Theology & Imagination


From an article published in Christian Higher Education 5 (2006), 83-96.


“Theology and Imagination: from theory to practice”



Imagination is a word with ambiguous reverberations. As Paul Tillich once remarked about its companion term “symbol”, it is often shadowed by an accusing adjective - “mere”- which implies illusion or false fantasy. Such a suspicion haunts our Christian history.  The early centuries were full of warnings about the spiritual deceptions caused by imagination, often viewed as an unruly and licentious source of trouble.  In the second millennium it was marginalised for more philosophical reasons: as long as a certain kind of rationality ruled the roost of truth, imagination was treated as a dim-witted Cinderella to be kept in the poverty of her kitchen. To continue the same analogy, her Fairy Godmother appeared at the outset of the nineteenth-century in the shape of a Romanticism influencing both artists and thinkers, who retrieved imagination as the key to a knowledge deeper than the dominant logic. And, as will be seen, this recognition of the hidden beauty of Cinderella had its impact also in theology.


Historical and Theoretical Scaffolding

It would be wrong to give the impression that the long story of pre-Romantic theology had not sometimes valued the role of imagination. Thomas Aquinas more than once voiced his hesitations about the reduction of theology if it were to take poetry or parable as its main models. However, on at least one occasion he offered a surprisingly strong defence of the need for an imaginative strand within theology.  In the prologue to his commentary on the Sentences, he poses the question whether theology should be “artificialis”. If we translate him liberally, has it anything to learn from the world of the arts? His answer is not as black and white as one might expect. Predictably he defends the primary role of reason in theology as a science, but with some fascinating qualifications. Clear and coherent arguments are needed, he claims, in order to obey the famous injunction of the first letter of Peter to offer an apologia for hope, and especially in order to overcome error. But then he broadens the agenda and suggests that confronting intellectual difficulties is not the only or even the principal purpose of theology. Insofar as theology invites us towards the “contemplation of truth”, we need to forge not just a rational but a symbolic theology (symbolica teologia). Pushing further in the same direction, he argues that since Christian faith is grounded in a “narrative of signs”, reflection on faith will require “metaphorical, symbolical and parabolical” approaches. Answering his own objection that poetry is lacking in rational truth and hence not a fit paradigm for theology, he proposes that since reflection on revelation is called to explore beyond the narrowly rational, theology and poetry can be seen to share a symbolic method (modus symbolicus utrique comunis est).[1]

            This subtle reflection would have pleased the post-romantic thinkers who sought to rescue humanity from the prisons of cold rationalism, by exploring the centrality of an imaginative dimension in religious consciousness. Previous thinkers such as Locke had spoken of imagination as perception or as “re-conception”. Kant allowed for its being both reproductive and productive. But the early nineteenth century witnessed a minor revolution in interpreting imagination: where previously it was portrayed in largely passive terms, as a vehicle to recapture something past or absent, now it was crowned with the epithet “creative”.  One thinks of the tradition born from Samuel Taylor Coleridge, himself both an outstanding poet and theologian, who rejected theories of the passivity of the mind in knowledge and stressed instead the special capacity of imagination to fuse or synthesise contraries into a powerful new unity.

            In his footsteps, in a certain sense, one can situate John Henry Newman. Newman’s early tendency was to echo the long tradition of scepticism about the dangers of imagination: in a university sermon of 1832 he argued that the values of the world assault us through our imagination. But some three decades later, while composing the Grammar of Assent, he reached a much more positive and sophisticated interpretation. In some of the notebooks he used to prepare that book, he remarked that certitude does not depend on reasoning but on the capacity to imagine and this new evaluation of imagination finds many echoes in the pages of the Grammar (a topic too detailed for present purposes).[2] Suffice it to mention his view that a “real” faith commitment, as opposed to a merely notional adherence, will be characterised by an inflamed power of imagination, capable of piercing the heart: the truth explored in theology always needs to be “appropriated as a reality, by the religious imagination”.[3] It is highly significant that on the final page of this long work Newman summarises his argument simply by saying that Christianity appeals to the human mind “both through the intellect and through the imagination”.

Of course there were other distinguished explorers in this field before the new explosion of interest witnessed in the last forty years. There is no space here to consider the fascinating essays of George MacDonald (1824-1905) on the embodying imagination as characteristic of Christian faith. Nor can we do anything but mention the more recent work of William Lynch (1908-1987), notable for his insistence that imagination is more an ordinary human gift for reading reality than a special power for poets and artists, and that in this light “faith is a form of imagining and experiencing the world.[4] (IF 5)

Rosemary Haughton’s still exciting book The Passionate God can serve as an witness for more recent retrievals of the imaginative or poetic dimension of theology.[5] She holds that due to a tired theology “we have lost the language, and our ideas are tangled and dulled” and that “true answers to fundamental human questions must have the nature of poetry”.[6] Hence if theology is not to stagnate into cliché and rhetoric, it needs a new imaginative language. Why? Because faith seeks to transfigure us, to point us beyond quotidian externals. Because for the surprise of Incarnation a poetry of passionate love is theology’s least inaccurate language. In short Haughton calls us to retrieve passion and poetry together and thus to transcend the inherited abstractions that pass for theological essentials. Like many other commentators in recent decades, she points out that the primary language of religion is narrative and symbolic, and that systematic or doctrinal discourse is secondary. Hence the propositional approach that so dominated theology in its rationalist moments should never monopolise the field. By the very participative nature of religious experience, a different level of expression is also necessary.


Applications for Today

Why am I convinced personally that we have to retrieve imagination within theology? For many reasons and on many levels.

Philosophically, many thinkers today have come to recognise the cognitive capacity of imagination (including its crucial role in scientific discovery). It is also seen as constitutive of human meaning and culture.

Spiritually, (echoing Johann Baptist Metz) our post-modern life-styles and assumptions cause massive damage to our capacity for religious perception; if so, then an awakening of imagination is both an act of counter-cultural liberation and an essential gateway towards the threshold of faith. In other words imagination is a key element in any pre-evangelisation – which means the preparing of the receptive disposition for the word of God. Moreover, the core of faith is more a matter of transformed imagination than of correct ideas. As Karl Rahner famously argued, the believer of tomorrow will have to be an everyday “mystic”, in the sense of glimpsing grace in the conversions of one’s own experience. This entails a quality of spiritual sensibility marked by imaginative perception.

Theologically, the “object” of faith remains shrouded in mystery: God is not a direct object of our usual modes of cognition. Hence we need to acknowledge the role of imagination as an alternative wavelength of knowing, a mode of alert wonder, more receptive than analytical in its method. Besides, the theology of the late twentieth century is marked by a courageous retrieval of sense of God as beauty or glory, a dimension previously left to the marginal field of spiritual writing. One thinks of the immense achievement of Hans Urs von Balthasar in proposing a theological aesthetics focussed on the disclosure of God as overwhelming beauty in the figure of Christ.

Religiously, our awareness of transcendent mystery is necessarily imaginative. It is widely acknowledged that our images of God can provide a field of positive gospel vision or else limit our adventure of faith within cramping straightjackets.

To echo Newman again, imagination translates what is inevitably unreachable into what is existential and energizing. Imagination can also liberate us to be more receptive of mystery and through narrative and poetic forms to enter into the symbolic mediations of revelation. The art encounter is increasingly viewed as a prime spiritual analogy for the disclosure of vision at the heart of all religion.

Pastorally, narrative and poetic modes of discourse are crucial for embodying religious traditions and for communicating the core invitation of all genuine religion to transformed consciousness. One has only to think of the perennial power of the parables of Jesus, or more specifically of his option for this genre as one of his basic vehicles of preaching.

Pedagogically, the teaching of theology has suffered on the one hand from excessively academic system-thinking and on the other hand from excessive professionalism concerning ministry. Where can teachers and students do justice to the uniqueness of the vision of revelation and to the power of the Spirit except through some imaginative space of exploration? Without some creativity in this respect theology courses can reduce themselves to historical information and psychological strategies of communication. From a specifically Christian perspective, imagination is in tune with the Incarnation of God in Christ. It has also a long and rich history in Christian art through the centuries and lies at the root of the sacramental sensibility of much Christian worship.

In short, from many different perspectives attention to imagination is crucial for the teaching of theology today. Since theology seeks to deal with the depths of both revelation and the human adventure, imagination offers a privileged wavelength for this encounter. The priority that it allows for the intuitive, creative, exploratory and receptive modes of consciousness means that imagination can serve various functions within the teaching of theology.


[1] S. Tommaso d’Aquino, Commento alle Sentenze di Pietro Lombardo, [Prologus q.1, a 5] Vol. I, Bologna, 2001, pp. 150-155.

[2] See my article “Newman on Imagination and Faith”, Milltown Studies 49 (2002), 84-101.


[3] J. H. Newman, An Essay in aid of A Grammar of Assent, London, 1909, p. 98.

[4] William F. Lynch, Images of Faith, Notre Dame, 1973, p. 5.

[5] Other authors that could be placed here include Sallie TeSelle, John Navone, Andrew Louth, Kieran Egan, Richard Viladesau and Kathleen Fischer. 

[6] Rosemary Haughton, The Passionate God, London, 1981, pp. 16, 3.