Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 2nd September 2012

2 September 2012 at 10:00 am

The Reverend Professor Vernon White, Canon in Residence

Imagination is a powerful thing. It can paralyse us with fearful possibilities, but can also be invigorating, creative, and present us with new good possibilities. What is it? Is it just fantasy, an escape from the real world - or can it actually help us understand and live better in the real world? Might it even help us understand God better? It’s my firm belief that imagination is a real spiritual gift: a distinctive feature of being human, of being made in God’s image. So in this series of sermons in September at Matins I want to look more closely at it. Today, something about what it is: in the next weeks, examples of how poets and novelists have used it to see the world and God.

One helpful exploration of imagination was by William James. James was a late 19th-century psychologist and doctor. He knew Sigmund Freud. He also became a philosopher and investigated mystical religious experience (and was, incidentally, the brother of the novelist Henry James). James was fascinated by what he called the ‘exuberant excess of our subjective propensities’; by the ‘fantastic and superfluous’ number of desires, thoughts and feelings we experience. He noted how powerful they are, even though they don’t all seem necessary for ordinary life and survival. I think we know what he means. Consider the depth of your own experience in love or disappointment, beauty or tragedy, in the experience of music or birdsong, of light on water or of fine art, of a birth or death: recollect the complexity of these feelings in tranquillity, as Wordsworth recommended, or try to catch them in the act. Either way, they seem more than we need, they even sometimes seem to get in the way of getting on with life, yet they also seem vital to us, essential to who we are as humans. And this is surely where imagination belongs – it is part of this extraordinary excess of our experience, not strictly necessary, yet somehow vital to being human…

But what does it actually do? Part of it is the capacity to form mental pictures about things which do not actually exist, or not as far as we know. So I can imagine a dragon; or life on another planet. It’s also the capacity to form mental pictures about events which do not yet exist. So I can imagine stories about dragons and new worlds. Or we can imagine events or experiences which only might have happened: the ‘what-ifs’ of life - what philosophers call counter-factuals. What would have happened if I hadn’t met my wife or husband? How would my life have run its course? What would have happened if Hitler had succeeded? How would history have run its course? Medieval theologians thought God had this sort of imagined knowledge as sure knowledge, whereas we can only imagine it as a kind of guess. But is it just a guess when we imagine? In fact it’s not necessarily just fantasy, not just pure invention. Because, if you think about it, our imagination almost always has some connection with what we do know, especially from our memory. When we form ideas with our imagination we tend to draw in some way on material already stored in our experience. Yes, our imagination re-shapes these remembered experiences in new ways, but it isn’t creating them from nothing. The dragon is a mix of different parts of known creatures; life on other worlds, or another life in this world, mixes elements from the life we do know (Interestingly, recent brain research confirms this: imagining uses the same parts of the brain as remembering). At the same time, imagination does also have this extraordinary power to reshape and mix these known things. Our imagination breaks all normal rules. It can even transcend time and space. We can travel in time in imagination. Einstein, far from dismissing this, celebrated it as a possible route to truth: ‘Knowledge is limited: imagination encircles the world’, he said. In fact science generally now acknowledges how imagination can prove a path to new truths, not just fantasies. The Copernican revolution and quantum theory were not arrived at simply by empirical observation of the evidence but also by imaginative leaps…

Of course, such power isn’t always comfortable. It’s sometimes more comfortable to live just in the sensations of the known present rather than imagine anything different or future. As Robbie Burns poem says of a mouse: ‘thou art blessed, compar’d wi’ me/The present only toucheth thee’! But then we are men and women, not mice! We rightly want more than the known present, because we want to find new possibilities. Imagination, for example, helps children develop. The dreams under the bed covers, the adventures of the toys, are helping children learn how to negotiate a world in safety, before having to do so in the grown-up world. It provides them with an inner world of their own to help distinguish their own thoughts from other people’s, and have confidence in themselves. As adults, we can then act on this. Imagination gives us the independence of mind to question the status quo, and then change it. William Blake’s imaginative visions, which we shall come to next week, were just this: they were dreams of a different world to help transform the poverty and degradation of the 18th-century London which he inhabited. The imaginative vision of Old Testament prophets and Jesus himself did the same. It was inspired imagination which led prophets to hold out hope of a better place beyond the exile of Babylon, or Roman rule, which fired Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of heaven on earth, and the apocalyptic vision of a heaven beyond earth. So it is a motivating and transforming power. Without a vision the people perish. With vision we have hope, and we are moved to work to make that hope come true.

But it’s in the field of human relations we surely see its greatest power. It is imagination which can take us out of the prison of our selves and see what it might be like to be someone else: imagination helps us transcend ourselves and enter another’s world. In other words, the power of imagination is a key to all real human sympathy, and real relationship. I believe it is also a key to seeing God and relating to God. (But more of that next week.)

Imagination: yes, it is an extraordinary, unpredictable, even wild, energy. So yes, we do need to check it against the wisdom of the ages and, above all, hold it under the authority of the revelation of God in Christ. But do not fear it or repress it as a fantasy. Nourish it and cherish it, pray for God to use it. For at best it is a power and gift from God to see life, and God, more truly - and to help transform life more truly…

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