JOAN. I hear voices telling me what to do. They come from God.
ROBERT. They come from your imagination.
JOAN. Of course. That is how the messages of God come to us.
(George Bernard Shaw, Saint Joan)
I encountered the above quote from Shaw’s 1923 play in a book I read for my masters thesis, a book about women in ministry. I don’t remember the context in which the quote was applied, but it struck me and I made a note and copied it down.
For plenty of years of my (granted, not-all-that-long) life, I felt pretty sure God wasn’t sending me a whole lot of messages—I still have those days. And when I thought something might be a divine idea, I talked myself out of it: don’t be silly, Alissa; you’re making stuff up; it’s all in your imagination.
This mistrust of my imagination reared its head in my discernment journey. When I was first begin to face the idea of a call to the priesthood a couple of years ago, I felt strongly that God was calling me to that vocation, but I couldn’t be sure. What if I had made everything up, just telling myself what I wanted to hear? What if it was all just my imagination?
I was troubled. The thought weighed heavily on me.
But, ever so gradually, I started to wonder: was there something so wrong with my imagination? What had happened across the years to make me lose all trust in this part of myself? God spoke through dreams and visions all the time in the Bible; what was stopping God from speaking through the creative and imaginative part of me?
I like this part of myself. I’m a writer, a crafter, a creator, an imaginer—so why was I blocking these aspects of my self from the serious, important places? I think perhaps my strong, intellectual side took over, called for empirical evidence, for proof. Who doesn’t know this feeling, the longing for some proof? And here is faith.
Absolute certainty ends, usually sooner than later, and faith takes over. And where does that faith come from?
Imagination and art, I find, have a very important home in my faith life. For me, speaking of Jesus’ resurrection can be difficult because it means putting something with infinite meaning into finite language. I know Christ’s resurrection most easily in poetry, in story, in song, in art—in those creative venues I might try to excise from my hoity-toity über-intellectual epistemology.
One of the best parts of my Calvin Experience was participating in the Festival of Faith and Writing (can I get an ay-men?!). A lot of what I and my student committee colleagues did involved months of unglamorous-but-important preparatory work, but then for three glorious days we would find ourselves immersed in a community of other imaginers up to their elbows in the mess of living lives haunted by God. The same could be said for FFW’s musical younger cousin, the Festival of Faith and Music.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that my faith has been saved by re-welcoming my imagination, integrating my creative and intellectual sides. There is a place for provable knowledge, yes. And an imagined word from God can turn into a horror story (literally), which is why having a faith community to listen and help us interpret is important.
There is also a place in this mix, though, for paradox and poetry and, well, imagination. So I may imagine a word from God. God may speak to me in a story or a dream or a stray thought. Yes, as Shaw’s Joan tells us, that is how the messages of God come to us.
Alissa Goudswaard Anderson (’10) lives with her husband Josh in New York City, where she is earning her Master of Divinity at General Theological Seminary. Alissa enjoys private kitchen dance parties, big Midwestern thunderstorms, and perusing other peoples’ bookshelves. For more, find her online at www.episcotheque.wordpress.com or tweet her @episcotheque.