Imagination Seeking Faith

Another way of saying it: “I imagine, therefore I believe.” How does one come to the view that God — invisible, inaudible — is both present and intimate and a person? Perhaps no group is more associated with talking to God and hearing from God as much as the charismatic tradition, and so T.M. Luhrmann’s study, When God Talks Back, of the Vineyard’s widespread conviction that God is a person and intimate with individual Christians is worthy of a good listen.

Does imagination have a part in your faith? Do you think is how faith develops? Any other thoughts about her theory of how God becomes intimate with us as a person? Do you think faith develops through imagination?

I’m finding this book not only well-written but engrossing, and far more of the latter than I expected. Her analysis and proposals are also challenging. In essence, she seeks to explain — not explain away — intimate communication with God, which is everywhere in the Bible, through brain theory. She’s not evaluating the truthfulness of intimate communication with God; she’s not denying it; she’s seeking to explain it through the lens of anthropology.

The big idea here is that God is conceived of and related to as one relates to a person. This requires an act of faith, and she quotes C.S. Lewis who once counseled someone to “pretend” that God was present — in fact one of his chps in Mere Christianity was called “Let’s Pretend.” “Let’s pretend in order to make the pretence into a reality,” Lewis said. The act of pretending, then, is the act of faith. It is pretending in search of faith and confidence and relationship and intimacy.

This can all get very concrete, as when some make God a cup of coffee, set it down on the table, pull out a seat for God, and sit down and have a conversation with the God who is (pretended to be) there. This is not unlike an imaginary friend, she observes — and she studies some of that scholarship. Some (women, she says) talk about “date night” with God.

Yet, some Vineyard Christians both know they are pretending and know it might be their heads and not reality, and at the same time this faith nourishes them immensely.

One of Luhrmann’s concerns is that relationality and experiencing God become all-important to the quest  – in prayer, in Bible reading — to the detriment of theology (and heresy). She thinks Curtis and Eldredge’s book, The Sacred Romance, create a situation where “heresy fades to unimportance,” observing they think God “gets hurt when you don’t come out to play” (84, her words not theirs).

God could be, she is suggesting, like a teddy bear — a symbolic emotional thing that allows us to hold onto the goodness of this world in spite of what we see as evil. (This is compensation theory at some level, but she doesn’t develop this much or even argue for it.)

This imagination theory of how faith is established is sometimes described as “play” and the result is that many come to a full conviction that God is a person with whom they can communicate. The Play then is the act of faith that God really does exist; that God communicates.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • http://lukeandstephdubbs@blogspot.com Luke Dubbelman

    I read Gregory Boyd’s “Seeing is believing” on the practice of experiencing Jesus through imaginary prayer, and had the though several times that “imagination” was just a very mystical/mysterous word used for some very common and already well known loved and practiced things in the christian faith like Faith, Vision and Spirituality. So I think it is easy to get caught up on a new word which is saying old things, but nonetheless I recommend the read and the practice of imaginary prayer itself.

    I personally “imagine God” in his throne room when I am worshiping, when I play music I imagine as if the angels of heaven just handed me an instrument and asked me to go ahead and play on this tune for God and that all of them are playing along with me and my own song is just a part of that great and glorious song they are singing at all times. Imagining stuff like that really helps to get rid of the distractions that can so easily come into the mind during the worship….imagining Jesus dancing to the music is also fun!! :)

    charles williams is a great author whose work has provoked and stretched my faith and understanding of spirituality through the use of grandiose imagination and story telling in books like “war in heaven” and “many dimensions”

  • Michael Teston

    My “bride” and “friend” for almost 35 years has taught side by side with me for years and believes this is the energizing element in faithfulness, Imagination. As a pastor I have discovered that people and churches that lose their imagination lose their real power in moving toward a future they can no longer “imagine.” Often they simply get “boxed” in by stale and limited thinking about a God, a Jesus whom become quite one dimensional. And of course being made in the “image(ined)” of God we too become narrow or immense in our view of life and our view of mission. This nails it.

  • Percival

    I wish I knew where this study was located but I heard Greg Boyd mention a study that showed that an active imagination correlated to an ability to pray longer. It makes sense to me. Does anyone know what that study might be?

  • Stephen W

    Luke (#1) – I find it fascinating that you think of “Imagination” being a mystical/mysterious word to describe common things such as Faith, Vision and Spirituality. I’d say the exact opposite. “Imagination” is a perfectly common word to explain things that Christians make sound mystical & mysterious, such as Faith, Vision and Spirituality :)

    I’ve not read Greg’s book (pretty much the only one of his I haven’t!) but this idea of imaginative prayer seems to be becoming more popular. Can’t say I’ve had a huge amount of success at it myself, but I do like the idea a lot.

  • Steve

    Luhrmann’s book is available on Amazon, Percival.

  • Percival

    Thanks Steve, but I don’t think it actually was from Luhrman. It was a clinical study he referred to.

  • Tom F.

    If by imagination, you mean, “making up things that you know aren’t real”, as in fantasy or whatever, than no.

    If by imagination, you mean, “imaging of realities perceived through reflective faith” than yes, I think I could say imagination plays a role.

    I do think I get nervous when people aren’t aware of the mediated nature of this experience, though. Just as a flesh and blood pastor has his/her own blind spots and uses cultural expressions to express what God might be saying to a congreagation, our imaginations also are culturally formed, and have their limitations as they represent God to us.

    If I imagine God, perhaps ministering to me, or perhaps how he might be ministering to someone else, then I try to keep in tension the simultaneous fact that my imaginings are thankfully inadequate to who God is. Even if God assists us in imagining, or even if he were to directly impact our external perception, we still are limited in being able to perceive the infinite God. If we lose this tension, that means that spiritual experience is unchallengeable, and unmediated. In churches, I think this can sometimes lead to spiritual abuse. Theologically, I think it can lead to idolatry, where my imaging of God is equated with God.

    But, basically, yes, I do think imagination plays a huge role in experiencing God.

  • http://lukeandstephdubbs@blogspot.com Luke D

    good point Stephen, totally understand where you are coming from. And I am actually challenged by Bonhoeffer’s thoughts of communicating christianity in a “unreligious way”! I guess my main point was directed at Boyd’s book not the use of the word imagination.


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