Is Faith Imagined?

Many people suspect so. And I don’t just mean the critics. Many people who believe wonder, “Am I just imagining this?”

I used to hear as an objection to faith, “It’s wish-fulfillment. You wish there were such a thing as faerie land in the afterlife and a benevolent father-figure over us all and so you project it out there and call it faith.”

What is faith? What is imagination? What do the two have to do with each other?

Nothing I’m saying here is actually from Heschel, but re-reading some early chapters of God in Search of Man last night did bring this topic to mind. I’ll say more about Heschel and the Jewish Book of the Month (J-BOM) below.

Imagination is a favorite topic of mine, though I’m not claiming expertise and I have not considered how philosophers have dealt with the topic. I have written, in my book The World to Come, that desire and imagination are a large part of how we know the world to come. Some things are intuitive.

It is a false view of life (okay, I did get this from Heschel) that thinks our reasoning capacity is the only window on truth. There is something else, a sense of the sublime, of mystery, of awe.

Imagination, as best I can tell, means inventing concepts (maybe images, maybe links of causation) to fill in the gaps in the things we know.

So, for example, I’m going today to look at some properties as possible new homes for our synagogue family (we do not own a building). I have looked at a number of properties. I’m excited about the ones I will see today. So, what do I do? I imagine what they will be like and what our Shabbats together will be like. My imagination of the properties will not, of course, turn out to be completely accurate. But neither will it be completely inaccurate.

I start with some tangible points of reality I know from experience. I’ve seen these kinds of properties. I have even seen how religious communities transform them into hospitable places. My imagined reality of Tikvat David’s new home is real with the gaps filled in by mental invention. That is imagination.

Faith is the answer to the question, “What do you believe?” Some things we say are more than faith, they are fact. I’m not sure that distinction is true. Ultimately there is an uncertainty to all knowledge.

So, for example, some things are rather certain and we might not say they are about faith. When I feel my chair falling out from under me, I believe I am going to hit the floor. Is that faith or certainty? It’s something I believe because I’ve experienced gravity’s operation repeatedly and know how it works. But it is somewhat uncertain because we merely assume that because something happens a million times a certain way it will happen that way the million plus one time it occurs.

But faith also covers much less certain ideas. I have faith in my wife. I trust her completely with things. If someone came to me and said, “Your wife is a spy for the Illuminati who are planning to take over the world,” I would not believe them. I know her to be good. I know her to be genuine. I believe in her. I wouldn’t believe any bad report about her.

So, in a sense, faith is also filling in some missing facts from the facts we know.

Imagination: inventing concepts to fill in the gaps of the thing we know.

Faith: believing things based on partial information.

I guess faith and imagination have a lot in common.

So, though we might be afraid to admit it, out faith is at least part imagination. But this is not a particular problem of religious people or religious knowledge. It is true of much that we say we know in life. Neither can the most ardent atheists escape it. If you were to say to one of them, “Your thought is devoid of imagination,” it wouldn’t be a compliment.

So, what are afraid of, oh skeptic or seeker? I hope that you have known romantic love and I wish for you that you know it now and it will last. If you have known love, did you attain it through your powers of reason? Like the prodigiously brilliant chicken in the old Foghorn Leghorn cartoons, did you calculate all the factors and through it find love?

No. I think, rather, you put yourself out there and sought an experience. Now I will quote Heschel: “It [seeking God] involves a desire for experience rather than a search for information.”

. . . . . . . .
J-BOM is an encouragement through various Messianic Jewish blogs to get people reading together great Jewish books. In its previous incarnation, we found that many people could not keep up with a book per month. Most people are studying many things at once (like Torah and gospels, I hope). So, we’re resurrecting J-BOM and keeping the same book for three months. That, technically, would make it J-BOQ (Jewish Book of the Quarter). But J-BOM sounds so much better (it’s the bomb, in fact).

The J-BOM selection for January – March 2011 is Abraham Joshua Heschel’s God in Search of Man. You’ll find so far four posts on God in Search of Man:
Part 1.
Part 2.
Part 3.
Part 4.


About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Abraham Joshua Heschel, Atheism, Faith, J-BOM, Philosophy. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Is Faith Imagined?

  1. stevepurtell says:


    Great article! I always enjoy Heschel along with the crazy picture of Einstein. Heschel does a great job on Faith and imagination and on flipping our notions of anthrocentrism. Keep up the good work!

  2. Pingback: i am thinking « In Your Face

  3. happyhal says:

    Thinks I “imagined” is a imprecise word. Trouble is: to each it has a different meaning! All based on consciousness and experience. I think that imagination is very important as in the days of early Babylon, “nothing that they would have imagined would have been impossible.” So imagination may have a source different from the thoughts of G-d. Faith actually comes from words heard from the voice of HaShem. Faith becomes real when repeated out loud from belief for a given situation. (Ro 10:17) Faith also comes from a set of strongly held thoughts and experiences sometimes called a paradigm. This faith often guides a life, but may not be according to goals and thoughts of our messiah. Faith also is the substance of those things Hoped for, the evidence not visible with the natural eye. So to the extent that hope and imagination coincide, faith derives from imagination. So it would not be just any imagination but imagination (I Know the plans that I have for you, Plans a good end, for a hope and a future…) for desirable outcome yields faith. Imagination for a undesirable outcome would yield fear. The trick is to realize that some bad past outcomes do not predetermine a future bad outcome. So let us Hope for the good, speak the best, live the best, give the best, in short set our imaginations on the things of G-d!

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