Awakening Our Imagination

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Yahweh saw that human wickedness was great on the earth, and that the thoughts in his heart fashioned nothing but wickedness all day long. Yahweh regretted having made humans on the earth, and Yahweh’s heart grieved. “I will rid the earth’s face of humanity, my own creation,” Yahweh said, “and of animals also, reptiles too, and the birds of heaven; for I regret having made them.”
Genesis 6: 5-7

“Do you not yet understand or grasp what has happened? Is the heart of all of you still hardened? Do you not have eyes and not really see, and ears and not really hear?  And don’t you remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of fragments did you take up?”
Mark 8: 17-19

For those of us living in a world threatened by a climate change that is the product of human avarice, the biblical story of Noah is powerfully resonant. It is impossible to remain naïve about human selfishness and greed when we live with the reality of a threatened human environment of our own making and still refuse to be awakened and converted. How is it possible that we human beings can be so care-less of our posterity that we refuse to adjust our ways of living in order to preserve the possibility of human life for our descendants?

Today’s gospel passage is one of the most cryptic and difficult in Mark’s gospel. Why is Jesus’s anger evoked by the disciples bringing a single loaf of bread with them? What is the leaven of the Pharisees and of Herod that threatens them? What is it precisely that has happened in the multiplication of the loaves that they do not understand?Without claiming to definitively know the answer to these questions, perhaps we can see the lack of understanding as related to the sinfulness of humanity from Noah to ourselves.

When Jesus broke the loaves, there was not only enough bread for the five thousand but there was also an abundant surplus. The nature of God’s creation is abundance and surplus. There is more than enough for everyone. That is not, however, how we human beings perceive it. We are always fearing lack. We tend to believe that there is not enough for all, and so what others take or need is somehow depriving us. We believe that we must make sure to take our share of the pie before it disappears. As Americans, we continue to use a disproportionate amount of the earth’s wealth and resources, far beyond what is necessary for a good life. We then take this “lion’s share” to be our right. We can no longer see the truth that God provides enough for all of us. It is we who create the scarcity in our greed and acquisitiveness.

As Lent approaches may God strengthen our “eyes to see and ears to hear” the reality of creation. May we in some small ways change our habits of living, so that our life may more fully reflect the voluntary poverty and simplicity that will leave, after we are fed, enough baskets of food, air, water remaining for all the inhabitants of the world, present and future.

The term “imagination” in what I take to be its truest sense refers to a mental faculty that some people have used and thought about with the utmost seriousness. The sense of the verb “to imagine” contains the full richness of the verb “to see.” To imagine is to see most clearly, familiarly, and understandingly with the eyes, but also to see inwardly, with “the mind’s eye.” It is to see, not passively, but with a force of vision and even with visionary force. To take it seriously we must give up at once any notion that imagination is disconnected from reality or truth or knowledge. It has nothing to do either with clever imitation of appearances or with “dreaming up.”

I will say from my own belief and experience, that imagination thrives on contact, on tangible connections. For humans to have a responsible relationship to the world, they must imagine their places in it. To have a place, to live and belong in a place, to live from a place without destroying it, we must imagine it. By imagination we see it illuminated by its own unique character and by our love for it. By imagination we recognize with sympathy the fellow members, human and nonhuman, with whom we share our place. By that local experience we see the need to grant a sort of preemptive sympathy to all the fellow members, the neighbors, with whom we share the world. As imagination enables sympathy, sympathy enables affection. And in affection we find the possibility of a neighborly, kind, and conserving economy.

Wendell Berry, It All Turns on Affection, p. 14

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