Practitioners and scholars of religion alike rely on a kind of creativity that C. Wright Mills defined in The Sociological Imagination(1959) as “the awareness of the relationship between personal experience and the wider society” – or, in religious terms, that between person and cosmos. More provocative still is the formulation of Cornelius Castoriadis in The Imaginary Institution of Society(1987). Like Durkheim, he argued that society emerges from our attempts to imagine it. Religious imagination is therefore more than the illusion that Marx and Freud perceived, whose own works were themselves heroic feats of critical invention.
Indeed, the trope of imagination pervades our field, from Tracy’s The Analogical Imagination(1981), Bwiti: An Ethnography of the Religious Imagination in Africa(1982) by Fernandez to Smith’s Imagining Religion(1982), Le Goff’s The Medieval Imagination(1985), and The Apocalyptic Imagination(1984) by Collins, all of which broke new ground in their fields, as have Eva Mroczek’s The Literary Imagination in Jewish Antiquity(2016) and J. Lorand Matory’s The Fetish Revisited: Marx, Freud, and the Gods Black People Make(2018).
Numerous works show how broadly the trope of imagination has proven its scholarly usefulness, across religious studies and beyond: Anderson’s Imagined Communities(1983), Noel’s Black Religion and the Imagination of Matter in the Atlantic World(2009), Olupona’sCity of 201 Gods: Ifé-Ifè in Time, Space, and the Imagination(2011), Dieleman’s Religious Imaginaries: The Liturgical and Poetic Practices of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Christina Rossetti, and Adelaide Procter(2013), Ando’s Roman Social Imaginaries(2015), Feitler’s The Imaginary Synagogue: Anti-Jewish Literature in the Portuguese Early Modern Period(2015), Barton and Boyarin’s Imagine No Religion(2016), and Ohnuma’s Unfortunate Destiny: Animals in the Indian Buddhist Imagination(2017) to name but a few.
Ultimately, a focus on the imaginary vindicates religious studies as an indispensable tool for social theory and historical, political, and cultural analysis, one much needed today when only a discerning imagination can distinguish truth from fakery.