Recent Work on Religious Imagination

Guy Axtell is Professor of Philosophy at Radford University, and author of  Objectivity  (Polity, 2015), and  Problems of Religious Luck  (Lexington, 2019). He is also area editor for Religious Imagination at PhilPapers, and invites Junkyard dogs to tag pertinent papers to this area and to use it as a growing resource.

Guy Axtell is Professor of Philosophy at Radford University, and author of Objectivity (Polity, 2015), and Problems of Religious Luck (Lexington, 2019). He is also area editor for Religious Imagination at PhilPapers, and invites Junkyard dogs to tag pertinent papers to this area and to use it as a growing resource.

A post by Guy Axtell.

The role of imagination in religious consciousness is a topic of interest in philosophy and psychology of religion, religious studies, and theology. Study of religious imagination often goes together with phenomenology of religious experience, with the study of religious art, and with theologies emphasizing hermeneutics, or model-theoretic tasks.[i] My studies of the literature of religious imagination lead me to think that attitudes among theologians towards imagination’s role in the formation of religious ideas are often captive to broader differences between liberal and conservative theologies.[ii] This is seen to some extent across the Abrahamic family of testimonial traditions.[iii]

The contest among treatments of imagination’s role in the formation of religious ideas is of course not restricted to theologians, as one could just as easily compare Sigmund Freud’s The Future of an Illusion with Carl Jung’s criticisms of Freud’s reductionism as more reflective of Freud’s personal psychology than of the sources and nature of religious consciousness. But the intellectual ‘break’ between Karl Barth and Rudolph Bultmann and is no less interesting in respect to treatments of imagination than the break between Freud and Jung, after having been close friends earlier in life. Sometimes called the ‘Whale’ and the ‘Elephant,’ by their students, the clashing evangelical and historical-critical perspectives of Barth and Bultmann reflect sharply different views about the role of imagination, among other differences. Barth acknowledged hermeneutic tasks in the reading of scripture but rejected Bultmann’s historical-critical methods, and even more so his theological project of ‘demythologizing’ the Bible’s meaning (largely separating ethical and theological teachings from functions of making historical and cosmological claims in his provocative 1941 essay “The New Testament and Mythology”). A self-described evangelical, Barth reportedly also sharply took issue with Bultmann’s younger friend by the name of Martin Heidegger. Yet Barth’s restatement of Christian evangelisms in Church Dogmatics (1932-67), together with his sharp rejection of Protestant liberalism and Enlightenment-styled higher criticism, casts a huge shadow over a new wave of theological conservativism self-described ‘post-liberal,’ and sometimes as ‘narrative’ theology.[iv]

Of course, mytho-poetic and mystical/apophatic are among theological approaches most likely to recognize positive roles for imagination in religious consciousness. This is partly so because debate over the role of imagination seems so inextricable from different perspectives on the nature of religious language and of language generally.[v] The nature of language, especially as directed to a real that transcends empirical existence, has been a question in Far Eastern as well as Middle-Eastern thought.[vi] How should this affect philosophers of imagination? What suggestions might it give rise to for what contemporary science of religion can profitably study? We can allow that the role of imagination in religious ideas might have implications for the long-standing debate between realists vs. non-realists about the aims of religious discourse. But we can also set that aside in favor of treating imagination on its own terms. Philosophers on my view should defend imagination’s role against the tendency of both theologians and skeptical ‘debunkers’ to throw it around in service of a favored position in high metaphysics or theology.

One means of defense may be the Jamesean-Deweyan move of resisting any temptation to set “religion” and “religious imagination” off as if by deep divide from other domains. This is as William James advises us at the outset of Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). When speaking of religious imagination, I also want to resist distinguishing it sharply from moral imagination. The moral and the metaphysical are firstly conjoined in the monotheistic conception of an all-good, “perfect” being, anyway. And from a more psychological perspective, we need reason to set religious belief off from beliefs in other domains where we recognize the influence of affect, emotion, and desire. Personal and social identity construction, insofar as it involves a self-narrative or a narrative about the origins of an in-group, do not lose their connection with imagination merely because we pass over into a domain of religious ideas. Not incidentally, the role of imagination and of temperament were among the several grounds of Mill’s and James’ defenses of the value and validity of people’s ‘over-beliefs,’ their ‘experiments of living,’ or ‘faith ventures.’ The Millian and American pragmatist traditions among those which argued for a permissive ethics of belief, but for an active role of imagination in moral development and ethical judgment. Imagination aids both what John Dewey called reflective morality and in what James called the morally “strenuous mood.”[vii]

Religious imagination can also be a subject of special concern. As a practical concern, does anyone else worry that the ‘apocalyptic imagination,’ the tendency to see events in the world confirming a meta-narrative of selective salvation following inevitable violent comeuppance and end-of-times on Earth, may be killing us? Does it aid cooperative problem-solving of shared problems responsibility for the state of our world (things I would call the strenuous mood needed today), or does it perhaps ‘feed the wrong wolf’ (to borrow from the themes of Tomorrowland, a recent film which explicitly challenges the preoccupation with dystopic themes and pessimistic or survivalist attitudes)?

But let me now turn to some more theoretic concerns and to a couple of ideas from my own recent work and that of research I draw on. My book Problems of Religious Luck: Assessing the Limits of Reasonable Religious Disagreement (2019) engages imagination studies in its critique of fundamentalist religiosity. For empirical support I draw upon the psychologically-informed work of Rachel E. Fraser (2017), which involves “source monitoring” studies and their implications for epistemological issues concerning the reception of testimony. The basic concern with the quality of our monitoring testimonial sources of information (a topic covered in any critical thinking textbook’s treatment of testimony), can easily be extended to include psychological studies of how competently people recognize differences between simple and narrative testimony, or again, between assertive and narrative testimonial transmissions.[viii] Even apart from a specific interest in religious narrative, it is clear that basing beliefs upon narrative testimony is a complex matter that goes far beyond a simple matter of trust of the author or authors. To know whether the stories are intended as history and biography, as moral allegory, or some mixture of each becomes risky business as the contemporary recipient of the testimony become separated in time from the author and the author’s original intended audience. Fraser argues that our reliability in source monitoring is shown by social psychology to be particularly challenged when agents must process narrative testimony, which is often ambiguous or unforthcoming as to what elements are factual, and what elements are products of imagination.

If we are interested in whether narrative testimony is a good source of beliefs about what the world is like, we should, Fraser argues, find quite concerning empirical studies on narrative credulity. [ix] For test subjects in these studies quite often fail to reliably monitor the differences between the genuine and contrived in the vignettes they are given to interpret, even when the latter are presented with clear clues of their narrative intention. Narrative testimony is attended with a unique and rich phenomenology, Fraser argues, one that, especially in recognition of the somatic or modal elements of the reception of narratives, places one in a good position to understand what it feels like to have certain experiences.[x] You can have knowledge of the story without thinking yourself well-situated to have a settled view about whether the personages and events within it as historically accurate, or for that matter even based on history. One can know the story without knowing or claiming to know what specific audience it was originally a story for, or what the author’s intent with respect to that audience. But the unique features of narrative testimony often goes unacknowledged in epistemology – even in the recent resurgence of research on epistemology of testimony! My own book ties these points to the comparative study of fundamentalism as a concern for science of religion today, and to a kind of genealogy of a religiously absolutist mindset.

To summarize, the role of imagination in religious consciousness should be of interdisciplinary interest, yet despite some efforts to rehabilitate it, it remains understudied. It remains so very often for reasons that are neither psychologically or philosophically sound, but rather stem from historically prevalent models of religious faith which tend to treat a robust role for imagination in the formation of religious ideas as a threat to their truth status. To bring religious imagination into a spotlight, psychologists and philosophers of imagination might be well-served to pay more attention to the unique features of narrative testimony from simple testimony. Those features I see as largely being ignored in epistemological discussion of testimonial transmission, of trust, and of disagreement in the context of conflicting testimonial faith traditions. With Fraser (and I suppose Hume) I see myself as a “testimonial pessimist” in contrast to the “testimonial optimism” prevailing among self-described phenomenal conservatives in the epistemology of disagreement.

[i] On model-theoretic approaches see Diller and Kasher (ed.) 2013. The Thomistic distinction between natural theology and revealed religion offers one influential account of how to understand assertions about a religious absolute or transcendent. Aquinas does not necessarily leave a role for imagination only in the latter sphere, the sphere of fideistic uptake of the teachings and narratives of a particular testimonial tradition. For Aquinas famously held that applying predicates/attributes to a perfect being in the service of natural theology (carried on apart from appeal to scripture) was neither univocal (identical with predication about humans) nor equivocal (wholly different than predication about humans) but analogical. And analogical reasoning, in the similarities and disparities it posits of different posited subjects, is arguably impossible without engaging imagination. But this is far from saying that contemporary theology easily reconciles with an active role for imagination in the formation of belief. In part because imagination seems to suggest human construction, its role in belief-formation has been ignored by many and in some cases uncritically dismissed in theological treatment of religious epistemics and metaphysics. This may be so even if it is embraced in relatively positive attitudes towards iconography, or in communion or other rites/rituals.

[ii] Starting with the theological landscape, many theologians both classically and today, and across the Abrahamic family of religions, and in East-West comparative perspective, take a positive attitude towards the role of imagination in religious consciousness. These theologians and religious philosophers develop analogical reasoning’s connections with imagination, and imagination’s place in the reflections of godhead. Roger Pouivet (2002) tries to rehabilitate healthy respect for the role of the religious imagination, tying this to classical tradition (Aquinas) as well as to contemporary narrative theology. Philosophical idealism, or Romanticism, may further incline them to take reason as an imaginative capacity.  Some, like Douglas Hedley, describe themselves as influenced by Coleridge’s “high romantic” view of the Imagination.” Hedley’s Coleridge, Philosophy and Religion (2009). “Coleridge’s understanding of religious thought has primarily been seen in terms of his poetic genius,” but Hedley aims to improve the evaluation of Coleridge “as a philosophical theologian in his own right.” Cambridge University Press, 2009. Hedley own work in this vein is developed further in a trilogy explicating the Coleridgean view that “the Imagination is both humanizing and divinizing.” See also the symposium on Hedley’s trilogy in Modern Theology 33(3) (2017).

Paul Avis’ God and the Creative Imagination: Metaphor, Symbol, and Myth in Religion and Theology (Routledge, 1999) is also aimed at a religious audience while offering “a sustained attempt to take the imagination or spiritual vision into account when considering Christianity, or (to put it another way) to evaluate Christianity—its scriptures, doctrines, faith and liturgy—in the light of imagination.” Both Hedley and Avis draw from David Tracy’s influential earlier work, including his books The Analogical Imagination: Christian Theology and the Culture of Pluralism (1981) and Talking About God: Doing Theology in the Context of Modern Pluralism (with John Cobb, 1981). Wesley Wildman writes that “Tracy's emphasis on the analogical imagination for theologizing in this pluriform age. Analogical language for Tracy is capable of recognizing and articulating similarity-in-difference, even to the point of theologizing about a God who -- despite the infinite chasm between humanity and divinity -- can be grasped as more like the created world than unlike it….  Tracy holds that analogical thinking and speaking is essential in this increasingly pluralistic world so that despite our differences we can engage in fruitful and public conversation.” See Wildman

[iii] Whether a person affirms the impact of imagination on the religious teachings they endorse may depend upon religious community the theologian identifies with, and the model of religious faith it endorses. Philosophers of imagination should have an interest in influential theological treatments since strong religious fideism easily encourages what from a naturalistic philosophical perspective, at least, are grave conflations of truth and meaning. An ‘historical’ religion, a ‘religion of the book,’ faces the challenge of historical-critical methods, and comparative mythology, and science of religion. In Christian theology at least, the understanding of religious imagination may be quite different in liberal Protestantism than in conservative or self-described post-liberal or narrative theologians. Those discontent with a positive role for imagination might take Hick or other of its defenders as undermining the historical character of biblical events and as leaving their sacred narratives no more or less authoritative than the narratives of alien testimonial traditions. They argue first that Hick’s Real an sich separates us them from genuine knowledge of God, and second that it places personal and non-personal conceptions of godhead on all fours. Third and perhaps most centrally for fideistic faith, these discontents will not abide the Hickean description of religious narratives as “true myths,” which undermines their historical character and leaves their sacred narratives no more or less authoritative than the narratives of alien testimonial traditions.[iii] Let James and Hick talk about moral fruits, truth for the discontent is likely to be glossed as literal-historical, with any contest between scriptures to be settled by appeal to authoritative roots.

[iv] The development of Narrative Theology and Scriptural Reasoning overlaps with the influence of this post-liberal wave of conservativism which I would roughly date to Barth and the Yale Divinity School. Discontentment with imagination-friendly theology is also expressed in rebuttals to John Hick’s attempt to integrate a basic religious realism about the object of religious language, with recognition of all the constructive and historically-contingent influences that are reflected in any particular community or testimonial tradition’s conception of godhead. The resulting Hickean generalized description of religious narratives as “true myths” will be rejected for undermining the historical character of storied epiphanies and miracles events, and as leaving their sacred narratives no more unique or authoritative than those of alien testimonial traditions.

[v] The distinction which John Hick makes, between a realism about religious language that it is directed towards a real an sich, and a constructionism about the more specific, personal and non-personal models or conceptualizations of this ultimate, is another way in which the role of religious imagination might be given its due by theologians themselves. There are many discontents of this ‘split-level,’ realist/constructionist account, and of the attitudes of religious inclusivism or pluralism which Hick uses it to support.  In a sense Hick tells us that the mystics, of which there are ample examples not just in eastern religions, but in each of the Abrahamic faiths as well, are the ones who get it right about the limits of language to describe or ‘capture’ that which  is transcendent or ‘wholly other.’ If we start to agree with Rumi in thinking that ‘the lamps are different but the light is the same,’ or that we are all like blind men touching an elephant but are only able to describe one of multiple aspects of it, then an affirmative or systematic theology may not be privileged over poetic descriptions/expressions of spiritual experiences, or over apophatic, negative theology.

[vi] Let James and Hick talk about moral fruits, truth for the discontent is likely to be glossed as literal-historical, with any contest between scriptures to be settled by appeal to authoritative roots.

[vii] So it is again unsurprising to find one of the first explicit treatments of religious imagination, Ralph Barton Perry’s “Truth and Imagination in Religion” (1904). Dewey’s work on moral imagination together with his ‘little book,’ A Common Faith (1934) would be another resource.

[viii] The genuine distinction between narrative and simple testimony is supported in CSR by the differences between modal (visualized or sensory-engaging) and amodal (propositional) forms of representation and processing. Modal processing is exploited by narrative to engulf the hearer in the narrative setting and make her feel what is like to have certain experiences.

[ix] Studies of this include instances where test subjects receive hints about (but fail to pick up on) non-literal/factual authorial intent, and others where there are no such hints but some passages read by test subjects have what most people would consider fantastical elements of some sort. Studies of this sort can be seen as focusing on another major concern of monitoring, not this time our ability to reliably monitor inner and outer sources of ideas of experiences, but of our ability to reliably monitor differences between narrative and assertive testimonial transmissions.

[x] The stories about persons and events to whom we trace our heritage are us, in an important sense. Narratives, especially communal ones and ones of an epic nature, are deeply connected with people’s sense of identity. Nietzsche talks about “the happiness of knowing oneself not to be wholly arbitrary and accidental, but rather growing out of a past as its heir, flower and fruit and so to be exculpated, even justified, in one’s existence.” The problem is when this antiquarian sense of reverence for a people’s history no longer preserves life but mummifies it; when it constrains people to a very limited field of vision and when the new, or newfound facts inconsistent with it, are treated with hostility. Then it is properly countered by a critical sense of history that Nietzsche says drags it to the bar, interrogates it, and condemns what is worth condemning. Nietzsche One the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life, 21. Some of the recent best work on the distinctive features of narrative testimony is being done by in ways informed by enactivist theory. We are not just narrative but enactive selves: The bodily and emotional components of our awareness, and the “background to consciousness” blends with culture and contributes to diversification in ways that enactivists have studied. More attention to embodied religious practices follows from giving proper due to the role of the body in cognition (see Axtell 2018b).


Avis, Paul. God and the Creative Imagination: Metaphor, Symbol, and Myth in Religion and Theology. Routledge, 1999.

Axtell, Guy. Problems of Religious Luck: Assessing the Limits of Reasonable Religious Disagreement. Lexington Books, 2019. Podcast interview with Robert Talisse for New Books in Philosophy, April 2019:

Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics, Volume 1. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2010 [1932-57].

Bultmann, Rudolph. “The New Testament and Mythology,” in Kerygma and Myth: a theological debate. London: SPCK, 1953.

Diller, Jeanine Diller and Kasher, Asa (eds.). Models of God and Alternative Ultimate Realities. Springer, 2013.

Fraser, Rachel. “Testimonial Pessimism.” In Knowledge, Belief, and God: New Insights in Religious Epistemology, edited by Matthew A. Benton, John Hawthorne, and Dani Rabinowitz, 203–227. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.

Freud, Sigmund. The Future of an Illusion. Broadview Press, 2012 [1927].

Hedley, Douglas. Coleridge, Philosophy and Religion: Aids to Reflection and the Mirror of the Spirit. Cambridge University Press, 1999.

 __________. Living Forms of the Imagination (2008), Sacrifice Imagined (2011), he Iconic Imagination (T & T Press, 2016).

James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience. New York, NY: Dover Publications, [1902] See Harvard complete works.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life, translated by Peter Preuss. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 1980.

Perry, Ralph Barton. “Truth and Imagination in Religion,” International Journal of Ethics 15 (1):64-82 (1904).

Pouivet, Roger. “Religious Imagination and Virtue Epistemology.” Ars Disputandi 2, no. 1 (2002): 78–88.