Fantasy, Spirituality, and the Power of the Imagination (Part 1)

Corcovado jesus

Corcovado jesus (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

I had an epiphany today when reading a short, silly post on Google+ by an atheist that addressed Jesus-worshipers (Christians mostly, I’d imagine) and referred to the ostensible founder of their religion as “your imaginary friend who was never there for you.” After reading that and undergoing my epiphany, I decided to write this blog post on the power of the imagination.

The imagination is very powerful indeed, and because of this many people fear it and want to keep it contained and restrained. Because of that fear, and really for no other reason (as the idea is utterly preposterous on any logical level), many people mistakenly believe that the categories “imaginary” and “real” are mutually exclusive. They are not; in fact, everything in the “imaginary” category is also in the “real” category, although the reverse is not true. (That is to say, there are real things that are not imaginary, but there are no imaginary things that are not real.)

When we say that something is “real,” what do we mean?

There is more than one possible meaning to the word, actually. We may say that something is “real” to indicate that it is genuine: precisely what it pretends to be, not a counterfeit or a fake. We may also say that something is “real” to indicate that it is substantial, consequential, in existence. These two meanings are completely distinct; something can be “real” in the second sense but not in the first. For example, a painter might create a fake copy of the Mona Lisa. If he did, his copy would be “real” in the second sense; it would be a material object, take up space, be composed of substances, have consequence. But it would not be “real” in the first sense: it would not be the real Mona Lisa.

It’s the second sense of “real” that I’m concerned with here, not the first.  By calling Jesus an “imaginary friend,” the fellow whose post provoked my epiphany clearly intended to imply that Jesus was not real, and just as clearly he did not mean the “genuine” sense of real. (Actually that would be a sounder criticism; I doubt very much whether the Jesus imagined and invoked by most Christians bears a lot of resemblance to the prophetic fellow who wore that name a couple of thousand years ago in Judea. But never mind.) He meant that Jesus does not exist. (At least not in the present day.)

Now this isn’t an uncommon assertion as far as it goes; atheists define themselves in terms of the nonexistence of other people’s gods. What provoked my epiphany was not the idea conveyed  but rather the turn of phrase used to convey it: he called Jesus an imaginary friend.

And he meant to imply by this that Jesus is not real.

And that means that his thinking hinged on claiming that the imagination itself is not real!

And that, dear readers, is the very blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, the unforgiveable sin, the abyss of unknowing and blindness, the emasculation of the soul, the evisceration of art, and attempted genocide against all that defines us as human beings, nay, as animals and not plants!

Am I being too harsh? I don’t believe so, no. Look around you. Unless you happen to be camped out in the wilderness, all or most of what you see is made, directly or indirectly, by human beings. That means that every bit of it existed first in the imagination, before it was made manifest on the physical plane.

Who excels at any creative endeavor, be it artistic, commercial, or scientific? Those plentifully endowed with imagination or those who harshly suppress it as not real?

Look at the greatest scientists of history. I don’t mean your average scientist. The typical scientist is a plodder, a mere number-cruncher engaged in cautious, unimaginative research on behalf of a corporation or a university. Such people are never in the news, never associated with any great discoveries (because they make none), and when they die, are remembered only by their friends and family. What distinguishes a great scientist from the common pedestrian sort is nothing else but imagination — and the courage to follow the imagination into unlikely territory, again and again, until they find they have imagined something true.

The same goes for artists, rather more obviously. Now, granted a scientist must also exercise methodical rigor and mathematical precision, while an artist must exercise craft with the medium of his art and a willingness to revise and correct. But these latter qualities define a mediocre artist or scientist; they set all scientists or artists, good or poor, off from non-scientists and non-artists. What distinguishes the great from the mediocre in either pursuit is imagination.

What, in the end, does “real” even imply? Does it not imply that the thing in question can be experienced (at least potentially)? It may be seen, heard, felt, smelled, tasted. Well, the imaginary can be experienced as well. In fact, imaginary entities are not uncommonly more compelling in their immediate reality than anything in the non-imaginary world competing for attention.

Which brings us back to Jesus, the imaginary friend. Does that phrase describe Jesus as he is worshiped by those who worship him? Indeed it does. Whether the historical human Jesus actually rose from the dead and continues to be alive (or even whether he existed in the first place) is irrelevant to that question; even if there was a Jesus and he is still alive, the fact remains that the only experience the believer has of him is imaginary in nature. There is no way to verify that the imaginary experience of Jesus encountered in prayer is of Jesus as he is today in his risen form.

But just the same, it does not follow that this imaginary friend was “never there” for the worshiper. Of course he was there! An imaginary friend is always there — unless one becomes afraid of one’s imagination and suppresses it, condemning oneself to a life of mediocrity.

The imagination, particularly when one is imagining something cosmic like a deity (or a man who was a deity, or even a man who became a deity), has power to move mountains — at least inward ones. The imagination comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. It inspires, awakens, and teaches. In the case of the believer, the imaginary Jesus has a powerful impact on his or her peace of mind and behavior. And that means that, although imaginary, he is very real indeed.

I shall have more to say on this subject next week.

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Filed under Fantasy Storytelling, Spirituality

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