In order to reclaim the imagination, we need to know what it is. In order to understand what the imagination is, we need to do some rather heavy weeding of our tangled understanding. We have grown up in a world where the word “imagination” has come to mean simply anything fictional. The Calvin and Hobbes comic is the quintessential emblem of that escapist view of the imagination. Calvin, usually desiring to be somewhere other than in his current reality, spends most of his weekdays as Spaceman Spiff or a raging dinosaur.
Since we equate things fanciful or fictional with falsehood, the imagination is practically irrelevant, a mere flight of fancy. I agree with Thomas Howard when he suggests that “imagination is a commonplace of our experience, and that is probably why we do not spend much time thinking about it, any more than we think about eyesight.” But the imagination is as central to life as breathing, perhaps even more central, because while breathing is not a capacity that informs and enlightens the mind with meaning, the imagination does. The imagination not only sees beyond our natural vision, but it also interprets life and constructs a meaningful story.
You and I are composites of many parts. At any given moment, we express emotion, make decisions, reason, perceive with our senses, and utilize simultaneously many of the gifts God has given us. I am not simply “emotional” or “rational” or “perceptive” because none of those attributes or activities stands in isolation. The imagination takes every part of who we are—our emotions, our reason, our sense perceptions, our memories—and synthesizes them into a coherent story.
Reason constructs a comprehensive ideology from various gathered ideas. It always learns, always gathers new information to process into that ideology. That’s what it does all day, every day, and that’s what God made it to do. The imagination, however, effortlessly and perpetually forges an embodied, complex, and imaged narrative expression of that ideology and our lives are the lived expression of that imagined narrative. The imagination is in the business of constructing meaningful narratives. We can’t help but imagine and we can’t help but imagine a life of meaning.
The imagination actively conceives a story with meaning because God has built it to do so. For this reason, we keep waking up in the morning, working to accomplish something, and loving our families. Our daily choices are based on the belief that life is not the plaything of Chance, but rarely are those choices the sum of logical deduction. We live faithfully according to the story of which we see our selves a part. We wake up every morning and tackle the daily grind with a determination only possible for those living with purpose. Unfortunately, we’re often not sure what that purpose is and we’re not sure what the meaning of life might be. The imagination is nonetheless actively constructing a story that we cannot see, out of the things we experience: the things we can see.