Recapturing the Imagination

When people teach the renewal of the mind spoken of in the New Testament they often talk about having a certain understanding or awareness concerning the word of God, a change in your thinking patterns to reflect scripture. This is all good and true but in our discussions about the mind we forget it’s most powerful faculty: the imagination.

Albert Einstein once said imagination is more important than knowledge. When you think about it, it is humans who use their minds to invest their world with meaning. This is not to say creation is inherently meaningless but we do shape the environment into a home through the tools of our mind. It is these constructs in our mind that turn a rock into a diamond. We are able to recognize the value inherent in the things God has made and therefore make them meaningful to us in the way we live in the world. Imagination for me is the mental space where we connect the dots in our world. There is a relationship between the internal environment of our psyche and the external environment of the world. To talk about the mind and treat the imagination as secondary or unimportant is to miss something that is a part of what makes us definitively human. The scriptures deal with narratives, values, ideologies etc. These are conceptions of reality. The imagination is giving a central role in the Bible.

It is quite obvious that for Paul thinking was also very important. His writings are so sophisticated and intellectually dense he is still a source of lively discussion, research and debate today. He just was not trying to show how he clever he was but he had an amazing, world changing and challenging message to present, known as the Gospel of Jesus the Messiah. The announcement that God through his Messiah had fulfilled his promises to Israel and was renewing the creation was a message of cosmic proportions and required a radical revolution in every facet of life. Trying to describe something happening in the new creation whilst we are in the old draws up the old epistemological question, how do you know something if it is completely new to you? Perhaps the more difficult challenge is how to communicate it to the next person. This meant Christians had to be thinkers in both in living and communicating the Gospel.

When Paul talked about the renewal of the mind he was talking about the new thinking that belongs to the new world whilst we are present in the old. (The new creation is actually a renewal of the old and not throwing it away. This makes it the same yet profoundly different.) To achieve this objective of new thinking, you have to use the known to point to the unknown, the familiar as a sign post directing people to the unfamiliar. Mapping this kind of mental journey requires imagination and that is what Paul precisely does. He used a new way of imagining something familiar to help people gain a new imagination for a renewed mind. Without imagination the project of renewal could not begin let alone progress. A great example of this at work in Paul’s thinking is the classic text on the renewal of the mind.

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. – Romans 12:1-2 ESV

These verses appear right after a doxology where he praises God’s unsearchable wisdom. Why did Paul just have to pause and give God glory? A heavy stream of theological thinking had been proceeding all the way from chapter one. In chapter 11 he was rounding of a particular section of his long argument that started from 9:1. In that section he explains the mystery of how God in his mercy fulfilled his promises to Israel, even using their failures to bless the world, also bringing them into the family of God. All this he accomplished through the Messiah, his faithful. The journey of going through this great exposition of God’s unfathomable counsel naturally had to end in honour and adulation to God. In chapter 11 he specifically warns Christians not to be conceited and remember how he justly treated Israel when they misbehaved. Now the question that promptly arises is how should they act and behave as God’s people before a watching world? The way to do this in 12:2 is to be “transformed by the renewing of the mind”, a new way of thinking for a new way of being. From verse 3 he proceeds to demonstrate how this new way of thinking works as humility and service before others in a church motivated by sincere love. For Paul to live a totally transformed life means you have to live a totally sacrificed life. You have to be completely surrendered to the change. In view of God’s great wisdom and mercy in making them his own, he urges them to be living sacrifices to him. He uses the image of an unending sacrifice to describe what it means to be a new person with a new way of thinking, separated from your old life and way of being. What happens from 12:2 and beyond is him unpacking the metaphor in 12:1 which took him 11 chapters to arrive at.

As we have just seen Paul actively engages his imagination and his hearer’s imagination in discussing the renewal of the mind. A real change in our imagination therefore cannot be excluded from what it means be a changed person. A renewed person requires a renewed mind, and a renewed mind requires a renewed imagination.

Paul’s writings are challenging but they are also very lively. The rest of the scriptures each in its own way is also like that. I think one of the major reasons why we find it so hard to read and understand the Bible is that we barely engage our imaginations in a text that expressly demands all of it, an intellectual commitment many are not willing to make. Perhaps the other aspect of it is intellectual laziness and complacency. When I talk about the imagination I do not mean whimsical fantasizing. That requires no effort at all.  When you talk to very creative people who really use their imagination in the truest sense, they will tell you it requires strict concentration, drawing fully upon their intellect and experiences. The concentration alone that it is required should tell you there is work involved. Also to imagine is to court possibility. Sometimes we are so comfortable with our ways of seeing things we just can’t be bothered to look at an alternative. Sometimes we are just suspicious of the new and don’t want to consider it. This is because embracing it would me letting go of what we hold dear.

The best kind of Bible study in my experience is the one that engages your imagination. Without it I do not know how you can learn anything meaningful from the Bible. How then do you imagine the Bible? I treat it as the real story of real people. This means picturing in my head the scenarios they were in. What caused them to act that way and what sort of people were they? Why did the author think it was significant to write about them? What was the author’s agenda? I try to bring alive in my mind’s eye what I read on the page. I want to flesh out the biblical characters and interact with these real people in my imagination. With all these elements at hand you try and figure out the story that is being told.

In doing a post where I was reviewing my own thought processes I realised it was sort of like a theological thought experiment. I believe Paul did a similar thing where in his mind he worked out real life scenarios with the guiding narrative of the Gospel he preached. Reading along with Paul and other authors encourages us to think along the same lines they did, to inhabit their imaginations so to speak. This is so we can better appreciate their take on the matter and not forcing our questions, presuppositions or ideas on them.

For a long time I have been interested in not only understanding what Paul or Peter or John wrote, but also discovering why they would write such things. This eventually led me to learning about worldviews and people’s philosophies. That is why I started a personal quest to find the biblical worldview and inhabit it, to think my thoughts after them, so to speak. This also led me to the wealth of scholarship and resources available to understand these people, what they wrote and the world they lived in. Recognizing and learning there was a biblical theology, a consistent controlling narrative that unified all of scripture, became the major guideline and lens through which I tried to understand everything. There was a major story which was formed by these minor narratives, each of them being a variation in telling the big story. In the end like any good story you know, fact or fiction, the story lives and grows inside of you until you become a part of it as much as it becomes a part of you.


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