BreakPoint: The Importance of Imagination

William Blake said, “A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees.” Recently, David Books of the New York Times quoted Blake as he described the importance of imagination. Advances in neuroscience, he argues, have highlighted the ways our imaginations are tied up with our perceptions of reality. This includes the moral imagination as well, both personally and collectively.

Our imagination also affects our ability to empathize with others. When we are able to imagine the lived experience of others, we tend to be more compassionate, gracious and open to wonder. Brooks laments that our society is bad at cultivating a healthy imagination, “the faculty that we may need the most.” The problem here isn’t a wholesale rejection of the imagination, of course. We talk about it all the time. The issue is that we think of the imagination the same way we think about others aspects of our lives, identity, and morality. Namely, as Carl Truemann described so well in his masterful book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, we see

ourselves as isolated individuals: self-determining, autonomous, and only responsible for self-expression. Thus, like so much of the rest of our lives, our imaginations have no external reference point. An obvious reason for this are the many addictive technologies in our world that so easily dominate our hearts and mind. Screens are designed to be captivating. Thus, moments and experiences that may have shaped our imaginations are instead mediated, either narrated for us by someone else or forced into some social media paradigm to prove that we are happy or influential.

By teaching people that we are primarily self-constructed beings, imposing meaning into a purposeless universe, our culture unwittingly robs us of imagination’s most fertile soil. There is no true wonder or real compassion for others unless there is a purpose to our lives bigger than our own selfish desires.

The tragic irony is that humans have more avenues for self-expression than any generation before them. Shouldn’t creativity and imagination be thriving right now? Anyone can be an artist, musician,

or storyteller. Anyone can produce and express, and even garner an audience.

But what’s the point? The primary limit in a culture of limitless self-expression is meaninglessness. That’s why we continue to see the epidemics of narcissism, loneliness, addictions, and depression and self-harms. We’re like a room of kids who each brought their own show-and-tell project, but can’t stop talking long enough to appreciate what anyone else has to offer. Dallas Willard once quipped that no one stands on the edge of the Grand Canyon and shouts “I am awesome.” Today, plenty of people stand on the edge of something wonderful (i.e. wonder full), but cannot look outside of themselves long enough to figure out it’s really not about us. In a world of constructed selves, imaginary gods and without purpose, the true roots of imagination wither and die.

C.S. Lewis understood what is required to shape the imagination. “In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself,” he wrote. By contrast, “The man who is contented to be only

himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison.” In the works of Spenser, Milton and George MacDonald, Lewis sensed a true grappling with what he called “the roughness and density of life.” Those authors could account for things like personhood, good, evil, purpose and meaning. By contrast, atheists like Shaw, Wells and Mills, felt surprisingly thin.

Faced with “a desire nothing on Earth could satisfy,” Lews concluded he was made for another, better world. That’s why he said that his imagination was baptized before his conversion.

A revival of Christian imagination is desperately needed today. Not only because who knows whether the next C.S. Lewis is out there, waiting for the kind of beauty and artistry that may baptize his or her own imagination. But also because imagination points to a vital aspect of what it means to be human. Only humans mirror the Creator in this way, with the ability to see what is not there and make it so. God, of course, created the world ex nihilo, out of nothing. We don’t have that power, but we can create and our words are profoundly powerful.

Jesus, the second Adam, appealed to the imagination in truth, compassion, and in story. He is the perfect expression of one of God’s richest gifts to humanity. It’s a gift that can help us make sense of life, move us to compassion, and bring what is not but ought to be into reality.

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