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Imagination and Why It Matters

We need a Christian view of the discipline of imagination.

In “Imagination is Ancient,” Stephen T. Asma provides some helpful insights to this phenomenon, what it is and how it works (Aeon, 11 Sep-tember 2017). He writes, “Imagination is intrinsic to our inner lives. You could even say that it makes up a ‘second universe’ inside our heads.” Philosophy and psychology have said but little about the role of imagination in our lives, but Asma insists it is crucial. Imagination plays an important role in the life of faith, although we typically do not spend much time teaching believers how to develop this skill or why they should.

Imagination is a work of the mind, recalling and combining impressions, experiences, and thoughts in new and sometimes surprising ways. “When we imagine, we blend pictures and propositions, memories and real-time experiences, sounds, stories and feelings. It is a multimedia processor that jumps laterally through connotations, rather than downward through logical inference. Much of this is unconscious, which is why the muse simile is so powerful, but this phase is followed by a reentry phase, where the free associations or stream of consciousness are brought back under executive control, and integrated into the more focused projects of the agent or artist.” But, Asma insists, “We’ve romanticised creativity so completely that we’ve ended up with an impenetrable mystery in our heads.” He offers an evolutionary view of the development of imagination: “We should think of the imagination as an archaeologist might think about a rich dig site, with layers of capacities, overlaid with one another. It emerges slowly over vast stretches of time, a punctuated equilibrium process that builds upon our shared animal inheritance. In order to understand it, we need to dig into the sedimentary layers of the mind.” But he also suggests that “imagination, properly understood, is one of the earliest human abilities, not a recent arrival. Thinking and communicating are vastly improved by language, it is true. But ‘thinking with imagery’ and even ‘thinking with the body’ must have preceded language by hundreds of thousands of years. It is part of our mammalian inheritance to read, store and retrieve emotionally coded representations of the world, and we do this via conditioned associations, not propositional coding.”

People have always been imaginative, observing, associating, and replaying situations and events in their minds, and thus shaping their actions in various ways. Meaning, Asma writes, “stems from the actions associated with a perception or image.” Images connect with emotions to suggest possible courses of action. Thus imagination “is the power to take the mind offline – decoupled from the immediate flow of perception – and run simulations of counterfactual virtual realities.” These suggest actions of various sorts that issue from the imagination at work. He explains, “I believe that the pictorial and gestural languages are still with us, and when we quiet our discursive consciousness long enough – as we do in improvisational and creative activities – we can still converse in these more ancient tongues.”

Imagination is “especially good at emotional communication…The imagination is proficient at image associations, but it’s also extremely adept at mixed-media associations. Thinking and communicating with images requires access to inner representations, but the artist is shuffling these images into unnatural and unexpected combinations.”

Here is a fine example of the common grace of God at work, scattering nuggets of pure gold amid the fool’s gold of evolutionary thinking.

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