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It All Turns On Affection

In his Jefferson Lecture earlier this year, Wendell Berry said: The term “imagination” in what I take to be its truest sense refers to a mental faculty that some people have used and thought about with the utmost seriousness. The sense of the verb “to imagine” contains the full richness of the verb “to see.” […]

In his Jefferson Lecture earlier this year, Wendell Berry said:

The term “imagination” in what I take to be its truest sense refers to a mental faculty that some people have used and thought about with the utmost seriousness. The sense of the verb “to imagine” contains the full richness of the verb “to see.” To imagine is to see most clearly, familiarly, and understandingly with the eyes, but also to see inwardly, with “the mind’s eye.” It is to see, not passively, but with a force of vision and even with visionary force. To take it seriously we must give up at once any notion that imagination is disconnected from reality or truth or knowledge. It has nothing to do either with clever imitation of appearances or with “dreaming up.” It does not depend upon one’s attitude or point of view, but grasps securely the qualities of things seen or envisioned.

I will say, from my own belief and experience, that imagination thrives on contact, on tangible connection. For humans to have a responsible relationship to the world, they must imagine their places in it. To have a place, to live and belong in a place, to live from a place without destroying it, we must imagine it. By imagination we see it illuminated by its own unique character and by our love for it. By imagination we recognize with sympathy the fellow members, human and nonhuman, with whom we share our place. By that local experience we see the need to grant a sort of preemptive sympathy to all the fellow members, the neighbors, with whom we share the world. As imagination enables sympathy, sympathy enables affection. And it is in affection that we find the possibility of a neighborly, kind, and conserving economy.

Obviously there is some risk in making affection the pivot of an argument about economy. The charge will be made that affection is an emotion, merely “subjective,” and therefore that all affections are more or less equal: people may have affection for their children and their automobiles, their neighbors and their weapons. But the risk, I think, is only that affection is personal. If it is not personal, it is nothing; we don’t, at least, have to worry about governmental or corporate affection. And one of the endeavors of human cultures, from the beginning, has been to qualify and direct the influence of emotion. The word “affection” and the terms of value that cluster around it—love, care, sympathy, mercy, forbearance, respect, reverence—have histories and meanings that raise the issue of worth. We should, as our culture has warned us over and over again, give our affection to things that are true, just, and beautiful. When we give affection to things that are destructive, we are wrong.

I thought about this passage today when I read, via Andrew Sullivan, this National Geographic essay about how dead languages survive. In a nutshell, the idea is that to have enough affection for the thing that you will work to ensure its survival is enough. You can’t tell people that they should love this language and work to keep it alive any more than you can order a man to love a woman he doesn’t care for. They have to want to do it, and out of this natural affection can spring new life.

I thought about Berry’s passage too when contemplating this blog reader Hector’s remarkable post about why he remains an Episcopalian, despite everything. What Hector said, basically, is that he stays out of affection — specifically, affection for the faithful old priest who brought him to Christianity through the Episcopal Church.

That is not to say that Hector stays out of sentimentality. As Berry uses it, affection is synonymous with love. We won’t bear with something difficult if we don’t love it. Nor will we bear with a difficult person. As longtime readers know, in my own problematic, and at times very painful, religious journey, I have come to appreciate how undervalued the emotions are, and how overvalued logical analysis is, in helping us to relate to the truths proclaimed by religious faith. When Kierkegaard said “truth is subjectivity,” he asserted that the kinds of truths for which one lives or dies — for example, religious truth — can only be known in full through one’s heart. In this sense, you first have to love before you can know as something, or someone, must properly be loved.

Think about it this way: if I were to pass your child in the shopping mall, I would know nothing about her. If I were to be given a briefing book with every fact about your child, I would still not know her. I would know about her, but I would not see her true worth. You, however, you love this child, and the love you have for her reveals depths within her that are closed off to me. True, your love for the child may blind you to her faults. But you cannot know her as deeply as she should be known without taking that risk.

This is what I think Pope Benedict was getting at when he said that the two great arguments for the truth of the Christian faith are art and the saints. In both cases, one is not confronted with propositions and formal arguments, but with beauty and goodness. When the heart is moved, the head may follow. If only the head is moved, and the heart remains unaffected, whatever the head decides will be on shakier ground than we think. I mean, we all know that if one’s convictions are based only on emotion, they will be unstable. But we undervalue the role emotion plays in grounding our thought in truths and realities that are not always perceptible through cognition. This, I think, is what Berry is getting at.

If we cease to love a place, or a church, or a people, or fail to cultivate our love for it (assuming it is a worthy object of our affection), it is in danger of dying in our hearts and in our lives. One can stop loving if the object of one’s love proves to be unworthy of one’s affection — that is, one wrongly gave one’s affection to something destructive. I have had friends over the years in bad relationships, who stayed in them longer than they should have because they loved, and thought loving the other required them to endure abuse. Eventually, they had the love beaten out of them, literally or figuratively.

I wonder, though, about those cases in which a loss of faith is first and foremost a failure to love as one ought to have done, and when this failure began as a failure of imagination.