Before you read any further, do this one thing. Put your open hand in front of you, close to your face. Now tighten your grip slightly. Now close your eyes, and as you do, imagine that you have just grabbed a handful of crayons.
Do you feel them roll around in your palm? Do you see the different colors of each crayon? Can you smell the wax?
Maybe it’s just me, but I think that is pretty amazing—to have the ability to see and feel and smell and completely conceptualize something that isn’t materially there. Our ability to imagine is a remarkable gift from God.
If imagination had a smell, it would smell like crayons.
THE DIVINE IMAGINATION
Have you ever considered the idea that Jesus has an infinite imagination? Well, He does. He might have limited Himself in some ways through the confines of His incarnation, but I contend that it is clearly inferred that He saw the world differently than any other person who ever lived. He saw the tax collector and the prostitute and befriended them. He saw a motley group of fishermen and made them His disciples. His Sermon on the Mount is filled with an invitation to imagine a world where the poor and the meek and the mourning were actually blessed. Where the world is permeated by His Kingdom. And finally, we know that all things were created through the person of Jesus:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” John 1:1-3 NIV
Think about all that there is. The duckbill platypus. The aurora borealis. The Milky Way galaxy. Hammerhead sharks. Black holes. The monarch butterfly. The double helix DNA. Redwood trees. Electrons and protons and neutrons.
All that we can name and more. All that we can see and more. All that is invisible and more. “All things have been created through Jesus and for Jesus. Jesus is before all things, and in Jesus all things hold together.” And then He sustains the universe as well, through His very will. He spins the atoms, and holds together the solar systems, and causes the rose and the lily to blossom. All of creation then displays itself as a reflection of the manifest glory of God. If we could just more fully grasp this idea, then perhaps we could understand the heart of the psalmist, when he declares:
“The heavens tell of the glory of God. The skies display his marvelous craftsmanship. Day after day they continue to speak; night after night they make him known. They speak without a sound or a word; their voice is silent in the skies; yet their message has gone out to all the earth, and their words to all the world.” Psalm 191:4 NIV
All creation exists as a silent testimony to His glory, His majesty, His eternal Being. And here is the thing. In order for us to comprehend the amazing glory of God, in his infinite and eternal being, we have to use our imaginations, use our God eyes. Imagination is a part of how we can understand and worship God, as well as how we can understand and interact with His visible and invisible creation.
THE HUMAN IMAGINATION
Our imaginations are one of the very important ways in which we are made in the image of God. Now, our imaginations aren’t as vast as God’s. Fruit Roll-ups, the Slinky, tube socks, the infield fly rule, the Chicken Dance. Nevertheless, we do have this amazing capacity to imagine and conceptualize and dream, which is a very special and important gift from God.
There are at least two reasons why God gave us imaginations. First, human imagination is a necessary part of the cultural mandate. Now, I’ve mentioned the cultural mandate in Imagine That and in various blog posts, so I’ll just briefly reiterate that the cultural mandate is kind of like our job description here on earth—to be fruitful and to fill and subdue the earth, as it says in the first chapter of the book of Genesis.
“God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.” Genesis 1:28a NIV
So our imaginations allow us to conceive of the things which help us to thrive in this world, from farming to city building to communicating with languages to inventing machines to expressing the arts. Curiosity and creativity and imagination all come together in the cultural mandate. That in and of itself makes imagination crucially important.
But the other reason why I believe imagination is important is because it allows us to interact with God in ways beyond the concrete and rational, beyond that which can simply be seen. Theologian Charles Sherlock contends that the ancient apologists and theologians were influenced by Hellenistic philosophy, and believed that knowing God was primarily through the intellect. But intellect also included the imagination. He says this:
“They saw rational knowing as contemplative and imaginative, a reflective journey in truth…The word ‘imagination,’ a Latinism, reflects this intellectual, yet non-rationalistic, understanding.” [The Doctrine of Humanity: Contours of Christian Theology, Charles Sherlock]
In other words, in ancient times, the imagination was considered an intrinsic part of the intellect, and a necessary attribute of knowing an unfathomable God. This is kind of different than our modern understanding of things, where we often think of imagination as somehow different from intellect. But to them, imagination was just a part of intellectual thought.
Clyde Kilby goes even further. He says: “The word translated imagination in the Scripture means to think, deliberate, meditate, or weigh the evidence, and the word is morally neutral. It is equally as impossible to think about God without using the imagination as it is to think about evil.” [Arts & the Christian Imagination, Clyde S. Kilby]
Once again, it is helpful to look to the example of Jesus. Think about how Jesus interacted with people while He was in His earthly ministry. He taught not only with great intellect and understanding, but with great imagination as well. Indeed, Jesus said some radical, counter-intuitive things that could only be understood if one had a good imagination. The Kingdom of God is like a pearl of great price. Faith is like a mustard seed. The bread is my body, and the wine is my blood. In fact, I personally believe that one of the failings of the Pharisees is simply that they had bad imaginations.
Robert Webber contends that, “At least one-third of the Bible is poetry,” and if that is true, then we may indeed need to foster the hearts of poets to understand the word of God, and the heart of God. I really believe that one of the keys to reclaiming a fullness of worship in our sanctuaries—and in our souls—is to rekindle our God-given imaginations.
If we are to understand that pearl of great price, or the faith of a mustard seed, or the wine and the bread; if we have any hope of relating to an unfathomable, invisible, gracious God; if we are to revel in the world God gave us, and envision the Kingdom that God gently invites us into—then it is through the imagination that we must tread.
When we grasp at imaginary crayons, we are closer to God than we think.
[This blog post is an excerpt from comments I made at the 2020 Intersections: Arts & Faith Gathering at William Jessup University in Rocklin. Banner photo by Free Steph and inset photo by Gaelle Marcel on Unsplash.]