Imagination is the reconciliator of paradox. In the words of S.T. Coleridge, imagination “dissolves, diffuses, 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.” Andrew Linzey draws on the importance of imagination for theological exegesis in his short article “Unfinished Creation: The Moral and Theological Significance of the Fall” published in Ecotheology: Journal of Religion, Nature & the Environment. By using a fantastical tale from The Acts of Philip about a leopard who chooses out of pity not to eat a lamb, Linzey begins by demonstrating the ways in which story, and particularly fantasy, make a strong claim on the imagination, and can thus communicate religious and spiritual truth in a way that didactic reduction cannot reveal. He quotes Rachel Trickett’s essay “Imagination and Belief” to hone in on the ways the unifying qualities of imagination can aid in the quest for theological truth:
To see truth as a process of stripping bare, paring away, is a common rational perception; to see truth as a gathering together, a process of accretion which may appear to lead to paradox and contradiction, but which, in the end, resolves them by asserting completeness, is a function of the imagination.
Linzey’s desire to emphasize the need for imaginative narrative within a theological context is to demonstrate the importance of the story of the Fall, as told in Genesis, for an establishment of ethical truth in regards to creation. The focus of the article soon shifts away from imagination and fantastical narrative when Linzey begins to unpack what seems to be the primary aim of his article, which is a defense of the fallenness of creation and its implications for the development of an ecological ethic.
Linzey is specifically addressing theologians who have rejected the concept of the Fall “simply on the grounds that it is an imaginative story.” The implications of such a rejection lead for Linzey to the following conclusions, which have an extensive ethical impact, particularly in regards to an ecological morality:
- There is no evil in the natural world.
- There is no possibility of redemption for nature, animals in particular.
- There is no human obligation to cooperate with God in the redemption of nature, animals in particular.
- There is no morally just God.
Knowing that Linzey is a prominent figure in the Christian vegetarian movement lends a deeper context to this short article, and why he has chosen to argue for the fallenness of the created world. The fallenness of creation can alternatively be seen as an impetus toward world-rejection, which has also had significant impact on the Christian relationship to the Earth. Yet for Linzey it is the teleological striving toward redemption that is of primary importance, which can be seen as a call to engage actively with the ecological crisis particularly by attending to our relationships with non-human beings. Linzey concludes by addressing one form of this engagement that takes place at a practical, daily level: “It is therefore unsurprising that the frequent backcloth to this theological issue is the intensely practical question, namely: What, or whom, are we to eat?” This short article seems to take three rapid turns, from the importance of imagination, to a defense of the story of the Fall, to a brief argument on behalf of vegetarianism as a concluding statement: “The truth is that human beings can now approximate the peaceable kingdom by living without killing sentients for food.” Coming to the article’s end one can feel as though something has been left behind, that the conclusion does not align with the introduction, and that perhaps the argument for imagination has really been used to argue for vegetarianism, without actually going deeply into the full implications of either thesis and thus cutting each short at the undeserved expense of the other.
Noting the wider context of Linzey’s position as an animal ethicist explains the turn toward an advocation of vegetarianism, and perhaps the numerous articles and books he has written on theology and animal rights can stand in place of opening up the argument further in this brief essay. His method of research for the article draws on contemporary theological and ecological scholarship, as well as returning to the primary sources of Genesis and The Acts of Philip. The argument on behalf of imagination is primarily a tool to unlock the treasures held within the narratives of the primary literature, which in turn is used to address a very specific question: ‘What, or whom, are we to eat?’ Returning to the content of the opening fantastical narrative it becomes clear the direction in which Linzey was headed, that the story was a means to argue for a specific and valid viewpoint in regards to the human relationship with non-human beings and the Earth itself. Yet, by using the argument on behalf of the value of imagination in such a way, he actually seems to undercut the purpose of the article, for in the end Linzey has drawn on the power of imagination, and fantastical narrative, not for its inherent value as a revelation of truth, but rather to forward one specific perspective reduced out of that story. To return to Trickett’s statement on different ways to approach truth—’To see truth as a process of stripping bare, paring away, is a common rational perception’—Linzey appears to have inadvertently used an argument on behalf of the unifying nature of imagination to actually strip bare and pare away the fullness of story to put forward a rational argument aimed at revealing one particular truth.
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Biographia Literaria. London, England: J.M. Dent & Co., 1906.
Linzey, Andrew. “Unfinished Creation: The Moral and Theological Significance of the Fall.” Ecotheology: Journal of Religion, Nature & the Environment 4 (1998): 20-26.
Trickett, Rachel. “Imagination and Belief.” In God Incarnate: Story and Belief, edited by A.E. Harvey. London, England: SPCK, 1981.
 S.T.Coleridge, Biographia Literaria (London, England: J.M. Dent & Co., 1906), 159.
 Rachel Trickett, “Imagination and Belief,” in God Incarnate: Story and Belief, ed. A.E. Harvey, (London, England: SPCK, 1981), 38-39.
 Andrew Linzey, “Unfinished Creation: The Moral and Theological Significance of the Fall,” Ecotheology: Journal of Religion, Nature & the Environment 4 (1998): 22.
 Linzey, “Unfinished Creation,” 23-25.
 Linzey, “Unfinished Creation,” 25.
 Ibid, 25-6.
One Reply to “Pathways to Truth: Article Review of “Unfinished Creation””
This is excellent, Becca, very nicely articulated. I’ve been thinking a lot in recent years about various inflections of the mythos of the Fall, and I think you’re quite right to criticize Linzey for diminishing the fullness of mythos and imagination to serve one particular doctrine.
From what I gather from your review, Linzey’s view of the Fall is entirely the version set out in traditional Christian orthodoxy, which is a deeply important version historically but in general has power today only for the subculture of traditional Christian believers. Yet I think many today live in a more complicated, multivalent postmodern version of the Fall. One could say there are three different Falls that are experienced simultaneously now: first, a sense of the loss — and the ecological and spiritual consequences of that loss — of a felt deeper unity between the divine, the human, and non-human nature (this is a fall from the primal state of participation mystique, resulting in a sense of alienation); second, the loss of a culturally affirmed religious and metaphysical structure of transcendence (a fall from the traditional certainties of earlier eras, with a sense of spiritual disorientation); and third, the loss of the typical modern secular sense of civilizational progress through ever-expanding human reason and freedom (a fall from the naive view of modern progress, as a result of the ecological and psychospiritual crisis of our time).
A larger view of mythos and the imagination helps us recognize these overlapping symbolic dimensions. The Fall is very much with us, and I think it is playing an important role in our transformation today as a species and as individuals, a kind of dark night of the soul initiation.