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Three Levels of Imaginations

In education, the word “imagination” is a big deal. We know it is important. But it is not always used with clarity, so it is slippery and elusive.

For me, one of the most helpful definitions and distinctions about various kinds of imagination comes from C. S. Lewis. In his biography Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis discusses three kinds or levels of imagination.

The first kind of imagination is the “world of reverie, day-dream, wish-fulfilling fantasy.” This is the most common type of imagination. Lewis admits he “knew more than enough” of this kind. He sees this type of imagination as chiefly a negative thing: “in my day-dreams, I was training myself to be a fool.” Thinking about this, I realized that most people do not think of this type of imagination as a bad thing. In fact, I have heard many people think that it is a good thing, except when it interferes with our current work. You might retort: “Are you saying we should tell our children to stop dreaming?” Lewis says yes, if dreaming refers to day-dreaming in the sense of idly idolizing.

A second kind of imagination is what he calls “invention,” the ability to come up with a great idea or a creative story with interesting characters. Lewis believes this is clearly a better kind of imagination than the first kind. He says he knows because he experienced both, and says that only those who experienced both know the difference. Lewis seems to think this second type of imagination is significantly better than the first because it trains a person to be creative. According to the great orators of the classical era, invention is the most important part of rhetorical training, and in some sense, the most important part of education. Invention involves skills of memory, analysis, synthesis, logic, creative juice and a knowledge of a whole lot of stories, fiction and nonfiction. So, this second kind of imagination is a skill set. This is what most people think of as imagination. When people compliment someone as having a “powerful imagination,” they are complimenting the person’s creative power.

However, compared to a third sense of imagination, the second sense of imagination is not imaginative. Lewis explains that this third sense of imagination is the highest sense of imagination. This imagination is not so much of a person’s ability, but a sensation of desire. He calls this imagination “Joy.” Joy, not in the sense of satisfaction of a desire, but the desiring itself, a longing. A longing after God. An awakening unto God’s truth, goodness, and beauty. This imagination is so important that, Lewis tells his reader that if they are not interested in hearing more about this imagination or “Joy,” they should stop reading his book, because that is the focus of his biography, the turning point of how he became a Christian, and the main theme of all of his works.

Lewis understands that explaining this third kind of imagination is not easy. He expressed his concern that people would read his biography and charge him of being too subjective. But even though Lewis fully understands that each person has their unique set of experiences of this third kind of imagination, nevertheless it is the truest form of imagination that everyone ought to aim for.

Lewis described this imagination as a kind of spiritual awareness, a participation in what the Holy Spirit is doing. He describes his first experience of this kind of imagination when his brother showed him a toy garden on the lid of a biscuit can. He was filled with wonder and a longing for a heavenly reality. He experienced this again when he read Squirrel Nutkin, a Beatrix Potter book. And yet again when he was reading Longfellow’s poem, where the line goes: “I heard a voice that cried, Balder the beautiful Is dead, is dead–” For Lewis, this highest imagination is not so much a set of creative skills, but an intense awareness of God’s presence in our life.

In sum, in C. S. Lewis, we have an amazing insight into what a true imagination is and does, and how this third kind of imagination not only provides us with the deepest joys of life, but a kind of brilliance and wit that so powerfully radiates throughout all of that person’s life and work. Here is a goldmine for educators and parents.

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