What is the moral imagination?
In this video, Dr DeAnn Stuart shares the importance parents have in building their morals through storytelling.
A parent's reflection:
My spiritual director coined a catchy phrase that I find myself thinking often through the day: “holy families don't just happen.” The implications behind that phrase are profound. Holiness, particularly in this culture, is not something we stumble into accidentally, but rather an intentionality of seeking Truth, Beauty, and Goodness that is woven into and forms every aspect of our lives. It is the willful striving towards sainthood.
I desire, or rather, I am called to, through my vocation, to give my children the tools to do this.
One large way that we, as parents, can do this, is by forming their moral imaginations.
Andrew Pudewa, of IEW fame, speaks often of the moral imagination. He begins his lecture, Fairy Tales and the Moral Imagination, by explaining the four types of knowledge:
Scientific (which can be proven physically),
Logical (which can be explained philosophically),
Dialectical (which can be argued), and
Poetic (which is what we know in our inmost beings to be True).
He continues to say that until postmodern times, Scientific Knowledge was viewed as the most basic and simplistic and Poetic was considered the highest form of knowledge.
Contrary to contemporary thinking, education is not just about learning skills useful in making a lot of money, but about forming virtuous persons and cultivating the child’s soul so that he or she is a temple fitting for the Holy Spirit. We do that through teaching Poetic Knowledge. I know, I know: we also need to teach the Scientific Knowledge, but it is through the Poetic that we will teach our children an innate understanding of that which is True, Good, and Beautiful. More succinctly, of God.
As parents, we are the primary educators of our children, so it is imperative that we ask ourselves how, then, we can educate our children in a way that forms and feeds their moral imaginations.
This has always been done through stories. Every culture has sought Truth through stories. Myths, fables, parables, epochs, songs, fairy tales, paintings, sculpture, and most recently television, and movies. Every form of art tells a story and it is our job as parents to feed our children’s moral imaginations with art forms - stories - that enrich and enlighten. Our Lord Himself used stories to convey the difficult truths of Christianity.
Exposing our children to these stories doesn’t happen haphazardly, but through an intentional discernment of what our families choose to listen to, read, and watch. It would be an accident if we did stumble upon a worthy story in this culture. Holy stories don’t just happen, if you will. I’ve taken that very seriously in my motherhood and am pretty discriminating on what stories enter into our home - from what books we read to what hangs on our walls. I want every story my children observe, heck, what my husband and I observe, to mold and feed our moral imaginations.
What makes a worthy story worthy, though?
It is the story in which good is good and evil is evil. What we look for in stories is for the proper ordering of good and evil and the triumph of
good over evil. Pudewa calls these “whole” or “healing” stories. They help order our own senses and affections properly, through which, we learn virtue. When we read a healing story, we naturally interject ourselves into it. We ask questions about what we would have done in that situation. We develop an internal dialogue that helps us navigate the concepts of right and wrong. This is to say: we develop our moral imaginations.
We are, by nature of being human, in a battle to kill the evil parts in our nature. When evil is defeated in a story, we recognize in our inmost being that we can overcome evil in ourselves. We are reminded of the Passion and the subsequent Redemption - the greatest story ever told, the greatest Truth ever shared. Our souls behold beauty in a worthy, healing story and we build up in ourselves a sense of goodness.
One source I read separates stories into three categories: worthy, roller-coaster, and twisted. The first is self-evident and in this category you will find the great works like Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, Where the Red Fern Grows, Chronicles of Narnia. The second is filled with stories that wouldn’t be considered classically worthy, but don’t direct our imaginations in away from Truth; these are stories that act a lot like sweets - they’re fine in small amounts but will make you sick if that’s all you read. The last one sickens me - these stories are manipulative and deserves a millstone around the neck for destroying so many innocent souls: the twisted story. This is one in which good is portrayed as evil and evil is misunderstood. It’s the ultimate inversion and literally the oldest lie in the book (see: Genesis 3). This is the story type that is pushed most often in our culture and we need to take pains to intentionally avoid these. This is pretty hard to do when you frequent the library as often as our family does. My children are voracious readers which is a blessing and a curse - I can’t pre-read every book!
Developing Moral Imagination with Intention
There are several ways, though, that our family intentionally feeds our moral imaginations. The first is maintaining an open dialogue with our children regarding what we look for in stories. I show them TV shows and movies in our Netflix account which I have started and stopped within minutes and they have seen me return a book to the library. I’m upfront with them that the reason is because these were bad stories. It’s important that the desire for a moral imagination to be a real, concrete idea for children and the way we can do that, as parents, is to demonstrate that within our own lives.
The second way is my favorite! We listen to audiobooks together all the time. CS Lewis is credited with saying that, “A children's story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children's story in the slightest.” I agree, Mr. Lewis. I’ve found myself walking the Hundred Acre woods with Pooh, sobbing when Beth dies (and still shaking my fist that Amy and Laurie marry!), and cheering on Jim Hawkins in his adventures more times as an adult alongside my children than I did myself as a child. Read books aloud to your children, and listen to audiobooks together, watch family movies, tell stories of your own childhood struggles and triumphs. Let them experience these stories over and over - as many times as they ask - because they are discovering new truths and building up their concept of the Ultimate Truth every time. Then discuss and dissect the stories in an organic manner; talk with your kids about it! Allow the characters to become friends as real to the children as their actual friends are - these literary friends will provide almost as much goodness in their lives as their real friends, I promise. This immersion into good stories will become a part of your family culture and your children will see you taking seriously the desire to feed your own moral imagination and will, in turn, imitate you. Not the least important benefit of all, too, is that I suspect you will find as much joy and beauty in these stories as your children will!
Words of St. Paul
“Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Saint Paul, even without using the words moral imagination, was describing exactly that: seeking God intentionally through His creation, and holding those things closely within our hearts. Our children will one day find themselves faced with doubts and questions, and it is through good, worthy, real stories that they will find their footing. To “know it by heart” indicates more than just memorization, but rather to have something imprinted in our souls. These imprints - this moral imagination -will become what our children turn to by instinct because it has become a part of who they are as a person. It is our sacred duty, then, to surround them with stories that build up their idea of Good and teach them the ways of evil. And it is through this that holy families will, indeed, happen.