“You rouse us to take joy in praising You, for You have made us for Yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in You.” —St. AugustineHere it is, the final method. In a way, Esolen saved the best, the most important for last. For if we believe that what we see is what we get then there’s not much point to stretching the mind and developing the imagination. In fact, it is those very things that are just beyond our reach—past the horizon, behind the sunset, over the rainbow (if you will)—that really make us want to create. C. S. Lewis is a master of this theme and addresses it (among other places) in his chapter on hope in Mere Christianity. There he says that if people would look into their hearts they would know that they want—and want acutely—something that cannot be had in this world. Animals don’t gaze at the sky and wonder what is beyond it. But mankind, formed of dust in God’s very image, was breathed into a life beyond dust with God’s very breath.
“The imagination opens out not principally to what it knows and finds familiar, but to what it does not know, what it finds strange, half hidden, robed with inaccessible light. The familiar too can be an object of wonder but not by its familiarity.”A Ceiling of Materialism over Our Heads
The night sky, sprinkled with mysterious stars, opens wide above us, inviting us to wonder what lies beyond. A sunset, dousing the world with golden light, tugs at our souls and makes us stop to take pictures with whatever device is handy, even though we know it can’t be captured. The deep blue of a wide open summer sky seems almost close enough to touch, and at the same time is infinitely high.
Materialists would put a ceiling between us and that sky. They would have us tell our children, “This world of dirt and stuff is all there is and don’t ask us where it is going, or what it means, because it is going to destruction and it means nothing.” Just try to create, to imagine in a world like that. Try building a cathedral in honor of that. Try to paint, in rapture, the rise of the dollar on the world money market. Murals dedicated to “Collaborative Learning” or “Development of Social Skills” do not bring admirers from all over the world. The “joy of man’s desiring” is not some political hack, promising one thing today, doing something else tomorrow.
Art that has to do with the Lord God inspires an awe that makes all else feel puny. It takes a kind of bravery to face it and one who has enough courage and enough humility will suddenly see the emptiness in the world money market. He will see the mockery of politics. He will see the uselessness of stuff. He won’t buy and consume and buy some more. He will scorn passing fashions because he knows they are passing. When he hears the call to freedom in a patriotic anthem, it won’t be mere words to him—he will rally to it in obedience and virtue. It’s not that he will be hard to govern. He will govern himself and that will make despotism impossible.
And so those who would have a society that is compliant, predictable and easy to manipulate erect that ceiling and they put it as low as possible. When people try to rise above it, all they will get is a bump on the head. Soon they will learn better and settle for the mediocrity of being good and useful citizens. True, they will be less than human, but the fully human are wild and prone to fighting and loving, destroying and building anew. They will know the word “only.” Sunsets, beauty, love, man, God...it can all be explained away and the imagination shut down with the word “only.”
A Chasm in Our Souls
Take away God and the promise of the infinite and all that’s left in the heart of man is emptiness. But man will try to fill it. Without the heavens to behold, he will only have power or wealth or fame to scrabble after. He will go to shopping malls to buy, buy, buy. He will fill his house with stuff and his belly with food, but even all the “creature comforts and tricksy gadgetry and rubbings and itchings of appetite” cannot begin to fill up even the tiniest corner of the chasm that remains in the absence of God. According to Dante, what is the greatest heresy? To believe that there is nothing to believe, because “all is matter, and matter, finally, has no meaning.” In the end, all this getting, gets you nothing.
Open the Ceiling; Fill the Chasm
Let us not lead our children into such a hollow life. Let us tear down that ceiling and show them that the true wonder of the sky is the Infinite God beyond it. Let us not spoon-feed them religion in the form of foolish cartoons. It’s real stories, real truth that will open their world out into vistas of ultimate meaning. Even if we can’t give them all the answers, we can give them a universe of questions to explore for the rest of their lives. The imagination, raised to vibrant life by the voice of God, will make a man a man, not just a consumer or a “clotpoll to be counted off in some mass survey.” For if we have the love of God, what do we need from anything else?
“In both art and worship, the heart seeks out something beyond itself—a beauty or a power that is not its own....The play of the artist’s hand is one with the praise of the artist’s heart.”