Key to the Outside

Today on "Day1" I'd like to preach the first of a three-part sermon series on a topic seldom discussed from the pulpit: the role of the imagination in becoming a follower of Jesus.

In particular, I want to argue that the recovery of the moral imagination is more crucial to the recovery of Christianity in our time than all the arguments about doctrine, duty, or how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

When I say the "recovery" of Christianity, I do so for good reason because I believe that the faith we cherish has been hijacked - taken hostage by men who, as this sermon will try to make clear, just can't imagine why what they are doing would be unimaginable to Jesus.

Now you may think this is an odd topic for Christian preaching-something more suited to a psychology class than this venerable radio broadcast. After all, aren't we supposed to talking about what we believe-about what is true and right and good?

Aren't we supposed to be dealing with virtue and character and habits of the heart and mind? Well, yes, of course. But where do all these things come from? Some moral philosophers don't even think we really do things because we believe things. That is, the doctrine of the Trinity, for example, may be important for the church to wrestle with, but does it make anyone more compassionate?

Rather, perhaps, it is the case that moral teachings only make us more moral as they change the way we see the world and ourselves and, especially, the "other."

Harvey Cox writes in his new book, "When Jesus Came to Harvard," that we become ethical only when we ask ourselves the question: What kind of person do I want to be? That's a very different question from "What do I believe?" And yet this seems to be what has preoccupied the church in every age.

"But to ask, 'What kind of person do I want to be?' requires the capacity to put oneself in situations one has never experienced, to see and especially to feel a moral question from the viewpoint of people of a different class or race or gender or age . . .'" says Professor Cox.

This is an act of pure empathic imagination. And the imagination is not kindled by doctrine, but by narrative. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.

Let's back up and establish a premise for all three of these sermons and let it be this: That each of us, when we are born, is locked inside a prison of self, a dungeon, if you will, of self-absorption and the blindness that comes when we are trapped in halls of mirrors, instead of seeing through a glass darkly.

Although this self-absorption may be necessary in a baby for survival, if we don't outgrow it, we create our own prison, a dungeon of ego, vanity and separation from other human beings-from their plight, from their story, from their hopes and dreams.

Failure to escape this "prison of self" is the root cause of human cruelty. It is often said that people are mean because they just have a mean streak in them, as if they are born that way. But I believe that people are mean, thoughtless and cruel, in large measure, because they just can't imagine-they have imagination deficit disorder.

Jesus of Nazareth said once, "You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." Notice what that assumes-that before we gain such enlightenment, we are not free. But that after we know the truth, there is a kind of liberation that occurs, a sweet and radical freedom that comes from shedding our fears, our pettiness, our habit of deceiving, our failure to "accept the fact that we are accepted," as Paul Tillich put it.

The late William Slone Coffin Jr., used to say, "There is no smaller package in the world than a person who is all wrapped up in himself."

The great Quaker William Penn said, "Love is the hardest lesson of Christianity," and Thoreau said, "No greater miracle could take place than for us to look through one another's eyes for an instant." Walk a mile in someone else's shoes-unfortunately, that doesn't happen very often, in large measure because we are too busy walking a mile in our own shoes. What do you think of my shoes, my new shoes, my blue suede shoes-don't step on my blue suede shoes!

Yet, over and over again in the New Testament, Jesus does ministry with the presumption that each person he encounters is trapped in some way, a prisoner of disease or self-loathing or fear, because fear is the enemy of the moral life.

Before we can escape this prison, the "scales must fall from our eyes," to use the biblical image. Not so that we have eyes that function perfectly, as in 20/20 vision, but so that we see the world with the eyes of the heart.

That means that we have to do more than just look. We have to seem to really see. . . as if we had x-ray vision that made the outside of a person transparent and the inside more apparent. This requires an empathic imagination-and this is a strange and wonderful capacity that is given to us by God. It allows us to travel through space and time without ever leaving our skull cups. It can take us around the world, or more miraculously, into the heart and soul of another person-even a person we think we know very well.

The opening poetry of Genesis is often said to be a report of the activity of God in creating the universe. But I see it as an act of pure imagination. The poet imagines God imagining the world, and then imagining a creature that is created in his own image-imagine that?

Some people even say that creation itself is just a dream, an idea, and that's rather disconcerting to some-as if dreams lack substance and materiality-and therefore life itself is just a fantasy. But if we are God's dream, and we too can dream because we are made in God's image, then I say, "Dream on."

But whatever we do, we should never put down the imagination-especially in children. It is how they become both creative and human-and then in the end, it's how they become humane.

We have a familiar pejorative phrase in our culture. We say, "Oh, that was only your imagination." Or we dismiss something a child says or does when we say, "Are you imagining things again?"

The Quaker novelist Jessamyn West, who wrote "Friendly Persuasion," penned an essay some years ago in which she recognized the vital role of the imagination in the development of children. Here is what she said:

"If I were a mother or a teacher or anyone with responsibility for the young, I should be even more concerned for the imaginative development of my children than for their muscular development. A thousand times more concerned. Children will climb trees and swing from door frames without our showing them how. But they may never discover-and hence never develop that faculty which permits them to escape-their own craniums unless we show them the way. Every day the mother and teacher should show the child by example and precept how to escape the prison of self, which, unless it imagines the state of others, cannot help but be narrow and impoverished.

The most important question a mother can ask her child each night is not "What did you learn today?" or "Did you go to the bathroom?" or "Have you said your prayers?" but "What did you imagine today?" Prayers, learning and health are barren without imagination.

The sick child may die, but the unimaginative child is already dead. The pious child who does not inhabit his prayers with imagination might as well be saying, "Hickory, dickory, dock."

The child who learns but does not illuminate his learning with imagination is an inferior calculating machine-but alas, unlike the calculating machine, capable of terrible brutalities.

Mmh. Terrible brutalities? I think I know what she means. I live and work in Oklahoma City, so I know something about terrible brutalities. Timothy McVeigh, a clean-cut former Marine, blew the Murrah Federal building to smithereens because he had been taught to hate his own government, not to imagine that the government is made up of human beings. Even the children who died on that terrible day were just "collateral damage" to Mr. McVeigh. He never was able to imagine himself in their place. He was an ideologue, a fundamentalist-and so everyone either agreed with him or they were the enemy. Tim McVeigh's problem: He just couldn't imagine.

After the Columbine High School massacre, we learned that those boys who shot and killed their own classmates and then killed themselves lived in a world of glorified suffering and mindless video violence.

Perhaps the empathic imagination got replaced by a kind of demonic surrealism, and so they just couldn't imagine that they were killing real people with real families with real feelings. Maybe it's not just that we can't imagine why they did it, but that they couldn't imagine well enough not to have done it in the first place.

We live, after all, in an entertainment culture. And so perhaps we have replaced the human imagination with pre-packaged images, images that sell, persuade, delight, frighten, but ultimately dull the mind.

It could be that all our technology has become another kind of prison, a bubble in which we live and move and have our cell phone/blackberry/e-mail being. Perhaps we have replaced what moral philosophers called the "interior life" with a video world that is pure escapism-to be amused but never to be challenged. Now it seems that our moral imagination is as flabby as the nation's waistline.

It has happened gradually, of course. It was not so long ago that children had to read books if they wanted to travel to distant lands without leaving their bedrooms. Every image had to be created in the interface between the printed word and the imagination.

Then along came radio, the medium that brings my voice into your world right now. Imagination is still required, but perhaps a little less so. In their heyday, radio programs created special effects like the villainous voice, the wind through a haunted house, the clopping of horses' hooves, the rumble of distant thunder.

Then along came movies, and the imagination could retreat still further. Now you could actually see the shape of the hero, the grace of his movement. When color was added, even less imagination was required. No need to paint the scene in your own mind now; it was painted for you.

When television came along, it was often located, ironically, in the den or library in most American homes (thus replacing both reading and conversation). It brought pleasure and excitement and useful information. But it also required even less imagination-this hot and cold image machine.

Now it seems as if the information revolution means that we know more, but feel less.

The mind, after all, is like a gallery hung with images, and you are the curator. In the words of Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, life is a vale of "soul making." That is, with all its joys and sorrows, its shifting seasons, its sleeping and waking, fretting and dreaming, loving and losing-life is one continuous act of "interior decoration."

The question is: Who gets to hang the show? And will we let reality itself be choreographed by others, or will we use the gift of the moral imagination to fight back against all the lies we are being told, all the suffering in the world we are supposed to ignore by shopping and staying busy, all the cries from hungry children, dying soldiers, even a dying earth?

If we cannot imagine war, then how can we stop it? If we cannot imagine what it means to be poor and Arab and labeled a part of the so-called "Axis of Evil," then how can we ever hope to live in a world without terrorism? If we cannot imagine Mother Earth herself dying, then how can we call ourselves "pro-life?"

How are we to heed the words of the apostle Paul when he tells his friends at Phillipi: "Let this mind be in you which was in Christ Jesus," except to develop an imagination like his? "Think constantly of those in prison as if you were prisoners at their side," the author of Hebrews writes. What is this, but a call to empathic imagination?

In Matthew 25 Jesus answers the unimaginative query of his disciples, "When did we see you naked, hungry, or in prison, and fail to response?" by saying that in the face of every stranger was his image, and thus we can imagine that the stranger is Jesus himself. That is, if you can see his image there. If you have an image-ination-an imagination.

Elizabeth Peabody was asked once how she happened to run into a tree on the Boston Common. Her explanation: "I saw it, but I did not realize it." That's the story of our lives: 20/20 vision, but hearts that are not in focus.

Well, we have just gotten started, and there is so much more to be explored. So I invite you all back next week-to tune in for Part 2 of our study of the moral imagination as indispensable to the moral life, the key to escaping the prison of self.

I promise you that before we're done, you will never again say, "That's only your imagination."

Imagine that.
Let us pray.

Lord of Life, we come to you for a time of quiet reflection and careful study - seeking the wisdom of the heart. We want to learn about the moral imagination, so that we will not just look, but truly see, so that we will not just know, but truly feel, so that we will not just presume to be right, but aspire to be compassionate. In Christ's name we pray, who asked us to imagine the kingdom, and who "imaged" it for us. . .Amen