Every Word So Employed: George MacDonald and the Theological Imagination


         In this essay I offer a constructive definition of the imagination for George MacDonald: The imagination is a faculty that perceives and appropriates transcendent beauty in sensible form.  This definition of MacDonald’s imagination sees ascetic obedience and aesthetic appreciation as mutually edifying. With this expanded definition, I seek to capture MacDonald’s palpable contribution to theological aesthetics that edifies the Romantic pursuit of beauty with the obedience of the Desert Fathers. First I will discuss how I arrive at my definition of the imagination: I make some constructive moves in my definition that do justice to MacDonald but must be teased from his essays on the imagination, chiefly “The Imagination: its Functions and its Culture,” and “The Fantastic Imagination.”

     In particular I expand on my shift from epistemology to aesthetics in my definition, from thoughts to beauty, arguing that when MacDonald often references “thoughts” he means aesthetic awakenings. Though this may seem to downplay the duty and obedience that also characterizes MacDonald, I understand these themes as underlying the cultivation and discipline of the imagination, which is to be nurtured and exercised within the larger context of discerning and seeking transcendent beauty through sensible forms. The rousing, working, and seeking human imagination then works in concert with our human duty of putting on Christ and forming closer to the image of Christ, the image of God.

The Definition of the Imagination

     To answer the question most simply, George MacDonald defines the imagination as a faculty that puts thought into a form, as he writes on the first page of his essay, “The imagination is that faculty which gives form to thought.”[i] MacDonald’s definition is much more modest than Coleridge’s definition: “The primary Imagination I hold to be living power and prime agent of all human perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM.” I agree with Kerry Dearborn, who sees Coleridge’s definition of the imagination as too close and conflated with the activity of the Triune God. The imagination of humanity is decidedly distinct from the imagination of God in MacDonald. MacDonald is hesitant to ascribe creativity to humanity, for humans often discover their insights and the forms in which they reside rather than create them ex nihilo.

     MacDonald writes, “in no primary sense is [the faculty of the imagination] creative. Indeed, a man is rather being thought than thinking.” God’s primary creative act is creating the world, an expansive library and gallery furnished with forms and infinite meanings. Where humans, say Shakespeare, create plays, God creates Shakespeare: “His sculpture is not in marble, but in living and speech-giving forms, which pass away, not to yield place… but to be perfected in a nobler studio.” It is clear that for MacDonald, human imagination is quite different from divine imagination, although MacDonald’s definition as giving form to thought does not suggest that sharp distinction. The imagination for MacDonald “lights up” the form to reveal the thought: “God thought it before him, and put its picture there ready for him when he wanted it.” For these reasons I add transcendent and sensible to MacDonald’s definition.

     Language of reception and reshaping highlights the secondary nature of thought and forms in human imagination. Instead of creating, humans engage in a process of sensing, comprehending, and reshaping. Gisela Kreglinger points to Kant in identifying the dual nature of the imagination: the empirical imagination is a passive power that coheres thoughts, ideas, and forms together in a complex web of input, and identifies certain objects to be of a particular kind. The transcendental imagination, on the other hand, is an active power that takes the input from the empirical imagination and constructs a new form with the existing information. MacDonald’s above definition is operating with a transcendental definition – the imagination is that which actively appropriates and encodes thought in a new form. But to recognize that our imagination appropriates thought is to also assume an empirical quality.

     To MacDonald, these two separate activities are one. He writes, “What springs there [in the mind] is the perception that this or that form is already an expression of this or that phase of thought or of feeling. For the world around him is an outward figuration of the condition of his mind.” The information within the form, not simply a human construct, is an aspect of God’s image and connotes real truth – a distinctive break from the Kantian tradition. So although different from Kant, MacDonald still understands the imagination as having two distinctive functions, one an appropriation, and another a perceiving. It is important to note that for MacDonald, the perceptive is hardly passive: both aspects feed into each other and improve and equip the other. In MacDonald’s words, “The man who cannot invent cannot discover.” Since all forms are intrinsically imbibed with God’s intelligibility, the act of perception naturally bridges into appropriation. It therefore makes sense to speak of MacDonald’s imagination being dual faceted in function, rather than categorically different.   

Why Beauty? The Shift from Epistemology to Aesthetics 

     But why change thoughts into beauty, especially since MacDonald references thoughts far much more than he does beauty? Although MacDonald often utilizes terminology that seems epistemic (thoughts, truth, etc.), I argue that MacDonald’s ultimate manifestation of this truth is found through wonder, in beauty. To simply say that the imagination perceives and appropriates transcendent thought in sensible form downplays a crucial function of awakening in George MacDonald’s conception of imagination. Our sensitivity to beauty is paramount to doing the right work of the imagination.

     To begin, the imagination fundamentally works through surprises and awakenings. The forms that already exist in the moment of their appropriation bridge the gap between what once was assumed and what is new and fresh: “Every word,” MacDonald says, “so employed with a new meaning is henceforth, in its new character, born of the spirit and not of the flesh, born of the imagination and not of the understanding, and is henceforth submitted to new laws of growth and modification.” It is possible to view the first half of MacDonald’s rhetoric here as hyperbole, but mentioning law, growth, and modification gives the reasoning theological grounding. The imagination is Trouvere, the discoverer: it, “labours to extend the intellect’s territories.” Without the imagination trailblazing and broadening the scope of human thought, we would be confined to the thoughts and forms we have already become accustomed to.

     The definition of transcendent qualities residing in sensible forms loses coherence in this context. Although transcendence to MacDonald does exist in all forms by natural conclusion of being made by God, human interaction with these forms awakens to transcendence when our imaginations broaden our minds and reveal a previously hidden aspect of the form. This surprise element translates human cognition from contemplation of the purely the sensory realm to the sacramental realm, of transcendence residing in forms. It is this new form or dimension of the old thought triggered by surprise that distinguishes the function of imagination from the function of fancy, which merely represents the form without engaging the beauty beyond the form. MacDonald contends that all poetry and even language is a result of this imaginative stretching:

     “The coldest word was once a glowing new metaphor and bold questionable originality… his questionable originality and new glowing metaphor was found adoptable, intelligible, and remains our name for it to this day… poetry is the source of all the language that belongs to the inner world.”

     This representation of truths through metaphors reveals afresh the bridge between our sensory and rational faculties, and reveals an aspect of meaning that we have previously missed. This aesthetic surprise triggers our imagination and distinguishes an imaginative act from a fanciful, or allegorical act, where our imaginations are not engaged and instead our minds are provided the meaning and interpretation therein. So that particular quality of the imagination that stretches, seeks, and discovers is important to understanding its function and cultivation: wonder is of fundamental importance to the imaginative process. “Wonder!” MacDonald says, “That faculty of the mind especially attendant on the child-like imagination, ‘[it] is the seed of knowledge.’” Wonder triggers the imagination, awakening our minds and hearts to previously undisclosed beauty.

     Could wonder possibly impel us towards thoughts instead of beauty? I do not think so. For the sake of illustration, say human imagination were to function perfectly at some point in an empirically verifiable way. Would we walk away with one particular thought? Does the form of the Sun always suggest the same thought throughout time, say the thought: “I am bright, big, and pretty”? Speaking of the completeness or perfection of the faculty of the imagination in revealing specific thoughts is ludicrous when compared with MacDonald’s established theology. MacDonald sees the end of the imagination as “a noble unrest, an ever renewed awaking from the dead, a ceaseless questioning of the past for the interpretation of the future.” In his other essay, “The Fantastic Imagination,” MacDonald articulates:

     “Does any aspect of Nature wake but one thought? Does she ever suggest only one definite thing? Does she make any two men in the same place at the same moment think the same thing?… Nature is mood engendering, thought-provoking: such ought to be the sonata, such ought the fairytale to be.”

     Here we see the wonder of nature being the emotive power that awakens the individual’s imagination to beauty previously outside their comprehension. The wonder of nature enlivens the imagination and rouses it to its noble function of seeking and finding. The beauty of the form thus provokes thought as opposed to signifying one particular thought. MacDonald echoes this elsewhere: “Law is the soil in which alone beauty will grow; beauty is the only stuff in which Truth can be clothed; and you may, if you will, call Imagination the tailor that cuts her garments to fit her.” Beauty found within form provokes and guides humanity’s quest for God’s beauty. Without this calling of beauty to seek and search, the imaginative life becomes stagnant, growing away from God rather than toward it.

Where then is Duty and Obedience?

     If beauty and wonder are so essential to the imagination perceiving and appropriating, then our moral duty then is to hold the beautiful ever before us. While duty and obedience may often connote detachment and objectivity, to MacDonald duty and obedience works in concert with the Divine Love. To try to reduce the beautiful to its epistemic import butchers the right working of the imagination and instead feeds intellectual greed. Under such a scheme, where imagination is not rightly ordered, the imagination still acts, but in a far less nobler pursuit: “The imagination that might be devising how to make home blessed or to help the poor neighbor, will be absorbed in the invention of the new dress, or worse, in devising the means of procuring it.” Rather, a virtuous imagination holds constantly before itself the vision of God, and the image of God in the world through the person of Jesus Christ.

     Following Christ’s example before all else elevates the image of God, and provides a sensible form for us to contemplate the transcendent Beauty of the Triune God. When we hold God constantly before our attention, we will begin to cultivate our awareness of God’s goodness in the rest of the works of His hands. It is in this context that we begin to appreciate the value and goodness of other works of art that also mirror this same love and source. By holding good exemplars and art before us, humanity grows closer into conformity with the Divine humility and love. MacDonald writes, “He that will do the will of the poet, shall behold the beautiful. For all is God’s; and the man who is growing into harmony with His will, is growing into harmony with himself… nothing will do so much for the intellect or the imagination as being good.”

     Becoming virtuous, embodying the beauty you perceive and appropriate, is the chief aim of humanity. This is not to say that intellectual vocations cannot also be beautiful or rightly ordered, for all beauty is rooted in the Divine Law: “The moment [an artist] forgets one of [their laws], they make the story, by its own postulates, incredible.” We must obey the laws of logic in our stories else we render everything incomprehensible. Similarly, we must obey the law of God, and seek to embody Christ in what we perceive, do, and appropriate. The work of the Intellect in this context is found bracketed by the search and concern for beauty, in particular the beauty of Christ. We must labor even when desire is absent to seek and search that which is the supreme Beauty, otherwise our labors lose their inspiration and nobility. Ultimately our duties as human beings come from and feed into our love for beauty – the imagination supplies the intellect with inspiration, and the intellect provides the imagination new forms and thoughts for it to contemplate. Neither works well without the other – desire and discipline work in concert to leading us closer to the divine Love and Beauty in whose image and imagination we are made.


     In this essay I have constructed a more technical definition to the imagination, using as a source George MacDonald’s meditations on the imagination in A Dish of Orts. Synthesizing MacDonald’s thoughts offered constructive insight into how the human imagination impels us through wonder into love and obedience with the divine will. All of the world for MacDonald is embedded with intelligibility from God’s creative act. Human beings perceive and appropriate these truths in their lives, and when rightly ordered, the imagination impels humanity on a quest of discovering and following traces of the Eternal Beauty in this world. Such a quest takes discipline and obedience, requiring even at times dry moments devoid of inspiration, laboring workman-like without inspiration.

     But to separate the chaste actions of discipline from the ecstatic beauty of discovery hamstrings the proper function of both. Beauty without discipline devolves into idolatry, being insufficient to produce substantial change within those who perceive beauty. Discipline without beauty is misguided, holding as the object something other than the transcendent beauty of God. Intelligence, reason, love, and faith all work in concert, disciplining and enchanting our very being into the image of the Cruciform Son. MacDonald’s contributions to the imagination is not limited to these essays: he demonstrates the kind of aesthetic theory he ascribes to in his several novels, fairy tales, and faerie romances. The path to a distinctively Christian pedagogy lay in emulating MacDonald’s theological aesthetic. When bracketed in the context of Beauty, learning becomes a pilgrimage into discovering the works of God’s hands.

By Matthew James Roberts