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Imagine new worlds

And find the courage to bring change in this one.

For a Christian, imagination is not the sole domain of the artsy and literary types. The imagination is every Christian’s home country. Survival is insufficient, as Star Trek’s famous quote tells us. We must all explore beyond the visible and the known to somewhere better.

So let the writers’ circles have their creativity training in the woods, with plots of elves, apocalypse or wormhole travel. The online acrylic painting workshop participants are free to dream of skies ablaze with orange and purple fire. But God’s good gift of imagination is so much more versatile, ubiquitous and democratically distributed! Fantasy is fine, superfluous beyond our evolutionary needs, but it is not all we can imagine.

Imagination is as expansive as worldview. We can imagine new worlds in our world now – in fields such as engineering, recreation and psychology, for example.

From What Is to What If

Chalk art on pavement saying "Playing Out"
The Playing Out program helps residents temporarily close streets for kids to play safely.

Ties van der Hoeven, Dutch engineer and co-founder of The Weather Makers, has plans to rejuvenate the entire Sinai Peninsula, transforming it from desert to green valleys. The Guardian (March 20, 2021) reports that he believes “the Sinai could be transformed from a hot, dry, barren desert into a green haven teeming with life: forests, wetlands, farming land, wild flora and fauna.”

If it sounds like science fiction, something similar was done in Inner Mongolia, China, in a region the size of France in the early 1990s. Planting trees, terracing slopes, retaining water, re-directing herd grazing – “within 20 years, the deserts of the Loess plateau became green valleys and productive farmland.”

A UN environmentalist comments on the Sinai plan: “The main challenge is the lack of human imagination; our inability to see a different future because we’re staring down this dystopian path of pandemic, climate change, biodiversity loss.”

On a much smaller scale, U.K. residents can imagine a new world for recreation in their neighbourhood. The Playing Out program in southwest England supports parents who want to close their street to cars for set times so children can play on the road. Rob Hopkins in From What Is to What If: Unleashing the Power of Imagination to Create the Future We Want (2019) reports that there are now over 500 streets across the country that shut down at designated times, and the pavement is covered with chalk drawings, swinging skipping ropes, wild bicyclers and tireless skateboarders.

“Traffic just needs to be, for just an hour or two, put in its place,” says one of the local coordinators. Activist and writer Hopkins adds, “We need to play at living in the kind of world we want to create.”

Post-COVID Daydreams

Finally, an even smaller venue for imagination is our homes and our inner lives. With mandatory social isolation rules, our homes can feel like a trap. Well-being atrophies. The New York Times has had two articles recently urging us to “Go Ahead. Fantasize” (Jan. 16) and “Don’t Take Your Head Out of the Clouds!” (April 10). Such practises as reminiscing about good times past – a first kiss or a calming nature scene, or, conversely, anticipating a better future – a hug from a loved one or the first post-COVID party – help us cope with our present stress. Daydreaming is not just idle distraction. It can build resilience and hope.

We need to play at living in the kind of world we want to create.

Such is the advice of a therapeutic culture, and at this point in the pandemic, some therapy can certainly help us manage. But our imagination is not the singular power that saves the planet as the Romantics assume, and human ingenuity is not the sole or even primary agent of spiritual and social transformation. For one thing, our imaginations can run away with us, and fuel our nightmares, anxiety and obsessions. Another way to qualify any imagination hype is to say that our power to imagine is not purely human invention, nor just a tool for increased productivity, but a gift and a way of responding to this revealed world of wonders and its now devastating horrors. Creation is primary and what makes imagination capable of addressing our weary and wounded circumstance.

Imagination – and more broadly, aesthetics – come to play in fields beyond the arts. A Christian imagination sees that there is more to the world than just the world. It imagines against the worldly world in order to live a little closer to God’s new world. That coming dawn isn’t always fully visible and that is why imagination is so close to the heart of faith and hope. In fact, the new world is “immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine” but it’s a “power that is at work within us” that should lead us to give God the glory (Eph. 3:20). Imagine that.

  • Peter is Executive Director of Global Scholars Canada, a transnational guild of Christian scholars. He preaches, teaches and writes – having written columns, editorials, news and features for CC since 1997. His book The Subversive Evangelical: The Ironic Charisma of an Irreligious Megachurch (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019) is an ethnographic journey into the life of a megachurch and its “irreligious” charismatic leader. He loves stories that cross boundaries while maintaining integrity.

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