Sin and the Imagination

Sin and the Imagination January 29, 2015

Sin’s Starting Line

Of course, we are enraptured by fantasy. Beyond appetite—beneath and above iniquitous wanting—are inhibited imaginings. Do we sin because we have salacious indecencies or shortsighted imaginations? Thomas à Kempis helps:

“At first it is a mere thought confronting the mind; then imagination paints it in stronger colours; only after that do we take pleasure in it, and the will makes a false move, and we give our assent.”[1]

Sin’s Sleight of Hand

I push hard against cognitive accounts of emotion and behavior. They are painfully reductionistic—the mind as the source of life-lived? Really? But desire has an object. And that object, before it is desired, is construed (contorted, even) one way or another. We grieve because the world is gray. We delight because of the color. As Kempis notes above, Sin’s trickery is not in the hardness of the desire, but in the hue of the delightful object. And so Bavinck strips sin of its sleight of hand and reveals what heaviness is in its hue:

“The mind entertains the idea of sin, the imagination beautifies and converts it into a fascinating ideal, desire reaches out to it, and the will goes ahead and does it. Thus, in the case of both angels and humans, the imagination was the faculty that made the violation of the commandment appear as the road to equality with God.”[2]

The Gospel’s Slap

Not the slap of abuse or impatience, but of one soldier to another on the battlefield: “Wake up. The enemy is near.” Vanhoozer comes through, as usual:

“Christian doctrine is for grown-ups who have childlike imaginations, trusting stories in general only because one story, the gospel of Jesus Christ, happens to be true (and true because it happened: “He is risen”). Christian doctrine is a dose of reality, a slap in the face that wakes up the bleary-eyed and hungover, all those who cannot open their eyes (or prefer to keep them shut) to the new thing God is doing in Christ through the Spirit.”[3]

I’ll take the slap over docility any day. I’ll take my future self’s retrospective advice over my present self’s delusions. We are imaginers, and we’ve known it all along. But we ignore to indulge. And this is the fount of ours lives-lived, one way or the other.

[1] Thomas á Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, trans. William C. Creasy (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1989), 5.

[2] Herman Bavinck, Sin and Salvation in Christ, Reformed Dogmatics vol. 3 (ed., John Bolt, trans., John Vriend; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 67.

[3] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Faith Speaking Understanding: Performing the Drama of Doctrine (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2014), 230–231.


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