Any talk about one’s mission must account for basic information. A simple illustration might help. Before mobile navigation devices, I was traveling in unfamiliar territory and looking for a place to mail a birthday card. I asked the clerk at a burger stand how to get to the nearest post office. Without hesitation, she asked: “From here?” It was instantly clear how this simple transaction might have overlooked cascading assumptions. I received wisdom and directions for the price of a cup of coffee.
In today’s conversations about management or ministry, we plot present location, dispositions and resources as part of goal setting (discernment, if you will). Because of the communal nature of activity, we should account for similar information among individuals and groups. In fact, we do not start from scratch, but arrive equipped with references provided by reports, experience or varieties of vicarious knowledge. The last bit combines data alloyed with an understanding of how a manner of thinking reveals or obscures our facts. This is only one way of describing imagination, setting it apart from works of fantasy. Imagination helps to make information accessible and to construct ways of sharing it.
If I allow myself an assumption, it is that human beings have a shared capacity, more or less developed, for sharing ideas. For any who hold that our existence has purpose and meaning, individually and socially, imagination plays an important role. It is more than a tool, and the quality of its operation sets human beings apart from other sentient creatures.
A comprehensive dissection of effective ministry exposes the imagination’s organic contribution. For good reason, admittance interviews with people interested in the helping professions, perforce ministry, should verify an aptitude for imagination directly or indirectly. Why? Because imagination ignites or enhances capacities for perception, sympathy, communion and mission.
Any Christian person must be able to spot goodness and have ways to distinguish it from external goods such as power, position or security. Both pastoral and political environments address the distinction that ancient Plato examines in his The Republic, or that Christ illuminates in meetings with public officials. These ancient conversations place us in the scene with great educators, focusing our contemporary perceptions.
The art of creative imagination aids the common good not by inventing fantasy, but by enabling sympathy. Ministry has to value ordinary life, precisely because there is nothing ordinary about it. The shortest sentence in the Scriptures, “Jesus wept,” should invite us to see what he did, and how.
Most human beings seek a communion with people and with God, if given both permission and a path. Works of imagination become bridges to the good, true and beautiful. These works become tests that might separate central values from peripheral desires. Imagination about our humanity shines in many media and is pursued by hungry audiences. Recall a bookish student in the movie about C. S. Lewis titled Shadowlands. This young witness for communion says simply, “I read to know that I am not alone.”
As with my search for a post office, our religious mission to the world requires that we recognize our own starting point, and that of others. Good tools are necessary so that we can state a goal, but also uncover unhelpful biases or invisible allegiances. Active imagination provides forensic tools that help to see the rules, facts and circumstances that enfold us in dynamic tension. And it likewise enables us to see that the people and institutions that we encounter have other ways of being that require some acknowledgement, if not agreement or comprehension.
Imagination has its own logic, but, like grace, it does not always move in a straight line. I have always appreciated skilled guides to help me spot the trail. I think you, too, will enjoy these writers who can spy imagination’s possibilities and products in the service of faith’s mission.
Bishop Timothy L. Doherty
Diocese of Lafayette-in-Indiana