The Possible's slow fuse is lit
By the Imagination.
- Emily Dickinson
Spokane has joined in the billboard wars. As Thomas J. Brown reported a few weeks back on SpokaneFAVS, our city is the latest in which an atheist group has purchased advertising to argue, among other things, that "Truth is real; God is imaginary." I’m familiar with advertisements of this sort from the previous cities in which in I have lived. At Christmastime in San Francisco, atheists bought billboards on which they displayed a painting of the holy family and the caption, “You know it’s a myth.” And, in my hometown of Vancouver, BC, a similar group bought placards on buses which read, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence: Allah • Bigfoot • UFOs • Homeopathy • Zeus • Psychics • Christ.”
It’s probably no surprise that, as a Christian, I am not big a fan of these campaigns. What might surprise you, however, is the substance of my objection to them. It doesn’t so much bother me that these advertisements reject God (for the record: yes, you can be a good person without going to church). Nor am I all that troubled by the binary choice they posit between reason and religion (this is simply a false dilemma, much like insisting on a choice between calculus and Mozart). What does bug me is that the advertisers’ decision to set truth and imagination in opposition to one another.
Prior to becoming a priest, I worked as a stage manager. That is to say, I spent thousands of hours sitting in a dark room helping grownups pretend to be people whom they were not. It was a career devoted to the imagination. Over my years backstage, one thing never stopped amazing me: night after night, people left the theater having understood something profound about hope, loss, meaning, beauty, and more. What happened in that dark room was both entirely made-up and entirely real.
Religion is the original theater. For the 200 millennia or so that human beings have walked the earth, we have gathered to tell one another tales of divine mystery. Every Sunday in church we do the same: we get together to put on a dramatization of the incarnation. We sing songs, we share stories, and we wonder about possibility.
To be clear, pretty much everyone around me in church recognizes that our Sunday drama does not to speak to things found in that modern category known as the fact. There is no reproducible experiment which will yield the answer, “God,” much as there is none which will prove that one person loves another (given that John tells us that “God is love,” that probably makes good sense). Simultaneously, we affirm that there are objective truths which the enlightenment model for encountering reality is entirely incapable of measuring. God belongs in this category.
As with all plays, the goal of the Sunday assembly is not to marshal evidence or to provide hypotheses. Rather, it is to respond to that strange and awesome clarity which we touch at the birth of a child, the death of a friend, or still another moment of deep wonder. It is to craft metaphor, symbol, story, song, and paradox: the great tools of the imagination. For, as the mystics know, it is only through the window of the imagination that God may be glimpsed.
There are atheists who celebrate the importance of the imagination, who do not diminish it by contrasting it with truth (consider the marvelous children’s writer, Philip Pullman). It is my hope that the authors of Spokane’s new billboards might follow their example and choose to do likewise. Celebrating the imagination offers many gifts, not the least of which is a deeper understanding of one’s neighbor. This understanding allows us some insight, for instance, into why an actor might choose to devote her life to make-believe. It also casts a little light on why someone like me might think that Spokane’s new billboards get things only half right: Yes, God is imaginary. But God is also true.