Imagination (noun): The faculty of imagining, or of forming mental images or concepts of what is not actually present to the senses.
One of my favorite examples of imagination is “The Creation” by James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938). The poem begins:
“And God stepped out on space,
And he looked around and said:
I'll make me a world.”
I love to think that the creation of the universe is the manifestation of God’s imagination.
There is power in imagination, in being able to envision and form something new. In scripture, we hear God’s voice: “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth; do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:19, NRSV).
God imagined, and the universe came into being. Humans imagined, and formed tools, language, and art. Prophets like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. imagined and led people into movements of freedom. Scientists and creators imagined, and vaccines were developed, life-saving tools and inventions were created.
Imagination helped many of us get through the difficult days of the pandemic. We learned how to be in community in new ways. We gathered together on Zoom, FaceTime, Skype, WhatsApp, Google. We talked and laughed and cried together. We played games, worshiped, prayed, celebrated, tried new recipes, and mourned together. We came to know that whether we are together in person or connecting through technology, we are all a part of one community.
I would like to think that imagination is always a good thing, always creating positive outcomes. But I know differently. As an Enneagram 6, my superpower is worst case scenario thinking. My imagination can generate an entire disaster in just a few seconds.
And we see the shadow side of imagination in our world. Hitler created a threat so real that normal people followed him into a world war and the murder of six million Jews. During the Rwandan genocide of the 1990s, over 500,000 people were murdered because of ethnicity.
And today, we in the United States find ourselves in a country split by competing realities — “Was the COVID-19 pandemic a hoax?” “Who won the 2020 presidential election?” The attack on the U.S. capital on January 6, 2021, the rise of Christian Nationalism, the never-ending rhetoric of hate speech and xenophobia, these are the fruits of the shadow side of human imagination.
How do we discern whether our imagination is guided by Light or strays into the shadow? It is, I believe, by measuring our thoughts, feelings, imaginations against the truth—the plumb line—of the Christ that we follow.
A plumb line is a string with a weight on the end, and when you put it up against a wall, it shows you whether the wall is vertically level. I find myself looking for, yearning for, prophets like Amos who will show us God’s plumb line for today’s world. In the book of Amos, God said, “See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel” (Amos 7:8, NRSV). Where are the prophets and leaders who will show us God’s plumb line against our competing news stories, our conflicting narratives, and will declare what is true and what is false?
John Mogabgab writes, “Human imagination as such does not fare well in the Bible. Imagination is the source of false prophecy (Ezek. 13:2). The ‘art and imagination of mortals’ cannot yield true images of God (Acts 17:29). Imagination lodges in the innermost part of our being where its potential for evil intentions or foolish ideas is laid bare by the piercing discernment of God's word (Heb. 4:12).”
“But,” Mogabgab continues, “What if imagination's powerful potential for misleading us were reconfigured by the mind of Christ, which Paul boldly claims we possess (1 Cor. 2:16)? Armed, as was the mind of Christ, with stories, images, and hopes drawn from God's history with the people of God, imagination can become a penetrating force that bears our vision beyond the frightful evidence of death's ascendancy to the wider reality of God's realm, bright with life.”1
When our imaginations are reconfigured by the mind of Christ, we can live in alignment with God’s desire for all people.
In a world of conflict, we are called to follow the path of peace.
In a world of terror and uncertainty, we are called to turn our fears over to God, to “Fear not.”
In a world of distrust of those who look or sound or seem different from us, we are called to welcome the stranger, the outcast, the least and the lost.
In a world of hatred, outrage, and judgment, we are called to love our enemies, to pray for those who persecute us, and to turn the other cheek.
May our imaginations be transformed by the relationship with the Holy One. May we have the courage and grace to imagine Christ’s presence, Christ’s countenance in our political enemies, in those who seek to harm us, in friends or family members who have insulted or rejected us.
Loving God, creator of all things. May we join our imaginations with yours in bringing forth your realm here on earth. Amen.
Beth A. Richardson serves as Dean Emeritus of The Upper Room Chapel. Her latest release from Upper Room Books is Walking in the Wilderness: Seeking God During Lent.
1 John S. Mogabgab, Weavings, Vol. 12, No. 1., January/February 1997. Copyright © 1996.
Photograph by Greg Rakozy / Unsplash