George MacDonald – On the Importance of the Imagination
Posted by Peter Kazmaier
I am re-reading George MacDonald’s Thomas Wingfold-Curate again, and in another sense, for the first time. I previously read and enjoyed Michael R. Phillip’s excellent edited version entitled The Curate’s Awakening (which I would recommend for first-time readers of this series) but now I’m reading the original version which is much longer.
Some spoilers to the story
Thomas Wingfold is a curate who has slid into his clerical profession without much thought. His uncle gave him a complete set of detailed sermons which enabled Wingfold to provide messages and sermons for all occasions in the church year. The sermons were so numerous that when they were recycled, so much time would have passed that the word-for-word repetition would have been unobtrusive to the congregation.
Wingfold’s complacency is shaken
Two things happened to begin a crisis in Wingfold’s life:
- He was accosted by a self-assured, masterful, self-confident atheist who challenged him with words to the effect: “Surely you can’t believe all that nonsense you are spouting?”
- A dwarf who occasionally attended Wingfold’s church gently informed him that his sermons were plagiarized from a well-known minister called Jeremy Taylor.
The metaphor of a carriage
Wingfold, seeking to be honest, at first considers resigning his appointment, but Polwarth, the dwarf, encourages him to remain in his post until he completes his quest for faith, but, while there, to be honest in his sermons.
In Chapter III, as Wingfold prepares his second genuine sermon, he sees the progression of his intellectual quest through the metaphor of a carriage. His will has the reins; the guard beside the driver is his conscience. The dog running beside him is Fancy, which I take to mean his desire and feelings for beauty, order, and completeness. Imagination is the outrider that explores paths in all directions but can be called back at any time.
The importance of imagination
As I thought about this metaphor, I concur with MacDonald’s view that imagination is a necessary but not sufficient condition for progress in understanding our physical world (science) or understanding the spiritual world as in the case of Wingfold’s quest.
In my previous post, I talked about the importance of working very hard to disprove theories and hypotheses. in my own view (and I know many will disagree with me) I see defects with current explanations of our physical origins. Use of the imagination to come up with better explanations that describe all of the data are needed (again in my view).
Finally a caveat: imagination is useful only in generating possible explanations. After the work of imagination is done, one has to put on one’s skeptical hat and try to disprove the new hypothesis, just as one did with the old.
As Science Fiction author, I am able to let my imagination roam as I write my novels and don’t have the difficult obligation of disproving the backstory of my imaginary inventions.