"Imagination is the power God gives a saint to posit himself out of himself into relationships he never was in... Imagination is the greatest gift God has given us and it ought to be devoted entirely to Him." ~Oswald Chambers
Ever think about imagination? I've been thinking about it a lot lately. Doesn't the word make you think of kids - pretend play and dress-up? Or else maybe John Lennon and his famous pie-in-the-sky lyrics about the word: "Imagine no possessions; I wonder if you can. No need for greed or hunger; a brotherhood of man." Such pretty imaginings.
But what does imagination mean beyond this? What does it mean for adults? How does one constructively engage in imagination? It's not something that gets talked about much. Creativity or artistic capacity, yes, but not imagination. For one thing, we don't know what imagination means to us or what it's really for. And for another, we generally just don't have time for that sort of thing.
The definition of imagination is "forming mental images or concepts of what is not actually present to the senses." It's a kind of visualization, a conscious creation of a picture in the mind. This type thing is regarded by most Westerners - grownups, that is - with skepticism. We've been trained thoroughly by the enlightenment, and all that came after it, that the "realest" and most important things are tangible. Things observable and provable - they're what count. They can be relied on and trusted. One's imagination might be nice, sure, but the really worthwhile things are over here on the sturdy, measurable side of the column.
It's a bit different for Christians, since our worldview is based on things unseen - Christians hold that the invisible and intangible count as much (more, even) than the visible and tangible. But they don't differ much, it seems to me, when it comes to imagination. The average Western Christian is pretty skeptical of imagination. One's imagination originates within the self and thus can be tainted and corrupted by sin. It isn't in the Bible. It might lead a person astray; there's no "provable" way to be sure that it won't. [I got to thinking about this after reading a book review by Tim Challies of Mark Batterson's The Circle-Maker, a book that says imagination and visualization are important to effective prayer. Chillies writes, "The Bible gives us no reason to believe that... there is value in visualization (though you may note that New Age teachers often make (this) claim.)"]
I'm with Oswald Chambers, though; I think imagination is crucial... and very under-utilized. Imagination, in a way, is a cornerstone of humanity. It's the key that unlocks the transcendent. It's not window dressing; it's the window, our portal to seeing past our finite, limited here-and-now views into unseen reality. The imagination's a key vehicle through which we take hold of truths that exist beyond the reach of our five senses. And the pictures that exist in my imagination take root and grow (for good or ill) in the invisible sphere of my heart and soul.
This, I think, is why Jesus so often used stories and metaphors when he taught - giving people mental pictures onto which they could hang the truths he conveyed. And why the prophets painted word pictures so often, images for the heart of what the eye can't see. Imagination's like a slate in our mind upon which, when we offer it to God, He can draw to stir and move us. Like when Peter received the vision from God about the Gospel being not just for the Jews but for the whole world. The slate's also a vehicle that assists us with our own identity - who we truly are, and who we could be. The fullness of our person, into whom God's calling us. I wonder, for example, if Peter would have been able to move forward, after his disastrous betrayal of Jesus, if Jesus hadn't given him a specific picture of himself to move forward into. Peter walked forward with and into the image he received, and he grew - as Jesus foretold and empowered - to become that rock that he at first was profoundly wasn't. In every way the imagination - cleansed, strong, and offered - is a vital vehicle for fruitful spirituality.
Part of this is that imagination and meaning are inextricably linked. C. S. Lewis said, "Reason is the natural organ of truth, but imagination is the organ of meaning." And Lewis is a great example - master theologian and master story-teller, both - of how these two realms work together hand and glove. A mind practiced in focused, productive imaginative capacity and intellectual, reason-based pursuits (both for God's glory) is, I think, the healthiest and most fruitful kind of mind.
My friend Olivia recently created a tool to bring reason and imaginative together in a unique and beautiful way. It's an app called Meaningful, and it offers twenty reflections on intangible essentials of life - things like peace, beauty, story, purpose, belonging, and freedom. The reflections are less than ten minutes each, and they start with a reflection (reason-based discussion of the topic) and move toward a short, guided contemplation of the topic using an image for focus. It takes a certain kind of voice - and a British accent's always a help!- to pull off this kind of directed meditation, and I'm happy to report that Olivia's got it. While the contemplations are designed for an audience whose spiritual beliefs are not yet defined, I've found that the reflections are edifying and helpful for the Christian as well. Both the intellectual discussion and the guided contemplation, to be engaged in imaginatively by the listener, uplift.