In those simple times there was a great wonder and mystery in life. Man walked in fear and solemnity, with Heaven very close above his head, and Hell beneath his very feet. God's visible hand was everywhere, in the rainbow and the comet, in the thunder and the wind. The Devil, too, raged openly upon the earth; he skulked behind the hedgerows in the gloaming; he laughed loudly in the night-time; he clawed the dying sinner, pounced on the unbaptised babe, and twisted the limbs of the epileptic. A foul fiend slunk ever by a man's side and whispered villanies in his ear, while above him there hovered an angel of grace who pointed to the steep and narrow track. How could one doubt these things, when Pope and priest and scholar and king were all united in believing them, with no single voice of question in the whole world?
Every book read, every picture seen, every tale heard from nurse or mother, all taught the same lesson. And as a man travelled through the world his faith would grow the firmer, for go where he would there were the endless shrines of the saints, each with its holy relic in the centre, and around it the tradition of incessant miracles, with stacks of deserted crutches and silver votive hearts to prove them. At every turn he was made to feel how thin was the veil, and how easily rent, which screened him from the awful denizens of the unseen world.
Thus Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in his mediaeval novel Sir Nigel (which, incidentally, with its sequel The White Company, is the best stuff Conan Doyle ever wrote).
This passage has been in my mind over the weekend, having spent last week studying under Ted Turnau and thinking about (amongst other things) the way in which we all use imagination to construct our worlds. Conan Doyle's portrait of the middle ages may not be entirely accurate - it's a novel, after all - but within the world of the novel it is because Nigel Loring sees the world in this way that he acts as he does. It is why he travels to France, and it is why he stops on the way to pray at the shrine of St Catherine. He lives in a world that is shot through with the supernatural.
There is, of course, something slightly patronising about Conan Doyle's description. Those were 'simple times', people were naive, there was an unquestioning acceptance of the worldview presented by religious and secular authorities. But he does get something right. This is the way the world is for Nigel Loring and his contemporaries. We tend to think that there is a world of brute fact, over which people (if they are foolish or religious or both) place an imaginative layer of interpretation. We also like to think that we here in the West in the 21st century have dispensed with such things and 'see the world as it really is'. But nobody just sees the world: we see the world as this particular world, shaped by our culture, our personalities, our beliefs. And that is the way the world is for us. Note how Conan Doyle points out that experience within the world reinforces this seeing of the world - if, of course, your way of viewing the world is backed up by the cultural atmosphere and authorities and architecture.
This is not to imply some sort of worldview relativism - there are more and less true ways of seeing the world. It is simply to point out that 'seeing the world' is an active thing as much as a passive thing. When we 'see' the world, we do not merely receive perceptions, but we shape those perceptions together into an imaginative landscape which we call reality..
For Christians in the post-Christian West, one big question surely has to be: how can we 'see the world' Christianly, when the consensus of the culture is against us? How can we train our imaginations to see the world as Jesus sees it?