February 13, 2024
Memes vs. Flowcharts: Is Imagination the Lost Art in our Decision Making?

This article explores the role of art and imagination in decision making. The author shares personal experiences where art helped them make difficult choices and argues that imagination should be seen as a form of reasoning. They discuss the separation of reason from imagination in Western secular thinking and highlight the importance of integrating reason and imagination in the Christian faith. Engaging with art allows for a new perspective on the world and can combat hopelessness and cynicism.


Fer, Jen Logan

Has a piece of art ever helped you to make a decision or solve a problem? Mostly, we think of reasoning as coming to us in the form of text or diagrams. Rarely do we consciously turn our attention to a Steve McQueen artwork, a Gucci fashion video or a Pixar film to help us make major life decisions. Can you imagine a corporate meeting where silent meditation on an artwork replaced forceful arguments as the tool for making company decisions? It’s unlikely, because works of the imagination are typically seen as completely separate to the world of rational thinking, even as a distraction from it.

Yet, as I think over some of the most difficult life choices I’ve made, in each case, what God used to move me out of indecision was not a flowchart, a slam-dunk argument or a pros and cons list. It was, in fact, a piece of art; it was a prolonged gaze at a Mattisse painting that resolved my indecision around whether to continue work and studies in social work, or to begin a new journey in theology. It was binging the slapstick 80’s sitcom, The Young Ones that compelled me to emigrate from Australia to the UK, and it was through listening to David Bowie’s cult classic ‘Under Pressure’ that God lifted me out of months of fear and anxiety, giving me the peace I needed to finally say ‘yes’ to marrying my now husband, David. These are all decisions I can now give post-rationalised defenses for, but at the time, the thinking was all done through art.

I hadn’t paid much attention to any of this, until one evening, at the very end of an academic symposium, through the shuffling noises of the audience beginning their exit, I heard the Reverend Professor Alison Milbank half-whisper a final thought: ‘the problem is that we no longer see our imaginations as a form of reasoning’.

I was so arrested by her comment that I drove from London to Nottingham to meet with her in her home. Over a simmering soup on her cooker, amid the January freeze that gripped her cottage gardens, she told me the history of philosophy that led to the splitting of reason from imagination. Now in the Western secular age, we think reality is merely made of dead, observable matter and nothing more. In this age, imagination still has value in our lives, but only as a device for escaping reality, not as a way of rationalizing our way through it.

For Christians at least, reason and imagination are two things that were never meant to separate and they are never separated in the Scriptures. Because all of reality has its source in a living Creator, there is a dynamic life that pulsates through all of it. Even if we cannot always sense this dynamism, our imaginations play a role in helping us to think and reason in the light of it all, not just in the light of what we can observe in the moment. The Pulitzer prize winning Christian novelist, Marylinne Robsinson (beloved by those outside the faith as much as those within it), writes poetically about this enchanted nature of reality and the call for us to see it as it is:

“It has seemed to me sometimes as though the Lord breathes on this poor, gray ember of Creation and it turns to radiance - for a moment or a year or the span of a life. And then it sinks back into itself again, and to look at it no one would know it had anything to do with fire, or light .... Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don't have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it?”

Of course, art can manipulate us or negatively influence us, so we use the same critical thinking and spiritual discernment we would bring when we engage with any other form of communication. But as we give our attention to a good work of art in this way, we open ourselves to receive a new glimpse into the God-given radiance of this world, not only to help us make specific decisions or solve problems, but at times like these, when, to many of us, the world generally resembles only ‘a poor gray ember’.

As someone who has an anxiety disorder and whose hardest spiritual battle is against the temptation to despair, my imagination is a rationalizing tool from God that I use, not only in approaching specific decisions, but to fight against a generalized hopelessness and cynicism that pulls at me most of the time. Engaging with and in art helps me think and navigate my way through life in a distinctly Christian way. The Christian story compels me to trust that life always and absolutely has everything to do ‘with fire and light’, and so the Christian life can be understood as the answer to Robinson’s question. We, the Church, are those who are willing to see the world in its full reality, and to have the courage to allow what we see to form how we live.