Inspiration is important to every kind of human knowledge, art, and practical skill, but what is it? Inspiration is a kind of insight with a sense of divine illumination. This experience is like a light shining in darkness, a shift to a new and higher perspective, or someone who is blind receiving sight. Like the pieces of a puzzle fitting together to create a coherent picture, inspirations generate understanding, allowing us to see the things we already know fit together in a new way.
But where do we find inspiration? Logic alone is not enough, but we do have some idea how to cultivate insight. In particular, the best teaching is the art of accelerating insights, of one person helping another to understand. An inspiring teacher raises questions, offers hints, removes distractions, and suggests images that encourage insights; the child, student or disciple has the humility and trust to be drawn to new understanding.
Like natural insight, supernatural inspiration is rarely about acquiring new facts, but new understanding. The experience of human teaching suggests to us that a personal relationship with God will be a fruitful context for such inspirations to flourish – as with the future St Paul suddenly encountering Christ and seeing the history and theology of the Jewish people in a dramatically new light (Acts 9:3–9).
Similarly, it is not surprising that societies with a strong focus on sacred personal prayer, liturgies, and stories, will also generate rich and innovative senses of ordered wholes, whether in the perception of the natural world, in art, science, music, or society. On this account, it is second-personal relationships, with the Holy Spirit or saintly people, that can help us to escape cold, sterile and closed circles of thought, inspiring us to see reality in new and divine ways.
Fr Pinsent is in the faculty of theology and religion, University of Oxford