The Human Imagination

by Elder M. Lindahl

The question of the place of music in worship settings has been around in the world’s religions for a long time. Currently, the great divide for Protestants is between traditional and contemporary music. Though Pietists give singing a central place in the sanctuary, they do not always agree on how it fits in. In early times, spiritual words put to drinking-song tunes were considered irreverent and jazzy by some. Youth for Christ choruses of the 40s and 50s disturbed parents who liked the old, classic hymns better. In one way or another, the clash between traditional and contemporary music has been, and will be, with us for years and years.

On a deeper level, apart from whether and what sort of music is appropriate in the church, there is the further question of the nature of the poetic words of songs. The basic question I address here mainly concerns the truth and reality of the language of Christian hymnody. The lyrics of these songs, usually rhymed, are in poetic form, and the human imagination is clearly at work. Think of the kind of human creativity that produced this old favorite:

I come to the garden alone
While the dew is still on the roses
And the voice I hear falling on my ear
The Son of God discloses.

And He walks with me, and He talks with me,
And He tells me I am His own;
And the joy we share as we tarry there,
None other has ever known.

He speaks, and the sound of His voice,
Is so sweet the birds hush their singing,
And the melody that He gave to me
Within my heart is ringing.

“...The sound of His voice is so sweet the birds hush their singing,” though not literally true, is spiritually edifying. Human imagination is a special sense, given to humans by the Creator God and evolved through time, through which we are able to combine nature and thought meaningfully. It allows us to project, alter, and fantasize abstractly and concretely from sense experience.

No other animal, not even our closest animal companions on planet earth, could have come up with these words:

Fair are the meadows, Fair are the woodlands,
Robed in flowers of blooming spring;
Jesus is fairer, Jesus is purer;
He makes our sorrowing spirit sing.

Fair is the sunshine, Fair is the moonlight,
Bright the sparkling stars on high;
Jesus shines brighter, Jesus shines purer,
Than all the angels in the sky.

Human imagination produces images and develops interpretations of what we sense. It moves us beyond what we experience with our five senses into different levels of reality and belief. Human imagination might be called a special transforming sense.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), the German philosopher, refers to this human capacity as “die Einbildungskraft” by which he means the power of imagination or the ability of the mind to create images which do not literally exist.

From this human ability come the creative and inspiring poetic lyrics of Christian hymnody. Some hymns celebrate the beauty of nature while others express hope in times of trouble, suffering, and death. Others invite us to share in the Kingdom of God using Biblical imagery while still others express personal gratitude and devotion to the person and work of the Lord. Hymns deal with the whole gamut of human experiences, from womb to tomb.

The human imagination can and does also produce fanciful, imaginary, grotesque, wild ideas of human existence above, on, and below planet earth. Mythical creatures, science fiction, and fairy tales all proceed from the human imagination. It creates comical as well as scary episodes, operas as well as soap operas, the fanciful and fictitious as well as the romantic and entertaining. From the human imagination comes almost every kind of association of things and events from the ridiculous to the sublimely edifying.

Think of the intriguing images which John S. B. Monsell, (1811 –1875), uses when he writes about hills leaping and valleys laughing and singing at harvest time:

Sing to the Lord of the harvest, sing songs of love and praise;
with joyful hearts and voices your alleluias raise!
By him the rolling seasons in fruitful order move;
sing to the Lord of the harvest a song of grateful love.

By him the clouds drop richness, the deserts bloom and spring,
the hills leap up in gladness, the valleys laugh and sing.
He fills us with his fullness, all things with large increase;
he crowns the year with goodness, with plenty and with peace.

Not all theologians glory in the power of the human imagination. Swiss Theologian Karl Barth, for example, argues that Christian Faith comes directly from above, from Divine revelation, without the presence of any human element. He worries that the negative ideas of Ludwig Feuerbach and Sigmund Freud—that faith is nothing more than the projections of the human imagination—will undercut the realities of Faith. He has a point, but he over corrects and excludes human imagination from Christian Scripture, faith, and doctrine.

In contrast to Barth, Dean Nils Wilhelm Lund shows that the poetic element has a significant place in the Old and New Testaments Scriptures and in theology. Revelation and human creative responses intertwine seamlessly. Lund clarifies and establishes that Hebrew poetic and prose thought patterns shaped the literature of the New Testament. See his Chiasmus in the New Testament, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1942.

Whether or not there will ever be complete agreement on the type of music that is proper in the church, my point is that imaginative lyrics and symbols are powerful allies of Faith. Christian hymnals record some of the finest, classic, soul poetry of all time. The human imagination has been, and is, at work on many levels when we gather to sing in celebration of the grandeur and the grace of God. The faith of our fathers and mothers lives still in these old and new songs. In a secular age, such poetry is one way for the human spirit to find meaning, consolation, and belonging in life.