The first time I realized this was when I was reading Emily Dickinson’s poetry. Dickinson was a spectacularly gifted fantasist and no slouch in the spirituality department. She used fantasy to explore the deepest mysteries of existence.
The worlds out of sight—whether within the mind, within nature, or within the locked universe of the dead—are Dickinson’s primary poetic themes, even her obsessions. Through fantasy she can explore these ungraspable worlds, while still acknowledging that they are ungraspable. She captures mysteries without destroying their mysteriousness, without reducing
them to rational terms and limited, logical explanations.
I just finished a science fiction novel called The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. In it, the exploration of an alien planet by a mission financed and partly consisting of Jesuit priests results in some thoughtful and lively storytelling. Questions about evil, the nature of God, and the nature of life itself all are at home in a world with unfamiliar boundaries and inhabitants.
When a child reads a fairy tale, she stretches her imagination beyond the immediate world she lives in. In the play of the stories, she learns to consider realities she cannot touch or see.
The world is teeming with mysteries. Some people understand more than others, but none of us can see the big picture; that is not in us. Dickinson knew:
But nature is a stranger yet;
The ones that cite her most
Have never passed her haunted house,
Nor simplified her ghost.
To pity those that know her not
Is helped by the regret
That those that know her, know her less
The nearer her they get.