Is God Against the Imagination?

Is God against the imagination? Curiously, many people respond with an affirmative yes. The second of the Ten Commandments – which asks us to not adore any image of God or of any other being – seems to imply so. If we are not allowed to use own imagination for the most sacred of purposes, is it forbidden then, or polluted? And what does this negative perspective imply for our art?

Obviously, there is nothing inherently wrong with the imagination. One glance at the world God created reveals the wonder of imagination—of what can be created out of nothing. God is a creative God, who conceived shrimps before the oceans existed, and who made us creative beings as well. Imagination has given birth to the works of Shakespeare, the art of Picasso, medical advancements, and technology. Any invention – of electricity, roller coasters, or the smart mop of the infomercial – depends on a previous mental picture of what the final object will be like.

Yet, while imagination can be a wonderful and powerful thing, it can also be destructive. Like every human gift, it can be used for good or for harm. For example, there is an increasing market for clinics and counselors set up to help children cope with internet and video game addiction. These children are so wrapped up in the imaginary world that they are unable to cope with and participate in reality. A more subtle, but equally harmful phenomenon occurs when we maintain an inaccurate view of ourselves, be it an image that is too positive, too negative, or just distorted, and can’t seem to see our potentials and limitations objectively.

The complexity arises when we attempt to conceive of a God whom we cannot see face to face. Though God gives us tools in Scripture to better know and understand his character, we must to some extent rely on our imaginations to conceive of him. The problem; however, is not that we conjure an image, but that we create a God in our minds who is limited to what we want him to be. For some of us, we grab hold of the notion of a loving father, but ignore the aspects of a wrathful God of justice. For others, we cling to the God of the Law, but flee from the emotional aspects of a God who would die for his people. We place limits on God’s character by making him into a God who serves our needs and ideals.

Instead of a condemnation of the imagination, the second commandment brings us instead to reflect about who our God is, how have we come to conceive him, and, more importantly, if we are atheists or skeptics, who is the God we have rejected. Why is it that we strive to create a God who is limited to our own faculties? Should we not want a God who is bigger than our minds can conceive of—who is more than we are?  If we worship a God who is merely what we can conceive or want him to be, than are we not simply worshipping ourselves?

The issue the second commandment appears to address is not our imaginative powers per se – which are a wonderful gift of God, and which fosters beauty and art and epic stories and good thinking. The issue, however, is about how we construct our idols by means of how we conceive of God. Essentially, this commandment cautions us to be careful with our own personal projections, lest we become incapable of visualizing the true God, behind the colourful yet inaccurate image we’ve made of Him.

Michael Keller heads City Campus Ministry, at Redeemer Presbyterian Church, in New York, United States.

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4 responses to “Is God Against the Imagination?

  1. Before I read this, I was wondering if making up a world for a novel was against God’s commandments. You have truly inspired me. Thank you!

  2. Thanks, Michael. We clearly need more writing and discussion and action on the imagination and the arts as you are doing here – bring it on.
    Isn’t it interesting that – as you rightly point out- “…while imagination can be a wonderful and powerful thing, it can also be destructive. Like every human gift, it can be used for good or for harm.” And so there has been over-cautious limitation, even neglect of imagination’s role in proclaiming the gospel, building faith and deepening discipleship.

    However, just as much we could say “… Reason and Intellect can be a wonderful and powerful thing, it can also be destructive. Like every human gift, it can be used for good or for harm.”
    In fact at this end of (post)modernity we are painfully aware of the results of destructive philosophies – constructs of reason – some virulently opposing life giving faith (for example, the role of ‘reason’ in the new atheist movement).
    Which makes me wonder about the creative potential for imagination and the arts in mission – where apologetics and ‘reasoning’ people to faith has been corrupted and weak? Or as John Donne puts it

    ‘Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend
    But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.’

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