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[Chalice] Religion and the Imagination [Chalice]

Presented October 20, 2013, by Doug Muder

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Opening Words: from Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Levin had often noticed in arguments between the most intelligent people that after enormous efforts, and an enormous number of logical subtleties and words, the arguers would finally come to the awareness that what they had spent so long struggling to prove to each other had been known to them long, long before, from the beginning of the argument, but that they loved different things and therefore did not want to name what they loved, so as not to be challenged.

He had often felt that sometimes during an argument you would understand what your opponent loves, and suddenly come to love the same thing yourself, and agree all at once, and then all reasonings would fall away as superfluous; and sometimes it was the other way round: you would finally say what you yourself love, for the sake of which you are inventing your reasonings, and if you happened to say it well and sincerely, the opponent would suddenly agree and stop arguing.

Meditation: In Words

Every week we say, "Love is the spirit of this Church." But right now I want to invite you to fantasize: What if there were a more literal "spirit" of this church something you communed with when you came in the door.

Would you see it? Hear it? How would you feel its presence? What would the Spirit of This Church be like?


Inevitably, between Tuesday and Sunday I find the readings I really should have put in the Order of Service. So the first reading is from a sermon "The Folly of Half-way Liberalism" that John Dietrich gave in 1930.

Dietrich was the father of Unitarian Humanism. Here he lays down a challenge to all religious liberals.

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.

In either case we must know; and to know we must inquire, we must search, we must make a decision.

Christopher Hitchens made that decision and was not shy about pouring scorn on people who decided the other way. This is what he wrote in The Portable Atheist:

Dr. Jonathan Miller ... is uneasy with the term [atheist] for this reason: "I do not have," he once told me, "a special word for saying that I do not believe in the tooth fairy or in Santa Claus. I presume that my intelligent friends do not suppose that I believe in such things."

True enough -- but we do not have to emerge from a past when tooth fairies ... held sway. The fans of the tooth fairy do not bang on your door and try to convert you. They do not insist that their pseudo-science be taught in schools. They do not condemn believers in rival tooth fairies to death and damnation. They do not say that all morality comes from tooth fairy ceremonies, and that without the tooth fairy there would be fornication in the streets and the abolition of private property.

The third reading appeared last month in the blog Ordinary Times. In "How My Daughter Taught Me to Love Myth-Making" Kyle Cupp expresses a more both-and attitude:

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.

The final reading fell into my lap. It's from Tuesday's New York Times, an article called "Conjuring Up Our Own Gods" by T. M. Luhrman.

Consider how some people attempt to make what can only be imagined feel real. They do this by trying to create thought-forms, or imagined creatures [that Tibetan monks call] tulpas.

Their human creators are trying to imagine so vividly that the tulpas start to seem as if they can speak and act on their own...

Jack, a young man I interviewed, decided to make a tulpa when he was in college. He set aside an hour and a half each day for this. He'd spend the first 40 minutes or so relaxing and clearing his mind. Then he visualized a fox (he liked foxes).

After four weeks, he started to feel the fox's presence, and to have feelings he thought were the fox's. Finally, after a chemistry exam, he felt that she spoke to him. "I heard, clear as day, ‘Well, how did you do?' " he recalled.

For a while he was intensely involved with her, and said it felt more wonderful than falling in love with a girl.

Then he stopped spending all that time meditating — and the fox went away. It turned out she was fragile. He says she comes back, sometimes unexpectedly, when he practices...

Jack's story makes it clear that experiencing an invisible companion as truly present — especially as an adult — takes work: constant concentration, a state that resembles prayer.

It may seem paradoxical, but this very difficulty may be why evangelical churches emphasize a personal, intimate God. While the idea of God may be intuitively plausible … belief can be brittle. To experience God as walking by your side, in conversation with you, is hard.

Evangelical pastors often preach as if they are teaching people how to keep God constantly in mind, because it is so easy not to pray, to let God's presence slip away. But when it works, people experience God as alive.

Secular liberals sometimes take evolutionary psychology to mean that believing in God is the lazy option. But many churchgoers will tell you that keeping God real is what's hard.

The Talk: "Religion and the Imagination"

Why, a little girl once asked me, don't grown-ups like to use their imaginations? It was an honest question, but it was also an accusation. At the time, we were in a rocket ship that had landed on another 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 accusation stung, and so the question stuck with me for months, especially when I was with children. And eventually the answer came to me: Adults are every bit as imaginative as children, but we use our imaginations differently. And we don't give ourselves credit for the things we imagine, because we imagine them so well that we believe they are real. Tell a grown-up that the things he believes in are imaginary, and he'll feel insulted, especially if it's true. 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 really there.

A few years ago I was in London with four boys and their parents. When they knew where we were going, the boys loved to run ahead, which got kind of scary in crowds. The boys would thread their way through a crowd by racing up to within an inch of somebody, 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 I had a hard time explaining what they were doing wrong. Eventually I realized that they simply did not see what I saw. I saw a bubble of personal space surrounding each individual. And when people walked, their bubbles elongated into the direction of motion. So I kept seeing the boys bash their bubbles into other people's bubbles. But they didn't see that. And in a literal sense they were right, because those bubbles are 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 they 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 that 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 the most important thing that happens is a virtual event. Say you're walking down Maine Street holding a child's hand. But your grip gets sweaty and she slips away, darts out into traffic, and in just a second or two is on the opposite sidewalk perfectly safe. One or two cars screeched to a halt, but that was the end of it. The girl will probably not think twice about that incident, because she experienced only what really happened. You, on the other hand, 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 months later: not the real event, but the virtual event 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 very real, because even if it slips your mind, other people will 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 it would still come up again in the morning. And if we all forgot about gravity, I think we'd soon rediscover it. But on the other hand, if everyone simultaneously forgot that money has value, then it wouldn't. Real as it seems, money is an act of shared imagination. So are laws. If we all simultaneously forgot that there were laws, there wouldn't be laws. It's our shared imagination that holds the system together. Most communities also fail the amnesia test. If one of you forgot about this church, the rest of you might pull him back. "Where have you been?" you'd say. "We miss you." But if everybody forgot at once, the community would just be gone. Because the fundamental place this church exists isn't in this building or in the legal structure of its bylaws, but in our shared imaginations.

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 real in the way the Sun or gravity are, so that we would have to rediscover them? Given what I've said here in the past, I don't think it should surprise you to hear that I think 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 that belief, it's easy to stop the thought experiment there and congratulate ourselves on how realistic we are: God is imaginary. We don't believe in God. Aren't we clever? That self-congratulation is what I hear when atheists compare God to the Tooth Fairy. Here's my problem with that: It isn't just other people's religions that fail the amnesia test. My own humanistic religion fails 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 in the order of service. 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 interdependent web of all existence? I think they'd be gone. Those are not facts, they're visions, products of human imagination. I think that even something as fundamental as Justice itself is a product of human imagination. It's a glorious product of imagination, one that we as a species have been working on collectively for thousands and thousands of years. But it's a product of imagination all the same.

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 argument about religion, and so religious arguments 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 real like the Sun or gravity. And so they are important and deserve respect. On the other, atheists like Christopher Hitchens tell us that the objects of religion are imaginary like the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy. 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 Tooth Fairy. But they also have something in common with justice and human rights. Just because something is imaginary 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 wherever 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.

OK. That was really abstract, so I think I need some examples. One of the disadvantages of talking here once or twice a year is that when I need to refer to a previous talk, I can't really expect you to remember it. But a couple years ago I was talking about the afterlife. My father believed in it, and I didn't, but I still had the same root problem that he solved by imagining an afterlife: Namely, how do I tell the story of my life in a way that makes my experience meaningful, when I know that (no matter what I think I might be in the middle of) my life could just suddenly be over at any moment, with all those plots still hanging unresolved? Actual human lives typically don't conclude, like stories. They end, often unexpectedly at inconvenient moments. What does that possibility do to my attempt to put meaning into the story of my life? The solution I presented had me involving myself in communities and their larger stories, stories that my death would not end, the way that Martin Luther King saw his life as part of the larger story of his race's march to freedom. Here's how that's an example of what I'm talking about today: Both my father's vision of the afterlife and my attempt to envision my life as part of a larger story are acts of imagination. The connections I want to draw between my actions and the experiences of people who live after my death are imaginative connections. That larger story is an interpretation that lives in my mind, and that -- like Jack's fox-tulpa from the reading -- will wink out if I don't regularly refresh it. So it's not that my father was fantasizing while I am firmly rooted in reality. We were both using our imaginations to solve the same problem.

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 I want to emphasize that that's not where I'm going. Quite the opposite: 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 I'm staking out. A fundamentalist might claim his family ritual speaks to a real soul in a real Heaven. A no-nonsense 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 the author 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, the family's ability to imagine Vivian would fade, and part of the meaning of their lives would be gone. The ritual addresses a question whose answer is not "out there", but one that the author feels "called to answer creatively in my own small way."

The reading about tulpas and Jack's imaginary fox can be hard to wrap your mind around, so I'll flesh that out with a tulpa of my own.

As many of you know, my first career was as a mathematician. Twenty-five years ago, I had what should have been my ideal job: I made a good salary doing research on problems that interested me. You'd think I would have been deliriously happy, but oddly I wasn't. I didn't know what to do, because when I thought about the job I should look for, it sounded like the job I already had. So I asked myself another question: What's a good day at this job, and why isn't every day like that? And the answer came to me surprisingly quickly: A good day is one where I'm motivated by a pure spirit of inquiry. I have questions I want to answer, and I just sit down and work on them. Why wasn't every day like that? Well, partly because of the meetings and memos that are part of any job. But mostly because I let the office politics distract me. I fretted about reviews and funding and promotions -- and 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. Pushing the metaphor a little further: 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. A religion needs a symbol, so I came up with one, drew it 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 of Inquiry, 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 about my job. And the Spirit never demanded sacrifices or made me its prophet or condemned my co-workers to Hell. Now, I know exactly how a hard-line atheist might criticize the religion I invented. The Spirit of Inquiry, he would tell me scornfully, is not real. I just took some part of my unconscious and projected it outward. I didn't work in the presence of a god, I just had an imaginary friend.

In response, I suppose I could turn fundamentalist and argue for the Spirit's reality. And if I were clever enough, tricky enough, and just plain stubborn enough, the argument could go round and round, the way religious arguments do. Or I could simply accept the content of the criticism and reject the scorn it carried: The Spirit isn't real the way rocks and tables are real. It was a projection of my unconscious. I had an imaginary friend.

So? 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 makes a whole new kind of discussion possible. 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? Does that worship make a person compassionate and generous, or does it encourage self-centeredness and self-righteousness? Does it open people up to mystery and wonder, or assure them they already have all the answers? Does it fill them with awe and gratitude, or make them feel entitled to special favors? And a vision of the afterlife — does it help people accept the reality of 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. There's good imagination and bad imagination. To reuse words from the responsive reading: It matters, what we commit ourselves to imagining.

And finally, what about the objects of our own religion? If we tell ourselves that we just believe in what is real, we're letting ourselves off the hook. Because reality will take care of itself, but the collective imagination needs our participation. If justice is a product of the human imagination, then it's not enough to just believe in it. We need to make it real. We need to practice envisioning justice, so that it will always be present and not wink out on us when we need it most. If the inherent worth of each person or 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 communities like this one exist fundamentally in the imaginations of their members, then we need not just to join and attend or even contribute, but to also 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. And if we're not filling that vessel and drinking from it when our own visions falter, we're missing out. 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.

Closing Words: William Wordsworth

What we have loved, others will love; and we will teach them how.

©2013 Doug Muder

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Muder, Doug 2013. Religion and the Imagination, /talks/20131020.shtml (accessed July 13, 2020).

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