Faith and Reason : The magic that links seeing and believing

Margaret Atkins writes this week about the role of the imagination in o ur knowledge of the everyday world: she is a student of philosophy and theology .

I spent a lot of time recently staring at brightly coloured pieces of wallpaper. It was a frustrating experience at first. I persevered only because of the irritating gurgles of delight around me from the successful starers: "It's amazing when you see it!" "Oh look! This one's a winged horse." Anyone who has been swept up in the craze to see Magic Eye pictures will understand.

Suddenly, the eye performed its magic. The flat blurred wallpaper snapped into three dimensions, revealing a sharply etched statue clad in the same wallpaper, which had itself acquired a new-found clarity. It was extraordinarily exhilarating. Then, as swiftly as it had appeared, the image slipped away.

Learning to see can be hard work. There is nothing unusual in the claim that religious and moral perception take time, and the right environment, to develop. The same is true of birdwatching. Where I see a bird of prey, the expert has caught the precise sweep of the wing that betrays a falcon. It is not that he sees the curve and then deduces that the bird is a kestrel. His trained eye sees it immediately as a kestrel.

To understand this we need to unthink a pervasive philosophical mistake. We do not perceive things in two stages, first receiving raw data, "sense impressions", and then making sense of them. It is only once we are trained that we actually notice the right things; and then we may automatically interpret them well. Consequently, we cannot erect a fence between our minds and our imaginations. A well-trained, responsive imagination helps us to think well. It focuses our minds in the right way.

That is why symbols matter. When commerce was changing the face of late medieval Europe, St Francis forbade his friars to touch money. One disobeyed; and Francis made him pick up the coin in his mouth and place it on a dungheap. A harsh gesture, but one of a dramatic genius with an instinctive sense of the power of symbol.

Contrast the symbolic role of money in our society: Andy Cole is less famous for his quicksilver goals than for his price-tag; while our national sport is the weekly lottery. When politicians express concern about the huge sums involved here, they too are recognising the power of symbols. The economic arguments are secondary. The primary question is this: do we want our children to live in an imaginative world dominated by dreams of unlimited cash?

Conversely, we may ask how we see a beggar. As an eyesore, marring our city streets? As a human being formed in the image of God? St Laurence was ordered to hand over the wealth of the Church to the authorities. He asked for a cart and piled on it a crowd of paupers. "Here," he told the official, "are the treasures of the Church."

Laurence was executed for his pains, roasted, the story goes, on a gridiron. The power of the symbol reasserted itself. The instruments of the martyrs' torments became the insignia of their victory, just as the cross, the grim tool of crucifixion, becamethe "unique hope", of the ancient hymn. And thus a different imaginative world took shape, a world where different facts were noticed, different connections were made, and new thoughts became thinkable.

Here is the deepest error of those who advocate a society of plural values. Communities with sharply differing beliefs, even sharply differing practices, can peacefully coexist. But it is hard to protect the imaginations of our communities; for they are steeped in our experience of common, public life. The shared imaginative world of the pluralist society, however, belongs to no one: to the atheist no more than to the Christian or Muslim. It is a void dotted with flotsam and jetsam, floatin g fragments wrenched from the contexts that gave them meaning. Like all voids it is receptive; and it is readily filled by the seductive icons of avarice: the lottery, the tax-cut, the advertisement.

In such a society, some things are particularly hard to see. Bare beliefs and naked arguments are an important element of our religious and moral learning. But to support our rational minds we need also to nurture our imaginations. We tend to worry over much about the censor's problem: which images should be banned? Consequently, we neglect the question of the artist or poet: which images do we need to nourish us? In answering that, we might relearn the peculiar mixture of concentration and relaxation that contemplative attention requires (as does the Magic Eye). We might learn once more to focus on the blurred wallpaper of our society and allow its hidden images to emerge, the sharp and solid images of a world with another dimension, a world invested with spiritual as well as material meaning.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events business) - Central Manchester - £20K

£18000 - £20000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events busi...

Recruitment Genius: Project Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This privately-owned company designs and manuf...

Recruitment Genius: Human Resources Officer

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen at th...

Ashdown Group: HR Manager - London - £40,000 + Bonus

£36000 - £40000 per annum + Bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager (Generalist) -Old...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own