“You have to imagine it possible before you can see something. You can have the evidence right in front of you, but if you can’t imagine something that has never existed before, it’s impossible.”
- Rita Dove, poet.
“As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew casting a net into the sea – for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ And immediately they left their nets and followed him.” – Mark 1:16-18.
One of the greatest gifts given to us by the Creator is the ability to imagine. I understand imagination to be the human ability to empathically engage in ethical visioning, to conceive of a different way of being, living, thinking, and acting that promotes and strengthens God’s Kingdom. Imagination is what separates us from the rest of creation; imagination points to the Imago Dei, the “image[ination] of God.”
But the poet Rita Dove indicates that employing our imagination is difficult, arduous, and even potentially dangerous, because “imagining something that has never existed before” inherently threatens the status quo. I envy those for whom imaginative tasks come easy; I have to work at imagining. But I believe that reclaiming our imaginations, both individually and collectively, is invaluable for faithful United Methodists seeking a Via Media for the church. And perhaps, in utilizing our own imaginative capabilities, we can begin to see the Imago Dei present in other people, even people with whom we disagree.
When Jesus walked along the shore of the Sea of Galilee and called to those brothers Simon and Andrew, his call was, essentially, for them to use their imaginations. “Follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fish for people.” Jesus took an occupation with which Simon and Andrew were deeply familiar, but he asked them to use their imaginations to participate in a different sort of fishing. Something in his call prompted Simon and Andrew to immediately drop their nets and follow; maybe Simon and Andrew were adept imaginers. Jesus did this all throughout his ministry; he took something familiar to his audience (a mustard seed, salt, a coin, a fig tree) and flipped it inside out and upside down, imaginatively re-appropriating the ordinary in service to the Kingdom of God. Sadly, those who he taught were often confused, their imaginative skills much like the chicken in the above cartoon: unable to conceive of something new.
What if we United Methodists started imagining again? Imagination is in our DNA; I cannot read John Wesley without being amazed at his theological and pastoral innovation. Our polity was a creative response to an ever-changing nation. If we started imagining again, what would our discourse look like? Would the polarization that so many of us feel be as acute? How could we, as individuals and as the church together, employ imagination and all its corollaries – artistry, creativity, beauty – as we live together in deep, sometimes difficult difference? If we can’t imagine anything other than the current climate of The United Methodist Church, then, as Rita Dove indicates, something else is impossible to attain.
One last thought about imagination. In his 2013 State of the Union Address, President Barack Obama said the following: “But we have always understood that when times change, so must we; that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges; that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.” Faithful United Methodists realize that the call to engage in imaginative fishing – “new responses to new challenges” – means seeking the greater good of the whole body, because it is only when the entire body is healthy that the individual thrives. The task of the Middle Way, the Via Media, is to prayerfully engage in imaginative dialogue and to creatively think of new ways of fishing. Let’s imagine together.