Sep 4, 2015

We Need to Imagine

By Anna Ilona Mussmann

My twenty-one-month-old son is filled with a burning desire to imitate adults. Yesterday he stirred his alphabet magnets around in a large colander before placing a single magnet on each of the coasters on my coffee table. After clasping his hands and declaring “Amen” over the repast, he pretended to eat it. The game delighted him. It referenced both reality (he knows all about eating) and mystery (he doesn’t really understand the process of cooking or the purpose of the fascinatingly dangerous stovetop). By entering an imaginary world molded from a combination of the mundane and the magical, he is able to experience the joy of wonder.

Toddlers think that everything is fascinating. They will study yesterday’s food smears or a piece of gravel with an intensity that adults reserve for the Grand Canyon or a potentially counterfeit one-hundred-dollar bill. Kindergarteners spend hours playing “pretend.” Eight-year-olds can be electrified by a teacher’s announcement that they are going to make something out of a shoebox. This eagerness drives the young child to tackle the learning curve between spitting-up and more grown-up skills. Yet somehow as a culture we take it for granted that most human beings are transformed by middle school and, ever after, will be rather embarrassed to admit to a love of learning or too strong a sense of wonder. It isn’t cool to be too impressed or too satisfied with anything.

Such numbing of the heart and brain, such stifling of curiosity, is a deadly thing. At the very least, it feeds a tendency toward self-absorption. It makes it difficult to see beyond the self and the material. Sarah Clarkson writes that when employees of Planned Parenthood speak casually of crushing and dismembering the unborn, they reveal a fatal “failure of imagination.” Women like Dr. Nucatola (seen on the recent undercover videos) see only the flesh and tissue from which a tiny human is constructed, not the larger and immaterial reality that makes a baby a wondrous thing. Perhaps they themselves have experienced being unwanted and unloved, and they cannot see beyond that to imagine the tremendous love that God has for both themselves and their small victims.

A stunted sense of wonder also makes it difficult to think about God. God is vast. Omnipotent. Omniscient. Omnipresent. Awful, in the old-fashioned sense of the word--so awe-inspiring that were it not for the breathtaking mercy He shows us, we would be insane not to cower in terror at the very sound of His name. We cannot even attempt to wrap our minds around His nature without a childlike imagination (not that we finite beings will ever truly grasp the infinite, but still). If we are unable to imitate toddlers by believing in a reality far bigger than our ability to understand it, how can we believe that we are sinners who have trespassed against an almighty Judge? If we reject the mind of a kindergartener, how can we understand that such a God would sacrifice His own Son for love of dirty, rotten sinners? Religion becomes unimaginable.

Human imagination alone, of course, spawns a pantheon of cruelly false gods (whether materialistic ones or the sort who wield lightning bolts) and ultimately leads to Hell. Our fallen imaginations are of no help without knowledge. As Christians we know that God works through His Word to reveal Himself to us. How fascinating that He does so through parables, imaginative figures of speech, and stories.

Before they were told that their salvation came from a cross, the crowds who followed Jesus heard parables about crazy shepherds and counter-cultural Samaritans. These tales combined the mundane (ordinary people like shepherds, poor women, or merchants) with the strange (people who behaved in ridiculous ways and came to unexpected endings). When they heard the Scriptures of the Old Testament, they heard about individuals who served as “types” of Christ: prophetic prefigurement of what was to come. They heard of miracles. Whether parables or history, these Scriptural stories are astonishing--unexpected--joyful--sometimes even gruesome. They cling to the imagination and prepare the mind to grasp the idea of who Christ is and what He does. Perhaps we can say that our God Himself uses stories as apologetics.

Currently, my son sees a story when his daddy uses tools or his mommy makes dinner. As he grows older, I hope that he will continue to marvel and to feel wonder. I hope that he will hear, read, and see many tales that combine the mundane and the fantastical and thereby help him to understand that true reality is wondrous. This understanding is not on its own the same thing as saving faith, of course. Yet it is a good thing. It is something through which God often works to strengthen faith and comfort the faithful.


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After graduating from Concordia Wisconsin, Anna taught in Lutheran schools for several years and became so enthusiastic about Classical Education that she will talk about it to whomever will listen. She is a big fan of Jane Austen, dark chocolate, and the Oxford comma. Anna and her husband live in Pennsylvania with their two small children. Anna's personal blog is Don't Forget the Avocados and her work can also be found in The Federalist.

2 comments:

  1. Beautifully put! One of the things I like best about homeschooling is that it shields kids from the "learning is stupid" attitudes and keeps them engaged and curious.

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    1. I'd say I experienced that, too, in my upbringing as a homeschooler. I'm sure there are also schools that manage to accomplish the same thing, but it must be incredibly hard to battle a cultural attitude in a group setting.

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