"Tell them about your dream, Martin."
These words spoken to Martin Luther King Jr. 52 years ago on August 28, 1963 by Mahalia Jackson inspired perhaps the most well-known prophetic use of spiritual imagination in modern history. King's "I Have A Dream" speech was filled with hope and radical imagery. King envisioned a nation where injustice and oppression were no longer prevalent -- a nation so transformed by hope and love that freedom and justice rang "from every state and every city." This kind of dream, conceived with a keen spiritual imagination, is integral to the foundation of any liberating work. As the great spiritual writer C.S. Lewis argued, "reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning. Imagination, producing new metaphors or revivifying old, is not the cause of truth, but its condition." In other words, we do not really grasp the meaning of any concept until we have a clear image that we can connect with it. We cannot create a better world if we do not first envision a better world. We cannot liberate ourselves if we do not imagine what liberation looks like. We cannot fight for justice if we are stuck with only images of injustice. As we continue the struggle for the liberation of all oppressed people we must let our imaginations run wild. We must dream.
Dreaming in both the literal and figurative sense is essential to creating a better world. Jan Born, a neuroscientist at the University of Lübeck, argues that, "deep sleep and dreaming 'set the stage for the emergence of insight' by allowing us to mentally represent old ideas in new ways." This is essentially what Dr. King did when he detailed what it would look like if America lived out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."
According to Sara Mednick, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Diego, REM sleep is an essential component of creativity. "REM 'primes associative networks' allowing us to integrate new information into our problem-solving approach." Systemic evil is constantly evolving and may manifest itself differently over time. That is why we must remain creative and use our imagination to develop the most efficient ways to push back against systems of oppression. Methods that worked for past generations might not necessarily be effective in our generation's current struggle for freedom and equality.
While there are several psychological reasons why dreaming is important, there are also physiological reasons. According to Dr. J. Allan Hobson, the major function of the rapid eye movement (REM) sleep associated with dreams is physiological and during this time the "brain is activated and 'warming its circuits' and is anticipating the sights, sounds and emotions of the waking state." When we envision a better future we engage in the exercise of creating hope. We prepare our mind, body, and soul for the work that must be done to ensure the future we imagine comes to fruition.
In the Bible, dreams and visions were often used by God to communicate with people and to reveal God's plan. God utilized this method to create a bridge between the realm of the divine and the realm of flesh. Ultimately, though, Jesus stands in this gap as God made flesh. The goal of faith based activism is to create a better world. And if it is truly Kingdom building work then the life and ministry of Jesus stand as the perfect vision of the principles on which this new world is to be built -- principles such as love, compassion, sacrifice, humility, faithfulness, and justice. We have never tangibly seen this new world in its entirety. Therefore, it is necessary that we cultivate a spiritual imagination similar to Dr. King's. One that allows us to dream of infinite possibilities. Each time we use our spiritual imagination to dream of a better world we break down barriers that exist between the worldly and other-worldly. Dreams give us the ability to access this distant realm or alternate reality, a reality occupied only by God. We are able to transcend the hopelessness and despair that some of us might experience through the conditions created by our present world.
Lack of vision and underutilizing the discipline of cultivating a spiritual imagination is a cause for concern. In biblical times this was often a sign of disobedience. In today's society the absence of an active spiritual imagination can be demoralizing and paralyzing. Dreams are the first step in creating space for mobility. They give us hope and set our path. Without them we run the risk of mistaking realism for our reality.
For those of us involved in the Black Lives Matter movement it is vital that we carry on the tradition of dreaming. Our ancestors dreamed of the impossible and then worked tirelessly to make it possible. The world that is meant for us has still not yet come, but a part of it exists in us as hope and that hope drives us to fight for it. We must stay faithful prisoners of hope to break the chains of systemic evil. What is your dream for tomorrow? What does freedom look like to you?