Archives for March 2013
A river in the sky.
I have five children, four girls and one boy.
Guy time is a rare and valued treat. When my son was about three, we bought him two foam airplanes with which to play with dad. What made these airplanes rather exciting was their potential for air time. Attached to each eight-inch plane was a very large and strong rubber-band. We could pull that rubber-band back about four feet and let the plane fly. Sending that airplane over the back fence became a cinch and we both delighted in watching a perfect long distance flight. That’s what boys do.
We were sitting on the back deck when, being Dad and having a lust for the spectacular that has nearly no bounds, I began to wonder whether we could turn the airplane into a kind of rocket and launch it vertically into the atmosphere. So I took my airplane, pointed it vertically, pulled as far back as I possible could and was about to let it fly when my son frantically stopped me. He had a wild look in his eye, an alarm verging on terror, and the intensity of his face and gestures stopped me.
“You can’t do that, Dad! If you shoot it up there, we’ll lose it in the river,” he said.
Now, you need to know that we have no river near us. I have a small stream and pond I created, but they’re both small enough for a child to step over, so I was a bit baffled as to this sudden alarm.
“What river?” I asked him.
“The river in the sky!” he said with frustration in his tone of voice, as though he was stating the obvious to a man who should already have the intelligence to know it. Unfortunately, I am a child of the Enlightenment with one overdeveloped way of looking at the world and so I asked again, “What river? There is no river in the sky.”
He looked at me with shocked three-year-old eyes and a dropped jaw. “Was Dad serious?” they seemed to ask. “Was Dad really that dense in the head?” they pleaded.
“Look, Dad.” He had suddenly grown into a patient and kind teacher, willing to work around my imaginative barriers. “Look at all that blue water in the sky. Do you see how the clouds move along the water in the same direction? Do you see how quickly they’re moving along the river? That means the river is pretty strong today, so we definitely don’t want to shoot the airplane up there. If we do, then we’ll lose it in the river and we’ll never get it back!”
What does any Dad worth his salt do with that moment? “The kid is messed up,” I thought. “He’s got only some of the facts straight. There is water in the sky, but it’s no river.” I was about to correct him in good scientific fashion, but my tongue stumbled on the words. I was unwilling to place upon my son the burden of my enlightened rationalism which takes our knowledge too seriously.
I laughed. He looked at me, puzzled. Then we were laughing together, father and son, two boys giggling at the river in the sky and wishing we could raft together on one of those clouds. Maybe, just maybe, my son has everything correct. Maybe, just maybe, my son is seeing the sky as God sees it. My narrow rationalist friends will purse their lips and shake their heads to hear the young so lead astray. My more fastidious pietistic friends may well click their tongues and call it all a vile pack of lies. But I often wonder if God is not more playful than we are and that our goal in life is not so much to get all the facts straight as to get the perspective correct. Maybe when we see the sky as a river, we’re actually getting it all more poetically correct and, therefore, more correct in an ultimate sense. Maybe it’s closer to the way God sees the world. Maybe we’ve finally landed right side up.
Along with G.K. Chesterton and Thomas Howard, Robert Farrar Capon is helping me reclaim the imagination. His perspective on things is obtuse enough to startle me into the enchantment of the world, people and things alike. G.K. Chesterton once wrote that “all the real argument about religion turns on the question of whether a man who was born upside down can tell when he comes right way up” (Orthodoxy). Capon is upside down in just the right way. And that’s the point of reclaiming the imagination: to become right way up. Because the imagination is at the core of who we are as people, reclaiming our imagination is reclaiming our humanity—what and who we were meant to be—recapturing and nurturing the divine image. What a playful anthropology!
Capon suggests that we reclaim our humanity, as God intended, by looking poetically at the world: “In our fear of picking up an incorrect causal connection we deprive ourselves of the freedom of rummaging playfully through all the connections we could think of. And that’s a shame because it’s precisely connectedness, interrelatedness, that’s the most engaging thing about the world. We should be far more afraid than we are of the habit of assuming there’s only one correct way of talking about it. To get a connection backwards or wrong or to pick it up fabulously or poetically—to say the sun rises or the moon wanes, to think boats grow from seed or plankton have plans—is all small compared to missing the wonder of it altogether. Or as happens more usually, to turning the world into an alien, tiresome place where only the least fabulous, least poetic—least human—reading of causality can be the right one”
The imaginative faculty sees connection and difference, types and shadows, symmetry and singularity; in a word, correspondences. The healthy imagination sees the fingerprint of God everywhere, it sees the face of God pressing through the fabric of this world. In this way, the healthy, or sanctified imagination is attentive because as Lord Chesterfield wrote to his son, “a man without attention is not fit to live in the world.” And Tennyson echoed the same when he wrote, “for what are men better than sheep or goats that nourish a blind life within the brain?” (The Passing of Arthur).
The abundant life is the captivated life, the full life, the good life. The captivated life is the Godward life where God is the fixed point of the healthy imaginative vision. Meister Eckhart (c. 1260-1328) made this claim quite clear when he wrote, “What one grows to know and come to love and remember, his soul follows after…If the soul were to know the goodness of God, as it is and without interruption, it would never turn away…” (Sermon on the Eternal Birth). When we fix our spiritual vision, our imagination, on God then we see everything around us with new eyes. Everything is subsequently colored by the radiance of God. Meister Eckhart wrote, when you have your focus on the true abundant life, “everything stands for God and you see only God in all the world. It is just as when one looks straight at the sun for awhile: afterward, everything he looks at has the image of the sun in it. If this is lacking, if you are not looking for God and expecting him everywhere, and in everything, you lack the birth” (Sermon on the Eternal Birth).
The birth of which Eckhart speaks is the spiritual rebirth found by reclaiming the imagination: the ability to see what is not literally before the eyes. When we have new birth and new eyes, then our energies are spent pursuing more of that light found only in God. Shall we slip the bonds of selfish preoccupation? Can we actually jettison our self-induced life-ruptures and look for the light with new eyes? The answer is yes. How is it possible for us to leave the old ruptures and press toward the new birth since we are estranged from God? Christ’s parable of the prodigal son reflects not only the fracture and estrangement that characterize our lives, but also the fact that God has bridged the divide between our mortality and His divinity. He is our Life and he calls to us with the vigor of both a father and a hunter. He desires imaginations captivated by him and so he entered his creation to ensure that captivation.
Augustine says it well: “But our very life came down to earth and bore our death, and slew it with the very abundance of his own life. And, thundering, he called us to return to him into that secret place from which he came for us…For he did not delay, but ran through the world, crying out by word, deeds, death, life, descent, ascension—crying aloud to us to return to him. And he departed from our sight that we might return to our hearts and find him there. For he left us, and behold, he is here” (Confessions, Book Four, chapter 13).
Because he bridged the divide first, we are able to cross it. Although all the faculties of the mind aid us in this crossing, the imagination is the means by which we finally come face to face and see eye to eye with our maker. We are not home yet, but our pilgrim journey leads us toward that destination. Healthy imaginative eyes give us the ability to see the entire world, in all its complexity and pain and joy, as it really is: charged with the fingerprint of God.
If we see ourselves with imaginative eyes, then we see purpose-ridden characters in a master story. If we see others with imaginative eyes, then we see bright eternal souls bursting with the image of God. If we see creation with imaginative eyes, then we see as the poets have seen: a world charged with the grandeur of God. His face presses in upon his creation and we need the imagination to see the indentation. Let’s use the imagination to trace his shape and to journey toward him.
Life is about taking risks. By risks I do not mean jumping out of airplanes, playing chicken with a train, biking across America, or even chasing elephants. The risk I suggest is far greater and more difficult to sustain, particularly while living in the sweeping current of modern technophilia. The greatest risk we can take in life is one that suppresses our eager self-aggrandizement in favor of what Christ called meekness (Matthew 5).
Meekness is an inward disposition that bears concrete fruit in the choices we make and things that we do, but that disposition has roots in the imagination. The meek imagination is simple, uncomplicated, and fixed. It is harmonized with the sacred holiness of God as that holiness is found in the ordinary of our day to day lives. This imaginative harmony is a “sacramental attunement.”
An important distinction must be made between the Sacraments and sacramental attunement. The Sacraments were divinely instituted not only as a means of grace, but as physical pointers back to God. Christians learn from an early age to see through the sacraments to the reality they represent. A sacramental attunement, however, is a spiritual attentiveness to the way all bread, all wine, all water now points us back toward the divine. One of the most beautiful and meaningful things that Christ did was to take bread between his hands and tear it, offering it to his disciples as a memorial of his finished sacrifice on the cross. He took the ordinary and made it extraordinary, as God intended at creation, reshaping in our imaginations all such simple acts like eating, drinking, and bathing. These activities are not the Sacraments themselves, but they remind us of great spiritual things and invest life with a million markers of the divine. The meek imagination is sacramentally attuned to those markers and in this way it inherits all the earth (Matthew 5:5).
How then can we foster a sacramental attunement in our harried lives? This task, just like reclaiming the imagination in general, is particularly difficult in our modern world. I’m all for technology and all for the conveniences of modern living, but the fact remains that our lifestyle presses us away from sacramental attunement simply by the speed, multi-tasking, and brief attention span required to succeed. Chaos, like the ocean’s surf cascading endlessly along the shore, fills our ears and makes it difficult to hear the red-winged blackbirds singing in the reeds.
There is one activity, however, that inevitably nurtures a sacramental attunement and that activity is prayer. A strong prayer life is the warm center of the soul that lights the spiritual eyes and awakens the chilled limbs to action. It is the heated core from which all warmth emanates.
My father spent the summers of my teen years teaching me to guard the warm center. Whenever we went camping, he would allow my brother and I to build the campfire while he unloaded the gear. In our rush to build a bonfire, we lit a few sparse twigs and promptly snuffed them out with a pile of logs. After several attempts and following the same technique failed, we wished for a bottle of lighter fluid and shambled over to dad who was choking in the drifting smoke. He would stop what he was doing and, once again, show us how to meticulously build a fire.
“Look boys, you can’t rush a good fire,” he would say. Then squatting and thrusting aside our hasty smoke signal, he told us to gather some more twigs and dry grass. When we returned, he took them in his hands and built a small lean-to inside a small protected cove he had built with the larger wood. “Okay, see how I’ve used the larger pieces to build a wall against the breeze and then covered it against the rain?”
We nodded, remembering the previous summer’s lesson but forgetting it all over again in our desire to have the fire warming our fingers.
“Now we lean the little kindling upwards so that it can catch the flame and let it rise like it wants to. Then we put some larger kindling next to it, but not too much in case it won’t light.” This he did, and then he took the match, struck it, and set it in amongst the small kindling. Without fail, a small whisper of smoke slipped out from amongst the grass and twigs, then there was a quiet pop as the flame jumped to life. The process of building a fire was always a gradual and careful one, with well-timed blows from my father and a few adjustments of the kindling. Dad knew how to build a warm center and how to guard it. He knew how to maximize the space to accelerate the growing heat at just the right pace. In the end, the task we rushed to perform always became my father’s duty and his patience proved effective in getting us our campfire…even without using lighter fluid.
Prayer, likewise, is the warm center from which all spiritual attentiveness emanates. All the sacramental attunement that comprises a good life in the eyes of God has at its center prayer and all the activities summed up by I Thess. 4:11 begin with prayer. Those whom I admire for their quiet and deliberate work ethic are often prayer warriors in their own right, even though few of them would claim the title. Those who serve others with incredible sacrifice and sincerity are often prayer warriors who, like so many others, would not claim the title. Indeed, life in the ordinary takes on extraordinary character when seen with imaginative eyes. All the little things that pass for the mundane are actually holy activities, like the breaking of bread, but we easily brush them aside because our attunement is poor.
This sacramental attunement has been and will remain a rather gradual process for me. I have found, however, that my greatest growth comes not from my individual efforts toward this attentiveness, but from living in community. This realization should not surprise me since God is three persons in one, a community. I was made in his image and designed to function best when living within a community. But a sacramental attunement, in particular, becomes more attuned by being around others who are so attuned. It also learns to practice that learned attunement on others. So family life is the loam, the rich soil, where sacramental attunement takes root, grows, and bears fruit.The kind of attentiveness required for sacramental attunement is difficult to both attain and sustain, but it needs brothers and sisters who eat together, play together, clean together, read together, and sing together. In these environs the sacramental attunement is both more effective because it forces a proximity with the divine stamp in others and it forces a self-forgetfulness necessary for attunement. Social networking, while convenient, is a virtual community in which sacramental attunement is nearly impossible because it intentionally limits the physical, concrete, opportunities for self-forgetfulness.
Eating dinner as a family, real people crowded together in real time, has become a precious commodity in our home and one that I hope my children fully take for granted. I want them to be surprised at the possibility that some families don’t eat together. There are many reasons for my desire, but one of them is because the dinner table forces a geographical proximity, a closeness difficult to replicate during the hustle and bustle of the day. Sure, the conversation is not always sparkling and we never try hard enough to follow the etiquette rule book, but the meal provides plenty of opportunities to practice self-forgetfulness. When my children, for example, say, “After you,” they are learning not only to defer their own gratification, but also learning to be more attuned to that other person as a human being made in the image of God. The simple act of putting others first is an important habit to form and this habit will be the natural byproduct of sacramental attunement as we play, eat, sing, and labor in community.
That is exactly why personal transformation is not a personal matter. It is not simply a matter of making better choices for myself based on sound reason and judgment. Nor is it a matter of choosing what works or what will serve my interests. The kind of transcendent transformation many of us are looking for is a matter of redirecting the imagination toward a vision of the good life that is rooted in community and has at its center, God.
God has given us the entire world chock full of communities, and there are many forms, to become more self-aware. He uses these folks in their own way to lift us above our petty pleasures and so we might follow alternative visions of the good life. Our lives are extended parables and communities are nothing less than the convergence of many parables. We would do well to live this parable more intentionally, remembering that future generations will hear our story and learn how to live well or how to live poorly.
Our pilgrimage comes equipped with a map given to us by which to navigate the difficult terrain. What we do, however, along the way and how we go about traveling, reflects the story our imagination tells us. That story feeds our desires and loops back to feed those same desires toward either a spiritually healthy or destructive end. There is good reason for why people perpetuate destructive cycles in their lives: the story in their head has no alternatives, no exits, no loopholes.
Christ came to provide not only spiritual salvation, but an alternative way to live. The primary way he expressed that alternative was through parables. His teaching method was story-shaped. When Christ spoke in parables, he was not only teaching the truth about God and our relationship to Him and to others, he was providing alternate imaginative pictures. He knew that our understanding, our thought life, has a narrative shape. We see things not only as they exist in space (trees, people, rain), but primarily as they exist in time. Stories are a function of time, we are a function of time, and our thoughts run in narrative grooves.
Those grooves often define how we live, what we do. Our hands will do something. What they do, what we do, is birthed in the imagination. Lasting transformation—the kind of transformation that keeps us actively pursuing the straight and narrow pilgrim path—is a matter of being captivated in the center of our being—our imagination—by God.
Rarely do our actions reflect thoughtful, calculated choice. They are typically the product of how we imagine the world and our place in it. For good or for ill, the imagination and the story it weaves are so deeply entrenched in us that we are often simply not self-aware enough to accurately identify the story by which we live. We have difficulty stepping outside of ourselves to observe how the imagination impacts what we do. We know that the will, as distinct from the intellect, is the decision making faculty of the mind, but do not realize that it is handmaid to the imagination. The choices we make are the result of imaginative work that is precognitive. These choices resulting from subconscious imagining, if given time, soon become habits. The habits formed in our lives are birthed in the imagination. They are the fruit of the imagination, expressions of our desires and the story we perceive. Not only that, but the story we perceive is a matter of habitual imagining and, like any other habit, it will only change if replaced by a new habit; in this case, an alternate way of perceiving. We become what we imagine.
James K.A. Smith suggests that life habits are the fulcrum of our desire. They are “the hinge that turns our heart, our love, such that it is predisposed to be aimed in certain directions.” Moreover, he says that we are propelled to action by an engine “that purrs along under the hood with little attention from us (Desiring the Kingdom). Many of our life choices are the product of habit, not just habits of action but habits of thought, and these habits are formed, not hardwired, in us by means of the imagination.
The imagination is father to action. All ethical and unethical actions—both spoken and unspoken—have their roots, their genesis, their inception, in the imagination. For this reason, Scripture could not be more condemning than by saying “every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5).
The imagination is fed by pictures and drives actions based on those pictures. Those actions, given time and tide, will become habits. The imagination is not so much a debating chamber as a picture gallery (Macneile Dixon, The Human Situation). Since habits “constitute the fulcrum of our desire” and since they are the fruit of the imagination, any activity that feeds visual stimulus to the imagination is essentially habit and life forming. Christ, in fact, said that repentance for sinful actions was good, but not simply effective enough. If one imagined murdering his brother or having sex with his neighbor’s wife, then those actions were as good as done. Damage to the soul has already been done.
What we imagine shapes us.
For this reason, it takes very little for television and movies to form not only our desires, but also our common frame of reference. Both are easily dismissed as merely entertainment, but it is precisely these pictured stories that nourish the fruit of our lives. Consider, for a moment, the power of pornography. Pornography is not only immoral but spiritually deadly. It skews the imagination and, therefore, the whole person. An imagination so distorted can only bear distorted fruit, fruit that gradually ruins all relationships. It stands to reason that any examination of conscience must include an examination of the imagination because the health of one’s conscience is directly connected to the vitality of the soul. Many people, unfortunately, simply do not want to work that hard to unearth the contagion. Others are simply too focused on chasing their imaginative story of self-fulfillment.
We become what we imagine. Therefore, “what discernment we should exercise about the things that feed our mind and are to be the seed of our thoughts! For what we read unconcernedly today will recur to our minds when occasion arises and will rouse in us, even without our notice, thoughts that will be a source of salvation or ruin” (Pierre Nicole, Essais de morale contenus en divers traits, V.II, Paris 1733).
Assessing the imagination might prove the most essential move toward spiritual health, but such assessment is difficult because it is so habitually undermined. We would be wise, therefore, to cultivate healthy imaginations as intentionally as we do healthy bodies. We are creatures with the gift of an imagination whose power is beyond our understanding and whose quality must be guarded as the gateway to our hearts.
The healthy imagination, therefore, is measured by its sanctification—by the degree to which it is washed by Christ and seeks Christ in everything: the degree to which it pursues God. Our actions, or what the Scriptures call our “fruit,” betray the state of our imagination and provide the world an embodied expression of our view of God. Assuredly, “nothing reveals more forcefully one’s true view of God than the quality of one’s imaginings” (Janine Langan).
When Scripture says that the mouth speaks out of the overflow of the heart, it reinforces this very principle: what a person says or does is the cultivated product of the heart. The imagination is the soil of the heart’s loves and hates and desires. A friend of mine had a vision of the good life. He hoped for freedom and personal pleasure. He had faith in himself to achieve both and, with a little bit of luck, he found a girl who wanted something similar. Pregnancy was not part of the dream, but she gave birth while they were both in high school.
Some people might dismiss the poor chump and advise him to use protection next time, but the truth is that he is not very different from the rest of us. The difference is that his choices caught up with him and chained him down. What I don’t often realize is how chained I am by the stories my imagination perpetually spins.
Because the imagination purrs beneath our hoods with little attention from us, our loves and hates are especially conditioned by the story we perceive. A well-renowned writer and student of people once wrote that “hate is just a failure of imagination.” I disagree. Perhaps our disagreement reflects differing uses of the word imagination, but I think it is worth noting here that every form of hate, good and bad, is the realization of the imagination, not a failure of imagination. Actions of love or hate are the full-fledged product of the imagination.
Take, as another example, the parable of the prodigal son found in Luke 15. Christ used a story to reach through all the intellectual barriers and access the drive shaft of actions, the imagination. At his most basic, the prodigal son is not so much a reasoning being as a desiring being and so his imagination has tremendous power in how he lives life. His passions have veto power over reason and so his will, like ours, answers to his desires. What he does is not so much a matter of conscious, calculated choice, but the natural product of a certain way of imagining life and his place in it. The prodigal son’s desires, as pictured in the imagination, manifested themselves in the choices he made. His decision making faculty, the will, was and will be handmaid to the imagination.
When he took the cash, took to the city, and blew it on his own pleasure, he was only expressing what was in his imagination all along. Some of us are surprised when the pastor has a fling with his secretary or when the good daughter gets pregnant, but the idea that such events just suddenly happened is an illusion. These collapses in character are the product of the story these people perceive. Unfortunately, many of us don’t take the time to assess the story we are perceiving and blindly live out our arrogance in a lifetime of self-gratification. Many of us have forgotten that we are people set apart by God, a holy priesthood with a high calling to be more self-aware. M was right when she told James Bond, “This may be too much for a blunt instrument to understand, but arrogance and self-awareness seldom go hand in hand (Casino Royale).”
On the other hand, the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife in Genesis 39, provides a fitting example of a man who was self-aware regarding his imaginings. Joseph was strong, fluid in mind and body, and well-proportioned, and he climbed the corporate ladder even as a slave. He was a hard worker and a man of prayer. This rare combination was one reason why God blessed him. None of these blessings blinded him imaginatively to the the dangers that lurked around the corner or to his own capacity for sin. He ran from Potiphar’s wife, naked as the day he was born, not because he was afraid of sex, but because the scenario was not new to his imagination. He had rehearsed, on principle, what he would do if tempted to be unfaithful to his wife—present or future. There was will—volition—involved, but it answered to his desire for purity and marital happiness untainted by covert trysts. That happiness and purity were central to Joseph’s vision of the good life.
Let me confess here that to a large degree I am more like the prodigal son than I am like Joseph. My vision of the good life often involves doing what I want when I want, and getting what I want when I want it. This vision of the good life, however, coincides more with our western clamor for self-fulfillment than it does with God’s vision of the good life.
Thankfully, God is rather clear about the good life and Scripture is full of glimpses. One of those important glimpses is a beautifully simple prayer found in Proverbs 30. “Two things I ask of you; deny them not to me before I die: Remove far from me falsehood and lying; give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you and say, ‘Who is the LORD?’ or lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God.” Another glimpse is in I Thessalonians 4:11. “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life and attend to your own business, learning to work with your hands as we commended you.” Both passages paint a picture of a very different kind of good life than we are accustomed to pursuing. They offer us a new kind of ambition and the greatest of all risks: the risk of oblivion.
The word oblivion means the state of being forgotten, indicating that something or someone can still be very alive and well and still being forgotten. The word denotes a continuum along which the forgetfulness moves from more awareness to no awareness. I Thessalonians 4:11 is a blueprint for a life of oblivion and this is another place where God’s upside down economy is evident. The world and the people in love with her are hell bent on outrunning oblivion, but the memory of their lives is smudged by the hand of time. The Christian tradition on the other hand is full of people who ran toward oblivion with open arms and whose memory still blazes before us as proof that God uses the foolish things to confound worldly wisdom.
You’ll find here some insightful talks by Ken Myers (Mars Hill Audio) and Matthew Dickerson (The Mind and the Machine, A Hobbit Journey) that help us recover the imagination and recognize its significance. Enjoy.