Imagination – Part I – Key to the Outside

June 27, 1999


Key to the Outside

At the close of last Sunday’s sermon I tried to tease you into coming back today by promising to talk about one of the greatest of all human gifts. Not the power of speech, that incredible blessing that makes us unique among all other creatures. Not the keen intelligence many people have, magical as that is. But something else so essential it’s impossible to be completely human without it. After I said I would let you guess what it might be for a week, one of our visitors caught me at the door and said, “I can’t come back next week. What are you planning to talk about?” I told him, in one word, although I felt it could not mean much, standing alone, so this morning, and for the next two Sundays, I am glad for the chance to talk about the indispensable gift I have in mind.
Beginning with a preface about something we know already: Every single one of us is born locked in a prison of self. However glad we are to have babies arrive, however much their promise and their helplessness appeals to us, the simple fact is that they are bundles of completely selfish blind instincts with no regard at all for anyone else. If they cause pain in nursing, or keep mom and dad awake at night and exhausted, it doesn’t matter. If they bring the pangs of jealousy into a sibling’s life, they could not care less. Even when they get to be one or two, they live for the most part in a small self-centered cell which they do not really escape until they begin to develop a sympathetic imagination. And there, finally, is the key word for this short series of sermons. Imagination: the power to get inside another person’s skin and feel something of what that person feels.
Some people, mostly through no fault of their own, never develop much of this ability, which, because it sets us free from the prison of self, I am calling in this sermon the key to the outside. Great writers have always understood how we get locked up in ourselves. Here is Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of a famous novel about imprisoned hearts that could not imagine, and therefore could not feel, a woman’s shame: “What jailer,” he exclaims, [is] so inexorable as one’s self!” And that great and uneven library of books we call the Bible grapples constantly with the problem of the prison of self, that narrow suffocating chamber in which many of us spend so much of our time that it paralyzes our ability to reach out to others, may even make us psychologically sick.
If it takes imagination to break out of that prison we should give some thought to how that faculty develops — and the bad news is that it may be much harder to develop an active imaginative life than it used to be. Imagination requires exercise, no less than muscles, and many of the chances to exercise it have been lost. Think about these things for a moment: Not so long ago, only a generation or so back, if you were a child and hoped to entertain yourself, you were forced to exercise your imagination. You built a homemade toy and had to imagine what was lacking in details. I remember the stick guns we made to shoot large rubber bands — guns, that is, if we used our imaginations. I remember a toy made from a spool, a rubber band, a piece of soap, and a matchstick. Wound up, it became a small car, a tank, whatever one fancied.
Toys nowadays require little if any imagination. They are intricate and sophisticated, and they may appeal cleverly to the analytical mind, but they do not call much imagination into play because everything is already present: the colors, the shape, the movements — all prefabricated so well that nothing is left for fancy to invent. The toy gun you buy is far too realistic to require imagination, so realistic, in fact, that one is well advised not to point it at anybody. The doll talks, blinks its eyes, dampens a diaper — not much work left for the imagination.
Children still have nourishment for their imaginations if caring adults hook them on reading, because books require so much work from the imagination. The mind has to create from words on pages the way the characters look, the color of their eyes, the sound of their voices, the grace of their movements. I can remember as a child what a seductive competitor radio became. As families huddled around the set in the evening imagination had a little less work to do. One no longer had to imagine the sound of wind through a haunted house; it was present and it was real, vibrating the eardrums. The voices of heroes and villains, the rumble of distant thunder, the sound of a gunshot — all came without imaginative effort. Even so, one still had to imagine what the people looked like whose voices came through the speaker, but as movies began to compete one was relieved even of that exercise. With films you could actually see the characters — how they dressed, how they moved. And once color was added, imagination could retire still further. It did not have to create the green and white of seawaves breaking on sand, or the blue of a mountain columbine, because they were there, they were given.
It was true that we could not spend many hours in theaters, so this latest sleeping pill for the imagination was at least sporadic. But the wizards of the entertainment world contrived by means of television to put the moving images inside our houses where we could watch them every day. Watch them by the simple expedient of pressing a button, pushing back in the recliner, and absorbing without effort the sights and sounds. TV requires almost no imagination at all. The contours of Dr. Frasier Crane’s face, the shape of Columbo’s rumpled raincoat, the waddling run of a chimp on a Jane Goodall documentary — all these are given to a placid and pleased mind which has no need to provide anything extra by using the faculty of imagination. What has come to pass with the stultifying of imagination, is that we know more and feel less. Know more, perhaps, than a shriveled imaginative faculty can handle, so that we see but do not react — which may help explain the growing number of people without feeling or conscience who move about in the manner of human beings but appear to care less and less about what happens to anyone else.
This walking death has profound implications for Christianity. We are called to life, but there is no real life without a healthy imagination. Walt Whitman said it well: “Whoever walks a furlong without sympathy, walks to his own funeral drest in his shroud.” In less formal language, if you lack a sympathetic imagination you are as good as dead. But in view of the modern conspiracy against the use of that faculty, how does one keep it alive? I hope you will listen very carefully to what is coming next, especially if you have small children or grandchildren or the hope of having either one. I am quoting Jessamyn West, the Quaker novelist who wrote Friendly Persuasion , and who put these challenging comments in a popular magazine several years ago:
“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.” Written a generation ago, those words are prophetic, pointing toward the crimes increasingly committed by children who lack the imagination to stand in their victims’ shoes, feel what others feel.
When the Quaker novelist exalts the imagination so highly she is not unaware that Christ called love the supreme good in life — not romantic love but agape love, which is a deep and abiding concern for others — but she knows that love is impossible without imagination. You cannot be deeply concerned about another person until, through imagination, you have left the narrow cell of yourself and entered that other person’s heart and mind. Listen, for a moment, to early Christian writings:
“Let this mind be in you which was in Christ,” Paul begs his young converts. But how they possibly do that except by a vivid imagination? They could only obey if they had enough imagination to escape their own minds and invite his in by asking: “How would my Lord have acted in such a moment?” and imagining the scene. The author of another Biblical book begs his readers to “think constantly of those in prison as if you were prisoners at their side.” But this is an act of pure imagination, and people with stunted imaginations cannot do it, cannot reach out and feel what would really be like to be in prison.
It is ironic that critics of Christianity have sometimes understood this better than its defenders. Princeton philosopher Walter Kaufmann’s provocative book, The Faith of a Heretic , has buried in it somewhere a sentence I have never been able to forget: “Even the differences between theism and atheism is not nearly so profound as that between those who feel and those who do not feel their brothers’ torments.” A greater gap between imaginative and unimaginative people than between believers and unbelievers! It may sound dramatic, but it’s basic common sense. One who cannot feel, through a sensitive imagination, the anguish of other people, is light years distant from the mind of Christ. Terrible cruelties come from those who have never learned how to inhabit the skin of another person. Loving concern for life’s wounded comes from those who by imagination break out of the prison of their own comfort. The Civil War era poet, Walt Whitman, was a nurse for a while and said, among other things, “I do not ask the wounded person how he feels. I myself become the wounded person.” Case in point:
I remember vividly a day many years ago when the first race riots over integrated schools struck Little Rock, not far from a college where I was teaching. Etched indelibly on my mind is the image of a tall handsome black girl, a senior, who is walking down the sidewalk toward the Central High when a white man jumps suddenly out of the crowd and spits straight into her face. I heard a few people gasp in astonishment. I heard others cheer the sight of that obscene blob on her cheek. With superb self-control, the young woman looked straight ahead and walked on with regal dignity, but any imaginative person watching could feel the horrible wound to her pride. The man who spat on her had no power of imagination at the moment, or he could not have done that vulgar thing. He would already have felt, inside himself, all her loneliness and fear, and it would have been impossible for him to add to them. But he was locked in the prison of his small hating heart.
I know something of how that can happen. A few narrow-minded Protestants convinced me as a child that it was ridiculous for people to make the sign of the cross as part of the way they expressed their faith. So taught, I could not imagine how that ritual could have any real value. Perhaps if I had said four of those words aloud, slowly, I might have discovered what my problem was: I could not imagine — and because I couldn’t, I was unable to escape the prison of prejudice built for me. But by and by, a writer helped me understand. It happened on a day years ago when I was reading James Agee’s lyrical novel called A Death in the Family. Caught up in the drama of a Catholic wife’s anguish over the sudden death of her husband, I read these words on the page: “‘O 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, and widely upon herself, and she felt something of the shape of the Cross; strength and quiet.”
I sat thinking about what I had read, and my imagination released me from the narrow conviction that everyone who makes the sign of the cross does it mechanically and without thought. My personal experiences had been meagre; now an artist with words had enriched them by touching my imagination, by causing me to stand for a moment in another person’s place and feel for the first time how consoling a ritual might be. I began to appreciate why Henry David thoreau asked one of his most compelling questions: “Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?” It lights up George Bernard Shaw’s unforgettable rebuke to those who are cruel through lack of imagination. In his play about Joan of Arc, he has some men who profess to care about religion but are dull of heart listen to Joan’s story of what happened to her. Having heard it, they deliver what all such men believe to be the ultimate putdown. “That is only your imagination.”
“Of course,” she replies. “That is how God speaks to us.”
It is, of course. It’s also how we speak to God…..and to each other.

Show us, gracious God, how we may escape ourselves often enough to live not one, but many lives….and to find You in each one. Amen.