Episode 4: The God of our Imagination

Hello friends, and welcome to this latest edition of Thinking with the Church. This week, we are speaking with a Jesuit priest and theologian who teaches fundamental theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University, Prof. Nicolas Steeves SJ, who is most recently the author of Grâce à l’imagination: intégrer l’imagination en théologie fondamentale – a profoundly challenging and refreshing exploration of the role of imagination in the work of theology, and more broadly, in intellectual and social life.

As often happens with Prof. Steeves, our conversation took several unexpected turns. So, we have agreed in principle that we need to sit down again before too long to put bows on several of the strings we pulled and did not tie. That’s alright, though: you’ll discover that our talk quickly acquired a logic of its own, to which we were happy to give ourselves.

One might wonder what a political philosopher and a fundamental theologian have to say to one another, and the short answer is: too much for one episode of this podcast!

A more fulsome reply might be to say, with the Harvard philosopher and film critic, Stanley Cavell, that:

[Philosophy is] a willingness to think not about something other than what ordinary human beings think about, but rather to learn to think undistractedly about things that ordinary human beings cannot help thinking about, or anyway cannot help having occur to them, sometimes in fantasy, sometimes as a flash across a landscape; such things, for example, as whether we can know the world as it is in itself, or whether others really know the nature of one’s own experiences, or whether good and bad are relative, or whether we might now be dreaming that we are awake, or whether modern tyrannies and weapons and spaces and speeds and art are continuous with the past of the human race or discontinuous, and hence whether the learning of the human race is not irrelevant to the problems it has brought before itself. – Cavell, Themes Out of School,  9

Those are the sorts of things about which we are all bound to think – they are thoughts we cannot help have cross our mind, and sometimes they become the things of which we speak: over coffee, after dinner, late at night – sometimes we sink our teeth into them, and sometimes we mention them and pass them by – though I wonder sometimes whether I have anything original to say about them – whether there is anything to say that hasn’t already been said, and better, by someone else some other time.

Cavell asks elsewhere whether there can be any speaking at all – about anything – that is not quoting, since language itself is something given to us: something there before us and behind us.

If there is not, then all speech will be basically quotation, so it will be useless to quote, insofar as there is no original to be quoted. The metaphysical implications of this line of questioning are manifold. One need only think of St. Thomas, who found the newness of the world to be a question undecidable by reason, alone (Cf. ST I Q.46 a.2). If God’s saying, “Let there be light!” etc., is God’s giving sound to His breath and speaking the being of the world, then the whole world is a divine quotation, and the human capacity for language is on this reading an ability to speak of the divine, and a lack of attention to this fact of language, when understood as this ability, could make all speech blasphemy – from which God save us.

But we were talking about imagination – and mine seems to be running amok.

Cavell mentioned “fantasy” – which is another word for “imagination” after all – one etymologically linked to “fancy” which is itself also an older though still recognizable way of saying imagination – as in the expression, “fancy that?” or “How does that tickle your fancy?”

Those expressions are still reasonably current ways of asking, in essence, “What happens – how do you feel -when you imagine the thing proposed?”

At the end of Episode 3, featuring Fr. Brian Reedy SJ, I noted that imagination is useful to the thinker only when the structure of knowledge is assumed to be essentially open and unlimited – and now I’ll say that, when we do suppose that the structure of knowledge is essentially open and unlimited, we discover ourselves in a world that is infinitely knowable – which is to say a world of endless discovery, endless adventure, and endless danger – which is the only world in which – as far as I can tell – an infinitely good and loving God will fit.

Here is where we pick up the thread of our conversation with Prof. Steeves: at the point of recovery – recovery of the role of imagination in the project of theology.


That was Part 1 of a conversation with Fr. Nicolas Steeves SJ, Professor of Fundamental Theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. We covered a good deal of ground in Part 1, though we do need to return to flesh out our discussion of Ignatian spirituality, and to try to discover the nexus of moral and cognitive imagination.

I also want to come back to Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech: together with King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, it was the focus of an extended meditation on America that served as an interlude between the third and fourth chapters of my own – still fairly recent, at least in academic terms – book, The Soul of a Nation: America as a Tradition of Inquiry and Nationhood.

That, however, is – as we said – a topic for another conversation.

*********** Show Notes ***********

For brief biographical details on Fr. William Lynch, SJ, click here, and for a quick, sympathetic presentation of his thought, see here.

Jean-Francois Lyotard was a socialist, and then post-Marxist post-modern philosopher who wrote literary psychology and social criticism.

Walter Brueggemann is a prominent scholar of the Old Testament and theologian, whose work has focused on recovering literary sensibility within the Protestant tradition(s) of biblical exegesis and theology.

The verse from the Book of Proverbs to which Prof. Steeves refers in his discussion of Brueggemann is Proverbs 15:17, of which Bruegemmann makes use, offering an extended meditative treatment, in a 1988 Sermon, “What you Eat Is what you Get”, which may be found in his Collected Sermons.

One thought on “Episode 4: The God of our Imagination

  1. Pingback: Episode 5: Divine Playmates (part 2 of a conversation with Prof. Nicolas Steeves SJ) | Thinking with the Church

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