So much of what we think is valuable is, in a sense at least, a figment of our collective imagination.
Human beings do not live merely as natural beings in a natural world; they live in a natural world overlaid with meanings they pour into it.
Our interpretation of things, events, motives of others – even of our own emotions – are often as real to us as any tree or bird. Thus, a robin is pleasant and a vulture is not. We can be as wise as an owl or as self-deceiving as an ostrich; stubborn as a mule or free as a bird.
Wisdom is the process of distinguishing between useful and delightful thoughts on one hand, and absolute reality on the other.
We live within a web of mental constructions that can seem as real to us as brick houses. In fact, most of us live in houses that others constructed. In many cases, the houses were here before we were born, just like the mental constructions that were given to us by culture, nation, family and religion.
The houses are made of natural substances. However, even those substances are prepared by human hands. Brick is clay that people have cooked according to recipes passed down and refined by generations of people since the days of ancient Babylon. Nonetheless, we soon invest these houses – at least the ones we actually inhabit – with affection, memory and meaningful artifacts and so, in time, these “houses” become “homes.”
The same sort of process transforms a piece of dirt into a “motherland” or a piece of cloth into “Old Glory.” It even transforms a nasty piece of cloth-paper into “money.”
It is all “art,” a shortened word for “artificial”: that is to say, “man-made”.
Art is the purposeful arrangement of materials in order to communicate emotion, idea or meaning. It is the imposition of human imagination upon nature. It is the process of transforming a piece of imagination into a piece of matter.
So what is imagination? The word means “image-making.” It describes the greatest power of human life: our ability to “see things that are not as though they were.”
Isn’t it great? Well, most of the time.
The Bible continually warns us against idolatry, which is the elevation of man-made things into the category of “absolute.” Idolatry erases the border between God-made and “man-made.” It makes the figments of our imagination as valuable, or even more valuable, than the world of nature. Thus, a national border, which human minds conceive and then project upon the natural world, can become more valuable than human beings, who bear God’s own image and likeness.
Our greatest president recognized the point I am making here when, in his most famous speech, he acknowledged that this nation was “conceived and dedicated to a proposition.” The proposition to which he refers is noble, even godly: “all men are created equal.” Nonetheless, the president’s assertion exposes the nation’s foundation: ideas.
The true borders of our nation are not latitudes and longitudes but ideals: a democratically governed republic, a portion of the world in which people make the most important decisions of life according to the dictates of their own conscience, a contract among all the generations that “this government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth,” a promise to “provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare for ourselves and our posterity,” and so forth and so on.
My mind is filled with all these phrases and customs, explanation and emotions, arguments and historical events. Every time I cross the border from another country into this one, this web of patriotic constructions shudders with delight. “This land is my land (not so sure these days that it’s your land) from California to the New York islands.”
This land is my home: “land where my fathers died; land of the pilgrims’ pride.”
My ancestors were all here before the revolutionary war. They fought and died in all its wars. They tamed a wilderness and left home places that I treasure.
It’s wonderful. But it’s not holy.
When patriotism becomes holy, the darkness of idolatry leads to purges, concentration camps and persecution.
The first two commandments are clear: we are forbidden to worship the things we create.
When we blur the distinction between creation and art, we get into dangerous territory.
Fantasy is another form of imagination; little private movies that we play for our own amusement, instruction or horror. When the fantasies turn dark, they can exert great power over our actions.
“May the words of our mouths and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in Thy sight, Oh Lord.”
May we have the wisdom to discern the difference between art and nature, between that which is holy and that which only deserves respect, and between fleeting notions and ideas which need to be nourished, developed and imposed upon the world.