Imagionality - Understanding Your Child's Imaginative Personality

A foreword of forewarning: This post is a bit longer than I usually write. I hope you will indulge my windiness. The ideas just couldn’t contain themselves in an economy of words. This is the first of three posts on understanding your child’s personality in an imaginative family culture. ~Clay

Personality type is a popular meme on Facebook, and the MBTI (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator) seems to be the personality model of choice. Every week it seems a new version invades my news feed, expressed in a familiar 4×4 grid, with each of the sixteen, four-letter MBTI types applied to a familiar story, film, category, or whatever. The most popular ones assign types to the characters from Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Star Trek, Pride and Prejudice, The Thousand Acre Wood, and the like. I gave up on the meme when an animal grid typed me as an Octopus (that one obviously had it out for INTJ types).

The meme is fun, and seems frivolous, but it is far from meaningless. The MBTI model is based on thoughtful research and insights about personality by a mother and daughter who spent forty years studying Jung’s theories of archetypes, thinking about personality, and observing and interviewing thousands of individuals. Their model is based on some often debated yet highly defensible presuppositions: every person is born with a God-given personality type; there are a limited number of kinds of personality types; personality does not change (nature) but can be shaped (nurture); and we study personality to better understand ourselves and others.

When you see an MBTI-alphabet personality type (ESTJ, INFP, ENFJ, ISTP, etc.), each of the four letters represents a very specific attribute of personality: (1) how we focus our mental energy, (2) how we gather information (perception), (3) how we process information (judgment), and (4) how we orient to life. The two attributes in the middle (2 and 3) are mental processes—they are entirely about what goes on inside the mind. In the classic MBTI model, those mental processes are generalized into four temperaments, which are considered the core of personality. In other words, we are how we think.

What goes on “under the hat” is considered to be the truest thing about our human nature. The way that we think—how we perceive or gather information, and how we make judgments or decisions about it—defines who we really are. It’s the “real me.” But where does imagination fit into that picture of personality? Is my imagination something different and distinct from those mental activities? Or do those mental activities determine and define my imagination?

In part, it’s like the age-old question, “Which came first: the chicken or the egg?” According to the creation account in Genesis, it was the chicken first (1:20) and then the egg (1:22). But that’s too easy. What about creation and imagination? Do we get any divine clues about which of those mental activities comes first in God’s order that will help us understand the role of imagination in personality? I think so. Here’s how I see it.

God, who is not a part of the material universe, imagined His creation before He created. Like a potter who throws a lump of clay on the wheel and then wraps his hands around the clay as it begins to spin, God first threw “the heavens and the earth” into existence, which were “formless and void” (1:1-2), and reached his hands into that material universe to create and fashion the world as we know it. In the six creation days that follow, there is a distinct pattern: God declares what he imagines, and then creates it. For example: “Let there be an expanse (1:6)…God made the expanse (1:7)”; “Let there be lights in the expanse (1:14)…God made the two great lights (1:16)”; and “Let Us make man in Our image (1:26)…God created man in His own image (1:27).” Imagination always preceded creation, and that same process is part of His “image,” a divine quality imparted only to human beings at creation.

God’s image in us is complex, difficult to define, and mysterious, but at its root it is the part of our human nature that enables us to know that we are not rocks or animals. We are able to imagine our own existence, and our Creator’s. In the beginning, God breathed spirit into our material bodies, and imprinted our spirits with His image. Because of that, we are able to imagine that a Creator God exists, that we have meaning and purpose, and that we are more than just complex organisms of evolved matter in a meaningless universe. We have a choice to believe or not believe in the Creator, but the choice itself is evidence that something outside of the material universe has enabled us to imagine that we can have a choice. We see because we can believe. We imagine, therefore we are. Imagination is an apologetic for God.

Imagination, in simplest terms, is the ability to conceive of things that are not physically present, have never been seen, or that do not now exist. Rocks and animals cannot do that, and no matter how many billions of years they exist, material evolution cannot impart to inanimate rocks or soulless animals something immaterial like the imagination. That can come only from God, who created the material universe ex nihilo, or “out of nothing.” We cannot create that way, but as parts of His creation we can re-create out of what God has created. Imagination not only enables us to see that God could exist, but it also enables us to see that we can take what God has created and make something new out of it.

Here’s a pattern from the Genesis creation account that I want to suggest: Information, Imagination, Creation. In other words, information feeds imagination which fuels creation. If our core personality is all about mentally processing information—how we gather it, and how we act on it—then God’s order of creation seems to suggest that imagination is not just a product of our mental processes, but rather an inherent capacity within us. Imagination stands apart from personality.

We all share the same image of God, so our ability to imagine is simply a quality of being a human made in God’s image. However, God created us with different personalities. If personality is determined in part by how we are wired to gather and process information from the world around us, then different personalities will feed the imaginative capacity differently, resulting in different creative realizations. In the same way that intelligence is bound up with thinking, imagination is bound up with personality. But in God’s creative ordering, imagination came first, then personality.

In the next post, I’ll look at four personality types in children, and how they engage the imagination differently. I’ll explore the personality types profiled in my book Educating the WholeHearted Child, which are based on the four MBTI core temperaments: the imaginative Doer, the imaginative Helper, the imaginative Mover, and the imaginative Shaper. In the third and final post, I’ll talk about how to cultivate an imaginative family culture. If you’re still with me, I hope you’ll stay with me.

As posted on Jan 27, 2014