Almost exactly a year ago, I gave a talk “Religion and the Imagination” at the Unitarian Church of Quincy, Illinois. The text and audio of that Sunday service is here. (It’s slightly longer, and has two additional readings.)
This past Sunday, I updated that talk for my home church in Bedford, Massachusetts. You can watch that service here, and also hear the choir do several thematic songs, including John Lennon’s “Imagine”.
All the text pieces of the Bedford service are in this post.
Thought at the beginning (printed in the order of service)
The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor. — Jonathan Haidt
All [people] dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity. But the dreamers of the day are dangerous ... for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible. — Lawrence of Arabia, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom
From “The Folly of Half-way Liberalism” by John Dietrich (1930)
The modern liberal … is constantly telling us that things are both this and that, instead of either this or that. Would that our modern liberal would take the bull by the horns and grapple decisively with that tremendous either-or. Either the things of which religion speaks are realities, or they are illusions. If they are realities, let us embrace them. If they are illusions, let us dismiss them.
From “How My Daughter Taught Me To Love Myth-Making” by Kyle Cupp
Today my daughter would have been four years old. Though Vivian is no longer with us, we will celebrate her birthday this evening, lighting a candle, and in its glow, dine and sing and share her story. We’ll do all this in memory of her.
Her older brother, now seven, has a few memories and mementos. Her younger sister knows her only by our pictures, treasured keepsakes, and our words. My wife and I contemplate her life as best we can with what we have left to us.
This is our ritual, our tradition, our own little family myth-making. It is how we, in an ever new present, give meaning to a life lived in an ever more distant past. It’s how we bridge the distance. It’s how we devote ourselves to someone now with us only in memory.
Vivian breathed, cooed, and gave us one loud cry when she was first carried through the cold hospital air. Not what I’d usually call major life accomplishments, but they were hers and about all she did. My own achievements seem insignificantly small next to the movements of the planets and the stars. If I can think the world of anyone’s small steps, I can think the world of hers.
What is the meaning of her life? What is the meaning of my own? I’ve come to believe that these are not questions with answers “out there” discoverable only if I search long enough, but questions I am called to answer creatively in my own small way, responding to the past from where I happen to be in the present moment, making something new for the future.
Vivian won’t be present for her party, so we will have to make her present.
Religion and the Imagination
Why, a little girl once asked me, don’t grown-ups like to use their imaginations? Hidden in that question was a judgement and an accusation. At the time, we had just landed on a distant planet, and we had a mission that I kept losing track of. Her younger brother had a lot to add to the shared fantasy, but I could barely keep up. Why was I so dull, so unimaginative, so grown up?
That question stuck with me for months, especially when I was with children. And eventually an answer came to me: The adult imagination is every bit as vigorous as a child's, and we live surrounded by imaginary things. But rather than take credit for those imaginative products, we insist that they are real.
Much of a child’s education consists of learning to see what adults see, things that (strictly speaking) are not there. We see danger in streets that (at the moment) have no traffic. We see property lines, and invisible connections between objects and their owners. When the living room floor is cluttered, we see not just where things are, but also where they belong, and the system of organization that wants to pull them back into place. We see not just where we are in a room, but also where we are on the map and in the schedule and on the org chart. The left side of the highway looks physically different to us than the right side.
Kids don’t see any of that stuff until we teach them. Because it’s not real.
A few years ago I was in London with the LaFrance-Lindens. Jo-Jo was ten and Tommy seven. When they knew where we were going, they loved to run ahead, which got kind of scary in underground stations. The boys would thread their way through a crowd by racing up to within an inch of somebody, and then changing direction at the last instant like a halfback avoiding a linebacker. It was nerve-wracking to watch, but they never ran into anybody, and so it was hard to explain why they should slow down.
Eventually I realized that they simply did not see what I saw. I saw a bubble of personal space around each person. And so I saw the boys violently bashing their bubbles into other people’s bubbles. But they didn’t see that, because those bubbles were imaginary.
In some theories of physics, actual particles are surrounded by clouds of virtual particles, which probably aren’t there, but they could be; and somehow all that possibility needs to be accounted for. Similarly, in the adult world actual events are surrounded by clouds of virtual events: things that haven’t happened and maybe never will, but could.
So a child will set a glass of orange juice on the edge of a table and go on playing. But any adult who looks at that glass will instantly see all the ways it could be knocked off. It is as if the real glass were surrounded by virtual orange-juice glasses that have already toppled to the floor and broken. We see those broken glasses, but children don’t, because they’re not really there.
Some days a virtual event is the most striking thing that happens. Say you’re walking beside the Great Road holding a child’s hand. But your grip gets sweaty. She slips away, darts out into traffic, and in just a second or two is on the opposite sidewalk perfectly safe. A couple of cars screeched to a halt, but no real harm was done.
The girl will probably not think twice about that incident, because she experienced only what really happened. But you ... you saw all the virtual cars that didn’t stop in time and all the virtual little girls who were injured or maybe even killed. That’s what leaves you shaking, and what will come back to you in the middle of the night: not the real event, but the one you saw in your imagination.
Like children, we adults make our fantasies more elaborate and more stable by sharing them with others. A shared fantasy can seem to have an external reality, because even if it slips your mind, other people can keep it going and pull you back in.
But I like to run what I call the amnesia test: Test something's reality by asking whether it would still exist if we all forgot about it at the same time. For example, if one night we all forgot about the Sun, I’m pretty confident we'd rediscover it in the morning. And if we all forgot about gravity, I think it would regain our attention fairly quickly.
But on the other hand, if everyone simultaneously forgot that paper money has value, then it wouldn’t. Real as it may seem sometimes, money is an act of shared imagination. So are laws. If we all simultaneously forgot the laws, there wouldn’t be any. It’s our shared imagination that holds that system together.
Communities also fail the amnesia test. If I forgot about this church, I hope the rest of you would pull me back. “Where have you been?” you might say. “We miss you.” Or I might do the same for you.
But if we all forgot at the same time, First Parish would just be gone. Because the fundamental place this church exists isn’t in this building or in the legal structure of the bylaws, but in our imaginations. So if you new members are wondering exactly what you've signed up for, this is my answer: You've joined our shared fantasy, and we hope you'll lend the power of your imagination to the task of making this community as real as money or law.
Now, many of our social and cultural inventions serve some kind of purpose. So even if everybody forgot about them, they might eventually get replaced by something similar. Eventually there could be new communities and new laws and new economies that had some kind of currency. But I don’t believe those amnesiac people would rediscover the inherent worth of dollar bills or driving on the right. Because the value of those things is fundamentally imaginary.
But what would happen to the objects of religion? What would happen to God or the afterlife or souls? If everyone simultaneously forgot about those things would they be gone? Or are they as real as the Sun or gravity, so that we would have to rediscover them?
Reasonable people disagree about this, but personally I believe religion would be like law or money. New religions might develop. But the specifics of current religions — the theologies and cosmologies, the visions of Heaven and Hell and the plans of salvation that get us to one or the other — I believe those things would be gone, because they are products of imagination.
Now, for people who share my opinion, it’s easy to stop the thought experiment there and congratulate ourselves on how realistic we are: Jehovah and Allah and Zeus are imaginary; we don’t believe in them; aren’t we smart?
That self-congratulation is what I hear when atheists like Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins compare God to the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy. But I have a problem with that. Because it isn’t just other people’s God-based religions that fail the amnesia test. My own humanistic religion fails it too.
What would happen to, say, human rights if we all forgot about them? I think they’d be gone. Look at that list of Unitarian Universalist principles at the front of the hymnal. What would happen to the inherent worth and dignity of every person if we all stopped imagining it? What would happen to the right of conscience or the goal of world community? What would happen to the interdependent web of all existence? What would happen to something as venerable and glorious as Justice itself?
I think all those things would be gone. These things are not truths, they're visions, and they exist because we imagine them. And so that is another thing I believe you commit yourself to when you become a Unitarian Universalist: We're not asking you to commit yourself to believing in the truth of the principles, the way Christians commit themselves to the Apostles Creed. We're asking you to commit your imagination to envisioning the principles, to live as if everyone had worth and dignity, as if we were all part of an interdependent web, as if justice, equity, and compassion were as real as property or the banking system.
So where am I going with all this? My point is that John Dietrich's either-or question is the wrong one. It sets us up to keep having the wrong arguments about religion, arguments that will keep going round and round without convincing anyone. On one side, fundamentalists tell us that the objects of their religion — God, Heaven, and so on — are as real as the Sun or gravity. And so they are important and deserve respect. On the other side, atheists tell us that the objects of religion are imaginary like the Easter Bunny. And so they are unimportant and deserve scorn.
But what the amnesia test teaches me is that if God and the afterlife are imaginary, they do have something in common with the Easter Bunny. But they also have something in common with justice and human rights. Just because something comes from the human imagination doesn't mean that it isn't also important and deserving of respect.
The discussion we ought to be having is not whether the objects of religion are real, as if we ourselves stand in an unembellished reality and can reject the products of imagination whenever they invade our rock-solid realm. No, the discussion we ought to be having is why human beings have imagined these things, what we are trying to accomplish by imagining them, and which imaginative products best fulfill those purposes.
For example, when my father was dying, he used his imagination to envision a way that his life story might continue past his physical death. He imagined that he had a soul, and that when he died, his soul would live on in Heaven, a place where the souls of the dead go, where his wife and parents already were, and where his children might join him someday.
I didn't -- and don't -- believe in this vision. But that's not because I stand firmly in rock-solid reality and dismiss all imaginary things. I also use my imagination to envision my life as part of a story that does not end when my body dies. I do this by identifying with causes larger than myself, and by imagining connections between myself and the people who will carry on those struggles after me.
Tom Joad is doing something similar in The Grapes of Wrath when he says
wherever there's a fight, so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever there's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there. I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad. I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry and they know supper's ready, and when the people are eatin' the stuff they raise and livin' in the houses they build - I'll be there, too.
That's vision. That's imagination. Humanists do it too.
Now, once you've had that realization, it's tempting to go relativistic: I imagine things, you imagine things ... it's all the same. But my point is different: Once we give up the pretense that our religion is realistic while their religion is fantasy, once we realize how important imagination is to everybody, then we're in a position to talk about the right issue: the difference between good imagination and bad imagination.
The reading about the birthday party for the girl who died in infancy is another example of this middle position. A fundamentalist might claim Kyle Cupp's family ritual speaks to a real soul in a real Heaven. An atheist might say that souls are not real, so there’s no point trying to “make Vivian present” on her birthday. She’s dead, so she’s not present, and that’s that.
But Cupp himself takes a more subtle view. He recognizes that Vivian’s presence is imaginary, but her imaginary presence is precisely the point. Without such a ritual, his ability to imagine Vivian would fade, and part of the meaning of his life would be gone. The ritual addresses a question whose answer is not “out there”, but one that he feels “called to answer creatively in my own small way.”
I don't think I can finish this talk without confessing just how far I've been willing to take these ideas in my own life. For a few years in the 80s and 90s, I had what should have been my ideal job as a mathematican: I made an industry-level salary, but had an almost academic level of freedom to research whatever interested me.
I thought I ought to be deliriously happy, and yet I wasn't, and I wondered why. So I asked myself: "What’s the difference between a good work day and a bad work day?" And the answer popped right into my mind: On a good day, I was motivated by a pure spirit of inquiry. I had questions I wanted to answer, so I just sat down and worked on them. But on a bad day, I fretted about the usual office stuff -- reviews and funding and promotions -- and the spirit of inquiry got lost.
And then I listened to what I had just said: “the Spirit of Inquiry”. Sure, it was a metaphor, a figure of speech. But the metaphor captured something. What my job had on its good days and lacked on its bad days was a reverent attitude of service. On my good days, my work was a kind of worship.
So I went with that. I created a one-man religion devoted to the Spirit of Inquiry. I drew a symbol for my religion on a big piece of paper and taped it to my desktop. All day long it was covered by my desk pad, so only I knew it was there.
When it was time to go home, I put my desk pad aside, looked at the symbol and asked how well I had served the Spirit of Inquiry that day. And then, whatever the answer, I would reverently put the four tools of my research -- compass, calculator, ruler, and pencil -- in their appropriate places on the symbol. The next morning, the symbol would be the first thing I saw when I came in. I would reverently ask the blessing of the Spirit, remove my tools, replace the desk pad, and begin my day.
I did that for years, as long as I had that job, and from those years of practice, I can report this about the worship of the Spirit of Inquiry: It worked. I became happier, saner, and more focused on what was important to me. And the Spirit never got out of hand. It never demanded sacrifices or made me its prophet or condemned my co-workers to Hell.
Now, a hard-line atheist might scornfully tell me that the Spirit of Inquiry is not real. I didn’t work in the presence of a deity, I just had an imaginary friend. In response, I could turn fundamentalist and argue for the Spirit’s reality. And if I were stubborn enough, that argument could go round and round, the way religious arguments do.
Or I could accept the content of the criticism and reject the scorn it carries: The Spirit isn’t real the way rocks and tables are real. It was a projection of my unconscious. I had an imaginary friend.
If we make that shift, if we stop arguing about whether the objects of religion are real, and instead think about why we might imagine them and how well they serve the purposes we need them to serve, that opens a whole new conversation. Instead of questioning whether someone’s God is real, let’s talk about what is accomplished by envisioning that God.
If God is the organizing principle of someone’s life, what kind of life does God organize? Is it a life of compassion and generosity, or of self-centeredness and self-righteousness? Do worshippers open up to mystery and wonder, or embrace small-minded arrogance? Are they filled with awe and gratitude, or with a sense of special entitlement? Does a vision of the afterlife help people accept death, or fill them with guilt and anxiety? Does it give them confidence to live more fully, or does it freeze them into inaction or rationalize procrastination?
As I think we all know: It can go either way. In religion as anywhere else, the power of imagination can be used wisely or unwisely.
And once we recognize that, we face the challenge laid down by the philosopher Stan Lee: "With great power comes great responsibility."
If we tell ourselves that we just believe in what is real, we're not just fooling ourselves, we’re letting ourselves off the hook. Because reality can take care of itself, but visions need our participation. If justice is a vision, then it’s not enough to passively believe in it. We need to make it real. We need to practice envisioning justice, so that it will always be present to us and not wink out when we need it most.
If the inherent worth of each person and the interconnected web of all existence are visions rather than facts, then we need to invoke those visions, experience them, and pass them on to others.
And if a community like First Parish exists primarily in our imaginations, then we need to do more than just join and attend or even contribute. We also need to share our visions of what this community is and what it means and what it could be. A church is a vessel for shared imagination. So if we're not regularly filling that vessel and then drinking from it when our personal visions falter, we're missing the point.
Or, on the other hand, we could be asking ourselves what kinds of visions we need and the world needs. We could commit ourselves to that envisioning process and do it together, pooling our imaginative power to resist the cynical and nihilistic forces of the larger culture. If we did that, then, I believe, we would truly be using our imaginations like grown ups.
Adapted from “It Matters What We Believe” by Sophia Lyons Fahs:
It matters what we imagine.
Some visions are like walled gardens. They encourage exclusiveness, and the feeling of being especially privileged. Other visions are expansive and lead the way into wider and deeper sympathies.
Some visions are like shadows, clouding children's days with fears of unknown calamities. Other visions are like sunshine, blessing children with the warmth of happiness.
Some visions are divisive, separating the saved from the unsaved, friends from enemies. Other visions are bonds in a world community, where sincere differences beautify the pattern.
Some visions are like blinders, shutting off the power to choose one's own direction. Other visions are like gateways opening wide vistas for exploration.
Some visions weaken a person's selfhood. They blight the growth of resourcefulness. Other visions nurture self-confidence and enrich the feeling of personal worth.
Some visions are rigid, like the body of death, impotent in a changing world. Other visions are pliable, like the young sapling, ever growing with the upward thrust of life.