Imagining Theology

Encounters with God in Scripture, Interpretation, and Aesthetics

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Garrett Green
  • Ada, MI: 
    Baker Academic
    , March
     2020.
     288 pages.
     $36.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781540961921.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Imagining Theology: Encounters with God in Scripture, Interpretation, and Aestheticsis a collection of both old and new essays that highlight Garrett Green’s major contributions over the course of his career to the theological use of the imagination. The book is a clear and engaging example of a “post-liberal” theological imagination, largely inspired by—but not limited to—the work in narrative theology of the so-called Yale School (especially that of Hans Frei, Green’s Doktorvater). Essays from earlier in Green’s career are recontextualized as part of the book’s project of displaying the way the imagination can do serious theological work. This volume readily succeeds at demonstrating the capacious and generative—even essential—role that the imagination has to play in contemporary theology.

The book puts less emphasis on developing a theology of the imagination and more on, as the title puts it, “imagining” theology: considering a range of theological topics through Green’s paradigm of the Christian imagination. Green offers insightful commentary on such varied themes as biblical hermeneutics, theology and science, gender theory, theologies of culture, pluralism and interreligious dialogue, and eschatology, all through the category of the imagination.

Green is well aware of how slippery of a concept the imagination is, especially when it is being deployed to do serious theological work. Indeed, such a foundational use of imagination in theology may raise some concerns about a lack of intellectual rigor and seriousness. Green therefore adopts related strategies for thickening up the concept of the imagination. Green develops a “realist” or a “normative” account of the imagination by drawing extensively on the language of paradigms that he borrows from the philosopher of science, Thomas Kuhn. Summarizing Kuhn, Green writes that “even objective observation is dependent on an implicit grasp of the holistic paradigm that governs what kind of object the observer observes” (7). Imaginative paradigms are essential for any and all “realist” knowing. An imaginative paradigm is the prerequisite for perception and understanding, and Green maps out ways that theology can embrace this reality.

From this paradigmatic account of knowing, Green develops six principles of the “normative imagination” for Christian theology: (1) the biblical narrative is the concrete paradigm for all Christian imagining of God; (2) the Christian imagination is not merely intellectual or noetic but functions through the affect and emotions as well. The Christian imagination is holistic and humanistic; (3) he Christian imagination is one that embraces the mystery of God by refusing all conceptual idols or titanic striving after total knowledge; (4) the imagination is open to novelty and development in its understanding of theological truth; (5) the Christian imagination must remain open and responsive to the guidance of the Holy Spirit as the active agent of all theological understanding, even if that involves a foolishness before the eyes of the world; (6) the imagination itself will pass away as a form of knowing when we see God face-to-face in the eschaton. Green works out most of this account of the normative imagination in the opening chapter. The remainder of the book considers the range of theological topics listed above by means of the normative, paradigmatic imagination he has developed.

The book has many strengths, though I will only highlight two. First, it is a fine demonstration of the capacious and generative quality of a theological imagination to address a range of theological issues and concerns. By doing so, Green’s book expands the tools available to theologians and biblical scholars by showing readers the range of how a paradigmatically Christian imagination does rigorous intellectual work rather than just telling them. Second, Green’s own account of the imagination displays a nonanxious and nondefense posture of engagement in theological conversations. He models a way of stepping beyond the boundary lines of the theological culture wars without abandoning a commitment to a theological position and a commitment to the gospel of Christ. This means that Green can treat a cast of often surprising theological characters: Karl Barth and Hans Frei are constants, but he also engages Sallie McFague, Katherine Sonderegger, Jurgen Moltmann, Paul Ricœur, Ludwig Feuerbach, Immanual Kant, Johann Hamann, and the list goes on. Green shows contemporary theologians how to make unexpected allies (even if those allies are not uncomplicated, as is Green’s case with Feuerbach and Kant).

At several points in this review I have referred to Green’s book as “generative.” Two aspects of Green’s work strike me as being especially generative for further theological work. First, the author’s normative account of the imagination provides a solid baseline for further thinking about the nature and work of the theological imagination. But given its postliberal character, one task for other theologians is to explore how other schools of thought might articulate a “normative” account of the Christian imagination. Though Green’s normative imagination is, I think, relatively uncontroversial for mainstream Christian theology, there are certainly other aspects of the imagination that would expand its utility for other theological tasks. Second, Green’s book will generate discussion and debate about the way he deploys the paradigmatic imagination to address social concerns, especially in his chapters on gender and pluralism. The arguments that Green employs in those chapters, along with the conclusions he comes to, are neither the final nor the only word that could be offered on those topics, even from within Green’s normative imagination. Regardless of one’s personal mileage with Green’s arguments in those chapters, he nevertheless offers a compelling model for engaging these social questions from a robustly theological perspective—even if what is compelled is constructive disagreement.

 Imagining Theology is an excellent and exciting volume. It summarizes a great deal of his previous work on the imagination but also sets the stage for another generation of theologians and scholars to build upon the expansive foundation he has set. Those of us who take seriously the imagination’s role in theology are in Green’s debt for many things, and this interesting book is not the least among them.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Matthew A. Rothaus Moser is assistant professor in the Honors College, Azusa Pacific University.

Date of Review: 
May 30, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Garrett Green (PhD, Yale University) is professor emeritus at Connecticut College, where he taught for four decades. He is the author of several books, including Imagining God: Theology and the Religious Imagination.

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