Worship Wednesday – Worship and Imagination

November 30th, 2011 § 0

Everest from Bhutan

photo by flickr user juank_madrigal

“It is imagination which allows us to escape from the constraints of immediate reality and to regard it with a critical eye, that is, to transcend the actual and project ourselves into the possible.” – Richard Kearney, Poetics of Imagining

In our Foundations of Youth and Family Ministry course, we’ve been reading Kenda Creasy Dean’s book, Almost Christian, and I can’t stop thinking about the term “missional imagination.” Of course, Dean is writing about adolescents in the book, but it seems to me that there’s a lot here for all of us when she describes what happens when adolescents begin to exercise missional imagination: “teenagers begin to view the world as a place where God acts, and to see themselves as participants in God’s action.”

Often, what we imagine is very real.

Phenomenologically, probably not so much. But we won’t get into that. Instead, have you ever thought about how much we use our imaginations in our worship? If we agree with Dean’s argument in Almost Christian that a missional imagination is essential for a dynamic and sustainable faith, I would ask how we actually cultivate that in our lives, both personally and corporately. And worship comes immediately to my mind as what orients our lives in the same direction the Spirit is moving. In worship, we are asked to give our whole selves over to God’s story. Imagination is often brushed aside as something only a child would use in earnest. Or, some say it’s for those people who aren’t interested in the real world. However, I think that when we worship we are entering into a vast landscape of imagination, and it is the most powerful engine of our transformation.

Last week, we discussed one way Newbigin defines mission: hope in action. But hope must exist before it can be enacted. Hope itself is a very general, abstract concept. We happen to have a very specific hope, a Christian hope, which Jürgen Moltmann describes well in Theology of Hope: “Hope is nothing else than the expectation of those things which faith has believed to have been truly promised by God. Thus, faith believes God to be true, and hope awaits the time when this truth shall be manifested.” Hope is a form of directed imagination based on what we declare is real, and Christian hope is an even more pointed form of directed imagination.

Interior of Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain

Photo from flickr user vkurland

James K. A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom gives us a twist (a la Heidegger) on the oft-heard maxim, “I think, therefore I am.” We cannot simply just be thinking. We will always be thinking of. There is an object to our thoughts, a direction, an intention towards something. And to push that logic even further,  we don’t simply perceive that object in a merely cognitive sense. We actually have feelings about it, and that is what motivates us and shapes us, more than rationality. So, Smith would modify Descartes’ original saying to “I love [something(s)], therefore I am.” I’m jumping through a lot of steps here, but I think you get the idea. Check out the book if you’d like more info, or post in the comments.

The idea that Smith approaches is the importance of cultivating desires and love for the right thing. More than anything else, we live our lives by our desires, and this is not a bad thing. But they are often so deeply embedded within us that a simple rational choice doesn’t make a huge, life-changing difference. Instead, to orient our desires in the right direction, we place the vibrant power of our imagination in line with what God has promised us as real, over and over again, as Moltmann says. We begin habits that act out the hope we have, which gradually shape our desires and our lives over time. One of the reasons imagination is so powerful is that it allows us to hold the tension of the already and the not yet in one place. What we imagine becomes real to us, and gradually shapes the way we live. And worship is one of the ways that we nurture that imagination.

  • I was talking to Heather about this post, and she reminded me of a spiritual exercise that we practiced at Camp Casey for our Acts of Piety class: the Ignatian Prayer of Imagination. Check out thoughts on it here and here.
  • Also, when you are participating in corporate worship, try to locate the times in the service when you are using your imagination more than others. I’d be curious to hear if some traditions differ. Post your observations in the comments!
  • Check out this great lecture (transcript) from N. T. Wright, when he visited our campus in 2005: “The Bible and Christian Imagination.”

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