Imagination Shortage

Reality Amid Ideology, part 2

Our country is suffering from a lack of imagination. We have among us the imaginations of the prophetic poets, a small sampling of which was included in part 1 (HERE) -- but it takes imagination to hear, not just to speak imaginatively. As a whole, not enough of us have even enough imagination to hear these voices of our prophetic poets. To paraphrase Cool-Hand Luke: “What we have here is a failure of imagination.”

Imagination is evident in poets, artists, novelists, filmmakers, musicians. Imagination also includes what Edmund Burke called “the moral imagination.” It’s the capacity to imagine where there is wrong and harm when it isn’t happening to you – and the capacity to imagine that it can be addressed – that the status quo does not have to be forever. Those with developed moral imagination don’t have to go to Yemen and be among the starving children to know, and feel, the pain, the suffering, the horror. Words, pictures, and our imaginative capacity take us there.

It was Percy Shelley who said,
“The imagination is the great instrument of moral good, and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause. . . . Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”
It was John Dewey who agreed, saying:
“Imagination is the chief instrument of the good....A person’s ideas and treatment of his fellows are dependent upon his power to put himself imaginatively in their place. But the primacy of the imagination extends far beyond the scope of direct personal relationships. The ideal factors in every moral outlook and human loyalty are imaginative. Hence it is that art is more moral than moralities. For moralities either are, or tend to become, consecrations of the status quo, reflections of custom, reinforcements of the established order. The moral prophets of humanity have always been poets even though they spoke in free verse or by parable.”
It was Northrup Frye who said:
“The fundamental job of the imagination in ordinary life, then, is to produce, out of the society we have to live in, a vision of the society we want to live in.”
This work is aided by the imaginative voices of our poets, but it is up to all the people to fashion a collective vision, inspired by their poets and informed by their fact-finders. This, too, is imaginative work. It was Ralph Waldo Emerson who said,
"Imagination is not a talent of some people, but is the health of every person."
The only way the future will, on purpose rather than accident, become different from the present is through imagination.

I do, personally, feel on ongoing frustration with the evident failure of imagination on the part of many US citizens and the leaders they elect. Can we not do better at imagining the harm and the suffering of poverty, of war, of hunger, of inequality – of sweatshops, of prisons, of sexual abuse and harassment? This week, I was even visited by a moment of anger about this. A prison reform bill passed this week, and that’s a good thing. It only applies to the federal prison system, which is less than 9% of the 2.1 million incarcerated, but still -- a good thing: a first step, as the name of the bill says, the First Step Act. It might pave the way for further reforms, including reforms of the state prison systems. Of course, it raises the question of why we didn’t fix this a long time ago, and why we ever let our prison system be this horrible to begin with. The answer? Failure of imagination.

Our national Imagination Disability was highlighted for me when I caught comments from Senators that this bill would not have passed without the efforts of the President’s son-in-law who visited many Senators and told the personal story of his father serving 14 months for tax evasion, witness tampering, and illegal campaign contributions. I was like, “Really? You had to have another rich white guy in a nice suit tell you about their heartbreak before any kind of empathy or compassion could break through? That’s what it had to take? Have you no imaginative capacity to grasp the humanity of the incarcerated and the pointless cruelty to which they’ve been subjected? Can you not read the reports and the statistics, the stories, see the pictures, and know and feel the meaning of what the prison system does? Is your moral imagination really so impoverished that you can hear no plea unless made face-to-face and by a high elite of your party? Is your imagination so paltry that you aren’t curious to learn the stories and facts on your own?"

It’s the poets that help awaken us to reality when prose fails to break through our ideology. The poets incite imagination to see reality more clearly – and thereby to see new possibilities. Not that I have much hope that Senators will read poems, but you and I can. We can cultivate and expand our own imaginative capacity, and in that way contribute to expanding the average imagination of the populace. The poems I shared in part 1 (HERE) are a tiny sample. Seek out and read lots more. When you find one that moves you, read it out loud to somebody. Encourage them to read one of their favorites to you from time to time – maybe even daily.

The poets’ voices show us reality amid ideology. We need them to break through our ideology of exceptionalism. Exceptionalism says: “We’re unique. We’re special. And we are therefore exempt from the need to seriously examine where we may be going astray. We don’t need moral imagination, for all our doings are underwritten by our specialness.”

In what follows, I’ll look at the way exceptionalism manifested in Ancient Israel, and the parallel ways exceptionalism is in the American ideology. It’s helpful to see that the problem is not new, but very old. The antidote, too, is very old – for just as we have the prophets we call poets, ancient Israel had the poets they called prophets.

From the covenant of Abraham, and then the covenant of Moses, the Israelites understood themselves as God’s chosen people. With King David around 1000 BCE, chosenness began to be co-opted into the ideology of the ruling urban elite. Royal Jerusalem
“was deeply enthralled to an ideology of chosenness” (Brueggemann)
The ruling class took chosenness to mean divine support for their rule. With God on their side, they need not hold themselves accountable to the poor, the widowed, the vulnerable.

Under Solomon, the first temple was constructed. At the dedication of the temple, as described in 1st Kings, priests carried the ark of the covenant into the temple where it was housed in an unlit inner chamber, the holy of holies.
“Then Solomon said, 'The Lord has said that he would dwell in thick darkness. I have built you an exalted house, a place for you to dwell in forever.'” (1 Kings 8:12-13).
The holiest of holies could not be entered except by the High Priest, and even he only once a year. In the holy land, was the holier city, Jerusalem. In the holier city was the still holier temple. In the still holier temple, inaccessible, was the holiest of holies. This hierarchy of holy space symbolized and functioned to legitimize the hierarchy of economic class. As Walter Brueggemann argues at length, and with many references to scripture, what the urban elite were essentially doing was removing YHWH from engagement with history – no longer to speak as YHWH did to Abraham, to wrestle as YHWH did with Jacob. Instead, YHWH is now a silent power behind the powerful – the authority of the authorities.
“The intent of the liturgy is to put the residence of YHWH (and so the claims of the urban establishment) beyond the reach of historical contingency....The old chosenness of Israel has now been concretized and specified in the Jerusalem regime” (Brueggemann)
The word “forever” – as when Solomon says, “a place for you to dwell in forever” -- removes YHWH from dynamic engagement with history.

NEXT: What the prophets had to say about this.

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This is part 2 of 3 of "Reality Amid Ideology"
See next: part 3: Prophetic Call to Neighborliness
See also part 1: Some Brueggemann and Some Poems

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