Religious Imaginations and Global Transitions

How Narratives of Faith are Shaping Today's World

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James Walters
  • Chicago, IL: 
    University of Chicago Press
    , March
     320 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Religious Imaginations: How Narratives of Faith Are Shaping Today’s World, a rich volume edited and introduced by James Walters, invites us to consider the multiple ways in which religious traditions—while themselves not static or unchanged—shape the ways people conceive of the world around them and act in it. The contributors to the volume bring an extraordinary wide array of critical reflections on the theme of religious imagination from interdisciplinary standpoints and professional experiences, which also go well beyond academia—for example, diplomacy (John Casson’s chapter on the interconnections of religious, national, geopolitical, and cultural identities) and religious leadership (Anba Angaelos’ chapter offering a nuanced perspective of Christian experiences in the Middle East).

Three major “dimensions of the religious imagination” in the contemporary world—namely, the legacy of ancient religious imaginations, their evolution and change, and the new interactions and engagements they foster—loosely guide the book’s eighteen chapters. While the chapters differ in length and style, they all engage with the concept of religious imagination in distinct and often highly creative ways and many convey the structure and fluid style of a conference address (the volume is a print outcome of a conference held in 2017 at the London School of Economics).

Religious imagination, as imagination in general, draws on existing cognitive systems of thought and practice—in this case, religious traditions. Walters importantly underlines the role of religious imagination in better understanding contemporary global politics. He emphasizes that populist leaders such as Donald Trump (but one can also explore this thesis, for example, in the case of Brazil under Jair Bolsonaro or Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan) have successfully recognized “something of the power of religious imagination” not only among their supporters but “in the key international challenges of our time” (3).

The first section of the book includes some of the lengthier chapters, opening with Craig Calhoun’s essay on religious imagination in a changing world. Calhoun further elaborates on some of the volume’s key issues, such as the tension, in the cultural construction of modernity, between private and public spheres, the inescapability of imagining one’s own religion in relation to a field of religions, and people seeking in religion not (only) transcendence but a way to engage the world. He asserts that religion matters in public because it matters in private and vice versa (20). He also discusses the ever-transformative quality of religion and the complementarity or porosity between different conceptual segments such as religion, politics, or economics. A central idea that runs through Calhoun’s essay addresses the possibility of religious imaginations to act as “counterbalancing sources of connection and unity” and work towards collaboration and communication across lines of difference (31).

Ophir Yarden’s discussion in chapter 4 also points towards reconciliation and peaceful coexistence. Yarden explores the implementation and afterlife of the Balfour declaration, placing particular emphasis on its two stipulations, in light of majority-minority relations in Jewish thought. Analyzing the centrality of ger (foreign, stranger, but also weak, vulnerable, disenfranchised) in the Torah, Yarden reflects on how this religious imagination could inform reality in a sovereign Jewish state.

Megan Shore and Catriona Robertson, in the last section of the book, bring examples of religious imagination having real-world applications. Shore, for example, discusses religion’s constructive contribution to conflict resolution in post-apartheid South Africa. Her thesis begins with a firm belief in the necessity of a “nuanced understanding of the role religion plays in conflict” (256), both in fueling and resolving it, and of the complex and often ambiguous roles of religious leaders. In stressing the importance of “religious literacy on behalf of the diplomats and politicians who have historically led conflict transformation” (257), she also laments the way conventional—that is, “realist/secularist”—conflict resolution misses the potential peacebuilding resources offered by religious mediation.

While it is impossible to discuss every chapter, despite their merits, I will briefly mention a few more: John Fahy traces the history of interfaith engagement from the late 19th century to modern initiatives in the Middle East, criticizing the cynicism with which the latter have been received in the West. His argument is that interfaith movement has always responded to crisis events and has been embedded in broader political projects (124); therefore, Middle Eastern initiatives emerging as a political necessity in a context of widespread misconceptions about Islam or extremist elements claiming to be acting on behalf of Muslims should not come as a surprise but rather as a continuity of the tradition of interfaith engagement.

Mona Siddiqui explores imagination as a moral activity, while Jenna Reinbold diligently approaches the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a powerful faith narrative, suggesting that as such it clashes with other, equally powerful narratives or value systems, such as that of American sovereignty (182–86). Eileen Barker looks at New Religious Movements (NMR) as a resource of imagination and innovation in social, political, economic, theological, and cultural aspects of societies (see also the other chapters in the Re-imagining Belief section). Finally, a section of the book is dedicated to religion and sustainability, where the three chapters by Caleb Gordon, Khushwant Singh, and Emmanuel Karagiannis bring important reflections on the relationship between humans and the environment, while some explore faith-based solutions to the ecological crisis.

The book is of interest to anyone who wishes to better understand why religion—across faith traditions—and religious imagination matter in today’s world, and why they should not be seen as merely private or specific to certain traditions or areas of the world but as inherent to public life, shaping alliances and conflicts, and informing global transformations.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Katerina Hatzikidi is a research affiliate at the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Oxford.

Date of Review: 
October 31, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

James Walters is is founding director of the LSE Faith Centre, which works to promote religious understanding and interfaith leadership among LSE’s global student body and in government. He is also a senior lecturer in the LSE Marshall Institute, an affiliate of the Department for International Development and Chaplain to the School.


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