The Sea of Faith network which I helped to found in the mid 1980s has a Statement of Intent “to explore and affirm religious faith as a human creation”. This ought not to be contentious. Every religious object, prayer, ritual and theological statement can be dated and placed as accurately as any historical or artistic object.
Take for example the design of Christian churches. In some churches, the altar stands several metres higher than the nave floor. Moving from the entrance to the sanctuary involves climbing several steps. Often, in worship, only specially designated people dressed in robes are allowed into certain areas of the church. There may be a screen or rail preventing movement from one part of the church to the other. Only at special dramatic moments are these boundaries crossed: the priest enters the nave to read the Gospel; the people enter the chancel to take communion.
However not all churches are built in this way, reflect a diversity in understanding of the spiritual path. In Liverpool, near my home town, the Roman Catholic cathedral, affectionately known as “Paddy’s Wigwam”, is built “in the round”, with the altar at the centre of the circle and the congregation sitting around it. Other churches and chapels are dominated by a huge, central pulpit, or a baptismal pool. A Friends Meeting House will have no altar, no pulpit, no screened-off areas, no special robes, and there are some churches that do not even have a special building in which to meet. Members of a “house church” gather in each other’s homes to worship. All these reflect a church’s understanding of the spiritual path, the way to God and where authority is to be found.
Architecture has such a strong influence upon faith and its practice, that reformations in faith lead to new styles of church design. Methodism, the Oxford Movement, and Vatican II, all had a profound influence upon church architecture, providing a symbolic representation of evolving attitudes towards the priesthood, the authority of the bible, the sacraments, the importance of mystery and the role of the lay congregation.
What is true of architecture is true of every aspect of faith. The design is not simply a matter of taste but a reflection of the understanding of the path of faith itself. This should be liberating. Faith is creative and isn’t handed down on tablets of stone. It has changed constantly over time and we can change our faith when our understanding changes, or when its implementation has become meaningless or oppressive.
Soon we shall celebrate Whit Sunday, the coming of the Holy Spirit and what is often called the Church’s birthday. The church is born and stays alive through the creativity and imagination of the spirit.
As a choirboy I was always intrigued by the line in the Magnificat, The Song of Mary, “he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts”. It was also fun to sing, with the organ used to dramatic effect in the accompaniment. However, on one level it seemed to be giving imagination a bad press. “You’re imagining things” we’d be told when being accused of subscribing to conspiracy theories or in over-zealously seeking out the truth, whilst conversely being urged to “Use your imagination” if the details of that very truth prove too uncomfortable to air publicly.
Today I think it’s well recognised that using our imagination is an essential part of what it is to be a living, thinking, understanding and responsive person. It takes a leap of imagination to make a scientific discovery, just as much as it does to make a sci-fi movie. It takes imagination to act in the world and to have a vision and set goals. It helps us to understand people, to step into their shoes and empathise with them. It isn’t reserved for day-dreams and art projects. It deepens our insight, clarifies our vision and motivates our action.
Interestingly, for Christians, much of this work of the imagination is characteristic of the work of the Holy Spirit. In Genesis, the creativity of God is seen in the spirit brooding over the face of the waters. In the Old and New Testaments it’s the spirit that gives wisdom and understanding. Through the spirit, the prophets have visions and the people dream dreams. In the New Testament, to be filled with the spirit is to give birth to love, joy, peace, kindness and goodness. To live in the spirit is to be bound together in love. In short, we are the image of the creator God, or as the British theologian John Macquarrie said, “life in the spirit is life in the imagination of God”.
Making a connection between the Holy Spirit and the imagination might appear blasphemous as it seems to suggest that God is merely a figment of the imagination. However, imagination is crucial to human life and faith. As Whit Sunday approaches and we prepare to celebrate the story of the coming of the Holy Spirit to Jesus’ disciples at Pentecost, we need to rejoice in and encourage all the creativity and imagination that has formed our faith and its practices over many generations.