Imagination and transformation

Do not be conformed

by Ken Sehested

            Imagination is one of our age’s feel-good words, and if you use it (and I do, a lot), first pause to consider the term’s shadow side.

            Imaginary, a linguistic cousin, can be used to describe a life removed from the vicissitudes of history, e.g., pipe dreams sprinkled with pixie dust, also known as magical thinking. To call such living childish is an insult to children. Imagination is not escapism. Spiritual life is not evacuation to another world.

            Also, imagination is not exempt from human manipulation for domineering purposes. Scientific and technological imagination created weapons of mass destruction and facilitated the rapacious assault on the ecosphere. We now live in what is now being called the Anthropocene, the epoch when human extraction from the biosphere exceeds nature’s capacity for replenishment.

            We live, in a very real sense, in an age of cannibalism and head-hunting far in excess of any examples from “primitive” cultures. But we have more sophisticated rationalizations of its plundering practices.

            By means of clever manipulation, Creation’s bounty—shared provision and sufficient sustenance—has been rendered as monetized booty. Whereas doxology—praise and the generosity it engenders—was once our intended posture, now there is domination by those despotic enough to assume control by the manipulation of debt and the misery it denotes.

            There is a substantial thread in Scripture where “imagination” is the seed of greed and the tyrannical behavior it evokes. Mary, in her pregnant song of praise, rejoices that God will “scatter the proud” in the “imagination of their hearts,” banishing the powerful and lifting up the lowly, satisfying the needs of the hungry and banishing every predator (Luke 1:51-53).

            Similarly, the Prophet Ezekiel (chapter 13) condemns religious charlatans who prophesy “out of their own imaginations,” when in fact they act as "jackals"—not because of pious impurity but the pursuit of profit. “You have profaned me for handfuls of barley and for pieces of bread,” killing the innocent and sparing oppressors.

            In Proverbs, the rich, in their imagination, believe their wealth will protect them “like a high wall” (18:11)—a text that has startling relevance for current political history in the US.

            Imagination can be the stimulus of deceit and trickery. Can you now see how the ancient prayer “Forgive us our debts,” with its linking of fiscal and spiritual poverty, is such a threat to imperial debt collectors, along with their political hirelings and armed mercenaries?

            Admitting these caveats, however, I believe the work of imagination is not only the key to clarified theological vision (Walter Brueggemann’s The Prophetic Imagination is of singular importance in my own formation) but also to the efficacious pursuit of the things that make for peace rooted in justice and mediated by mercy. (See John Paul Lederach’s The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace.)

            “Do not be conformed to this world [in its present deathly configuration],” the Apostle Paul urged the church in Rome, “but be transformed by the renewing of your minds”—by the imaginative capacity to see and participate in “what is good and acceptable and perfect” (12:2).

            To that end, use the list of quotes that follow as prompts to personal and communal prayer, to recover and rejuvenate the longing that mortal life be delivered from the grip of this brutal age and transformed by the One who makes all things new.

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