Tuesday, 6 August 2019

Why has God given us imaginations?

This post is based on the ideas in my book 'Pedagogy and Education for Life'. The content was delivered in the form of two talks to the staff and leadership of Pacific Hills Christian School in Sydney in July 2019.
Veith & Ristuccia in Imagination Redeemed, suggest that the imagination allows us to “relive the past and anticipate the future”. But of course, remembering and speculating do this as well. How is the imagination different? Some ask, “Isn’t it just another kind of thinking?” Well yes, but at the same time no!

My formal definition of imagination is that “it is an intellectual activity of mind that involves the connection of prior and new knowledge and experiences to help us grasp beyond the known and the understandable” Cairney (p.124). Creativity on the other hand is a response to our imaginations, that helps us to express, understand and share, that which otherwise might seem almost unknowable. Creativity also allows us to transform these deep meanings into forms that help us and others, grasp something of the meaning being communicated.

As a Christian, while I believe that God reveals truth through his word by the power of his Spirit, I also believe he gave us imaginations that can help us as we plumb the depths of the truth in his word. But of course, we must exercise care with our imaginations as we seek the knowledge of God and what he teaches us from his word. We are warned in many places in Scripture against the improper use of the mind. For example, in 2 Corinthians 10:5, where Paul is defending his ministry against opponents who were discrediting him, he wrote “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (NIV).

I believe that as educators and Christians we have been badly served by the improper sidelining of the gift of the imagination, that God in his kindness gave to us alone, and not to any other creatures. I argue in my book that there are 4 primary reasons that God gave it to us.

First, the imagination is a human characteristic that is part of who we are; it is part of the CHARACTER God gave to us.

Second, it has been given to us by God to help us understand who he is, as well as to grasp something of our purpose as his creatures, who he made to be supported within COMMUNITY.

Third, the imagination is implicated in how God reveals truth to us, and draws us into a relationship with him through our SALVATION in and through Christ.

Fourth, the imagination is a human quality that is implicated in how our desires are shaped, and our true IDENTITY found as his chosen children.

1.    Imagination and CHARACTER

The human imagination is one of the cornerstones of our nature and character. While creativity is connected, and interrelated with the imagination, it is different and we should try not to confuse the two. Imagination is a gift of God that allows us to appreciate, understand, respond to, and marvel at the things he has done.

God is of course imaginative, and in his kindness and mercy, he made us as creatures able to use imaginations to help us understand his purposes for us as creatures made in his image.
TrevorHart writes, that “Imagination acts to perpetuate a fragment of beauty already in the world” (Hart). They are part of the way we receive and reciprocate the knowledge and beauty of God.

Imagination is expressed and used in varied ways, including our words, emotions, actions, and imaginings, and they can reveal knowledge and truth, as well as directing our passions and motivations.

I see it as the 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 helps us to grasp that there is a world beyond.

BernardMeland suggested that beyond “constructive understanding” is another level of application of the imagination, that is implicated in questions or reflections on one’s human destiny. This he suggested requires metaphysics and theology as well. Only at the intersection of these varied resources for thinking and imagining can we grapple with truth and the unknown. This is character shaping!

2.    Imagination and COMMUNITY.

While the imagination can be a solitary task, it is also something that we use and exercise within COMMUNITY. Communities are relational groups of humans in which we live with others and seek to love, explore, learn, understand and support one another.

In many ways, this is why the informal networks of life beat the formal structures of education hands down. They can have a  strong influence on the ‘heart’, life priorities, hopes and dreams. It is in communities, where young people are able to ‘speak into’ the lives of their friends in ways that few teachers and even parents can. As Lave &Wenger stressed, our students dwell together in multiple communities of practice that shape minds, lives, expectations, imaginations and hoped for futures.

Sadly, some children in our schools see little relevance for school to their worlds and the things that matter to them. The communities that matter most for them are outside the formal structures and life of school.

The extent to which we engage the world with our imaginations has a strong relationship to the multiple communities in which we are participants, members and dwellers. And in particular, it influences the allegiances we form with varied ‘Communities of Practice’.

The Apostle Paul understood the need for human transformation, as the early church emerged and people from varied backgrounds came together. In his writing, he often challenged followers of Christ to imagine different futures, different possibilities, different communities centred on Christ as early Christians lived, served and grew in community. And imagination was implicated! In Ephesians 2:1-10, we read how Paul challenged this new community of believers to grasp that they were no longer bound by their past. How else can we grasp the enormity of what God promises us in verses 6 & 7.

And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. 8

3.    The imagination and ETERNITY

Christian formation in the school and family is also about nurturing and growing the citizen on this earth with an orientation toward the next. We are ‘in-between’ people. Our students need to keep firmly in mind that this life isn’t all that there is. They must have a focus on eternity!! What we want our children to become in the world today, should be directed to what they are destined to become in the kingdom of God. Our true citizenship is elsewhere! Paul wrote to the Philippians:

Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do. 18 For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.” (Phil 3:17-21)

The focus of a Christian pedagogy is not the building of better citizens to successfully take their place in civil society (although this might be important), but rather the maturing of children in Christ.

As Paul tells the Philippian church, “our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him to subject all things to himself (Phil 3:20–21).” The stories of life have a big impact on us under the direction of God’s Spirit.

When I first heard someone teach from Matthew 11:28-30 my imagination was captured by God! Through the power of his Holy Spirit, I was able to grasp the possibility that I could have an eternal existence! ETERNITY was now emblazoned on my heart and in my mind. As well as a God-given capacity to think, understand, comprehend and reflect, my God given capacity to imagine was implicated in how I was able to grasp God’s revelation to me through his word.

I had caught a glimpse of God’s kingdom and his Son. My imagination had been captured by God! I was able to glimpse that I could have an eternal existence! ETERNITY was now emblazoned in my heart and mind.

4.    Imagination and IDENTITY

God also uses our imaginations in shaping our IDENTITY. Only God can help our students to grasp that this life isn’t all that there is. As they are confronted by the truth of the Bible, God will can open their minds to reconsider the things that matter. Their minds and imaginations also be captured by God as our students begin to grasp that their very IDENTITY must be established in Jesus if they are to be the people God made them to be! Only in relationship to him can they live the fulfilled life that they were meant to live in and through a relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ.  

We are to strive to make school a place where CHARACTER is shaped in COMMUNITY, as we teach our students and nurture them towards ETERNAL salvation in Christ. We are to help them to grow, and understand that their true IDENTITY is to be found only in Christ. What we want our children to become in the world today, should be directed to what they are destined to become in the kingdom of God.

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2:9-10)

As our students arrive in our schools and classrooms, they don’t come as clean slates. Instead, they come with memories and hopes, and imagination is related to both. And of course, their imaginations may well have taken them to places other than God!

Our experiences and memories in concert with our imaginations can take us in many directions. These are ‘identity forming’ experiences in life. Some of our memories can lead to a range of human emotions including pride, bitterness, lust, anger, even regret. But God can take our memories captive as well as our imaginations.

In 1 Corinthians (15:33-38) - a passage in which Paul that urges his readers to stop sinning - we find him urging his readers and hearers to a conversion of the imagination. As Richard Hays in 'The Conversion of the Imagination' explains, “He was calling Gentiles to understand their identity anew in light of the gospel of Jesus Christ”.

Jews and Gentiles were being challenged by the gospel to reevaluate their identities. Such a profound shift in perspective - so profound that our very imaginations are captured - requires reason, memory, and the imagination as the Spirit of God transforms us.

This transformation in the early church was achieved as Paul constantly fostered and sustained by what Richard Hays calls “a process of bringing the community’s beliefs and practices into critical confrontation with the gospel story.” This Hays suggests calls for a “conversion of the imagination.”

As a teacher, you witness young people before your very eyes seeking to transition from one identity to another. As children and adults transition from one state to another, there is always the possibility for reinvention. And of course, the imagination is implicated in such identity shifts.

Imagination is central to how our student minds are engaged, hopes are formed, aspirations are primed, friendships are conceived, and supported. As students engage in the life of the school and the communities of practice they inhabit, imagination plays a key role in connecting who they are, who they wish to become, and what is critical to their sense of belonging.

Summing Up

Imagination is a gift from God. He made us to know and worship him, and built within us, the capacity to imagine the future and to try to make sense of the past. Nowhere is our imagination more important than in helping us understand the depth of meaning of God’s word to us spoken by the prophets, teachers, disciples, and of course through his Son.

The imagination is a gift from God for life and indeed is part of the way he draws us to himself. Anthony Esolen in 'Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of your Child' 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.”

This of course, is why stimulating the imaginations of our children is so critical.

Like knowledge, skills, and abilities of varied kinds, imaginations are given to us in order to glorify God. Our God reveals the purposes for which he created us, as we seek to cope and respond to life’s experiences. He does this in parallel with our encounters with his revealed word. At God’s initiative, he uses his word and our imaginations to convict, rebuke, and turn us from rebellion to acceptance of him as Lord and Savior.