Once upon a time, there was a gifted writer who told a story entitled ‘The Dream of a Thousand Cats’. In this story, we learn that in the deep history of time life on earth was remarkably different. Cats were the dominant species; humans were merely their playthings. The conceit of the story is that slowly, the humans began to talk and dream of a different world – a world where they would be free of the tyrannical oppression of the cats, where they would be in charge. One day, enough human beings dreamed the same dream – and when they woke, from the dream, they discovered that the world had been changed. It had become what we would recognise today – where humans are dominant and cats are merely pets. The story itself is told from the perspective of a cat who has learned the truth, and who has dedicated his life to telling all other cats the same tale. If only a thousand cats would dream the same dream, they could once more rule the planet! But of course, as soon as that criterion is mentioned, any cat-owner will see why humans are safe from feline revolution…
Our imaginations are vastly more powerful than the official narrative of our society leads us to accept. The imagination is good for children – all those fairy tales! And it’s good for entertainment – all those wonderful movies! But when it comes to the serious business of life, imagination just gets in the way. Those with imagination are seen as lacking in common sense, as being woolly-thinkers lacking a concrete connection to reality. Yet – ponder for a moment; look around you, wherever you are, and ask yourself what things that you see were not first conceived in the imagination of another human being? One obvious exception would be living creatures; another exception would be the sky – but what else? Every building, every street, every object in a house – all were first dreamed up by the imagination of one person or another.
The imagination is yet more powerful, for the simple reason that all of our understandings of the world resolve down to a level of story. Even the “hardest” of scientific facts take their place within a particular narrative – whether that be a narrative of the Big Bang or the narrative of evolution or something else. We are a story-making species, and it is the imagination that gives birth to the stories that structure our lives. The imagination determines the colour of the glasses that we wear, and through which we see the world. So it is not simply the objects in our world that are born in our imaginations, but the meaning that all those objects have, and the meaning of all our experiences besides. Put simply, the story that we tell about something or someone determines how that something or someone is understood – and therefore, what sort of activities and changes and lives might be possible.
This is why, in the Bible, the first and foremost task of the prophets – those people driven by the Spirit of God to engage directly with the political authorities of their time and place, from Moses to Jesus – was to engage people’s imaginations. This would often be done through something called ‘prophetic drama’, which was an acting out of a scene or a parable which engaged people’s imaginations. Jesus casting out the money-changers in the Temple is the most famous example, but there are many others. What the prophet first had to do was enable the people to dream; principally to dream that ‘it doesn’t have to be that way’. Always and in every case, it was the response of the political authorities to scorn such imagination, to repress and ridicule it, and, often, simply to terrorise and silence the dreamers. Yet, in just the same way that a ‘war on terror’ can never be won – for how is it possible to make war upon an abstract noun? So too is it impossible to eradicate a dream, once it has got into the bloodstream of a society.
This is what I believe we as a nation and a society have to talk about in the context of a referendum about our EU membership. What sort of a people are we? What is our dream of who we are? A previously dominant dream was one of Empire, but what is to take its place? Who are we? I can’t help but feel it was a reaction to loss of Empire – to the breaking of a dream – that led to a loss of national self-confidence, and which in turn led to our engagement in the structures of European Union. It was if the guiding story was – we are a fading nation, we are not strong enough to make our own way in the world any more, let us join in with our neighbours and seek safety and prosperity through their strength. That particular story – a story perhaps most closely associated with the anarchic 1970s – is not one that holds true for us any more. My own sense is that our ‘national story’ is much more effectively told through something like the wonderful 2012 olympic ceremony – we are not the Imperial people that we used to be but, actually, it’s good to be British.
I believe that this sort of story-examination applies on an individual basis too – we literally become who we imagine ourselves to be (obviously, there is such a thing as delusion; that’s not what I’m referring to). In other words, if we imagine ourselves as not worthy, we actually become less worthy – we defeat ourselves before we have ever stepped into the arena. This is the realm of faith – this is the realm of what Christians call ‘spiritual warfare’, which is the struggle between the voice that says we are weak and worthless and wicked, and the voice which much more quietly and more persistently says ‘you are loved’. It is when we allow that latter voice to dominate the story that we tell ourselves about who we are that we are enabled to work creatively and imaginatively to heal and restore our broken world.