Friday, December 02, 2005

Imagination and Faith

Got to thinking about how theology works as I write my paper on Hinduism and Islam.

It occurred to me that much of theology (and science and economics and, and, and) relies on what I'd call "imagination." By this I don't mean "imaginary" as in "not real." Rather, I mean the ability to fire up images in one's mind that give life and breath to the ideas or insights or assertions made by any of these areas.

In the case of theology, the raw idea of heaven and hell for instance is not that powerful in the lives of those who don't vividly imagine those places as real. I am always amazed, for instance, that there are evangelical Christians who can sleep at night knowing that so many people are destined for an eternity of torment. It is because this is not the part of their theology that they have spent much time cultivating in their imaginations. They may be more imaginative with their ability to experience the love of God or "God's presence in prayer" or the wonder of Christian community.

As I thought about how we each make decisions about how we relate to our beliefs, it also occurred to me that even science depends on a vital imagination. For instance, my husband (who is a naturalist) has cultivated the imagination of how reality works - he sees the biological process in his head and he becomes amazed by the power of the genes, the way our brains control so much of what we experience, the power of our need to reproduce to motivate so many behaviors and so on.

Carl Sagan used to do something similar when he would awaken our imaginations to how he understood the cosmos.

It occurred to me that even capitalism depends on awakening the imagination - imagining what free markets can do, and how money can grow, and what benefits are derived.

It seems to me, then, that so much of theological interpretation depends on opening the imagination of the listener. Those who do it successfully gain followers who give support to those underlying ideas. And it also occurred to me that theology must be an exercise in re-imagining. That is, we receive the theology and the images it conjures from those before us, but we subject them to our modern or post-modern condition and re-imagine what they are to awaken insight or attachment or interest.

My question, then, is:

Why does it matter which "imagined" image gets the most votes? Iow, (without including science for a minute), does it matter whether one person is moved by the picture painted by the liberals versus the one painted by the patristic fathers or the one offered by the reformers? I agree that it matters if any one of these conjures up images that lead to oppression, violence or cruelty. But leaving those aside, assuming outcomes are equal as far as how we treat our neighbor, does it matter which theology we adopt, if one catalyzes the imagination in a way that another does not... and not everyone agrees?

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