Failure of the Imagination

Some weeks ago, following Julian Lennon’s Ukraine inspired performance of “Imagine,” Gary Abernathy published a reaction in the Washington Post, “Can’t We Imagine a Better Song for Peace and Harmony?”

Possibly someone will, but it’s unimaginable that anyone like Mr. Abernathy will write it.

The song annoys him, first, because it envisions a world that rejects the status quo and cultural traditions dear to conservatives. Second, and apparently to his chagrin, he finds it so hauntingly beautiful he can’t resist enjoying it despite himself.

Abernathy takes issue with Lennon’s rejection of discrete nations along with the tribalism and patriotism they entail. “Nothing to kill or die for?” he asks, “What about giving your life to defend your country?”

His conservative mind set is so attached to territoriality, the basis of greed and its resultant societal inequities and conflicts, that he perceives having something to kill and die for to be an essential component of a full and meaningful life.

Lennon had no need for such a purpose. A citizen of the world who lived for creativity fueled by imagination and an unquenchable desire to develop his talent, he required neither a rigid external framework of political or religious dogma nor patriotic fervor to provide his cause d’être.

What? No religions or possessions? “That already exists,” Abernathy fumes, “and it’s called socialism.”

Socialism? Not the style of socialism nations more socially advanced than ours enjoy. The conservative ploy of conflating democratic socialism with communism never fails to rile up the uneducated base who support their politicians and regressive policies.

Democratic socialism is not a totalitarian system. It is not godless. It does not forbid personal possessions. Those living under it are encouraged to be patriotic and have good reason to be. It’s a system in which people voluntarily temper self-serving behavior for the good of the whole society. Ask the happiest people on Earth, Scandinavians, whether they would trade their social democratic systems for ours.

Abernathy, predictably, cannot brook the line, “Imagine there’s no Heaven. It’s easy if you try.” He says he has no wish to imagine such a thing nor even to try to.

I understand why. To subject the concept of Heaven to serious rational contemplation might lead to the conclusion it’s a figment of our imaginations. Even the possibility of arriving at this conclusion is, for many people, too terrifying to bear.

If someone must believe there’s a Heaven, though, they should bear in mind that the Heaven conventional people imagine is exactly the way Lennon imagines an ideal world. If such a place were to exist, religion, having done its job, would be superfluous. No one would need to be saved because there would be no sin. Killing or dying? Impossible. Countries? Not a one. Just one infinite realm inhabited by joyful, peaceful brothers and sisters. Everyone and everything would be, as Abernathy says with more than a hint of a verbal sneer, “kumbaya.”

I find it sadly laughable that while Abernathy and his ilk believe they would be content to spend eternity in a realm exactly like Lennon’s utopia, they cannot countenance the idea of spending the relative millisecond of their mortal days in such a place.

Here, for different reasons, I agree with Abernathy. The Heaven conventional minds imagine would be a crushingly boring place.

A Heaven truly worth hoping for, like a world worth hoping for, would not lack for struggle. It would be filled with challenge and excitement generated by an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and the pursuit of perfection in all endeavors. These would provide more than enough purpose to last an eternity. Honors would not be heaped upon the victors alone, but would come to all those who met their challenges wholeheartedly and with all their might. Goodness would be its own reward. The Golden Rule would prevail.

While we all know that human nature renders Lennon’s imaginings for Earth unrealistic, there is still much to commend them. Such a world, in fact, would actually approximate the “Kingdom of Heaven” as imagined by another popular icon, Jesus.

Traditional Jewish thought, the underpinning of Christ’s teachings, asserts that the goal of life is not to attain some etherial eternal reward. It is to create a better terrestrial world in which, through right actions practiced in gratitude for the gift of life, we could live in God’s grace. Many reputable scholars assert that when he referred to a “Kingdom of Heaven” Jesus really was talking about a utopian earthly realm.

Viewed in this context, Lennon’s message is very much in accord with that of Jesus.

How, then, can those such as Abernathy contemplate it with such distaste?

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