I Just Can't Imagine

If you listened to the last broadcast, then you know that I am preaching a three-part sermon series on the role of the imagination in becoming a follower of Jesus-a topic not often discussed from the pulpit.

I said last time that the operative premise of these sermons is that when we are born, we are locked into a kind of prison of self, and that unless we develop the moral imagination, we lack the key to escape from that prison. To imagine the plight of the other is what makes empathy possible, and empathy is what makes compassion possible. To be compassionate is to "feel with" another human being, not simply to "feel sorry" for them.

Now I'd like to take this a step further and examine how the empathic imagination is in fact the primary mode of revelation. It's how we intuit God. It's how we know the truth that sets us free.

Unfortunately, as I mentioned last time, adults have been taught that the imagination is something that is permissible, if not worrisome, in children. In other words, we should outgrow it.

After all, who has time to daydream when there are jobs to do, bills to pay, and overly imaginative kids to raise up into mature, sensible adults?

Albert Einstein did not think this way. In fact, he believed that there were children who could solve some of the problems he wrestled with because they still possessed a vital and unbridled imagination.

Yet we go right on saying to children, "That's only your imagination," or "There you go again, just imagining things."

Once, in grade school, one of my teachers complained to my parents that I had what she called an overactive imagination. "Robin is quite the daydreamer," she said. And she was right. And I'm here to tell you that those day trips were considerably more interesting than her classroom!

Now parents sometimes worry, of course, about their children being able to distinguish between fantasy and reality. And although this is important, we often do it awkwardly, and in the process we put down the very life force in our children. Calling "Harry Potter," for example, an instrument of the devil when it has gotten countless teenagers to read and imagine again is exactly the kind of irrational fear I'm talking about.

I am married to an artist, who has taught me, among other things, that all art is really just an effort to mediate transcendence. Something is first envisioned, it is imagined-and then a struggle begins to get that vision out of the head and into some visual form-so that what was imagined can be embodied.

Creativity is therefore godlike in a way the church is uniquely equipped to understand: It's incarnational.

Love as an idea, after all, is just an abstraction, but when it comes to us in the form of a carpenter from Nazareth who walked and talked among us, healed, told stories, shamed our narrow-mindedness, and opened the heavens for us, the unimaginable God becomes imaginable-"imaged" for us in the countenance of a man, his voice, his teachings, his unbridled compassion.

When John the Baptist asks plaintively, "Are you the one, or shall we look for another?" the answer was not theological, but incarnational. Jesus doesn't say, "I come bearing the answer to the problem of human existence." He says, "Tell them that the blind see, the lame walk, and those in bondage are set free." In other words, tell them to "Imagine that."

And where, according to Mary's song, the Magnificat, will the proud be scattered? In the "imagination of their hearts."

I heard a story once about the dedication of a magnificent new building at which the master of ceremonies lamented the fact that the architect had died before seeing his work completed. "It's a shame that he couldn't see his work finished before he died," the speaker lamented. To which some very perceptive soul in the crowd responded, "But he did see it. That's why it's here."

Today I'd like to draw your attention to the other side of the argument on behalf of a moral imagination-namely that the lack of imagination is a recipe for disaster. It is captured in that oft-heard phrase, "I just can't imagine." We hear this all the time, but seldom think about what it really means.

"I just can't imagine how she could have done such a thing…. I just can't imagine what he could have been thinking when he said that…. I just can't imagine how she could even think of leaving him." Or perhaps, "I can't imagine why she married him in the first place."

Or how many times have you heard this? "I just can't imagine what she sees in him." That's an indirect confession that love really is blind-not only for those who are in love, but for those who try to understand it by looking only on the surface.

Or how often have you heard someone say, "What you see is what you get"? That can be a way of warning someone not to be fooled, not to look too deeply, as if there really is more here than meets the eye. In other words, "Here's the package. Don't get too complicated on me."

But that comment is more revealing than we think. Because it is only through the imagination that a person is seen as something more than just what they appear to be and can be loved at a deeper level. It would be more helpful if people would just say, "What you see is not all you get," because there is more to me than meets the eye.

Love is not just a cohabitation of mutually attracted bodies. It is a cohabitation of imaginations. We move out of ourselves and into another self. It's an out-of-body experience. In fact, it occurs to me that you can't even talk about imagination and be understood except by listeners who can imagine.

When I was doing my graduate work in human communication, I learned that scholars call communication about communication "metacommunication." Isn't that a great word? Metacommunication. Come to think of it, I don't know how I got along before I knew this word, and sometimes in class, I just like to drop it on my students so they'll know that I'm the teacher.

But the truth is, the study of all human communication falls into this category. We talk about what we do as we are doing what we talk about. So the discipline under study is also the mode of study-like a dog chasing its own tail.

In the case of this sermon, which is about the imagination, the listener is asked to participate by using his or her own imagination. So the subject matter being explained is also the capacity in the listener, which is required for understanding it. Which means, I guess, that this is a meta-sermon!

Now you may think I'm wandering here into esoteric academia. But, in fact, just as a sermon on the moral imagination cannot be grasped by an unimaginative person, neither can the teachings of Jesus be understood without this critical human faculty.

Jesus talked about what he believed and believed what he talked about. He explained how to live as he was simultaneously living the explanation. And that's exactly what both inspired and angered people who heard him. They said in astonishment, "He taught as one with authority, but not as the scribes." And people were amazed at the gracious words that proceeded out of his mouth.

So what made them so gracious? Had he been to the Toastmaster's Club to learn how to be an effective public speaker? Obviously not. Perhaps, his words were gracious because they proceeded from out of the mouth of a gracious person. Maybe, in fact, you could not tell where the words left off and the life began. A meta-Messiah.

It might well have been the case that those who heard Jesus and confessed that he was the Son of God were possessed of a rich and healthy imagination, while those who rejected him simply "could not imagine."

My teacher and mentor, Fred Craddock, said that nobody can be a preacher without an empathic imagination, because otherwise he will be hurling words at strangers. This is how he put it:

When the pastor preaches, he doesn't sell patent medicine; he writes prescriptions. Others may hurl epithets at the "wealthy," but the pastor knows a guilt-ridden man confused by the Bible's debate with itself over prosperity: Is [wealth] a sign of God's favor or disfavor? Others may display knowledge of "poverty programs," but the pastor knows what a bitter thing it is to be somebody's Christmas project. He sees a boy resisting his mother's insistence that he wear the nice sweater that came in the charity basket. He can see the boy wear it until out of mother's sight, but not at school, out of fear that he may meet the original owner on the playground. There are conditions worse than being cold.

Others may discuss "the problem of geriatrics" but the pastor has just come from the local nursing home and he still sees worn checkerboards, faded bouquets, large-print King James Bibles, stainless steel trays and dim eyes staring at an empty parking lot reserved for visitors. Others may analyze the "problem with youth today," but the pastor sees a fuzzy-lipped boy, awkward, noisy, wishing he were absent, not a man, not a child, preoccupied with ideas that contradict his fourteen years' severe judgment against the girls.

Now, in our own time, we must face the terrible prospect that without the moral imagination, we will forget what war is-now that we don't get to see the flag-draped coffins coming home. Or forget what hunger is, when the media decides that we would rather be entertained than told the painful truth. Or forget the most important thing of all-that we are more like the enemy than we are different from him-because all we hear from our unimaginative politicians is that "You're either with us, or you're with the terrorists."

Another way to understand the phrase "the blind leading the blind" is to think of it as the unimaginative leading the unimaginative. I see blind allegiance masquerading as patriotism-how many American flags will it take, and how big do they have to be, before we know for sure what country we live in?

And how many speeches about "family values" must we hear from men who haven't imagined what kind of stress most families are under, or how little food their rhetoric puts on the table. They like the sound of their voice, but the problem is, they just can't imagine.

In Shakespeare's "King Lear," the old monarch forgets once that his companion is physically blind and he cries out, "You see how the world goes?" To which the blind Gloucester responds, "I see it, feelingly." Our problem, said a poet once, is that we dream in poetry, but we live in prose.

I remember once as a little boy living in Searcy, Arkansas, where my father taught at Harding College, and I was taken to the big city during the riots at Central High School that resulted from court-ordered desegregation. Etched in my mind is a scene that I will never forget. I was only seven years old, and I was standing with a group of civil rights supporters when a tall, handsome black girl walked up the steps to enter the school. Suddenly, from among the protestors on the other side, a white man spit savagely into her face. My eye recorded the moment when she was fully disgraced by this obscene gesture. She looked straight ahead, and she walked on into that school with amazing dignity. But any imaginative person present could feel the horrible wound to her sense of pride.

What I know now is that the man who spit on her lacked imagination, or he could not have performed his vulgarity. He would have felt, inside himself, all her loneliness and fear already; and it would have been impossible for him to add to it. It would have been like spitting on himself.

Growing up in Kansas, and radically Protestant, I remember how easy it was for me as a child to make fun of Catholics. I remember the fear that so many felt when John Kennedy ran for president, because he was Catholic; and we were just certain the Pope would be running America. And so to mock all that we could not understand, we would mock making the sign of the cross-which we were certain was an empty gesture made by intellectually inferior people. That is, until I read James Agee's lyrical book "A Death in the Family." In it a woman is faced with an agonizing loss, a loss she cannot bear alone. She is Catholic, and this is what she says, and does:

"Oh God, if it be Thy will,' she whispered. She could not think of anything more. She made the sign of the Cross again, slowly, deeply, widely upon herself, and she felt something of the shape of the Cross; strength and quiet."

That's when I realized that making the sign of the cross was not just an empty gesture, but has been an enormous comfort to millions, just as it has been to say the Rosary. So who was I to ridicule this expression of faith because it is different from mine? Now I understand. Or perhaps more accurately-now I can imagine.

When Jesus came upon a woman caught in adultery, about to be stoned, he asked for a sinless man in the crowed to do the honors and get the killing stated. Some of the men, no doubt, "knew" her well-but Jesus wanted to know how well they knew themselves. One by one, the rocks dropped to the ground with a thud, and she was told to go and sin no more. That's the empathic imagination at work-in a way that could change the world.

In a play by George Bernard Shaw, Joan of Arc is questioned about her strange ways by a group of inquisitors, and they deliver what they believe to be the ultimate putdown: [Madame], they say, "This is only your imagination." "Of course [it is]" she replies. "That's how God speaks to us."

Let us pray: Lord of Life, we have heard it said that selfishness is the only true atheism, and selflessness is the only true religion. If that's true, then all the doctrines and moral teachings in the world cannot make religious men and women out of us. It is only when we escape the prison of self, and journey into the heart of another human being that we become as God intended. So quicken in us the moral imagination so we will take that journey often, and well. In Christ's name we pray, Amen.