Spirituality and the Imagination
For the majority of human history and in cultures around the world, creativity was the province not of humanity but the gods.
Prior to the Middle Ages, humans had relatively little concept of thinking without a god’s help. Much of our behavior, from finding food to running from tigers, was attributed to animal instincts. Any fancier head-work, from writing a lyric to building a castle, was prompted by a god. As Plato, among many others, explained in his dialogue Ion:
“The poet composes not from knowledge or art, but by divine inspiration.”
The word inspiration itself comes from the Latin word inspīrāre, which means to breathe in or on. When a god or divine power decided to blow an idea into a loyal follower, that human was said to be inspired so they could act on the idea to manifest it on Earth.
Open to anyone with a soul
Initially, anyone could receive such inspiration, which frequently came in in the form of a dream. The imagination wasn’t a capacity we could invoke on our own but more of a passive receiver for divine messages, the part of the human mind where those inspirations were received, like a windsock — or a radio receiver tuned to a station.
The ideas received — whether prophetic, poetic, or practical — were gifts from the ultimate Creator. That imaginative capacity to be inspired was considered one of our most direct routes to divine power(s).
This idea reflects more than the common experience that ideas sometimes strike “out of the blue” (heavens) rather than coming organically from within. The concept of divine inspiration also acknowledged that creativity itself was a divine power, one bestowed, borrowed — or stolen. As creativity expert Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi notes:
“For most of human history, creativity was held to be a prerogative of supreme beings.”
The recognition that humans, too, can create, is one interpretation of being “made in God’s image.” Because human creativity was a key differentiator between people and animals, the imagination was considered a function of the soul, which traditionally also distinguished people from animals.
The squelching of inspiration
This understanding of ideas and how we get them remained almost unquestioned for more than a thousand years, stretching back beyond recorded history in the West. (It reached back even longer in the oral traditions of some Eastern cultures.) There wasn’t even a word in most languages for someone we’d call an inventor today. The English verb “invent” comes from a Latin word that means to encounter or find, not one for creating. People who got great new ideas, along with the prophets and the poets, were the bridges between what humans could know and the higher truths known to gods and distributed to people as the gods saw fit.
The English verb “invent” comes from a Latin word that means to encounter or find, not one for creating.
Then monotheistic theocracies came to power in the Western world. Initially, church leaders embraced inspiration’s longstanding tradition, whether for prophecy or more mundane ideas. Influential Catholic scholar Thomas Aquinas claimed that while angels delivered prophecies to the prophets:
“The same Spirit who hovered over the waters at the beginning of creation hovers over the mind of the artist at work.”
Clerical embrace of imagination receded as the centuries wore on. In the effort to stamp out pagan beliefs and control their own doctrines, Christianity and Islam altered people’s traditional relationships with the divine. Ordinary people no longer needed sudden inspirations or prophetic dreams. The Bible or the Qur’an had been provided instead, along with priests who could control their interpretation.
Anyone who claimed to be inspired risked being seen as a challenge to leaders’ authority.
Control was probably key. Inspiration, divine or otherwise, often feels out of our control. Both political and religious organizations gain power by enforcing control, not by encouraging anyone to escape it. Eventually, anyone who claimed to be inspired risked being seen as a challenge to leaders’ authority.
Under attack, and not by demons
Eventually, the whole concept of the imagination came under attack. Augustine of Hippo, an influential scholar, bishop, and saint, was one of the first philosophers writing in Latin to consistently use the word imaginatio, Latin for imagination. He made it clear he considered imaginatio a threat to the soul.
Scholars debated, of course. Why would any god give humans a creative imagination if we weren’t supposed to use it? But over time the imagination increasingly represented either sinful temptations (notably lust), or a source of creative power that humans had stolen from God as part of original sin. Either way, the imagination became associated not with gods but with demons.
The imagination goes underground
But it wasn’t easy to get people to abandon entrenched beliefs. For starters, experience defied dogma. People of all faiths continued to be inspired, both with spiritual visions and artistic or inventive impulses. They simply had to be careful about who got the credit.
Christians, for instance, were typically made to believe that as sinners, they were unworthy of hearing directly from God the way early Jews had. So instead they increasingly credited a growing list of saints who acted as go-betweens.
Soon the imagination was blamed for everything from demonic possession to birth defects.
Ironically, notable monks, priests, and nuns who were later named saints became famous in part because they had visions. Others weren’t so lucky. Many mystics were tried as heretics and burned at the stake. Soon the imagination was being blamed for everything from witchcraft and demonic possession to birth defects. And not in the sense that possession was an imagined affliction but that the victim’s imagination had opened a door to very real demons.
Only as the grip of Western theocracies waned in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, with reason, science, and more secular governments taking their place, have humans largely — though not entirely — abandoned the idea of either divine or demonic inspiration. The Enlightenment and Age of Reason largely dismissed supernatural influences and assigned credit for ideas, good or bad, primarily to human creativity.
A stubbornly enduring perception
Yet not only artists but scientists stubbornly continue to credit supernatural sources for breakthroughs.
Isaac Newton, widely considered one of the most influential scientists of all time, liked to quote an ancient Egyptian author who’d said, “I had this art and science by the sole inspiration of God.” Similarly, Johannes Kepler wrote that the geometry he used to help establish that the Earth revolved around the Sun had been “implanted” into him by God.
And Renaissance expert Catherine Atkinson, who has traced the development of the notion of invention, wrote:
“What is an invention? An idea, an intuition, an insight into the workings of nature. Whether humanly or divinely inspired, inventions are ideas that are potent enough to change how humans experience life, society, and their natural surroundings.”
Toward a modern embrace of divine inspiration
In fact, a modern understanding of the imagination leaves room for both intellectual and spiritual explanations. As Daniel B. Smith, the author of a book about hallucinations, notes:
Phenomena such as trances, ecstasies, visions, and voices can be considered to have a metaphysical claim — that they come from God — but they manifest themselves in the physical world, in the realms of biology, chemistry, neurology, and genetics.
Just because science can explain inspiration in terms of electrical activity in the brain doesn’t invalidate it as a gift from the divine. Millions of people around the world today still believe fully in divinely inspired prophecy — when those prophecies come from their religion and prophets. The ideas one person calls divine inspiration, of course, can be pure human invention to somebody else.
Whether any given idea is a product of supernatural inspiration or a purely human imagination is mostly opinion.
Indeed, our word choice is sometimes determined by how much we value the result of an idea. If we like it, we’re more likely to credit “inspiration.” If not, we’ll probably blame imagination, which frequently carries a dismissive taint — a legacy of the days when demons used our imaginations to lead us astray or, at best, waste time on pointless daydreams.
Whether any given idea is a product of supernatural inspiration or a purely human imagination is mostly opinion. Honestly, does it matter?
Today an entire industry seeks the keys to creativity and inspiration. Sociologists also have pointed out a “growing interest in things visionary throughout Western culture in the last several decades.” This interest manifests in activities ranging from religious groups who practice speaking in tongues (known as glossolalia)… to ayahuasca retreats… to the creative sprint known as National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) each November.
Historically, efforts to prompt inspiration meant praying or sitting in quiet meditation and carefully awaiting a voice, feeling, impression, or idea. This ability to listen, to open ourselves, was our natural connection with a greater spiritual world.
The same techniques work today, with the benefit of scientific support. Meditation has been shown to increase divergent thinking, the key to new ideas.
Research also has shown that quiet listening can be most productive after we’ve steeped ourselves in a problem or opportunity, doing the hard work of understanding context, techniques, and objectives. With that foundation in place, divergent thinking builds from there, mixing and matching ingredients to create new connections.
Thus brain scientists have confirmed Coleridge, who noted nearly two centuries ago that “imagination is the faculty that perceives connections, creates combinations and extrapolates from these to new insights.”
And since researchers also have demonstrated that having more ideas helps to ensure some that are better, sheer persistence is helpful. That means devoting ourselves — like acolytes and clerics — to attending the divine voice we seek.
“Blessed are those ears that receive the whispers of the divine voice, and listen not to the whisperings of the world.” — Thomas a Kempis, 15th century German monk
When it comes to courting our muses, there’s room for both.
Joni Sensel writes for Fortune 100 companies, young readers, and you. Read more of her work on Medium:
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