Douglas Estes on What Christians Miss When They Dismiss Imagination

Douglas Estes is associate professor of New Testament and practical theology at South University. He is the editor of Didaktikos, and his latest book is Braving the Future: Christian Faith in a World of Limitless Tech.


Imagine there is a heaven—it’s easy if you try.

That may not be the way John Lennon and Yoko Ono wrote the song, but in a way we can’t blame them; Lennon and Ono were merely people constrained by the view of a modern age.

Today we tell our children, “just use your imagination,” in a way that betrays our dismissive attitude toward imagination. And why not? Imagination is not deep thinking, it is fantasy—a faerie romance that serious people, especially Christians, need not spend much time on.

Countercultural icons like Lennon and Ono embraced the concept of imagination because it gave them the freedom to paint a picture of something that cannot exist in our world. In doing so, imagination of this kind reached the end of the line.

There is more to imagination than fantasy. In fact, the church and its theology need imagination more than ever in the history of our world. Yet, as theologian Kevin Vanhoozer notes, we suffer today from “imaginative malnutrition.”

What is imagination? And why does the church and its theology starve for it today?

Imagination in the Bible

Imagination is not something that comes readily to mind when we open our Bibles. Before prescribing a hearty diet of imagination, some may say, “The Bible is about real things—faith, love, sacrifice—not idle human pursuits such as imagination.” Others may wonder, “Doesn’t the Bible speak negatively of imagination in a few places?”

Does the Bible talk about imagination? Not in any modern English version. But that’s only half the story.

In all English versions, the word “imagination” only shows up notably in the King James Version (Genesis 6:5; Psalm 2:1; Romans 1:21), as well as in Bibles from that time period such as the Bishop’s Bible (1568). The word does not occur in Wycliffe’s Bible, the earliest English translation of the Bible from the late 14th century. And it doesn’t occur in modern English translations after the King James Version, created in the early 17th century.

Before we look down on the King James Version, Luther’s translation of the Bible into German in the mid-16th century also contains a word close in sense to our word imagination. All of these versions occur in a close time period. Confusion or conspiracy?

The meaning of imagination was changing. The Luther Bible, the Bishop’s Bible, and the King James Version came about in an age where the winds of philosophical change had blown. Swept away were the ideas held by Thomas Aquinas and John Duns Scotus that undoubtedly influenced the thoughts of John Wycliffe; these new English versions were birthed in the age that produced the likes of Francis Bacon and René Descartes. Their perception of how people interacted with the world was brand new.

Francis Bacon, writing around the time as the King James Version, is indicative of this shift. Bacon believed that our imagination is tied to and limited by the physical senses—what we see, touch, and taste. But imagination is a “pleasure of the mind” in Bacon’s words; it occurs when the mind links senses and experiences in a way not in the order of the natural world. And what does Bacon believe links our senses and experiences correctly ordered? Reason.

In Paul’s powerful opening to his letter to the church in Rome, he explains how the invisible attributes of God are visible in the natural world, if people cared to look. Instead, people “became vain in their imaginations” as the KJV renders it. In early 17th century lingo: People chose to perceive the world through the falsity of imagination instead of the truth of reason.

John Lennon, welcome to the 17th century.

From there, Descartes created further separation between imagination and reason. In the 18th century, David Hume argued that unreasoned and unprovable ideas are fictions of the imagination. And by the 19th century, William James directly equates imagination with fantasy, which is why when my daughter Violet brings me her finely wrought colored scribbles, I pat her on the head and pronounce for all to hear that she has a “good imagination.”

Crafting and Conceiving

There’s more to imagination than mere fantasy. What Hume doesn’t grasp is what Plato already understood.

Plato may be the oldest philosopher in the Western tradition to reflect at length on imagination. He believed there were three instances of imagination that intruded on the minds of people. In one sense imagination is the ability to conceive new ideas out of old material. This is close to what we today call fantasy. When a great writer imagines faraway planets, she is conceiving of new worlds and new civilizations, but only in such a way as it relates to our old world and old civilization here on earth. It is new, but only to a degree.

In a second sense, Plato found that imagination is the ability to craft old ideas into new ideas. This is what we today might call “reconceptualizing.” When a great writer imagines a contemporary person loving others who are political enemies, he is crafting a new way of living, but only in such a way that is faithful and true to the original idea (Matt. 5:44).

This second type of imagination is what we long to return to—finding old truth in new expressions. It is what the modern master of true imagination J. R. R. Tolkien calls “the power of giving to ideal creations the inner consistency of reality.” It is the power to explain truth that defies simple explanation. Another master, Jesus, does this with his parables.

Let me give you a simple experiment you can try for yourself: Go and tell someone today why you chose to follow Jesus. It’s a very old idea, and you will need to tap into your imagination to make it fresh for your audience.

Let’s revisit the question: Does the Bible talk about imagination? Yes, it does.

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Source: Christianity Today