A picture is “worth a thousand words" because a picture reveals more than words alone can. Pictures can be visual images, or mental impressions. A picture is seen and felt—it appeals to the senses, not the intellect. We don’t usually look at a picture and say: “yes,” “but,” “if only.” A picture just is, and we often can understand it before we are able to explain or articulate its meaning. The way that we understand and experience such imaginative content not only fosters our ability to grasp ideas, but also frees us in ways that can build and sustain our moral lives.
The mythologies of the world, including epic poems and the sacred books are full of images; many are thought of as divinely-inspired whose wisdom is like a road map of and for humanity, for example the Upanishads and the Bible. The stories convey not only cultural literacy, but also social and moral education as well, especially if experienced early in life. These stories from the many traditions, cultures and eras can be the foundation for developing “moral imagination,” meaning that together they impart a universal “matrix” of values, behaviors, choices and perspectives on what it means to be human. They are the many-layered, rich, symbolic and archetypal embodiment of truth in imaginative form.
Children hearing and reading such stories begin to store up a treasure trove of lofty and expansive imaginations which can be called upon and worked with later as “living pictures,” and evolve in wondrous ways into ideas and even ideals. Rudolf Steiner (the founder of Waldorf education) suggested that ideas that become ideals can inspire free, moral deeds in the wider world. In secondary and higher education they provide a ground for discussions which lift off into insights with regard to meaning and correspondences within, between and among them.
For example, the Old Testament story of Tower of Babel tells of the descendents of Nimrod in the land of Shinar who sought to build a tower to reach the heavens. God, responds, “Now, nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.” He confounds their common language into many languages, so they can no longer communicate to complete the tower, and they are to be scattered over the earth. It seems that Nirmrod’s people were motivated by selfishness, greed, and desire for power and reputation. In essence, they were planning a "raid" on the Holy, an invasion of heaven to display their power and to keep and expand their prominence. Their motivations were not out of humility, goodness, faith, spiritual practice or moral development—all thought of in most religious traditions as acceptable and necessary ways to approach, know or experience the divine.
If we are to think historically of humanity’s endeavors, many can be seen as motivated by just this arrogant disregard for that which might be thought of as sacred, pure or natural. For example, if one steps back from the political and economic implications and arguments, drilling for oil in the Alaskan wilderness can be thought of as embodying this kind of arrogance.
Think about it. Better yet, picture it.
If we can first imagine what such an endeavor would involve, we can begin to see the relationship of the picture to the idea. So,let us imagine the pristine Alaskan wilderness--its purity, whiteness, vastness, coldness, with glints of sunshine cast over the land and seascapes with big sky and majestic mountains? Picture, too, the night sky, so many stars, so close together, sparkling right down to the horizon.
Now, picture whatever you might imagine would be the equipment, material and manpower required to drill and install pipeline over thousands of miles—planes and machinery of all kinds imposing on the natural scene; tracks in the snow, stains on the whiteness, sounds in the silence, fumes in the pristine air. If we really experience this imagination, we cannot help understand it as violation and loss. We might even relate this “scene” to the Tower of Babel— complete with license for operation.
Imaginative pictures and poetic language can impart a truer understanding of things subtle and inscrutable, while literal reading conveys facts, limits, codifies, becomes dogma and doctrine (which can be far from truth). Literalism looks to the “letter of the law,” rather than its spirit. To deepen our understanding of how stories and images can relate to one another, let’s look at Pentecost story from the New Testament, a counter part, in some ways, to the Tower of Babel.
After Christ had risen, He appears to his gathered disciples, telling them to await their baptism, not from water, but from the Holy Spirit. From this “baptism,” they would apparently receive the understanding of and ability to carry His teachings over the whole earth. On Pentecost (meaning “fiftieth”, or approximately seven weeks after Harvest/Passover), the disciples are again gathered when the Holy Spirit descends, usually portrayed as a white dove hovering over the circle of disciples, and a small flame flickering over the head of each. They begin to speak in tongues as, again, the common language is confounded, but miraculously, they and others from other lands each hear the tongues (or understand) in their own language. Not only that, but, for the first time, those who had followed and loved Christ now also understood who He is and the significance of His teachings. In an instant, they were enlightened. We could say that the disciples, with patience and devotion, had been unknowingly building an “inner tower” (or temple) to reach the heavens. They now harvested the fruits of the many parables or “seeds,” rooted in imagination and revealed through the power of the Spirit.
What is the Spirit? Many descriptions and definitions are possible, but, there is no doubt that, in this case, at the very least, the Spirit is living (like our imagination) and engenders understanding—making sense out of the chaos of garbled tongues. In the story of the Tower of Babel, the garbled tongues prevented people from understanding, and their disbursement over the earth prevented unity in Shinar that was to no good purpose. Conversely, in the Pentecost story, the garbled tongues provide understanding in order unify and to go forth everywhere to speak truth. The same message is being conveyed in these different stories.
In Shinar, the motivation to build was not out of love, thus their “invasion” into the Holy was thwarted—and their fate was to be misunderstood and alienated from their fellow human beings. Conversely, in the Pentecost story, Christ’s followers were grieving the loss of their Master and out of love for Him, they sought to know and understand the truth he embodied, but they were also willing to wait. Then, in an instant, heaven came to them, in a moment of grace, and they understood beyond words spoken.
Though there are those who interpret the Bible and other Holy books literally, it is interesting that Christ himself for the most part did not teach with facts or commandments or in a word = meaning approach. Rather, He spoke in parables/stories, or in pictures = meaning. When the disciples asked why he spoke in parables, He used the seed parable to explain why he spoke in parables. Was this because pictures can speak to another part of us that is not literal or intellectual, but alive and expansive?
God and Satan were walking down the street one day; the Lord bent down to pick something up. He gazed at it glowing radiantly in His hand. Satan curious, asked, “What’s that?”
“This,” answered the Lord, “is Truth.”
“Here," replied Satan as he reached for it, "let me have that--I’ll organize it for you.” (Ram Dass)
The imagination is the fertile ground for knowing and understanding. A true teacher, spiritual, or otherwise, prepares that ground through providing experiences which develop, expand and exercise the imagination, remaining vigilant for and respectful of the child’s/student’s freedom to discover, to come to understanding and to “choose the good” in freedom. Teachers cast the seeds; they do not put the plants in fully grown.
The disciples, who were simple fisherman, but lovingly motivated, struggled to learn, to understand and to know. The seeds were cast; they were left in freedom, and, in the end they were blessed with understanding beyond words, and so might we be if develop living imagination.