THE SECRET OF OUR HOPE: ON THE IMAGINATION OF CHILDREN
At the back of our brains, so to speak, there was a forgotten blaze or burst of astonishment at our own existence. The object of the artistic and spiritual life was to dig for this submerged sunrise of wonder. — G. K. Chesterton
As a children's book author and a creative writing teacher for kids, I have the honor — and challenge — of spending my days both digging for the submerged sunrise in myself and basking in the blazing sun of others. It is a perilous adventure at times, fraught with ninja-kicking dei ex machina and discombobulated spelling. Even as I write this, in fact, I am also faced with the daunting task of drawing an imaginary creature that is the composite of strange body part descriptions by twenty kids — including sixty-five multicolored ears, fifteen moldy toes, elbow-macaroni-and-cheese spines, and a tail that has a fair chance of being ranked among the world's seven wonders.
Since I am neither a parent nor a pastor, nor even a traditional sort of school teacher, I often feel that my relationship to children has a slightly different flavor from that of many of my friends and colleagues; I feel less like a guide or caretaker and more like an imaginative cohort, a co-conspirator in all things monsterific or dragonesque. And therefore when someone mentions the innate spirituality of children, I do not at first think of their innocence, their unsettling questions about life and death and the immortality of pet hamsters, or their spontaneous bursts of insight that seem to confirm Wordsworth's suspicion that they came out of the womb "trailing clouds of glory." I think of my students' stories about talking cats, magic portals, giant sloths from outer space, adventurous pizza delivery boys, treasure chests, princesses who go on quests, fiddling skydivers, and bizarre creatures. I think about the astonishing phrases that proceed from the pencils of elementary-age kids — fish eyelashes, bellowing volcanoes, the toenails of dolphins, a song of silver and ice, fairy whispers, the distant explosion of a marshmallow, icicles shivering and shuffling across the sky, the spicy sound of wind by the sea cliffs, or extremely rare petrified slurps.
Because the very possibility of belief in a divine reality that transcends our earthly one depends upon that innate but fragile ability children have in spades (when it is nurtured well): a robust imagination.
Indeed, I think that the best source of hope — hope strong enough to pull us beyond the gravity of adult pessimism — lies in the very playfulness, dare I say silliness, that we grown-ups seem most quick to outgrow.
William Paley famously looked at the universe and saw a divine watchmaker; I see a kid older than time playing with a cosmic Lego set. I see a God who sometimes seems to have much more in common with the eight-year-old in my storytelling class than with the deity of the theologians. Or to put it another way, I think that eight-year-old intuits something about the world and about God that I, with all of my years of churchgoing and my seminary training, keep forgetting.
You need only take a close look at the inhabitants of planet Earth — at aardvarks and aye-ayes, dugongs and star-nosed moles, naked mole rats and proboscis monkeys — to know that their Maker has a fantastic sense of humor, that divine creativity (like the creativity of a child) is playful. The fact that he expressed that creativity by squishing, stretching, and swirling species in a vast evolutionary stewpot isn't in the slightest bit threatening to my image of the biblical Creator; it's delightful. It's hilarious, in fact. What fun he must have had all these eons, like an impossibly prescient toddler squeezing his play dough sculpture over and over again through a cosmic noodle-maker.
Chesterton said, "There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth." But how rare in our discussions of spirituality is a sense of mirth, of twinkle-in-the-eye delight — not sarcasm, not the sneer of adult cynicism that pervades religious satire, not the biting wit of grown-up comedy.
There is something almost holy to me about a five-year-old's high-pitched peal of laughter that lights up the darkness of a crowded theatre in even the most mediocre animated film; I feel spiritually chastened when I hear it.
Somewhere in my forty years I have forgotten how to laugh, truly laugh, at the fact that we have these marvelously ridiculous bodies that can't seem to stop falling down or making preposterous noises. It seems sacrilegious not to tip my hat to the One who first thought of the joke. Is there a special kind of communion between Creator and creature that happens when a small child giggles over the improbable fact of our existence?
And if we are indeed made in the image of our Maker, the boundless creativity of children at play is surely one of the clearest proofs of their nearness to spiritual truths we've too often left behind in our cynical maturity. For the brief years of childhood are the last years of true imaginative freedom (because that's what play is) — the years when pure comedy is possible, when we can send our fantastical creatures off on wild adventures and stretch the universe into goofy new shapes with impunity, away from adult eyes and the chattering criticism of the world.
One of the things I talk about in my school visits and classes is that our imagination is always asking, "What if?" Trust me, no one comes up with better "what if?" questions than a fourth grader, and the best authors of literature "for children" (I believe) are those who have never outgrown this gift. These are the ones who stretch the boundaries of what could be, almost as if they were thumbing their noses at a world that insists, This is how life is, and saying instead, Not necessarily. Imagine if it were different. Imagine lovely monkeys with lollipop paws and bandersnatches and places with names like the Chankly Bore. Imagine little people with green heads and blue hands embarking on epic adventures in unpredictably leaky sailing vessels.
How can we possibly grasp the mystery of God and spiritual realities unless we have first allowed the imagination to pry the lid off what we think of as reality so that the stuff of creation can bubble over in shapes beyond our expectations?
My favorite stories by children and for children (in fact, my favorite stories, period) are those that provoke the question, "What if there is more to the world than what I see on the surface?" Such stories make us more open to a world where the marvelous and the miraculous are possible.
According to the Christian tradition, we haven't seen the last of that playful divine creativity that plopped us into the middle of a screwball comedy despite all of humanity's efforts to turn it into a tragic farce. So when I wonder what it might be like when God rolls up his sleeves and unleashes his glee in a redeemed creation — and when I want to know how my role of "sub-creator" (as Tolkien put it) in the present can anticipate that future day — I look to the children, to their magic portals and exploding marshmallows and spicy sea winds, their willingness to play with the pieces of the world they've been given, put them together into new shapes, and take delight in it all.
To be able to look at the world as it is and be able to glimpse the threads of beauty and goodness of what the world will someday become, to be able to imagine a different way of being human on this earth, takes an enormous feat of imagination.
This is one of the reasons why encouraging and nurturing the imagination of children is so vitally important: because if we cannot imagine, we cannot hope. And without hope, we are story-less creatures, trapped in a prosaic world in which the pages are torn away one by one and throw into the fire, and no one looks ahead with the joy of discovery, and no one ever peeks at the last page of the book to rest in the assurance of a happy ending. And the children must grow up, and are broken by life as we have all been broken, but hope remembers that the God we cry out to in our distress is also the God who once said, "Let there be a proboscis monkey, and let his magnificent nose fill the childlike with laughter in those dark days of the world when all hope seems lost."
I will leave to the theologians the formidable task of confronting the problem of evil with the concurrent problem of playfulness. In the meantime, I'll be engaged in a liturgy of drawing feathery tentacles and moldy toes with my students, looking forward to the day when I will finally see what childlike, impish gleam of humor in God's imagination produced the duckbill platypus and the leafy seadragon and the blobfish. For the children make me wonder whether this crazy, over-the-top, extravagant creativity we participate in together, this laughing hope, might in fact be the most important thing, the thing that will reach beyond the present age into the age to come. Wild and wondrous world without end. Amen.
Jennifer Trafton is a children’s book author, visual artist, creative writing teacher, editor, and speaker on imagination and the arts. She holds degrees from Wake Forest University and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary with further graduate work in religion, history, and literature at Duke University. She has served as the managing editor of Christian History magazine, a curriculum writer and editor for the StoneWorks Global Arts Initiative, and is a regular speaker, editor, web developer, illustrator, and reading group host for the Rabbit Room. Jennifer and her husband, author and playwright A. S. (Pete) Peterson, live in Nashville, Tennessee.
This article was originally posted in 2016 at patheos.com and is republished here with the author’s permission.