What is imagination? Can/should we use it when reading the Bible? This post is the second in a series about “Journeying with Scripture”. It is an opportunity to explore further how and why we read the Bible. It will also uncover some of the thinking behind the Bible study books “Journeying With Abraham” and “Journeying With Nehemiah” and how they might differ from other approaches.
For some, “imagination” might seem to refer to fiction or ideas that have simply been made up as opposed to “reality” or “truth”. Christianity accepts that God needs to reveal Himself to us for us to have any grasp of who God really is. So, isn’t using the imagination resorting to making up our own ideas about God?
If we were starting from a position of no revelation or choosing to ignore all revelation of any kind then imagination would risk being nothing but a human construct, fabricating its own “god” in whatever image suited us. However, we don’t start from a position of no revelation or encounter between God and us. God has spoken and revealed Himself. But, isn’t the use of our imagination still liable to undermine that revelation?
When God reveals Himself to us, it is done in ways that we can at least partially comprehend. Yet, so much of this revelation falls short of the fullness of who God is. For example, God is not a man – so Jesus both reveals God to us and at the same time can’t reveal everything. God in all fullness is beyond our capacity to understand.
Much of the understanding we do have utilises metaphors (e.g. God as Father, Rock, Fortress, etc.). Metaphors encourage the use of the imagination. They put two things together and invite us to explore the resulting picture. An act of the imagination is required to connect the two – metaphors are by their nature not usually completely literal or logical. Yes, they may engage our rational faculties, but they also require creative thinking.
Creative thought is an essential part of being human; it is how we solve problems. Scientific research and discovery may appear to be totally absorbed with rational thought, yet it too requires leaps of the imagination. We imagine a solution beyond our current position and this helps guide our endeavours. We imagine new possibilities and then begin to create them.
Empathy is understandably a highly prized characteristic. Like creativity, it demands (whether consciously or otherwise) acts of imagination. We see circumstances, relate them to our own experiences and imagine assumed connections. Often these connections are absolutely correct. So, the imagination is not simply for creating an artificial reality or lies, but for helping us perceive truth.
When it comes to reading Scripture, empathy is a useful skill to have. It can enable us to enter into stories and begin to understand why people react the way they do. This is not just true of narratives, where we might sympathise or empathise with the main character or other players in the text. It can also help make sense of letters and Psalms, for example. If we can in some sense discern why Paul is upset or frustrated or why the Psalmist is singing for joy, then this helps us to connect with the text for ourselves.
Empathy may also help us to discern the unusual or unexpected turns in a story. If we can imagine how a character would probably have felt or wanted to react, then maybe the fact that they don’t do so becomes more apparent and hits home more. We can sometimes perceive more clearly what it is that is unusual about the person or story and what we might learn from them.
Imagination is also important when it comes to our future hope. None of us has seen what is beyond this life, nor does the Bible give detailed, clear descriptions of life after death. But, our imagination, which extrapolates from the data we do have, can help us perceive that which our faith then clings on to. The little snippets that Scripture does give us about resurrection and the life beyond are sufficient to fire our imaginations and kindle hope.
None of this means that imagination is an infallible tool. It can go wrong – we can imagine things which are unhelpful and not true. However, rational, logical thought can also lead us up blind alleys or down into the dark as well as out into the light. Imagination is not an inferior part of who we are. It can be used together with other skills to help us grow towards the truth.
If imagination is so closely linked to creativity, then it wouldn’t be all that surprising if in some sense God wants us to know Him through our imagination. It may be that the ideas, the possibilities we imagine are planted in us by God. After all, surely it is only someone who can imagine a better world that works towards one?
How about you? What role does your imagination play in your life of faith? Do you see a need to listen to your imagination or do you mistrust it?
© Joe Lenton, July 2013