Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight. (Luke 3)
I would like to speak this morning on the topic of imagination.
Now, imagination is a word that we often associate with something that is fanciful, or unreal. “She has quite an imagination,” we might say of a small child. Or we might speak of a child’s “imaginary friend.”
And so we also associate imagination with creativity. We might for example say of an especially talented artist, “He does such imaginative work!”
But despite all these associations between imagination and make believe on one hand, or artistic originality on the other, cognitively speaking imagination has a much more foundational function to fulfill in our lives.
As David Brooks recently pointed out, it was the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle who thought that imagination is one of the foundations of all knowledge. Think of it this way: every waking second your brain is bombarded with a buzzing, blooming confusion of colors, shapes and movements. Imagination is the capacity to make associations among all these bits of information and to synthesize them into patterns and concepts. When you walk into church here, for instance, you hear music and see colored glass and see people moving in certain ways and making certain gestures—all of which your imaginative brain puts together into the unified concept of “church.” That is to say, your senses don’t just take in a world that is already presented to you as understandable. Rather, your brain takes in many bits of information that it has to interpret and synthesize into meaningful concepts. That’s the poetic function of imagination, without which the world would simply be an unintelligible barrage of sensations.
So what, you may ask, has this to do with our reasons for being here in church this morning in the first place?
Well, quite a lot, I think.
Let’s go back to the two readings from scripture. In the first, we encountered Baruch, a scribe who worked with the prophet Jeremiah at a time when the people of Jerusalem had been taken into exile, and the city lay in ruins. Despite the hopelessness of the situation, Baruch is able to envision—dare I say, “imagine”?—a time when Jerusalem will put off its garments of sorrow and affliction, and put on instead the robes of righteousness and splendor that come only from God. Baruch takes what he sees, the devastation of Jerusalem, and puts it together in his mind with what he knows, the promises of God, and imagines a new and different future.
Then in Luke, we have John the Baptist, preaching at a similarly desperate moment in Jerusalem’s history. Rather than its people being in exile, the city is now occupied, but its fortunes are just as low. And this time it is John who takes the reality of what he sees, and puts it together (using Baruch’s own words) with the promises of God to imaginatively foretell a coming salvation.
In each of these cases—Baruch and John—imagination is the engine of hope, taking the hard facts of current reality and mixing them with the larger truths of God’s promised mercy and restoration to create a new vision and understanding for what the future will be.
Wasn’t it Bobby Kennedy, who in that awful year of 1968 said, “Some [people] see things as they are, and say why. I dream of things that never were, and say why not.” You might have heard the same words from either Baruch or John!
Which brings us back to church here today. I want to suggest, that coming to church also requires an act of imagination. Sure, we can come into this place and appreciate what we see and hear; we can be comforted by the repetition of familiar words and phrases.
But if we are to leave with any renewed sense of hope—and hope is what is most scarce in the clogged up supply chain right now—then we have to engage our imaginations to weave together an alternative vision. We have, in other words, to interrogate what we do here in church to put it all together, just as our brains have to make imaginative sense of every new sensation or experience.
For example, one might ask, Why are we singing this song, and not another?
Or, Why are we saying these words, instead of some others?
How is today different from every other Sunday? What is it trying to say?
And where is today’s service leading me?
Or perhaps most importantly: How is what we do here today intended to feed my imagination?
Do you know the Anne of Green Gables stories by Lucy Maud Montgomery? Anne was an orphan girl on Canada’s Prince Edward Island, who spent her whole life imagining things. She used her vivid imagination not only for the pleasure it gave her, but also as a tool to liberate her mind and heart, equipping her with the power to transform any situation or predicament in which she found herself into something positive, by imagining its potential.
In one of her disquisitions on the importance of imagination, Anne enthusiastically says, “Isn't it splendid to think of all the things there are to find out about? It just makes me feel glad to be alive—it's such an interesting world. It wouldn't be half so interesting if we know all about everything, would it? There'd be no scope for imagination then, would there?”
Well, our religious life is a place where there is plenty of scope for imagination—in fact without imagination, we would have no real religious life. Because religion is about using our mind to put together the things of this world—in all its beauty, but also in all its pain and disappointment—with a vision that all of this belongs at the same time to a larger reality, which is God. Everything we do and say here in church, especially in this season of Advent, hints at that larger reality, and it does so in a myriad of ways that is self-consciously not predictable or rote, but creatively intended to feed our imagination by its shades of variation.
Strangely enough, the physicist Albert Einstein was a great enthusiast of the imagination. It was, after all, his imagining himself riding on a beam of light that led to his theory of relativity. So let me end by sharing with you several things he said about imagination:
“Imagination is more important than knowledge,” Einstein wrote, “for knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world.”
Or again, “Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.”
And finally, “Imagination is everything. It is the preview of life’s coming attractions.” Baruch and John could not have agreed more. Amen.