The Uses of Imagination in Religious Experience

by F. Thomas Trotter

A graduate of Occidental College (AB) and Boston University (STB, Ph.D), Trotter was Dean and Professor of Theology at the Claremont School of Theology. Later he was General Secretary of the Board of Higher Education and Ministry of The United Methodist Church and President of Alaska Pacific University. His special interests are in religion and the arts and religion in higher education.

This essay appeared in Loving God With One’s Mind, by F. Thomas Trotter, copyright 1987 by the Board of Higher Education and Ministry of the United Methodist Church. Used by permission. This document was prepared for Religion Online by William E. Chapman.


Building on Northrup Frye’s analysis of language, Trotter proceeds to sketch how much contemporary language has lost the dimension of imagination, leaving us impoverished and yearning for something more satisfying. Trotter proposes three ways in which imagination in religion contributes to enriching human experience. Quoting from contemporary novels and poetry, as well as Scripture, his case demonstrates as well as describes his position.

There are signs that we are living in an intensely "religious" period. That is not to say that this is a time of ascendency of the classical Judeo-Christian western religious institutions, but rather that a vast new interest in and experimentation in a whole new range f religious options may be identified. Many of these are eastern -- especially Zen Buddhism and some forms of Hinduism. Others are part of the drug scene. Others have to do with new forms of social existence. Still others are related to ancient and vestigial religions such as astrology. The common denominator in this vastly pluralistic phenomenon is difficult to find. At the same time that the phenomenon represents some forms of disenchantment with western traditions, it also may be seen as simply a period of experimentation. This is not necessarily to be deplored or praised. The fact that we live in that time in history when the Judeo-Christian synthesis is breaking up gives us the impression that religion is in for difficult times. What is more likely, a period of intense exploration

and restatement in religion and religious experience is upon us and it will profoundly shape the direction of American religion for some generations to come.

It is in such a pluralistic environment that I wish to focus my remarks. In a sense, they are a defense of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and in another they are a critique of that tradition. My premise is the suggestion that what we call imagination is a central ingredient in any religious experience and that the proper uses of he imagination save religion from being either a mere system of rational statements on the one hand or an unsystematized mélange of experiences on the other.

My definition of imagination is this: It is the act of making images that convey through their shapes, form, and emotional authority a power of reality that lies at the heart of things. It is, further, the act of apprehending the power of events by way of their shapes, forms, and emotional authority so that the ordinary events of life are held in some accountability to a vision of truth. In a real sense, the principle use of imagination is to inform and vitalize human life. It is to create life itself, certainly to create human communities, probably to create all of the informed gestures of love that we know.

In a remarkable little book, The Educated Imagination, Northrup Frye suggests that there are three levels to the understanding and each of the three has its appropriate language. These levels of human understanding are the level of consciousness, the level of social participation, and the level of imagination. Let's look briefly at Northrup's types: Ordinary speech is the language of the level of consciousness. That is speech which requires little use of metaphor, certainly no embellishment, and it may be reduced to a vocabulary of words sufficient for the most primitive life-support function. I find it interesting that in the counter-culture (at least that represented by certain teenage life style) language is almost missing. It is certainly inarticulate, probably because it has been reduced to such a narrow horizon of idealism and hope. I suggest for your consideration that one of the most pathetic indicators that something serious is happening to our culture is the evidence and persistence of this kind of non-language. You are familiar with it: sentences without verbs, sentences punctuated by the phrase "you know" -- which assumes a common experience but which cannot be expressed in metaphors. I find this ironic at the time when the hardware of communications has arrived at such a peak of sophistication. A possibly apocryphal story has Thoreau standing by his pond and watching the first telegraph lines from Maine to Boston being strung and saying, "What if they have nothing to say to each other?" We know how to communicate but not what to say. In the sentimentalism of some psychotherapy, speech is actually derided as somehow not capable of revealing how we "really" feel.

It is a hopeful fact that the many artists in our time do not find this merely ironic but maybe even tragic. In this perception there lurks a latent terror in such situations. Itemember Albee's play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The play is a story of a day in the life of an "average" university couple who have been reduced by disappointment and circumstance to the level of consciousness only -- a condition in which there is no landmark, no horizon, no hope, no glory, no victory. Albee mobilizes our attention to the terror of this environment by inviting us to sit in their home for twelve hours and listen to ordinary speech composed of banalities and trivialities -- the ultimate reduction of speech to the most primitive needs of consciousness: survival, taunts, grunts, mimicry, and hate.

Frye's second level of speech he calls the level of social participation, and the appropriate language there is "technological language." Again let me suggest how accurate this typology is. In a world that is increasingly being crowded together, we ascertain curious evidence that the widening effects of overpopulation and social inequity are creating frightening shapes of self-consciousness. We live in a world of social problems so vast that they require a new language. How does one even comprehend something like the extermination of 6,000,000 Jews in World War II? How does one deal with the scope of the problem of 9,000,000 Pakistani refugees spilling over the border into India during the past few months? We invent a technological language -- that is one way of dealing with the problem. In Vietnam it was the "body count." One felt somehow justified when it could be reported like the baseball scores. In the speculation on the misuses of atomic weapons, we began to hear things like mega-deaths; more reassuring to say "one mega death" than 1,000,000 deaths.

With this necessity to invent collective nouns, there is a pressure toward efficiency in technological language that creates its own monsters. When McLuhan said "the medium is the message" he was not kidding. In profound ways, the media of communication shape the language and form of the substance of communication. When the students at Berkeley struck back by folding their IBM cards, they were making a picaresque counter-attack on the language system that ultimately determines the meaning of language. Now it is trite to satirize this, because the computers and data processing hardware already with us and, in significant ways, will be useful. What disturbs some humanists is the possibility that the mode of language will effect changes in the communicator. That is, we may ourselves become machines: consumers, robots, soldiers, students, categories a, b, c, and d -- an image that has been with us in the utopian writer for some time now. Technical language is reduced to the simplest unmetaphorical, unimaginative shapes by the fact that it has to conform to a delivery system. My name is Thomas Trotter, a name, incidentally, that carries both my maternal and paternal lines. It is a biblical name, it has historical meaning for many Trotters and a few non-Trotters. But I am more efficiently known as 567-32-2066 and 149008. My past is best described as 10286314 and, with reference to a possible traffic violation, I am Y809703. This is a game, but what is precarious in this form of technological speech is its possibility that efficiency sooner or later begins to impinge upon our understanding of selfhood and it leads us into the risks of the loss of self. It is no coincidence that the near unanimous judgment of science fiction writers is that a world dominated by technological hardware is a world in which individual human self-identity is missing. Stanley Kubrick's film 2001 is a lyrical statement of a world that is dominated by technological speech. In that beautiful film, the computers are so sophisticated that they, in fact, dominate human beings, even to the point of experiencing basic human emotions like spite, jealousy, and, unfortunately, revenge.

Now the third level of consciousness that I want to lift out of Frye's analysis he calls the level of imagination, and the appropriate speech for this level is what he calls "poetic language." This is the only level of communication in which there is some sort of transcendence implied in the mode of communication. It is the only mode of communication that does not presuppose the ultimacy of one's present environment. Ordinary speech and technological speech are measured by the necessary shapes of one's furniture. Therefore they are co-terminal with one's sensory environment. Poetic speech, on the other hand, is transcendent speech. It is speech which creates its own environment. It is speech that makes its own horizons. It is eschatological speech. It is faithful speech. It is vocational speech. It is speech that sees the inner and outer connection between events because it can make metaphors, draw analogies. It is a speech that is humane and not dehumanizing.

Ordinary speech and technological speech that dominate so much of our life have as their primary purpose the description of the world in which we live. Poetic speech has as its purpose the description of the world we hope for, a world of our hope in the perceived shape of a humane future. That is why a poet has been a shaper of the world. It is commonly held that the artists (particularly the poets) are hopeless and helpless visionaries, drifting about on the fringes of events. But the derivation of the word poet reminds us that it comes from the Greek root of the verb to make -- and it was used in Greek times to describe people who made pots and roads and laws and walls. So Shelley says that the poet is the unacknowledged legislator of mankind. The language of the poet is the language of the wider horizons and shapes of the future. It is my profound conviction that this perception of the role of language in describing our situation in this century of survival is something to which we must increasingly direct our attention. In a time of the triumph of doubletalk, the substitution of statistics for facts, the exaltation of the medium over the message, and the erosion of a sense of the future, the role of the imagination and its uses in our common life, particularly religion, needs our continuing attention.

Let me now suggest three ways in which the role of imagination in religion will open to us a new sense of the uses of the present.

1. Imagination is necessary in religion to develop something we desperately need in a crowded planet, namely, tolerance and love in our human society. Through imagination, we are able to suspend our own passionately held beliefs and to treat them as possibilities and even options, so that we may understand the possibilities and beliefs of others. It is no coincidence that totalitarians have no use for art and a profound suspicion of vital religion. The imagination has a bothersome habit of challenging treasured positions. Political and religious totalitarians are so preoccupied with their own positions that they cannot see them as possibilities. They see them as necessities. Therefore they must be imposed instead of enjoyed or observed.

In the public scene, tolerance is an extraordinary achievement. Without tolerance on a crowded planet, the future is problematic. Imagination enables us to step back from self-assurance, to entertain another's beliefs and values sufficiently removed from action so that mutuality becomes a possibility. Disinterestedness through imagination has the facility of tremendously increasing the sense of the dignity of life and the exhilaration of life. Thus the ethic of the New Testament is properly described as "disinterested love," that is, love that is not calculating. It is not love with a built-in agenda. It is an ethic that requires imaginative response. When Jesus was asked "Who is my neighbor?" he responded to that ironic question with a story about a man set upon by thieves and left beside the road. Christian existence requires imaginative acts. The beginning of love is the sense of the transparency of words and the selfless act of disinterested love. The end of love is the resort to the opaqueness of words that hide our vision from our neighbor's need.

2. A second use of the imagination in religion in our time has to do with removing from us the taking of pleasure in cruel things. There is a fine 18th-century phrase, "literature and art refine our sensibilities." I suppose that a modern restatement of this might be that "imagination sensitizes us." Imagination performs the function of helping us, through reflection, to live out of the depths of existence and to sense the possible shapes of our future without the necessity of experimentation. Joseph Conrad once suggested that the purpose of literature was to render the highest possible justice to the physical universe. In other words, imagination may help us to accept the world as it is, in its grandeur and misery, its beauty and its cruelty. But the world's language has been desensitized, lost its ability to separate cruelty and responsibility and justice and love. Well-worn phrases repeated and dinned into our consciousness by the phrase mongers and TV manipulators have eroded language. Flannery O'Connor, the extraordinary story-teller of the rural South, once spoke of the vocation of the religious artist. She saw the religious artist as living in a world in which imagination had so badly eroded that signs of hope and transcendence were just barely perceivable. One had to look hard for them. So she turned her attention to the grotesque, the perverse, the unacceptable -- as a way of talking about religious questions.

The novelist with (religious) concerns will find in modern life distortions which are cruel and which are repugnant to him and his problem will be (through imagination) to make these appear as distortions to an audience which has grown accustomed to seeing these things as natural. And he may well be forced to take ever new and violent means to get his vision across to a hostile audience. When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use the normal means of talking. When you have to assume that it does not hold those views, then you make your vision apparent by shock. To the hard of hearing you shout and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.

Ultimately this has bearing on the widely debated distinctions between pornography and art. The pornographic exploits, demeans, turns in on itself, has no redeeming social value, is cruel; and possibly the worst thing that can be said about it is, it is unimaginative. Real art, however, requires imagination. Imagination offers all the suggestion of the endless delights of human love, the metaphysics of love, the recurrent surprises of the human condition. Imagination can redeem memory, it can kindle love. So Keats writes in one of his last letters of Fanny Brown these words: "Everything that reminds me of her goes through me like a spear." What more can one say with words? What technical language is more adequate than that? Pornography, whether exploitation of sex or violence or cruelty, in its private forms and in its social forms such as war, is the language of cruelty. Imagination may guard us from taking pleasure thoughtlessly in the cruelty around us in this world and instruct us in seeking out the contours of love in a crowded planet.

3. Finally, imagination is a necessary ingredient in perceiving our sense of future. The use of the imagination in assisting us in living tout the future that is often so dim and conditioned by prophecies of loom and despair may well be the primary task of art and religion in ur time. Northrup Frye has said,

The fundamental task of imagination in ordinary life is to produce out of the society we have to live in a vision of the society we want to live in.

For a truly religious person, faith is no settled world view or place or comfortable station. The most powerful metaphors in the Judeo-Christian tradition are metaphors of the way, the journey, the exodus, the road, the highway. Imagination and faith make unnecessary self-conscious posturing. Imagination and faith despise rhetoric and prefer direct statements.

Properly to understand Israel in biblical times, one must sense immense power of imaginative speech to evoke images, compel attention, and direct action. Just take one example, the so-called Exodus event -- the memory of rescue from slavery and of guidance through years of desert wandering into the promised land of Canaan. Whenever the religious leaders of Israel wanted to sensitize the nation, to call it back into faithfulness and obedience to the Torah, those leaders turned to the poetry of metaphor. So Hosea spoke of Israel and Yahweh in extraordinary touching language.

When Israel was a child, I loved him,

And out of Egypt I called my son.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

It was I who taught Ephraim to walk,

I took (him) up in my arms;

But (he) did not know that I healed (him).

I led them with cords of compassion,

with the bands of love

and I became to them as one

who eases the yoke on their jaws,

And I bent down to them and fed them. (Hosea 11:1-4, RSV)

Still later, the Deuteronomist, continuing to recall the metaphor of the Exodus event, wrote a description of life lived without the comfort of a lively trust in Yahweh. How modern this sounds to our ears!

There shall be no rest for the sole of your foot; but the Lord will give you there a trembling heart, and failing eyes, and a languishing soul; your life shall hang in doubt before you; night and day you shall be in dread, and have no assurance of your life. In the morning you shall say, "Would it were evening!" and at evening you shall say, "Would it were morning!" because of the dread which your heart shall fear, and the sights which your eyes shall see. And the Lord will bring you back in ships to Egypt, a journey which I promised that you should never make again; and there you shall offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as male and female slaves, but no man will buy you. (Deuteronomy 28:65-68)

Imagination and faith propel men into a future, that is, into a living engagement with concrete experience under some vision of reality that binds together the present.

What we are seeing in our time, I think, is a recovery of the interest in and even the delight in the poets and the artists of vitality, enchantment, imagination, hope, and joy. God has come to be thought of in terms that are static. Poets (imagists) have come to view God as active and alive and moving in our future. History itself, in the recent western past, had come to be voided of novelty, of possibility, and enchantment. Visions of the future and particularly visions of heaven, reflected this joyless, flat, and unimaginative terminus ad quem of Christian existence. The poet Rupert Brooke wrote a poem some years ago called "The Song of the Children in Heaven." I read this simply as a footnote to what I am saying:

And when on whistles and toy drums we make a loud, amusing noise,

Some large official seraph comes and scolds, and takes away our toys,

Bids us sit still and be good boys.

And when a baby laughs up here or rolls his crown about in play,

There is a pause. God looks severe; The Angels frown, and sigh and pray,

And some-one takes the crown away.

That is a rather imaginative and somewhat satirical statement of a future that has lost its enchantment, its vitality, its hope, its imaginative possibility.

It is my conviction that imagination can create a language of exaltation and hope that will not be found in common speech or technological speech. That is why such events as the new theater and other mind-boggling statements of our future are so important to us. They represent positive statements of hope in a world in which the possibilities of hope are now obscured by other forms of language and other visions of the future. They are functionally identical with biblical visions of joy and hope -- the eschatological sense that language and faith may indeed convert and convict and lead men and women to that great imaginative vision of the New Testament: a new heaven and a new earth in place of a crowded and tired planet.