A shorter version of this has been published in the Christian Courier.
At every university student poster sale, Einstein’s wild hair (and sometimes protruding tongue) accompanies his quip that “Imagination is more important than logic.” Imagination is not the sole domain of the artsy and literary types, and it is good that we have a scientist promoting more than rationalism. But Einstein’s next line opens up all kinds of surprises: “Imagination is the language of the soul.” Yes, the imagination is religion’s home country, and every Christian’s gift to steward. Survival is insufficient, as Star Trek’s famous quote tells us. We must all explore beyond the visible and the known to somewhere better.
“Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will get you everywhere.”
- Albert Einstein
(image from Rob de Roy Pixabay)
So let the writer’s circles have their creative writing retreats in the woods, with plots of elves, apocalypse or wormhole travel. Today’s on-line acrylic painting workshop participants are free to dream of skies ablaze with orange and purple fire. But God’s good gift of imagination is so much more versatile, ubiquitous and democratically distributed! Fantasy is fine, superfluous beyond our evolutionary needs, but it is not all we can imagine.
Imagination is as expansive a concept as worldview–as I’ve said in another blog, it may even be a more fulsome understanding of how human beings orient themselves to the world. James K. A. Smith has been a champion of this shift in emphasis–from the intellect to desire, from the head to the heart (as I explained in detail here). We can imagine new worlds in our world now (beyond the arts!)—in fields such as engineering, recreation, and psychology, for example. Allow me to demonstrate.
From What Is to What If
Ties van der Hoeven, Dutch engineer and co-founder of The Weather Makers, has plans to rejuvenate the entire Sinai Peninsula, transforming it from desert to green valleys. The Guardian (March 20, 2021) reports that he believes “the Sinai could be transformed from a hot, dry, barren desert into a green haven teeming with life: forests, wetlands, farming land, wild flora and fauna.”
If it sounds like science fiction, something similar was done in Inner Mongolia, China, in a region the size of France in the early 1990s. Planting trees, terracing slopes, retaining water, re-directing herd grazing—“within 20 years, the deserts of the Loess plateau became green valleys and productive farmland.”
A UN environmentalist comments on this bold and seemingly idealistic Sinai restoration plan: “The main challenge is the lack of human imagination; our inability to see a different future because we’re staring down this dystopian path of pandemic, climate change, biodiversity loss.”
“Imagination is the only weapon in the war against reality.”– Lewis Carroll
On a much smaller scale, U.K. residents can imagine a new world for recreation in their neighbourhood. The Playing Out program in southwest England supports parents who want to close their street to cars for set times so children can play on the road. Rob Hopkins From What Is to What If: Unleashing the Power of Imagination to Create the Future We Want (2019) reports that there are now over 500 streets across the country that shut down at designated times, and the pavement is covered with chalk drawings, swinging skipping ropes, wild bicyclers and tireless skateboarders.
Again, if it sounds like dream to you, that is just how it began: someone had a vision for a better world for local kids. “Traffic just needs to be, for just an hour or two, put in its place,” says one of the local coordinators. Activist and writer Hopkins adds, “We need to play at living in the kind of world we want to create.”
Finally, an even smaller venue for imagination is our homes—and one step more intimate—our inner lives. With mandatory social isolation rules, our homes can feel like a trap. Young or old, cabin fever sets in as the months now roll into COVID years. Our well-being atrophies. The New York Times has had two articles recently urging us to “Go Ahead. Fantasize” (Jan. 16) and “Don’t Take Your Head Out of the Clouds!” (April 10). You don’t break any social distancing rules when you travel in your mind. Such practises as reminiscing about good times past—a first kiss or a calming nature scene, or conversely, anticipating a better future—a hug from a loved one or the first post-COVID party—help us cope with our present stress. We can imagine restored community life. Daydreaming need not be just idle distraction. It can build resilience and hope.
“Imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire, you will what you imagine, and at last, you create what you will.”– George Bernard Shaw
Advocates of imagination for children’s education or adult productivity, however, can easily overplay human agency and “the power of possibility.” “If you dream it, you can become it,” is the cliché of our cultural moment, not too far from some notion of the American Dream. Henry David Thoreau said: “The world is but a canvas to the imagination”—supposing our will and mastery are the only players on the field.
Such daydreaming advice arises from our therapeutic culture, and at this point in the pandemic, some therapy can certainly help us manage. But our imagination is not the singular power that saves the planet as the Romanticists assume, and human ingenuity is not the sole or even primary agent of spiritual and social transformation. Imagination-talk can easily start to sound like humanistic hubris. For one thing, our imaginations can run away with us, and fuel our nightmares, anxieties, and obsessions. Our imaginations can torment us and even betray us. Our artistic expressions can lie to us as much as any philosopher. In fact, they may be ever more clever and subtle in their deceit.
Our creative and inventive powers can also oppress other people. On another level, imagination is the dark power that creates bombs, all manner of torture devices, and infinite other ways to harm others. So this great capacity in us requires some selective intentional suppression and social control. These powers of our mind need discipline and limits just as much as any other human capacity. Much therapy, not to mention prayer, spiritual exercise, and worship, are (at their best) training our imaginations for healthy living, and more significantly, for a life of service and hope. We aspire to an imagination contrary to the business-as-usual approach in the university, the government, and the marketplace. We imagine not more-of-the-same, but as James K. A. Smith book title suggests, we “imagine the kingdom”—the new creation arising from the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Ultimately, this kind of formation is a grace as much as it is an effort in trying to get it right.
Another way to qualify any imagination hype is to say that our power to imagine is not purely human invention. It is a capacity gifted to us by an Other, which might prompt us to question the idea that we are designed only for evolutionary competition and survival. Our imaginations are so much more than what is biologically necessary. Survival is insufficient, and so we have such things as art, music, literature and drama. And science, sports, and business, too. Imagination, like consciousness, points beyond itself.
“[The prophetic imagination] is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.”Walter Brueggemann The Prophetic Imagination (2001)
This is also suggests that this inherent capability to envision the invisible, to ponder possibilities, and dream the impossible is more than just a tool for increased productivity or generating new technology. In a way, it is a response to what is Already There, what came before us and what we have learned—by some grace—to perceive and understand in some coherent way. Imagination takes our memories and mixes them in a fresh way; it is a response-abililty. This world is a revealed world of wonders and mysteries, and also now devastating horrors. Creation is primary, and it sets the conditions for imagination to address our weary and wounded circumstance. On the opposite end of our timeline, our eschatology pre-conditions our dreams today. In sum, thinking about the powers of imagination can lead to humility as much as hubris, not to mention confession and repentance, too.
In sum, imagination—and more broadly, as Calvin Seerveld has said, the “nuancefulness” of aesthetics—most definitely comes to play in fields beyond the arts. We are called as humans to both stretch and chasten our imaginations as stewards of the planet. A Christian imagination sees that there is more to the world than just the world. It imagines against the worldly world in order to live a little closer to God’s new world. That coming dawn isn’t always fully visible and that is why imagination is so close to the heart of faith and hope. In fact, the new world is “immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine” but it’s a “power that is at work within us” that should lead us to give God the glory (Eph. 3:20). Imagine that.