How Imagination Helps Us to ‘Look Along’

‘Looking at’ is the access to something by analyzing it rationally from a third-person perspective, while ‘looking at’ means experiencing that something first-hand.

What do you do when you would like to learn or understand something, but ‘looking at’ is inadequate for that endeavor, and ‘looking along’ is not (yet) possible?

Suppose you wish to acquire the virtue of bravery. You can analyze the notion rationally and see that bravery means to do what is right even if it is dangerous for oneself. But actually being brave is another thing. When the rubber hits the road, it may elude you what is actually the right thing to do – do you really have the mandate to confront that bully who has his music tuned up so loud that the whole wagon can hear it? Or suddenly you might have doubts over whether the risk is really worth it – after all, no lives are in danger if you refrain from interacting?

Unfortunately, there is no ‘virtue simulator’. The only way to experience virtue is to act virtuously.

By imagination we can, to a certain degree, put ourselves ‘in someone else’s shoes’.

But wait, there might be something that could bridge the gap between one’s intellectual understanding and actual doing: imagination. By imagination we can, to a certain degree, put ourselves ‘in someone else’s shoes’. What if one lacks imagination? Fortunately, there are people who create stories by their imagination which spur ours in such a way that we can almost ‘look along’ the experiences of the protagonists. C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and George MacDonald are three chief examples for such storytellers (and my favorite ones). Whoever has read of Eustace’s frightful advances into the ranks of the Calormenes in The Last Battle; or of the stricken and bent King Théoden in The Return of the King, suddenly springing erect and “riding up on Snowmane like a god of old, even as Oromë the Great in the battle of the Valar when the world was young”; or of Anodos in Phantastes, like Cosmo of Prague, painfully preferring the welfare of the beloved to his own life; he cannot help but be taken up into the glory and pain of bravery, such that he will wish to be brave also.

Virtue, however, is neither the most elusive nor the most fundamental thing we need to acquire in life, for it is indicative of but derived from Ultimate Reality. Indeed, it seems that the more essential a thing is, the more elusive (in a way) it is, and the more we need imagination to bridge the gap between ‘looking at’ it and ‘looking along’ it. Fortunately, encounters with God are thematized in particular in C.S. Lewis’s belletristic. We may get some idea of God by describing him in the classical theistic notions of ‘maximally perfect being’ or the four ‘omnis’ (omnibenevolent, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent). But to catch a glimpse of how an actual encounter with that being feels like, read The Chronicles of Narnia and watch out for a lion named Aslan.

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