Clapham Christian Classical School

Clapham Journal

Religious Affections and the Moral Imagination

By Doug Reynolds, Head of School


What sort of person are you? Are you an Intellectual or a Feeler? Are you more cognitive or more emotional? More focused on the head or the heart? So many of us categorize ourselves or others as either one or the other. At Clapham, we talk about doing BOTH: educating the mind and engaging the heart. Why are both so important? Let me give you a little background….


Jonathan Edwards

Reflect back on Dr. Todd Wilson’s talk at our Fall Benefit, where he made a passionate plea for us as believers not to forget the heart. His talk echoed Jonathan Edwards, one of the more brilliant Americans who ever lived: He was a pastor in the early 18th century, but also had a keen scientific mind.


He said we should train our “religious affections”:


“It is evident that religion consists so much in affection, as that without holy affection there is no true religion; and no light in the understanding is good which does not produce holy affection in the heart: no habit or principle in the heart is good which has no such exercise; and no external fruit is good which does not proceed from such exercises.” (Jonathan Edwards, The Religious Affections)


If you head back over to England not too long after, we meet Edmund Burke, a statesman and political philosopher of the mid-18th century who was a generation older than William Wilberforce and also a Member of Parliament.  He coined the phrase “Moral Imagination” which one scholar has explained this way: by this “moral imagination,” Burke signifies that power of ethical perception which strides beyond the barriers of private experience and momentary events “especially,” as the dictionary has it, “the higher form of this power exercised in poetry and art.” The moral imagination aspires to the apprehending of right order in the soul and right order in the commonwealth. This moral imagination was the gift and the obsession of Plato and Virgil and Dante.

Russell Kirk – a conservative political philosopher of the mid twentieth century wrote a book called “The Moral Imagination”: here’s how he defined it:

“The moral imagination is an enduring source of inspiration that elevates us to first principles as it guides us upwards towards virtue and wisdom and redemption.” (Russell Kirk. “The Moral imagination.” in Literature and Belief Vol. 1 (1981), 37–49)


So, how do we cultivate these inspirational ideas that lead to character development and virtue in children (and in people as old as me)?


I think we can get some help from CS Lewis, who seems to address the inspiration for this moral imagination in The Magicians Nephew. During the opening chapter he describes Eustace as a boy who was not able to imagine much, had few friends and couldn’t relate to people well. Lewis attributes this to the fact that “he read all the wrong books” – only books filled with pictures and information. It was only through a dramatic and painful conversion later in the story that he became a changed boy.



The Magician's Nephew

Recent studies tracking adults’ ability to relate to others have noted that the only consistent factor that indicated a higher ability to have empathy and relate to others later in life was whether the person read fiction, poetry, or history.


So, the bottom line is READ GOOD BOOKS TO YOUR CHILDREN! Clapham’s reading list, for instance, is a gold mine. Buy these books, share them with others, or borrow many of them from the library. Spend time reading aloud to your children. The reading of classic texts helps shape the moral imagination and provides the foundation of ideas that can help a child (or any of us) be better equipped for relating to the world.


Of course, the nightly reading of scripture as a family helps put all this back into Edwards’ context – training both the mind and heart so that our “religious affections” are drawn to a deeper love of God.


And more than just reading them, talk about the books with your kids at the dinner table. Talk about current events. Engage in conversation. Last year when our leadership team had some training from our ERB expert, we asked about the best way to help our students raise their verbal reasoning scores on the test. Surprisingly, his answer was: dinner table conversations.


You’ll also hopefully have seen the two videos we posted in the New Observer recently. You are investing in a private school education for your child and these are two helpful videos (one from Andrew Kern of The CirCe Institute and one from a professor at Hillsdale) that describe how the Common Core requirements coming from Washington are moving us away from the ideas of Edwards, Burke, Kirk and Lewis. I won’t comment on the Common Core other than to say that we are pursuing a very different model with much more lofty objectives and goals for children.


Ultimately, the work of a sovereign God, through the Holy Spirit, is going to change and sustain our affections and create a Godward-orientation of our hearts and minds. Let us then prayerfully and diligently shepherd our children toward this end and marvel at what God does to use this to glorify Himself.


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