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.