Have you ever spoken to artists and, after some time in discussion, thought they were slightly off their rocker? Sometimes they employ strange imagery when expressing their ideas. They “give birth to creations” or find themselves “surprised” at the lives the characters in their novels choose for themselves. Sculptors sometimes say they “listen to” the material in their hands and liberate the internal image within, rather than impose a certain image on it externally. It’s not just the eccentric creators who say these types of things, either. J. R. R. Tolkien once responded in the negative to the question of whether he wrote The Lord of the Rings himself. He, of course, didn’t mean to say he plagiarized; only that he recognized that part of the story’s essence came from an encounter with something beyond his own mind.
In ancient times it was believed that a gifted artist became possessed by something outside of him- or herself and basically became a mere tool for that spirit to work. It was not uncommon for the artist, or “host of the spirit,” to eventually go insane because a mere mortal is simply not equipped for that degree of creative output.
Though ideas on creating have changed substantially since that time, even current culture has maintained references to the belief that acts of creativity are somehow supernatural in nature. Take the word inspiration, for example. Several of its definitions refer to being affected by something outside of the natural world—to be blown on or impacted by something supernatural. To be inspired is to be influenced by something outside oneself.
Unfortunately, although we still have vestiges of those ideas in our language, thoughts surrounding creativity and the arts have often lost their connection to spirituality.
The act of imaginatively interacting with our world is sometimes associated with either a frivolous pastime that individuals with too much time on their hands dabble in or the attempted escape from reality. Many of us are seldom encouraged to see the development of our imagination as a worthwhile pursuit, let alone a valid method of spiritual development.
Seeing our imagination as suspect is a huge detriment to spiritual flourishing, though. In suppressing or ignoring our creativity, we deny a part of who we are and in whose image we have been created. For who is our creator if not the original artist?
Sandra M. Levy, author of Imagination and the Journey of Faith, puts it like this: “Our imaginative power, the creative imagination with which all humans are hardwired, lies at the heart of our potential encounter with some transcendent Reality.” In other words, she suggests that developing our imagination and nourishing our inborn artistic tendencies is one of the main ways we can mature our insight into the spiritual nature of things.
For Levy, among others who articulate the role of imagination in our spiritual journey, there is no free pass for people who don’t consider themselves particularly artistic. We are all children of the original creator, after all. Levy would assert that those of us who may feel less creative simply need to educate our imaginations and train ourselves to pay attention. Developing our imagination is not an option, but an obligation for people who wish to, as she quotes Robert Barth, “hold fit converse with the spiritual world.”
Spiritually intuitive people often explore their relationship with their world, their neighbors, and their creator in more imaginative ways. George MacDonald, a Victorian writer dedicated to the enlargement of his readers’ imaginations, suggests that the perfect place to begin schooling one’s imagination is in paying close attention to nature. When we still ourselves and use our eyes and ears and other senses to contemplate the beauty of the natural world around us, we affirm that we are human be-ings, not do-ings. To truly see something, to pay it the attention it deserves, we must acknowledge that it has value enough that we will stop our current activity and ponder it. We must cease from our action and quiet both our inner and outer commotions; we must switch from our constant state of doing to the more difficult one of being. In this more restful and receptive stance, we will pay greater attention to the physical world and our role in it.
As we study nature’s patterns and cycles, we will increase in our awareness of how everything is interconnected. We will be awakened from the illusion that we are independent actors and our choices and behaviors are no one’s business but our own.
Because our God is a making God (and we were made in his image and likeness), we are a making people. For MacDonald and others who see creativity as a part of spiritual development, through tuning our eyes and ears to see the artistry that surrounds us in the natural world, we become more aware of the creative impulse in ourselves. An impulse implanted by God that, when properly cultivated, allows us to glimpse his creative realm where the finite and infinite mingle.