Cultivating the Imagination

It is only the imagination that can see what is invisible. It is the imagination that says, “I wonder if there is an equation for making fireworks to discover.” It is imagination that prompts the search and the need to discover and to wonder.

By Walter Cabal

Imagination is a Fruit

A tree creates life in the orange it bears. The orange passes its life to the woman it nourishes. The woman gives her life to the daughter she births. The daughter creates by planting an orange tree in the earth, and in the bearing of the fruit, we begin the spreading of life once more.

This is the way I have observed a healthy imagination to be; it is something that creates and continues to create life. We see this when a painting, a portrait, a poem, an operatic song, a well-taught history lesson, or a story from the construction worker in the 15-items-or-less-line at the grocery story born of that healthy imagination begins to nourish the soul. It is like a fruit that helps you to see what could not be seen before. The internalized beauty of the song, or the story are birthed from one life and passed to another, from one depths of the soul to someone else’s depths. That seeing of what has not been seen before, that passing of life from life is the characteristic nourishment of a healthy and ripe imagination. Perhaps a healthy imagination is the fruit of the tree of life.

I’d like to suggest that cultivating a healthy imagination is integral for humanity’s flourishing. Humanity truly doesn’t live on bread alone; living on bread alone is merely surviving. I’m suggesting that without a cultivated imagination, we may find ourselves with only a partially developed view of the world, and in a climate that has dismissed the imagination in favour of facts and practicality, it makes sense to have many people with eyes, but very few who can truly see.

An Ancient Story

There is an ancient Hebrew story of two humans in a garden made by a figure named the Creator God. The figure is introduced first as an imaginative and creative being.
You may be familiar with it, you may not be.

As the story goes, the Creator God cares enough for the two humans he crafted to warn them not to eat from a tree in the middle of the garden called the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Another tree is also in the center of the garden; it is called the Tree of Life. The Creator informs the two that they will die after eating from the Tree of
Knowledge.

Later, a serpent tricks Eve into believing that the Creator is essentially lying to them, and that they won’t die. Deceived, Eve eats the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, and then gives the fruit to Adam to eat also. A great curse comes upon the two, and they are banished from the garden, and because of this, the path to the Tree of life was no longer open, but guarded by cherubim and swords.

I’ve heard the story used as a cautionary scare tale about the evils of the imagination “The serpent is creative trickster who deceived Eve into using her imagination—and this imagining led them to mistrust the Creator” one might say. If framed in this light, this could cause fear of developing and cultivating an imagination at all, but I’d like to suggest that this view itself lacks imagination, and that, consequently, it lacks life also.

The Absence of Imagination Destroyed the World

It is an easy thing for the serpent figure to twist and distort what has already been created and what has already been seen. This is not creative imagination, but vandalism. In fact, the serpent didn’t have imagination enough to imagine that the Creator was as caring as he made himself out to be. Once the humans heard this gossip, it stifled their imaginations of the Creator (even though he had just created the humans, and created that garden and the world they inhabited). They too didn’t have enough imagination to believe the consequences of taking the two magic trees seriously. The serpent tricked them out of the wondrous world we live in. I’d like to suggest that it is the absence of a healthy imagination that led those two famous characters to mistrust the highly imaginative Creator.

Adam and Eve were like two younger children who had just seen Gandalf perform an impressive magic show, but were unimpressed because an older child fooled them that into thinking that growing up meant seeing Gandalf as an old fool. The clock struck twelve and they could no longer imagine that the magic glass slipper and royal dance would cease and that all their clothes would really disappear, leaving them naked. They couldn’t imagine that when they ate of the apple given to them, that they would really taste the sleep of death. All the while the tree of life was in the center of the garden, unentertained, overlooked, and untouched. For many, this story explains why the soul of mankind—like a princess in the old fairytales—now sleeps a dreamless, colourless sleep, in a barren garden, waiting to be resurrected by the returning of true love’s presence.

A Healthy Imagination Creates Worlds

An important part is left out. All that has happened is actually in chapter two of the story. This same story begins with the universe as formless and void, and God speaks light into a place where none exists. The very first words of the esteemed Hebrew Scriptures begin as follows: “In the beginning God created…” essentially everything. He speaks the day and the night, the oceans, and the land, the animals, and then humanity and so forth into existence. Over and over the Hebrew Creator sees what isn’t there, and then creates it. This is characteristic of imagination: To see what is unseen. In the story, the Creator gives Adam the work of naming all the animals in the created order. It is work that requires imagination; God is passing on the divine activity. Our imaginations are for creating life where none exists. This it what architects do in the desert, what painters do on their canvas, what singers do from silence, and what poets and prophets do in times devoid of passion and gumption. It is what the Hebrew Creator did in that ancient scriptural origin story. If it was it was the poetry of the Hebrew God that created the natural world, surely that God must have an imagination worth taking notes from.

The Absence of Imagination Destroyed the World Again

As it was then, so it is now that humankind tends towards the fruit of knowledge more than the fruit of life. Humanity tends to think that knowledge will let us see what has not been seen before; that knowledge will let us see what no one can, but in reality, knowledge of facts can only see what has been seen before. It is only the imagination that can see what is invisible. It is the imagination that says, “I wonder if there is an equation for making fireworks to discover.” It is imagination that prompts the search and the need to discover and to wonder. It is knowledge that puffs up and says, “Now that we know, let us use this power against others”. It was the knowledge of the equations of fireworks that is needed to make a bomb intended to kill. Knowledge is surely a power, and a power that humans could not always handle, for it twists the heart and puffs up the mind.

The Mind of A Child

I’m not suggesting that knowledge of facts is unimportant or inherently evil. That is nonsense. Instead, I’m suggesting that the healthy imagination has equal—or dare I say—more potential for bringing life into the world than facts. For all the knowledge that God has in the scriptures, I have never read about him reciting equations, valuations of stock, or mortgages.  But I have heard him speak through the prophets in poetry, ask chapter upon chapter of questions to a human named Job, quote a song before his death, talk about seeds, and kings, and farming, and grass, and birds, and crows, and lilies, sorrow, and the fullness of life and all the things that one with a healthy imagination speaks about. Perhaps when God recites the laws of the Ten Commandments and the Levitical laws and utilizes hard and fast, factual language, he was not placing himself on a pedestal towering above us like a tyrant, but rather stooping to our small-minded level like a great, child prodigy who was humble enough to fit his beautiful artful universe into the “practical” language of working adults who are always rambling about how they know everything.

The mind of a child has an imagination that gives so much life to the world, and G.K. Chesterton writes the following about children: “Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”

Perhaps it was the lack of a healthy imagination that caused the atomic bomb to be built. Perhaps we hoarded so much from the tree of Knowledge, yet all the while the tree of life was in the center of the garden unentertained, overlooked, and untouched. Perhaps only after the bomb’s deployment did we actually use our imaginations to look at clouds and perceive a mushroom from the porcelain white aftermath.

Oppenheimer’s equations did not come to mind in his remorseful speech after the bomb testing; instead his imagination ignites and a story comes to mind. He recalls a poetic line from the story of Vishnu in the Bhagavad Gita. “I am now become death, destroyer of worlds.” If the healthy imagination brings life, the atom bomb may not have been the fruit of a healthy imagination. Perhaps we got a thrill of being like children again after we killed with the A-bomb, thinking we had now truly baptized ourselves in superior knowledge, but in the end we had only baptized ourselves in ash. 

A healthy imagination imagines what has not been seen before and creates it, as the Hebrew God created the universe with nothing there. But before the atomic bomb, we had already seen destruction, we had already seen catastrophe, and we had already seen the decimation of peoples. It was nothing new, it was that same ancient fruit that we tasted: Knowledge—and it brought us death once again.

This is what practicality will give us: A way to hate those who hate us; it gives us a way to love, only those who love us.   But, to imagine a world where swords and tools of death broken and beat into spades, rakes, ploughshares and gardening tools to grow life? That takes imagination. To repent and to see a different way to be human, to talk of the kingdom of God not in laws, but in creative living, poetry and parables; to imagine a world where people love those who hate them, and where enemies learn to reconcile? That is something we have not seen in full bloom yet, and because it is unseen it requires our imagination.

A Healthy Imagination as Light

I think of the words of Christ here: “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness.” 
In order for humanity to flourish and to bring life into the world, we must always go back to the original garden in our daily decisions and choose to eat from fruit the tree of life over the fruit mere knowledge of facts, even facts about how to separate everything Good and everything Evil. If the story of the humans and the Creator in the garden holds any truth, it suggests that we don’t really handle that kind of knowledge and that kind of power well. But it also shows that we were made to help others be less alone and equipped to rename what is in the world creatively. We must see what the world cannot see, as if we are bright cities on a hilltop. The Healthy imagination naturally brings light when it’s dark. It doesn’t create darkness.

Imagine a New World

We have talked about how important it is to cultivate a healthy imagination, but we have not talked in depth about how to do this. How are we to cultivate a healthy versus an unhealthy imagination? Honestly, it can feel like uncharted territory—especially for grown-ups. So, perhaps we must be changed and have our minds renewed, and become like children again. Though I must admit this is a change that cannot be made with just more information. It requires the formation—no, even more—it requires transformation of the soul, and as with all transformations, be it the bud to the full ripe orange, the fetus to the newborn, or the barren adult mind to the garden of the child’s mind, it requires a kind of magic; a real kind of magic. Where is the source of all of the world’s real magic you ask? Now my friend, you have asked the question. My hope is that your good imagination impels you to make an about face, and follow the breadcrumbs back to the source that they lead to.

If you do find the source of all the world’s magic, and beauty and truth, then you may experience a deep quietness of the soul enough to notice that the silent breeze that passed you as you began to understand was not a breeze at all, but instead the quiet sound of the deafening applause of angels from afar. It is the kind of quietness of the soul that surpasses knowledge. It is something no one else can see; it is something that you must either see for yourself—or something you must imagine.