A once-sanctified imagination has been surrendered to an unsanctified culture. However, Christ revealed in the Word and Sacraments enables Christians to reclaim their imagination as a domain for understanding the world according to the Gospel, the world in accordance with truth.
Twenty years ago philosopher Charles Taylor introduced the idea of the “social imaginary.”1 Social imaginary, Taylor explained, consists of the set of values, institutions, laws, and symbols through which people come to picture or “image” what their society is like and what’s possible (what can be imagined) within their society, that is, imagined within the given plausibility structures of that society. “Given plausibility structures” means that there are limitations, of course, to what the prevailing modern society wants everyone to believe constitutes modern reality. Those limitations are conceptual and moral in nature, directing the imagination to desired outcomes—outcomes that agree with the values, institutions, laws, and symbols of modern society’s plausibility structure. It’s a self-reinforcing loop.
Conceptually, modern society is godlessly secular, a product of evolution and human progress. In terms of morals, modern society is also shamelessly immoral. These two things—the conceptual and moral—set the parameters for today’s social imaginary: No God; No limitations upon the human will other than those set by humanity itself. Yes, it is a self-reinforcing loop and one that does not countenance anything outside the ring of humanity as authentically plausible.
Contemporary imaginations, consequently, are not unbounded and free, but very much captive to what society’s plausibility structure permits to be expressed as reality—a reality without God and a morality without transcendent reference. Everything in modern society is now adjudicated by some form of this rationale:
What is human is natural.
What is natural is good.
Therefore what is human is good.
There is therefore a moral value attached to what may be imagined. Within today’s plausibility structure, the implausible is bad; the plausible is good. In other words, anything implausible disagrees with the values, institutions, laws, and symbols of modern society. Conversely, what aligns with the society’s values, institutions, laws, and symbols is celebrated. All such adjudications of good and bad, tasteful and distasteful, permissible and impermissible are rendered by humanity and informed by nothing other than humanity. Humanity, not God, sets values, commissions institutions, defines laws, and apportions symbols. The social imaginary operates within the range of those values or else it is alienated, condemned, or canceled. The imagination itself becomes a byproduct of the prevailing forces of modern society: godless secularism driven by consumption and the pursuit of human rights. Ironically, for all the assertions of human rights and free will, it seems as if nothing is more bound than the modern imagination. Five hundred years ago Luther battled Erasmus over the will. Today the battle is for the imagination. Thus far, it’s been a lost battle.
So, for example, if society has determined such and such a thing implausible (say, the exclusive salvific claims of Christ Jesus), then humanity adjudicates it as distasteful to promote Christianity publicly and immoral to teach it to children or evangelize others. Put differently, the Christian is not to imagine the possibility of his unbelieving neighbor getting baptized. Positively, if modern society favors a particular view of human sexuality, then it is reinforced throughout all strata of humanity from the youngest to the oldest, and it will be found in every civic domain from entertainment to advertising, from education to public policy, with the requisite symbols added. Churches are pressured to conform or face being alienated, condemned or canceled. Then again, when churches do capitulate, their distinctiveness as the kingdom of God is lost and they become no different from secular institutions.
Institutions (usually driven by economic factors or pressures of value conformity) capitulate to the parameters of the plausibility structure or, in other words, they become merely human institutions with no interest to connect with transcendent realities. The social imaginary comes to envisage education as a secular endeavor, promoting irreligious values. Films, music, literature, and even consumables (like clothing) manifest and materialize the social imaginary. And so the social imaginary holds sway over many formerly faithful Christians, who find it more plausible to imagine themselves in a Tesla or their toes in the sand of Cancun, or even their cremated ashes scattered over their favorite lake, than to imagine the blood of Jesus in the baptismal font or their bodies resurrected on the Last Day.
More recently, Carl Trueman employed the idea of social imaginary to explain how modern people have come to the notion of self.2 The idea of being a “self” has changed due to a massive shift in the social imaginary, explains Trueman, from the commonsense reference to our basic consciousness of ourselves as individual people (i.e., an awareness that I am not you) to a radically reoriented notion of where the “real me” is to be found—it is found within my self. Hence the need to “find my self,” not by understanding the objective identity makers of my existence (e.g., my biological sex, my baptism, my ethnic and national decent and culture), but by looking within. Trueman writes, “The modern self assumes the authority of inner feelings and sees authenticity as defined by the ability to give social expression to the same.”3 In other the words, todays’ prevailing values, institutions, laws, and symbols provide a framework that allows a person’s identity to be imagined from within, rather than given from without.
Trueman narrates the great shift in social imaginary as it applies to commonplace understanding of human sexuality. What was once objectively determined is now subjectively self-determined and celebrated by a society that has facilitated such imagining and codified it in law, institutions, and public symbols (e.g., rainbow flags). In other words, the social imaginary saturates a community with norms to a point in which people can only imagine that this is the way the world really is and can imagine that it can only be that way. The social imaginary sets forth a “just so” conception of the world that is received without deep reflection.
Institutions fortify what can and (ethically speaking) should be imagined (i.e., what’s permitted). To imagine otherwise would be anti-human—the ultimate sin, the real heresy. The transformation of the body becomes a decidedly this-world phenomenon according to the social imaginary, while the resurrection of the body is relegated to the category of the implausible. The loop reinforces same-think. The social imaginary conditions the imagination by being all pervasive, all the time, in such a way that it seems as if it is the only reality. Church or the Kingdom of God, on the other hand, occurs for perhaps sixty minutes once a week and must fit in with the supposedly greater “reality” as determined by modern society.
Our fellow parishioners are conditioned nearly 24/7 to imaginatively exercise themselves within today’s plausibility structures. Simply put, unless the imagination is taught otherwise, parishioners imagine modern society is reality.
And this indoctrination of the social imaginary starts at a young age. Christian children are enrolled in public school systems with decidedly non-Christian plausibility structures (progressivism, Darwinism, Marxism, etc.). In addition to normalizing an atheological reality, such schools hold the imaginations of children captive within that domain. Children are told what their society is like and what’s possible (what can be imagined) within their society. What is more, they are also conditioned as consumers through brand allegiance that starts with diapers, fortifying an imagination captive to the values, institutions, laws, and symbols of godless, immoral modern society. They are taught to imagine that all persons hold the right to self-naming and can remake themselves by the goods they consume. Hence the brand labeling of, well, everything—and the associated morality consumed thereby. By this brand (be it a university, sports team, vehicle, purse, or gated community) I imagine my virtue is signaled and my belonging is legitimated . . . for the moment.
The imagination, created by God and powerful enough to alter lives and forge cultures, must be harnessed by modern society within certain values-laden domains, like the entertainment industry and educational institutions, lest by way of its inherent spiritual bias it gravitate toward the transcendent. And so Star Wars and Disney, Marvel and DC Comics, hold sway over large swaths of Western imaginations. Likewise, the same can be said for television and the movies, which stultify imaginations that were once stimulated by reading stories instead of watching them. If there is to be creativity, then let it be expressed through Star Wars Lego or Comic-Con cosplay or, relatedly, an endless series of selfie photos and videos whereby we imagine ourselves adjusted, belonging, successful, happy—all in accordance with the unsanctified values of modern society and lived out on its truncating platforms.
But there was a time when the imagination was unbounded, liberated by Christ Jesus. That imagination was sanctified, and it readily interacted with and interpreted a thoroughly enchanted world. There was no lid on the cosmos. Instead, there was predictable engagement with the transcendent. God was imagined among us, through Jesus Christ. No place was this more so than in the Divine Liturgy. There, within the “communion of the saints,” the baptized heard the real voice of Jesus in the words of Absolution and the reading of the Gospel. More fantastic still was His bodily presence under the bread and wine—the same Jesus “conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, crucified under Pontius Pilate” was manifest on the altar. The very architecture lent itself to stirring up the imagination. Above the altar, columns and a canopy framed the space, giving the impression that a window of heaven was open, and that which was at center within that frame invaded the Earth, hence the suspended crucifix above the vessels for Holy Communion.
The sermon aided the imaginations of the congregants to perceive Christ incarnate in their midst: Himself a meal; Himself the Sacrificed Lamb abiding before the heavenly throne of God, now earthly present and presiding at the Lord’s Supper in the supreme act of self-giving. The sermon was the vehicle by which the congregants were to see reality, the truth determined not by their inner feelings but by God Himself, and so to imagine what really is, that they had been baptized in the blood of Christ. The sermon also unleashed the sanctified imagination to see the reality of Holy Communion where the flesh and blood of Christ are distributed as the medicine of immortality, the viaticum, the overlap between the visible and invisible. Preachers preached to the imagination, rather than surrendering it to rationalistic Bible study or practical applications or leaving it to the social imaginary. The cult of “the Word made flesh,” especially in Holy Communion, fueled the cultural imagination of Christians and it spilled over into their understanding of reality, for it was the ultimate and determinative reality. Unlike how the world is now supposed to conform to one’s inner determinations of the self, the reality of Christ speaking and being bodily present grounded the Christian’s being and liberated the imagination to see God in charge throughout the Earth.
In that moment when Jesus entreated the Father to “sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth,” he obligated all faithful preachers of the Word of Truth, that is, the Word of Christ (the Word that is Christ), to bring imaginations captive to Christ and so release them from the stultifying forces of idolatry. Preaching and teaching the Word made flesh liberates the imagination from this world’s false and crippling vision of reality, and once again brings the imagination into an encounter with the one and only true and living God through Immanuel, “God with us.”
1 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2007).
2 Carl Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to the Sexual Revolution (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020).
3 Carl Trueman, Strange New World: How Thinkers and Activists Redefined Identity and Sparked the Sexual Revolution (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2022), 22.