By Robyn Neville
Practical Matters, Vol.1 (2009)
Introduction: Medieval historian Jacques Le Goff has observed that to “study the imagination of a society is to go to the heart of its consciousness and historical evolution. It is to go to the origin and the profound nature of man, created ‘in the image of God.’” A lovely sentiment, to be sure, but how might one go about the practical process of intuiting and reproducing the imaginative activities of a civilization long gone? And what purpose should such exercises serve?
In this essay, I raise the question of whether certain imaginative processes from the past might be used productively to create pedagogical strategies for the present. One of the purposes of theological education is to give future pastors, teachers, and leaders a robust sense of their Christian heritage. Imagination, I suggest, may be put to good use towards this purpose as a tool to help students enter the world of historical Christian texts. The goal must not be to entertain students merely for the purpose of enlivening the classroom experience but to invite students to venture more deeply into the cognitive realm of the historic writers themselves, or at least move them towards it. As a student of medieval historical theology, and of monastic theology in particular, I am especially interested in delving imaginatively into the historical contexts of monastic writers. If it is fruitful to help students to enter historical texts imaginatively, then perhaps first we need to have some understanding of both the theoretical and practical world of the historical practitioners themselves. I wonder, in particular, whether certain imaginative techniques employed by medieval monastic writers themselves still hold value for theology students today.
As a way to situate my questions, I present an abbreviated historical overview of the medieval understanding of imagination in the monastic context. This is to show that even as the theory of imagination changed throughout the medieval period, the imaginative practices of the monks themselves generally remained rather consistent. I then move to a pedagogical reflection that illustrates a practical method for using a kind of medieval imaginative practice in the teaching of historical texts.