Paper for the European Society of Philosophy of Religion Conference

Topic: Religious Imagination

Cambridge 8-9th September 2002

The topic of this European conference on Philosophy of Religion is religious imagination. At the end of modernity, a new place for imagination has been found in the entire academic field, as an unavoidable means of apprehending ‘reality’. In combination with post-modern non-foundationalism, this development provides opportunities for theology. The apologetic role towards modernity can be diminished and instead religious imagination can be employed to grasp a picture of God in an undogmatic way and to find creative ways to improve life on earth. However, when this imagination is used performed to dream about perfect societies on earth, there can be serious dangers. History has taught us that when people actually try to establish these utopias, the outcome is usually the opposite: bloody conflicts and totalitarian states. In this paper I examine the dangerous aspects of religious and secular imagination in the political and ethical field. I use the insights taken from the value pluralism of the British philosopher and historian of ideas, Sir Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997). According to Berlin, the reason why secular and religious dreaming about heavens-on-earth usually leads to hells and nightmares, is that it is connected with monist and teleological thinking. (These terms will be fully explained later.). In the past decades, historical events and views such as Berlin’s,, have led to an anti-utopian climate and non-ideological realism in foreign politics. Closely connected with that is a laissez-faire attitude, a quietism, towards the Third World and the ecological dangers our planet is facing. According to green political parties and the pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty (born in 1931), if we are to safeguard our future, we cannot dispense with imagination and utopianism entirely. Rorty has recently introduced a less dangerous form of imagination and utopianism that could be of interest in the religious field that wants to benefit from the new opportunities postmodernism is offering. 

Before I start this paper, I first want to make some clarifications about the expressions used. Imagination is for me the ‘power in the mind’ that makes mental images. I will not use it in the sense of mental perception or creative art, but I will concentrate on the role mental images play in an ethical / political sense, in imagining a better or perfect world. The images created offer a perspective for moral and political action. Another use of imagination mentioned in this paper is connected with the (improved) ability of empathy, the power to identify oneself mentally with other people, especially individuals in less fortunate situations than oneself. This type of imagination also offers motivation for moral and political action.

A utopia is a perfect society, where justice prevails, people are perfectly content and where sadness, pain and violence are banned. Utopia literally means a ‘nowhere land’. It has a fictitious character, but it is can be extremely critical with regard to the present society. According to the Dutch philosopher Hans Achterhuis, utopias have three main characteristics (Achterhuis: 1998,14). First, there is a belief that an ideal society can actually be made by man on earth (malleability). Furthermore, utopias are aimed at societies (not at personal ideals).  And finally, utopias are characterised by holism and totality; everything is connected with everything. Holism implies the possibility of making detailed images or blueprints of ideal societies. This means that in Achterhuis’ definition it is not really utopian to aim at partial improvements and broad ideals such as more justice or peace or freedom. 

In this paper, I also use the term postmodernism. I use it simply as a way of referring to the present cultural situation in which we have lost the foundationalist certainty in universal criteria that transcend traditions, cultures, and language.[1] 

For theology, the postmodern situation means new opportunities. In his book Theology, Hermeneutics, and Imagination (2000), Garrett Green explores the roots of postmodernism and pays special attention to the master of suspicion, Ludwig Feuerbach, who regards religion as the product of imagination. Interpreted in a modernist climate, ‘imagination’ is the diametric opposite of ‘reality’. Religious claims (that are based on imagination are therefore judged as being untrue. However, in the entire postmodern academic field, it has been widely recognised that analogies and metaphors are necessary to apprehend ‘reality’ (Green,14). For instance the natural scientist Stephen Hawkings uses the term ‘black holes’ to explain disappearing stars in the universe. These images cannot always be grounded in ‘reality’, but in the postmodern climate foundational confidence is not so important anymore. The consequence of this, is that there is no ‘reality’ anymore against which imagination can be judged as ‘illusory’. For theologians of today this means that they can leave the ‘security of foundationalist apologetics’ behind them and instead try to grasp God by imagination in an undogmatic way.[2]  

In his book, Green concentrates on the imagination of God, but religious imagination can also be used to envision a more just and happier world. This could lead to a renewed interest in liberation theology and utopianism. History has proven, however, that where heavens were envisioned, the outcome has usually been the opposite. Secular utopias such as the classless welfare state were characterised by concentration camps, torture and secret police. The latest example of religiously inspired utopianism was the Taliban experiment in Afghanistan, with the belief that a perfect society would be possible if only everyone followed the rules of the Islamic shari’a. Especially for Afghan women, this utopia turned out to be a hell on earth. Various post-war philosophers have reflected on this strange paradox. The most common explanation for the failure of utopias is on fallibilist grounds. Ideologists and revolutionaries are bound to make mistakes because the social reality is so complicated (Popper,159). In addition, the holistic aspect of utopianism has been emphasised as a cause of human suffering as this leads to totalitarianism and rejection of the otherness of individuals (Popper, Levinas). In this paper I have chosen the work of the British philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997) who acknowledges the previous explanations mentioned above, but also gives a more profound cause for this violence, namely the denial of value conflicts and the tragic ontological status of the moral universe. 

In political and moral philosophy, Sir Isaiah Berlin is regarded as the father of value pluralism. At the end of the 1950s, Berlin wrote his famous essay ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’. In this essay he introduced both his value pluralism and anti-utopianism and this made a strong impact on the field of political sciences. Value pluralism is a philosophical position that resembles postmodernism. Value pluralists share with postmodernists the insight that there are many cultures with different value systems. Because of the acknowledgement of cultural differences, they both reject monism, the belief that there is only one truth or one method either in sciences or in ethics / politics. (The rejection of monism in both positions is important as we will see that monism is a dangerous component in utopianism). However, contrary to most postmodernist positions, in value pluralism the acknowledgement of cultural difference does not lead to moral relativism. It is possible to judge and condemn indecent states as according to Isaiah Berlin all normal human beings are endowed with basic moral categories. We simply know the insane and inhuman when we encounter it. So, contrary to postmodernism, in value pluralism some ‘foundations’, however minimal, can be found. In Berlin’s case these ‘foundations’ are sought in history and human nature and he claims not to need any theological or metaphysical assurances:

What these rules or commandments will have in common is that they are accepted so widely, and are grounded so deeply in the actual nature of man as they have developed through history, as to be, by now, an essential part of what we mean by a normal human being. (Berlin:1969,164).

The presence of basic (minimal) moral categories does not mean that value pluralists believe there can be perfect societies on earth. The reason for this is that in our world values, which are good in themselves, can be in conflict with each other. For instance, liberty and equality are both good values, but when a government wants to give equal opportunities to minorities, it restricts the liberty of employers in choosing the best staff. The same applies to the values of mercy and justice. When a judge is only merciful towards the criminal, he is not showing justice to the victim. Conflicts in values arise when the values at stake are incompatible, incapable of being combined in a specific situation, a personal life or in a society. These conflicts in value become even more complicated when it is not clear which value is the best. This is the problem of incommensurability, the non-availability of a universal measuring rod to decide which value should get priority. In exceptional cases, people can also be confronted with tragic dilemmas. It is tragic because in choosing between two values, the consequences are always bad. The existentialist Jean Paul Sartre explained the tragic aspect of moral dilemmas in an often quoted moving story.  A young Frenchmen in the Second World War has to choose between joining the Resistance or looking after his lonely mother. There is no measuring rod to decide which of the two values is better, but whatever the young Frenchmen chooses, he is letting someone down. Berlin acknowledges incommensurability in theory, but in practice, most value conflicts can be resolved by looking at the specific situation or life plan and after intense personal deliberation or political debate. The (im)possibility of conflict resolution is not the issue for Berlin. More important to him is that the solutions that are found are always accompanied with a sense of loss. One of the good values has to be sacrificed to realise another good value, or in the case of a compromise, the values at stake can only be realised half-heartedly. This means that in the value pluralist position, perfect human lives or perfect societies are logically impossible. In a personal life or in a society, not all good values can be fully realised. For value pluralists, the moral universe is (ontologically) not harmonious but tragic. 

The belief in a non-harmonious tragic moral universe is hard to accept. Most religious people, but also modern thinkers, do acknowledge that there can be conflicts in values, but they refuse to accept the non-availability of true and fixed methods to solve them. In their view, the cause of value conflicts should not be sought in the structure of the moral universe, but in human beings themselves. For modernists value conflicts result from a lack of knowledge and for religious thinkers from the sinfulness and wickedness of people. But in the case of the tragic dilemma of Sartre’s Frenchman, the problem is not that the actor is stupid or selfish. He is prepared to dedicate himself to either his mother or the Resistance. However, for religious or utopian thinkers the moral universe is – in the end – harmonious. There must be solutions for value conflicts. As they are difficult to find, they are written down in religious books (for instance in the Talmud or the Catholic casuistry books) and religious law experts can help believers in deciding which of the conflicting values should get priority.

Utopianism is closely connected with teleology and monism. History has a telos, a goal that  is leading towards the perfect society. For Berlin, utopianism is also connected with monism, the conviction that there is only one way to reach this harmony. This truth is usually defended by all means, often violent ones, as the Truth and reaching the perfect society are at stake. As a value pluralist, Berlin believes that there are more solutions, depending on the unique situation and cultural circumstances. Furthermore, he does not see an overall goal in history. Teleological thinking often leads to historical determinism and does not take human liberty seriously. For Berlin, teleological and monist thinking leads to the misery connected with utopianism and should therefore be avoided.
In his essays, Berlin criticises both secular and Christian utopias. For him, ‘the constant theme which runs through all utopian thought, Christian and pagan alike, is that once upon a time there was a perfect state, then some enormous disaster took place’ (Berlin:1990,24). In the Bible it is the sin of disobedience (the fatal eating of the forbidden fruit). The rest of history is a continuous attempt to piece together the fragments in order to restore the perfect state. Berlin notices a distinct decline in utopias in the Middle Ages:  

…perhaps because according to Christian faith man cannot achieve perfection by his own unaided efforts; divine grace alone can save him – and salvation cannot come to him while he is on this earth, a creature born in sin. No man can build a lasting habitation in this vale of tears; for we are all but pilgrims here below, seeking to enter a kingdom not of this earth. (Berlin:1990,23). 

For Berlin there is also a connection between utopianism and epistemology. Berlin makes a distinction between religions that claim to know the Will of God and ones that emphasise the impossibility of human perfection due to the Fall of Man. Utopianism can be found in the first type of religion; realism is more likely to be found in the latter type, as it is believed that because of human sin, the Will of God and the paths leading to final harmony cannot be fully known. (Berlin:1999,153).

In the 19th and 20th centuries the Western world witnessed new utopias of a socialist nature. Some were harmless, but in the name of some of these secular utopias many individuals were slaughtered in concentration camps: 

Someone once remarked that in the old days men and women were brought as sacrifices to a variety of gods; for these, the modern age has substituted new idols: - isms. To cause pain, to kill, to torture are in general rightly condemned; but if these things are done not for my personal benefit, but for an –ism – socialism, nationalism, Fascism, Communism, fanatically held religious beliefs, or progress, or the fulfilment of the laws of history – then they are in order. (Berlin:2000,14). 

Heretics and dissidents are a direct threat to the truth and an obstacle to reaching perfect harmony on earth. They should therefore be destroyed. Secular utopian thinkers were not epistemologically obstructed by, for instance, notions of original sin and were therefore totally convinced that they possessed the truth. For Berlin, Marxism is even more dangerous than fanatical religious movements. At least in most religions, if the infidel accepts the true faith, he is welcomed as a brother. Within Marxism, discussion about the truth with the enemy is regarded as senseless - they should be eliminated as soon as possible (Berlin:1997,139).

In political sciences (and Western foreign politics) of the 1960s and 1970s, the essays of Berlin were used as a liberal counterbalance against left utopian thinking. For Berlin, instead of aiming at perfectionism, governments should avoid extremes of suffering and just try to be decent (Berlin:1990:18). In the 1980s and 1990s, postmodern criticism proclaimed the ‘end of the great narratives’ including the utopias in them. This has meant a further decline of ideology and growth of political realism and pragmatism. Ever since, utopias have been considered to be dangerous fantasies and unsuitable to stimulate our imagination or to enrich political debate.

Recently there have been calls to rehabilitate utopianism. Green political parties, in particular, have stressed the need for ecological utopias (ecotopias) to achieve a sustainable society (Geus,1999). According to the environmentalists, we cannot afford to continue the laissez-faire attitude that is connected with anti-utopianism. Also, according to the American pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty, we cannot do without imagination and utopianism. The world is threatened by nuclear devices, overpopulation, the globalised labour market and environmental disasters. We therefore need a ‘global egalitarian utopia’ and reinforcement of our ability of imagination (1999,233). This utopia is a continuation of the utopia that filled most Western people’s imagination at the end of the Second World and contains the values of democracy, liberty, peace, technical progress, economic prosperity and equality of opportunity (1999,230). This was the great narrative behind the Charter of the United Nations. Rorty criticises the actual results of this utopia as it has not succeeded in providing equal opportunity for many people in the world. On the contrary, it has led to ghetto’s in America and a global division between over- and underclasses. Rorty’s ‘global egalitarian utopia’ should provide the narrative of progress for the future.

Richard Rorty is aware of the dangers of utopianism. He regards the modernist ‘foundationalism’ in utopianism as one of the main causes for violence, especially the Hegelian and Marxist foundation that was based on an inevitable course of history. Unlike the old utopias, such as the Marxist utopia of the classless society, Rorty’s utopia does not contain a blue print. It is based on piecemeal engineering, dealing with concrete problems in concrete situations. It aims at promoting human solidarity and denouncing cruelty. Inspired by David Hume and Annette Baier, Rorty maintains that morality is based on feelings, not on knowledge (1998,180). An important tool to make people more sensible for suffering and to inspire them for moral action is to make use of poetry and narratives. To reach an imaginative identification, Rorty wants us to read the stories such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or books of Orwell and Dickens (1989,141-199). Rorty proposes using imagination in two ways. First, to offer a perspective for moral action (although not very detailed) and second to improve the empathic abilities of the actor.

How does this imagination work? Le me give an example of the way Rorty reads the New Testament and the Communist Manifesto. He regards them as ‘failed prophesies’ but says they often make ‘invaluable inspirational reading’ (Rorty:1999,201). The New Testament and the Communist Manifesto failed not only because of the ‘mistakes of sinful servants’ but also because Christ did not return and the bourgeoisie did not bring death to itself. Rorty criticises the eschatological and teleological framework of the New Testament and the Manifesto, but in these narratives, inspiration and encouragement can be found as they are ‘expressions of the same hope: that some day we shall be willing and able to treat the needs of all human beings with respect and consideration which we treat the needs of those closest to use, those whom we love’ (1999,203). According to Rorty the documents can be inspirational without believing that Christ will some day return in glory or that the revolution and classless society are inevitable. According to Rorty, children need to read Christ’s message of human fraternity alongside Marx and Engels’ account of how industrial capitalism and free markets make it  difficult to institute that fraternity. They should learn stories both about Christian congregations meeting in the catacombs and about workers’ rallies in city squares (204). When reading these documents, Rorty advises skipping the predictions and concentrating on the expressions of hope (205). Rorty is grateful for these two texts ’which have helped make us better – have helped us overcome, to some degree, our brutish selfishness and our cultivated sadism’ (209). 

Can Rorty’s imagination of a better world be called a form of utopianism? Rorty himself uses the term ‘utopianism’ frequently, but when we compare it with the characteristics of utopianism given by the Dutch philosopher Hans Achterhuis, we notice that it does not have a holistic and totalitarian character. In the light of Isaiah Berlin’s philosophy, Rorty’s utopianism is teleological, aiming at a global culture of human rights, but it does not contain a monist system or blue-print how to reach it. With regard to the other characteristic of utopianism - the belief in malleability - Rorty indeed has the hope that a just society can actually be man-made. He believes that by sentimental education, solidarity can be reached and cruelty can be avoided. This may seem rather optimistic, but when we read his work carefully, this belief in malleability is not based on epistemological certainty, but on a modest (sometimes desperate) hope that our moral sentiments will be strong enough to avoid the destruction of our planet. 

What can the secular views of Isaiah Berlin and Richard Rorty mean for theology and philosophy of religion that wants to benefit from the postmodern opportunity of a new role of (religious) imagination?

Isaiah Berlin’s value pluralism leads him to conclude that the moral universe is tragic and creating a perfect society is impossible. This is a challenge for those religions that have utopian notions. If perfect societies cannot be reached on earth, this means that the Christian notion of the (immanent) Kingdom of God on this earth (especially present in liberation theology) is logically/ontologically impossible. Even if people are transformed into unselfish beings, they are still confronted with conflicts between good values. But this need not be threatening. Within Christianity there is also the traditional belief that the Kingdom of God is transcendent, requiring a totally new creation by God. This gives an ‘eschatological proviso’ not to be too optimistic about the human possibilities on earth. Furthermore, there is the restriction that due to the Fall, both man and creation are under the influence of sin and that therefore true knowledge and perfection on earth are not possible.

Richard Rorty’s ideas could be of interest to theologians who are concerned about the state of our planet and reject the quietism connected with anti-utopianism. Although there are differences between Rorty’s secular ‘global egalitarian utopia’ and the transcendent Kingdom of God, his pragmatic method offers perspective. It allows for a type of imagination and a ‘soft’ utopianism, without the dangerous aspects of monism and historical determinism that are connected with ‘hard’ utopianism. 

To conclude, in my view, theologians and philosophers – at the end of modernity - can safely engage themselves in religious imagination, not only to grasp an image of God, but also to imagine a better world to live in. The notion of a transcendent Kingdom of God can still play an inspiring role as a perspective for moral action, as long as the road towards this goal is not monist but pluralist, and not fixed or determined but open.  

Connie Aarsbergen

PhD Candidate Philosophy of Religion

Free University of Amsterdam 

Print version


Achterhuis, Hans, De erfenis van de utopie (The inheritance of the utopia), Ambo, Amsterdam, 1998
Berlin, Isaiah, Four Essays on Liberty, Oxford University Press, 1969
Berlin, Isaiah, The Crooked Timber of Humanity, Princeton University Press, 1990
Berlin, Isaiah, The Sense of Reality, Pimlico, London, 1997
Berlin, Isaiah, Concepts and Categories, Pimlico, London, 1999
Berlin, Isaiah, The Power of Ideas, Chatto & Windus, London, 2000
Green, Garrett, Theology, Hermeneutics, and Imagination., Cambridge University Press, 2000
Geus, Marius de, Ecological Utopias. Envisioning the Sustainable Society, International Books, Utrecht, 1999
Hottois, G., M. van den Bossche, M. Weyembergh, Richard Rorty. Ironie, Politiek en Postmodernisme, Hadewijch, Antwerpen, 1994
Macquarrie, John, ‘Postmodernism in philosophy of religion and theology’, in: International Journal of Philosophy of Religion, Vol. 50, The Hague, 2001Popper, K.R., The Open Society and its Enemies. Two Volumes. Harper and Row, New York, 1963 (1945)
Rorty, Richard, Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, Cambridge University Press, 1989
Rorty, Richard, Truth and Progress. Philosophical Papers, Volume 3, Cambridge University Press, 1998
Rorty, Richard, Philosophy and Social Hope, Penquin Books, London 1999 

[1] Based on the definition of descriptive postmodernism by Garrett Green, p.9

[2] Garrett Green himself still needs some ‘foundations’. For him, it is a mark of Christian faith to ‘trust in the faithfulness of the God who alone guarantees the conformity of our images to reality, and who has given himself to us in forms that may only be grasped in imagination’ (Green,16).