|Jan/Feb 2012 Salon|
Faith is imagination, and imagination faith. We live by both, our own and others'. We are waking as well as sleeping dreamers—full-time, nonstop. We fashion an enduring but always tentative reality out of the raw material of the atoms surrounding us and the atoms that are us. We never know this reality as such, distinct from our own consciousness, but only individual versions of it, like so many painters depicting the same landscape in an infinity of different forms and pallets.
Having no independent way of knowing anything apart from our ability to imagine it, we believe these individual and collective realities to be true, objective, factual. This is our fundamental act of faith—acts, really, since they are continuous and must start as soon as our senses begin to feed us information about the world, even when that world is still prenatal. We live by this faith every moment of every day. We do not, literally, take a step without it, however implicitly. It is our only link to an ultimately unknowable universe, the stuff out of which we ourselves are made.
To say that we live by imagination is to say that we must live without certainty. The idea is dizzying. Without firm objectivity we have no center, no gravity to hold us down to the real world. We float off into our individual orbits like so many lunatics in hot-air balloons. But the fact is we have managed quite nicely with little more than imagination as our means of understanding ourselves and the world around us. Now and then we stress the wrong things, mistake a bush for a bear, a harmless old woman for a witch. But we eventually make the necessary correction, thanks to imagination under the guise of reason. We conceive ideas and other tools that enable us to experience a truer and more meaningful reality, revising as we go, a never-ending experiment because we must keep recreating reality anew all the time, day by day, second by second, generation after generation.
Because we are material formed in the crucible of exploding stars, we are matter imagining itself, flesh made conscious, mind made flesh. We are a collective, universal oversoul, the only one we know for sure. Billions of years went into our manufacture, millions more into the refinement of our present form—not mere hardware that measures and computes, but creators all, the most ordinary of us living by his and her dynamic faith as much as does any religious mystic.
This faith in what we imagine is so firm, so palpable, that we scarcely ever doubt its truth or that it continues to exist even when our backs are turned or when we go out for a walk. Isn't it there just the same when we turn around again or come back home? It is only when we imagine a reality that others cannot corroborate that we realize how tenuous is our apprehension—when we begin to hear voices, when spots appear before our eyes, even when the oar "bends" in the water. At such moments our faith is shaken.
But we are not the only walking imaginations on the planet. Our fellow animals also live by imagination. They think in pictures, and do so quite well. Some humans also think this way and are misconstrued as retarded until one of them learns how to verbalize and then explains to the rest of us what it's like to think without words. Some of them turn out to be geniuses.
This is not to say that language and rationality are not progress. They are, but as different aspects of imagination rather than as "higher faculties."
Seeing ourselves as creatures of imagination does not diminish who we are. It shows where our true power lies. We underestimate the strength of imagination even in the instances we observe it most intensely at work. Think how powerful are the visions of religious people (and actually quite common, just ask around); of those who are most passionate about their fellow humans or their work; of the insane even. We think of such people as unusual or unhealthy. But they seem so only because we don't realize that everything we ourselves see and hear is already a vision. We are all Einsteins, all Teresas of Avila.
Dogma, ideas cut into stone, contains and restricts. Imagination frees. The Bacchae threaten society's good order, as do the Jeffersons and Marxes. They all imagine a better order: a neverending democratic experiment, a socialist utopia—or no order at all—until they too are dogmatized.
Individual imagination, our truest selves, demands full freedom. We celebrate the logos within in as many ways as we are individuals. Some of us are hedonists, some saints. Most of us are neither, but are not diminished on that account or require less elbow room. If we don't get the freedom we need, or don't know what to do with it, we starve. How much of what we call mental illness is starvation? For those who have no access to spiritual nourishment—no tribal rites, no movies; no Bible, no Beethoven—life is deprivation, a hell they spend in exile from themselves.
But imagination saves. Think of born-again Christians, Jews and Buddhists, thugs and cynics one day, peace-loving believers the next. Think of Paul and Augustine, of the Hassidim, of Malcolm X. Of William Blake, James Joyce, Rachmaninoff. Imagination saved them all and through them saves us as well.