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Imagination & Encounter; Or, the Necessity of Creativity in the Journey of Faith

by Clint Wilson • Community and Care Pastor

Albert Einstein once said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

One of the things that initially drew me to City Church, now nearly eight years ago, was this community’s commitment to beauty and the arts as a primary pathway to understanding God and our place in the world. Now, many, long summers later—and what feels like several “lives” later—I often find myself having conversations with people about what it means for a church to privilege the arts. Is it a form of outreach or service, similar to supporting one of our mission partners? Is it simply an aspect of how we think about worship and the experience on Sunday mornings? Is it a way to organize events for our wider Houston community that while designed for our church to enjoy, serves as a means of reaching those beyond our walls and homes?

On the one hand, I want to say, Yes to all of the above. On the other hand, a part of me wants to say, No. Ah, paradox. On the one hand, I hope that City Church’s commitment to the arts is missional, communal, and results in the flourishing of our home here in Houston. On the other hand, I hope, too, that the reason we so often engage with the subject of the arts—as well as artists, makers, and creators of all kinds—is actually about more than a matter of programming or partnerships.

Allow me to explain. In my opinion, art is theology and theology is art. Any faith steeped in scripture and in God’s unfailing and gracious love for us will be a faith that must joyfully come up against the world of artistry, creativity, and the imagination. A third of the Bible is made up of poetry; an enormous part of Christ’s ministry was teaching in parables, stories that straddle that boundary between fiction and truth; and the story of the Bible and God’s love for the world is perhaps the single most important source material for the production of the arts over the last two thousand years. To say nothing of God as the initial Maker, the artist whose primary act of being was to create beauty and light and matter.  

Faith does not require that any of us become artists, but it certainly invites us to consider it. Still, I encourage those of us who feel “unartistic” to reconsider the temptation to call ourselves “uncreative.” Sure, not everyone is called to be an artist, but we are all called to employ our imaginations, to allow the divine and creative spark within us—by which I mean the very image of the Creator God, the Imago Dei—to lead us beyond the world of mere fact and knowledge.

By virtue of having been shaped by a creative God, we all necessarily have creative, imaginative capacities. It may be creatively solving a problem in your work or home; or, it may involve exploring artistic callings like writing, journaling, painting, or some other pursuit. It doesn’t matter where we fall on the spectrum of artistic ability, but to pursue a God who exists in ways that exceed our ability to know or fully comprehend, we must lean into creativity as a way of shaping our relationship to him. Call it creativity as theology.

To lean into a kind of theology that invites imagination, speculation, and conversation with a God beyond our experiential reality, we must embrace our own limits. We must, I think, realize our limits—and be patient with ourselves as we try, and sometimes fail, to move beyond simple “understanding” as the end of our spiritual search. What would it look like to embrace process as opposed to stability, communion with God rather than commitment to some depersonalized list of moral principles that, while important, can actually crush our creativity?

I was so inspired by a recent conversation with Civic Club cellist Katie Beth Harry. At one point, Katie Beth encouraged us to reframe what it means to try new things, especially creative endeavors, saying, “You really have to let go of trying to control the outcome of your work, and it’s really about leaning into the process and being curious and developing a rhythm.” The well-known visual artist Makoto Fujimura agrees. In his book Art and Faith, he explains, “There is no art if we are unwilling to wait for the paint to dry.”

So, maybe let’s lean into process. Let’s wait for the paint to dry. Let’s call theology a creative pursuit, and our creative pursuits a theological undertaking. At least for me, that is why City Church is such a special place and why we are so emphatic about the role of art and beauty in our community. It’s wonderful to support artists who are helping our world become a more beautiful place. It’s wonderful to cultivate beautiful things and meaningful conversations. But the real reason City Church fosters conversations about creativity is because we see that to be instrumental in every single person’s spiritual growth. In my reading of the Bible, we are all artists in the sense that we are all destined and designed to be reflective of a fundamentally creative God, a God who calls us to exist in process and exploration, and who invites us to encounter him through our divinely-gifted imagination.

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Clint Wilson
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