The Religious Role of the Imagination

Most of us in the Ocean Grove/ Barwon Heads Uniting Church were born into a ‘modern’ world. That is to say, we entered  a culture that functioned according to a modernist paradigm; i.e. where people were confident that knowledge about reality came through the scientific method and, with this knowledge, it was possible to describe, define and predict how the world worked. We had the faith that technology would eventually be able to make life better and fix all our problems.

Yet, even as we were being born, the seeds of a new post-modern paradigm were emerging and, over the last few decades, it has supplanted the modernist viewpoint. People are increasingly dubious about the ability of the technological society in which we live to solve our problems. Logic and reason are no longer recognised as sufficient to provide the path to a fuller quality of life.


In rebellion against the technocratic society, some people have been turning, or rather returning, to nature. In rebellion against reason, they are turning to fantasy, as evidenced by the fad-like popularity of the works of J.R.R. Tolkein in the 1960’s, Star Wars in the 70’s, and Harry Potter into the 21st century. In rebellion against the reality of object consciousness (what you can see, hear, smell, taste and touch), there has been a turn toward religion, but not to the mainstream institutional churches. The growth has been in the charismatic movement, the fundamentalist pseudo-Christian churches, small sects and eastern style cults and New Age movements.

In a nutshell, people are becoming dissatisfied with reality as it has generally been delineated, and they are looking for a new reality beyond the borders of science and objective reason, to find it in fantasy, mythology, mysticism and experiential highs, whether this be found in nature, religion or drugs. A need is being expressed, which should find satisfaction in Christianity. What more powerful symbol can there be to represent a new reality than the Realm of God? Yet the mainstream denominations have lost much of their ability to convey this image to people in such a way that it is internalised and manifested in behaviour, so the new post-modernist culture follows dubious versions of ecstasy in the absence of more authentic ones. A religion that cannot provide hope for new possibilities has no real basis for existence. In the case of Christianity, if the images of the coming Realm of God and the New Being in Christ are no longer dominant, then the Church has lost the very foundation upon which it was formed.


I think the missing ingredient, both in the church’s proclamation and its ability to be heard, is imagination. If human imagination is not developed and engaged, it lessens the ability of people to understand the deeper significance of religious symbols, and hinders the internal recreation of the experiences that lay behind the symbols and the mythology in which they are couched. The end result is a trivialisation of religion, which most people then find hard to relate to the world in which they live.

Modernism failed religion because it is impossible to totally objectify faith. Attempts to do so in creeds and doctrines must inevitably fall short of full understanding, and our emphasis on them has demeaned the importance of experience in religious knowledge.

Religion is a set of symbols that defines the nature of reality for the believer. A symbol makes present that which it signifies, and is a means by which an experience can be stimulated; that is, something to which people personally can respond by living themselves into it. Symbols communicate at both an intellectual level and an emotional level, and thus allow us to get below the mere objective facts about faith in order to understand the nature of faith. For example, Jesus used symbols such as the Realm of God and the symbolic stories that we call parables.

Though the majority of adults are aware of the possible depth of meaning in religious symbols, they tend to narrow the meanings so as to reduce the impact of symbols to the nature of mere signs; for example, the elements of communion are reduced to mere metaphors for the body and blood of Jesus, rather than effectively creating the body and blood of Jesus within us, or the Realm of God is understood as just another term for heaven, rather than the new being, the new creation, the new possibilities into which we are transformed.

Part of the problem has been the emphasis in our culture and our educational system on the development of powers of observation, reason and logic at the expense of development of the imagination, creativity and fantasy. A young child has both sets of capacities, and if the child is to develop, it is necessary to teach him/her to distinguish fact from fantasy. However, in the pursuit of this objective, fantasy is often presented in such a way that the child perceives it to be unwanted and inferior to factual reality, and so the nurture of the creative imagination is neglected. The child develops the notion that the only worthwhile reality is based on factual, scientifically verifiable experience, and a line is then drawn between reality and fantasy. It reminds me of some Asians who distinguish between Catholic and Christian, not realising that Catholicism is a valid expression of Christianity. In the same way, fantasy is a valid expression of reality.

When adults cannot use their imaginations, they cannot live the God-story in which they exist, because they cannot create images beyond those of their past objective experiences, i.e. they still do not understand the symbols that communicate this God-story.

Amos Wilder contends that “imagination is a necessary component of all profound knowing, all remembering, realising and anticipation, all faith, hope and love where engagement with life has taken place.”

Psychologist George Kelly understands the human being to be alive and kicking from the beginning, always moving in the direction of increased meaning; a creature who begins a quest at birth to answer the questions: Who am I? Where am I going? How will I fit in? A person’s instinctual personal processes are channeled by the way in which events are anticipated; i.e. the very essence of life is the use of the present to bridge the past with the future. The function of the human mind is to use its understanding of the past in order to reach into the future, so as to create visions that are otherwise obscured by the fog of time. This is the process by which people shape their future, and whence all premeditated actions spring. It is the gift that envisages that which cannot yet be seen. Without the capacity to imagine a future, we would all die of hopelessness.

Religion provides the symbols on which the imagination can feed, and create answers to the questions about meaning. Without imagination religion has little value.

There is danger in trying to restrict reality to the modernist framework. Religious thinking is based on symbols because symbols keep the borders of reality fluid and open. They give scope to the imagination to evoke the vision that must precede the message. Old words don’t reach across new gulfs; imagination must go half-way to meet new dreams. Thus imagination must be enlisted to enlarge our consciousness, create the new view of reality that lays at the depth of our symbols, push us into a new sense of the possible and valuable, and bring back our capacity to experience the sacredness that is in us.

It is hard to overstate the importance of the forward-looking element of the imagination. It is manifested in basic forms: fantasy and hope. The difference between them is as unclear as the border between reality and unreality. Nevertheless, a distinction must be made, as fantasy does not usually lead to action, and when it does, it is often the wrong action, because it is not grounded in an external reality. Hope, on the other hand, is founded upon trust in some aspect of the external reality, and usually leads to action in anticipation of the hoped-for possibilities.

This does not mean that fantasy is unimportant. Fantasy may be defined as something which denies, in its premise, some feature of the real world. It is often deprecated in our culture, but if one cannot fantasise, it is also unlikely that hope is possible. Theologian Harvey Cox believes that fantasy is illustrative of the image of God in the human being. It is that creativity that allows us to create from nothing, and thus must be cherished and nurtured. The inner life of fantasies are filled with manifestations of divine grace in faith, hope and love.

Tolkein said that fantasy, “gives us freedom from the domination of observed facts,” and thus it may be understood as escape from a reality that is oppressive and dehumanising. It is more than mere escapism, however, for it serves to attest to a sacred order of goodness.

For the followers of a religion, fantasy is a very useful tool, allowing one to obtain a deeper degree of understanding of the symbols that the followers of Jesus used to create the mythology in which the Christian message is hidden. Fantasy is to the individual as myth is to culture. The enchantment, mystery, timelessness and wonder that fantasy conveys are the same qualities that are required to express today’s sacred myths. These myths were formed as a result of the experience, not just the contemplation, of a mysterious reality. Our capacity for fantasy also can put us into that mysterious experience through our creative imagination.

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