When we think of the mind, we tend to think of the intellect, our ability to reason and understand. But the mind has many other facets: We experience our emotions in our minds. Another mental faculty is the will. There has been quite a lot of theological reflection on those three, but not so much on the mental faculty that we use far more than any of the others: the imagination. When we do think of the imagination, we mystify it by associating it with creativity and the arts. Those do issue from the imagination, but what the term really means is simply the ability to form mental pictures in our minds.
Anyway, I’ve just finished a book on the subject with Matthew Ristuccia, which will come out in November. I spoke about this in Canada, recently, at Concordia Edmonton. Mathew Block, communications director of the Lutheran Church Canada, interviewed me for the Canadian Lutheran. I thought I’d run a series of posts built around his questions, starting today.
CL: In your lectures at the Canadian Centre for Scholarship and the Christian Faith’s 2014 Conference, you spoke about the arts, imagination, and the Christian faith. Briefly, what is imagination?
The imagination is just the human capacity to picture things in our minds. One example is memory: we can remember experiences that we’ve had. Other examples are daydreaming, fantasizing, and planning for the future. Images fall through our minds all the time, and that’s the realm of the imagination: the ability to conjure up mental pictures or images.
I think for much of our waking moments (and even when we sleep and dream), we think in terms of images. Most people look at the mind in terms of the intellect, of reason. That’s certainly important: the ability to understand things. We also might think of emotion, our ability to feel things. These are both facets of the mind. But I think the use of the mind that we use more than any other is the imagination.
CL: Why is the imaginative life important for Christians?
Imagination is important in the life of a Christian because it constitutes so much of our inner-life. We sin in our imaginations. Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount distinguishes between sins we actually do in an outer-way and sins we commit in our hearts. We might not break the commandment against murder literally, but when we murder someone in our hearts—in other words, when we are angry at our neighbours or have contempt for them—then we’re sinning against the commandment [Matthew 5:21-30].
Imagination is also the source of idolatry. Scripture talks about making gods according to the imaginations of the heart [cf. Jeremiah 7:24, 9:14, etc.]. People use their imaginations to make up their own religions, their own theologies. That can clearly lead us away. It’s clear then that we can sin in our imagination. We need to learn how to discipline our imagination, to control and channel it in positive ways.
On the other hand, we’re told in Scripture to ‘weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice’ [Romans 12:15]. That means putting ourselves into the position of other people and imagining what it would be like to suffer or rejoice with them. Imagination can then have a positive moral effect: it can teach compassion, sympathy, and love for our neighbours.