Hopeful Imagination

From “Ethical Christianity”
by Hugh Price Hughes, 1847-1902

“Your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.” (Acts 2:17)

These words from the pen of the prophet Joel were declared by Saint Peter to refer to the Christian era, which was finally inaugurated on the Day of Pentecost. The marked characteristic of this era is that those who promote and represent it have visions and dreams of an ideal state of happiness unattained but attainable. Instead of accepting the existing situation as unchangeable, instead of submitting to evil as inevitable, Christians have visions and dreams of a golden age in which sin and evil and sorrow shall be no more. It has often been remarked that one of the most striking differences between Christianity and the classical religions of the south of Europe which it superseded, is that they placed their golden age in the dim and receding past, but Christianity places its golden age in the bright and advancing future.

Now the faculty of the soul which apprehends the beatific vision both of the actual and of the attainable is the imagination. This great faculty reaches its maturity and achieves its noblest deeds in the service of religion when purified and illuminated by the Holy Spirit. Then it sees visions and dreams dreams of “whatsoever things God prepared for them that love him.” It was this imagination which enabled the great saints to do their mighty deeds. Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and all the prophets “saw visions and dreamed dreams.” They were not deceived and paralysed by “the things which are seen and temporal.” With the eye of faith or imagination they saw “the things that are unseen and eternal,” and in the strength of that beatific vision, they accomplished gigantic moral revolutions which lifted the whole human race to higher levels of goodness and of happiness.

But it may be necessary to remind you that this great faculty existed in the most vigorous and vivid form in the Master himself.

When the seventy evangelists returned with their artless story of spiritual triumph, his eyes flashed and he exclaimed, “I beheld Satan fallen as lightning from heaven."

His imagination was so alert and so penetrating, that in the first feeble triumphs of his emissaries he saw the promise and potency of the restitution of all things.

Again, certain Greeks came to one of his disciples and said, “Sir, we would see Jesus.”

When that request was conveyed to him he exclaimed exultingly, “Now is the judgment of this world, now shall the prince of this world be cast out.”

To his lofty imagination that little group of obscure Greeks was the advance guard of the southern races of Europe, of the Teutonic tribes, of the great churches of our own time and of the greater churches not yet born. Christ, indeed, lived habitually in the unseen. He realised always that great future when his disciples would sit upon twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel, and when all the gentiles would be subject to his sway.

There is nothing which ordinary Christians lack so much as this inspired Imagination. They do not see visions. They do not dream dreams. You and I have probably been too hard upon them. They have not lacked, as we have been tempted to believe and say, religion or faith, but imagination. We have been indignant and angry at their parochial ideas, at their grovelling hopes, at their small satisfactions, at their dwarfish ambitions. But they have not been unreal or unbelieving. Their dull, undeveloped souls have not realised the divine possibilities. There are human moles that burrow and grope in the darkness of narrow boundaries, of subterranean passages and there are human eagles that spurn the low earth and soar aloft into the bright sunlight. Only eagles can see the vast horizon of life and beauty. Are you a mole or an eagle? Do you belong to the class of Christians whose imaginations have never been roused and exalted by God or to those who see visions and dream dreams of glorious spiritual victories?

Ordinary Christians, with their unsanctified imagination, are not perturbed by a half-empty sanctuary or by a Christian Church that is more dead than alive. They have no enterprise. They have no enthusiasm. They hold that as it was in the beginning or is now, so it must be forever and forever. They are indignant with Christians whose imagination enables them to realise spiritual prosperity yet un-attained. Imaginative Christians see the sanctuary crowded with healthy, happy, united Christians. They see all the great revivals and spiritual miracles of the past repeated under their eyes. Unimaginative Christians are affronted by such visions. They regard people who cherish them as a dangerous visionaries, foolish fanatics, reckless enthusiasts. The real difference between these two types is not that one is Christian and that the other is not; but that one has the eyes of their imagination opened, while the others are still blind.

Again, in civic life, the ordinary Christian citizens are well satisfied if they discharge their own commonplace duties to the rate-collector and to the municipal authorities. But Christian citizens whose imaginations are inspired of God dream of social changes which would make it as easy for their fellow-citizens to do right as it now is for them to do wrong. What a dream of social reform has come to General Booth in his old age That veteran of the faith imagines social arrangements which will abolish pauperism and all the world wonders. There is no sphere of life in which there is more scope for the imagination than in civic life. Only at present, there is no sphere in which it is so little exercised. Nothing could be more dull, narrow, and brutish than the ordinary conception of municipal life in our great towns. Only here and there do municipal authorities begin to realise how much could easily and cheaply be done to beautify life, to ennoble it, to instruct and inspire it and, on the other hand, to repress both hideousness and vileness. Some day Christians will see visions and dream dreams of noble and glorious citizenship. Then the voice of complaining will no longer be heard in our streets.

When we rise to the sphere of patriotic or national life we find the noblest scope for the Christian imagination. The real patriot is ever dreaming of the good time when people will dwell together in peace and amicability. Think of the glorious vision of peace which came to Isaiah! He dreamed of the nations “beating their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning-hooks” and not even “learning war any more.” The dull and stupid say that war is inevitable. This ignoble sentiment is not due to the fact that they are bloodthirsty but to the degraded condition of their imagination which has never been roused by the touch of the finger of God.

O, how shall we kindle the imaginations of people? Nothing is so much needed to redeem life from its smallness, its narrowness, its abject impotence. Read “Isaiah,” read “The Revelation,” read the four lives of Christ and, first of all, realise this very hour what Christ can do for you. Young people, see visions of a noble and beneficent career! Old people, dream dreams of a life not wholly lost, of much that may yet be done for God and for humanity! How glorious it is when young and old thus combine in anticipating, and therefore in promoting, the kingdom of God which shall yet be established upon earth! How delightful when the daring and ardent vision of youth is corrected and extended by the peaceful and serene dream of old age! Everyone, at every period of life, may cherish the beatific vision of the Christian world, the “new earth” that is to be. Only so shall we rise above the tyranny of the past and the despair of the present. Things are not as they seem. Ancient evils are already tottering to their fall. The Lord God, omnipotent, reigns. Nothing is too hard for him. The only real hindrance to the progress of his kingdom is to be found in the narrowness of our thoughts and in the parochial smallness of our enterprises. Let us ask for great things and expect great things. According to our divinely inspired imagination, it shall be done unto us.

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