The Fantasies of the New Theologians

by Carl Raschke

Dr. Raschke is assistant professor of religion at the University of Denver.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, May 15, 1974, pp. 533-537. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock


Where fantasy tends to split apart social worlds and to open up a Pandora’s box of illusions, imagination fosters the growth of a common self-understanding. The aesthetic dimension of all theologizing is grossly overplayed when it implies a retreat from intelligibility or consistency. The distinction between a theology of the imagination and a theology of the fantastic parallels that between art and mere self-expression.

In a provocative essay appearing in these pages a while ago, Stephen Swecker challenged religious thinking to abandon its old allegiance to conventional modes of speech and categories of meaning and to plunge into a far deeper and richer pool of experience: the murky waters of unbridled imagination, or "fantasy" (see "Toward a Theology of the Fantastic," Christian Century, January 16). Swecker points out that, when faced with free-spirited heretics in their midst, religion and science have always adopted the gambit of medieval popes and princes -- have prudently laid aside their chronic rivalries and conspired to suppress the affront to their authority. Such an affront, he argues, came in the past as it comes now from that brash and unbaptized libeler of human reason the perennial harlequin, the votary of the ridiculous, the extravagant, the "fanciful." For centuries, says Swecker, fantasy has remained an "untouchable" faculty of mind, barred from the recognized castes of philosophy and reflection. Its pariah status has been due to its capacity for overturning everyone’s comfortable world views, its ability to explode a people’s secure conceptions of reality. And because it can threaten the very unworldly or transcendental claims of church theologians as perversely as it mocks the hypotheses of hard-boiled positivists and scientists, these spiritual and intellectual leaders of society consider it a malignant power they are bound to combat.

Thus, Swecker maintains, science and theology have taken a wrong tack here. For the fact is that fantasy can vastly enrich them both, insofar as it serves uniquely to bring into view facets of reality that are normally imperceptible to the disciplined eye. Hence the need for a "theology of the fantastic" to replace the shopworn and increasingly irrelevant academic God-talk.

A Mixing of Categories

Whatever the merits of Swecker’s ideas about the role of fantasy in widening the perimeter of human insight, it remains questionable whether theology as such ought to revert back beyond its historical genesis into the primordial womb of inspiration. In one sense, "theology of the fantastic" is a contradiction in terms. Despite much confusion nowadays concerning the theologian’s true task, anyone sensitive to the root meaning of "theo-logy" knows that the word always implies the clarification and conceptualization of the mystery of theos by the logos of rational discourse. To contend that theology should abandon reason altogether is therefore to do violence to the term. And to say that theologians should shed their classic role and become a breed of lotus-eaters or mystagogues is to ask them to betray their vocation. No, Swecker mixes up his categories here.

And not only here, for he employs the terms "fantasy" and "imagination" interchangeably. He would have us believe that in responding to the world we must choose between Apollo and Dionysus, between careful analysis and emotional frenzy. Surely the choice is not that narrow. Imagination remains, and imagination is not necessarily the same as fantasy. A century and a half ago that remarkable poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge underscored the difference between the two. Imagination, he said, is "the living power and prime agent of all human perception." As such it ranks far higher than fantasy, or "fancy," which "is indeed no other than a mode of memory emancipated from the order of time and space, while it is blended with, and modified by, that empirical phenomenon of the will." That is, fantasy consists in free association of images, in arbitrary rearrangement of sense impressions and of symbols of the unconscious. And the process of fantasizing is totally emotional, and is carried Out with all the abandon of a child engaged in fingerpainting. Imagination, however, is not necessarily at cross-purposes with reason. Imagination has a method. Because it heeds the contours of the world as it finds them, it creates stable forms of perception, whereas fantasy strives to annihilate all forms. The poet Wallace Stevens puts the case well: ". . . imagination is the power that enables us to perceive the normal in the abnormal, the opposite of chaos in chaos. . . . reason is simply the methodizer of the imagination." Imagination, therefore, has its own logos which discerns continuities and patterns more rare than the rigid patterning of human experience in preference for the wild, grotesque or impalpable. Hence fantasy often evokes such metaphors as "blown minds" or "out of sight," metaphors that cluster around the equally slang expression, "Wow, that’s fantastic."

Imaginative constructs have served the theologian well in mapping out a universe which is recognizable to the average religious believer in the light of the meanings available to him. Perhaps it is the natural intermeshing of religious imagination and the structures of reason that prompted Anselm’s famous Fides quaerans intellectum, "Faith seeking understanding." But the job of fantasy seems to be the dismantling of common faith and understanding altogether.

The Fantasy of Theological Self-Sufficiency

To propose a theology of the fantastic may tell us more about the current embarrassment of theologians than about the future of theology. Ever since the decline of neo-orthodoxy in the early 1960s and the passing of the august generation that produced Barth, Buber, Tillich and the Niebuhrs, theology has been sinking into a morass of mediocrity. Though the tradition of solid scholarship and painstaking research still persists in some parts of academe, many of the theologians who gain national press and prestige today do so either as clever faddists or as facile exegetes of what had seemed profundities. To observe that theology in the past decade or more has undergone an identity crisis is an understatement. The scramble for the right catchword, the sure-fire phrase in the attempt to prove the theologian’s "relevance" to the modern world has resulted in a lot of silly name-gaming. In those ten years we have had, successively or concurrently, a "theology of secularity," a "theology of hope," a "theology of play," etc, etc. For another theologian to stand up now and recommend a "theology of the fantastic" only adds a tinge of irony to the fact that many of time new theologians have been feeding each on his own particular brand of fantasy for a good while.

We might call theirs "the fantasy of theological self-sufficiency." It thrives on the idea that theology perennially goes about, locating the "real." One reason why so many new theologians have lately been flirting with the miraculous, the supernatural and the subconscious -- i.e.. the "fantastical" -- may well be that they are trying to shield themselves from the devastating criticism of sociologists and political philosophers, who point out the sociocultural rootage and relativity of many of our religious symbols.

Theologians in the ‘60s, discovering that the biblicism and antiscientism of their Barthian forebears would no longer serve as a defense against secular attacks, cast: about for a preserve of true religious experience that could not be explained away as just one of many parochial perspectives on the universe. Eventually they stumbled into the fairyland of magic and mysticism and there found a new reality-principle, one that was immune to the relativizing assaults of theology’s critics. After all, were not each person’s private ecstasies irrefutably his own and therefore very real so far as he was concerned? Time was when theology held a special kind of monopoly on interpreting the social forms of reality. The theologian construed for the populace at large the complex myths and values of his culture. But the 20th century has seen the fragmentation, on a global scale, of the old social forms of reality. The once vital and integral myths of nations and religious communities are now "broken myths," as Paul Tillich said. For years theologians have been cutting themselves further and further adrift from the broader sets of meanings by which ordinary people steer their lives; yet at the same time they have clung desperately to the notion that they speak as autonomous experts, that their definitions of what is real are sufficient.

From Secularism to Shamanism

This fantasy of self-sufficiency (which is merely a reminiscence of a vanished reputation) has been justified insofar as the theologian has busied himself in hunting for "alternative" realities that clash with the social consensus in which he has ceased to share. Political theologies and theologies of social activism, coinciding as they did with the protest movements of the past decade, sought to secure a transcendent reference point for a minority cadre confronting the status quo. As the "revolution" subsequently petered out -- perhaps as much because of the lack of any real praxis among its firebrands as because of the tendency of the establishment to co-opt some of its slogans and platforms -- its place was taken by a quest for greater metaphysical truths overarching the merely political. It was of course Harvey Cox who delivered the telling blow in this process. In 1969, with the publication of his book The Feast of Fools (Harper & Row), he repudiated the position he had taken four years earlier in The Secular City (Macmillan, 1965). Now he endeavored to hitch religion to the outlandish, the unspeakable, the whimsical -- yes, the fantastic. Expectably, Cox’s conversion from secularism to shamanism actuated an avalanche of writings extolling the inward vision, the ultimacy of the personal fata morgana. Sam Keen and his comrades talked of "the new Dionysianism." David Miller and the reconstructed theologian-of-hope Jürgen Moltmann outlined a "theology of play." Play and fantasy were no longer to be seen simply as therapies for a rationalistic and hyperactivistic bourgeois culture; they were to become a new "root metaphor" for that culture (as Miller put it in Gods and Games [Harper & Row, 1971]), the source of a future reality-principle for millions of moderns emancipated by affluence for a career of creative self-mastery.

But theology’s plan for "greening" America and the rest of the earth by play and make-believe signaled little more than its utter estrangement from any coherent community of language and thought. Theology had cast its lot with the counterculture; yet its denial of the final importance of all fixed forms of communication, of semantic norms, of operable criteria of sense and nonsense, ruled out even the theoretical possibility of its being able to speak from within a distinct culture, "counter" or otherwise. In its effort to take the high road of spiritual insearch, theology abolished its own need for theology as such, since it would no longer have truck with scholarly precision or strict rules of interpretation. Cox himself wrote in The Feast of Fools that he was "mainly concerned with the life of faith, not theological method." The complete absence of method, combined with the new chic of spontaneity and reverie, has led the theologian to secede from all forms of common life, including, ironically, the vanguard of illuminati whom he claims to represent. The social consequence of such a stance is not simply elitism but a kind of licensed anarchism; and the moral consequence is an elegant self-indulgence that borders on nihilism. After all, in the utopias these spiritual solipsists project, all men get along with each other happily by skylarking in their respective sensualities.

The Opium of the High and Mighty

Perhaps the idea of a "theology of the fantastic" grows directly out of the social fantasies of a disinherited professional establishment that longs once again to define status and competence for the culture as a whole. Lacking a fertile ideological soil on which to stake a claim -- even in respect to the once fashionable ideology of liberation for the blacks, the poor, the Third World -- the theologian purports to turn his back on all ideologies and reclaim "raw" consciousness, which supposedly is free of any group or material biases. Fantasy thus becomes the philosopher’s stone that will alchemize all social contradictions and political tensions into inner peace and good feelings. "Nonseriousness," according to Miller, is the summum bonum in a new world which demands the pursuit of leisure instead of hard work. But who has the time to be nonserious? Who can afford to shake off the onus of labor? Only the person who is already surfeited with the abundant riches of a neocapitalist state.

Marx saw religion as a species of fantasizing, an "opium," foisted by the ruling classes on the proletariat in order that the latter would not be able to identify its oppressors. But in the new theological lexicon "fantasy is religion" (Miller). The historical joke on Marx may be that fantasy becomes the opium not of the lowly but of the high and mighty. Opium, as Marx discovered, produces a false consciousness of reality. But the reality-principle of the new theologians has nothing to do with the bleak realism of the downtrodden, who must scrape to make ends meet and cannot afford the luxury of uninhibited fantasy.

Where fantasy tends to split apart social worlds and to open up a Pandora’s box of illusions, imagination fosters the growth of a common self-understanding. It looks for the pearl of general truth in the oyster of experience. It is not private or esoteric, but seeks to knit together a skein of corporate, if not universal, signs and meanings. The myths and legends of archaic humanity mirrored a common experience of a people, a collective anxiety or aspiration, a shared encounter with destiny. The religious imagination of Christianity always framed its doctrines within a confessing church, a "people of God," a communion of mutual vision and comprehension. Theology, of course, need not confine its imagination to the traditional Christian cosmos. But if it begins to pronounce oracles for alien gods, it must be sure that its words ring clear for the mass of that god’s constituents. The theologian’s responsibility to an audience wider than one of bards or enthusiasts is written into his charter of expertise. Historically, he has been charged with mediating fundamental and corporate symbols to as broad a public as possible by making use of universal concepts -- a task which contrasts significantly with the privileged and sometimes even esoteric intuitions of the artist.

A Retreat from Intelligibility

The aesthetic dimension of all theologizing is grossly overplayed when it implies a retreat from intelligibility or consistency. The distinction between a theology of the imagination and a theology of the fantastic parallels that between art and mere self-expression. To bang playfully on a piano is qualitatively different from composing a symphony, and to let one’s fancy run amok is to stray far from reverent worship of God.

The peril in a "theology of fantasy" is that fantasy can take itself too seriously, can make serious business out of not being serious. History shows that "mystic, crystal revelations," such as are celebrated in the song "Aquarius," tend to degenerate into absurd orthodoxies, simply because "mystic revelations" allow no reality-testing.

The lesson may be difficult to grasp. One of Shakespeare’s characters says of Macbeth:

. . . he is superstitious grown of late

Quite from the main opinion he held once

Of fantasies, of dreams, and ceremonies.

Such seems to be the case with those who propose a "theology of fantasy." Perhaps next they will go the whole way and recommend a theology of obscurantism."