“Theology and Imagination: A Brief Note”

by Sam Buntz

Richard Dawkins once said that he saw no need to study theology in order to buffer his case against the existence of God, since he felt no reason to study leprechaun-ology in order to buffer his case against the existence of leprechauns.  Yet, I’m sure any anthropologist or psychologist could find plenty of interesting clues to the nature of humanity by studying folk beliefs in things like leprechauns and elves… So, it’s Dawkins choice if he wants to restrict his view-point to a certain picture of human beings, derived from a study of physical constructions existing in nature alone, rather than considering imaginative constructions of reality—which is both what leprechauns and what our ideas of God (since our ideas are all that we can pack into theology) admittedly are.  But why do imaginative constructions have to be denied a hearing?  Do they not have their own kind of reality?  Why isn’t the human tendency to invent stories about, say, the children of gods overturning their parents, appreciated for what it is—a key to how we experience ourselves and experience our world?   The example just given—like the tale of Zeus overthrowing his father, Kronos—anticipates Freud’s theory about the Oedipus Complex, for example (as Freud well knew).  Considering this, theology can be approached as a kind of anthropology—since it seeks to find out how far we can go, using both reason and imagination, toward the limits of what we can desire and conceive: concepts and images like an infinite God, a perfect world, or eternal life.  It is the study of humanity’s bold, but always somewhat unsuccessful attempts to give body and shape to the Ultimate, to the Absolute… And I say this while firmly believing and trusting in God, by the way.  But I don’t draw a radical distinction between God and humanity, in the first place—though, of course, Christianity doesn’t either, since God incarnates as a human, and neither does Hinduism with its numerous avatars (incarnations).  Thus, I feel no compelling need to follow Alexander Pope’s advice—“Know thyself, presume not God to scan: / The proper study of mankind is man”—since humanity, being made in the image of God (something Jews and Muslims accept too, of course), is thus a (broken) reflection of God, and a tool for indirectly studying God Himself.  We can’t help but do it.

Most atheists today tend to dismiss the more superstitious aspects of religion—those we find miraculous, like the parting of the Red Sea, or the Virgin Birth, or Muhammad’s ascent into heaven on the back of a flying horse—as aberrations created by the human-mind, which perhaps once helped encourage people to act better, but now are just weird leftovers from our prior cultural development.  I couldn’t care less about the historical reality of the parting of the Red Sea or the Virgin Birth—but I do care, very much, about their imaginative reality as archetypal myths, and if we fail to find some kind of Truth in them, and just dismiss them as utter nonsense, we are all the more impoverished, imaginatively. A ton of religious stories—like Lot’s wife becoming a pillar of salt when she turns back to look at Sodom—seem rather more than fanciful or unlikely.  They are quite obviously fairy-tales.  But, at the same time, I think that there is an immense amount of truth stored in fairy-tales, and it’s certainly the kind of truth we can’t get from under an electron microscope, since it is a kind of truth that deals not with minute observations of the material construction of nature but with the structure of how we experience Life—how things seem, how they could be, what our aspirations and fears really are. 

The best atheist philosopher I’ve ever read was actually a 19th Century German, Ludwig Feuerbach— the man who coined the phrase, “You are what you eat.”  Feuerbach was a renegade disciple of G. F. Hegel (who was not an atheist), and probably his intellectual inferior—but he was also a much clearer writer.  He interpreted theology as a potential key to understanding human nature—something he got from Hegel, although Hegel saw humans as being fundamentally spiritual whereas Feuerbach saw them as being comprised, as implied by the quote just cited, of matter—of digested and assimilated food, basically.   But Feuerbach respected religion, and he was smart enough to understand that things like Holy Communion were not just barbaric rituals—or rather, he thought that even barbaric rituals were filled with a kind of sense.  In the case of Communion, he saw it as a celebration of the marriage of human and natural power—what he thought the Incarnation signified, as well—since bread and wine, the two products used in celebrating Communion, represent human ingenuity entering into and transforming the things that grow in physical nature, just as Jesus Christ represents God entering into and transforming human nature.  Feuerbach never dismisses anything as mumbo-jumbo—like Dawkins so frequently does—but always searches for the kernel of meaning, the deeper symbolic content.  For instance, his interpretation of the Holy Trinity is also ingenious, as he sees it as a projection of our own inner human construction into a greater divine model.  God the Father is the human intellect (or power to know) imagined as being without limits, whereas the Holy Spirit is human activity (the power to do) imagined as being likewise unlimited.  Yet, he reasons that the concept of an ultimate, limitless intelligence was too inhuman—it went too far beyond us, and took on the character of a harsh Judge, eternally condemning limited humans for not living up to it.  Thus, Feuerbach views Jesus Christ, God the Son, as being the balancing force, the human heart or emotional capacity—really, the power to love—extended indefinitely.  This counterbalances the Old Testament Father God, and completes the picture of an ultimate human personality—one projected into the figure of a Supreme Deity with our own tensions between the heart and the head existing within Him. 

These ideas are a materialistic and atheistic interpretation of Hegel, who saw Spirit or God working through us to create this projection.  The projection of human nature into Divine Nature is, for Hegel, as true as it is for Feuerbach—but it still really does represent God, since human nature is first projected from Divine Nature and then projects Divine Nature back out of itself through its evolving conception of God.  (And I agree, if I’m getting this at all right—but since Hegel is so unreadable, I have to get him secondhand by spinning Feuerbach around and by reading descriptive articles).  But the point I’m making is that, while believing that God immolated a city for being filled with sodomy and that He then punished a disobedient woman by turning her into salt, is quite crazy, it is just as crazy to assume that the imagination that created these stories had no internal symbolic logic to it—that it’s just spitting out random blather.  But everything the imagination does creates sense, creates a coherent and intelligible form.  Considered in this light, the Bible becomes what William Blake called “Allegory addressed to Intellectual Powers.” And reading scripture as such an allegory is the only human (not to mention humane) way of comprehending it.  In the case of Lot’s wife, it is perfectly easy to interpret her story as a parable of what happens to a human who is over-fascinated by the sordid details of punishment and destruction—when consciousness of the condemnation lying behind her overwhelms consciousness of the new freedom and the Grace lying ahead of her, she becomes a pillar of salt, just as we would, figuratively, if faced with the same problem.     

Atheists always say that disbelieving in Christianity or Buddhism (or whatever) does not devalue the artistic and literary contributions of those religions.  But it kind of does, depending on whether you bother to continue interpreting the mythology or not.  Christian art is meant to embody the Truth—and to embody that Truth in a convincing and even pleasing way.  If we disbelieve in the Virgin Birth, we still have to come up with another reason for finding all those paintings of the Madonna and Bambino beautiful—do we like them because they show us a nice- looking lady holding a fairly healthy-looking baby?  Is that all?  I would suggest that we find these things beautiful because they resonate with us on a deeper imaginative level—just not that literal, historical, dogmatic level.  Our imaginations respond to the image.  There is something about pictures of an Eternal Child birthed by an Eternal Mother—like Cupid depicted with Venus, or depictions of the Egyptian god Horus and his mother Isis—that echoes within our intellectual and emotional core.  It seems to be capturing our experience—since we were all children, at some point, and since we all have a mother—in an illustrious and idealized why.  It is distilling the image of mother and child into an Archetype, attempting to show the Universal and Eternal Form of what our own lives outline in diverse and fragmented ways.         

My greater point is this—the brilliant mythologies and vivid stories provided by all living religions (and by all dead ones) are essential in coming to understand ourselves and our evolving vision of the universe (which, in my view, is an indirect way of gaining perspective on God).  As the Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico put it, “We know only what we ourselves have made”—and hence we can only learn about God (at least, at the beginning) from what we ourselves have made.  These religious stories cannot be dismissed as leftover cultural junk, for they provide what the literary critic Owen Barfield would have called a “history of consciousness”, just as literature does—a full picture of our own True Form, wrapped up in allegory.  I don’t mean to dismiss religion by reducing it to literature—although The Bible is, undoubtedly, literature—but I mean that the interpretation of religious scriptures in terms of their archetypes and broader mythic structures, using literary rather than scientific criticism, helps to open them up and counter literal interpretations more fruitfully.  It not only critiques error, but adds to human knowledge—lets the light in.   

And nothing is more effective than letting in a little light—rather than, as Dawkins does, leading us from one dark room into another dark room, from the obscurity of fundamentalism to the obscurity of an attempt to try to understand humanity through reason alone, untutored and uninformed by creative artistic imagination.  Surely, imagination plays a role in science, too—but it is not allowed the latitude it receives in literature.  It is always beholden to reason—as it should be, in science’s case.  But the cruelty and pig-headed-ness of fundamentalism will only expire when it is subjected to the light of both reason and imagination.  These stories need to be replaced by a better story than, “The universe began for no particular reason and life ends permanently at death, but try to treat everyone (more or less) kindly and get your daily dose of all eight essential vitamins and minerals.”  That sort of humane hedonism just isn’t going to fly, because it tethers the imagination so strictly to reason.  One needs to explain away the historical and literal interpretation of religious stories not by referring to it in terms like (quoting Dawkins) “a contemptible fudge”, but by subjecting it to symbolic and mythological interpretations that drive closer to the spiritual and psychological core of the stories—by showing what people were trying to do when they created these tales, what truths about the dimensions of “inner space” they were suggesting.  This allows one to treat the literal-minded interpreters with understanding, if not with agreement—it keeps in mind that they’re literalizing something that does exist on a mental and imaginative level, though not on a physical level.  It is a kind of sympathetic understanding that nonetheless helps to destroy un-truth, to root out fundamentalism simply by comprehending it so well.  As Percy Shelley wrote, imagination “fills the Universe with glorious beams, and kills / Error, the worm, with many a sun-like arrow / Of its reverberated lightning…” 


One thought on ““Theology and Imagination: A Brief Note”

  1. Reblogged this on Pixiecraft: Adventures of Magick and Devotion and commented:
    THIS! I dated an atheist and I struggle to convey this to my Aspie Husband all the time: religion is more than what you think. Religion is about humanity much more than it’s about any gods or goddesses or even philosophies and to ignore that and say it’s not “real” is to miss the point entirely.

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