Imagination seems to be a heretical word for some Christians. If something is imaginary it is made up, not real, untrue. In a recent discussion about some stories from the bible I used the phrase “in my imagination” to explore what some of the characters might have been thinking or felt. I imagined, for instance, that Matthew’s readers would have understood his apocalyptic renderings better than we because they had experienced the destruction of Jerusalem. I imagined what was going through the mind of the woman who touched the hem of Jesus robe in search of healing. I wondered if we might try to imagine what was going in the minds of those left treading water as Noah floated off.
Those imaginings were not well received by some. To introduce the imaginary into bible study is to pollute the pure, obvious, literal and holy meaning of the words that God has given us with that which is nothing more than made up fiction. Oh how sinful! Asserted one participant, he did not imagine but knew what some of the people in the bible thought and felt because the Holy Spirit had spoken to him about it. He reminded me of a former parishioner. Most every conversation began with her saying that “it has been given to me to tell you…” Neither of them could be accused of any guile. A little gullibility on one hand and avoidance of responsibility on the other, but not guile.
The episode reminded me of a conversation I had with my mother many years ago when she was appalled at my use of the word story to refer to anything from the bible since to her a story was a fairy tale, but I digress.
It seems to me that it is only through imagination that we are able to wallow in scripture, probe its depths and discover the new ways in which God may be speaking to us through its words. But, I imagine, that can be a fearful thing to many. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God whose Word is living, active and sharper than any two-edged sword.
A well rehearsed static religion is safer than one that is dynamic, moving and often unpredictable. For one thing, having settled on it, one is sure to avoid being misled by false prophets and phony messiahs, unless, of course, they are the ones who have defined the terms and conditions of the well rehearsed static religion. If some interpretation is needed, as it always is, it’s safer to ascribe it to the infallible work of the Holy Spirit than to take responsibility for one’s own fallible thinking. Finally, it relieves one of the burden of wrestling with scripture as Jacob wrestled with the angel.
For my part, our ability to imagine is a part of what it is to be created in the image of God. We cannot, as God can, imagine a universe and speak it into being, but we can imagine, and from our imagination bring much into being. Consider art, literature, developments in science and technology, and, most of all, our ability to imagine new ways of understanding God’s Holy Word.