Responsible imagination

/ 5 February 2005

Several years ago a group of researchers did a very interesting project where they interviewed a large number of people who had sustained commitments to the common good over lengthy periods of time. Some of their research was published in the book “Common Fire.” One of the aspects of that research that has always fascinated me, given my interest in media culture, was their definition of a “responsible imagination”:

"Their practice of imagination is responsible in two particular ways. First, they try to respect the process of imagination in themselves and others. They pay attention to dissonance and contradiction, particularly those that reveal injustice and unrealized potential. They learn to pause, reflect, wonder, ask why, consider, wait.... They also learn to work over their insights and those of others so that they “connect up” in truthful and useful ways. They seek out trustworthy communities of confirmation and contradiction.

Second, they seek out sources of worthy images. Most have discovered that finding and being found by fitting images is not only a matter of having access to them but requires discretion and responsible hospitality — not only to what is attractive but also to what may be unfamiliar and initially unsettling....."

In the midst of all the flap over SpongeBob SquarePants' tolerance, and PBS's refusal to distribute an episode of "Postcards from Buster" which included a happy family with lesbian parents (note: great story about this at if you're willing to wade through the free ads), I am thinking a lot about how to help communities of faith develop a "responsible imagination," how to help them recognize why it's important to seek not only confirmation, but also contradiction.

This does not mean that "anything goes" or that a community of faith has to give up its distinctive claims on truth, but it would mean that rather than walling off realities with which a community disagrees, it would find ways to risk its own transformation in respectfully and thoughtfully engaging them. Surely the religious leaders around Jesus did not like the ways in which he hung out with sinners, but he did not let that disapproval stop him from doing so, let alone prevent him from challenging the leaders' own narrowness.