The night before he first knelt to became “the most reluctant convert in all of Christendom”, C.S. Lewis spent some long hours walking with J.R. Tolkien, the famous novelist (Lord of the Rings). Tolkien, a committed Christian, was trying to convince him of the credibility of Christ and the church. Lewis was full of objections. At a point, Tolkien countered Lewis’s objections with the simple statement: “Your inability to understand stems from a failure of imagination on your part!”
If Tolkien were alive today, I suspect he might want to take us all for a long walk and challenge us in the same way. So much of the frustration and stagnation in Christian circles today stems from a failure of imagination. To let ourselves be led by God through ever-changing times requires, on our part, great imagination. Lately, this has been lacking, in conservative and liberal circles alike.
What is imagination? Imagination is not, first and foremost, the power of fantasy … the power of a George Lucas to create Star Wars or of a Steven Spielberg to create E.T. Imagination is the power to create the images we need to understand and respond to what we are experiencing. We lack imagination when we stand before our own experience petrified, frozen and unable to accept or cope with what is there; or, when we stand before it stunned, benignly unaware that forces are about to destroy us. We have healthy imaginations when we can stand before any reality and have a sense of what God is asking of us. A healthy imagination is the opposite of resignation, abdication, naive optimism or despair. It is the foundation of hope. Through it, we turn fate to destiny.
Today, as is the case with every generation, we are being asked to re-imagine our faith life and our church structures. Unfortunately, too often we are not up to the task. We stand before a very complex and radically new situation with either petrified imaginations (the proclivity of the conservative … “we’ve never done it this way before!”) or with fuzzy uncritical imaginations (the proclivity of the liberal … “let the new times roll!”). In both cases, there is very little chance that fate might be turned to destiny, very little reading of the signs of the times. In the case of a petrified imagination, there is too much of a sticking one’s head in the sand whereas with the fuzzy uncritical imagination there is an abdication of any critical response in favour of simply rubber-stamping recent opinion polls. In both cases, the imagination is dead. Religion dies with it.
But Christ is not dead. He is still “about his Father’s business” in the world, the mystery of his death and resurrection is still being lived out daily, and his spirit is still stirring hearts. However we must have the imaginative radar to read where and how this is taking place. We must be able to look at our lives, our church, and our
world and be able to name where we’ve died, claim where we’ve been born, know what old bodies we need to let ascend, and recognize the new spirit that is being given us. That’s the job description for the religious imagination.
To use just one example: Looking at history we see that many of the great religious reformers had, precisely, great imaginations. People like Francis of Assisi, Dominic, and Ignatius of Loyola were able to look at religious life in their day and imagine a new way of living it. The specific way in which religious life had been lived out (for centuries) had died …but religious life hadn’t died! These reformers were able to name a death, claim a resurrection, let (with proper love and reverence) the old go, and then live with the new spirit that God was now giving. Religious life was re-imaged and, under the vision that came from their imaginations, exploded in a tremendous burst of growth.
Augustine and Thomas Aquinas (despite the negative press they get today) did the same thing regarding how Christian thought could relate itself to pagan philosophies. Today, Gustavo Gutierrez’ imagination has helped shape a new vision of how the oppressed might live out the gospel. Christ, on the road to Emmaus, re-shaped the apostles imagination. We need to let him do the same thing to us:
For those of us who remember another time …the church as we knew it, parish life as we knew it, religious life as we knew it, what it means to be a catholic as we knew it, and even family life as we knew it, are, in the face of contemporary forces, irrevocably different. We can like it or dislike it, but the fact is indisputable.
We can respond to this with a petrified imagination (“only what worked before can work now!”) or with a fuzzy uncritical imagination (“change is always a sign of progress!”). Or, we can respond with a paschal imagination … we can look at the pattern of death and resurrection in Christ and then move on to positively and critically shape our destiny by naming our deaths, claiming our resurrections, letting the old ascend, and living with the spirit that God is actually giving to us.