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Theology and Imagination

The human brain is by far the most amazing, complex, and mysterious aspect of the physical world. Our brains continually interpret our world, and the way we interpret it is mostly determined by the way aspects of our world trigger our imagination. Our imagination encodes messages and creates feelings, and thus motivates behavior. And most of this goes on in our brains without any conscious awareness of it.

When our imaginations see truth in a way that corresponds to the way things actually are, and when they evoke appropriate feelings to motivate us to behave in effective ways, the imagination is a great ally. In other words, when our imagination corresponds with truth, we are able to experience the things of God as real and are transformed by this experience. However, what God intends for good, the enemy indents for evil. In a fallen world, we go through experiences that shape our imaginations and cause us to interpret the world in ways that don’t align with the truth.

One of the most pervasive problems in contemporary Western Christianity is that we mistakenly assume that theological information automatically translates into transformation. We tend to have a naïve conviction that if only we read another book or join a Bible study or take a class that we will be changed.

Western Christians have forgotten how to use the imagination with regard to spiritual matters. Most of us only know God with our intellect, not our imagination. For many, faith is little more than intellectual assent to certain propositions and a commitment to live in a certain way. We tend to equate the imagination with fantasy and make believe, and therefore we have come to mistrust it, especially in spiritual matters. So our imaginations, the way we see and interpret ourselves and the world, continues to reflect more the pattern of this world rather than conformity to Jesus Christ.

If our faith is going to be powerful and transformative, it is going to have to be imaginative and experiential. St. Ignatius, founder of the Jesuits, wrote, “It is not knowing a lot but grasping things intimately and savoring them that fills and satisfies the soul.” Memories shape us profoundly because we grasp them and savor them not as information but “intimately.” This is the manner in which we need to embrace our faith, and our theology, if it is to satisfy our souls and transform our lives.

It’s a wonderful thing to confess theologically the claim that God is love (1 John 4:16), but this information will not significantly impact us until we can intimately grasp and savor the truth that God loves us individually. So too it’s a wonderful thing to confess the theology that Jesus died for the world (2 Cor 5:14-15), but this information will not significantly impact the way we experience ourselves and the world until it becomes vivid, experiential, and personalized. I need to be able to savor in a concrete way the truth that Jesus died for me, that he loves me to this unfathomable degree, and that I am completely forgiven. This moves theological truths from mere information to my imagination.

—Adapted from Seeing Is Believing, pages 71-80

Photo Credit: Yoosun Won via Unsplash

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