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Sight Overwhelmed

I am grateful to Rodger Nishioka for these five “acts” that give us glimpses of the wonder and mystery, and even of the potential danger, in “this imagination life.” As Rodger so artfully explores, this gift of imagination enables us to see, participate in and re-enact the activity of God in our lives, in the church, and in the whole of creation.

I thought of the many “acts” in Scripture that reveal the importance of imagination for the people of God. The Old Testament is replete with examples of this imagination life at work (and play):

This imagination life continues powerfully in the New Testament:

This way of seeing and living requires imagination, of course, because there is so much evidence to the contrary. We can name far too many examples of individuals, groups, or whole nations that have distorted the gift of imagination, employing it for evil rather than for good. Whether in an act of random destruction or with targeted precision, we have been stunned by violence that was beyond our imagining.

One Sunday in Advent, I was giving the Children’s Sermon, focusing on Isaiah 11:6-9—that soaring, imaginative prophetic vision of the time when the “wolf shall live with the lamb and the leopard lie down with the kid.” I showed the children a sculpture I kept on my office shelf: a lion posed peacefully with a lamb resting on the lion’s front paws. I asked them if they knew what the sculpture might be trying to teach us. One little boy’s hand shot up immediately and he said, “Well, in the Bible it says that the lion and the lamb will lie down together. But in real life, that lion would eat that lamb!” Here was a young Christian whose clear-eyed imagination already grasped the tension between ‘real life’ and the real, abundant life God intends and to which Scripture points.

Craig Dykstra has given particular attention to and supported research on “pastoral and ecclesial imagination”—what such imagination looks like when practiced faithfully and well, and how it is cultivated over time. He notes that we most often associate the word “imagination” with “creativity” or “fantasy.” In this sense, he writes, “Imagination is all about creating—in our minds or with clay or paint or in work with other people—things that do not exist. It means seeing what is not, and then, perhaps, bringing it into being.”1

Dykstra goes on to explain another meaning of ‘imagination’ that is closer to what he has in mind, and what Rodger offers in our lead essay: “It involves what one might call ‘seeing in depth.’ It is the capacity to perceive the ‘more’ in what is already before us. It is the capacity to see beneath the surface of things, to get beyond the obvious and the merely conventional, to note the many aspects of any particular situation, to attend to the deep meaning of things.” He says that imagination is what makes human life meaningful and engagement with the world possible. “The human imagination is the integrating process that provides linkages between ourselves and our world—and, within ourselves, between our bodies, minds, and emotions, our very souls and spirits. It is by means of the imagination that we are able to come really to ‘see’ and understand anything at all—even, in a sense, to ‘see’ God.”2

Rodger gives us Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s concept of “primary and secondary imagination.” This two-fold imagination moves us from the concept of individual imagination toward shared imagination. Coleridge is right to insist on the necessity of “secondary imagination.” Because God calls us to be in community, primary imagination is not an end in itself, however enriching it may be for an individual “to see God’s activity in the world” and then order (or re-arrange) his or her reality accordingly. As Rodger’s stories show, the ability and willingness to share our experiences of the presence and activity of the Divine can enrich, expand, and deepen the imagination life of others.

Dykstra calls this kind of sharing “ecclesial imagination”—“the way of seeing and being that emerges when a community of faith, together as a community, comes increasingly to share the knowledge of God and to live a way of abundant life—not only in church but also in the many contexts where they live their daily lives.”3 Ecclesial imagination fosters a way of seeing that differs from the prevailing culture. Does Dykstra’s description of a community of faith alive with imagination describe a community of faith you know, perhaps your own?

The people talk just a little differently than most. The assumptions they make about themselves and others are not quite the same as the conventional wisdom. They do not pretend to know too much—about others, about themselves, or about God. They are more eager than most to listen and to learn. They possess a kind of humility before reality that enables them to be truly attentive to it. When troubles come or things go wrong in one way or another, they don’t necessarily panic in the way that others do—or even as they themselves might have done at an earlier time. While they are not necessarily all that optimistic, they are nonetheless a deeply hopeful lot. They invest in their youth and they build for the future, whether they expect to live long enough to benefit from it themselves or not. They seem generous, more likely to give of themselves—and not only of their money, but also of their time, their patience, their care.4

I am still thinking about Coleridge’s description of primary imagination as something incarnated by God in us; that it is “part of our essence in being created in God’s image.” I feel a certain caution about connecting our primary imagination with what it means to be made in the image of God.

If it is true that imagination is incarnated by God in us, that it is part of our essence of being created in God’s image, then why do some people, even some who so greatly desire this gift, seem not to possess it? Rodger invites us to begin thinking about this in Act Four of his essay, in the scenario of the young women who tried to harm herself in the mistaken notion that this is what God wanted her to do. Using the work of Garret Green on ‘paradigmatic imagination,’ Rodger rightly urges us, parents, teachers, youth directors, pastors, etc., to pay careful attention to the metaphors and images we use as we help people develop their religious imagination. This is helpful when it comes to wrong notions or paradigms that can be corrected. But I think of another young woman I once knew who struggled daily to keep living with any sense of joy or hope. Gifted with an artistic imagination, she could produce external works of art that were amazingly beautiful, yet internally she could not imagine the abundant life God intends and offers. Raised in a loving family, baptized and confirmed into a loving and imaginative congregation, she had been taught all the right ‘paradigms’ and could even name them; nevertheless, this imagination life simply was not “in her,” however much she longed for it and sought it. No medication, encouragement, teaching, or even argument could awaken this imaginative life in her. Instead she would go on living a fragile life.

In saying that this imagination life is part of our being created in God’s image, there is potential harm for those who deeply, sorrowfully, lack it. Wounded already, such a person might be left wondering why God denied this gift in them; or wonder if there is some deficiency in them causes this “divine essence” to be absent.

I am drawn to another possibility, one that grounds this imagination life in our baptism. Dykstra points to the work British theologian David Ford in connecting imagination with baptism. In conversations with pastors, Dykstra found that pastoral imagination often grew and matured as pastors felt “overwhelmed.” I am sure it is true for members of their churches, too. This feeling of being overwhelmed can be both negative and positive:

Sometimes we are overwhelmed by the sheer hugeness or complexity of something. We can’t get around it. We can’t figure it out. We are unable to organize it or bring it under our control. We are overwhelmed in a way that makes us feel small, weak, and inadequate. On the other hand, ‘overwhelmings’ happen in other ways as well. On the shore of a mountain lake at sunset, we are overwhelmed by beauty. At the birth of a grandchild, we are overwhelmed by joy. At a low point in our lives, we are overwhelmed by unexpected generosity.5

David Ford writes that “Jesus Christ is an embodiment of multiple overwhelmings.”6 Immersed in the Jordan, driven into the wilderness, announcing the kingdom of God as worth everything else, agonizing in Gethsemane, experiencing torture, desertion and death—and then, the most transformative overwhelming of all—the resurrection. The life of Christian faith, says Ford, is itself the most profound experience there is of being overwhelmed. In baptism we “take on an identity shaped by the overwhelming of creation, death, resurrection and the Holy Spirit. We have also entered into a community that spans the generations and relates us to…perhaps two billion people alive today who are identified as Christians….This is the dynamic of being shaped by being overwhelmed.”7 Could it be that we are invited into, grafted onto this imagination life as we live lives shaped by this Christ of “multiple overwhelming?” Stretched to the limit of what we know or can do on our own, imagination comes to us as a gift of God, from a power beyond our own and a grace beyond all deserving.

This summer, I asked our seminary students to describe a time when they felt “overwhelmed” in their ministry internships—and what new ways of seeing or imagining this produced in them. One student gave two examples. She was overwhelmed when her carefully made plans seemed to come undone and she felt she had failed; all her hard work had come to nothing. Then she began ‘to see’ that once her plans were out of the way, other and better things began to happen instead—things she could not have imagined or achieved on her own. Next, she described her passion for a particular organization and the growing compassion she felt for the organization’s leader, whose style often impeded the common good. Though she felt overwhelmed with fear, she nevertheless found the courage to speak an intern’s truth to this powerful C.E.O. Beyond her imagining, he listened carefully and together they began to create new channels of communication and participation that improved the whole.

From our baptism, we have the opportunity to continually grow in faith—and through the baptismal journey, our imagination can also grow and deepen. Craig Dykstra names two qualities he finds in a mature and grounded imagination: humbleness and gratitude. The novelist Carson McCullers once said that imagination takes humility, love and great courage.8 Our careful cultivation of humility, love, great courage, and gratitude may increase in us and among us this imagination life, enabling us to see and to God and one another, and all creation more abundantly and deeply—and to share this abundance with others.

Questions for reflection:

  1. How would you describe the relationship between imagination and the Kingdom of God?
  2. If imagination can cause pain and suffering, how do we manage it or mitigate against its worse effects?
  3. Carson McCullers writes that imagination takes “humility, love, and great courage.” Why does it take all three of these?


  1. Craig Dykstra, “Pastoral and Ecclesial Imagination” in For Life Abundant: Practical Theology, Theological Education, and Christian Ministry, ed. Dorothy C. Bass and Craig Dykstra (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008) p.48.
  2. Ibid., p.49.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid., p.57.
  5. Ibid., p.54.
  6. David F. Ford, The Shape of Living: Spiritual Directions for Everyday Life (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker, 1997), p.46.
  7. Ford, p.49.
  8. From a Writer’s Almanac entry on February 19, 2004 (Minnesota Public Radio).