Saturday, 1 June 2019

Imagination, Creativity & 'Life': Principle 9

The imagination is not simply a fanciful invention of mind. Imagination is always related to knowledge in one form or another, and reason is never far from our imaginings. I define the imagination as an "intellectual activity of the mind that connects prior and new knowledge and experiences with our grasping after the unknown. It is part of the way we make sense of and respond to our world, but it also allows us to ponder the world beyond."

The use of the human imagination spreads beyond language and literature to include physical and creative actions, strategic thinking, innovation, planning and so on. The varied human outputs of life are at least partly expressed through our imaginations and longings, as we seek God and experience all he intended for us.

Indeed, imagination is part of the way we make sense of and respond to our world, and it also helps us to ponder the world beyond. The application of imagination in all of its God-given fullness, is neither simply constructive, analytical, or logical thinking, nor is it whimsical, ungrounded thinking, disconnected from data, evidence, and the senses. As Bernard Meland(1) suggested, the imagination can be something beyond “constructive understanding”. In fact, the imagination, is implicated and perhaps required in questions or reflections on one’s human destiny. This requires metaphysics and theology as well knowledge. Only at the intersection of these varied resources for thinking and imagining can we grapple with truth and the unknown.

Trevor Hart(2) drawing on the work of Richard Kearney(3), suggests that the imagination is “pervasive [and] a feature of our existence, [and is close] to the heart of our existence.” He argues that it is a critical feature of our humanity, with many connections to the mundane and everyday activities of life. It can involve “expecting, planning, exploring, fearing, hoping, believing, remembering, recognizing, analyzing, empathizing, loving, conjecturing, fantasizing, pretending.” This is in addition to what teachers might see as the more specialized creative activities of life that schools typically embrace. These language, art, literature, music, and invention.

Veith and Ristuccia remind us that human imagination also allows us to “relive the past and anticipate the future.”(3). Our God “made us as imaginative beings and placed us in a world which calls forth from us responses of an imaginative sort if we are to indwell it meaningfully and well . . . Life in all its fullness is from top to bottom, from beginning to end, a highly imaginative affair.”

The imagination is implicated as we seek to understand our world, the things we find hard to grasp, and those ideas that seem beyond our present understanding. This is true of Scientists, craftsmen, writers, builders, and doctors who all imagine futures in which they build on knowledge and know-how, to make, create, mend, and have an impact on the world.

As I explore in chapter 8 of my book 'Pedagogy and Education for Life' (Imagination and Life'), whether we read, listen, view, smell, touch hear, or even experience our world emotionally, imagination is an intellectual activity of the mind that connects prior and new knowledge and experiences. It is part of the way we make sense of our world and respond. Imagination involves much more than simply art, music, drama, dance, writing, and reading. We also imagine to consider possible futures, memories of our past, and our quest to make sense of all sensory inputs, and engage in our world. God also uses our imagination as he reaches out to us, convicts us, inspires us, and reveals the truth of his word, and also his plans for us. It is part of the way God draws us to himself.

Imagination is also evident in and required to read God’s word. In considering the role of poetry in the Old Testament, Walter Brueggemann in 'The Creative Word' challenges us to engage and consider the key role imagination plays in the poetry of the Psalms, Proverbs, and the prophets. He suggests the idiom “breaks and shatters the dominant universe of discourse.” The biblical poet writing impressionistically can draw readers into irony, metaphor, and parables, enabling the reader to maintain some critical distance while seeking meaning.(4) Hence, poetry can reveal meanings that would be beyond our grasp if not arranged just this way.

A. W. Tozer, in his book 'The Pursuit of God'(4), discusses the difference between a scribe and a prophet. He suggests the church needs to hear the “tender voice of the saint who has penetrated the veil and has gazed with inward eye upon the wonder that is God,” rather than simply being told by someone what they had read (the “scribe”). Matthew Ristuccia(5) makes the point that Ezekiel exemplifies the prophet in Tozer’s text, someone who is able to see what the scribe cannot, because unlike the scribe, his imagination has been captured as God reveals truth through the visions. So, while we know God reveals truth through his word by the power of his Spirit, our imaginations are an important way in which this truth is made known to us. Veith and Ristuccia suggest with the aid of the imagination “meaning is made . . . a vision for life is set . . . mind and heart and will converge”(5).

God uses our imaginations as he draws us toward himself. When I hear stories of acts of Christian conversion, I am always stunned at how God can use a verse or two of Scripture to draw us toward himself. And yet, the testimony of the one drawn toward him can seem so different from another reading of the same verse. God’s use of Matthew 11:28–30 to convict me of my sin and to bring me to my knees is in stark contrast to the reading of these same verses by others. Not in its meaning, but in its application, and the way God through his Spirit touched my deepest need and shone a light on my sin. I saw and heard in these words a different application than another might. The simple words became just words for me! God used my imagination to see myself with clarity for the first time. Words, truth and the imagination all played a part as God through his Holy Spirit brought me to my knees.

It is important to issue a final warning about the misuse of the imagination. God’s word warns against the improper use of our imaginations. Scripture of course gives us guidance here. Jeremiah, for example, warns us not to walk “in the imagination of [our] hearts” (Jer 13:10). And, of course, Romans 1:21–23 reminds us that humankind in its endeavors can become darkened. Instead of being wise, we can become fools and exchange the glory of God for images of him made to look like mortals or even birds, animals, and reptiles. This is a case where human imagination is depraved and can lead away from God. Hence the quest of every Christian must be to “take captive every thought” and make them obedient to Christ (2 Cor 10:5).

As well, we must not allow discussions of the role of the imagination to displace the primary revelation of God through his word. While God only seeks to lead us toward truth, our imaginations, as well as our ignorance, can lead us elsewhere. Only when our imaginations are in step with the Spirit of God are we able to plumb the depths of God’s wisdom that he reveals through his word.

Veith and Ristuccia nail home this point by suggesting that human imagination is where meaning is made, where a vision for life is set, where mind and heart and converge. It is simultaneously the most strategic and the most forgotten part of the human soul when it comes to Christian discipleship. As well, they suggest that imagination expressed within community is one of the ways God transforms us. The imagination expressed, tested, and considered with others not only transforms individuals, it changes groups and builds communities. This is a critical understanding for the teacher.

The imagination is a gift from God for life and indeed is part of the way he draws us to himself. Anthony Esolen has a delightful way of expressing the tension between what we know and what we do not know and have yet to discover:

The imagination opens out not principally to what it knows and finds familiar, but to what it does not know, what it finds strange, half hidden, robed with inaccessible light.(6)

To sum up, God made us to be imaginative beings with varied skills that we are to teach to others. Our imaginative natures are used by God in our lives and as part of our worship of and search for him. God’s revelation of himself, including his truth and purposes for us, can involve his use of our imagination (Rev 22:1–21; Eph 1:17–18). As teachers we must ask ourselves do we create classroom and school environments in which the imagination is celebrated and enjoyed as an essential part of the flourishing of human beings as knowing animals? Do we also encourage imaginative interest in learning about God’s world and his purposes, and creative applications of the knowledge and gifts he has given to us? We should!

1. Meland, 'Higher Education and the Human Spirit', 1953.
2. Hart, 'Between the Image and the Word', 2013.
3. Kearney, 'Poetics of Imagining: Modern to Postmodern', 1998.
4. Tozer, 'The Pursuit of God', 1948
5. Veith & Ristuccia, Imagination Redeemed, 2014.
6. Esolen, 'Ten ways to destroy the imagination', 2010.