It’s time to bring this short series on Sanctified Imagination to a close. Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen how using our imagination can be a friend to our life of faith in several different ways. In all of these, some common threads have emerged — three positive, and one more challenging. I’d like to spend some time today bringing these themes together.
First, imaginative practices are all about creativity. Back in the series on character traits as examples of Good Fruit, we defined creativity as generating new ideas and finding new pathways for action. Imaginative practices help with both of these aspects, allowing us to find new symbols and metaphors (like Julian’s hazelnut, my dripping faucet, or James Cone’s linking of the cross and the lynching tree), and generating alternative visions of how we can live in the world (like Dr. King’s Dream, Abi’s newfound acceptance of God’s love and grace, or the Romance genre’s insistence that good relationships and satisfying sexuality are possible in a hurting world). Moreover, the deeper we use our imaginations, the more embodied our experiences within them become, transcending ‘mere’ thought to visualization and rehearsal of success. This has been shown to work for elite athletes who visualize their performance, and it can work for us too.
The alternative pathways imaginative practices generate also help us to find hope in the midst of suffering and to resist oppression. From Jewish apocalyptic, which imagined the Day when Israel’s enemies would finally be destroyed, through the resilience of Black theology to imagine a better life, to Abi, whose imaginative reading of John 8 allowed her to drop the story of shame she had been taught, people of faith have used their sanctified imaginations to push back against the world as we know it and demand better.
All of this leads to a more intimate and personal kind of faith. And this is why I think that, despite official Christian skepticism, men and women of faith have always been attracted to mysticism. And indeed the place of symbol, vision, image, and imagination within this Western Christian ‘minority report’ gives its spirituality a far more personal, human, and embodied sensibility than either the Western formal theological tradition or Eastern Christianity. Western theology pretty much separated theology from spirituality altogether; while this was not the case in Eastern Christianity, this tradition took a more ‘scientific’ approach to spirituality, prizing the objectivity of repeatable and universal (in potential if not in practice) experiences over personal experiences. When, for example, Orthodox theologians write about the experience of the Divine Light in hesychastic prayer, they are describing a phenomenon that many monks experienced, not unique personal encounters with God as we have in the West. As much as I love Eastern theology, it can feel aloof and distant because of this preference. The more personal practices which emerged on the fringes of Western Christian spiritual life, on the other hand, lean into the subjective, making this path seem more personal and approachable than its Eastern counterpart.
In the opening post of the series, I mentioned that I think Christianity’s general suspicion of imagination had primarily epistemological origins: because its focus is so much on ‘what is’, it devalues ‘what is not’. In the subsequent posts, we’ve seen that this concern isn’t as problematic as it may seem, that engaging with ‘what is not’ can be a source of hope as much as delusion. But a second concern has come up consistently in this series, one connected more to Buddhist than to Christian philosophy. This is the question of whether things like ‘hope’ and ‘resistance’ are actually harmful rather than helpful.
This objection claims that hoping for a better future is fundamentally an act of denial. All we can do is live today as best as we can. I’m actually very sympathetic to parts of this argument, as antithetical as it may be to the importance of hope within my own Christian worldview. A similar objection arose in the posts a couple months ago about our life stories, and I’m going to make a similar response here. Just as the problem there wasn’t telling stories about ourselves, but clinging to them, so too is the problem not hope but our attachment to it. If we cling to our imaginative worlds at the expense of living in the here and now — if we are biding time until our fantastic quest begins or Meg Ryan shows up at our door, or if we insist that a promise God made to specific people in the Scriptures functions necessarily as a promise to us too — we are in deep trouble.
There are three aspects to this.
First, to be used healthily, our hope for the future must be linked to present action. Remember, Dr. King didn’t just sit around dreaming, but advocated for the “direct action” of strikes, marches, and sit-ins. In the same way, if we long for a quest, we need to take the attitude we’d bring to that adventure into our boring office job; if we long for a satisfying relationship, we need to be the person we would be in that relationship in our interactions with our friends, colleagues, and cashiers. Dreaming of a better tomorrow is wonderful and powerful, but if it isn’t going to be an exercise in delusion, futility, and frustration, we need to use those dreams to inform how we act today.
Second, when we talk about ‘resistance’ we have to make sure what we’re resisting isn’t the Truth. Resisting oppression cannot be resisting the truth that oppression exists. Resisting despair doesn’t mean denying the things that aren’t right in the world. Our lives are what they are and we need to accept them as they are, forgive them for being as they are, bless them as they are, and give thanks to them as they are. This isn’t easy — there are literally entire religions built on trying to achieve this. It will remain an elusive goal for all of us. But that doesn’t make it any less important. Our hopes and dreams for a better life or better world are not excuses for us to deny or reject the truth of what is actually happening around us.
And third, we need to recognize that the world isn’t all about us. We may be the main character in our own story, but we aren’t the main character in others’ stories. This means that we can’t cling to outcomes because so much is out of our control. We can hope for racial reconciliation, and protest all we want, but if hearts and minds aren’t changed, it will only take us so far. We can hope for good relationships, and be our best selves on dates, but that doesn’t guarantee we’re going to meet someone who wants to buy what we’re selling (so to speak). The Spirit can move our sanctified imagination to a particular interpretation of Scripture, but that doesn’t mean that’s what the passage is about for everyone. We’re each of us just small pieces — beautiful and beloved pieces, but small peoples nonetheless — of a vast and complicated whole. The world isn’t about us.
In a way, we can say about all of these points what we said about personalized interpretations of Scripture earlier in this series. Our personal hopes and dreams have to be integrated into the bigger picture of our life, our faith tradition, broader society, and the world. And this means that if we want to be healthy and whole, we can only cling to what is good, true, and beautiful within our hopes and dreams and not to any particular outcome. To use language we used often in the Knowing God series, our imaginations are not the territory, and they may not even be a map, but they can be like photographs of the territory that can help us know when we’ve found it. And in a messy and hurting world, we need all of the help we can get to find our bearings.
With these considerations firmly in mind, then, I hope we all embrace the power of our sanctified imaginations to help us to live faithful lives: by generating new symbolic connections that help us better understand our world and faith, by helping us see new and better ways of living in the world, by offering us hope and resilience in the face of despair and suffering, and by reminding us that God is not distant but is here with us, “everywhere present and filling all things.”
Come, let us imagine together.