Imagination is defined as ‘the faculty or action of forming new ideas, or images or concepts of external objects not present to the senses.’ I have been pondering this definition for some time now whilst meditating on Romans 4:17, where Abraham is said to have believed in ‘the God who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not.’
Eugene Peterson, in his book ‘Subversive Spirituallity’, says ‘imagination is the capacity to make connections between the visible and the invisible, between heaven and earth, between present and past and future. For Christians, whose largest investment is in the invisible, the imagination is indispensable, for it is only by means of the imagination that we can see reality which is in context. What imagination does with reality is the reality we live by.’
(For further discussion of these thoughts, here is a conversation on the topic of story-telling and the role of imagination in this which Eugene Peterson held in 2007.)
Brennan Manning has said ‘Illusion is a denial of reality, while imagination creates and calls forth new reality that has not yet come to birth.’ (Brennan Manning, ‘A Glimpse of Jesus’) This is rather like the Biblical description of what God does in calling into being things that were not. We often acknowledge God as Creator, but man, made in God’s image, is also creative and the imagination is one thing which distinguishes man from the animals and perhaps one way in which man is linked to God.
Illusion often involves deception of some kind, a distortion of reality. Think of the way advertisers or magicians use illusion to make us believe something that is not necessarily true! Imagination is not the same thing at all. Imagination helps us to see the invisible and to put life into context. For, as Eugene Peterson also reminds us, “most of what makes up human existence is inacessible to our five sense: emotions, thoughts, dreams, love, hope, character, purpose, belief.” (‘Subversive Spirituality’) Imagination (and particularly the use of metaphor) helps us to connect what we see, hear, touch and experience with that invisible, intangible world we perceive only by faith. To be sure, our imaginations need to be sanctified (just as our whole lives need to be sanctified!), but imagination can also be a powerful tool to help us find new reality.