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Chapter VII: The Idea of God and the Religious Imagination

Thought, moving toward the ultimate mystery of being, approaches the idea of God as the supreme self. This idea, though it is the necessary result of ontological and cosmological, of epistemological and ethical reflections, is nevertheless problematical and insufficient. If we measure it by standards of logical canons we must admit that it does not conform to requirements. It indicates a genuine problem, and it marks the direction of its solution, but it does not solve the problem. Thought ends in antinomies; it must appeal to a tribunal higher than itself; it points to a solution that cannot be given by any logical procedure and by any logical concept. This higher tribunal is that of faith; and the solution that transcends the whole sphere of conceptual thought is provided by religious imagination—the legitimate tool and vehicle of faith.

Faith and imagination are closely connected. Indeed, imagination is an indispensable, integral element of faith. No faith in the religious sense is possible without this element. It was the cardinal mistake of Kant to assume that faith can renounce imagination without losing its character; that reason can establish a rational faith. Kant was too much of a rationalist, in spite of his criticism of pure reason, to visualize the vital function of a non-rational factor within faith. He regarded this factor as a source of superstition, therefore as an obstacle of pure, that is, of rational faith; or at best as a sensuous support of faith, necessary for those who are not morally strong enough to do without it; in any case as a merely subordinate factor that does not contribute anything essential and substantial to the true content of faith.1 This true content is or should be solely rational, for truth cannot be reached save by reason. Imagination originates from the senses; the content of true faith is supersensuous, that is, rational.

Is this conclusion justified? I do not think it is. On the contrary, I think that imagination is an intrinsic and momentous element in faith. The content of faith is not only supersensuous, it is superrational too. And this super-rational ingredient in the content of faith is furnished by imagination. A purely rational faith is no real faith. The reality of faith is constituted by its imaginative content. Even a moral faith, if it is faith at all, and not merely morality, has an imaginative content. Indeed, the religion based on Scripture has a moral purport, nevertheless it is imaginative too, and it is a religion precisely because its moral purport is not merely rational, but superrational. Imagination alone can perform this work. Faith is not an attitude of reason, not even of practical reason. It is faith just because the claim of reason is fulfilled, not by reason, but by imaginative revelation.

Faith is neither, as Kant teaches, a postulate of pure practical reason nor is it a kind of intuition or emotion as Schleiermacher believes; it is rather a devotion to the content of a special and historically specialized imagination. This imagination is no accidental appendage of all historical religions, but an essential part of them. Hegel, who tried to substitute metaphysical for religious knowledge, was shrewd and ingenious enough to achieve this end by fusing logic with imagination. This undertaking, gigantic though it was, was doomed to fail; reason blending with imagination destroys itself and its partner as well. But this attempt shows that the highest task of the human mind, the task of establishing contact with the Supreme Being, cannot be discharged without the help of imagination.

Hegel asserts: the rational in itself is the mystical.2 This is true in so far as reason ultimately is included in the mystery of the Whole, and in so far as reason therefore ultimately leads to antinomies. But the conversion of Hegel's thesis, namely that the mystical in itself is the rational, which also is maintained by Hegel, is not true. The mystical is wider than the rational, indeed it is all-comprehensive, all-embracing. And, therefore, reason is not even its most appropriate language. This language is imaginative rather. Even the very term image, as used in Scripture, has an imaginative connotation, just because it has a mystical connotation. Man is created in the image of God. What does this mean? What kind of similarity or kinship is stated by this word? Certainly no kind that could be interpreted as rationally lucid and exact. All central ideas in Scripture are imaginative: Creation, Paradise, the Fall and Punishment of Adam and Eve, the Covenant with God, the Land of Promise, and so on.

Imagination is at once a power and a mystery. How can it perform the miracle of presenting the content of faith? How can man approach the deity and how can God approach the human heart by way of an instrument that seems to be so much less appropriate for this purpose than reason? Is not imagination the source of arbitrary ideas? Does it not generate our dreams and is it not responsible for our wishful thinking? Is it not the archetype of the merely subjective products of the mind? Is it not akin to fancy and poetry? Consequently, is not imagination the least reliable attitude toward ultimate truth and ultimate reality? Is not faith, should imagination play an essential part in it, from the outset to be deprived of its alleged importance and truth? Is not then faith, as such, superstition? Is not Kant right, after all, that imagination can perhaps illustrate some true ideas, but never claim to be the legitimate and the only possible source of the content of faith?

These objections are suggestive and impressive. They have prevented, till the present time, all thinkers from recognizing the legitimacy of imagination in the realm of religion. But they do not stand the test of examination. Imagination is far more mysterious than it seems as long as we do not pay attention to its religious function. Scripture throughout uses figurative language particularly when it deals with ultimate truth; from the beginning to the end the personality of God is as much veiled by metaphors, symbolic expressions, and mysterious intimations as it is revealed. It is revealed, not in words of sober and literal speech, but in ever-changing images. Although the method of allegorical interpretation, applied by Christian thinkers, has often been misused, it had a true basis in the character of Scripture itself. Herder's insight was superior to that of Kant in this respect.3 Faith is imaginative just because it is mystical. Faith, emptied of all mystical apprehension, loses its intimacy and therefore its very soul. The fear of superstition should not close our eyes to the fact that imagination is the instrument of mystical insight and that without this insight faith cannot live.

Imagination furnishes the means through which faith solves the problems that reason alone is unable to solve. God is a God of faith, not of thought; He appears in the kingdom of imagination, not in the system of categories; He appears on Mount Sinai; in the burning bush, in the still small voice, not in the absolute idea. The knowledge of God is a knowledge immanent in faith; it cannot be isolated and made logical and conceptual; it is an imaginative knowledge inherent not in the methodical and argumentative course of philosophical reasoning but rather in the unmethodical and naive language of stories, tales, legends, proverbs, commandments, sermons, epistles, and so forth. Why is this so? Does the primitive and immature state of human culture require it? Should this prove true, we could at once go a step further and conclude that religion is altogether the product of such a primitive mentality, and that it must be replaced by empirical or metaphysical knowledge when the intellect has grown mature enough to recognize the truth without imaginative veils and figurative language. This conclusion needs only be stated to be met with rejection.

It is wrong because the very nature of conceptual thought restricts the field of its application and validity. Thought ultimately leads to antinomies. Antinomies are the barriers that impede reason in invading the realm reserved to faith. In this realm the ultimate mystery is master, and imagination its suitable tool—not an arbitrary, not a dreaming, not a merely poetical imagination, but rather an imagination that serves accurately and adequately the high purpose to which it is summoned. If we reflect on the nature and function of imagination we can easily discover the reason why precisely this source of non-rational and non-conceptual ideas can furnish the mind with the content of faith.

Imagination owes its power to its peculiar nature. It is not, like sensation or intellect, confined to either the realm of sense reality or of intellectual notions and general concepts, but it belongs rather to both realms and it is, therefore, suited to span the gulf between them. Imagination is at home in the sphere of change as well as in the sphere of changeless ideas; it is rooted as much in the visible as in the invisible world: indeed, its peculiar excellency consists exactly in its capacity of making visible what is invisible and of detecting the invisible element in the visible situation. Imagination binds together what the thinking mind separates; or more precisely: it maintains the original unity of the elements separated by abstract thought. Imagination is as realistic as it is idealistic; it is as sensuous as it is intellectual: it moves in a medium in which the extremes are still united and undissolved.

Imagination is thus much nearer to real life than either the senses or the intellect. The senses are confined to the particular instance; the intellect is confined to the general species. Imagination alone grasps the whole from which sensation and intellect abstract their objects. This whole is wider and deeper than these objects: it is the original source of them. Our real life is an affair not of the senses nor of the intellect; we live within the medium of imagination. To be sure, the senses and the intellect play an important part in life as well as in science; but they neither embrace the whole nor do they reach to the depths of life.

The content of our intrinsically personal life, of our heart and destiny, our guilt and our longing, our love and our fear, our hope and our despair—the content of our real self—cannot be perceived or comprehended by reason alone. Whatever is personal stirs our imagination; it is imaginative in itself. This is the reason why the poet alone can describe life and why all merely scientific descriptions, be they ever so accurate within their own range, cannot disclose the unity of the outward and the inward aspects of experience, of its course and its meaning, of its appearances and its mystery. Imagination alone can perform this miracle, just because it is miraculous as compared with the naked senses and the sober intellect. The innermost kernel of life, however, is the relation to the ultimate mystery of life: this relation is the subject of faith. Therefore faith is necessarily imaginative.

There are many different kinds of imagination, since this central power of man's mind is active in all departments of mental activity. It permeates all his faculties and it conjoins them all. It is present even in sense perception, though serving the mere purpose of connection between the general concepts and the sense data. It is the main source of memory, though in the restricted form of reproduction. It operates not only in all fields of creative work, be they scientific or technical or artistic, but also in all professions, in politics, in social intercourse, and, most of all, in the vital centers of personal life. Here faith is rooted, and here religious imagination displays its momentous power.

Religious imagination displays the mystical intuition which exists in every human consciousness although it is not always recognized and acknowledged as such because most men are reared in a special religion which assumes the function of an interpreter of the ultimate mystery long before they themselves awake to the consciousness of this interpretation. They experience the mystery as interpreted from the very beginning of their conscious life. Mystical intuition and religious interpretation are not disunited in their minds; they accept the interpretation as true and holy and they do not reflect upon the duality of intuition and interpretation, or they reflect upon it only in so far as religion reflects upon it. Indeed, the distinction between an original, not-yet-interpreted, mystical intuition and a secondary interpretation through religious imagination is philosophic only, since in real life these operations are not divided. It is philosophic thought that abstracts from the concrete imaginative content of faith and detects the mystical intuition as the source of faith.

I call the consciousness or awareness of the ultimate mystery a mystical intuition in order to distinguish it from any other intuition, perception, apprehension, or whatever may be the name given to the act of the mental grasping a certain object. The expression “mystical” should convey no misleading implications that this intuition is the privilege of a certain class of men, e.g., of the so-called mystics, who claim special spiritual experiences or gifts. On the contrary, this mystical intuition is a universal property possessed by all men. It is the simple awareness of the whole of existence that cannot be perceived and that nevertheless surrounds us. It is the consciousness of reality—not as an abstract category or as a philosophic concept, not as a particular real thing or process, but rather as the all-pervading unity of particular things and processes. Sometimes we call this unity “Universe.” But this term signifies chiefly the physical whole, especially the world of celestial bodies, and is, therefore, not appropriate to express the object of the mystical intuition I am now describing.

Although it is difficult to say what this intuition is and impossible to say what its object is, just because intuition is not comprehension, it cannot be doubted that man as man is possessed of it. Man is conscious of the whole of existence and he feels himself embraced by it. The unlearned man is perhaps more aware of this intuition than the learned one, because the latter may have supplanted it by intellectual concepts, theories, ideas, while the unlearned man has preserved the natural awe that is attached to this original intuition. The words of Jesus: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of God” is applicable not only to the man rich in material, but even more so to the rich in intellectual and cultural goods, if these riches are not evaluated and balanced by faith. He who believes that he has found a scientific or philosophic or moral solution of ultimate problems would most probably deny that the intuition, underlying every real and every possible experience in life and thought, is mystical.

It is mystical precisely because its object cannot be comprehended and even less perceived. The Greek word “myesthai” hints at this impossibility: it means “to be silent.” Mystical intuition is silent, not because it declines to express itself, but because its content or object is so indefinite and vague that it simply cannot be expressed as long as religious imagination does not make it articulate. This is the religious function of imagination, its most important function within its whole range of operations. Imagination, not reason, is privileged to receive the Word of God; it is the proper region of the mind in which the Holy can appear: religious imagination is holy ground indeed.

The idea of God is rooted in that ground, not in reason alone. Reason, unsupported by mystical intuition and religious imagination, remains destitute of the idea of God; it can and it should ascend to the idea of the perfect being, the ens realissimum, the supreme Self, the absolute truth, the absolute good and the absolute beautiful, but all these ideas present in part ideals which man erects as signs of the direction to be followed by his striving and working, in part problems not to be solved. Religion solves these problems; and it solves them by means of imagination. Since the ultimate goal of man is hidden from reason, and the route to this goal is barred by antinomies, imagination is the only legitimate and appropriate tool of this solution, as revelation is the only legitimate and appropriate “method” by which this solution is brought about.

Religious imagination is operative not only in figurative speech and metaphorical expressions, in symbolic ideas and legends, in miraculous occurrences and mystical thought, in poetical comparisons and suggestive parables; it is operative in the very idea of God. God, as religion depicts Him, as personal, as the willing and acting figure of the Old and the New Testament, as the Creator of the world, as the Lawgiver, Judge and Lord of men, as the Ruler of nature and of history, as the power of Providence and as the Father of Jesus Christ, the Redeemer and Saviour of all mankind—the living God is no rational idea or the content of such an idea, He is rather to be apprehended in the imagination alone; the idea of God is not a true concept, it is a holy image.

An image has the power to present God as a living person; no concept could ever perform this rôle. Metaphysical thought may ultimately postulate the idea of a being whose essence is at the same time his existence (as the ontological proof suggests); whose potentiality and actuality are not separated as they are in all finite beings; who unites in himself will and deed, purpose and action; who is creative where we are receptive only; who knows past, present, and future, and lives therefore in an eternal moment; who is as unchangeable as he is the cause and the end of all changes; who reconciles all opposites and who is, therefore, the source and the goal of man's own creativity and activity. But we cannot deceive ourselves with the conviction that this idea is more than the creature of our own thinking mind and the hypothesis of our own speculation. To be sure, it is a legitimate motive that urges our minds to pursue this highway of speculation; the concept of God, delineated by metaphysical thought, is not arbitrary, on the contrary, it is logically necessary. But all the same it is not satisfying religiously.

It does not ultimately satisfy our mind for two reasons. First of all, it lacks the reality of God which the heart longs for; second—and this second reason may convince even the atheist or the strictest rationalist—this idea of God is questionable in itself, it does not even satisfy reason. It would satisfy reason only if reason were able to demonstrate the postulated reconciliation of all opposites; if reason itself could perform the task of solving its highest problem, as Hegel presumed it could. Then, but only then, reason and not faith would rightly claim the primacy. But, as reason cannot clean its own house, as it rather encounters an insurmountable barrier just when it beholds the entrance to ultimate truth, not reason but faith must retain primacy in the knowledge of God.

The problematic character of the idea of God explains why the ontological proof of the existence of God always has had both adherents and opponents (and will have both in the future); why it was rejected by Kant and re-accepted by Hegel. There is truth in the proof and there is error also. The idea of God aims at the universal self of reality, at the ultimately Real. Thus it is obvious that this idea should include the reality of its object. Even if the idea should not grasp the divine self adequately and completely, it refers to something that is real in any case; to something that is more real, indeed, than any other thing or being or entity, because this “something” contains admittedly the reality of everything in itself. Therefore, it is easier to doubt that the content of the supreme idea should be called by the holy name of God than to doubt that this content is real. Of course, even the term “real” or “reality” is problematic as applied to the ideal self. And this is the reason why Kant rejected the ontological proof altogether.

If we mean by “reality” the form of existence proper to objects of sensation and perception, this term certainly is not correct and cannot be applied to the divine self. Although we do not know this self by means of empirical or rational thought, and although we, therefore, must be careful in asserting or denying anything about it, nevertheless we do know that it is no mere object and that, therefore, the form of objective reality or existence is not pertinent to it. And from this point of view Kant is right in rejecting the ontological proof; existence (in the sense of objective existence) cannot be made the predicate of an idea which is not based on experience. On the other hand, the term “existence” or “reality,” as applied to the objects of theoretical knowledge, points to a problem that cannot be solved within its own realm.

The reality of objects means that objects are not only the objects of theoretical knowledge but, at the same time, possible objects of our desire or will, and as such are the content of concepts like “property” or “tool” or “commodity” or “raw material”; or they are possible objects of pleasure, of admiration, of aesthetic value; they are artistic products like pictures or buildings; in short, objects are more than theoretical objects, more than objects of sensation and perception, scientific exploration and explanation. Ultimately they are enclosed in the ultimate mystery and reveal this mystery to eyes which are prepared to recognize it. And it is just their reality to participate in the divine mystery; and reciprocally this mystery concerns just the reality of all entities. The term reality expresses the all-embracing capacity of the universal or ideal self.

The fact that objects are not only objects in the epistemological sense (objects of sense perception and of objective knowledge) but are also embraced by the all-embracing mystery, induced Kant to call them “things-in-themselves.” They are things-in-themselves because they are real things and not phenomena only. They are real in so far as they are not dependent on the human mind or self. But to be independent of the human mind does not mean that they are independent of the infinite self of God. On the contrary, precisely because they do not depend on the human consciousness (and its categories), they depend instead on the divine. In fact, they depend on both the human self and the divine self; on the former in so far as they can become the objects of human knowledge (or of the human will), on the latter in so far as they have, besides their relation to the human mind, an immediate relation to the divine mystery.

The reality of the things-in-themselves is the reality of their universal truth, their being included in the unlimited spirit of God. This reality is therefore not confined to finite knowledge, it is a reality in the light of ultimate truth, and it is, therefore, comprised within ultimate reality. We may reserve the category of existence to those things and beings which are not ultimately real but instead real only as phenomena, as objects, as empirical events or processes—in using the word “existence” thus, we remain faithful to its grammatical root, for in Latin “existere” is “to stand out,” or, more precisely, to stand forth as a single individual from a larger whole. In this case we would not be entitled to attribute existence to the ultimately real self; and, vice versa, we are not justified in attributing ultimate reality to existing things and beings.

The divine self is not real in the sense in which we call anything else real; the reason is not that this self is unreal, but that it is reality itself. All reality is invested in this self.4 The ultimate meaning of the category “reality” means nothing save “being enclosed in the perfect unity.” This unity is to be conceived of as the unity of the ideal self—as far as it can be conceived of at all. This conceiving is admittedly not adequate, since the antinomies bar the way to an adequate concept. But we know that “an adequate concept” cannot even be demanded or postulated, because no concept is adequate to the idea of God. This idea transcends not only our human concepts, but all concepts, for a concept is always based on those distinctions and separations which must be abandoned when we envisage God.

This being so, we must wonder what value our inadequate idea of the Supreme Being may claim. Is it purely “speculative” in the bad sense of an illusory philosophizing? Has our idea no basis and foundation at all? I hope that the foregoing lectures may have demonstrated that this scruple should be dismissed. It is a real need which has prevailed on us to do the thing we have done, and to attain the idea we have discussed. Inadequacy pertains to the very nature of this idea, and any idea or concept which would be free from the restriction of that inadequacy would be false. Complete adequacy would violate the character of the universal mystery, and this character must be preserved.

No idea of God can be adequate and can satisfy reason as long as reason is not amplified by religious imagination. The idea of God is not conceptual, but mystical, and consequently it is an image. Could we demonstrate or postulate the existence of God or an existing God by means of logical thought, this God would be our creature, an idol, and not the true and living God who alone can fill us with awe. We cannot fear a demonstrated God, we cannot even love him. We cannot believe in him—the word “believe” taken in its religious purport. “To believe” in the religious sense does not mean less (as the rationalists are apt to interpret it) than “to understand” or “to comprehend” by means of logical thought; on the contrary, it means more than that: it means a kind of understanding and comprehension which understands and comprehends the mystical majesty of God. This understanding and comprehension has suggested the commandment: “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.” It is perhaps the least respected and the most violated of all the commandments, although it is the gravest and the most profound.

Logical thought cannot exist without separating what is united in reality and life, without defining and determining what is fluid and indeterminate in itself. Ultimate truth, therefore, transcends the entire realm of definitions: it transcends the realm of logic altogether. Even God Himself if we imagine Him as possessing an absolute intellect, does not think in the manner of our logic. “My thoughts are not your thoughts.” He does not think in terms of definitions and concepts, of propositions and inferences, for all these logical tools are insufficient to reach the goal towards which our intellect strives in its metaphysical pursuit. It is this insufficiency that leads to ultimate contradictions, as unavoidable as insoluble. They indicate that the supreme content of thought implies a unity that “passes all understanding.”

Human thought is obliged to anatomize and to dissect the living body of reality; ultimate truth contains this reality whole and intact. Human thought cannot proceed without defining and distinguishing the content of its concepts, that is, without drawing sharp lines between them. The sharper the lines we draw the better are our definitions, the clearer and purer are our concepts, the truer the product of our effort. But we pay a terrible price for whatever success we attain. We cut asunder what is united, and we draw our lines through the vital heart of things. We are punished by the ultimate extinction of thought itself. Thought must die before it can grasp the Ultimate. It must renounce the quest, just when it approaches its goal. It ends in disaster: in the tragical fate of meeting contradictions which it cannot evade and which it cannot remove.

But the death of intellectual thought is not the death of the spirit. On the contrary, it is the very hour of birth for the spiritual life. Then it is revealed that a power higher than the intellect rightly and legitimately must assume the task not to be performed by the intellect: the power of revealing though mystical, of mystical, though revealing, imagination. This power does not dispose of reason save by preserving the very claims of reason. The direction which has been decreed by thought is pursued by faith. Reason itself is satisfied within the realm afforded by faith. True faith differs from superstition precisely in that its imagination is not arbitrary, not wilful, not merely poetical as the imagination of all mythological religions is, but charted and disciplined by the demands of reason itself. Faith discharges duties too onerous for thought; religious imagination finally solves the problems of speculation though not by means of speculation. The solution granted is not and cannot be conceptual; it is imaginative, but at the same time it is in agreement with the postulates and ideals of reason.

Reason cannot postulate the existence of God, or if postulated, this existence cannot become the object of faith. Faith is no postulate, it is the fulfillment of reason's postulate. It presents what reason would like to present but is not able to present, just because reason demands a content that transcends its prerogative. The existence of the living God cannot be believed in so far as it is willed: it can be believed only because God Himself makes us believe it, for the existence of God transcends our will as it transcends reason. He transcends our will, for it is our will that arouses the gravest objections to the existence of God by perverting itself and so refuting His existence. Indeed, the severest test against the existence of an omnipotent and morally perfect being is the test executed by man himself in doing evil: it is a test not of thought, but of deed; a practical, not a theoretical test.

A will that is prone to do evil has neither right nor power to prove the existence of God. It requires the higher right and the higher power of Him who has created man to redeem man's will. This redemption is the true, the only possible and the only effective proof of His existence. Indeed, the whole content of revelation concerns redemption. Creation and Fall are the preamble of the drama in which God redeems man. But even this preamble presupposes the existence of the Redeemer. The very idea that the supreme and perfect being has created the world—this world with all its imperfection, its frightful cruelties, its incomprehensible distribution of gifts and defects, its crimes and its temptations—depends upon the conclusion that God is the Redeemer. He can be the Creator only because He is the Redeemer; as He can be the Redeemer only because He is the Creator.

  • 1.

    In his work, Religion Within the Limits of Mere Reason, Kant acknowledges the function of imagination and even the legitimate existence of mysteries within religion, but this acknowledgment does not change the character of his central doctrine concerning religion, its exclusively ethical interpretation.

  • 2.

    Complete Edition, Vol. VI, p. 160.

  • 3.

    Comp. Theodor Litt, Herder and Kant.

  • 4.

    The technical term for this concept of God and God's relation to everything else is panentheism (first used by Christian F. Krause) as opposed to pantheism. Panentheism maintains that the world is in the spirit of God, while pantheism suggests that God is immanent in the world and nothing but the world itself.

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