Renowned theoretical physicist Albert Einstein in a 1929 magazine interview put it this way: “I am enough of the artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”
If such a brilliant thinker, whose name has become synonymous with being a genius, recognized the priority of imagination, what’s happened to us to stifle and devalue our imaginings?
Why is it that we live in a world whose leaders most often try unsuccessfully to solve the same old problems with the same old unimaginative solutions that hadn’t worked before? Why is it that the dominant ideas in politics are the same old ones that assume the rich can only exist by being dependent upon and ensuring that a class of people stay poor?
For how many millennia have religious leaders been preaching at the world to stop the same old sinning — and yet, here we are, rife with the same old sins, especially those so-called “Seven Deadly” ones?
How long have we tried the same old militaristic solutions to problems and find so many still thinking that war is the way to peace while we create even more enemies? World War I was called “the war to end all wars,” wasn’t it?
In other words, why no Einsteinian revolution in our foundational moral, social, and political thinking?
It sure would have been fitting if he did, but it wasn’t really Einstein who defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” That astute quip actually originated in one of the 12-step communities.
So, what’s happened to our ability to imagine and find really creative solutions? Where are those new ideas that we should expect to still be drawn freely from creative imaginations?
Will even this very discussion of imagination’s value be tsk-tsked as too unrealistic? Has our dominant culture so lost the ability to creatively imagine alternatives that those who tell us that imagination is worthless for “really important” thinking are right in saying we’re hopelessly stuck in some culturally defined straightjacket with little wiggle room?
Have we sidelined imagination to those fields that we consider unessential, even eccentric, frills such as the arts or creative writing? They’re certainly some of the first areas our leaders choose to get the ax when educational budgets are cut, aren’t they?
Have we reached the end of the line for any new ideas that aren’t just improvements in technology? Is “blue-sky thinking” just a temporary luxury that must always be limited by the pull of a gravity defined as someone’s ideas of practicality and realism?
We certainly did much better at fantasizing about how anything could be different when we were very young. What if the what-ifs of children before they’ve been sufficiently conditioned by grownups and institutions around them weren’t just dismissed as “childish” but actually reminded us somehow about a natural human imaginative and creative potential?
Teaching children to grow up, to understand the world “as it really is,” as adults think it should be, and as we conditioned people want them to see that they must understand it to be in order to get along, usually comes at a price of stifling their imaginations, dreams, fantasies, and real creativity. At some point we’ve internalized the “limits” of “reality” as defined by our cultures.
Of course, there actually are limits to reality. But the problem is that these teachings about the boundaries of thinking come with stifling warnings that function mainly to keep the current system intact.
Fantasy and imagination must give way to what is considered efficient, what supports the status quo that we take for granted, and what keeps consumerism energized. Soon kids are told that they won’t get a job, get ahead, or get wealthy with those “wild” ideas. They’ll find themselves on the outside of society.
So, they slowly learn what is acceptable about creativity and what it’s okay to imagine, through “Art Appreciation” or “Music Appreciation” courses. Good art, they’ll learn, is what only the rich can afford and in their charitable generosity might give to a museum for the rest to view — with the benevolent donor’s name on a plaque beside it.
“Good” music won’t be that of their band that gets together in a garage to jam but music that sells online or is played on the airways. You’ll know music is good because it makes one financially prosperous.
They’ll come, then, to value their own art and music as successful to the extent that it makes money. The words “good” and “valuable” will be capitalist commodities.
But imagination and creativity have no inherent standards, after all. They’re not constrained by what’s considered rational or normal. They might be feared because they’re hard for the establishment to control.
They might cause too many to accept that their own artistic creations and own musical compositions are more valuable than that “good” costly stuff they would now not need to buy and download to keep the marketplace going and to confirm that the wealthiest rightfully belong at the top setting the standards. People might discover that they can enjoy the music in their own head or can without apology hang the art that they themselves create on their walls.
And when it comes to solutions to societal and world problems, imagination and creativity — when not marginalized to people stereotyped as eccentric, quirky, even queer, “artists” — might challenge the solutions of the so-called important people, threaten the security of the powers that be, question the nobility of those who are monetarily at the top, propose new religious options that dispute the value of tired orthodoxies, or upset an economy stuck in its addiction to consuming and profit-making.
Valuing imagination might mean that there’s a whole set of inefficient, “unrealistic” questions to be asked in order to develop new and better solutions to what we’ve been relentlessly taught is the inevitable way things are. What is “realistic” could transcend the limits of our economy.
When my son was in preschool, he asked: “Dad, what if there were a fourth primary color?”
Now, that’s a truly creative question. And I’m glad that at that moment I was dumbstruck without falling back on norms of efficiency and money-making to tell him it was silly, unrealistic, inefficient, impractical, or wouldn’t get him anywhere in life.
Later as a teenager he enjoyed guitar lessons and became good enough that his teacher recommended bands he could audition for. Trying to encourage him, I said a dad thing: You know that guitarists in bands get awfully popular with people they might want to date.
But with the pleasure of imagination, experimentation, and creativity he experienced for himself, he didn’t want more – his music back in his room brought him joy. And the home I lived in, as a by-product, was happily filled with it.
This is why to me it always seems important personally and for our society’s future to ask every so often: Are we free enough from our system’s unimaginative demands to indulge in imagining other possibilities?
One stereotype is that queer people are — that coming out to themselves means they have already faced and contradicted so much that culture’s tried to convince them was really, really important such as worn out and destructive societal patterns about sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity and performance, and that they are somehow more “artistic” and creative.
There’s certainly truth in that for anyone who’s flaunted so many of the straight norms of society, because once you have, why not feel more comfortable outside that straightjacket exploring the realm of imagination and creation in many even forbidden ways?
Is imagination and creativity, then, even a little too frightfully “queer” for many?
Or is it way past time for all of us to let go and ask: when was the last time I was free enough to indulge my imagination?
Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at the University of Kansas where he taught for 33 years and was department chair for six years, Robert N. Minor (he/him), M.A., Ph.D is the author of 8 books as well as numerous articles and contributions to edited volumes. He is an historian of religion with specialties in Biblical studies, Asian religions, religion and gender and religion and sexuality. His writing has been published in Whosoever since 2005 and he continues to speak and lead workshops around the country. In 1999 GLAAD awarded him its Leadership Award for Education, in 2012 the University of Kansas named him one of the University’s Men of Merit, in 2015 the American Men’s Studies Association gave him the Lifetime Membership Award, and in 2018 Missouri Jobs with Justice presented him with the Worker’s Rights Board Leadership Award. He resides in Kansas City, Missouri and is founder of The Fairness Project.