By: Wen Reagan
“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1 NRSV). In other words, faith involves more than meets the eye.
Yet we are not disembodied souls. The Lord has given us bodies and declared that we need eyes to see and ears to hear. In fact, God thinks so highly of our bodies that God the Son took on our flesh so that he might dwell with us and we with him. As somatic creatures, we grapple with the world and live our lives through our bodies and our senses. And the same is true for our faith. We are, as philosopher James K. A. Smith puts it, more “homo liturgicus” than “homo cognitus,” more desiring creatures living from our senses and hearts than thinking things calculating life from our brains.
And our hearts? They have eyes.
Now, this might seem like a messy mixing of philosophy and metaphor, but it’s what we’re thinking about at the Visual Faith Project. And, what exactly, is the Visual Faith Project? I’m glad you asked. Simply put, the Visual Faith Project is about harnessing the power of images for spiritual transformation. The project is a practice, a practice that is useful for all kinds of spiritual transformation settings, including discipleship, small groups, Christian education, counseling, even preaching. So what does Visual Faith, as a practice, look like? During a Visual Faith exercise, participants are invited to connect with scripture through the stories, thoughts, and feelings they find bubbling up from an image they have selected out of a hundred, all spread across a table.
Wait, what? That sounds really, really simple.
It is really simple. Yet this is also why it’s so amazing. As Christians, we often think the best way to learn about God and to develop a relationship with God is through a cognitive assent of doctrine or ideas. We assume we should have to work hard thinking about things in order to engage with God and others. But we’re more than “thinking things,” and we actually often learn things with our bodies (somatically), our senses (affectively), and our desires (the heart), even as we learn things with our minds. Working within these other pathways can be really simple, because they tap into our “hardware” that’s always running, always feeling, always desiring, in order to make sense of the world.
When we pair images with scripture, we allow ourselves to engage with God and one another in deeper, more holistic ways, ways that tap into our whole being. We allow our senses and our heart to “bypass” the cognitive filters and constraints we all create. So conversations emerge from this collision of image with word, a collision that has a way of revealing internal rooms inside of us—rooms of memories, emotions, and thoughts—that we have often cognitively closed, or forgotten, or never knew were there!
So what does that mean? It means one image could give me new eyes to see a Bible passage. New words to describe how I connect with a Bible story. Or new insights from others, as I see how an image touched them in a way I would never have imagined. One image could draw our hearts out onto our sleeves.
The Visual Faith Project is in the business of excavating the heart. And we think this is important for spiritual transformation, because this is what Jesus was after as well. Jesus cut straight to the heart with his questions. “Go,” he told the Samaritan woman at the well, “call your husband and come back.” And suddenly, her heart was on her sleeve, and a conversation that led to spiritual transformation ensued. We don’t have the piercing eyes of Jesus to see into souls. But images—in some small and weird way—somehow do. When we employ them in our spiritual practices, we tap into a more holistic, somatic experience that draws our hearts out into the open so that they can engage with Scripture more fully. And from there, it is the beautiful, joyous, unpredictable, and piercing work of Christ through the Holy Spirit that sets those hearts on fire. So that, just as his disciples said, we can say, “Did not our hearts burn within us?”
Now, if this sounds intriguing, but still confusing, I get that. In fact, trying to use a cognitive, linear format like writing to explain the somatic, extra-cognitive experience of Visual Faith is really impossible. We like to say it’s a “taste and see” experience. So if you’re looking for a spiritual practice that helps your people connect with scripture, God, and one another in a way that helps them wear their hearts on their sleeves, come taste and see Visual Faith!
Learn more about the Visual Faith Project and purchase Visual Faith Image Packs at: https://vibrantfaith.org/visualfaith/
Dr. Wen Reagan serves as the Visual Faith Project Manager at Vibrant Faith Ministries, where he develops and shepherds the Visual Faith practice with Executive Director Dr. Nancy Going and Resident Researcher Ralph Ennis. Wen also serves as the Director of Worship at All Saints Church in Durham, NC and as an Adjunct Instructor of Church History and Worship at Duke Divinity School.