The Power of a Theological Imagination

One of the perks of my work is that occasionally I get invited to write a back-cover endorsement for a new book.  I always love these opportunities:  I get to read a manuscript of some interesting book before it comes out in print, and try to offer a pithy, inviting endorsement.  It’s so much fun!
 
I’m in the midst of one such project now, reading through Body Parts:  A Theological Anthropology, by Michelle Voss Roberts. Roberts is a comparative theologian who works with Hinduism and Christianity, and in this book, she is bringing the non-dual Saivism of Kashmir to bear on a Christian understanding of the imago Dei, with a particular focus on bodies. 
 
I’ve enjoying the whole work enormously, but, at this particular moment in time, in my own life and in the life of the world right now, I was particularly struck by her discussion of imagination in chapter four (“The Limited Body”)  Without going into the whole argument, in this chapter she lifts up the importance of “practices of imagination,” which she argues can expand “the capacity to recognize the image of God in all people.  This is hard, of course, and she cites James Cone’s indictment of Reinhold Niebuhr, who, in spite of his genius, failed to apply his theological imagination to the challenging issues of racism, both in Detroit and New York City.  Cone says that Niebuhr lacked “imagination of the most crucial and moral kind”–even as Niebuhr called for Christians to exercise imagination in order to see and interpret the “terrible beauty” of the cross.
 
In response, Roberts argues that we must practice the theological discipline of imagination–“The imagination is like a muscle that must be exercised”–and one of the key ways we do this is to acknowledge our own limitations, our own biases, in order to disrupt our usual ways of seeing and thinking, and be drawn into a posture of shared vulnerability and communal transformation.  Obviously, this is the work of the Holy Spirit in us, but we certainly can participate–cooperate, even–in this divine work.  This work is both exciting and critical, in that it opens new possibilities that never would have occurred to us on our own, that we never would have dared dream without divine inspiration.
 
I said this insight struck me in particular given life in the contemporary US and global culture.  Personally, I am finding imagination a stretch.  I am feeling more than a little discouraged about certain kinds of discourse and values that seem to be dominating right now, and imagination feels just beyond my reach.  So, I really appreciated this reminder than when we put imagination in a theological context, we confess that, first and foremost, God is the great imaginer–the one who sees things in us, both individually and communally, we could never envision for ourselves.  And, even better–not only does God see those things, God “lures” us toward them, toward embodying them, toward embracing God’s dreams for us as our own.  God’s imagination is wondrous, daring, awe-inspiring, and radically inclusive–and, of course, powered by passionate love.  Who wouldn’t want to be a part of something like that, such a force for good in a world that desperately needs it.
 
Where God is dreaming, hope lives; where God is casting imagination, we are invited to come along and give ourselves over to this divine vision of love, inclusion and transformation.  God’s imagination is always at work, always creating; and when my own vision seems so narrow, at the very least, I can trust in that.

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