An examination of the relationship between imagination and theology in five acts.
It is the close of the Sunday School hour and the lesson of the day is done. Some parents have arrived to claim their children but others are delayed. The teacher invites the children to draw or read or enjoy the play area until their parents come. One child, a little guy who is usually eager to take advantage of any time to use the play area, sits down and intently starts drawing. Intrigued, the teacher sits down next to him and asks him what he is drawing. “A picture of God,” says the boy matter of factly. “You know,” says the teacher full of adult wisdom and knowledge, “no one knows what God looks like.” “Well,” says the boy with an equal sense of assurance, “they will in a minute.”
As we ponder this imagination life, common language about “imagination” comes to mind, and we readily see both the positive and the negative sides of what it means to imagine. On the one hand, we view imagination as positive when we describe someone who provides “imaginative leadership” while on the other hand it is negative when we describe another whose perspective is “all in his imagination.” So how do we define imagination? Immanuel Kant provides a surprisingly simple definition when he writes: “imagination is the faculty of representing in intuition an object that is not itself present.”i The point is that imagination makes accessible what would otherwise be inaccessible. Still, our common language about imagination and the two examples from our language offered earlier raise an important question as we examine this imagination life. Is imagination about truth or fantasy? The short answer and by no means reductive is “yes” to both. Surely the child so intently drawing God believes that his representation of God is true yet at the same time understands even partially that this is fantasy. One does not negate the other and in actuality more likely complements the other. Which leads us to…
The setting is outside Bloomingdale’s flagship store on the Upper East side of Manhattan. A youth group is bringing their week-long mission experience to a close by sightseeing and shopping and Bloomingdale’s is one of their final stops before heading back to the church where they have spent the week. The non-shopper types are outside the store waiting for the others. People watching, they notice an older woman who is slowly crossing Lexington Avenue with the help of her walker. She makes it half way when the light turns green and traps her in the middle of the busy street. A New York City sanitation worker dressed in his bright orange jump suit and reflective vest runs out through traffic and holds up the taxi cabs and escorts her across the remaining lanes while the cab drivers typically register their complaints through gestures and honking horns. The youth group, seeing this amazing act of kindness, breaks out into spontaneous applause and the worker, realizing they are cheering for him, grins and bows before heading back to his truck. Later that night as the group reflects on the experiences of their day, one of the young people, Kyle tells the group that what he will always remember is “seeing God in New York City.” Other group members ask what he means and Kyle tells what he saw that day. “God,” he says, “is a big Black guy in a bright orange jump suit with a reflective vest.” Amanda chimes in and says, “that’s cool, Kyle, because I saw God, too. Only I saw God as an older white lady using a walker trying to cross the street.”
For both Kyle and Amanda, it was their imagination that enabled them to make the claim that they saw God embodied in two different persons. In so doing, they both illustrate a new depth and complexity to Kant’s simple definition of imagination as representing something that is not itself present. They both saw God. For them, God was truly present. Philosophical theologians speak of this as one’s “transcendental imagination” that moves us beyond the use of imagination as merely the ability to represent something concrete that is not present in our direct experience – the ability, say, to look at an empty room and imagine a couch or a table there – to a new ability to see beyond even the concrete realm to a God who is both in our experience and beyond it.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge names this as one’s “primary imagination.” He sees this primary imagination as incarnated by God in human beings and, as such, as part of our essence in being created in God’s image. He writes, “The primary imagination I hold to be the living power and prime agent of all human perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the ethereal act of creation in the infinite I AM.”ii
Through this primary imagination, we are able to see God’s activity in the world, and we can order the reality around us accordingly. This God-given imagination is grace-filled as our whole selves are opened to recognize God’s creative being and presence. Through telling what we see, we actually participate in and re-enact God’s activity. This by itself, though, is not the be all and end all of imagination. For Coleridge it is only the start. What happens next is crucial so we turn to…
It was several weeks later after the youth group had returned from their mission experience in Manhattan that the congregation was invited to a church-wide dinner sponsored by the youth group and their advisors to say “thank you” to the church for their support. After plates of salad, spaghetti, and garlic bread had been served, youth group members got up to tell their own experiences of the trip. One young man, Derrick, started the evening with a powerpoint presentation that showed sights and sounds of the trip from start to finish. More than a travelogue, Derrick’s presentation helped the congregation understand what the trip meant to him and how it deepened his faith in Jesus. One young woman, Donita, had created a series of paintings that now adorned the walls of the social hall literally surrounding the congregation. She moved around the hall and briefly explained each work of art telling more about the setting and inviting each person to later look at them and find their own meaning. Kyle presented a rap he had written titled “God on Lexington Avenue.” Amanda shared a poem she had written about seeing God in the older adult woman who was making her way across the street. The evening ended with a worship service giving thanks to God for revealing God’s self throughout the trip and through the kindness, support and care of the congregation. As the congregation was leaving, one proud father told the pastor he did not know that God could appear in so many ways. He mentioned that he frequently made business trips to New York and from now on, he would start looking for God whenever he was there. Perhaps realizing the limitations he had just placed on God, he then hastily added that he would start looking for God everywhere.
That is what happens when persons share experiences of their primary imagination. According to Coleridge, what happened that night with the congregation illustrates the next turn in imagination. Coleridge says that what must accompany the primary imagination is the “secondary imagination.” He does not use the term “secondary” to indicate lesser value or consequence. Rather, he uses the term “secondary” to indicate a complementary relationship – that in the faithful and creative imagination gifted to humankind by God, we do not keep these experiences of God to ourselves but rather we naturally share them so that others may come to imagine and know God as well.
This secondary imagination, refers to the human ability to “transcend this primary organization, to reassemble perceptual elements or fragments and create new meaning, ultimately grasping for fuller and deeper meaning in our search for union with the Divine.”iii Most often, this secondary imagination is presented to us as a gift of the poet, dancer, composer, lyricist, sculptor, painter, and preacher. In more contemporary expressions, it comes to us from the videographer, the rap artist, and even the graffiti tagger.
The whole point here is that our imagination, expressed through Coleridge’s schema of primary and secondary, is a God-given and God-inspired gift so that through the eyes and expressions of one another, we might more fully know and grasp who God is and how God is present and at work in the whole of creation. They work together, these two, to awaken our souls and fill us with insights so that we, like the proud father, become more attuned and accustomed to God’s activity – even anticipating it in the deepest tragedy and the greatest moment of joy. But note the importance of how these primary and imaginations work with one another. In many ways, the primary imagination is an individual one but not totally. And in many ways likewise, the secondary imagination is a communal one but also not totally. Both rely on developing a pattern of seeing that is at once individual and communal. It is this patterning that leads us to…
She came into my office with her parents. When I first received the phone call from a pastoral colleague asking if I could see this family, I knew something was wrong. This was a family from the pastor’s congregation and the pastor freely admitted this situation was beyond his abilities or “out of my league” as he put it. He had received the late night call from a frantic father who was at the emergency room. His daughter had tried to commit suicide, and thankfully, they had saved her before she could take her own life. She was being admitted to the psych ward for evaluation, and in the midst of social workers and hospital chaplains, he was calling for help. This had come completely out of the blue for them. She had no history of depression, and they thought everything was going fine until they found her in her bathroom unconscious. The pastor, of course, had rushed to the hospital and now, nearly two weeks later, while the young woman was seeing a psychiatrist, the parents thought it would be good to see a pastoral counselor. I agreed to meet with them. After talking with all of them for over an hour, I asked to talk to the young woman alone. After her parents left the office, the young woman broke down sobbing and apologized for what she had done and all the trouble she had caused. After listening to her quietly, I asked her why tried to take her own life and the answer, while whispered, was clear. “Because I thought that’s what God wanted me to do,” she said. “How do you know that?” I asked her. “I thought I heard God say that to me,” she replied. “I thought I heard God’s voice.” “Do you believe me?” she asked plaintively. “Yes,” I replied. “I believe you heard what you thought was God’s voice.” “What do you mean?” she asked. “I believe you when you say you thought you heard God’s voice,” I reassured her. “But you don’t think it was God?” she asked. “No,” I said. “I don’t.” “But how do you know?” she asked. “Because God would not ask you to end your life. I believe you heard that voice, but I can assure you that was not God.” “Can you tell me how you know that?” she asked. “Yes, “ I said. “I would be glad to.” And thus began our conversations together with her, her parents, her siblings, her pastor, and eventually her youth group and congregation.
Through our God-given imagination, we possess an amazing gift. This gift enables us with the ability to see God at work in the world. But as with most gifts, there is a shadow side. The shadow side of imagination is its power to distort, betray and even deceive. For this wonderful young woman, somehow, her imagination had betrayed her. This God-given gift had caused her to harm herself all the while believing she was being obedient to God. This was not the result of some psychotic break or chemical imbalance. This was the result of her deep conviction that God spoke to her and in her striving to be obedient, she caused life-threatening harm to herself and her loved ones. In further conversation with her and her family over the months that followed, it became clear that her understanding of God and how God worked in the world was itself distorted. She saw little to no grace and forgiveness in God. Rather, she viewed God as largely judgmental, punishing, and vindictive. God was waiting for her to fail at every turn and when she did, God demanded some form of punishment.
Garrett Green, in his book “Imagining God – Theology and the Religious Imagination,” describes a “paradigmatic imagination.” For Green, imagination depends on one’s paradigms. A paradigm is what one has come to believe as normative and it therefore forms the basis of one’s constitutive structure. We rely on our paradigms as the basis for our imagination. We use these paradigms to create structures through which and upon which we come to imagine the world. These paradigms, he writes, are how we “explore the larger world.” They serve the imagination “analogically” meaning they provide analogies and metaphors for how we imagine that which is beyond our direct experience.iv
For this young woman, her paradigm of God constituted a deity whose voice could say little else than for her to injure herself and potentially end her life. Green goes on to discuss, then, how one’s paradigmatic imagination has great power and how it is crucial and necessary that in terms of the religious imagination, we pay careful attention to the images, metaphors, and analogies we are using to construct such paradigmatic imaginations in our children, youth, young adults, and adults.
As an instructor here at Columbia Theological Seminary, there have been numerous times when students have revealed a paradigmatic imagination that, for instance, could not possibly allow for God to be calling a woman to serve as a pastor or for a pastoral call to be anything but full-time with a nice benefits package, a large office, and a stable and appreciative congregation. According to Green, all of our paradigms need to be held up for scrutiny and this is best done not by an individual but rather by a faithful community.
Time and again, one can see this as we reflect upon the church’s tragic and misguided past. From early church controversies to the inquisition to forced “conversions” of Jews to battles over doctrine to crusades against the infidels to the treatment of indigenous peoples to slavery to the ongoing challenges of today, it is our paradigms of God and how God works in the world that have led to our saddest moments. Surely it is by the grace of God alone that the church’s distorted paradigmatic imagination has, over time, been revised, revamped, and corrected.
In a similar way, it is by the grace of God that new and emerging paradigms are shaping our paradigmatic imagination to show us the most faithful way forward. These new and emerging paradigms that are shaping our imagination lead us to our final act in this imagination life…
Slowly they gather in the back of a coffee shop in Little Five Points, an eclectic neighborhood east of downtown Atlanta. They are mostly young adults with various tattoos and piercings. They are single adults and couples. They are of various racial ethnic backgrounds. They are gay and straight. Some come with their young children who are already so comfortable in the space that throughout the evening, they wander around or lie on the floor playing with toys. The dress is casual. The coffee is good. There is a little sound system and a screen and an LCD projector with a laptop computer attached. A couple of acoustic guitars are present and the owners begin strumming. No one is in a rush. Some bring pastries or desserts that are both store bought and homemade. The homemade receive the requisite oohs and aahs and are the first to disappear. At an appointed time, whenever that is, one of the evening’s leaders gets up and welcomes everyone. Then songs are sung some with words projected and some clearly original pieces that belong just to that community. People are free to sing along or not and at one point, a young woman invites the group to stand together and pray. There are long moments of silence in the prayers and even though one can still hear voices and sounds from the coffee shop, everyone, even the children, seem to be attentive. The prayers come from the people. There is a pattern here but it feels in no way scripted. It is true and genuine and real. After a time, they read together words from the Bible and a young man gets up and provides some background and shares some of his thoughts. Then he opens up the conversation and together, the group discusses the passage and what it might mean and how God is revealing God’s self to this group of believers. The conversation is free flowing. There are no clear conclusions about what the Bible is saying. At times, the conversation takes on a sense of testimony as one person tells about how they have been struggling with something. Following that testimony, a young woman asks the group to pray for this person and they do. A child raises his hand and asks for prayers for his friend. Again, the young woman asks the group to pray and they do. Then another young woman returns the group’s attention to the scripture passage and the conversation seems to draw to a close. A young man gets up and shares some concerns about the community and the world beyond the community. A number of people make announcements or share good news or difficult news. The group gathers together as a whole and closes their time together with a prayer and singing. Afterward, some leave right away while others linger. As some are leaving, they talk about “church” and it takes this visitor a moment to realize that they are describing this. This group. This place. This sharing. This time. This…church.
Sitting with them and talking with them and watching the children moving around the space, I cannot help but think about how the paradigm for “church” for these children is so different from my own. From my paradigm for which I am so grateful of growing up in a wonderful congregation in Honolulu with its pews in neat rows facing forward to a high pulpit from which the pastor would preach each Sunday morning. Remembering the hymnals in the racks in front of us and an organist and a choir facing us and the regular ritual of passing the offering plate down each row into which I would dutifully put my quarters and the once a every few months special moment of passing trays filled with tiny cups of grape juice and plates of cubes of white bread from which I could not partake because I was not old enough.
I think of those days fondly, those first memories of “church” and while they are part of my paradigm, I am grateful, too, for how the Spirit is renewing and reshaping my paradigmatic imagination of church to envision another way of being church, no less faithful and no less true.
I am grateful for how our God-given imagination enables a child to create his image of God for a skeptical Sunday School teacher and one teenager sees God in the bright orange jump suit and reflective vest of a New York City sanitation worker while another teenagers sees God in an older woman using a walker and both young people are led to share their imagination with their congregation. I am grateful for another teenager and her family and congregation and how they are finding life and hope in a new paradigm of God and somehow, by God’s grace, I marvel how all of this is emerging into a new paradigm of being the church – the body of Christ – who, by the power of the Holy Spirit at work even in us is able to do far more abundantly than we can ask or… imagine…all for God’s glory now and forever. Amen.
Questions for reflection:
1. Immanuel Kant defined imagination as “the faculty of representing in intuition an object that is not itself present.” Is that how you would define it? What do you like about Kant’s definition? What do you feel it is lacking?
2. Can we improve upon our primary and secondary imaginations? If so, through what practices? If not, why not?
3. Can you think of an instance in which your paradigmatic imagination was challenged? What was the challenge and how did you respond to it?