The exercise of the imagination, including an interest in fiction, poetry, film and drama, are not characteristics often associated with the pursuit of priestly life and ministry. In fact, in our contemporary epistemological ethos, the opposite may be more the case. Fiction, poetry and the lively arts are seen as escapes from reality, as plunges into a world of fantasy and non-sense.
In 1854, the English novelist Charles Dickens published a devastatingly apropos novel, Hard Times. In the novel, Dickens takes on the contemporary rising enthusiasm for the philosophy of utility. The fictional anti-hero, Mr. Gradgrind, represents, for Dickens, everything that is negative about a worldview that envisions utility as the sole raison d’etre. When Dickens wrote the novel in the middle of the 19th century, the pursuit of the philosophy of utility was still a viable choice that some made. Today, it is the norm, although most of us would reject the Utilitarian ethic as a way of life.
In our time, the principle of usefulness and a decided appreciation for the ordinary have cost us the ability to see beyond the daily grind of the human condition. We have lost our vision, or approach to excellence, and perhaps our ability to dream. It seems at this critical historical and intellectual juncture to ask some significant questions about the place of the imaginative in religion.
In these essays, the question of the importance of imagination as a theological category is explored through a number of different disciplinary perspectives. Br. John Mark Falkenhain, OSB, opens the volume with an insightful overview of the question of imagination and the role that it plays in various aspects of formation in the Church.
Fr. Guerric DeBona, OSB, a homiletics professor with a doctorate in English literature, explores the means by which the literary imagination is employed in the action of preaching and, by extension, in priestly life and ministry. He develops three forms of literary encounter – the poetic, the mnemonic and the prophetic – as means of engaging the Word and applies these to the life of the preacher, but more broadly, also to the life of the priest.
Dr. Robert Alvis, a historian, looks at the medium of film in light of theological categories, or perhaps more daringly, at film as a theological category. His use of the idea of image forms a solid Catholic ethos that gives life to the Church in new and informative ways. Using contemporary filmmaking as a guide, Dr. Alvis explores the contemporary creative process as well as our role as those devoted to the enterprise of theology.
Fr. Harry Hagan, OSB, offers a powerful contribution on the place of imaginative thinking in the priesthood. He explores in depth the use of poetry in the life of the priest and the significance of the Word in priestly life and service. Fr. Harry, a poet and hymn writer, has been a monk for almost 40 years and has used his many talents and interests to advance the cause of imaginative thinking and acting among our seminary and monastic communities.
Fr. Thomas Gricoski, OSB, a philosopher and a younger member of the Saint Meinrad community, offers a very challenging essay on the philosophical treatment of imagination. Using the thought of the philosopher Richard Kearney, he develops the means by which philosophical approaches to imagination can be recaptured for contemporary theology.
Br. Francis Wagner, OSB, contributes a wonderful reflection on the role of imagination in writing and journaling. Br. Francis has spent a lifetime in the publication world and is also adept at the use of contemporary technologies for communication.
The final article is a personal contribution considering the role of imagination in the work of the seminal contemporary theologian, Blessed John Henry Newman. In many ways, Newman reignites the horizons of the imaginative spectrum for modern theology in ways that modern theology was not even aware until the 20th century. Newman was truly a prophet of the theological imagination and forms a kind of opening (and closing) salvo to the writings presented here.
What is significant with these essays is that the authors are all, in a sense, reaching beyond the confines of their established disciplines, a trajectory that may prove not only beneficial, but necessary, as theological discourse moves into a new millennium.
I am especially grateful for the introduction to this volume provided by the Most Reverend Timothy Doherty, bishop of Lafayette-in-Indiana. Bishop Doherty and I have had many long conversations about the role of imagination in ministry. His contribution is gratefully appreciated.
Very Rev. Denis Robinson, OSB