Imagination, Creativity and Spirituality (They Go Together Well)

Why did God give us the gift of imagination?

If the idea of God giving us imagination puts you off, then why did evolution, or the universe, give it to us?

It seems to me that, fairly early on in human history, the ability to visualize something other than what is front of us must have had marvelous implications for thriving in the world. The ability to imagine something different is what lies at the root of technology (“wouldn’t it be good if I could create something to ward off that hungry tiger?”). To this day we human beings are inventors, but how could that capacity even exist without the prior capacity to imagine something different than what is in front of our noses?

The ability to imagine carries us further beyond than just the capacity to see our physical environment in new ways. Take dreams, for example. They are a function of the imagination, simply delivered to us while we sleep, and therefore unencumbered by the normal distractions of the waking mind, which is why they are so vivid and “real.”

We know that dreams can have a powerful impact on creativity (for example, it’s common knowledge that Paul McCartney first imagined the melody for  “Yesterday” in a dream) — well, so do daydreams (and the waking imagination in any form). Dreaming, or imagining, a lovely little song may not make our lives any better, at least in a material sense — but it does offer us enjoyment and/or meaning. So the imagination is a wellspring for creating meaning in our lives and that relates to creating purpose.

If I imagine a world without racism, I am better able to find the resources within me to begin to do the hard work to dismantle social privilege and help bring an end to racist systems. Ultimately, of course, this takes us to the big questions: about God, about the meaning and purpose of life in toto, about what it means to be human and our ultimate destiny, and so forth. In other words, what difference does it make to imagine that God exists? Does that make God more “real”? Or more possible? Is the imagination actually a type of “spiritual sense” that gives us access to something unavailable to our bodily senses?

Is “finding God in all things” ultimately a function of the imagination? Am I able to “behold God in all” because I can imagine “the Divine Presence is everywhere”? These quotes come from St. Ignatius of Loyola, Julian of Norwich, and St. Benedict, respectively. These three spiritual teachers lived many centuries apart, and yet they all call us into this essential spiritual practice. But I cannot see God the way I see my computer or my keyboard, physically present in front of me. I have to imagine God and that’s what enables me to believe, to behold, to find. Some people are only capable of imagining God if they picture God far away — up in heaven. Others cannot imagine God at all.

Perhaps atheism, ultimately, represents a failure of the imagination. It’s interesting that many atheists are well-educated, often scientifically-minded people. But they have been trained to subjugate the imagination to what is empirically measurable and verifiable. I hope most people, regardless of belief, can find ways to value the imagination, even if only on a purely material level. “Imagination is more important than knowledge” — I don’t think Einstein said this in precisely these words, but it gets to the point of what I’m trying to say.

And it takes me back to the mystics: to the author of The Cloud of Unknowing telling us that God can never be fully “thought” but God can be fully “loved” — so we know God in our hearts more surely than in our minds. And I believe our hearts are the seat of our imagination — at least as much as our minds are. We do know that the second highest concentration of nerve cells, after the brain, are found in the heart. I think what we commonly think of as “hunches” or “intuition” are often the sub-verbal cognition of the heart’s neural center.

So this leads me to wonder, what is the relationship between imagination and intuition? And is there something transpersonal or spiritual about either? This reminds me of the story of Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter composed one of Grateful Dead’s signature songs, “Terrapin Station.” One day during a lightning storm, Hunter wrote the lyrics for the first part of the song in a single sitting, apparently unusual for him. On the same day, Garcia was out for a drive and as he crossed the Richmond-San Rafael bridge, a melody just popped into his head. It was so real, so vivid, that he had to turn around and go straight home and write it down before it escaped him. The two met up the next day, and when Hunter showed Garcia his new lyrics, they fit the melody perfectly. Thus the song was born; in Hunter’s words, the music and words “dovetailed perfectly and Terrapin edged into this dimension.”

If one musician (Paul McCartney) can receive a song in a dream, why not two musicians receive one through a kind of shared intuition? Agnostics will scoff that this is random, a monkeys-at-the-typewriter sort of thing. And maybe it is. But maybe it isn’t. Maybe it’s a hint that there’s something far more marvelous at work in our intuitions — and imagination — than meets the eye.

So what does all this have to do with being a person of faith, or a person of prayer, or a writer, here in the first half of the twenty-first century? Simply this: that my ability to grow as a writer seems to be intimately bound up in my willingness to play with my imagination. This is part of the reason why I love reading fantasy literature, or even reading books like Jeff VanderMeer’s Wonderbook about the composition of fantasy and other non-ordinary fiction. I doubt I’ll be writing fiction anytime soon (although, never say never). But the imagination is just as important for the creation of mystical and contemplative non-fiction as it is for creating visionary fiction.

So how do we cultivate the sacred imagination?

Reading helps, listening to music and seeing art helps, a carefully curated diet of limited TV and movie-watching helps too. Perhaps most important is a daily practice: for me, that means writing every day, in concert with a daily round of silent prayer and meditation. Silence is important, it seems to me, for nourishing the imagination. It gives the mind and heart the space to think, to wonder, to explore possibilities, and to envision. Give the intuition and imagination space to play, and the Spirit will take care of the rest. Of this I am sure.

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Carl McColman
Soul Friend and Storyteller. Lay Cistercian, Catechist, Author, Blogger, Podcaster, Speaker, Teacher, Retreat Leader.