Imagination: Root of All Evil or Gateway to Hope?

Jean Jacques Rousseau tells us a story of how the inequality we observe in the world around us came to be.  As his story goes, man in the original state of nature is preoccupied with meeting his basic needs which are largely biological.  But we eventually move past this initial state of sustenance survival as we imagine the expansion of our needs.  We start to build communities around pursuing these expanded ideas of needs, and some of us emerge as leaders.  In the process, esteem becomes a valued good, because we start to compare ourselves with others in our community. 

Our imagination of ourselves is formed in comparison with the others in our community, and our need for esteem pushes us toward manipulating the people and systems around us.  We build political systems that cement our desire for esteem in the eyes of our peers.  In this account, imagination is the root of all evil.  We are creative creatures, and we imagine the expansion of our needs to the extent that we justify manipulating the people around us and structures in which we are embedded just so we can achieve these imagined needs. Imagination leads to the corruption of society, cemented in institutions.

Abraham Kuyper tells us a different story of the development of society.  At the moment of creation, we have both individuals with unique endowments and the potential for structures in which we will eventually be embedded.  This potential is rooted in the fact that God created us to be social creatures who gravitate toward community.  We live in the reality that the fall has corrupted the oneness that God intended, but we also engage in community that is part of the creational order.  A series of overlapping spheres eventually emerge that characterize our lives of community.  Unlike Rousseau, Kuyper does not see these spheres, and the institutions connected with them, as corrupting society or cementing inequality.  Rather, God endows us with creative freedom to pursue renewal in within those spheres.

What role does imagination play in the redemptive account of the development of society?  More importantly, what is the role of imagination as we continue to engage in community within overlapping spheres of engagement?  Is imagination the root of all evil, or can imagination be a gateway to hope? 

Longing and Imagination

The difference between the redemptive and secular accounts of the development of society hinge on the connection between longing and imagination.  We could say that longing is the boundary conditions for our imagination, because our longings determine the posture of our hearts in imagining what is possible.  In Rousseau’s account, we long to survive and have our basic needs met.  Because our posture of longing is focused inward, toward our own satisfaction, our imagination is also focused on how our own needs can be expanded.  We imagine needs that are no longer just purely biological – as we become increasingly social, so does our imagination of what we need in those relationships.  But ultimately, because we long for things that fulfill us as individuals and meet our needs, we have incentive to manipulate relationships and associations to fit our needs.  Because our longings are selfish, our imagination corrupts our relationships. 

What role does imagination play in the redemptive account of the development of society?

But in the redemptive account, we have a dual longing that is driving our imaginative capacity.  We still long to survive and have our basic needs met.  That longing can be just as selfish as in the previous account because sin has corrupted our ability to see beyond ourselves.  But because of grace, present in the creation even after the fall, we also have a longing to understand our place in God’s larger story.  We all know that we have a place in the redemption and renewal of God’s world.  In other words, we have a role in setting things right.  All humans live in the tension between imagining how our individual needs might be met, and desiring to activate our imaginations in efforts to make the world a better place.  In this account, imagination can be used for good or for evil – it can feed off our sinful nature to disastrous outcomes, or it can activate our creativity as we collaborate toward solutions to the complex problems of the world. 

Imagination as a Gateway to Hope

Whether or not imagination serves as a gateway to hope is largely dependent upon the posture of our longing.  As Christians, we have a calling to be outward focused – to long not just for our own comfort but for the redemption of the people, relationships, institutions, and structures that compose the world.  But the longing for change is not exclusively a Christian desire.  Because of common grace, visible signs of God’s design in all of creation, even those outside the realm of special grace (non-Christians) still desire for things to be made right in the world.  The reason Christians have such a special role to fill in God’s redemption and renewal of creation is that God has graciously shaped our hearts and minds through the gospel to understand His ultimate goals.  God draws us into His work and makes it a part of our very identity to pursue redemption and renewal.  The gospel becomes both the boundary of our imagination and the spark that lights our imagination.  Because of this fact, our imagination gives us hope to persevere even when faced with almost certain failure, because through the gospel we can imagine how a redeemed world might look.

 In closing, I want to offer an example of how longing, imagination, the gospel, and grace all work together to provide solutions to seemingly hopeless situations.  The Association for a More Just Society (AJS) is a small non-profit organization in Honduras that was founded through a collaboration between two Christians, an American named Kurt ver Beek and a Honduran named Carlos Hernandez.  These two men lived in the most dangerous neighborhood in all of Honduras, a country that is known as the murder capital of the world.  When murders in this community happened, they were rarely ever investigated, and the perpetrators were almost never brought to justice. The people in the community did not trust the police, because of police complicity in crime and corruption.  The police in the community did not trust the people because residents’ fear of reprisal drove them to recant testimony and refuse to serve as witnesses.  These two men watched family after family suffer as the murder rate in their community continued to rise.

Both these men longed for their families to be safe. The desire for self-preservation in situations like this often cripples our imagination through fear or corrupts our imagination through self-focus.  But these men believed they had been called to engage in God’s vision for redemption and restoration in their community.  The story of how they imagined their community differently and set out to achieve that dream is greater than the space I have in this short commentary.  But one of the most remarkable keys to their success was combining a strategy of shaming officials who were not fulfilling their duties with a strategy of appealing to common humanity’s understanding of right and wrong. Ultimately, the components of their story apply to all of us who are seeking to understand our place in God’s larger story.

These men faced almost certain failure.  Their neighborhood was the most dangerous, within one of the most dangerous countries in the world.  They had a strong need for self-protection that had the capacity to render them more inwardly than outwardly focused.  They felt called to engage in God’s work of redemption and restoration, despite these conditions.  They imagined what an effective solution might look like in the face of almost certain failure, and they collaborated toward that solution.  Perhaps most importantly, they engaged others’ imaginations toward a solution by appealing to what God, through common grace, has stamped on all of creation – a desire for justice.  

When imagination is activated by an inward-focused longing for personal survival or comfort, or worse, used to consider how we can compete with our neighbors, it is corrupted and distorted.  In that way, imagination can become the root of evil because it is divorced from what God created us to do.  But imagination, when activated by a longing for a redeemed and restored world, has the potential to be a gateway to hope.  It helps us imagine the world as a better place, and it helps us collaborate toward creative solutions to that end.  More than just agents of renewal, imagination equips us to be agents of hope. 

 -Becca McBride is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Calvin College, in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  Her research focuses on investigating how politics influence states’ efforts to control intercountry adoption, and how advocacy organizations influence state policy on adoption.  She has a PhD in Political Science from Vanderbilt University and an MA in Russian, Eurasian, and East European Studies from Georgetown University.