Over the past several years, talk of the “religious imagination” has become much more popular among theological circles, especially those particularly interested in theology and the arts (authors such as Garrett Green, John McIntyre, Michael Austen, and Paul Avis attest to this fact). This move to understand the role of the imagination not only in the arts or sciences, but also in all other areas of life, and not least religion, is significant. By giving attention to the imagination, we are able to grasp the complexity of the human mind and understand, at least in part, the ways that we go about ordinary activities such as loving, remembering, worrying, creating, arguing, and sympathizing. This list goes on and on. The imagination is the key faculty by which we understand and experience the world.
Wendell Berry, in his most recent book of essays, Imagination in Place, focuses on the importance of the human imagination and offers his readers insight into its religious significance. He says,
By imagination I do not mean the ability to make things up or make a realistic copy. I mean the ability to make real to oneself the life of one’s place or the life of one’s enemy—and therein, I believe, is implied the imagination in the highest sense. (“American Imagination and the Civil War,” 30)
In a later essay, he further suggests that,
it is the power to make us see, and to see, moreover, things that without it would be unseeable….By its means we may see what it was to be Odysseus or Penelope, or David or Ruth, or what it is to be one’s neighbor or one’s enemy. (“God, Science, and Imagination,” 186-87)
Berry understands the imagination not only as the faculty by which we create a work of art or solve a math proof. In typical Berry fashion, he focuses instead on its role in human relationships, on its ability to show us what’s really real in the world. In this way, it is the key way by which we fulfill Christ’s command to love our neighbors as ourselves. Only by imagining “the other,” by placing ourselves in his or her shoes, can we really know how to love them as ourselves. Loving them does not remain abstract or disconnected from action but is “made real” through this imaginative activity. But Berry doesn’t stop here. He says that the imagination, if it is going to function in this way, must ultimately be a “particularizing and a local force, native to the ground underfoot.” (32) The human imagination is grounded in and influenced by place and the world around it. It is only by knowing the particular, Berry says, that we can understand the universal. Only by being grounded in a place can we see how we fit in relation to other people and to the whole of Creation. This groundedness, this particularly placed, religious imagination, then, is what we must cultivate if we are going to succeed in the Christian task to love our neighbors. We must place ourselves in relation to the other, and by so doing, imagine and understand something of the kingdom of God on earth.