Imagination and community

April 27, 2017

Imagination and community

Trevor Cairney

Teachers often speak of the importance of imagination as the foundation of many creative activities, but how often do we consider the vital part it plays in wider learning, life and faith? I want to suggest that imagination is central to life, and is used by God as he draws us to himself. It is within communities of interest and practice that our views of the world, and of our place within these multiple communities, are shaped. As we live with other people, our views, aspirations, goals, hopes and identities are influenced, as James Smith has argued.[1]


The Apostle Paul understood the need to ‘capture’ imaginations. As the early church emerged and people from varied backgrounds came together, they brought varied stories from the past and hopes for their futures. In Ephesians 2 we read how Paul challenged this new community of believers to grasp that they were no longer bound by their past, and gave them a vision for their future. He reminded them that because of Christ we are ‘… no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household’ (Eph 2:19). They were to seek transformed lives within a community where there was no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free. Jew and Gentile alike needed to be able to imagine a new future, a new identity and a new world. In his letter to the church in Rome (6:11-13), Paul also reminds his readers that they could experience a new unity and standing before God, not shaped by their past but by their hoped-for future. This required them to seek and know God and embrace membership of God’s kingdom. This was not simply a cerebral assent of the mind, it involved them reimagining their futures.


In their helpful book, Veith and Ristuccia[2] suggest that imagination expressed within community is an important way that God transforms us. As we express, test and consider our imaginings with others, we are transformed and so are they. As our students share their lives, and as they imagine their futures, they are influenced and changed. Our imagined, as well as our reasoned discussions of God and his word, rarely do as well in isolation. Journeys towards faith are generally community projects.[3] God redeems our imaginations as well as our minds and wills. Like us, our students flourish in relationship to other people who they not only know, but who they trust.


The teacher must grapple with the reality that in the mainstream activities of classroom life, there may well be little that binds members together; little shared concern, or even common hopes for the future. If our classroom activities fail to engage the imaginations of our students, they will exercise these in pursuing other activities, goals, hopes and dreams.[4]


Maurice Friedman suggests that ‘the true teacher is not one who pours information into the student’s head as through a funnel—the old-fashioned ‘disciplined’ approach—or the one who regards all potentialities as already existing within the student and needing to be pumped up—the newer ‘progressive’ approach. It is the one who fosters genuine mutual contact and mutual trust.’[5]


Finding better means for teachers and students to develop understanding of one another would seem to be the key to reducing the generational distance between teacher and child, and to establishing classrooms and schools as transformative communities that allow space for the imagination.


How is this discussion of dialogue and relational communities connected to imagination? Imagination is a foundational part of how such communities are formed. Imagination is central to how our students’ minds are engaged, hopes are formed, aspirations are primed, and friendships are conceived and supported. As students engage in the life of the school, and the communities of practice that they inhabit, imagination plays a key role in connecting who they are, who they wish to become, and what is critical to their sense of belonging.



[1] James Smith, ‘Educating the Imagination’. Case Quarterly No. 31, 2012, pp9-14.

[2] Gene E. Veith & Matthew P. Ristuccia, Imagination Redeemed (Crossway, 2015), pp135-136.

[3] Ibid., p136.

[4] Trevor Cairney, Pedagogy and Education for Life (Wipf & Stock, In Press).

[5] Friedman, ‘Introduction’, in Martin Buber, Between Man and Man (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1947), ppxvii-xviii.

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