Faith and the Imagination

I’ve recently been doing work on the imagination and self-narrative, and it’s made me think a lot about the role of imagination in faith. This isn’t at all to say that I see faith as equivalent to belief in something imaginary, but simply that I think our faith is always shaped by our imagination. Our understanding of the divine is inevitably mediated by what we imagine it to be–we carry some kind of picture or image of God in our minds based not only on our life experience but also on the ways in which we’ve made sense of that experience, the connections we’ve drawn between events, the meanings we’ve constructed. And such processes are fundamentally imaginative in nature.

One fascinating suggestion I’ve encountered is that the Fall is actually a Fall of imagination. We’ve lost our ability to rightly imagine both God and ourselves. Salvation thus involves a kind of repair of the imagination. Our encounter with revelation, with God’s self-disclosure, opens up new possibilities in what we are able to imagine. If revelation is to make any real difference in our lives, we have to go beyond mere intellectual comprehension of its truths; we must imaginatively enter into the world which it discloses to us. Both faith and imagination involve openness to realities beyond what we can currently see.

Of course, the imagination can also be problematic. In looking over scriptures on the subject, I was struck by how negative many of them are. Paul warns of those “who became vain in their imaginations” (Romans 1:21). Mormon notes that “if ye have imagined up unto yourselves a god who doth vary, and in whom there is shadow of changing, then ye have imagined up unto yourselves a god who is not a God of miracles.” (Mormon 9:10) The Doctrine & Covenants observes, “They seek not the Lord to establish his righteousness, but every man walketh in his own way, and after the image of his own god” (1:16). One of the real dangers with imagining seems to be that of idolatry. We run the risk of conjuring up an image of God and mistaking it for the final word on the subject, forgetting that God is always beyond our imaginative capacity. We can get stuck in the way which we imagine reality to be, and close ourselves off to new possibilities.

However, I believe that the imagination can be healing, even salvific. Sin is linked to bondage, to lack of freedom, to an ever narrowing field of vision. The imagination can potentially be a way of moving beyond the destructive narratives which we might find ourselves living. Alma 32, which encourages us to experiment on the word and see where it takes us, might be understood as an appeal to the imagination. Our ability to imagine means that we can keep re-interpreting our experience, re-telling our stories–and in that process, we can unexpectedly encounter God even in places where we previously only saw darkness and emptiness.


  1. Lynnette, it looks like your comps are coming along!

    Is it possible to think of repentance as a re-telling or re-imagining of the story of a life?

  2. You are right that imagination doesn’t get much praise in our scriptures. But doesn’t the word _vision_ come pretty close to what you mean?

  3. Eve, that’s a great way of thinking about repentance. As you know, I’m particularly interested in grace and how it relates to life narratives, how it changes them, and that idea fits right into that.

    Interesting question, Mark. My first response was to say that “vision” allows one to see what is, but “imagination” allows one to see what could be. But then I realized that “vision” is also often used in the latter sense, in which case I’d agree with you that it’s getting at the same kind of thing. A friend of mine who is studying the imagination and theology tells me that she’s interested in its ability to integrate, to bring together disparate elements of life, and I like that, too.

  4. I’m fascinated by the way our imagination scripts our dreams–how symbols, characters, and places in the dream state can reveal a truth in our lives that gets put through too many filters in our conscious state. I would think this idea relates to your work on imagination and self-narrative, particularly since some dreams can be seen as a subtext of that self-narrative or a juxtaposition to it. In recording and examining my dreams, I’ve learned that in some cases, my subconscious has a clearer, wiser view of some of my struggles than my conscious. Perhaps this, too, can be considered a “repair of the imagination”? It is ironic to me that in dreams, entering into the world of imagination (i.e., its choices in metaphor) can realign our encounters with waking “reality.”

    Awesome subject and food for thought. I’ve been anxiously awaiting your return (now if _Battlestar Galactica_ would return NOW, my life would be perfect).

  5. It’s so good to see you again, Idahospud! That really is a fascinating connection to dreams, how they can shift our view of the waking world. I’ve also had that experience of looking at things differently, even feeling clearer about something, after a dream.

    In perhaps a similar vein, I’m intrigued by how encounters with fictional narratives can shift the way we see reality, how a story can change you in a way that a logical argument might not. Both dreams and stories, it seems, have a real power to pull you out of your habitual perspective, away from what you take for granted, and thereby cause you to re-examine it.

  6. This topic interests me in light of the fact that we’re asked to always remember the Savior. Quite literally, we can’t remember the Savior. We’re asked to remember what we’ve forgotten.


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