imagination

Adrian Vermeule:

The radicals, the extremists, the idealists, the critics, the dissenters, the activists of social change, have in my lifetime been far more realistic, and simultaneously more imaginative, [than the so-called “realists’] about the capacious and flexible limits of political and legal change. The activists who pushed for same-sex marriage, even when Congress and dozens of states had passed statutes barring it — and who, after the Obergefell decision, turned on a dime to promoting transgenderism; the Trump voters who ignored the ironclad predictions of their betters; Chris Rufo, who has achieved the nearly unimaginable in the wars over critical race theory and public education — all these have had a sense of the possible, a breadth of vision, that the myopic realist can only imagine possessing.

Vermeule makes a very strong historical argument here for the ways in which passionate and committed political imagination makes the formerly impossible first possible and then inevitable. 

But I would like to suggest — channelling Dr. Ian Malcolm, of course — that political imagination doesn’t simply involve asking whether we could, it also requires us to think about whether we should. And I believe that for Christians such reflection should lead to a question: How must I be formed as a Christian in such a way that I can be worthy of the power and influence I desire? That the integralists and Christian nationalists I read don’t seem to be asking that question is, I think, cause for concern. 

(If they believe that their profession of faith is sufficient to qualify them, then I would suggest that they take the time to read The Brothers Karamazov — attending particularly to the debate about Ivan’s article in Part I, Book II, Chapter 5, and Ivan and Alyosha’s discussion of Ivan’s “poem” of the Grand Inquisitor in Part II, Book V, Chapter 5.) 

And I would also suggest that political imagination, properly exercised, expands our sense of what counts as political — that is, as contributing to the health of the polis. Later in his essay Vermeule argues that

the rich and varied apprehension of higher things, the glorious pageant of Catholicism, spills over to broaden the political and active imagination. It is a paradox that the massively multigenerational projects of the Middle Ages, the cathedrals and castles, were undertaken by men whose life spans were on average shorter than our own. A paradox, but perhaps no accident; after all they inhabited a richer imaginative world.

This also is true, but I wonder whether Vermeule has fully grasped his own point. Because if our common life is greatly enriched by “multigenerational projects” like cathedrals — and beautiful parish churches, and universities and other schools — then should politically concerned Christians be quite so focused on who’s going to win the next elections?