The pelican papers

A big bird’s eye view

God: Our imaginary friend

Posted by Ron George on March 11, 2017

People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’ And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them. (Mark 10.13-16)

Maybe I’m a God, by Zhao Gang

It all started as a kind of private joke. It made me laugh out loud; but then, as sometimes happens, I was caught up short by something like the truth of it: What else is the unseen, incomprehensible Triune God, that mystery wrapped within an enigma, but Something or Someone (take your pick) accessible only by dint of that which is surely among humanity’s greatest gifts – our creative imagination.

It may have sounded like a joke, but the more I thought about it, the more I began to see how, of course, God is our imaginary friend. The only way we can have a relationship with God is to imagine God in some way that’s meaningful; because, as they say, God is incomprehensible as the Ground of all Being (Tillich) or Being Itself. Anselm of Canterbury may have been right: God is that which is beyond our highest conception of reality. We certainly don’t perceive God in any way, except through that which is perceptible – God in nature, for example – or, in a more orthodox (and less pantheistic) phrase – God manifested through nature. (God is not in the tree!)

God, however, is not beyond reach of imagination, and with almost 85 percent of Earth’s humanity believing in God in a multitude of forms, it seems as though God is a species of reality for most of us. As such, then, God is our imaginary friend, God as we imagine the Ground of All Being or Being Itself: as Father, perhaps, as Son, as Spirit – or even all three in one, as Trinity.

I recalled, recently, that one of my cousins had an imaginary friend named Bill. Bill could be a rascal: When something went crash with no adult in sight, it was Bill who knocked the vase off the table. Memorably, my cousin one day rushed into the kitchen to tell my aunt, “Mommy, you should have seen the picture I just took of Bill.” My cousin had tinkered with my uncle’s camera. Hmmm. I wonder what this button does. Oops! Turns out, Bill must have slipped out of range just as my cousin took the picture – much to my aunt’s relief. “I don’t know what I would have done if there had been a little guy in that picture,” she said to my mom.

Bill wasn’t just a blame sponge, though. My cousin could be heard having animated conversations with Bill as they played inside and outside. Bill was a playmate, and for my cousin, he was as real as her 3-year-old mind could make him.

Research indicates that perhaps two-thirds of all children have imaginary friends and that, as they mature, they tend to be less shy and better able to focus their attention and see things from another person’s perspective. In other words, it seems, their “childish ways” may lead them into something like paths of righteousness. Children with imaginary friends tend not to be deceived by what can only be called a relationship with their imaginary friends: They know their friends aren’t actual people, but they do believe and behave as though they are real. Having an imaginary friend is something akin to what I would call a spiritual gift.

I wonder whether having an imaginary friend attunes a child’s consciousness toward encountering mystery beyond comprehension, which is said by Christian tradition to be the living God, the Divine, something utterly supernatural, which may strain the credulity of reason but not of a capacious imagination. How else can a maturing person begin to apprehend the meaning of existence – her own as well as that of universe itself – without an open, inquiring and creative mind capable of imagining impossible things?

I meet almost every week with a group of friends to discuss books we are reading together. Lately, it’s been all about Richard Rohr’s The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation. Rohr and his coauthor, Mike Morrell, bring considerable knowledge to the project, but underlying everything is contemplative practice, which the authors argue is the most likely way contemporary Christians can apprehend the essential presence of God in all creation. Frankly, not being a contemplative, I prefer to share what Bono has to say about this book.

The human dance we’re all in reflects a mysterious divine dance, one that we notice on our best days. Finding the sweet spot where contemporary science meets ancient mysticism, and theology meets poetry, The Divine Dance sketches a beautiful choreography for a life well-lived. In our joy or our pain, true life is always relational, a flow, a dance. (And was always meant to be.)

Angel I, by Ivan Guaderrama

Do notice, please, Bono’s imagistic language and how it impacts the reader’s awareness of the topic. We simply can not live without images, especially those that bear the weight of conscientiously pursued matters of faith (the willingness to be loved by God) and practice (the how-to for living one’s faith). We can not tell stories without images, the personal and public myths that constitute our sense of self-in-community, which Rohr says is essential to contemplating the Trinity, as well as our sense of human being in time and space.

It is fundamentally by dint of humanity’s creative imagination that we have made artifacts to express this dimension of human being in time and space. I’m no psychologist, but a rough draft might suggest that imagination is distilled into ideas, which become actual events – real things that we make with our hands, for example; or perhaps, they remain in the abstract as real things of the mind; and, then, sometimes, by experience, things of what we like to call the heart, the seat of the soul, from whence love of God and neighbor may (or may not) emanate. (There is a moral dimension to all this, but that’s a rabbit best left un-chased for now.)

We are genetically and temperamentally disposed to tell stories and to express ourselves well beyond the bounds of our biological needs. There is more – much more – to human existence than acquiring food, finding shelter and defending ourselves from predators (including, sometimes, other people). For tens of thousands of years, we have painted, etched, sculpted, built and otherwise defaced the natural environment. For better or worse, we have made meaning by creating transcendent and earthly artifacts as well as pots, jugs, utensils, tools, weapons – all of which have their origins in human imagination.

And, so, we imagine God, and we create art, literature (including sacred stories called myths) and sacred space to memorialize, sacralize and socialize our profound sense that there is something greater than ourselves operating in time and space; and, perhaps, that there is something beyond time and space, something that may be called eternity. It is our creative imaginations that seek to participate in this eternal dimension through worship and prayer; indeed, we have an imaginative and very real sense of ourselves as “spiritual” creatures capable of transcendence toward something called the divine.

Untitled, by Jose Acosta

Unfortunately, we also create hierarchy, laws and a species of exclusivity that often lead to violence, repression and just about every kind of cruelty. Religion itself is not the enemy, but it is almost always co-opted by that which evolved in our species as our societies grew from clan to tribe and, eventually, to nation – government. It has taken us thousands of years to realize that these two artifacts of our creative imagination – yes, government is one of them, too – don’t mix well without dire consequences; and yet, it seems as though whenever evil is to be found upon the face of the Earth, there is a truly unholy alliance of religion and government. Both are legitimate accretions upon human existence, but taken together, they almost always spawn evil.

All of this may sound a little too anthropological, as though I’m arguing that God is just a figment of human imagination. Nope. I’m not saying that at all but giving human imagination its due, because nothing of value ever invented by humanity – from sanitation to aircraft – did not begin as that germ of an idea we call imagination. We realize our imaginations by populating our world with artifacts. We make real that which has meaning for us, that which we choose to believe, thereby creating a standpoint from which to interpret our lives. Yes, God is real in this sense – just look around!

Is there more to it than that? I don’t know, but I do know that reducing human existence to biochemical interactions and processes wrought in the bizarre world of quantum physics is a dead end for the part of us that earnestly desires to make meaning. Which is not to say that the impulse toward spirituality and religion has always gotten it right (whatever that means). I would suggest, however, that God or the gods who reign in our imaginations are real, and that believing in them is not necessarily harebrained and superstitious. It is or ought to be, however, always a conscientious choice; and, the best of it seems to lean toward compassion, freedom, justice and peace.

Something in the fabric of human being seems to drive us toward the conclusion that Someone stands beyond what we’ve discovered so far to be an incomprehensibly large universe. That which we do not comprehend is at least approachable through human imagination, whether it’s a physicist theorizing that the universe is finite (e.g., Jana Levin) or an ancient songwriter asking:

“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,

the moon and the stars that you have established;

what are human beings that you are mindful of them,

mortals that you care for them?” (Psalm 8.3-4)

Human beings imagine God in thousands of ways. Jesus imagined God as heavenly Father. Paul imagined Jesus as the cosmic Christ. Someone – probably not John the beloved disciple – imagined Jesus Christ as the Lamb of God. And so it goes through centuries of  contemplation, cogitation, iconography, music, sculpture, preaching, teaching, liturgy, architecture – well, you get the idea. God our imaginary friend, somehow, is made accessible in countless ways expressive of humanity’s great gift of creative imagination, which has roots in our earliest years but may continue to grow and flourish throughout our adult lives.


2 Responses to “God: Our imaginary friend”

  1. Patsy Durham said

    I heartily agree with Ralph. Beautifully written; beautifully illustrated with your choice of art; and mostly, beautifully inspiring to my Spirit! Thank you.

  2. Ralph Willis said

    Ron I believe this to be the best of your posts. Of significance is the lack of political rhetoric. Refreshing! The message is spot on, not only for contemplates, but for the majority of us wanna be contemplatives. Thanks for your honesty and integrity. I loved it!

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