‘Imagination and the Word’

Posted: January 28, 2020 in Uncategorized

‘Imagination and the Word’

Carl Sagan wrote: “Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it we go nowhere.”

And inviting us to explore what this imagination might feel like he wrote that: There is a wide, yawning black infinity. In every direction, the extension is endless; the sensation of depth is overwhelming. And the darkness is immortal. Where light exists, it is pure, blazing, fierce; but light exists almost nowhere, and the blackness itself is also pure and blazing and fierce.

I want to have a go; first of all to see if I can move imagination from the sphere of the temporary or the fanciful, or of the somehow untrue, and I want to do this by claiming that imagination is something we cannot live without, or in face be human without.

Some time back now I suggested that much of what is known as gnostic literature, is about ‘knowing’, and until recently not considered as worthy of being in the canon. At the core of this rejection, of the idea of knowing, is the suggestion that every spiritual teaching sounds a call from above or outside. And that the central aim of the teaching of Jesus is to sensitize us to the above that calls to us. Whereas Gnostic literature invites us to consider that the immensity of Christianity takes its interior meaning as a sign of an immensity within the self of every human being. As a path of inner awakening, as a path of deep self-knowledge (in other words, gnosis), it invites and supports the inner struggle to attend, to “hear and obey” one’s own Self, God in oneself. As Jean-Yves Leloup suggests, this is the intimate meaning of Anthropos: to be fully human oneself, is the incarnation of God. This is an unknown teaching in recent Christian teaching — not in the philosophical or theological sense, nor in the sense that it has never been said before, but in the sense that our ordinary thoughts and feelings can never really penetrate it. It seems too complex and emotional and too new-age-like. And it is unknown in the sense that we live our lives on the surface of ourselves, not knowing the one thing about our own being that it is necessary for us to know and that would bring us every good we could seriously wish for. The fitness industry says get fit and find it, the business industry says plan for it and know it, the personalisation says believe in yourself and know it as success. But in the end, we are speaking of an unknown part of ourselves, which is at the same time the essential part of ourselves: the Teacher within, our genuine identity. The way — and it is surely the way that is offered by all the spiritual traditions of the world— it is the practice, and the community supporting the practice, that opens a relationship between our everyday sense of self and the Self, or Spirit. I would suggest here that imagination becomes part of this relationship between self and Spirit and between self and world. We are told, this is made possible through the inner cultivation of a specific quality of conscious attention and intelligence that in the gnostic tradition is referred to by the Greek term nous, or higher mind. The danger here is to retain the incarnation within the inner world rather than recognize that what it might be more than that. What it might be is the realm of intermediate attention and of mediating conscious forces in the cosmos that are mythologized as the angelic realms in the esoteric traditions of the world’s religions. A bit of a mouthful but it is in this miraculous yet lawful mediating contact between the higher and the lower within ourselves that the deeper, intimate experience of conscious love is given— a conscious love for our starved and confused self that is at the same time love for our neighbour whose inner condition is identical to our own. And I suggest it is the imagination that applies this consciousness to in the world. You will need to give some time to this suggestion I am making because it is in the arena of theory and speculation and it is after all my attempt to shift imagination into being a vital aspect of everyday human life, rather than something only some have more of than others..

One of the most remarkable aspects of The Gospel of Mary Magdalene is that the more it shows us about the meaning of Christianity, the more the mystery deepens. This paradox is due, surely, to the fact that, like every truly spiritual communication, it speaks to us both on the surface and at deep unconscious levels at the same time. While at the intellectual level it points to the resolution of apparent contradictions that sometimes drive us away from belief in the objective existence of the Good, it at the same time opens the heart to a silent recognition of homecoming— the joy of what we knew without words all along, but had all but given up hope of finding.

No mystery is greater or more welcome than this— that above our minds, in the depths of silence, we may be given to know ourselves as Being and as created to serve the good both for God and our neighbour. All it needs is the vehicle of imagination.

So having perhaps added confusion and mystery I want to see if I can bring us back to the everyday.

John Shea wrote the following story to assist us to shape our expectations as we enter this space called imagination;

A woman went into a marketplace, looked around, and saw a sign that read: ‘God’s Fruit Stand.’ “Thank goodness.  It’s about time,” she said to herself.

She went inside and she said, “I would like a perfect banana, a perfect cantaloupe, a perfect peach and six perfect strawberries.” God, who was behind the counter, shrugged and said, “I’m sorry.  I sell only seeds” (Shea 1997:53).

One of the first contemporary biblical theologians to recognise the importance of imagination and story in the tradition of the Christian faith was American, Amos N Wilder.

Way back in the 1960s he said this: “Jesus’ speech had the character not of instruction and ideas but of compelling imagination, of spell, of mythical shock and transformation” (Wilder 1964/71:84).

Wilder identified that it is through imagination and story that God ‘speaks’. That Christianity is a religion of imagination and the word. And behind the particular gospel stories and images lie a particular life-experience and a language-shaping faith.

Jesus of Nazareth and his first followers broke into the world of speech and writing of their time, with a novel and powerful utterance… Not a word of instruction and ideas.
But a word of compelling imagination.

So far as we know Jesus never wrote a word, except on that occasion when, in the presence of the woman taken in adultery, the storyteller says ‘he bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground’.

In poetic terms we could say Jesus spoke as the birds sing, “oblivious of any concern for transcription” (Wilder 1964/71:13) or written record.

Jesus was: “a voice not a penman, a herald not a scribe” (Wilder 1964/71:13).

Less romantically we can say that Jesus’ use of the spoken word alone has its own theological significance. This is argued I think by the Jesus Seminar who in its quest for the historical Jesus is now in search of his voice print. Writing things down has about it the risk of over emphasis on a sense of permanence while at the same time helpfully presupposing continuity and a future.

One risk of this is that the spoken word is temporary. The words are gone as they are spoken. What we call the ‘gospel’ arose out of a radical break, when old customs and continuities were undermined. And for storyteller Matthew that ‘radical break’ is contained
in the so-called ‘sermon on the mount’.

Most biblical scholars now days believe there was really no such thing as a ‘sermon’ on the mount. In reality, they say, it was the work of the author of Matthew’s gospel,
(at least from Chapter 3 onwards… to the first two chapters were written by someone else…) place Jesus within the Jewish tradition in general, and as another Moses, in particular.

Jesus, like Moses, goes up to the mountain and sits as he speaks, demonstrating his authority, like that of Moses, as a teacher. The question often asked about the Beatitudes and other teachings on the mount is, what did they mean for Jesus’ followers in the age after his death? And what do they mean for us in the present age? If the Beatitudes are seen as new laws given by Jesus or as defining the in and the out, even defining difference then one set of propositions follow. However, if the Beatitudes are the gospel, the good news, then they can be seen differently. They can be sees as a gift – a re-imagining. A gift to expand the limits of word. A re-imagining that invites our response in favour of those who are adversely affected by the goings-on, of the ‘empire’. A response that will want to do away with that which oppresses, limits, restricts, deprives, and or imprisons others.

I don’t know about you but for me, I favour the later. The Beatitudes are not a new set of laws, but following the metaphor of the opening story, seeds are offered as a gift of Creativity God. God does not offer perfection – or perfect fruit. God offers the seeds and invites and lures us to plant them… And then constantly care for them as they become complete. Imagination enables us to see the more, to picture hope, it encourages us to engage in a life that is a blip in cosmic timing and yet a hugely valuable lifetime of purpose and meaning. In our openness to this God or the sacred, we become a constant unfolding, a never-ceasing development. Life is a journey.

So, when going to our text for today we might ask; Why should we favour this view of the beatitudes as gift?  Well! Maybe because it is both realistic and hopeful in the same breath. It recognizes limit, incompleteness and failure. And yet it refuses to absolutize these states.  There is always the lure forward. The seed may or may not become completed that is the risk of creation and evolution. As gift it enables us to rise above or work through, in other words to re-imagine a wonderful bountiful world. The Beatitudes remind us that our Serendipitous Creativity God – is doing something new and unexpected in our midst and we can ill afford to ignore it. Change is life and life refuses to be embalmed alive!

And another joy of this serendipitous, creative and unexpected life is agelessness, and thus timeless. We can be 25 or 85 or 65… we always have the possibility of striking out on a new path. Why? Because we are a seed burgeoning toward a ripeness never achieved but always in the process of achieving. We are one with the divine serendipitous creativity that we might name “Almost”. We are a product of ‘Almost’s’ fruit stand, becoming, in this moment and in every moment to come. Amen.’

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