Have we lost the virtue of imagination?

What sustains those who hunger and thirst for justice, who are peace activists in the dust and confusion of social discord? What enables a young mother to leave security of home and participate in the hazardous work of social transformation? Again, we turn to Jesus with these questions in mind. It is not long into a reading of the gospels, especially the gospel of Mark, to be struck by how Jesus seemed to live free of the inhibitions human beings normally wrestle with. His words and actions were not constrained by societal norms, his very life seemed unhindered by our human anxiety to conform. Jesus was radically counter-cultural, and those who witnessed the freedom of his ideals became inspired.

What Jesus possessed was a holy imagination. He lived in the reality of a world yet to come. He not only believed in the possibility of the kingdom of God, he actually saw what it looked like, how it felt, how it tasted. Imagination, as we’ll explore further in a minute, is more than hope. Imagination gives flesh to hope. It wraps hope up in the material. It gives hope colour and concreteness. It gives hope creative direction. Imagination moves our hands to mold hope into a tangible shape. Imagination becomes the blueprint to how we live the spiritual virtue of hope in our everyday lives.

James Keenan, a professor at Boston College, discusses the ‘virtue’ of imagination in his book, Jesus and Virtue Ethics. He reflects on how we lose this moral imagination by our pre-occupation of certain virtues and our neglect of others:

“Our school of theology was once located on a campus in Weston, Massachusetts, that now serves as a renewal center and infirmary. It features a cavernous granite chapel designed for the Jesuit students who studied there from 1930 to 1970. Each window is dedicated to a virtue: chastity, long-suffering endurance, temperance, courage, patience, meekness, obedience, hope. Nowhere do we see joy, love, imagination, friendship, gratitude, justice, magnanimity, and so on. Imagine a young Jesuit praying there fifty years ago. Every one of his affective urges would have been tempered and channeled by the virtues depicted on the windows. The message in the chapel was “Subdue! Submit! Submerge!” There was no encouragement to see oneself as unique yet relational, and as invited to promote the gospel creatively.” (p.27, italics mine)

With regard to the kind of character Jesus calls us to live, Keenan goes on to make this point:

“This setting helps us to see that we cannot promote just any virtue. Rather, we ought to ask ourselves, What type of people ought we to become? From that answer we can begin to determine the appropriate virtues.” (p.27)

Keenan leads us to the most essential question, what does it mean to be human? Ultimately, the virtues by which we choose to live define who we are, they define our humanity. Erwin McManus, a creative pastor, filmmaker, and author from Los Angeles, argues that the most essential of human virtues is imagination, one that he laments humans too often overlook. McManus speaks powerfully to the need to reclaim this virtue for our lives.I highly encourage you to view his brief but inspiring message on the TEDx stage in San Diego:


McManus is passionately calling us to reclaim a moral imagination. By that I mean an imagination that is shaped by the virtues of love, justice, hope, and peace. McManus recognizes imagination as being a unique and essential aspect of human being which needs good people to have the courage to use it for good. At the conclusion of his message, McManus declares:

“If you give me love and imagination I can change the world. You see I am convinced that what we as human bring that is different from every other species on this planet, is in the same way that bees create hives and ants create colonies, humans create futures. And what we often times underestimate is the human capacity to create a future that the world desperately needs. You see evil men do not wait for permission to create what they imagine. But good people keep responding to the future as if we have no control over what is coming into the human story. We need to realize it is time for us to embrace our responsibility, that we have been imagined to imagine, created to create, and that we are all works of art, and artists at work.”

McManus is echoing language at the heart of the Hebrew creation story. He is returning us to the essence of who we are. Our imagination is inexorably connected to the creative work of caring for creation God entrusted to us. Our imagination is what guides us in cultivating the world around us, in shaping culture that fosters interdependence and peace.

When Jesus invited people to imagine the kingdom of God, he did so using the most practical metaphors. Jesus wanted people to see, hear, and taste the Kingdom along with him. He wanted people to imagine the Kingdom in the most practical of terms. The future, in fact, was something they could experience now, concretely. Jesus enabled people to see, touch, hear, and taste the kingdom of God along with him. They literally could imagine heaven on earth!

Which leads us to the final thought. Imagination is a virtue because it must be cultivated and practiced, and in so doing it becomes part of our habits and character. How do we go about practicing imagination? How do we get better at it? Very simply, follow where prayer leads. Jesus taught us to pray:

“May your kingdom come, may your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

To pray those words is to cultivate within our hearts a moral imagination. We are imagining heaven on earth, the kingdom coming, and it all being accomplished as we live according to God’s will. Prayer is the way to open our eyes and guide our feet to another world that is not only possible, but already here.


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