“Animals and Atoms”: The Creative Imagination and the Body of Christ (Scholar’s Compass)

Image courtesy of SuriSul at morguefile.com

Image courtesy of SuriSul at morguefile.com

So spacious is [Christ], so roomy, that everything of God finds its proper place in him without crowding. Not only that, but all the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe—people and things, animals and atoms—get properly fixed and fit together in vibrant harmonies. — Colossians 1:19-20, The Message


I discovered my favorite subject during my sophomore year of college in Ms. Gaines’ survey of British literature class. I didn’t know why at the time, but Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, and Shelley pulled me in with a force of gravity so strong that I always knew I would write about Romantic poetry if I ever made it to graduate school. Eight years later I did, and the Romantics became something of an intellectual obsession. But it has taken almost a decade of teaching for me to understand the source of their appeal.

Romanticism is so much more complex than simply nature worshipping and unbridled emotion, I say to my students, for it is an orientation towards reality that confronts the deepest ontological questions of life. It is a way of knowing that tolerates mystery, looking beyond the here and now with the hope of finding something more permanent and eternal. For Romantic thinkers, the creative imagination provided access to this spiritual realm and offered the best hope of connecting with the divine principle that exists outside of material reality.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge famously coined a phrase that captures the elusive quality of the creative imagination—he called it “esemplastic” from the Greek eh hen, meaning “into one.” In Biographia Literaria, he identifies the secondary imagination as that esemplastic quality of the mind which “dissolves, dissipates, in order to re-create; or where this process is rendered impossible, yet still at all events it struggles to idealize and to unify.” In other words, the imagination shapes and modifies the raw material of our consciousness into objects of beauty that contain eternal truths. And the imagination does so by unifying disparate things, reconciling self and other, subject and object, into one harmonious whole.

The Romantic preoccupation with the power of the poetic imagination reveals a longing for prelapsarian wholeness and unbrokenness that exists only in perfect communion with God. Their work reminds us that the imagination is that divine principle at work within us that ceaselessly strives for perfection despite the entropic universe to which we’re bound. We trigger it whenever we act upon the creative impulse, whether that’s writing, painting, gardening or even when we sculpt our bodies with exercise or succumb to plastic surgery. Every creative act, no matter the kind, is driven by a need to idealize and heal a lost union with our creator.

Coleridge was often moved to despair over the fleeting and futile nature of imaginative fancy, and the hope he placed in the power of poetic genius might suggest an overweening confidence in the ability of the individual mind not only to engage with but to become divine. Never an end unto itself, creativity is merely a bridge to the eternal, of which our imaginative musings are but a shadow of the real thing.


What role does creativity play in your life, personally and in the academic setting? How might creativity be transformed into an act of worship that binds and builds community?


Lord, thank You for the gift of creativity, and for all the ways we see it in Your world, from poetry to exercise, from Coleridge to chemistry. Let the goodness of each creative act point us back toward union with You, and give us in good time the wholeness that comes in gazing upon Your face.

Further Reading

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Biographia Literaria. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/6081/6081-h/6081-h.htm.

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Angela O'Neal

Angie Crea O'Neal is an associate professor of English at Shorter University where she also holds the Joan Alden Speidel Chair in English and serves as the chair of English, Modern Languages, and Liberal Arts. Her poems have recently appeared in The Cumberland River Review, Kentucky Review, and San Pedro River Review. She lives in Rome, Georgia with her daughters, Marin and Maeve.

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  • fatherfigure@verizon.net'
    Pat Walsh commented on November 6, 2014 Reply

    Thank you for this post. I am curious about two items in the penultimate paragraph. If the Romantic poets looked back to an Edenic state (prelapsarian wholeness), did they also look forward to the future reconciliation and restoration of creation that Paul describes in Romans 8? Also, I am intrigued by the use of the word “idealize” in connection with our lost connection to the creator. The notion of healing that relationship is clear, but can you elaborate a bit more on how that relationship can be idealized? That sounds a bit Platonic, while creative acts would seem to express the ideal or the ineffable in physical material or earth-bound concepts. Thank you very much! God bless you.

    • aoneal2013 commented on November 7, 2014 Reply

      Pat, thank you so much for your questions. As one of my favorite professors liked to say, I might should have “put a finer point” on my ideas! While some of the Romantics were devout (Coleridge was perhaps the most), their longing for redemption, as I understand, was not so much a theological issue as an aesthetic one. Redemption in the Romantic sense requires nothing more than the direct observation and engagement with the natural world–a world reshaped, of course, through the esemplastic and divine power of the creative imagination. This was the point I was trying to make when I referenced Coleridge’s “overweening” confidence in the ability of the creative imagination to unify and “idealize” the material world, a process I might add that takes place in the “here and now” and not just through the promise of heaven. Romantic despair was a product of this ultimately futile attempt to sustain permanence in a broken and fallen world. But those theological applications are largely my own!

      I was thinking far less about Plato and maybe more about Kant in terms of the power of the mind to impose order and find connections within an otherwise chaotic and “entropic” world. This implies not a Platonic distrust of the material but more so the reconciliation of oppositions: the ideal and the real, the abstract and the concrete, the material and the spiritual. I’d like to think this desire to unify and restore wholeness is what triggers the creative impulse, and while the Romantics often thought of this as an end unto itself, I see it as an act of worship.

      I am an armchair philosopher at best, so please fill in any gaps in my logic. Thanks so much for taking the time to read my thoughts and responding with such engaging questions. My best!

  • jsire@prodigy.net'
    James W. Sire commented on November 7, 2014 Reply

    Angela, you are spot on with regard to the Romantics. But I have had much the same response to the poets two centuries earlier, especially, Donne, Herbert and Milton. I wonder if it is not literature—literary form itself with its art and artifice—that is at work here. C. S. Lewis, after a long night’s conversation with Tolkien, realized in the Christian story myth became fact. This triggered his full conversion to Christian faith.

    Now for a little self promotion: I discuss the role of literature and apologetics in both Apologetics Beyond Belief (IVP, 2014, http://www.ivpress.com/cgi-ivpress/book.pl/code=4055) and Echoes of a Voice (Cascade, 2014, https://wipfandstock.com/echoes-of-a-voice.html). In the latter, Wordsworth comes in for a bit of criticism. His many “spots of time” mediate a vaguely personal pantheistic god, rather than the full theistic God of N. T. Wright’s “echoes of the voice of Jesus.”

    But Wordsworth and his tribe are certainly to be commended for ceasing to depend solely on intellect and verbal wit for the attention of readers. With them literature is again more fully human. Eliot brought back the neoclassical intellect and wit, but he too, in a very different way, also launched the reader into a realm of transcendence—a fully Christian theistic realm, I might add.

    My own poet hero is Hopkins with whom I end this comment: “Glory be to God for dappled things . . . “!

    Thanks for your blog! (What a terrible word for a beautiful bit of writing!)

    Jim Sire

  • aoneal2013 commented on November 8, 2014 Reply

    Thank you, Jim! Speaking of terrible titles for beautiful writing, what about Hopkins’ “Carrion Comfort”? He is a poet hero of mine too, along with those seventeenth-century giants you mentioned.

    I think about Wordsworth’s pantheism when I read Tintern Abbey and the lines: “well pleased to recognize/In nature and in the language of sense,/The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,/The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul/Of all my moral being.”

    I had a student write about Eliot’s faith a couple of years ago, and since reading her paper, I’ve wanted to know more. Thanks for reminding me of this! And thanks for taking the time to read my blog and for commenting so thoughtfully. Your books are now on my reading list. Look forward to gleaning more from your ideas! God bless.

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