Sandra M. Levy-Achtemeier, Ph.D.

Imagination Review - Virginia Episcopalian

Virginia Episcopalian, March 2009


The Rev. Sandra Levy, priest associate at St. John's, Richmond, offers an interesting look at the role of imagination in our relationship with God in her new book, Imagination and the Journey of Faith. Ms. Levy's basic premise, drawn from the work of William James, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and others, is that imagination is a gateway between God and human beings. What Ms. Levy means by imagination is "the inherent human power to transcend the concrete, to create new images or ideas that can open up new possibility and promise," and she contends that this creative power of imagination "lies at the heart of all religious experience."


The gate of imagination swings both ways: we both reach out to God and God reaches out to us in our imagination. It creates a kind of circle as we use God's gift of imagination to create symbols, ritual and art reflecting the glimpses we have seen of the divine, even as God reaches back into our imaginations through such symbols ritual and art. Ms. Levy writes that God actually "intrudes ... on the imaginative capacity, opening up and revealing the deepest truths of our lives." This circle of imagination is a complex notion that Ms. Levy helpfully reiterates many times throughout the book, with examples and metaphors to help the reader grasp her point.

Ms. Levy believes that we all have the impulse to seek God, and the failure of so many in our postmodern, skeptical society to explore the deep questions of existence and embark on the journey of faith is really a failure of imagination — an atrophied connection with what "may be." Central to faith is an ability to imagine our lives redeemed, to imagine that whatever mess we may be in now, we will not be there forever. We live in the Saturday world between Good Friday and Easter, and reconciling our current condition with meaning and hope requires some imagination. Ms. Levy writes that the power of the imagination "allows us to deal with the paradoxes and contradictions that surround us, helping us to grasp a deeper truth beneath them."

Ms. Levy breaks the book into two sections, the first dealing with places to meet God in our imagination through ritual, poetry, visual art and narrative form. She provides examples of paintings, poems, novels, Bible stories, plays and films to walk the reader through the connection between art and imagination — particularly the way metaphors and symbols can prick our imaginations for connections in our past or hopes for our future, sometimes transforming us.

Ms. Levy contends that like other virtues, imagination can be "strengthened through practice," and the second section of her book concerns exercises in the home, church and community to develop our imaginations. Childhood is the most crucial time for development of the imagination, and Ms. Levy gives excellent examples and resources to be used in the home and in church to foster children's imaginations.  For Ms. Levy, Godly Play seems to be the ideal program for developing in children an imaginative engagement with God.

Ms. Levy also provides resources for adults who wish to expand their imaginations in this direction. She especially recommends Ignatian prayer, which "specifically utilizes our imaginative capacity as the center of spiritual transformation."

Likewise, the practice of having a "soul friend" is helpful in strengthening the imaginative power of narrative as we share our life stories with one another — transforming our lives into "good" stories through recognition of God at work. She picks up this telling of our life stories again in the conclusion of the book as a practice to counteract the individualism and skepticism of our postmodern society, refreshing our imaginations and reawakening us to God's presence in our lives.

For anyone seeking to cultivate the imagination as a place of encounters with God, Ms. Levy's book is an excellent beginning. Her suggested readings and resources provide an engaging curriculum for developing this often neglected aspect of our spiritual lives, helping us become more receptive to God.

The Rev. Karin MacPhail