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The Religious (and “Local”?) Imagination—or, How we Obey Christ’s Second Command

October 13, 2010

Over the past several years, talk of the “religious imagination” has become much more popular among theological circles, especially those particularly interested in theology and the arts (authors such as Garrett Green, John McIntyre, Michael Austen, and Paul Avis attest to this fact). This move to understand the role of the imagination not only in the arts or sciences, but also in all other areas of life, and not least religion, is significant. By giving attention to the imagination, we are able to grasp the complexity of the human mind and understand, at least in part, the ways that we go about ordinary activities such as loving, remembering, worrying, creating, arguing, and sympathizing. This list goes on and on. The imagination is the key faculty by which we understand and experience the world.

Wendell Berry, in his most recent book of essays, Imagination in Place, focuses on the importance of the human imagination and offers his readers insight into its religious significance. He says,

By imagination I do not mean the ability to make things up or make a realistic copy. I mean the ability to make real to oneself the life of one’s place or the life of one’s enemy—and therein, I believe, is implied the imagination in the highest sense. (“American Imagination and the Civil War,” 30)

In a later essay, he further suggests that,

it is the power to make us see, and to see, moreover, things that without it would be unseeable….By its means we may see what it was to be Odysseus or Penelope, or David or Ruth, or what it is to be one’s neighbor or one’s enemy. (“God, Science, and Imagination,” 186-87)

Berry understands the imagination not only as the faculty by which we create a work of art or solve a math proof. In typical Berry fashion, he focuses instead on its role in human relationships, on its ability to show us what’s really real in the world. In this way, it is the key way by which we fulfill Christ’s command to love our neighbors as ourselves. Only by imagining “the other,” by placing ourselves in his or her shoes, can we really know how to love them as ourselves. Loving them does not remain abstract or disconnected from action but is “made real” through this imaginative activity. But Berry doesn’t stop here. He says that the imagination, if it is going to function in this way, must ultimately be a “particularizing and a local force, native to the ground underfoot.” (32) The human imagination is grounded in and influenced by place and the world around it. It is only by knowing the particular, Berry says, that we can understand the universal. Only by being grounded in a place can we see how we fit in relation to other people and to the whole of Creation. This groundedness, this particularly placed, religious imagination, then, is what we must cultivate if we are going to succeed in the Christian task to love our neighbors. We must place ourselves in relation to the other, and by so doing, imagine and understand something of the kingdom of God on earth.

Photo Credit: http://www.savagechickens.com/2009/06/imagination.html

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. Jim permalink*
    October 14, 2010 12:00 pm

    Jenn, thanks for this great post! I am intrigued by your second to last sentence where you suggest that we must cultivate our religious imagination. Do you have any thoughts on how one might do this, and do you think art plays a role in cultivating the religious imagination?

  2. paintedsurfaces permalink
    October 14, 2010 2:45 pm

    Jenn, I am delighted to find your blog. I found you via Facebook via Fugimura. I will be reading your words from time to time as part of my morning meditation..thank you..Marty

  3. October 14, 2010 5:12 pm

    Jenn,
    Enjoyed this post. I love how you said:

    “The human imagination is grounded in and influenced by place and the world around it. It is only by knowing the particular, Berry says, that we can understand the universal. Only by being grounded in a place can we see how we fit in relation to other people and to the whole of Creation. This groundedness, this particularly placed, religious imagination, then, is what we must cultivate if we are going to succeed in the Christian task to love our neighbors.”

    It reminds me of a book I had to read for an English class I took in college by Amitav Ghosh called “The Shadow Lines”. Unfortunately, I can’t reference the exact quote, but at one point in the novel he critiques people who say they have no culture and are constantly trashing their own culture – those who are always flittering about traveling and seeing the world and experiencing tons of other cultures beside their own. He says this inaccurately promotes the image of people who are ‘cosmopolitan’ and well-cultured when actually they are aliens and almost imperialists in a sense and cannot speak to any culture because they won’t stay grounded in any one culture. Thought that was interesting how we really do need a grounded, particularly place in order to see how we fit into place with our neighbors and all of Creation and love them well.

    And what Berry says about knowing about the particular helps us understand the universal is something my Brit. poetry professor always told me. “Talk about the particulars and figure those things out, then you earn the right to speak about the big topics…they naturally flow from them.”

    Anyway, thanks…sorry for the titanic response.

    Cheers.

  4. Jenn permalink*
    October 18, 2010 5:04 pm

    Jim,
    That’s a really good question. Berry talks about a “failure of the imagination” in one his essays, so I think if the imagination can fail, it can also be cultivated somehow in order to keep it from failing. That being said, HOW it might be cultivated is a difficult question that I’m sure has many possible answers. To answer your specific question though, I do think the arts have a major role to play in such matters. The arts open us up to a world of possibilities; they help us discover things; in Berry’s words, they help us to really “see.” Furthermore, the arts “place” us in a way. They help us make the places that we find our identity in. They ground us in the world and help us order it. If the imagination is local, particular, and placed in the way that Berry says it is, then the arts’ ability to “place” us seems to have a strong connection there. They can, in a very concrete way, help us cultivate that local imagination.

    For Berry, all of this is strongly religious, and I agree wholeheartedly with him in this area. In a previous blog, I wrote about how Berry identifies how we make things directly with how we think about the works of God in Creation. The arts were seen, in a way, as a practice of our religion. This same idea shows up here, I think, though more generally this time. Religion is imaginative, and the imagination is religious. We cannot practice our religion except through the imagination, and, imaginative activity, at the same time, is always religious, due do the nature of what the imagination actually does (that is, making us see that which was previously unseeable.)

    Marty,
    Thanks so much for your kind comment and I’m glad you stumbled upon our blog! Always feel free to comment and converse with us!

    Jake,
    It’s true that being in relationship to place is an important part of who we are as people. And as Christians, I think this is even more important, as Berry points out. Thanks for reading and commenting! I always love to hear that people are interested in the idea of place and our relationship to it!

  5. Yann Toussaint permalink
    March 30, 2011 4:06 am

    Hi Jenn,
    have just discovered this site and found this post really interesting. I’m a PhD student based in Albany, Western Australia and I’m interested in the way that some conservationists engaged in ecological restoration projects on private land speak of their restoration work as being more than just an important expression of their relationship to place but as a place-making activity that has a spiritual or redemptive aspect to it. So I was really struck by your discussion of the religious imagination as being:

    ‘what we must cultivate if we are going to succeed in the Christian task to love our neighbors. We must place ourselves in relation to the other, and by so doing, imagine and understand something of the kingdom of God on earth.’

    It made me think more broadly about the role of imagination and empathy in understanding the motivations of those who see ecological restoration work as not just a scientifically-informed practical task but as a moral duty – or even part of a spiritual calling or religious practice – as well. It’s an area I’d like to explore further – the idea of ecological restoration work as being analogous to an art form that is, as Berry’s work suggests, also akin to a spiritual practice and wondered if you had written more on this subject?

    So, thanks for helping me to see something in a new way and look forward to reading more of your reflections,

    Yann Toussaint

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