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Imagination and Work

Matt has a good post on the tendency of “post-evangelical” types to insist on “the need to shape our imagination via liturgy and creativity.” There is certainly a great deal of fixation these days on the church/liturgy/sacraments as constituting an alternative “habitable world” (as  Hauerwas tends to say) to that of “modernity.” Matt points out one of the dangers of this sort of orientation:

This apocalyptic imagination can, however, be lured into living within the mere imagination of another world rather than doing the hard work of beginning to live now as if the world to come is in some way really here. This is what Christian theology means when it tells us about the kingdom of God being both near and yet delayed. It requires both tremendous imagination and tenacity to live in the tension of the world to come being partly here but not fully realized.

It is too often the case, however, to choose one of two things that should be held together. I can easily think of those who work hard with no imagination, and those with well-developed imaginations who wouldn’t imagine doing anything practical to change the world around them. Although we live in a world filled with non-imaginative workers, I still hold that imagination without work devolves into a sad impotence.

Or perhaps it inculcates more than just impotence: an over-active liturgical imagination that does not give proper attention to the contingencies of our own time and place could also be argued to foster outright blindness to the very real work the gospel may be calling us to in the world. Not that this is the fault of  liturgy in itself, the point is simply that we often seem to want it to do far more heavy lifting than it could possibly do. After all, we should never forget that there was a hell of a lot of Eucharist going on in Nazi Germany and only rarely did it seem to help cultivate any kind of morally significant alternative world.


  1. thomas wrote:

    Are we supposed to think that the two are opposed? That liturgy might inhibit one from working hard? At best, it seems that both are necessary elements in the Christian life, and I don’t know of anyone who would say otherwise, implicitly or explicitly. We might say the same of sermons, or of prayer. It doesn’t strike me that anything at all has been said.

    Reading into the post a little bit, it seems that a dubious distinction is being drawn between liturgy and work. Liturgy seems to be a particular form of work; at the very least it is that work the church does in worshiping God. More careful thinking about the liturgy might say that it the highest level expression of being a part of Christ’s body,,that it may just be partaking in the divine energies, and so on. All of which is the preeminent “work” of the Christian.

    Wednesday, October 14, 2009 at 1:08 pm | Permalink
  2. This is just a new way of stating the old contrast between the vita contemplativa and the vita activa. And as Thomas has pointed out, this is a false dichotomy.

    The other problem in this ballpark is that, given our cultural context, we’re very prone to understand “imagination” in Romantic terms as inventive and fictive, whereas there is a different understanding of imagination not as fantasy but as the, sort of, pre-cognitive, affective medium by which we constitute the world (so more like Heidegger’s “Verstehen” [understanding]). William Desmond’s book, _Is There a Sabbath for Thought?_ is very good on this point. I think most of the theologians who speak about the “liturgical formation of our imagination” have the latter notion of imagination in mind, whereas I think many of the “popular” appropriations of this have the former (Romantic) sense in mind. FWIW.

    Wednesday, October 14, 2009 at 3:54 pm | Permalink
  3. Halden wrote:

    I agree. It is precisely the “popular” appropriations that I think are in Matt’s (and derivatively my) crosshairs. I’m certainly in favor of investigating and fostering liturgical formation, indeed, I think its indispensable. But, at the level of much contemporary appropriation, the thickness of many theological iterations of this important point seem to get thinned down to, “The proper response to ______ is to just take Eucharist.

    Also, while the contrast between the vita complentiva and the vita activa may be a false dichotomy conceptually, it seems to me that in the lives of many Christians this dichotomy has become very actual, at least on some level that has moral importance. I think so anyway.

    Wednesday, October 14, 2009 at 4:03 pm | Permalink
  4. Matt Wiebe wrote:

    In no way am I trying to say that liturgy and work are opposed. What I’m noting is that “liturgy” too readily becomes a code word for self-indulgent, non-active forms of creativity amongst those who feel that the churches in which they were reared were creatively stifling and unimaginative.

    I know that this isn’t what liturgy properly understood (and practiced) looks like, but it does seem to stand in for it in much of the “post-evangelical” world. It becomes yet another excuse to get in a holy huddle that has nothing to do with the work of the people of God.

    Wednesday, October 14, 2009 at 5:42 pm | Permalink
  5. Matt Wiebe wrote:

    I agree that it’s a false dichotomy, so long as we first understand the issue how romantic our views of imagination generally are. Most don’t. Much of the chatter I’m indicting seems to assume a non-active mode of imagination that, by (their) definition, has little to no connection with action.

    As Halden says, the need for imaginative liturgical formation is not only necessary, but sadly missing in action in most of my own observations of N.American lived-out ecclesiology. That’s what makes such a shallow appropriation of it so maddening. The trouble with false dichotomies is people like to pick them even though they shouldn’t.

    Wednesday, October 14, 2009 at 5:52 pm | Permalink
  6. Matt–where do you see this on-the-ground, “post-evangelical” retreat into eucharistic contemplation? It wouldn’t be McLaren, et. al., right? (Since he’s just figuring out how to be a liberal Protestant and thus is clearly “activist.”) So I’m curious about where this phenomenon you’re talking about shows up. (I’ve seen it in some evangelical converts to Orthodoxy, but I’m guessing you mean there’s a kind of non-denom, “emergent” version of this?)

    Wednesday, October 14, 2009 at 6:10 pm | Permalink
  7. Nate Kerr wrote:


    Can you say more about what you understand to be the relationship between “imagination” and “contemplation”? It is my understanding that “imagination” for the medievals played a kind of mediatory role between interior reasoning and contemplation of the divine. This had to do with the association of imagination with memory. So, imagination had to do with the transition from our interior thought world to the external operation of the will. Thus, as I understand it, imagination has to do with the construction of an imaginary from out of the storehouses of memory, which we then place ourselves into via the active movement of the will. In this way, the imagination is indeed productive of a world which we then inhabit.

    Now, of course, this understanding of imagination is entirely dependent upon the scaffolding of Platonic recollection and of an analogical account of being. My problem with this is that it seems as if imagination as such only functions within a context in which it is already given in advance what we shall come to “contemplate” or to “see.” Of course, all of this needs unpacking, but I do find it curious that those who emphasize the notion of something like a liturgical imagination often speak of liturgy in terms of a kind of “production” of Christian “identity,” etc. And the big worry of mine here is that this liturgical imaginary makes of the church a kind of interior “space” wherein our identity is formed prior to our encounter with, say, “the world.” Along these lines, I have found Rom Coles’ critique of the “liturgical imaginary” as he finds it displayed throughout the pages of The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics in his essay “Gentled into Being” in The Radical Ordinary very helpful. For me, all of this turns on Coles’ almost laconic remark that the liturgical imaginary as such “risks getting Jesus wrong.” But how that is so must remain, of course, for another day.

    Wednesday, October 14, 2009 at 7:40 pm | Permalink
  8. Matt Wiebe wrote:

    Great question Jamie. I’m not so much seeing it in public figures like McLaren as I am in my friends and peers. They read/listen to someone like McLaren just enough to say, “oh, the church doesn’t have to be like I was told. Cool. I’ll just do it however I feel like then.”

    Many of them quickly ditch anything smacking of organized church, or they go on the Canterbury trail, leaving various strands of evangelical/non-denom/charistmatic churches. They like that the worship style is more highbrow, but that its more formal nature demands little of them in terms of discipleship: it’s just a nice aesthetic experience. There are two particularly “hip” Anglican churches in my city littered with people who used to worship with me at the Vineyard.

    And I should have left out the N.America line above, because my observations are Winnipeg generally and Winnipeg Centre Vineyard particularly. Maybe these observations extend out more generally, but I’m losing my way if I make that my goal.

    Wednesday, October 14, 2009 at 7:54 pm | Permalink
  9. Andrew Krinks wrote:

    All that has been said here has been helpful, particularly Jamie’s comment about imagination as a sort of pre-cognitive affective medium by which we constitute the world.

    I’m also curious, Nate, about the conceptualization of liturgy you allude to. Is what you’re summoning up opposed to the ‘leitourgia’ that Alexander Schmemann describes as “an action by which a group of people become something corporately which they had not been as a mere collection of individuals…”? Is the notion that it gives identity, but only because it does so via an encounter with “the world”? Am interested in the unpacking of this…

    As for those who wallow in a narcissistic liturgical “high church” sort of thing in order to differentiate themselves and retreat from a conservative upbringing, it’s not really been my experience either. I’m not surprised to hear about it, though it is disappointing. I can certainly identify with moving from one experience to another–one more focused on liturgical disciplines, but I seldom see it attempted so recklessly as described above. I’ve certainly not experienced anyone hitting up some Eucharist because it’s supposed to solve everything. I do, however, value Cavanaugh’s take in Torture & Eucharist and Theopolitical. Or at least it’s convincing to know that it’s taken concrete political forms in such places as El Salvador. At least gives me hope that it may be practiced so well.

    I would also put forth one thing that maybe hasn’t been said in the way I want to say it. I agree entirely that the liturgical formation of the imagination ought to result in a true liturgy, a concrete communal ‘work’. However, I don’t think this means we ought not engage in those activities from which a straight line cannot be drawn to “work” that is “liturgical” or Kingdom-oriented. Specifically, I’m thinking of such things as the nurturing of a poetic imagination (I’m all for–and am–exploring the poetic/metaphorical character of the Eucharist, holy mysteries, what have you, etc.). To that end, I am a reader of poetry. I would not argue that a direct line can be drawn from the poetry I read to the work I may do that affects the life of the Kingdom…but it occurs in at least a tangential way, which is still noteworthy, and worth my time. And heck, I just love it and can’t get enough of it. And though it’s my personal bias, I think poetry in particular has potential to be of great service in cultivating an imagination that does not wallow in its own romantic escapes, but which fosters concrete compassion, and a mind capable of imagining, and calling forth, a “language adequate to our experience” as Jay Parini says. Or, I might add, a language and an imagination adequate to make manifest right action and politics.

    Wednesday, October 14, 2009 at 8:34 pm | Permalink
  10. Matt wrote:

    One of the few bits of modern psychology that I find helpful for the church is that we do not just act out of the beings that we are, we also act our way into new ways of being. There is a dialectic at work here. When Jesus tells stories of what another world called the kingdom of God is like, he is cultivating in us an imaginative potential to conceive of a world in which up is down, the poor are rich, and the dead are raised. It is throught this imaginative resonctruction that we come to inhabit and act in the world in new ways. It is also through the very act of discipleships that our imaginative conceiving of the world, our faith, is formed and restructured. The imagination does not exist apart from concrete action, faith does not exist apart from works, faith does not exist apart from works. The list goes on and on of separating what had not business to be separated. The modern world has separated and flattened these entities. Imagination thickens them, but we need to meld where there are fissures. The corrolaries go on…justification and sanctification, conversion and calling…what this new generation knows better than most of the church is that it is in being disciples, in working with the folks that Jesus hangs out with (poor, hungry, lame, crippled, blind, imprisoned, etc) that we are converted. Jesus said he would be there.

    Wednesday, October 14, 2009 at 9:02 pm | Permalink
  11. Nate Kerr wrote:


    I think Schmemann is extremely helpful here, for a number of reasons. But I’ll state two. First, the point that he makes about liturgy in the chapter that you are referring to and the whole of the book (I think that quote is from For the Life of the World, right?) is that the liturgy, the work, here spoken of by which this people becomes something corporately that they are not in-themselves is specifically the work of Christ. The true liturgy is that which we are sacramentally transformed into and made to participate in, as something which we “are not” in ourselves: the singular work of Jesus Christ. Secondly, the work of Christ that of the transformation of the world into the Kingdom of God. And so Schmemann’s understanding of liturgy is irreducibly bound up with mission (as is indicated by the key placement of the chapter on mission between the chapters on eucharist and baptism). The liturgy that is Christ makes of the church’s leitourgia a sacrament of Christ only as a sacrament of the world’s transformation and movement into the Kingdom. And so the church only happens as doubly a sign of that which it “is not” in-itself, as such: the world as being confronted and transformed by Christ and the Kingdom that comes by way of that transformation.

    I am, of course, reading Schmemann in a very particular way. But reading Schmemann has continually reinforced for me why it is so important that we understand liturgy to be an event of and within the concrete historicity of Jesus of Nazareth — the apocalyptic historicity of his cross and resurrection. If it is not this, that is, if liturgy is not about the concrete “ordering” of the Christian community to the living Christ, and rather becomes about the ordering — or “production” — instead of a discrete earthly-historical and ecclesiastical polity, then liturgy cannot but in the end, it seems to me, turn out to be a matter of sacramental instrumentality and functionality, of historical perdurance and survival. But this would be falsely to historicize Jesus in diachronic relation to the church (as, say, its “founder”), rather than to speak of church and liturgy as the historical event of our participation in the kenotic historicity of Jesus himself. Barth makes something like this point about liturgy in IV/2, and then — surprisingly, to some — draws the conclusion that this is the only way by which properly to conceive of the church as “an order of fellowship derived from the Lord’s Supper” [708].

    Wednesday, October 14, 2009 at 10:31 pm | Permalink
  12. I was making any connection between imagination and contemplation. I was suggesting that the “tension” Matt’s original post named was reminiscent of the old (I think Protestant) saw about the “contemplative” life vs. the “active” life.

    The imagination point is then a separate issue, where I think people appropriate “imagination” as if it were about subjective projection, invention, and Romantic fantasy (I think your use of the term above still has this sense of “projection” about it).

    As you know, I don’t agree with you in your reading here–the distinction between “church” and “world” is one that you’ve invoked here, not me. I also don’t think interiority is the worst thing in the world. But for the most part, my thinking about “imagination” here has been largely shaped by contemporary cognitive science and social psychology’s discussion of the “new unconscious.” No doubt that sounds like bad interiority or something to you all. Alas. But I’m not doing apologetics.

    Thursday, October 15, 2009 at 4:39 pm | Permalink
  13. That’s helpful, Matt. Thanks.

    Thursday, October 15, 2009 at 4:39 pm | Permalink
  14. Sorry, should have said: “I was NOT making any connection between imagination and contemplation.”

    Thursday, October 15, 2009 at 4:41 pm | Permalink
  15. Nate Kerr wrote:


    Thanks. And fair enough. However, I’m not sure that how I am understanding imagination here has to do with “projection,” so much as that of “production,” which is the result of an appropriation. I mean, what’s great about Augustine here is there is nothing “in ourselves” as such to “project.”

    Perhaps my concern is with what you mean by the imagination as “constituting the world.” Perhaps you could say more about the nature of this act of constituting?

    The church/world thing wasn’t necessarily directed at you. It was kind of an extension of my reflections into the way I see this getting worked out when “the church” as such is conceived as constituting a liturgical imaginary.

    Thursday, October 15, 2009 at 7:55 pm | Permalink
  16. Nate Kerr wrote:


    Just to be clear: My inquiry here really is a genuine one. I really am concerned with what it means to think imagination theologically. I suppose what I am inquiring into is whether imagination has ever been philosophically conceived in a manner that is not, if not Romantic, at least proto-Idealist. What I’d like to do is to think imagination von Gott aus in a manner that is not idealist. Augustine’s notion of “illumination” seems as if it might point a way forward here, but it would also seem to be working against other elements in his thought here, too.

    (Of course, we’re somewhat afield of the original post. But if Halden’s okay with it, I’m really up for learning something here.)

    Thursday, October 15, 2009 at 8:24 pm | Permalink
  17. Nate Kerr wrote:

    The previous post should have gone below the post below this. It comes after in terms composition. I still haven’t figured out how this threading of comments thing.

    Thursday, October 15, 2009 at 8:25 pm | Permalink
  18. On all these points, Nate, I wonder if this helps: when I’m talking about imagination here, and when I’m talking about “constituting the world,” I am completely drawing on my training in the phenomenology of Husserl and Heidegger, and not any particular theological take on “the world.” Maybe that’s helpful. It might also be helpful to note that Heidegger’s phenomenology is rabidly critical of inside/outside distinctions and thus opposed to what I think you’re calling “idealism.”

    So by “constitution” I mean the phenomenological sense of Sinngebung, which ultimately amounts to a hermeneutic point. (I still think Caputo’s classic, _Radical Hermeneutics_, is a very helpful exploration of these issues.)

    For an old (but Vandy!) importation of this framework into theology, look at Edward Farley’s _Ecclesial Reflection_.

    Friday, October 16, 2009 at 8:50 am | Permalink
  19. Dave Belcher wrote:

    Despite the finer points of phenomenological insight (and despite Farley also — speaking as one who also comes from Vandy and very much likes Farley!), Rowan Williams is surely right on this point: “The Church is never left to reimagine itself or reshape itself according to its own priorities of the moment; for it to be itself, it has received those gifts that express and determine its essential self as a place where the eternal self-giving of Christ is happening in such a way as to heal and change lives.” This is, as I take it, the same point Nate is making vis-a-vis a logic of “production.” My two cents.

    Saturday, October 17, 2009 at 8:07 am | Permalink
  20. Yep. I can’t imagine anyone thinking that “the church” is some kind of self-sufficient generator of its own imagination. So Williams’ claim feels like a bit of shadow-boxing, but I think he’s right. That said, I take it that the Word and Sacraments are the means by which the Spirit renews our imagination.

    Did I just break some Barthian rule in suggesting as much?

    Saturday, October 17, 2009 at 4:56 pm | Permalink
  21. Nate Kerr wrote:

    Nah, Jamie, I don’t know if you have broken any hard and fast “Barthian” rules as such, there. At least I’m not concerned with whether you have or not. The question is, rather: Have you adequately broken with the governing phenomenological rules? I’m still struggling to understand the referent of “our imagination” here — just what is that?

    Saturday, October 17, 2009 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

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