Failures of Imagination

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Yesterday, Rachel Held Evans tweeted a link to Tim Challies’ review of Ann Voskamp’s One Thousand Gifts, saying, “anti-Catholic much?” And though I have not read Voskamp’s book (and thus have no personal stake in the issue), I couldn’t help but feel put off by Challies’ treatment of the concept of religious mysticism and spiritual experience that forms a major part of the work. He criticizes Voskamp's spiritual experience at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, saying:

Why should she have to travel to a Roman Catholic cathedral in a foreign land in order to truly experience the Lord? “My eyes follow the stone arches rising over us, granite hands clasped in prayer over souls. I think of all who have gone before, the hands of medieval peasants who chiseled the stone under which I now stand. I think of those long-ago believers who had a way of entering into the full life, of finding a passage into God, a historical model of intimacy with God. I lean back to see the spires.”

What does she not understand about the gospel that her ecstasies have to happen in a place dedicated to a false gospel of salvation by grace plus works rather than a gospel of salvation by grace alone through faith alone? Why should they happen in a place dedicated to Our Lady (which is what Notre Dame translates to)? She declares that in the cathedral she is on holy ground, but there is nothing more or less holy about this cathedral than any other place on earth. There must be something wrong not just with the destination but with the whole journey if it leads here, of all places.

Challies seems offended first at the idea that Voskamp would have a mystical experience altogether, but to have it happen in a Cathedral? One built for Catholics?

THE. HORROR.

And this, I think, exemplifies something that is a large problem within the church (particularly the American evangelical church, though this is not a limiting feature). In fact, this is something that typifies a lot of discourse – it does not necessarily have to be limited to the church, but it becomes most dangerous when the church engages in this behavior.

It is the inability to imagine. The inability to see that another person might make a choice different from the one you would have made, and how that choice is the right thing for them but maybe not for you. I believe this could be the very situation Paul was referring to when he wrote Romans 14: the idea that one should not invalidate another person’s spiritual struggle or spiritual victory simply because it is something that either is not a problem or has been a problem in your own life.

Challies rejects Voskamp’s experience because he cannot imagine that a Catholic church – which to him is a monument to a false teaching – could possibly be a source of spiritual ecstasy.

And, I’ll admit, that angers me.

At the heart of Challies’ failure to understand Voskamp’s experience, and at the heart of many arguments about life choices and even just different theological tenets is a lack of imaginative empathy. We, in the church, are really, really bad at imagining others’ lives and empathizing with their decisions.

In this situation, I have the urge to defend Voskamp because it does not take me much imagination to understand the described spiritual experience. For me, one of the most profoundly spiritual things I’ve encountered happened in a country literally thousands of miles from here, and was brought on by a thing that doesn’t exist in the Christian religion – a call to prayer at a Hindu Temple in India. I didn’t fall down shaking or anything, but when I think of India, I think of that sound. I think of the way it was the dominating noise, even above the car horns and traffic of Kolkata. I remember the way it rang out, reminding me that I am not the only person around, reminding me that I am small and yet connected to humanity.

And I’m doing a terrible job describing the personal experience of that moment because it is just that – personal. And when we – like Challies – attempt to invalidate another person’s experience simply because it does not jive with how we would react or behave in that circumstance, we do a great disservice to the concept of empathy. We cut our own sense of compassion off at the knees when we refuse to imagine how a person with different life experiences would behave.

This concept of imaginative empathy has been at the heart of my entire spiritual journey over the past few years. It has also been my greatest source of struggle, as I deal with being misimagined by others and attempting to break out of the box in which other people have put me. This has led to strained and broken relationships, and my own misimaginations of other people. There is an intense, ongoing failure to imagine life as other people see it, the failure to put oneself in another person’s shoes fully, to look at life through their eyes, and to attempt to understand why they make the decisions they make.

But, we also have the gift of imagination – not so we can create different, fantastical worlds, though those are welcome and sometimes necessary – but for the simple ability to imagine life as another sees it, to develop compassion. It is as JK Rowling says in her commencement speech to Harvard graduates in 2008:

Unlike any other creature on this planet, human beings can learn and understand without having experienced. They can think themselves into other peoples' places. ... And many prefer not to exercise their imaginations at all. They choose to remain comfortably within the bounds of their own experience, never troubling to wonder how it would feel to have been born other than they are. They can refuse to hear screams, or peer inside cages; they can close their minds and hearts to any suffering that does not touch them personally. They can refuse to know. I might be tempted to envy people who can live that way, except I do not think they have any fewer nightmares than I do. Choosing to live in narrow spaces leads to a form of mental agoraphobia, and that brings its own terrors. I think the willfully unimaginative see more monsters. They are often more afraid.

That ability to imagine, to sympathize and empathize, to have compassion, is a daily struggle, but it is central to what makes us human.