Friday, December 12, 2008

Mental Baptism

“I am a rationalist. For me reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning. Imagination, producing new metaphors or revivifying old, is not the cause of truth, but its condition.”
-C.S. Lewis

After returning to Seattle to work in the John Perkins Center at Seattle Pacific University, I have been baffled when pondering our interracial family’s ability to mingle with just about everyone, and yet the city has enduring racial divisions — both in our neighborhoods and our churches. While I love my work and Seattle, as a result of these observations, I’ve begun to wonder if we’re suffering from a lack of imagination.

Looking for New Metaphors

While most of us would argue that God called us to this or that church, in reality, our churches consist of individuals who look like us, ascribe to our cultural norms, and have found their way to our communities. The obvious adherence to a traditional approach to community formation suggests an inability, on all of our parts, to imagine a different world. I can only conclude that our culture has veiled and blunted the Gospel. The apparent racial divisions in our churches imply that our ministers have failed to find a metaphor strong enough to command “His will be done on earth on it is in Heaven,” along racial lines. Surely heaven isn’t segregated. What’s the answer?

It seems that we are experiencing a profound iinability to get beyond what academics have called “neoliberal multiculturalism.” This approach to diversity is based on a “get in where you fit in” mentality. Because my diagnosis reveals a poverty of imagination, I’ve begun to appeal to literary critics for a solution. My conclusion is that we need new metaphors to emblematize the radical egalitarian position found in Scripture.

In “Blusples and Flalansferes,” C.S. Lewis argues that metaphors are deployed for two reasons: the need to express poorly grasped concepts or communicate a mundane idea to the uninitiated. According to Lewis, metaphors create the context for exposing a truth and transforming the imagination (mind).

Wordsworth believed that a mind endued with a vital faith allows the individual to remove the curtain between this world and the celestial realm to absorb the mind of Christ. His poem “Cuckoo at Laverna” describes the imagination that has been immersed in God’s thoughts. Wordsworth writes:

He wont to hold companionship so free,
So pure, so fraught with knowledge and delight,
As to be likened in his Followers' minds
To that which our first Parents, ere the fall
From their high state darkened the Earth with fear,
Held with all kinds in Eden's blissful bowers.

Then question not that, 'mid the austere Band,
Who breathe the air he breathed, tread where he trod,
Some true Partakers of his loving spirit
Do still survive, and, with those gentle hearts
Consorted, Others, in the power, the faith,
Of a baptized imagination, prompt
To catch from Nature's humblest monitors
Whate'er they bring of impulses sublime.

James A. Heffernan has criticized the poet for the ubiquitous and imprecise use of the term metaphor in his writing. Nevertheless, Heffernan has been forced to recognize the emblematic power that metaphors give to Wordworth's poetry. In a statement that would resonate with Walter Benjamin’s thoughts on translation, Heffernan writes, “The primary effect of the imaginative powers is the evocation of meaning from the material world, the meaning of a visible object as the emblem of the invisible truth.” Like Heffernan, the church tends to think about faith as the faculty that allows us to grasp transcendent truths that elevate our own souls.

A “Mental Baptism”

I would argue that our inability to reconcile across class, gender, and racial lines emerges from the inability to develop the concepts, lexicon, and metaphors that articulate the Body of Christ.

We have sought to baptize the imaginations of others with the intent of transforming the lost, but based on the persistent racial segregation in our churches, we have fallen short in our mission; we must seek to discover metaphors that will baptize our imaginations — pierce our consciences and renew our minds — in order to re-imagine race relations.

Stated differently, the church needs a mental baptism that will allow it to radically re-imagine the entire social order. Our leaders must breathe new life into their messages to remove the cultural elements that cause Sunday services to mirror, instead of seeing the heavenly city, the divisions that we witness outside of our ecclesiastical gatherings on Monday mornings.

Because social stratification and racial isolation create material and spiritual poverty among the marginalized, our efforts to heal a broken world should transform us into an organic emblem — a living metaphor.