. It can only be presumed by the scientist, not demonstrated.
It’s no wonder that many scientists have accused the ever-polemical Dawkins of letting his imagination run away with him: his images may be striking and memorable (“meme,” God as a “virus”) but many of them are not justified by scientific evidence. And, needless to say, Dawkins’s account of the Christian faith has little to do with mainstream Christianity; in the words of David Bentley Hart, we are treated to “spasmodic assaults on whole armies of straw men” (The Experience of God).
The approach typified by Dawkins has provoked fierce opposition, much of it appearing long before Dawkins himself: from those who espouse “creationism” and the rather more slippery “intelligent design,” for example, which appeal to science (and especially in the case of the first) to the Bible. Yet, again, both of these theories are articulating imaginative constructs that are not generally well grounded in scientific evidence (like Dawkins, their supporters are generally over-enamored with the explanatory reach of science). Further, their readings of biblical texts (especially Genesis) are often highly dubious.
In tomorrow’s post, I’ll suggest how artists can model a more responsible form of imagination.
Jeremy S. Begbie is Thomas A. Langford Research Professor of Theology at Duke Divinity School, North Carolina. His particular research interest is the interplay between music and theology. He is also Senior Member at Wolfson College, Cambridge, and an Affiliated Lecturer in the Faculty of Music at the University of Cambridge. He is author of a number of books, including Theology, Music and Time (CUP), Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music (Baker), and Music, Modernity, and God (OUP).
This post was made possible through the support of a grant from The BioLogos Foundation’s Evolution and Christian Faith program. The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of BioLogos.