Is God Imagination?
Not “imaginary,” but imagination itself
I remember the exact moment my childhood ended.
This is not a trauma story. At some point, childhood ends for everyone. Young adulthood begins. I just happen to remember the exact day that transition occurred, or at least the day I became aware of it.
It was the first day of summer break, between the 4th and 5th grades. For years, my sister and I had kicked off our summers playing “gas station.” We’d set up a card table “convenience store” in the driveway, stocked with cans of soda and packs of candy cigarettes. The garden hose was the fuel pump. We’d take turns riding our bikes around the block, then pulling into the station. Whoever was the “driver,” the other got to be the gas station attendant. The attendant filled the tank, cleaned the windshield, and checked the oil, while the driver enjoyed a relaxing smoke and listened to the radio, just like we’d seen adults doing all our lives.
It was fun — innocent, imaginary child’s play. We never tired of it.
But that summer, things changed.
We set up the table as usual. My sister took off on her bike. I waited by the “pump,” windshield rag at the ready, a pack of candy cigs nested in the rolled up sleeve of my t-shirt.
She rounded the corner and pulled into the station.
We looked at each other.
And felt ashamed.
She felt it. I felt it. We could see it in each other’s reddening faces.
We were too old for this.
What if someone saw us? “Playing pretend” like little children?
We exchanged a few nervous words, put the card table away, and went our separate ways. I spent the rest of the day alone in my room, reading and quietly brooding over the experience.
We didn’t turn overnight into somber adults, but from that day forward, “play” meant playing sports, card games, board games like Chess, Monopoly, or Risk. “Real world” games with rules, strategy, and competition. Games that engaged our imaginations, but didn’t originate there.
Imagination, How Impaired and Restored
In Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature, M. H. Abrams devotes his first 200 pages to analyzing William Wordsworth’s 8,000 line poem The Prelude — Books XI and XII of which are titled Imagination, How Impaired and Restored.
Let me briefly summarize, in 200 words, what Abrams expounds in 200 pages:
The Prelude, loosely patterned on Milton’s Paradise Lost, is the poet’s account of the development of his own creative imagination, from the playful immersion in fantasy of childhood, to the break with nature and surrender to sobriety that typifies adulthood, to his imagination’s redemptive return in the higher form of art —in his mature, creative work as a poet.
Where Milton saw Adam’s innocence, walking side by side with God in the Garden, Wordsworth saw the magic of childhood, of everyone’s instinctive original identification with a natural world we only recently emerged from ourselves (the womb), and with all its sublime embodiments in the trees, birds, bugs, animals, mountains, rivers, wind, and weather around us.
Where Milton saw the Fall, and Adam’s expulsion from Paradise, Wordsworth saw the demands of civilization that separate us from nature and thrust us into the responsible society of men. I read this to mean things like education, employment, money, marriage, family.
Where Milton saw Christ entering history to redeem fallen Humanity, Wordsworth saw art — creativity, the trained, inspired adult imagination — reconciling maturity and innocence, restoring our childhood exuberance, and reconnecting us on a higher level to the Divine Imagination from which we all emerge.
It would be easy to dismiss this scheme of the birth, death, and resurrection of imagination as poetic license, but Wordsworth takes the idea beyond metaphor. In his formulation,
the God who walked with Adam in the Garden IS the imagination that walks with everyone in childhood.
God IS the imagination crushed by education, work, responsibility.
God IS the imagination resurrected through art.
God is not like imagination.
God does not simply inspire imagination.
God IS imagination.
Wordsworth’s identification of imagination with God was shared by other Romantic poets:
“This world of Imagination is the world of Eternity; it is the divine bosom into which we shall all go after the death of the… body. This world of Imagination is Infinite and Eternal… There exists in that Eternal World the Permanent Realities of Every Thing which we see reflected in… Nature. All things are comprehended in their Eternal Forms in the divine body of the Saviour, True Vine of Eternity, The Human Imagination.” — William Blake
“The Primary Imagination I hold to be the living Power and Prime Agent of all human Perception, and as a repetition, in the finite mind, of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM.” — Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Is God Imagination?
My own experience parallels The Prelude. I was expelled from the Paradise of innocence that long ago summer, but imagination never abandoned me. It sank underground throughout my teen years in a voracious appetite for reading, especially science fiction, and hooked itself tenaciously to anything in popular culture that left it room to breathe — religion, ghost stories, astrology, the New Age (I grew up mostly in the ‘70s). In my twenties, imagination called me to take up writing, and here I am today, crafting this very essay — evidence of my “imagination’s redemptive return in the higher form of art,” of conscious, mature creativity.
Now, reread that paragraph, replacing the word “imagination” with “God.”
The meaning is unchanged.
Here are some things we know about imagination:
Neuroscience tells us that, while our brains don’t create the physical world outside our heads, they do create and sustain 100% of our experience of that world. We can never know the outside world directly, only our inner, mental (imagined) representation of it.
Some philosophers suggest that, not just our inner representation, but the physical world itself, could be created and sustained by our minds.
We all know from experience that imagination creates and sustains whole worlds every night in our dreams.
Is God imagination? Is imagination God?
Don’t rush to answer. Live with the question awhile.
Just imagine where it might take you.
All images CC0 license via Pixabay.
Thanks for reading!