Of imaginary places
A young friend of mine posts Harry Potter nostalgia on her Facebook. She has been so seized by the novels of J.K. Rowling that she half-lives in that imaginary world. She returns there for refreshment, and she wishes that the real world were more like Hogwarts Academy. I can sympathize. In my youth, my soul was ravished by The Lord of the Rings.
To this day, I know the geography of Middle-Earth better than some native Hoosiers know Indiana.
Those of us who enjoy reading history get some of the same thrill when we explore the world of the past. Like an imaginary world, we enter it with delight. It refreshes us. We wish the present age were more like the past, at least the past as we imagine it to have been. The real past, of course, was quite as full of danger and disease and annoying people as the present. But then, since we know the past delivered us safely to the present, we feel a deep wave of nostalgia for the past -- the distant past we never knew, quite as much as the recent past we actually lived in.
Ideologues of various kinds live in imaginary worlds, too. Some think that once upon a time, our country actually was the kind of place we wish it were now. Some think that only a little more effort might make our country like we know it ought to be. The virtues of small town America, for instance, were first extolled by those who were transforming the Northeast with textile mills, which changed social relations even as it made them wealthy. By imagining themselves as the small town patriarchs of yore, the new industrialists comforted themselves that they were virtuous, and fostering virtue, and were relieved of the burden of trying to understand the mixed blessings they were unleashing upon their neighbors. Likewise, the revolutionary -- communist or otherwise -- is sustained only by his dream of the utopian future, "after the Revolution." Sometimes, the revolutionary will imagine that he sees more than he does; in the words of Lincoln Steffens touring the dismal Soviet Union, "I have seen the future, and it works." Except that it didn't, of course. Steffens only wanted it to.
The Church offers a similar comfort. The kingdom of God -- which is now but not yet, is, in this sense, an imaginary place. The apostolic tradition much talked of in some Churches -- perfectly received from Christ, and perfectly passed on, unbroken, in our
Church -- is likewise an imaginary place. The actual Church is filled with sinners and lives out its life in time. The futility that St. Paul talks about in Romans that God subjected the whole creation to is as characteristic of the Church as of the rest of the world. Still, we keep coming back to the Church, looking for something -- a state of affairs, a way of being, a set of relationships -- that will, somehow, be the kind of thing we have longed for all our lives. Our hope is that with God, we will find more than one more comforting illusion, that with God it will all somehow become real. Faith clings to Christ as the one who really did it, really escaped the futility of the world-as-it-is (including death), and who promises that if we are "in him," we, too, will escape and find the fulfillment of our souls.
And so I find myself coming to terms with my own relationship with the Church after 36 years of ministry. I didn't have a very solid experience of the Church when I joined it, and already I was wrestling with God's call on my life. When I invited people to join the Church, you might indeed ask if I was inviting them to join my Idea of the Church or to join the actual collection of sometimes lovable, sometimes not, people that made up that congregation. No doubt I was doing both, but I have sometimes wondered if I were offering them something that didn't exist: my own imaginary place that would not continue beyond their relationship with me and which would inevitably fail of its promise after a while.
But then, I think of Puddleglum, the gloomy Marsh-wiggle of C.S. Lewis's imaginary world of Narnia, who, when befuddled by the Emerald Witch's magic, said,
All you've been saying is quite right, I shouldn't wonder. I'm a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won't deny any of what you said. But there's one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things -- trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that's a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We're just babies making up a game, if you're right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That's why I'm going to stand by the play world. I'm on Aslan's side even if there isn't any Aslan to lead it. I'm going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn't any Narnia.
When I offer someone my
love, we create another world, alongside this world. It is imaginary in that it can be whatever we want it to be, but in another sense, it is utterly real, because we are really living according to the values of that world we have created. And we have the promise of Christ that when we join ourselves to him, the reality of his love creates an utterly new world within us and opens to us a new world to come. That is "imaginary," if by it you mean God has imagined it; but then, what God imagines he makes real. We call that the doctrine of Creation.
So, my work as a pastor and an evangelist is not vain. Despite all the dreariness of the world-as-it-is -- and of the Church-as-it-is -- we really do have the power to make this world more than it is, to walk in the land of our dreams, of the kingdom that is to come, and to invite others to share it with us. It is not a delusion, it is indeed the nature of reality. This comforts me in the face of denominational decline and the machinations of church bureaucrats and the stupidity of Conference leadership. Give me your hand and walk with me and through our love we will see all the promises of God come true.