According to National Geographic, scientists have identified more than 1.2 million species of animal and plant life. What makes this statistic remarkable is not what we know, but what we don’t know—according to the same source, some 7.5 million species (or 86% of all life) are still unknown to us (source).
When I discovered this fun fact, I thought to myself, “How can they possibly know what we don’t know? I mean, if there are 7.5 million other species that we don’t know about, how can we assume that they exist all together?
The answer: imagination bound with logic.
The earth is a massive planet. Science is a relatively new thing for humanity. Given the short amount of time we’ve been assigning species to living things, the sheer magnitude of the earth’s surface and sea, along with our inability to travel to the more remote places on the planet, reason leads us to believe that there’s more life on this rock than we know. When combined with the imagination, the concept takes on an added layer of amazing—what do these lives look like? How do they survive? How can we get to them?
The same process is one that I am currently exploring in my Catholic faith. For more than a decade, I’ve been studying Theology and Philosophy from the viewpoint of reason (almost) exclusively. A logical interpretation of faith via deductive reasoning, logical reflection, and a lot of Aquinas has made me a really, really boring person to talk to when it comes to God (ask my wife!). But no matter how much I understand, I find myself falling into the existential abyss that some of my favorite scholarly Saints fell into too. I’ve discovered that the more I know, the more I realize I don’t know about God.
And that’s not a bad thing.
Something truly remarkable happens when you hit this level of spiritual obscurity; you see things differently.
For me, it started with the fiction of Lewis and Tolkien. Their world-building and fantastical treatment of the faith led me to think about just how little my theological understandings of Catholicism (and religion in general) amount to. If my scientific generation can only identify 14% of all known species on this physical earth, then surely we are just as behind, if not more, in understanding an omnipotent, omniscient, and infinite God?
Initially, this realization led me into spiritual panic. All I had worked so hard for academically seemed useless when it came to sanctity: I could explain what I believed, but I could never ascend to the fullness of truth. At least, not completely.
In fact, this reality was one that Lewis himself passed through during his conversion to Christianity. He struggled to identify the source of his holy longings as something (or someone) purely based on reason and faith. It wasn’t until Tolkien influenced the young Lewis through the imaginative completion of his reasonable faith:
“For Tolkien, grasping Christianity’s meaningfulness took precedence over its truth. It provided the total picture, unifying and transcending these fragmentary and imperfect insights… Tolkien thus helped Lewis to realize that a ‘rational’ faith was not necessarily imaginatively and emotionally barren. When rightly understood, the Christian faith could integrate reason, longing, and imagination.”McGrath, C. S. Lewis – A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet
We have been reminded by the Thomists on nearly every occasion with which we have the good fortune to hear them preach that faith and reason are intimately bound. But for today’s Catholic (and for the C. S. Lewis’ of the world), a singular element is missing, one that might be the most important of all: imagination.
The knowledge that can be mined in the caves of the Catholic doctrine are second to the infinite mysteries that can be found in the skies. Faith and reason are solid first steps toward those celestial clouds, but until we can shape-shift our faith into the wings of a dragon through a proper Christian imagination, we will never live lives holy enough to soar to such heights.