Two of the happiest years of my life were spent as a stay-at-home dad, when our oldest son Isaiah was a toddler. Most of our days began with a walk around the neighborhood, stopping whenever we met something of interest: a slug wending its silvery path across the sidewalk; a handful of pebbles to throw, one by one, into the street; a neighbor planting flowers along her driveway. An hour or so later, we’d be back at the house, and I’d boost him up into his favorite swing, a simple fabric seat with a safety strap in front, suspended from the branch of a large flowering dogwood tree in the front yard. We called it the “Imagination Swing.” And he loved it.
Leaning back into the seat with his eyes shut as I drew the seat back and then let go, feeling the breeze and sunlight on his face, back and forth he’d go, me pushing while weaving some tall tale about a superhero adventurer boy named Isaiah flying through clouds and over lakes and valleys to some unknown destination far away on the other side of the planet. The journey in between, made up on the spot by me, of course, was full of all kinds of strange twists and turns, which Isaiah accepted entirely and without qualification. It was, after all, the Imagination Swing. Anything and everything was possible.
As the months went by, and his capacity for language developed, something changed. He would suddenly interrupt my stories and interject his own scenarios: a whale leaping out of the sea as he flew over, catching him between fins on its back, and plunging him down into the deep waters for an aquatic conference with the Merking and Merqueen who lived beneath the waves. The sheer vividness of his inner world blossoming before my eyes was amazing to me, and even more, the ease with which he was able to cross the gap in his mind’s eye between what is – the empirical world of experience right before him – and what is possible, a world shimmering just behind the veil, the realm of the hidden, the mysterious, the unknown.
Much has been made in recent years of the decline of the liberal arts in higher education, including my own discipline of theology, once upon a time considered the queen of the sciences. A lot of religious folks have blamed the decline of religious literacy and the emptying of the churches in the west on the rise of secularism. It’s not a new argument, as Abraham Joshua Heschel pointed out some fifty years ago: “It is customary,” said Rabbi Heschel, “to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest,” he continued, “to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined, not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid.” I agree with Heschel. Young people are abandoning formal religious practice not primarily because secularism has made faith seem irrelevant or incredible but because religious belief and practice as presented to them by their elders lacks empathy and imagination. It lacks vitality and prophetic spirit. It lacks hope. Too often, it lacks what matters most: love, mercy, and a passionate commitment to justice.
This brings me back to the Imagination Swing. If our Jesuit institutions today risk being colonized by a certain captivity of imagination—the imagination of war, the dictates of marketplace reason—then our task must be to cultivate an alternative climate that frees the imagination for other possibilities. We cannot build a more beautiful, just, and sustainable future unless we can first imagine it, imbibing deeply from the lessons of the past, even as we lean forward, with minds and hearts open onto the future. Jesuit education must open up spaces where teacher and students can dare to imagine together a transformed world, to risk even the miraculous, as we open ourselves to possibilities hidden just behind the veil.
My son Isaiah is now 18, and about to embark for college. At two years old, what he “knew” about the world was almost literally nothing. But what he had, what he knew in his whole being without yet knowing it rationally, was the disposition of a poet, the attentive eye of the artist. We would do well to work with the God-given materials that our students have, the gifts to the universe that they already are, though few yet know it. If we prepare them well, they will write their own stories, dreaming things that their parents and teachers could never have imagined. They will leave behind old patterns of thought and worn-out ways of being in relationship to the suffering planet.
We must trust them and trust God enough to let them.
The Author: Dr. Christopher Pramuk is Associate Professor at the Theology Department of Xavier University, Cincinnati, Ohio. Dr. Pramuk is passionate about Jesuit education, inviting students to think deeply and imagine widely from a Catholic, ecumenical, cross-cultural, and inter-religious perspective.
*This article was adapted from the Keynote for the Jesuit Schools Network Colloquium, June 2016