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Subversive Imagination

What does it really mean to believe in God?


theo101

Feature on Living Faith

Living Faith is a declaration of faith of the Presbyterian Church in Canada and a reliable guide to understanding the Christian faith. For as many months as it takes, Theology 101 will examine this subordinate standard, chapter by chapter.
You can download it for free at presbyterian.ca. We suggest you seek out and read the passage being discussed each month.
Additional reading: Theology 101’s 2010 series, Where in the World is God?


Living Faith, Chapter One
“I believe in God, and God is God.”—Steve Earle

Living Faith begins with God. But what does it mean to believe in God? Presbyterians teach that faith is a gift of God. Faith is trust in Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord. Faith is assent to the truth of the gospel. We acknowledge that faith includes doubt; faith seeks understanding. We know that faith in God often sustains us in the struggles of life (see Chapter Six).

But we can say even more about what it means to believe in God, and Living Faith creates the space for us to do so. The first chapter begins by inviting us into the world of God: “There is one true God whom to know is life eternal, whom to serve is joy and peace.” Living Faith asks us to imagine that reality might be more than what we experience daily in our world.

We are invited to look beyond the empirical to discern deeper truths about the world and imagine that there is a God (1.1), that this God has come to us in Jesus Christ, and that this God continues to come to us by the Holy Spirit (1.2). Living Faith asks us to imagine that the Bible bears witness to who this God is and what this God has done (1.3). It asks us to imagine that the creeds of the church help us understand the testimony of Holy Scripture (1.4). It asks us to imagine that this God is one and yet eternally three, the triune God of grace (1.5). And it invites us into the divine mystery through worship of this God (1.6).

In this sense, faith is an audacious act of the imagination in which we speak about God as if God really exists. Please do not misunderstand me. Imagination is not a fanciful denial of reality. It is a “mental faculty forming images or concepts of external objects not present to the senses” according to the Oxford Concise Dictionary. It enables us to see beyond what most of us can or will see.

If faith involves my ability to think (reason) and choose (will) and love (affection), it surely also involves my imagination. This does not mean that I am free to make it up as I go along. We’re talking about a converted and sanctified imagination, justified by God’s grace, in the process of being made holy by God’s Spirit. A holy imagination is disciplined by the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, the texts of Holy Scripture, and the tradition of the church.

A holy imagination allows me to be daring when I explore my faith. It sets me free to face the challenges of the world in which I live. It helps me confront the realities of daily life—troubled relationships, illnesses, financial struggles, injustice and suffering, with another reality: I can imagine that God is in the midst of it all; and that God is still God.

As an act of imagination, faith often sets itself against the modern western world. We have all been taught to think along the lines of Cartesian logic: “I think, therefore I am.” I begin by assuming that I pre-exist. I set myself up as an autonomous authority. Reality is what I can taste and touch and smell and see and hear. And to be honest, this makes sense according to my experience.

But now I am being asked to imagine that God is before I am; that God precedes my thinking about God; that God’s life makes my life possible; and that reality cannot be reduced to what I can experience with my five senses. I am being asked to imagine that the real world is the world of God.

That’s what makes this kind of imagination so subversive. It calls into question other claims to reality and authority. It challenges our penchant for idolatry. To quote singer-songwriter Steve Earle, “I believe in God, and God ain’t us.” That, in short, is really what the Reformed doctrine of God’s sovereignty is all about. That’s what Presbyterians mean by the Lordship of Christ.

Imaginative faith resists absolute claims made by pretenders. It unmasks the principalities. It speaks truth to power. It affirms another reality. There is a God in whom we find life and joy. I am not God. We are not God. The state is not God (see The Declaration of Faith Concerning Church and Nation). The capitalist economic system is not God. Middle-class consumerism is not God. The media are not God. Education is not God. Sexual identity is not God. Religion is not God. The church is not God. The family is not God. God is God. That’s what Living Faith affirms. Chapter One reorients our perspective and everything that follows should be read in its light.

The ultimate goal of faith as an act of holy imagination, however, is not subversion. It is to bear witness to God’s saving and healing purposes for creation, the theatre of God’s glory. Faith imagines a day when all will do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8). Christian imagination sees the end of the story. It knows that God’s “power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20). In short, a living faith is an imaginative faith, thanks be to God.

About the author

Rev. Dr. John Vissers is principal of Presbyterian College, Montreal.

One Comment

  1. avatar
    Andrew Mitchell says:

    When Theology 101 examines “Living Faith” in the next few months, it should attempt to reach a wider audience by making some effort to avoid institutional church terminology and explain the concepts in terms that a non church person can understand. Well organized articles with a down to earth approach are needed. We have not connected with the last three generations, and the imaginative soaring in the introductory article does little to bridge this gap.
    1. The creator is the source of all energy, matter life and being in the universe. Therefore all is graciously provided.
    2. However we are stuck on this planet, imprisoned by our human nature, social, economic, systems that feature individual acquisition, special status groups that work to the detriment of others and the environment. (The S word)
    Jesus challenges us to put a little of the Kingdom of God (1) into 2. The product of faith, however you try to describe it technically through, intellectual assent, imagination or belief, is faithfulness. Mostly we fall short of real commitment.
    Our notions of faith in the church in recent centuries have been driven by the modern era. The intellectual ideas of theology and intellectual assent have been given a prominent position. We are now in a post modern era and the Cartesian premise has been challenged. Theology is possibly an arrogant assumption that our intellect or imagination is up to the task of examining its subject.
    Will faithfulness demonstrated by a way of life that reflects a discipleship on the teaching of Jesus be the central feature of the Jesus movement in the post modern era.

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