In our last post, we explored the nature and importance of the moral imagination, its relationship to Scripture, and the various steps to teaching students the Bible in such a way that awakens the moral imagination.
I want to end our 4-part series by exploring the last level of the imaginative hierarchy with which we have been working, and then I want to conclude with a wonderful example of the moral imagination at work.
The final part to our "cognized environment" is the level of ethics or conduct. Here our children should learn that our ethical life as Christians is a life marked by Spirit-endowed trust in the promises and provisions of God, and hence we do all things in thanksgiving, giving glory to God. We don’t steal because we trust that God will provide for us. We don’t covet after other gods because we trust that God is the one who can meet our needs. We don’t covet our neighbor’s goods because trusting in God to meet our needs frees us to be concerned about the needs of our neighbor.
I think it is crucial here that we as parents avoid teaching our children moralism. Moralism consists of the idea that morality is self-evident, self-explanatory; there is no need to root ethical life in a trusting dependence on God. In this sense, moralism approaches ethics as something added to our life in Christ. So phrases like “David was faithful, so you be faithful,” or “Dare to be a Daniel,” all too easily exemplify a call to be good in an autonomous and self evident manner.
Moralism is not a call to trust in the promises and provisions of God; moralism is an exhortation to be good, in a modernist, autonomous, self-evident sense. By contrast, a person embodying the ethics of a biblically informed moral imagination trusts in the promises and provisions of God through Christ, and is thus free to meet the needs of others as more important than his or her own, embodying the very mind of Christ.
I want to end our blog series on Scripture and the moral imagination with something that one of my former students, Chris Brearly, wrote for his honors English class at Penn State University. This was subsequently read by him on the University radio station, WPSU, for a program called “This I Believe.” I think it is a wonderful example of a moral imagination at work.
When I was growing up, I fought constantly with my parents over making my bed in the morning. An after-breakfast check-in was routine at my house. My mom or dad would walk down the hall, check each room, and call from upstairs, “Stop whatever it is you’re doing and come make your bed.” It was a chore that I simply did NOT like, and so I avoided it. I thought it was absurd to make my bed every morning. It was counterproductive. What could be the benefit of straightening a bed in the morning that would inevitably be undone that evening? This puzzled me for a long time.
Then in high school, my theology teacher talked about the beauty of symbolism in worship. He said he would often light a candle while he prayed or studied the Bible. My teacher described the candle as being a physical representation of the presence of God in his life. Consequently the candle itself became much more than a candle. It became a powerful symbol of his beliefs. I was amazed that simple objects could be used to represent meaningful ideas in such a powerful way. I began to look for symbolism in everyday life.
Soon the simple motion of ordering my sheets and blankets – which had seemed like such a burden in childhood – became fundamentally more meaningful. The physical motions of making my bed changed from a mundane chore to a tangible display of my Christian faith.
Now when I make my bed, I see it as symbolic of the Christian story. The disheveled bed mirrors the brokenness in the world. When I straighten the sheets, it reflects the restoration of order and peace accomplished by Christ. The simple act of making my bed becomes a reminder of the redemption that can be found in Christ.
Everyone uses symbols every day. They let us sum up entire thoughts in a single visual object or physical gesture, from a warning label to a handshake. Applause is just meaningless noise without a link to the clapper’s affections.
And symbolism is present in many religions: For example, in the bowing of the head in prayer or in the unique architecture of a place of worship.
I believe in the power of symbolism. It has led me to look for a deeper meaning in everyday things. The mundane task of making my bed has become more than just a morning chore for me. The untangling and smoothing of the sheets is a tangible representation of my Christian faith. Before I go to class in the morning, the symbolic act of making my bed now inevitably leads me to think about my beliefs. This symbolism doesn’t just give me a strong reason to make my bed in the early hours of the morning…it encourages and prepares me as I face the coming day.
The purpose of this 4-part series was to explore ways in which Scripture can inform and shape the moral imagination of our children. We were able to glimpse into the imaginative processes in which analogies, metaphors, and paradigms between the various levels of meaning could be integrated and expressed in a Christ-centered intellectual, moral, and spiritual life. The result, I believe, is an imagination that sees the cosmos through eyes similar to those of Jonathan Edwards when he penned these words in 1746:
I believe the whole universe … to be full of images of divine things, as full as a language of words … there is room for persons to be learning more and more of this language and seeing more of that which is declared in it to the end of the world without discovering all.
Edwards went on to say, in his End for which God Created the World, that eternal life is such that there will never be an end to our discovering more and more of the glory of God. God’s glory is so infinite, so self-replenishingly vast, that it would take an eternity for us to exhaust our enjoyment of him. For Edwards, our world, our cosmos, was a manifestation in the present of the eternal joys yet to come. May God bless us in our teaching endeavors to impart this vision to our children so that whatever they do, whether they eat or drink – or make their beds – they do it all for the glory of God.
If you are interested in learning more about fostering your child's moral imagination, you can download my talk, "Scripture and the Moral Imagination" here. Also, these ideas are developed in detail in my book, Awakening Wonder: A Classical Guide to Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, available here. You can also download the free ebook, Classical vs. Modern Education: A Vision from C.S. Lewis, available here.