Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Imagination and Faith

We were all born with imaginations.  Most of us had imaginary friends.  We had no problem accepting strange tales of other worlds or alternative realities.  In children's stories, it isn't uncommon for animals to talk in plain English or people to possess some superhuman capability.  But somewhere along the way, we usually begin to discourage imagination in our children.  We tell them to stop using the imaginative aspects of their brains and begin using other forms of cognition- namely reason.  Education in Western culture is heavy on reason and empirical evidence and light on imagination.  Thus, we regularly exercise our reason while our imaginations atrophy.

Of late, I have begun to long for a return of imagination to the practices of the church.  I can see several ways in which a healthy imagination might enrich the faith community.

1) The majority of Jesus' teachings appeal to the imagination rather than reason.  Parables and paradox (Jesus' favorite ways of teaching) were never meant to be understood- but experienced.  Who among us hasn't wanted to attend the party the Father threw for his prodigal son (or become infuriated by it!).  If Jesus wanted to convey static, rationalistic truth he could have given us a few formulae or a couple of lists (aka, 7 ways to...).  Rather, he told stories that demanded participation and imagination in order to fully transform the person.  Mathematical formulae teach us, but good stories change us.

2) Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote that prayer was "dreaming in league with God."  Thus prayer is dreaming God's dreams after him.  This notion of prayer has often saved me from self-absorbed drudgery.  Oftentimes, I find myself dreaming with God about a situation, the church, or the world in a way that words could never convey.  Perhaps the simplest definition of prayer is dreaming with God.  (By the way, have you ever noticed how prominent dreams are in the Bible as sources of revelation but how skeptical we are of them today).

3) The Bible is chock full of metaphor, which convey meaning at a level deeper than reason.  Metaphors demand imagination, because as their most literal level, metaphors are lies.  When we say, "God is a rock," or "God is our Father," we must- even subconsciously- play with what that means in our lives.

4) Our younger generations are open to imagination in a way that older generations are not.  Many youth I know are more comfortable in the world of Harry Potter than 5th period biology.  They are comfortable thinking about alternative realities as opposed to the "real world" we see before our eyes.  It's not that biology isn't true; it's just that biological truth doesn't matter as much as other truth.

5) That which controls our imaginations controls our lives.  We live in a world that appeals to image in every way, and what we see behind our eyes shapes what we see in front of them.  Those who see the universe as a closed system of cause and effect will find evidence to support the same.  Those who see the universe as a creation full of mystery and wonder will find evidence to support the same.  The world we imagine is usually the world we seek to create.  If we believe that, in God's reality, lions lie down with lambs, then fear and self-preservation are no longer the primal motivations behind everything we do, and peace becomes a viable way of life in the world.

I'm not saying that faith is irrational, and I fully believe that we should use our best reason in being God's people.  However, I do believe that faith is super-rational, and oftentimes our imaginations are better guides in the land of mystery and wonder than our reason.

For all these reasons (and more) I believe the church should be a place where imagination is welcomed and cultivated.  What do you think?