Marilynne Robinson’s book Gilead is an excellent work of fiction. The basic plot– a dying man writes to the young son he will never see grow up– is engaging. Robinson finds appropriate sympathy for all her characters– good and not-so-good alike– and traces the texture of their feelings with the wisdom and imagination that come from deep living.
Consequently, I was happy to run across this essay by Marilynne Robinson, “Imagination and Community,” in Commonweal [excerpt and link below]. It’s not a great essay, truth be told: unlike her fiction, it is loose in both conception and execution. Still, it is worth attention, because Robinson raises up the importance of imagination for the health and humanity of a community.
One idea worth exploring: for Robinson, imagination is always a good. “I am convinced that the broadest possible exercise of imagination is the thing most conducive to human health, individual and global,” she writes, emphasizing the idea that community exists because of our ability to imagine loving people we don’t even know. The question occurs to me, however: isn’t the demonization of other groups– other races, other religions, other cultures– also an act of the imagination? Doesn’t the building of enmity also depend on an imaginative projection onto others, of a threatening, life-choking power that is out to get us? If this is so, then it’s not imagination per se that builds community, but a certain kind of imagination– a certain way of exercising the imagination. Robinson hints at this when she writes about the generous imagination which allows for expansion and possibility.
My point is simply: not all exercises of imagination are generous. The imagination that is soaked in fear, for example, is an imagination that is ready to circle the wagons, pack the muzzle-loader, and cock the trigger. What’s moving out there is not the possibility for new and deeper life through encounter and dialogue, but threat, plain and simple– threat to be eliminated.
Any religion in balance will be a school for the imagination– to train it to turn from fear to trust. Not naively, not thoughtlessly, but certainly faithfully.
Here is an excerpt from “Imagination and Community”:
I would say, for the moment, that community, at least community larger than the immediate family, consists very largely of imaginative love for people we do not know or whom we know very slightly…
[T]he definition of community [can] harden and contract, and [it] becomes violently exclusive and defensive. We have seen Christians against Christians, Muslims against Muslims, fighting to the death over distinctions those outside their groups would probably never notice and could certainly never understand. When definitions of “us” and “them” begin to contract, there seems to be no limit to how narrow these definitions can become. As they shrink and narrow, they are increasingly inflamed, more dangerous and inhumane.
They present themselves as movements toward truer and purer community, but, as I have said, they are the destruction of community. They insist that the imagination must stay within the boundaries they establish for it, that sympathy and identification are only allowable within certain limits. I am convinced that the broadest possible exercise of imagination is the thing most conducive to human health, individual and global….