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.