October 30, 2007, 8:00 pm; posted by
Filed under Articles, Erin, Featured  | 3 Comments

Looking through Houghton’s course catalog the other day on a quest to decide my future, I noticed a class called ‘Psychology of Religion,’ which included Sören Kierkegaard in its great theological and psychological thinkers. This was especially interesting to me because I had been hoping to write on the subject of the imagination, and I had thought of that as more of a psychological than theological topic. Kierkegaard tackles the issue of imagination from various perspectives and pseudonyms throughout his writings, but unites theology and psychology in his analysis of the imagination and what it means to humanity. In his work, especially Philosophical Fragments and Fear and Trembling, a possibly preposterous idea arises: that the human being would be incapable of imagination without the existence of God.

Much of Fear and Trembling centers on the story of Abraham and his belief — a prime example of how imagination is feasible only through faith. Commanded to sacrifice Isaac, Abraham dutifully obeyed, believing “on the strength of the absurd” that “through faith [he would not] renounce anything, on the contrary in faith [he would] receive everything.” What makes this belief possible?

Johannes de silentio (Kierkegaard’s pseudonym) details for us the “faith paradox” in which “the single individual as the particular is higher than the universal [: and] stands in absolute relation to the absolute.” In plainer language, a person who chooses for himself to make continual choices for faith in God comes into an appropriate relationship with God (the only real absolute), characterized by a “paradoxical and humble courage.” For this continual choice to be possible, humans must in the first place be able to comprehend something larger than themselves.

In the process of creation God gave to humanity not just a spirit of immediate understanding, but also a perception of God Himself, in whose image humanity was created. This ability to perceive God (but not fully understand Him) is why Abraham could “imagine” that although he fully intended to go through with the sacrifice, God would keep His promise to give him Isaac as well. It’s a logical contradiction, but Abraham’s imagination allowed him to make what Johannes Climacus (a later pseudonym) will call the “leap of faith.”

Making this leap of faith, therefore, is nothing more than humans imagining against logical thought that God will provide or move or manifest His will, then choosing to immerse themselves in the belief that their imagination is the only the beginning of God’s working. It is the choice to believe the imaginative perception God gave to humans.

I am not talking about dreaming crazy situations where God swoops in and, in nothing short of a miracle, saves the day; neither do I mean our usual, modern definition of imagination — that gift required to write a novel or create a beautiful work of art or escape boredom. Though those are manifestations of the ability to imagine, given to humanity by God, the root of all imagination is God’s need for a relationship with man. God gave man the imagination to create scenes or ideas or pictures beyond the immediate, but His love for man requires that this imagination be fulfilled by an absolute belief.

The example of Nicodemus in John 3 is not explicitly given in Philosophical Fragments, but the reference to Nicodemus’ struggle with this very concept was unmistakable, especially considering Kierkegaard’s audience. His chief problem was that he imagined in too literal a sense what Jesus meant by “born again.” His imagination lacked faith’s leap into the absurd and could not process Jesus’ metaphor. Although as a member of the human race he had been given the ability to imagine — the ability to have faith — he was “essentially deceived” into thinking faith was entirely his work. As a teacher of Israel, Nicodemus saw God as one who would “draw the learned up toward himself” because of a careful Pharisaical lifestyle. Instead, as Jesus instructs and Climacus’ writings echo, he must concede the essence of faith is that God “will appear, therefore, as the equal of the lowliest of persons.”

But this is unthinkable! Disrespectful! Unimaginable!

That is exactly is what Johannes Climacus shows: the human mind and its capacity for imagination are totally reliant on a consciousness of something far beyond it, far greater than it, and yet also of something (Someone) who condescended to become equal to it. This condescension overleaps the limits of mere human imagination.

Only once God “poetized himself in the likeness of a human being” could man begin to truly and imaginatively marvel at God’s love, “for love does not have the satisfaction of need outside itself but within [:]” God’s love, completely justified in His being, still needs man’s imaginative, passionate, absurd faith to be complete.

What could be more preposterous — yet absolutely true — than this?


3 Comments to “Imagine”

  1. Job on October 30th, 2007 11:39 pm

    Good stuff, Erin

  2. David on October 31st, 2007 1:48 pm

    Very understandable. Imagination is what allows us to function as God does “calling those things that are not as though they are”. A sound definition of faith.

  3. steve C on October 31st, 2007 9:03 pm


    This is one of the best posts I have read on this site. Usually I only comment jokes but…

    Your musings were great. Paul Tillich’s work also addresses imagination from a helpful perspective.


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