The Disciplined Imagination

How to Stay Sane in School

Seminary is often good but rarely safe. An ever-present danger stalks the corridors of higher education — the looming threat that you will know much more and be much less. This danger is a kind of insanity — a shriveling of the soul — that finds potentially fertile soil in propositions, paradigms, arguments, and facts. That is not at all to say theological education should be avoided. But if reason consumes a man’s heart, if his imagination atrophies, then he may know more facts about God but enjoy him less. That means God’s glory is at stake in our sanity.

But what is sanity? Well, one philosopher defines sanity as “a proportion with reference to purpose” (Ideas Have Consequences, 54). In other words, the sane mind is the balanced mind — what Paul would call the sober mind (2 Timothy 4:5). The sane man is stable — clearheaded, set in soul, poised to act. Insanity, on the other hand, never finds its feet. The insane man fixates on the peripheral and forgets the bull’s-eye. He is unstable.

With that in mind, how does one stay sane in seminary? Or more broadly, how can a Christian cultivate holy sanity in higher education of any kind? Below are five insights gleaned from wise men and refined through experience.

1. Feed Your Imagination

By and large, modern education aims to impart knowledge as a means to practical results. It concerns itself with facts and techniques, practices and paradigms. It tends to chunk and divide, to parse and separate. It prefers the objective and the prosaic. The rational mind, what C.S. Lewis calls “the natural organ of truth,” is the prime instrument for this kind of education (Selected Literary Essays, 265).

However, Lewis recognized that the imagination is “the organ of meaning.” It synthesizes and unites, systematizes and unifies. The imagination sees the forest without forgetting that it’s full of trees. In fact, you can see neither the trees nor the forest without the imagination. As Mark Twain said, “You can’t rely on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.” And so, sanity in school relies on an imagination in focus. Without a disciplined imagination, education will leave you with a pile of facts and no way to unite them into a cohesive view of reality.

I don’t mean to imply that reason is not important. It is! But it’s also fraught with danger. As G.K. Chesterton asserts, “Imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what does breed insanity is reason. . . . I am not . . . in any sense attacking logic: I only say that this danger [of insanity] does lie in logic, not in imagination” (Orthodoxy, 17). Reason is dangerous because, as Wordsworth put it, reason “murders to dissect.” Thus, when reason dominates theology, you are left with a neat stack of propositions and no person left to worship. Reason alone without imagination cannot produce balance or wisdom. As Gandalf says to Saruman, “He that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom” (The Lord of the Rings, 259).

So, if your goal in school is to be more like Gandalf than Saruman, cultivate your imagination. Feed it good stories. Baptize it in the word of God. Let it loose on the world. Carve out time to keep your imagination both disciplined and childlike. Read, listen, watch. A holy imagination will keep you sane.

2. Embrace Mystery

Education is rightly concerned with reducing mystery. However, too often, we mistake clarifying mystery with eliminating mystery. The former is healthy; the latter is lunacy. Chesterton — that champion of paradox — warned, “Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity” (Orthodoxy, 31).

Therefore, learn to love mystery. It is a gift given by God, a good part of our creaturely limitations, and theology is about putting mystery in its proper place. Mystery humbles us — it brings us back to earth and sets us firmly on the Rock. As Augustine said, when we try to “gaze at light inaccessible,” especially in “the holy scriptures in their multifarious diversity of form,” God uses it to wear Adam down (The Trinity, 97). Mystery chisels away at the man-exalting pride that makes us think we can know all things. And it remedies the mad hubris that knowledge so often breeds (1 Corinthians 8:1).

So, let us not imagine that our schooling can eliminate mystery. Thank God, it doesn’t! Biblical mysteries do not disappear when revealed; they deepen and become richer. When Paul unveils the poetic mystery of Christ and the church, it doesn’t suddenly become mere prose (Ephesians 5:32). It becomes a new and wider ocean to swim in — a whole heaven to enter and explore. Greater still, the Trinity is an inexhaustible source of joy-producing wonder — a mystery we will marvel at for eternity (1 Corinthians 2:9). Mystery will keep you sane.

3. Be Prone to Wonder

Most classes aim to equip you with empirical knowledge — bits of information obtained by a method and verified by the senses — a good goal in its place. But accumulating facts rarely throws wide the door of wonder. And wonder is the well of a sane soul. Knowledge as such is not an end in itself. We want to see glories, behold marvels, awaken wonder. We aim, in our studies, to recover a childlike astonishment at the world God has made. As Chesterton said, “The world will never starve for want of wonders; but only for want of wonder” (Tremendous Trifles, 7).

One way to reawaken this wonder is to stay omnivorously attentive to creation. The Psalms beckon us, again and again, to see God’s works and stand in awe. Perhaps the best biblical example of this pursuit is Agur, the author of Proverbs 30, who had a posture of mystic wonder and happy humility. He attended closely to eagles, rock badgers, ships on the sea, serpents, and sex. And what did he find? They were too wonderful for him! When is the last time anything was too wonderful for you? Wonder will keep you sane.

4. Awake to Magic

We live in an anti-magic age. After all, we are “enlightened,” and most classrooms sit in the shadows of that “light.” Modern education often teaches us to “reflexively experience the world as unmagical,” as Paul Tyson writes (Seven Brief Lessons in Magic, xi). However, this “disenchanted” view of reality is false. It’s a lie — a modern myth. The world is thick with magic, rich with enchantment, and soaked in glory. We need to regain our sensitivity to the true magic of God. We need to become disenchanted with modernity’s disenchantment. In a sermon, C.S. Lewis reminds us,

Spells are used for breaking enchantments as well as for inducing them. And you and I have need of the strongest spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness which has been laid upon us for nearly a hundred years. Almost our whole education has been directed to silencing [the] shy, persistent, inner voice. (The Weight of Glory, 31)

This kind of sanctified magic is indispensable to our sanity. Tyson defines magic as anything outside of measurable, material, mathematically modellable reality. “Magic is concerned with the shimmering cosmic meanings . . . that lie just below the surface of the apparent” (Seven Brief Lessons in Magic, 8). Magic is what causes us to wonder at the world and find meaning within it.

Therefore, whether you call it glorious or supernatural or numinous or miraculous, come alive to the magic of God. He spoke reality into being — creation is his en-chant-ment (Psalm 33:6–9). So, on a snowy night, go watch the tiny ice castles float down from the heavens to drape the world in white. On a spring morning, go watch the raucous sunrise God is spinning into being. Sit and observe a squirrel battle in the backyard, advancing a generational nut feud. Be reminded that trees are star-powered, water-fed wood towers. Pay attention, and the spell of God’s words will quickly enchant you. Magic will keep you sane.

5. Love What God Loves

Finally, remember that before the modern era, education in general (and seminary especially) aimed at shaping right desires. Augustine named this ordo amoris — ordered loves that regard all things according to their true value. Here is the ultimate aim of education: well-ordered, balanced, stable affections — knowing and feeling, seeing and savoring. Knowing serves as a handmaiden to godly affections.

Classical education expert Steve Turley summarizes the educational vision from Plato to Lewis:

The entire object of true education is to make people not merely do the right things, but enjoy the right things. . . . Students thus encounter the manifestation of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty in every area of their lives, sanctifying the senses and imagination alike with a synthetic vision of the glory of God. (Awakening Wonder, 105)

Sanity consists in loving things as God loves them. If insanity is the imbalance of a soul, then sanity is its harmony. Holy education holds this aim in the crosshairs: holy, joyful sanity. We want to love what God loves. Hate what God hates. Forgive what God forgives. Laugh at what God laughs at. Enjoy what God enjoys. Mock what God mocks. That is holy sanity and the aim of all good education. Ordered loves will keep you sane.

To borrow the words of the Lord of Education, if you gain a degree in school and yet forfeit your soul, what does it profit you? If your imagination atrophies, if you lose a taste for mystery, if your wonder wanes, if you become disenchanted, and if your loves are disordered, what have you gained?

May our triune God help you cultivate holy sanity in all your studies so that you might love him with a whole soul.