Humble Imaginations

Humble Imaginations  —by Jinny Batterson

The times we are living through can seem overwhelming—a global pandemic that shows little signs of abating, severe economic dislocations, increases in toxic partisanship, demagoguery, distorted nationalism, militarism. It can sometimes be hard to imagine a better world, a world with more peace, more justice, more compassion. 

Current circumstances send me more and more often to prayer and to renewed study of parts of the Christian tradition in which I was raised. A verse that has long both heartened and puzzled me talks of  “scattering the proud in the imagination of their hearts.” When I’m in an especially spiteful mood, I imagine the proud being swept aside like fallen leaves during autumn’s first cold storms. 

Until I recently looked it up, I’d  forgotten this verse’s context. It’s part of a prayer attributed to Mary, the future mother of Jesus, on visiting her cousin Elizabeth when both women are pregnant, as recorded in the gospel of Luke. Often labeled The Magnificat, the passage goes like this (Revised Standard version, Luke, verses 1:46-1:53): 

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden.
For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me
and holy is his name.
And his mercy is on those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm,
he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts,
he has put down the mighty from their thrones,
and exalted those of low degree;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent empty away.”

It’s not clear exactly whom Mary considers the proud or what they might have imagined in their hearts. In Palestine at the time of Luke’s Gospel, there were plenty of candidates. 

For much of my life, people have told me I have a vivid imagination. Whatever may be happening “out there” can fade in comparison with what’s going on in my thoughts, prayers,  and feelings. Some have called me naive, a bookworm, a dreamer, among other less charitable labels. My readings about imagination have also included a more contemporary rendering by essayist and retired Unitarian-Universalist minister Robert Fulghum: 

“I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge; that myth is more potent than history. I believe that dreams are more powerful than facts; that hope always triumphs over experience; that laughter is the only cure for grief. And I believe love is stronger than death.”

I like to think that the imagination Fulghum talks about is different from the imagination in the hearts of the proud. In these fraught and fractured times, we need more humble imaginations. We need to recognize that no earthly power, however brave, wise, or fierce, can solve all our problems. It can be so tempting to believe someone has “the answer.”  It can require spiritual discipline to acknowledge the incompleteness of anyone’s “solutions,” to value the questionings and different views of others.  

Proud imaginations can be boastful, full of hyperbole and puffery. Humble imaginations are appropriately modest, without discounting their unique and real gifts. Proud imaginations want to act unilaterally; humble imaginations seek allies. Proud imaginations distrust the understandings of others; humble imaginations know that each of us can contain only partial truths. We need interaction to refine and hone our understanding. 

May we pray for discernment as we thread these challenging times together. May our imaginations be as humble as our loving is expansive.   

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