Is It All Imagination?

God Appears to Moses in Burning Bush. Painting from Saint Isaac’s Cathedral, Saint Petersburg.
Image from wikipedia.

This post today finishes up our series on God and the Cosmos: Divine Activity in Space, Time, and History by Harry Lee Poe and Jimmy H. Davis. The eighth chapter of the book looks at the involvement of God in history and this includes scripture and the historical basis of scripture. The chapter concludes with a long discussion on the importance of human imagination for relationship with the God who acts in history. The ninth chapter is a conclusion that summarizes the premise of the book as a whole and wraps up the argument regarding the evidence or room for divine activity in space, time and history.  This post will concentrate on the chapter on history, scripture, and the way God interacts with humans throughout history.

Any discussion of the relationship of God to the physical world must take account not only of physics, chemistry and biology, but also of human history. The question of God’s involvement in nature cannot be separated from God’s involvement in history. History forms the extended study of humans in social relationship. (p. 249)

Scholars over the last several hundred years have pushed to explain human history without reference to God in much the same way that science explains nature without reference to God. Poe and Davis point to Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as a watershed in this approach to history.  History as a discipline became “scientific” which means that it assumed and subsumed naturalism. Naturalism as a foundation for history leaves no room for divine action. Human history can be explained without any reference to God or the action of God. Any appeal to God by ancient peoples was simply the result of superstition and an overactive imagination. It is nothing to be taken seriously in our enlightened age. But this is a philosophical assumption, not a necessary consequence of the data any more than an absence of the action of God is a necessary consequence of the scientific data concerning the natural world.

Where do we see the action of God in history?

Where should we expect to see evidence of divine activity?

The Bible is a historical resource, a text that describes and reflects on God’s actions in history. Poe and Davis see moral development and a profound moral ethic within scripture. The action of God in history serves not to proclaim and protect God’s Glory in a fallen world but to chart a course to shape what God has in mind for human history.

Inflicting pain and suffering on someone weaker seems like a good way to get ahead and experience an advantage as humans emerged from the collective ooze of life, but violence as a bad thing appears in the earliest lesson God teaches humans across the span of their interaction. From the earliest pages of Genesis through the books of the prophets, God condemns individual, institutional, and cultural violence. The punishment for violence is violence. (p. 259)

But the Bible is not a magical recital of divinely inspired fact. Their description of the Bible is worth quoting at length:

The Bible is a unique document of human history whether God exists or not. It is a narrative of a defeated people that spans over a thousand years of written history and even more of oral tradition. At one time in the early development of higher criticism in the nineteenth century, it was popular to regard the Hebrew Bible as a product of the Jewish community in Palestine during the Persian period and later, which was intended to relegate figures like Abraham, Moses, and David to historical myth-making by the priestly community. Development in higher critical method, involving advances in cultural and archaeological studies, now indicate the antiquity of the Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, and other early accounts. The narratives make frequent reference to customs and related family structure, marriage, village organization, religious practices and geographical sites that had long since been forgotten by the time of the Babylonian conquest, which modern archaeology and anthropology confirm. The Bible is a panorama of a people of faith who live in a variety of cultures in which they are the minority over a period of more than fifteen hundred years. (p. 259-260)

This does not mean that the tightly literalistic view of scripture is right after all – Genesis, for example, also contains anachronisms and shows signs of being an edited text – compiled from older written sources and from oral traditions. The books of Judges, Samuel, Kings, and so forth are unabashedly edited compilations from older sources. The point is that neither the radical revisionist view that it is all fiction or the typical evangelical view of, for example, a divinely dictated Pentateuch, capture the depth and structure of the Hebrew Bible. The Bible is not flat prose or imaginative fiction. It is a reflective compilation relating the action of God in history. This action culminates in the incarnation, in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and in the establishment of the church as the people of God, grafting Jews and Gentiles together.

The Bible tells a different story that involves God relating to different people in different ways, depending how they respond through resistance or cooperation. In the self-consciousness of the peoples involved in the biblical narrative, the critical change in attitude and moral orientation came as a result of a personal encounter with God. In the encounter they had the option of responding differently. The biblical narrative follows the stream of those who respond to God positively over centuries. God selects those who respond in a way that moves the story along.  (p. 270)

Human Imagination. Poe and Davis move beyond the discussion of scripture to consider the way God relates to people within human history, in scripture and continuing today. In considering the question of divine action they emphasize the openness of relationship that allows room for change and influence. They also emphasize the importance of imagination in human experience. Imagination isn’t merely fiction and make believe, or worse yet delusion and psychosis. Imagination as Poe and Davis define it is the ability to comprehend what we do not experience, it takes us beyond the empirical and the already known and tells us what could be. Without an imagination science would be impossible, because it could never advance beyond the mundane. They list six aspects of imagination:

1. Imagination provides the means for people to “have an idea.”

2. Imagination provides a helpful and ever-present means of relaxation in the form of the daydream.

3. Imagination provides the facility for invention.

4. Imagination involves the poetic grasp of reality in a way that elicits wonder.

5. Imagination produces the hallucinations experienced by the mentally ill (nothing is all good).

6. Imagination is the human faculty for perceiving transcendent experience, just as the eyes are the faculty for perceiving light and ears are the faculty for perceiving sound. Imagination is processed physically within the brain.

Poe and Davis emphasize that imagination is not to be viewed as a phenomenon of the mind separate from the body, in a return to dualism. This dualistic view of human nature is not the view of the Bible. Rather human nature involves the physical and the spiritual (soul) in “dynamic, inseparable unity.”  Imagination is physical and, Poe and Davis suggest, imagination provides a bridge to God. The same capacity to comprehend quarks and gluons also allows us to “hear” God.

Thus we do not dismiss the imagination as the bridge between the physical and the metaphysical simply because the imagination involves the brain and the central nervous system. More to the point, the imagination involves the entire physical body of a person. At the same time, it interacts seamlessly with those dimensions of consciousness that we call reason, emotion, character, and will. The imagination provides the medium by which people may “hear” God.

The human imagination, a faculty we use and take for granted throughout every waking day, provides God with access to every person on earth. The imagination processes information that it receives from any source. Just as the imagination allows us to know things about the physical world we have not learned, the imagination allows us to know God. Paul argued that imagination is why people have so many conceptions of God (Romans 1:21 KJV). People have the facility to receive cognitive information from God, but we also have the facility to create our own image of God. Humans have the freedom to respond as they please, but the existence of imagination provides God with access to humans without any violation of the laws of nature. This feature of human experience raises the question of how we might know we are hearing from God and not simply an overactive imagination. (pp. 278-279)

The answer to the last question lies in the importance of experience over time, not just the lifetime of an individual, but the experience of the people of God over the range of history from Abraham and Moses through Paul and today. The check to an overactive imagination is the corporate experience of the community of the people of God. Poe and Davis connect this discussion of human imagination as a medium to hear God with the active voice of the Holy Spirit, a voice which the apostles warn must be tested in the community of believers (they point to Paul in Romans and to 1 John here).

Divine Activity in Space, Time, and History is consistent with the world we experience. This is a major point Poe and Davis make in their book. All of nature points to an openness that belies the view of God as a deistic uninvolved entity who set the world in motion and stepped back.  None of this  proves the existence of God, but there is nothing in the nature of the world that of necessity removes God from the picture and eliminates the possibility of divine action without miraculous disruptions of nature. Assuming God exists, and this is the assumption of Poe and Davis, God can act and relate within the nature of the universe he has created. Metaphysical assumptions and philosophical commitments are required to remove God from consideration. Poe and Davis conclude:

The universe is not the tightly sealed machine that Enlightenment thinkers still suppose. It is open to the initiative of any personal being, including God. (p. 292)

This book is well worth reading. While I do not think they’ve solved all the problems, and there are places where they are off track, or at least so it seems to me, the book is an important contribution to the discussion of science, faith, and the activity of God. In God and the Cosmos Poe and Davis move out of many of the usual ruts and introduce a number of ideas worth serious consideration.

Do you think that human imagination provides a medium for people to hear God?

Do you see problems with the argument made by Poe and Davis?

How does God communicate with his people?

If you wish to contact me directly, you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.

 If you have comments please visit Is It All Imagination? at Jesus Creed.

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