Making Imagination Real

Imagination, as I see it, is a mental investment in an alternate reality. Although we tend to think of pre-modern civilizations as locked into spirals of imagination, the modern world swirls with imagined realities: Bitcoin, Game of Thrones, multiverses, new religions, and conspiracy theories. There are also those imaginings which we need or want for pragmatic reasons. These include new selves, gods, or social arrangements. We need these imagined realities, if only to make ourselves and our world better. And yet, in the modern world, we criticize any ideas which demand belief or commitment. As a result, we rarely believe in such realities, much less invest in them. This is what I call the First Paradox of the modern world: we demand objects of imagination to live better lives, but cannot fully believe in them. What we deny in one moment, we need in the next.

There is a way to realize and live into such ideas. We can render our imaginings more salient by enmeshing them in stories. We can join in action towards common goals with others. Or we can ritualize our imagined worlds, performing the very worlds we wish to bring into being. Narrative, community, and ritual are the best ways of making imagination real. It is little coincidence that religious, political, and social movements that endure use these technologies to foster belief and commitment. But there’s a catch: narrative, community, and ritual are also the very practices that have become scarce in our modern world. This is the Second Paradox of the modern world. And so we find ourselves in a dilemma: either commit to the messiness and mystery of others and ritual, or remain critical and individual. Imagination, and the demand to realize those ideas, imposes on us the limits of our modern age.


Zachary Simpson is Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma, Associate Editor of the Oxford Handbook of Religion of Science and Religion, and author of the books Life As ArtAesthetics and the Creation of Self, and the new, The Paradoxes of Modernity.