“Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us,
above us only skies…”
– John Lennon
I’ve spent 40 years thinking about the lyrics to John Lennon’s 1972 peace anthem, Imagine. I love the hope for humanity it offers. But sitting in the parking lot, just before church on Sunday, it all came alive for me.
Thank you Krista Tippett…thank you, thank you, thank you. Talk about redemption. I am deeply grateful. So, here’s the story:
I was about 4 years old. I remember sitting in my grandmother’s office, telling stories to a stuffed bunny and my favorite doll. When, out of the corner of my heart, I overheard my great aunt in the kitchen. She was speaking rather disparagingly to my grandmother. “Tskk tskk, that child certainly has a vivid imagination…” she blustered.
I don’t think I had any idea what the phrase, “vivid imagination,” meant at the time. But based on the tone of her voice, I was certain it was a character flaw. It was obviously something I should file away and feel badly about identifying myself with. And it became a pocket of shame that held dark, dank worries about my relationship to reality.
She made it clear, over the years, that having an imagination was notthe same as “knowing the Truth.” And since “knowing the Truth” was good, was spiritually strengthening, and brought freedom, the implication was that having a vivid imagination was a waste of time. An active imagination was something flaky, silly, and the selfish indulgence of a mind less scientifically inclined, and fact-based. Hence, it was a quality I shouldn’t celebrate, or honor, in myself.
But Sunday, Krista gave me back my dignity as an imaginative being. And for that, I am so deeply grateful.
Sunday morning she interviewed John Paul Lederach. Lederach is the author of The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace, during her NPR program, On Being. As a Mennonite, Leterak continues in the footsteps of a rich community of Protestant reformers who took on the Christian demand to be peacemakers, with a special passion. Wherever there is war in the world, Mennonites can be found as mediators and medics, fire fighters, and mental healthcare givers. But more about that in another post.
This Sunday morning, it was simply the title of the book that lifted my soul. For a number of years now, I have cherished Mary Baker Eddy’s definition of the word “moral,” in Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, with great spiritual purpose. It has informed my sense of moral courage, my own standard for moral behavior, and given me guidelines for moral reasoning. Eddy offers as her definition:
Moral. Humanity, honesty, affection,
compassion, hope, faith, meekness, temperance.
Well, during Krista’s interview, Lederach explores the worth, and value, of having a “moral imagination.” He offers that those who exercise an active moral imagination are able to imagine solutions that go above and beyond systems, paradigms, techniques, and processes which have become the norm for socio-political behavior.
For example, peace builders that have a vivid moral imagination can imagine their enemies as friends. They can imagine a solution to conflict which refuses to choose a side — in a dualistic “right or wrong” battle of wills –and seek to discover new,uncharted ground for forging relationships of understanding and compassion.
I love having an active, vivid moral imagination. I love imagining a world where former spouses partner lovingly in parenting their children. Where neighbors can find joy in one another’s company without the need for compromised values. Where fathers can embrace their sons, without the need for either’s consent to specific “healing” outcomes on issues of gender, politics, or religion. I love imagining a hospital filled with fearless spiritual healers, and churches filled with physicians seeking understanding.
It’s been such a joy to let my moral imagination run rampant. I can imagine radical humanity in the face of inhumane disinterest. Dream freely about honesty that dances nakedly in the dark alleyways of fear and self-doubt. I can indulge in visions of richaffection walking boldly, where disquiet tiptoes along the edges of judgment and rejection. I can cherish images of revolutionarycompassion inhabiting the courtrooms of shame.
I relish my right to celebrate the totalitarian rule of a divinely-defined faith within each man, woman and child. A holy, uplifting faith asserting itself where apathy would lull our world into resignation and pessimism. I lean into the the distant strains of ameekness so sweet, and deep, that it sings its song of peace unchallenged by the spectres of anger and resentment. And I can sense the presence of a breath-taking temperance so clearly informed by the reign and rule of God — the one Sovereign of “the kingdom within” each of us — that it is undeterred, or shaken by the opinions of others, or the extremism of culture.
I love having a rich moral imagination…and, as Ian McEwan once wrote:
“Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself
is at the core of our humanity.
It is the essence of compassion and the beginning of morality.”
Forty years ago, John Lennon offered us a window on moral imagination…looking through it fills the heart with “new views of divine goodness and love.”
What can you imagine?
postscript: Someone just sent me this Percy Bysshe Shelly quote. It speaks so beautifully to this message:
“A man, to be greatly good,
must imagine intensely and comprehensively;
he must put himself in the place of another and many others;
the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own.
The great instrument of moral good is the imagination.”