July 17, 2020

Sight Unseen / Brandon A. Evans

More important than knowledge

Brandon A. EvansWhen I was in high school, my science classroom had a poster of Albert Einstein with a short and powerful quote—although one that seemed a bit odd for a place of learning.

It was something published in a 1929 issue of The Saturday Evening Post at the point in Einstein’s life that he had come up with the General Theory of Relativity, become a scientific celebrity and won the Nobel Prize in Physics.

Those are accomplishments that take a great deal of knowledge, which he certainly had in abundance, and not just any knowledge, but the type that befuddles many of us: calculus, physics, geometry.

In our age, such things are highly valued, and most certainly necessary as the raw fuel for expanding our technological grasp over the world we inhabit.

But Einstein saw something more: that there is a spark required for knowledge to be useful; there is a shining jewel beyond the reach of the merely intellectual that can be obtained without any academic degree at all.

His simple quote is a note of inspiration spoken to a world of progress and learning:

“Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

It seems at first like an all-too-smart bit of arrogance from a person already gifted with a great mind.

But he was quite serious. To come up with the idea of relativity took looking at things in a new way. It meant imagining beyond the entire framework of Newtonian physics to a cosmos wherein matter could become energy, and gravity could bend light and velocity could alter time.

And after Einstein proved it on paper, it took an absolutely brilliant stroke of imagination on the part of another researcher to come up with the idea of proving it once and for all by observing the stars just on the edge of a solar eclipse.

When looking at the real history of the world, at the actual levers of power that create change, it often begins not with a fact but with an idea—be it a good idea or a bad one. Histories begin with stories.

Imagination is the conduit by which our stories form, by which we share the beauty of the world with one another, and its horrors. The power of sub-creation does not lie in strength, nor money, nor influence, nor even learning: its nascent seed is in each of us—the sparkle that won’t die at the center of our consciousness.

By our nature we are creative and by our imagination flows the light which illumines our paths, which gives shape to the formless. Our songs, our poems, our works of art: they all require patience and knowledge and practice and skill, but they require imagination more.

Imagination, even more boldly put, is the pathway God uses to bring wisdom to the simple. It is a focusing lens that inverts our perception of who are actually the greatest among us.

As if proving the point, a recent article in a Catholic publication mentioned that the bulk of St. Thérèse of Lisieux’s education came from two books: the Bible and The Imitation of Christ.

Two books. And yet, in her remarkably short life and having produced only a scant amount of writing, she gave to Christianity such a treasure through her “Little Way” that she was proclaimed not only a saint, but a doctor of the Church.

A simple girl, derided at times by her peers and a mischievous glint always barely hidden in her smile, was given a title of authority rarer than cardinal, or queen, or even pope; one of only 36 people to have walked the Earth in the 2,000 years since Christ did to earn it.

She is his lesson to us, his reflection and his admonition to the prestigious and clever and learned of each generation; a reminder that the Spirit blows where it wills, and you never know upon whose head the invisible crown of wisdom will come to lie.

For God is the master of imagination, and the keeper of the keys of the invisible doors through which light comes into each mind—light which allows the unseen to be seen and the unimagined to become real.

(Sight Unseen is an occasional column that explores God and the world. Brandon A. Evans is the online editor and graphic designer of The Criterion and a member of St. Susanna Parish in Plainfield.)

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