Awakening the Moral Imagination, Awakening the Culture (Part 1)

Janel LewandowskiYear of the Contemplative

by Marcie Stokman

There is a battle going on in our culture and at the heart of this battle is the education of the imagination. We are together in Well-Read Mom to awaken our moral imagination to a greater truth of reality. This awakening, we believe, can benefit our lives and the lives of our families as well as impact the broader culture.

What is the imagination and how can a well-formed imagination help us? Human beings have the unique capacity to imagine. The imagination is what allows us to perceive more than what is immediately before our eyes. We ponder the universe. We can live with a sense of wonder. We ask questions like, “Why am I here?” and “What is the meaning of life?” Animals can’t do this. Dogs don’t sit around and ponder how they can make a difference in the world or how family meals can be more meaningful. We have a remarkable capacity to use our imagination, but here’s the catch: this capacity needs to be developed.

When we are inundated with a constant stream of images, this imagination can be severely diminished or underdeveloped. Over 60 years ago, C.S. Lewis made this observation about flickering movie images. “The elements which [cinema] excludes are precisely those which give the untrained mind its only access to the imaginative world. There is death in the camera.” Lewis understood that the mind needs to be trained and that the images on screen block this training. “There is death in the camera.”

To gain access to the imaginative world, the untrained mind needs some essential elements. These come from books, from stories, and from reading! Taking in a barrage of images and video from the Internet robs us of the work of forming images. Mitchell Kalpakgian writes, “Movies with all their technical effects may stir the passions and move the emotions, but they do not develop the imaginative capacity because the images are already given, the images are already there.” When it comes to developing the imagination, screens stifle, but books fuel.

The first step to developing our imaginative capacity involves a commitment to reading more. The second step, the one that will help to form our imagination in a moral way involves a commitment to reading well. I will expand on this concept of a moral use of the imagination a little later on.

First, read more. The idea here is to read daily from books so that we experience the habit of entering the zone of what is called deep reading. Mary Ann Wolf, director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University, describes the experience of deep reading as entering “a cognitive space in the brain where connections are woven together between the visual, language and conceptual areas of the brain.” When a person enters this realm of the mind, she can analyze, draw on personal experience, imagine, and think new thoughts of her own. This is the place where images are generated.

Wolf says, “I worry we will not use our most preciously acquired deep reading processes because we’re just given too much stimulation.” The first step to developing our imaginative capacity is to make room in our lives to read more. If we don’t use the deep reading part of our brain, we can lose or never develop the deep reading part of our brain.

In Well-Read Mom we are accompanying one another to read more. We are also helping one another with the second step, to read well. What we read matters! Worthy books shape our imaginative view of the world. This is the story we carry around in our minds about how life works. The story we live by needs to be rightly ordered to what is true. What is the moral imagination? According to Russell Kirk, “The moral imagination aspires to the apprehending of right order in the soul and right order in the commonwealth.”

If the imagination is not formed in a moral way, another kind of imagination can take its place. Kirk called an imagination that becomes perverse a diabolical imagination. Sadly, this particular imaginative view of life dominates in many of the books and movies in our culture.

How is the moral imagination formed? As Catholics, the primary place where imaginative development takes place is through the liturgy. This is where we grow in a vision that sees a created order in the world. The liturgical seasons order our time. The liturgy orders our relationships: We are sons and daughters of the Father, and, because we share this Father in common, we are brothers and sisters. Through Holy Scripture, we learn our story, the story of Creation, the Fall, and the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Through the Christian story, the meaning of life is brought into focus. Our imaginative view of the world is unified.

In this story, each person has infinite value. There are mystery and meaning in suffering. From the serious circumstances like my mom’s dementia and my friend’s miscarriage to everyday banal ones like trying to find mismatched socks and keeping the house in order, in this story, they all have meaning. Individual experiences transcend into this great story where there is a mysterious connection between the visible and invisible worlds.

While the primary place for the education of the imagination is through the liturgy, the arts, and especially literature, can help reinforce a moral imagination. In this secular age, we need all the help we can get to awaken our imagination in a way that helps us move toward what is beautiful, good, and true.

When Margaret was six, she wanted to get in on the intense basketball game going on in our driveway. So, she took charge and commanded her brothers, “Mom says you have to let me play or you’ll be in trouble.”

Johnny came running into the kitchen where I was making dinner, “Mom, do we have to let Margaret play? She said you said we had to let her in. We’re in the middle of a really good game!”

“No, you guys keep playing. I didn’t tell Margaret that.”

When the scenario happened again, Philip challenged me, “Mom, Margaret is lying; you should do something about this!”

Sigh! Discipline is never convenient. Taking her by the hand, I led little Marg to the couch, pulled William Bennet’ts Book of Virtues from the shelf and paged to the story of “The Boy Who Cried, Wolf.” Without nagging or scolding her because lying is wrong, I read. She listened. The Imagination was brought into play. Margaret began to get a glimmer of insight. The boy cried wolf because he wanted attention; he wanted to belong. She lied because she wanted attention; she wanted to belong.

Without commanding or coercing, Margaret was helped to see how lying was not getting her what she wanted. Her mind and heart were engaged. C.S. Lewis argued that while reason is the natural organ of truth, “imagination is the organ of meaning.”

When Philip was nine, he came into the kitchen perplexed, “Mom I just don’t know what I’m going to be when I grow up.”

“What are you thinking?” I was curious.

“Well, either a priest, maybe a king, or else a professional golfer.”

At that time, I was reading The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe to the kids. In the enchanted world in of Narnia, Peter, Lucy, Susan, and Edmund actually find themselves to be kings and queens. Yes, it is just a story but one that resonates deeply, and through it we get an inkling into imaginative realities that show us, surprisingly, exactly who we are. If we just say to our kids, “You’re a prince, or you’re a princess,” the words don’t exactly get to the bottom of things. Through this story, however, there is a deep correspondence, and one somehow knows, “It’s true! This is exactly who I am!” (By the way, Philip never became a professional golfer, but he is in the seminary.)

As a society, we care that children read, but as adults, reading good literature is often sidelined.  “Oh, reading is nice if you have time but who has time? I’ll live fine without it.” In Well-Read Mom we beg to differ. Reading is not an extra; it is essential. Robert Houston Smith writes, “When functioning as it should… imagination is the most important means by which higher truths can be communicated.” Conscience speaks to conscience through great literature.

Let’s keep reading so that we may grow in our understanding of people, circumstances, and of own hearts. Good literature can awaken our imagination and help us move toward what is good, beautiful and true. The fruit of reading more and reading well overflows to our children and into the culture. Awakening our moral imagination is the great educational task of our time. Thank you for being a part of it.

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