We need the capacity for sympathetic imagination, and not just if we are historians or novelists, or students of these genres. We live in a time of stunted imagination, in the midst of the clash of civilizations and the culture wars of our own society, where the virtue of sympathy itself languishes. Imagine the novels of Dickens, peopled by the caricatures of each other that populate our political discourse! Oliver Twist would be tedious and unreadable, containing a succession of stick-figure bad guys, instead of being full of three-dimensional evil doers like Bill Sikes and Fagin and their associates. Aren’t we glad that the Artful Dodger survives his brush with the law? These figures are tragic precisely because we have sympathy with them. Dickens himself recognized and countered the criticism that came with a sympathetic treatment of what was morally disturbing. Sympathy does not make us sympathizers in the sense of political dupes or fellow travelers, but it does allow us to connect.
Sympathetic imagination is not only historical and literate; it is humane. Christians ought to be seasoned practitioners of the art of imaginative insight, able to make connections with others and to imagine their lives and values. A sympathetic imagination doesn’t make us traitors to our own fundamental commitments as human beings, or as Christians, but it does allow us to extend ourselves to others in ways that make for graceful connection. We must not settle for disconnection. A sympathetic imagination is essential to understanding, not only distant times and places, but also to living with our neighbors here and now.