Painting on the Wall: Human Imagination

Chuck Colson

Painting on the Wall: Human Imagination

In 1994, three explorers discovered a cave in southern France. The cave, named the Chauvet Cave after one of the men, was unlike any cave ever discovered: It contained hundreds of prehistoric paintings, most of which were of long-extinct animals.

Not only was this the largest collection of cave paintings ever discovered, it was also the oldest, estimated by some dating experts to be 32,000 years old.

Chauvet Cave is the subject of new film by German director Werner Herzog, The Cave of Forgotten Dreams. While most of the commentary centers on Herzog’s film techniques, especially his use of 3-D, what’s really worth talking about is what the movie says about those whose dreams are depicted on the walls.

That’s because it’s impossible to look at these paintings or cave paintings elsewhere in southern France and northern Spain and think that man is just another animal. At least it ought to be impossible.

You don’t have to be a Christian or even a theist to agree. Paleontologists claim that about 50 to 70 thousand years ago, humans underwent a profound transformation. It wasn’t physical, and saying that they got smarter doesn’t do it justice.

The word that best captures the change is “imagination.” Our tools, which hadn’t improved much beyond stone axes, became much more sophisticated. Even more telling was evidence of symbolic thinking: Art began to emerge, beginning with decorative beads, and culminating in the caves depicted in Herzog’s film.

The effects of what Scientific American calls “the Human Spark” weren’t limited to the works of our hands. One of the most persistent questions in anthropology involves the origins of human altruism. In fact, I talk about this today on my “Two Minute Warnnig” video commentary, which I urge you to see at ColsonCenter.org. The materialistic account reduces altruism to a kind of evolutionary quid pro quo survival tactic.

A far better explanation lies in the human imagination: We are concerned with the well-being of others because we are able to imagine ourselves in their shoes. We can empathize with their plight because our imaginations take us beyond ourselves and our subjective moods so we can see the world, however fleetingly, as others see it.

Thus, while zebras gather in herds for mutual protection, people throw themselves on grenades to save their friends and go without food so that others might eat. Likewise, while a chimp might use a twig to gather termites, people use technology to transform our environment, not only for our benefit but for generations yet unborn.

And it goes without saying that no lion or panther ever depicted its prey on a cave wall.

Why this should be the case isn’t a mystery to Christians. We understand that human beings imagine, create, and empathize because they are created in the image of a God who does the same, albeit on an infinitely vaster scale.

We believe that God created us in His image even though He knew that the same imagination that made us unique in all of creation also made us uniquely capable of rebelling against Him: after all, the Serpent asked Eve to imagine being like God.

Herzog’s film is an unintentional -- and for evolutionists, inconvenient -- reminder of how our imagination has always set us apart from the rest of creation, no matter how hard we try to deny it.

This article published on June 15, 2011. Chuck Colson's daily BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print. 

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