Awakening the Moral Imagination

. . . about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The writer speculated as to whether any of the world’s leaders had the “moral imagination” to forge new strategies that transcended the well-worn arguments and grievances on both sides. Someone, the columnist argued, needed to envision possibiltiies for reconciliation and justice that heeded the long history of tragedy without being captive to the past. When I read all that, it seemed to me to convey something about the courageous and creative problem-solving that we hoped might disintinguish our own graduates.

The idea of a "moral imagination" is a metaphor, of course, not a new discovery by neuroscientists. It seeks to describe the blend of ingenuity with integrity, the link between creativity and wisdom. At one simple level, the concept appeals to me because of my own upbringing. I had a father who completed a seminary degree and who was an artist. He spent much of his life in churches that saw the aesthetic and the spiritual lives at odds, so the idea of a "moral imagination" seemed to capture his own longing that art might have a richer place in an evangelical community.

I am also drawn to the concept because it tends to bridge partisan divides. The expression first appears in a long essay written in 1790 by Irish political philosopher Edmund Burke, a conservative "Whig" who admired the American struggle against George III but who shuddered at the lawlessness of the French Revolution. Once the "Parisian ferocity broke out in a shocking manner," he lamented that liberals in France had embraced an abstract ideal of liberty at the expense of order and justice, which depended on tradition and law. With the tumult in Paris, Burke declared that the "new conquering empire of light and reason" had ripped apart the "decent drapery of life." It has shred those values "furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination." In recent years, the term has caught hold among those who see the goal of education—especially for young readers—as promoting moral growth and balancing liberty with responsibility. The term has even gained some currency among a few economists, as advocates of a free market can often underscore our growing need to anticipate or envision globalization's victims.

At the same time, the concept of a moral imagination has intrigued progressives who see the imagination as essential for justice, responsible citizenship, and the resolution of conflict. Many of our scoietal problems are compounded by entrenched political stances or ideological posturing; we need scholars and leaders who can imagine alternative ways. Sometimes we get so caught up in polemical allegiances that we are slow to seek remedies for some of our foreboding challenges, whether that is the spread of infectious diseases or the risks of the most lucrative biotechnology. Sometimes innovations come so quickly that we have difficulty imagining their ethical repercussions.

The challenges waiting for the next generation of students will require more than just knowledge or training. To overcome some of the structural and ideological logjams in our global society, we also need empathy, creativity, patience and foresight—in other words, the full reach of the imagination. Christian higher education has along striven to help students sustain the historic Christian faith and a strong ethical code in the midst of a pluralistic and complex world. But can we also think more boldly about how our faith equips us to bring imaginative solutions to contemporary and future ills?

I look forward to hearing our panelists reflect on major challenges in their fields—and how our faith provides the intellectual and moral resources for addressing them.