Can You Imagine?
Rev. Seth Patterson
October 16, 2022
Scripture: Job 11:7–9
Can you fathom the mysteries of God? Can you probe the limits of the Almighty? They are higher than the heavens above—what can you do? They are deeper than the depths below—what can you know? Their measure is longer than the earth and wider than the sea.
Human beings are stuck. Even after a few hundred thousand years of being anatomically modern humans, we still find ourselves unsure of our place on this earth. Are we part of the world or do we have control of the world . . . or both . . . or neither? Human beings are stuck in the tension of being and being more than at the same time. Even after layered and multiple revolutions of toolmaking and art, religion and culture, industry and war, peace and technology, we still may not really know who we are. We may think we know our place when we look at our lives in the micro, in the day-to-day experiences that we create for ourselves. But when we step back and look at the whole, in the macro, do we know who we are? We are animals, mammals like a cat or an elephant, a dolphin or a chimpanzee. But are we like them? Do you and your dog cohabitate as equals?
So, if we are both like an animal and yet different from, where does that put us? Who are we then? Are we set apart from the rest of living things? Are we different than? Are we closer to God? We are capable of creating like God; we can begin to understand and unravel the deep mysteries and complexities of the universe; we can cause destruction on a massive scale and alter the face of the earth to fit our desires. Humans alone have eliminated and caused the extinction of 680 vertebrate species in the last 400 years alone. This is Hebrew Bible–level destruction we have caused. So, are we animal-like or are we God-like?
Yes. And no. We are both and we are neither. We are animal in that we are born and we grow. We require food and shelter and care, we get sick, and we experience death. We are biological creatures like all other living things. And we are capable of that which no other living thing is capable. We are stuck in this tension, in this liminal space between biological and divine proximity. The 20th-century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr put it this way: “Human existence is obviously distinguished from animal life by its qualified participation in creation. Within limits it breaks the forms of nature and creates new configurations of vitality.”
This double belonging that we find ourselves in can be complicated. Any paradox or tension comes with some amount of stress. My hope today is not to alleviate that tension. In fact, I wonder if that tension born of mystery is a good thing for us to remember as we make decisions and build relationships. We are both animal and more than animal. How does remembering that change the way we consume, the way we build or tear down, the ways that we care for (or don’t care for) each other?
I wonder if this small passage from the Hebrew Bible book of Job can remind us of something that is central to this human tension of being both created and able to create: imagination. Human beings are, as far as we know, the only biological things that have the capacity to imagine, the capacity to conceive of what has not yet existed. This is central to our ability to create, to be creative, to understand and expand knowledge. Imagination is the jumping-off point to the building of anything new—physical or conceptual. Imagination is also foundational to our communication and language. Congregational Minister Henry Ward Beecher once wrote, “The soul without imagination is what an observatory would be without a telescope.” To even understand that analogy, we need to engage our imagination!
Job’s friend asks him, “Can you fathom the mysteries of God? Can you probe the limits of the Almighty?” How big is your imagination? he wonders. Is your imagination as big as God, as expansive as the very Ground of Being? Only our imaginations can engage in these questions. Only our imaginations can bring us to the edges of our understanding and then take another step. Only our imaginations can fathom that which we do not yet know or have not yet experienced.
This imagination is a gift that humans alone possess in our biological world. It is what separates us from the rest of our partners on earth, and it is what makes us sometimes forget that we are not godlike. This gift—and like all gifts it can also be a curse—is one thing that makes humans human and forces us into that tension between heaven and earth.
When Job was first written (likely in the 6th century before the common era) the second set of questions asked here would have seemed beyond possibility: “They are deeper than the depths below—what can you know? Their measure is longer than the earth and wider than the sea.” Those questions were so far beyond the limits of knowledge then, but now I can tell you that the average depth of the sea is 12,100 feet, with the deepest part being 35,876 feet deep. The circumference of the earth is 24,902 miles. What was once beyond the scope of knowledge can now be known because of our imagination. In the last few millennia, since the book of Job was written, our imaginations have pushed beyond the limits of our knowledge and then knowledge continued to catch up. We are only able to create that which we first imagine. As George Bernard Shaw said, “Imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire, you will what you imagine, and at last, you create what you will.” What we imagine has the potential to become realized.
And we are all the beneficiaries of our ancestors’ imaginations. So much goodness, health, and safety are the product of generations of imagination turned to creation. We are also carrying the burden of our predecessors’ imaginations. So much oppression and cruelty and destruction have come about because of the ways that humans have imagined controlling each other and the rest of creation. Like humanity, imagination is not an absolute moral good. It is powerful and can be used for good and for harm.
This place, this community and congregation, is also the beneficiary of generations of imaginations that have created this church that we have inherited and are now the stewards of. We are able to eat of the fruits that have been given to us. And we have the opportunity—the obligation—to be the imaginative ancestors that our descendants need us to be. We are called to live into the gift of our humanness and imagine a better world to give to our great-grandchildren . . . to imagine—and then work to create.
What can you imagine? What can you imagine that could create the goodness that our communities, our world needs? What can you imagine that might begin to undo so much of the brokenness that we have been handed? What can you imagine? But also how do you stop yourself short? What have you imagined but then told yourself to forget it because it was probably impossible? What stories do you tell yourself that unfortunately convince you that your imagination is unworthy?
It seems to be a cultural condition that we diminish imagination, or at least segment it off to being only the responsibility of children and artists. We sometimes act as if imagination is false or pretend or useless. We choose to devote ourselves to the pragmatic or the measurable as if all that is worthwhile is that which we already hold. Science is no exception to the gifts of imagination. Nothing can be discovered without the imagination to spur the exploration. Astronomer Carl Sagan spoke to this when he said, “Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it we go nowhere.”
Instead of being flimsy, imagination is bold. Imagination takes bravery. Imagination takes some work and practice and knowledge. To imagine something new is to take all of our God-given human gifts and put them to use in the creation of something that has not yet been. Our imagination can be used to be co-creators with God with the intention of building the beloved community that God calls us to build.
This is not for other people to do. This is for all of us. We are capable. We are all equipped with imagination. It is what makes us human. It is one of our God-given gifts that puts us into that tension we named before. Imagination is what differentiates us from the rest of biological life. Why wouldn’t we use this gift?
To imagine doesn’t mean that everything will just happen. We still need to do the work to make everyone in our communities experience the unending love that God promises us all. We still need to do the work of breaking down the oppressive systems that still cage us all in one way or another. We still need to solve a whole lot of practical problems. But imagination is where it all begins. Imagination can be exciting and playful and hopeful. Nothing can be created if it is not imagined first.
So, what can you imagine? What can we imagine together? How can we be bold and brave and imagine a hoped-for future? How can we help this church be fertile soil for our imaginations? God is found within each of us and is found in the connections of each of us to the other. We are both finite biological creatures and imbued with the gifts of God. And in that important and life-giving tension, in that space of hope and possibility, of what could be, what can you imagine? Go forth and do it—and do it together. May it be so.
Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man: A Christian Interpretation (1941).