Last week I was deeply saddened to hear of the death of my former professor, Reynolds Price. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Price and his literary contributions, he was a great Southern writer who taught English at Duke for over 50 years. Before establishing himself as a writer of vivid novels and poems, he studied at Oxford alongside poets like W.H. Auden while learning under the tutelage of thinkers like C.S. Lewis. He was one of Bill Clinton’s favorite authors, he spent the last 25 years of his life as a paraplegic after surviving spinal cancer, and he was a Christian.
Price was indeed a complex man. Although he was a man of faith his beliefs were rarely orthodox. In one of my classes with him, we studied the four gospels and used them as inspiration for creative writing. For our final assignment we were asked to write a gospel of our own, a fictional short story in which we drew on the Biblical gospels to imagine how we might have felt in the disciples’ shoes, or how Jesus might have responded to situations never portrayed in Scripture. The exercise might sound heretical at first, but the goal was not to change the gospel story. It was meant to expand our imaginations so that we might think more deeply about the gospel accounts.
Price introduced me to the intersection of faith and imagination. It was a concept that I would later hear more about in seminary, but I confess that I never truly appreciated its importance. Evangelicals are more concerned with facts, not dreams. We want to know what the Bible says and exactly what it means. And while that desire is not necessarily wrong, it can also limit us. Not everything in the Bible can be reduced to easy truth statements. God and His infinite nature cannot be comprehended by a book of theology. And that is why concrete, scientific systems of belief can, at times, become a hindrance to faith.
There is no better example of the limiting consequences of a malnourished imagination than the example of Bishop John Shelby Spong. Spong is a controversial figure in the Episcopal church, having written lightning-rod books such as The Sins of Scripture and Why Christianity Must Change or Die. Spong has had many critics, to be sure, but there is one that I will never forget. Former Dean of the Duke Chapel, William Willimon, cited the following example as being emblematic of Spong’s error:
In thinking about Easter, Bishop John Spong asked a public-radio interviewer, “How can my daughter, who is earning her Ph.D. in physics, possibly be asked to believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus?” The answer, I suppose, depends on Spong’s daughter…How little imagination does his daughter now have?
Willimon goes on to add, “The text cannot be blamed if modern people…live by epistemologies too limited to enable them to hear the text.” (Exilic Preaching, p. 110)
This account is a prime example of why imagination is not a frivolous, liberal pursuit. It is a godly discipline. Without it we will be tempted to rely solely on what we can see, hear and know with our senses, instead of opening ourselves to the greater reality of God, a reality that the small-visioned status quo is unable to grasp. Without imagination we will live lives that look just like the world, assuming that Christian virtues like purity, generosity, and humility are too hard or too much to ask. We will be unable to imagine that “God can save my marriage” or “God can forgive my past” or “God will vindicate me if I forgive.”
That is why the nurture of imagination is an important Christian practice. But how can you grow your imagination? It begins by reading the Bible and immersing yourself in a community of believers who are living faithfully to Christ. From there, you can do anything from reading a marvelous book of fiction, to listening to music that inspires you, to experiencing a new culture. Anything that expands your horizons and teaches you new dimensions of God’s character in a way that cultivates your ability to dream. However you choose to nurture your imagination, remember the example of Bishop Spong and know that your witness depends on it.
I will close with a quote from one physicist who did believe in the power of imagination: Albert Einstein. The title of this post is taken from his words, and he elaborated on that statement with the following challenge:
Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.