The Theological Importance of Imagination

Imagination is essential to Christianity.

Now, I realize most of us have had it drilled into our hearts and minds that imagination equals irresponsibility:
“Don’t tell me stories! I want the truth.”
“Stop daydreaming your life away.”
“Don’t be naive. This is life, not a fairy tale.”

Imagining is for children, so the story goes, and perhaps it is exactly the child-like quality of imagining that makes the practice essential to Christianity. Of course many of you are familiar with when Jesus said,Truly I say to you, unless you repent (change, turn about) and become like little children [trusting, lowly, loving, forgiving], you can never enter the kingdom of heaven [at all]” (Matt 18:3 Amplified).

I submit to you that imagination is vital to the Christian disciplines of being trusting, lowly, loving, and forgiving. In JK Rowling’s 2008 Harvard Commencement speech, the writer of the imaginatively (and christianly) rich Harry Potter series asserts,

Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathise with humans whose experiences we have never shared.
[…]

Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and understand, without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people’s places.

Of course, this is a power, like my brand of fictional magic, that is morally neutral. One might use such an ability to manipulate, or control, just as much as to understand or sympathise.

Imagination is not inherently evil in adults; it can be used virtuously or viciously. Used virtuously, imagination is the engine of human empathy, which is a sort of love-induced, love-inspired understanding of another human being. Love-infused understanding is the kind of knowledge we are called to embody as believers. Consider the words of the apostle Paul in yet another familiar passage:

If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge… but didn’t love others, I would be nothing. (1 Cor 13:2 New Living, emphasis mine)

In other words, we cannot know another person without love—not really, not in any way that’s constructive or virtuous… or in any way that really counts for anything. That passage goes on to assert just exactly what Christian love looks like:

Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance. (4-7)

If we are going to “never give up” on another person, we have to see in them something more than the flesh and blood standing before us. We have to see their potential beyond their failings. We have to see their image-of-God-bearing good will in the face of their hurtful words and actions. We have to see what is unseen. In other words, we have to see with eyes of faith.

We cannot, however, see through eyes of faith if we lack the “capacity to envision that which is not;” we cannot see truly if we lack imagination. Caroline J Simon, in her excellent book, The Disciplined Heart: Love, Destiny, and Imagination, puts it this way:

Perhaps, then, love can be a source of insight. In fact, I think that genuine love, in all its forms [neighbor love, romantic love…], provides insight into the loved one’s true self [the untainted Image-bearing self God created and Christ redeemed us to be]. In order for this to occur, however, our hearts must be trained and disciplined… The undisciplined heart is prone to whimsical reaction and wishful, self-interested projection; it confuses love with love’s counterfeits: infatuation, manipulation, and sentimentality. (12-13)

Simon goes on to distinguish between virtuous imagining as “the capacity to see what may not yet appear but should (emphasis mine)—should as in, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on Earth as it is in heaven” — and vicious imagining which demands my kingdom come, my will be done.

So what does virtuous and vicious imagining look like? Vicious imagining happens when a white woman sees a black man and clutches her purse. It happens when a young man creates a false notion of the young woman in the next cubical and reacts in bitterness when she does not act like her Invented Self would. It happens anytime anyone puts another person on a pedestal. And when we’re content to see people by labels instead of names.
Virtuous imagining happens when a teacher believes there’s more beneath the surface of the trouble-maker sitting in the fourth row; when he values her and therefore expects more of her than anyone ever has before. Virtuous imagining happens when a teacher or parent or friend believes in, encourages, and nurtures their student/child/friend’s work and abilities. Virtuous imagining happens when friends and lovers bring out the best in us, when they encourage and nurture the beautiful parts of us we are scared to show or didn’t even know were there. It happens when we see what the Good Samaritan saw: he saw a human being when others saw an inconvenience and a social faux pasA virtuous imagination sees beyond the foibles of the church and sees Christ in the church. 

I could go on and on, but here’s the point: if we want to be a song to the world and to one another, rather than unmitigated noise (see 1 Cor 13:1), we must learn to channel knowledge through love; we must learn to connect to one another’s humanness, to empathize. And in order to empathize, we must relearn how to imagine.

(More articles at www.ThinkingThroughChristianity.com)

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