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This month I am working on an article with my partner in research in the Learning Pastoral Imagination Project. Chris Scharen and I are writing about pastoral imagination itself. And as a part of that we are reviewing literature that addresses the concept.

Sometimes when saying what something is, and thus giving shape to a definition, it is equally important to define what something is not. When I tell people about the LPI Project I generally find myself in a very enthusiastic conversation. People are really curious about how we interview pastors around the US and more importantly they want to know what we are discovering about the ministers themselves and how they learn.

We’ve begun to write about our findings (see “Holy Cow! This Stuff is Real: From Imagining Ministry to Pastoral Imagination”) and about what we are learning in the process of research (“Ethnography on Holy Ground: Practical Theology, Shared Silence, and Qualitative Interviewing” which is under review with an academic journal). And now we are defining the territory of our research in yet another way. We are hoping to say some things both about what pastoral imagination is and what it is not.

Students, pastors, professors, and non-professionals who are simply interested in ministry often begin to talk about what our project must be about when I’m in one of those enthusiastic conversations. They think of imagination in one of its more common forms: 1) as the creative process of making something new (a book, sermon or painting) by using one’s imagination or 2) the ability to figure out what will happen in the future by imagining it. We are conceiving of pastoral imagination in a different and more complex way that either of these common uses of the word point to exactly.

Among other things this week, like intensive teaching, I’ve been reviewing various books and articles that take up the concept of imagination. One book that caught my eye describes imagination in the second common sense (seeing into the future). Daniel Gilbert in his bestselling 2005 Stumbling on Happiness defines imagination and describes its problems. His book is not in the self-help genre about happiness, by the way. (“Those books are . . . two aisles over, and once you’ve bought one, done everything it says to do, and found yourself miserable anyway, you can always come back here to understand why” quips Gilbert [xvi-xvii].)

“Imagination” says Gilbert is “the faculty that allows us to see the future.” He also calls it a “powerful tool that allows us to conjure images from ‘airy nothing’” and yet at the same time is plagued by shortcomings. The first shortcoming that Gilbert describes is the same for imagination as it is for “memory (the faculty that allows us to see the past) and perception (the faculty that allows us to see the present)” (86).

The “dirty little secret” of the mind’s ability is a process Gilbert calls simply the “filling-in trick.” Our brains routinely, and without our thinking or planning, supply details that we do not actually see (as in the optical illusion that prevents us from noticing the blind spot in our visual field) or hear (supplying words that are not said in groups of words that hint at the missing word).

Additionally our poor ability to predict our own futures (the particular meaning of imagination for Gilbert) is due not to our ability to think of many possible futures, but rather our persistent failure to notice what details we ignore: “the leaving out trick” (119). For instance when I’m so sure I will get six things done tomorrow, I often fail to notice how many other things will be part of part of the day – even the family routines which take time and energy that can’t be invested in my “to do list.” I also fail to imagine all the interruptions that can derail my plans. I often make inaccurate predictions about what I can actually accomplish in a day. And finally I forget how long it actually takes to do some things.

Another equally complicated failure in the capacity of imagination is the inability to make judgments about the future because it is at a distance. We know the difference spatially between a car in the driveway in front of us and a car whizzing by on an interstate a mile away that looks like a toy or a small bug. However, we are less good at judging the differences temporally between our life today (up close) or last year or next year (at a distance). The details are fuzzier and we smooth them over and leave out the more difficult ones. We misperceive the significance of details like the ones I mentioned (day-to-day demands for energy, they way that interruptions work or the time involved in doing tasks).

These processes of smoothing out, filing in, forgetting, misperceiving and “leaving out” all work smoothly and seamlessly in our mental processes. They make our lives rich and interesting and livable. And the more significant problem is not that we do these things, but that we “do this so well that we aren’t aware it is happening” (119).

So what does all this have to do with pastoral imagination? That is yet to be seen. What I’ve shared here is only a tiny slice of understanding about the processes of everyday thinking. And as such, these processes of the brain and mind are not insignificant, even if they are not the central way we are thinking about pastoral imagination, as a kind of seeing in depth into a situation. And given Gilbert’s arguments, I’m not going to predict (or imagine) just yet how this material will or won’t fit into our published description of pastoral imagination. But I will make the tentative guess, that you may hear more about all of it at some point in the future (grin). Meanwhile, I hope it has given you something interesting to think about today, even if you’ll forget most of it with the very next click.