I so appreciate the thoughtful and engaging responses provided by New Testament scholar Susan Hylen, Columbia friend and colleague Kim Clayton who serves as our director of contextual education, and friend and current pastor Casey Thompson. Through each of their particular locations, I am struck by how all three ultimately discuss the relationship between imagination and how we interpret scripture.
Susan Hylen rightly calls upon us to “cultivate and discipline” the imagination, naming not two ends of a spectrum but rather two essential practices that must complement one another certainly for biblical scholars but also for all theologians.
Kim Clayton’s imagination is drawn to persons (the Hebrew midwives, the prophets, Mary, John the Baptist, Jesus Christ, Peter and Paul) in both the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament that illustrate how God’s imagination both called and shaped their very identities. Drawing upon her years as a pastor, she raises an important conundrum in asking if it is true that imagination is incarnated by God in us as I claim, then how is it that some seem not to have this incarnation or at least lesser awareness of this incarnation. This is an important question and Hylen’s language helps greatly in my response to Kim. While I do believe that God gifts us all with imagination as we are created in God’s own image, I also believe that this imagination must be “cultivated” and even nurtured. Too often, I worry that the church, usually out of our fear, squelches this God-given imagination rather than cultivates it. We do this, sometimes benignly but more often intentionally, by teaching our children, youth, young adults, and adults, that there is only one meaning (or three points!) to each and every scripture passage.
A few days ago in class, I was talking with students about the worst “children’s sermons” I have experienced. Out of frustration and perhaps a little guilt, one of the students asked, “Well what are we supposed to do then?’ Each time you have a “children’s sermon” or “children’s moment,” just tell a Bible story, I told the student. Then I said, “but don’t mess it up by then telling the children what it means. Trust the Holy Spirit. Trust the children. They will understand it.”
Hylen is right. Imagination must be cultivated and nurtured. I believe we all have God’s gift of imagination. But that gift must be nurture and cultivated.
That Kim seeks to ground imagination also in the sacrament of baptism is a fine theological turn. Her discussion is a profound and provocative one and reminds us all that our sacraments in and of themselves are acts of imagination both in their remembrance of Jesus’ own baptism and institution of the Lord’s supper and also in what these sacred moments proclaim for the future. It is no small thing that when we baptize a child or an adult, we speak into a future where each one is “claimed as Christ’s own forever.” And it is important when we break the bread and drink from the cup, we “proclaim Christ’s death until he comes again.” My faculty colleague here at Columbia, Anna Carter Florence, always says, “And he IS coming again” for added emphasis upon a future that is most certainly bound by Jesus’ return.
But it is Casey Thompson whose response poses what I judge to be the most important question for us all. After juxtaposing the modern and post-modern world views (and delicately and diplomatically naming the strengths and challenges of each), he asks how we navigate our way through these interpretive frameworks so that we may recognize and embrace the new thing that God is doing. This question succinctly and clairvoyantly names the chief dilemma that is before us all when considering the work of imagination. Given competing claims about God’s gift of imagination, whose claim, whose interpretation, ultimately whose imagination, wins out?
My best response draws upon Susan Hylen’s closing invitation concerning biblical interpretation and imagination when she calls for “not one leader with a single answer but many witnesses.” Earlier in her essay, she calls this a “community of interpretation” that learns together and leans on one another as they attend closely to words of scripture. But even in this reminder of the need for a community of interpreters, that cannot be the only response. It cannot be, for instance, in a community of interpreters, that the most popular imagination wins out. Our life as the church is filled with too many examples of the erroneous imagination of the majority and lives have been lost as a result.
This is where Kim Clayton’s citation of Christian education scholar Craig Dykstra helps us. When Dykstra names humbleness and gratitude as two necessary traits that one must possess for a “mature and grounded imagination,” I remember Ellen Davis, a professor of Bible and Practical Theology (what a combination!?) who wrote that three crucial habits or practices when reading scripture are: humility, charity, and patience.1 She reminds us that as we interpret scripture, we do so with humility, mindful that we cannot know all of God’s intention and that our own perspective (paradigmatic imagination?) is limiting. We exercise charity toward the text itself but also towards others who are in the community with us, especially those whose voices are least heard or recognized. And we remember and live the virtue of patience, being willing to wait upon the Lord, as the Psalmist invites us, both for God’s own revelation and for our recognition of that revelation.
God is doing a new thing. And this new thing is being revealed to us through God’s gift of imagination. In order for us to know it, to perceive it, to recognize it, we do so as a community of diverse believers, filled with humility, charity, and patience. May it be so, O Church. Not for our glory, but for the glory of the one whose very nature is to do a new thing and behold, to make all things new!