Theology and Imagination

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.


Speaking to the Indiana Area School of the Prophets in August, 1980, Trotter explores how theology and imagination are related, this time from the perspective of the words a religious community chooses to express what is finally incapable of being expressed in any definitive way. Drawing on novelists, poets, as well as Scripture, Trotter leads us through a perilous issue with a result that opens up new options for religious expressions, as well as warnings about traditional religious language.

Ring Lardner, upon the occasion of his first visit to the Grand Canyon, remarked, "What a marvelous place to throw old razor blades." He was not usually a disrespectful person. But the sight of that incredible canyon, with the amazing riot of color and space, so overwhelmed him that he could not find words to match the experience. A wry, humorous aside sufficed. Most awe-inspiring events are so vast that words are inadequate for our response. So it is that preachers and pastors, who risk growing familiar with the mysteries of God, often are reduced to speech that may sound trite or at least (what is the word?) preachy. Words are the tools of our trade, so to speak. We are frequently invited to "say a few words." At public gatherings, we are expected to be profound and clever at the same time. Often we retreat into the formulae and well-tested expressions, the language of the religious professional.

The persistent dilemma of religious thought and speech is the struggle for adequacy in forming language about the things of God. This may be called the "Moses Syndrome" -- the more overwhelming the task of preaching the more inadequate we feel (Exodus 4:11-17). But speak we must. Experience of God requires reflection on the things of God, and reflection requires communication of the power of experience. Some religious traditions are moved to silence and speechlessness. Advanced forms of some eastern religion focus on sounds without voice -- like the "oom" or the tinkle of temple brass. But theology to westerners necessarily has been expressed in verbal statement.

In this mode of communication we are a part of the larger western sense of knowing. Because the western way of knowing and speaking has involved philosophical models and the use of syllogism, story, metaphor, and propositional statement, theology has followed these forms, especially the latter. Experience reduced to propositional language has led to propositional theology. To affirm the creed is to affirm the existence of the Holy One. To deny the creed is to place oneself outside the community of faith. Orthodoxy becomes agreement with propositional statements, often conditioned by less than ultimate considerations. The enormous philosophical reliance of theology can be noted in the dependence of Augustine on neo-platonism, Aquinas on Aristotle, Luther on nominalism, Lutheran confessionalism on scholasticism, and, since 1800, liberal theology on Kant.

Yet, by and large, theology is "church theology," that is, despite the fact that it draws heavily on general philosophy, it tends to become the speech of the confessional enclave. Gerhard Ebeling has said that people have a "troubled relation with a speech they do not understand." To the extent that religious speech in our time is a speech of the enclave, the evangelistic (telling the story) mission is going to be difficult.

Yet there has been a resurgence of cultic or enclave-type speech in recent times. The revival of Islam is startling because of the political possibilities inherent in strident fundamentalism. The Vatican also has attempted to interfere in the theological work of Hans K. Kung and other prominent liberal Roman Catholic theologians. We have seen a woman excommunicated from the Mormon Church because she challenged its theological traditions. The growing political power of American fundamentalism is also a part of this phenomenon.

While the religious groups seem to be speaking more stridently in their own languages, there is a realization that the grant of authority to the churches to speak definitively about the "things of God" has largely been wit·hdrawn. Someone has said, "A few groups huddle closely around a creed, but, for the most part, creeds have no standing." Church leaders, bureaucrats, opportunists, use those occasions to reassert the ancient authority of their dogmas.

The way out is not to abandon the theological enterprise, but to reflect on the appropriate language for and forms of talking about God. Given the history of western philosophy, words have been thought to be not simply the most appropriate language for theology, but the only language in which communication is possible. For the West, the Word is exhausted in words. But much of life is lived beyond words. In this vast web of our common life words are seized and shaped to the expressions required of them. They are indispensable instruments of our being human. But human life is not exhausted in words. Marianne Moore once remarked: "Expanded explanation tends to spoil the lion's leap."

In a fine essay in Theology Today, Roland M. Frye notes that the Renaissance's great achievements in perspective and mathematical precision created a condition in which it became possible to make literal descriptions of reality. Inevitably, where it was impossible to provide a literal description of reality, it became fashionable to assume that one should stay silent, or deal only in abstractions. (Frye recalls a television show in which David Frost was interviewing the Archbishop of Canterbury. Asked to describe God, the Archbishop began by citing, "Something with one and beyond one that fills one with awe, and reverence, and gives one a sense of supreme obligation. . . ." At this point Frost interrupted to comment, "That could be the Internal Revenue Service.") In that cultural setting, understanding was largely narrowed to a choice between expression in a literal sense or through cloudy abstraction. Large areas of meaningful human experience were thus relegated to over-simplification either through blatant literalism or vague transcendentalism. Metaphor, analogy, image, music, had all lost credibility.

The closer we get to the edges of the mystery of things, the less adequate our explanations become. The word mystery has its root in a Greek word that means "to shut one's mouth." There is no way we can abandon words in theology, but there may be required of us a new modesty about the meanings of words. That is, what Frye calls "blatant literalism" and "vague transcendentalism" must be replaced by a new sense of the vitality of words and their use in other contexts than propositional arguments. Meaning becomes attached to words. Dictionaries are codified collections, not of meanings, but of uses of words. We assume that we find meanings in dictionaries. We find only the consensus of the uses of words. How words are used is the problem of preaching and theology. Paul Valery once remarked that "words are planks of wood we place over chasms to cross over. If we try to dance on them in the middle of the journey, we will not cross over. Words have more uses than meanings."

That phrase of Valery's suggests the poet's conviction that the vocation of the poet is to create language, not to codify it. The root of the word poetry is the Greek word to make and it has reference to the making of pots and pans and houses and barns and fences and other utilitarian objects. How have we understood poetry to be a matter of abstractions? The poet and the preacher! theologian have a common vocation of finding the words to communicate the power of experience without codifying it and bending it into dictionary definitions.

The religion of Israel exercises this modesty in its care for the naming of God. To name something is to own it, to control it (cf. the Genesis story). Also, the prophetic tradition in Israel seemed consistently to treat Yahweh as subject rather than object -- that is, words from God expressed the will of God, not the shapes or meaning of God. So iconoclasm -- the abhorrence of the use of opaque images -- became a permanent feature of the religious tradition. And it continues in our period as a Protestant principle (e.g., Tillich).

The dominance of word in our religious history has led us to the conclusion that people without history (words to explain themselves) are no people at all. One of the important achievements of recent scholarship has been the recovery of religious traditions of subdued cultures. What we may once have held triumphantly to be unique elements in our Judeo-Christian tradition now can be seen to have roots in despised cultures like Ugarit. These discoveries do not damage the power of religious insights. They do, however, suggest a new joy at the discovery of the human religious enterprise. So liberation theology has on its agenda the recovery of a history of religious identity that had become obscured or erased by the dominant culture. The intense current interest in the history of women in religion is not an idea exercise, but of the essence in establishing the integrity of our religious history. Part of our new modesty about the authority of word in theology is the willingness to live into the experience of other traditions as we plumb our own theological sensibilities.

The role of imagination in religious thought and experience therefore takes on new urgency. In addition to words, form and movement and sensibility and sound shape our vision of the world. Most human experience is affected by these modalities. We make images with these elements, we draw analogies, we tell stories, and we grow uneasy with religious language that seems sometimes to contradict these modalities.

Imagination is the process by which we make a language out of the shapes of events -- the concrete elements of our own experience and the experience of our communities. Often it accomplishes this by using overlooked and even despised fragments of personal and cultural experience. As John Dixon has suggested, a part of Israel's tradition was blood and smoke, not only prophecy.

What was forming and decisive for religion in that understanding is also part of who we are. We are more likely to find such themes in dance or music or poetry than in systematic theology. Innovators like Stravinsky relied not so much on breaking with convention and tradition, but with identifying the power of discarded traditions. He once remarked that his work was built on the detrita -- abandoned ideas of others who went before. The innovating newness is a recalling to our senses of a wider world than our current orthodoxies normally permit. This has been the special vocation of the artist in a post-Reformation history of religion. R. G. Collingwood, in a famous phrase, has suggested that "the artist prophesies, not in the sense of foretelling, but by telling us the secrets of our own hearts, at the risk of our displeasure. Art is the medicine for the worst disease of the mind -- the corruption of the consciousness."

Beyond the use of the imagination in widening our experience of the world and refining our consciousness, the use of the imagination in religion can save us from another problem -- namely, the tendency to take pleasure in cruel things. Abstractions are the refuge of the scoundrel. Concreteness is the environment of human sympathy. Vietnam was the season of growing up for most of us Americans. We were saturated with euphemism -- body count, mega-death, and a hundred other cruel words to separate us from our humanness. To get inside the other's world is to share something of a wider humanness than one's own. We are then candidates for what the hymn writer called the "wideness in God's mercy."

Another use of the imagination is the recovery of narrative and story as the mode of religious expression. For Christians to speak of God only in precise descriptions and formulations is to risk making the formulations God. Borden Parker Bowne, one of my early heroes, was once asked if he had the "second blessing." He replied, "No. I have had the first, the third, the fourth, the fifth, but I'll be damned if I've had the second." The statement of the experience of American Wesleyan holiness had become an absolute; and, although he profoundly exercised piety, Bowne refused to be told what forms of piety were normative. So the re-telling of the story gets us on our way behind normative stopping points and suggests fresh beginnings. There is a fine Hasidic tale of a rabbi who went to a place in the forest, lit a candle, said a prayer, and told a story. His student could not find the place in the forest, but did light a candle, say a prayer, and told a story. His student could not find a candle, but he said a prayer and told the story. His student forgot the prayer, but he told the story.

Flannery O'Connor, remarkable in that she was at once profoundly orthodox and imaginative, suggested that her vocation as an artist was to re-tell the gospel parables in startling and shocking ways. "For the blind one has to write in large figures and for the deaf, one has to shout," she said. Her letters, recently published, have been named by Sally Fitzgerald, the editor, The Habit of Being. The word habit is used in its Catholic meaning -- the discipline of life -- a life focused on the being of things as primary revelation.

Our time has a passion for surety, for security, for simplicity. These things probably have never existed -- save for brief moments when they were established by denying them to some other community. Theology in these days is risky business. It walks between the presumed at-homeness of the past and the anxieties of the future. Our concern for opening the boundaries of the mind in our religious language requires love and imagination. Our theological work in the school and parish will be informed, hopefully, by a new modesty that values imagination.

Wallace Stevens was one of the remarkable poets of our period. In his poem "A High-Toned Old Christian Woman," Stevens suggests that religionists "Take the moral law and make a nave of it/And from the nave build haunted heaven." But the rationalists "Take the opposing law and make a peristyle,/And from the peristyle project a masque/Beyond the planets." But "fictive things," says Stevens, "wink as they will." What wry humor. Despite all our energetic efforts to organize the universe and human events, those wonderful things simply are there, in their concreteness, winking at us!

This habit (to use O'Connor's phrase) is present in the biblical tradition and has been lifted into systematic theological method by the United Methodist Church itself. The latter is to be noted in the quadrilateral definition in the Disciplinary statement that insists on scripture, tradition, reason, and experience as elements of our theological work. I think this 1972 statement will have long-range influence in our work in coming generations in the church. But it did not blossom full-blown from abstraction. It grew out of the creative concentration of the ways we perceive the things of God. And that perception (itself an act of imagination) is a frequent accent in both tradition and scripture. Hearing and seeing, speaking and keeping silent, building and tearing down -- the rhythms of faith seeking understanding.

Once Flannery O'Connor was attending an affair with what she called "big intellecturals," Catholic writers and commentators. This is what she remembers in her letter to a friend:

Having me there was like having a dog present who had been trained to say a few words but, overcome with inadequacy, had forgotten them. Well, toward morning, the conversation turned on the Eucharist which I, being a Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. Mary McCarthy said when she was a child she had received the Host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, being the most portable person of the Trinity. Now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said in a very shaky voice, "Well, if it is a symbol, to Hell with it." That was all the defense I was capable of, but now I realize that this is all I will ever be able to say about it outside of a story except that it is the center of existence for me. All the rest of life is expendable.

Dogma that is not experienced in one's guts is not helpful -- it is abstraction. Concreteness is the beginning of poetry. Experience is the context of imagination. Scripture is the seedbed of language of faith. Religious speech ought to keep us in reality, not otherworldliness.

The words of Jesus to the theologians and bureaucrats in the Temple are instructive. The gospel story recorded in Mark 12 includes the elements of the uses and misuses of religious speech. Jesus was involved in a discussion the purpose of which was entrapment. That remains a lower form of the uses of religious speech. To the Herodian, how he replied to the question about taxes was politically interesting. To the Sadducee and Pharisee, how he responded to the question about the woman married to seven brothers was professionally perilous. To the proof-texter, how he responded to the question "What is the greatest commandment?" would test his orthodoxy. Jesus first suggested modestly that his colleagues did not understand either the scriptures or the power of God. Bound to the tradition, they could not be free of the tradition to experience the power latent in trust in God.

But Jesus did recite the great Deuteronomic confession. There is one God, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. (And the second is equal to this. You shall love your neighbor as yourself.)

In Deuteronomy 5:45, from which Jesus was quoting, the phrase "love God with all one's mind" does not appear. How more serious researchers provide reasons for this puzzle is for further research. But what about this as a possibility? Frustrated with theological method as entrapment and proof-texting, and dogmatic self-assurance, Jesus inserted a new word by adding "loving God with one's mind." That made the proof-texters and traditionalists sit up and take notice! The Greek word here is dianoia -- a word with more uses than meanings. It has more to do with coherence, seeing through the poetic mode, putting events and concepts together. It is not simply rational work, although it includes that. That would be the appropriate response to folk who had grown unimaginative in sensing both the scripture and the power of God.

Then, for good measure, recalling the questioners to the genius of prophetic Judaism, he said: The second commandment is this: you shall love your neighbor as yourself. All this enterprise is focused finally on the love of God aimed through the faithful toward the neighbor. And who is my neighbor? "The poor, the broken-hearted, the captives, the blind, the bruised, the outcasts, the persons who have no hope" (cf. Luke 4:18).

Notably, this Markan episode ends with the phrase, "No one dared ask him any more questions."

Jesus' method was to call us to the uses of imagination in crafting the meanings of words. That is why the religious community must do its own research and imagining and forming because it necessarily grows out of the context of encounter of faith.

How risky this always is. Joseph Heller's comic novel Good and Gold suggests our human equivocation:

Gold never doubted that racial discrimination was atrocious, unjust and despicably cruel and degrading. But he knew in his heart that he much preferred it to the old way, when he was safer. Things were much better for him when they had been much worse.

All his words had a starkly humanitarian cast; yet he no longer liked people.

Theology in our time will require more, not less, scope. Problems will be increasingly angular. Shapes will inform and frustrate. But we will in faith continue to shape new ways of speaking about the things of God informed by events that spill out of our own histories and self-consciousness. Our pastoral theology will find allies in other modes of seeing and hearing the Word of God, and we will wait with patience and modesty for the appropriate definitions of what it means to love God in the world.