Religious Imagination

This  gorgeous, warm, blue sky, green grass, pink and yellow blossoming spring weather here in the Northeast, is stirring after such a long harsh winter.   I know it can even be wrenching,  if  it’s been a rough year for you; it can be a reminder of the way the force presses on with you or without you.   Anyway,  I had particularly vivid  memory last week that sparked a question about what I’ve heard called “religious imagination.”  I remembered lying in the grass in my yard looking up at blue sky (I believe we had the afternoon off from school for Good Friday, which reveals that I went to school in the old days, before separation of church and state).  Of all things, I was thinking and yes even singing about Thumbelina.  It must have been prompted by  looking at the new grass or up at the budding trees.   In the midst of this little childish pagan celebration, however, my mother told me to come inside because it was time to be still (there used to be certain afternoon hours set aside to contemplate the crucifixion).  I remember not knowing what to think about Good Friday.  Was it as if it was still happening?  I asked my mother, who really didn’t want to have a theological discussion.  “Just be still,” she said.  Blunt, inadvertent profundity was her style.   On Saturday, again,  I experienced the sense that I was supposed to embody a story, a drama–not knowing how to embody it.  Finally, on Easter, I got the basket and got all dressed up (including white gloves and a hat)  But even through the chocolate bunny haze,  there was another trace.   There was a question in me about what it meant to embody this drama, to engage it, to  die and go to depths and then have a new life.

Strangely, last Friday also turned out to be Hans Christian Andersen’s birthday (and a friend told me that Google had a little Thumbelina character on their search page.  I wonder if there was a Google debate about which image would be more innocuous.  What a world!)

I told a friend who reminded me that Kenneth Koch said (and she heard this from the saintly Mister Rogers) we are not just the age we are, we are all the ages we ever were.  When she was a child, she believed the ashes from Ash Wednesday, which come from the burning of the palms from Palm Sunday, came from the ashes of the dead.  What a powerful reminder of the reality of death that would be.

This also raises the interesting question of what “religious imagination” might be.   Are we meant to enact a kind of inner drama that brings about inner transformation?

21 thoughts on “Religious Imagination

  1. Yes, I think so, we are meant to enact such an inner drama. We are meant to move from the tomb to resurrection many times over in the course of our life. There may be a final resurrection we will each go through, but Christian’s may also particpate in the ressurection of Christ daily as well. That is the story of Easter, we are an Easter people.

    It’s interesting to view this through a Buddhist lens tool, in relation to emptiness and dependent origination or arising. Our experince of the the divine, however you my conceive of the divine, does arise out of our relationships with one another and creation.

    To paraphase Prof. Paul Knitter at Union Theological Seminary in NYC: When a Christian looks at Jesus Christ as God, we see the “Incarnate Word” the word made flesh. We see God who is present to the world through relationships, and these relationships are a reflection of, an echo of, even an actualization of the very nature of God.

    To take this concept even further, up to the next level if you will, we can view God as a Verb. “God as a verb is the activity of giving and receiving, of knowing and loving, of losing and finding, of dying and living that embraces and infuses all of us, all of creation. If we’re going to talk about God, God is neither a noun nor an adjective. God is a Verb! God is much more an environment in which “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:29), or God is “above all things, through all things, and in all things” (Eph. 4:6).”

    Now, is the presence of God arising out of Śūnyatā – Emptiness – Interbeing (Thich Nhat Hahn’s idea of Emptiness), or is this Emptiness simply an aspect of God out of which thought, words, deeds, actions, and reality arise? I think that this is a bit of a mystery too, and that’s okay with me. I can live quite comfortably with that mystery, I can accept the mystery. I can accept that it works and is at work in the world. But I would also like to name it Spirit, as in Holy Spirit, or as in we now worship God in spirit and in truth. As a Christian who encounters the Holy Spirit daily and within a community of faith, I accept that the Holy Spirit is also actively at work in the world across all cultures and all prevailing sacred traditions, “God as a Verb.” You may call this a personal revelation if you need to name it; this is what God has written on my own heart, it is one way God has been revealed to me. I know that there are many other Christians who believe this, maybe the majority of Christians.

    Jesus says in John 4:24, “God is a Spirit and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth.”

    We know that our perception comes into play here, and that by shifting our perception and our focus, or just by simply giving our consent, as when entering into meditation and prayer, we will enter into and encounter God. This has been my own experience over the years. I believe that God is always waiting, patiently and with great longing, for us to do exactly that. To reach out and find rest and love in that sustaining presence, and then share that love in relationship with, well, with just everything, with all of creation.

    Here is a poem about our desire and longing for God, and God’s desire and longing for us. It is written from the viewpoint of a Christian, through my Christian lens so to speak, but it has elements of Buddhism included as well. The job of artists, poets, and writers is to develop a new language in trying to tie these things together, the mystery of God. That is what I hope I have done here.

    Peace – Ron Starbuck

    1. Thanks for this, Ron. I have Knitter’s book and look forward to reading it when this issue goes to press. Your poem touched me. I has a new/ancient resonance–the notion that God longs to be known and that one’s own private longing calls him into being. Peace, Tracy

      1. Yes, be are born and come to be I believe as a result of that longing, that desire to be known and to know.

        “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

  2. In the first scene of Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering Kofman’s biographical film Derrida, produced a few years before the death of the world renowned philosopher of the film’s title, Derrida’s voice is heard to discourse on the topic of the twofold nature of the future. From this apparently simple but fertile idea, the viewer is given to understand that there are in fact two futures, the predictable and the unpredictable. the imaginable and the unimaginable. The first future is actually the past disguising itself as the future in the present. It is made up of our impressions of the past projected into that space in time which is to come. The second future is more mysterious because we cannot imagine it. It is the future as a space where the absolutely unexpected will inevitably take place.

    Whatever will actually emerge in the time ahead, it will probably occur in a space somewhere between these two futures: a future within the range of our imagination, and a future which is not. A scientifically inclined mind might claim that there are certain statistical probabilities which make it possible to ascertain which future is more likely, that the employment of the scientific method can make a clearer prediction of the future possible. However, the more detailed such predictions get, the more they seem to be a kind of sophisticated whistling in the dark. The optimal attitude with which to confront an unpredictable future is one consisting mostly of hope, rather than clever prognostications.

    This model for a polarization of futures makes it possible to consider other important ideas from a similar point of view. The notion of God, for example, might be seen in a similar light. Aren’t there, in a certain sense, two Gods? One whose image seems conditioned by our conceptions of “God“, and One who is utterly and completely Other? From the nomenclature of theology come the terms “cataphatic” and “apophatic” to describe these two different aspects, or poles, of God‘s manifestation.

    Cataphapatic theology claims to be able to say positively what God is. Apophatic theology can only say who God is not. Both forms have played their roles in the history of Christian doctrine, though, after having read enough about the development of this history, one suspects that while apophatic theology is exalted as the higher method, professional academic theologians have traditionally privileged the cataphatic way in the practical application and pursuit of their vocation. Perhaps this preference for a God we can imagine derives from a natural discomfort with the unknown, even though, on another level of the psyche, there already abides a knowledge which feels comfortable with the pregnant mystery and luminous emptiness of the apophatic way as the soul’s greatest hope for the achievement of complete meaning, even if that meaning transcends the bounds of reason.

    The polarization of cataphatic and apophatic becomes even more interesting to one’s spiritual journey when the notion is turned from big ideas like the future and God to the intimate arena of personal transformation. In some paths, like that of Ramana Maharshi and Madame de Salzmann, the student is advised to undergo an extensive and profound ongoing contemplation of the self by continuously posing the question, Who am I? It becomes immediately obvious that all of the mind’s initial attempts to conjure a response come surging forth to the imagination in an attempt answer to this question are actually better suited to respond. The possible answers meet like soldiers of tow vast armies arrayed upon that field of Kurukshtra within us all – the field of the imagination – where Krishna bids Arjuna to “Fight!” them all, imaginable & unimaginable.

    I believe that the answer to this question – or, at least, a reponse which is pregnant with a greater question – is suspended somewhere in the space between the imaginal and unimaginable (and yes, I use the word “imaginal” in its technical sense, according to Sufi tradition, to refer to the realm of creative archetypes that mediates our noosphere & the unimaginable “Kingdom of Heaven”). That is, somewhere in the gap between an in-breath & an out-breath; somewhere in the time between a predicted & unpredictable future, somewhere in the space between knowing God & unknowing “God” lies that field about which Rumi spoke, where we will all meet. This is the fertile field of the religious imagination.

    1. Your analogy of soldiers arrays on a battlefield feels very right, from my experience with Madame Salzmann’s work. All the troops are rallied–body, speech, and mind–every “division” called to attention and filled with the question “Who am I?” There they stand at attention, and over the crest of the hill comes an unimaginable challenge, in this case (a favorite line from her upcoming book) “The Truth cannot be thought.” What?!? Just when everything was going so well! Thank you, Seraphim. How can I track down that Derrida doc? Tracy

    2. Nice thoughts. With mystery we can only set bounds on what the mystery is not, or perhaps better said, may not be. We can dance around it, we perhaps can delimit some of the borders but we can not describe what God is.

  3. Very nicely said and thought out, Jacques Derrida was certainly an original. I wish I could understand 1/2 of what he said and wrote. He does help us to question where our mental images and words are coming from. Where do they arise from? Is reality a social construct? What happens when we learn to be still and let go of that reality?

    I like what Meister Eckhart & Thomas Merton both wrote on their relationship with the divine. It seems like there is this important point when we have to simply give up all language, and all concepts, and to simply dwell the Word. To let go of ourselves and find “the still point of the turning world” that T.S. Eliot speaks of in his poem Burnt Norton.

    Meister Eckhart – Emptiness:

    “Where one is emptied of self, ideas, concepts, assumptions, images, and all else; God pours himself into the soul, and the light at the core of the soul grows so strong, it spills out holiness and radiates through the whole person.”

    “Therefore discard the form and be joined to the formless essence, for the spiritual comfort of God is very subtle.”

    “Only the hand that erases can write the true thing. ”

    Thomas Merton – Le Point Vierge (the virgin point) and Le Temps Vierge (virginal time):

    “Again, that expression, le point vierge, (I cannot translate it) comes in here. At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us. It is so to speak His name written in us, as our poverty, as our indigence, as our dependence, as our sonship. It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely.” [Thomas Merton: Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, pg. 158]

    Le Temps Vierge: “The contemplative life must provide an area, a space of liberty, of silence, in which possibilities are allowed to surface and new choices — beyond routine choice — become manifest. It should create a new experience of time, not as stopgap, stillness, but as temps vierge [French: ‘virginal time.’] …not a blank to be filled or an untouched space to be conquered and violated, but a space which can enjoy its own potentialities and hopes – and its own presence to itself. One’s own time. But not dominated by one’s own ego and its demands. Hence open to others – compassionate time, rooted in the sense of common illusion and in criticism of it.” [The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton, pg. 117]

  4. Tracy,

    Your mother’s advice to just be still was a great gift she gave to you. As children I suppose we would take it as a not acceptable restriction but being still and allowing something from above to be received is really what meditation is. To remember these interactions with those close to us when we were a children often brings unexpected and welcome understanding of what we have been given by others…perhaps unknowingly by them as well as by us.

    As to religious imagination. I can’t say I really know what that means but immediately on reading it I remembered a certain imagination (imaging) that I have experienced on rare occasions. It most usually happens when I am very physically tired and lying in bed doing nothing. In between being asleep and being awake, physically, while I am still alert watching there can come images that are as vivid as anything in life. They have color and movement and can be of people or just the sky, grass, trees. The images are, for lack of a better word, electric. The least attempt on my part to interfere in any way instantly puts a stop to them and nothing I can do will bring them back. I am completely aware that they are images which have a ‘life’ of their own and are not at all like dreams.

    I do not nor have I ever taken drugs so this does not account for these images. Many questions come from this. What sort of energy, my human energy, accounts for this magical imagery? Or is my energy at all? Over the years I have mentioned this to a few people and rarely do I encounter anyone with a clue about what I’m talking about.

    Of course there is the so called ‘lucid dreaming’ experience that was described in the Castaneda books.

    The only thing that I know for certain is that one must be very attentive to one’s self (all that is in the body including thought, emotion, feeling, moving, sensation) if one wishes to understand anything. Without awareness of our selves as we live from moment to moment all is only disconnected emotion, thought, postures, movements and entirely useless in the process of transformation.

    1. This is certain, what you say. We must be aware of our self, how we are in all our parts, as we try to relate to the truth. Are we just grasping, wanting to have more or be more, like children…or are we possibly ready to be with the truth, with the Word, as someone put it.

    2. Art,

      I like the electricity, the energy of the images. I have a pet theory that in meditation and stillness we simply still our left brains, allowing our right brains to emerge from the shadow or our rational self. The side of our brain that perceives energy and color, that is most comfortable in metaphoric images and sounds and most uncomfortable with the constraints of time and self. I think this machine is God’s blessing to us, the machine that allows us to perceive our maker (the vertical) and the true connectedness we have with others and creation (the horizontal).


  5. Religious Imagination – “Are we meant to enact an inner drama that brings about inner transformation.” Yes we are. Creation points to this as truth. The cycles of the seasons. The cycles of birth and death. The transformation of organic matter into carbon-based fuels which are then consumed to create energy. The transformation of carbon into diamonds. The transformation of egg and sperm into sentient beings who in turn become receptacles of life. And, as a Christian, in the greatest drama of all, the transformation of the new Adam into the Christ, the one who has everlasting life and bequeaths to us grace – a grace that holds the promise of everlasting life for us, the transformation of our earthly selves into a new, resurrected life – made new but still the same – made greater and more complex but still holding within us the germ of our former, simpler selves.

    I may have told this story before but it is reflective of my own cycle of birth and death, death and resurrection, death and transformation. I sat one day in a coffee shop, reading “Cultivating Wholeness” by Margaret Kornfeld. I read a passage on the Butterfly Effect and sat back to savor the thought, gazing out the window before me at the world without. Suddenly a butterfly landed on the window and began a dance for me – preening, rubbing its forelegs together and folding and unfolding its wings. I sat in amazement as it went through this dance, circling again and again on the window in front of my eyes. It finally flew off after a time indeterminate, it being one of those moments that simply seem to exist outside of time. In shock, I masticated on this vision for days, discussing it with wise friends. One friend asked me what it meant and I said “Hope.” He smiled and said yes but doesn’t it (the butterfly) also mean transformation, the moving from death to new life, from pupa to butterfly, from child to adult? I said yes.

    My life has been a series of deaths over the last five years. Loss of marriage and the woman who was my best friend through divorce. Loss of my family, replaced by something new that as of yet has had little form or consistency. Loss of job and career. Loss of friends and social networks. A near total destruction of self. A collapse into my inner self that follows the destruction of ego, a deep grief and interior exploration of pain, emotion and God’s place in all of it. A growing awareness of the Spirit moving palpably in my life and in the world around me. The transformation of random motion (the butterfly effect) into a vision of a purpose-driven creation. A loss of trust in my own sense of control and a birth of a more complete trust in God’s goodness and love. The butterfly was a metaphor for my own death and rebirth as a new creature, a creature willing to listen to the Spirit’s movings and to follow those movings forward, one step at a time as I discern God’s purposes for me. A hopeful abandonment of self-will through my own free will to the judgement of a God infinitely wise and discerning, the one who knows me better than I can ever hope to know myself.

    Clearly the metaphor applies to me but it most aptly applies to Jesus Christ as we celebrate again his rising from the tomb, his triumph over the scandal of the Cross. All creation and all myth composed by human beings point to the full realization witnessed in Jesus Christ. So my religious imagination now can perceive my own inner transformation and in it I can see a tiny echo of the triumph of God through the Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ. Make a joyful noise for Christ is Risen, he is Risen Indeed!

    1. Scott,
      A beautiful story about the butterfly. It reminds me that too often I am closed and blind to the miraculous. To another person perhaps the butterfly would have gone unoticed or meant nothing. But you were open to the beauty and magic of the moment and received a very special gift. Thank you for sharing your experience.

    2. I love this butterfly story….and the rest. I am convinced if our life is to have any meaning at all we are meant to enact such a drama, losing everything we know ourselves by and hold dear….in the midst of a similar loss once I kept having the thought that sometimes God wants to get us alone, to have us all to himself, no comforts or supports to obscure our true situation. I also kept hearing a line from Kierkegaard (I have no idea when or where I originally heard it)–“I would have died, had I not died.” And it was as if that cold, hard place, that being seen like that, well, it changed my possibilities. That said, it’s good to meet you again! Isn’t life amazing?

      1. I agree that God wants us alone so that he can love us…this is the essential nature of Eros…desire to be one and for us we know it most often in the desire to be connected as one with another human being…all driven by the powerful desire to not be alone and to beget new life. But this is all derivative of the deepest desire, the desire to be at one with God. All of our erotic desires are sacramental, that is, exterior signs of a powerful inner desire to be at one with our maker…life is amazing and, to be repetitive, it all comes down to LOVE!

  6. Aye, life is amazing indeed! Even better, at the center of it all lies LOVE! Words can’t express how wonderful it is to meet you again…Shalom.

    1. I just wanted to reminded everyone of that other Greek word for love, Agape, or the verb agapao. “C. S. Lewis, in his book The Four Loves, used agape to describe what he believed was the highest level of love known to humanity—a selfless love, a love that was passionately committed to the well-being of the other.” (from Wikipedia)

      Then we have the Sanskrit word, Mettā, the practice of loving-kindness. The object of Mettā (loving-kindness) is love without attachement, or in wanting the best for another person.

      The word loving-kindness is also found throughout the Psalms and Old Testament, associated with both Chesed (kindness) and Agape.

      “The ultimate act of chesed is creation, an act that has no previous cause. The Psalms make this clear:

      “The world is built with chesed.” (Psalms 89:3)

      When we call creation an act of chesed, we are not only talking about creation ex nihilo, “out of nothing,” in the purely physical sense. Rather, we are also referring to the interaction between God and man.”

      This URL, will give you view into what chesed means in Jewish mysticism.

      1. This is really interesting, Ron. It seems the deeper we delve, the more seemingly disparate ways have in common. Peace, Tracy

      2. This is really interesting, Ron. It seems the deeper we delve, the more seemingly disparate ways have in common. Peace, Tracy

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