Contemporary Christian Imaginaries

by Andrew Lunn.

Charles Taylor has used the language of ‘social imaginaries’ to describe the symbolic ideas which give structure to our corporate human lives.  This is what Charles Taylor says:

By social imaginary…I am thinking…of the ways people imagine their social existence, how they fit together with others, how things go on between them and their fellows, the expectations that are normally met, and the deeper normative notions and images that underlie these expectations.

There are important differences between social imaginary and social theory.  I adopt the term imaginary (i) because my focus is on the way ordinary people “imagine” their social surroundings, and this is often not expressed in theoretical terms, but is carried in images, stories, and legends.  It is also the case that (ii) theory is often the possession of a small minority, whereas what is interesting in the social imaginary is that it is shared by large groups of people, if not the whole society.  Which leads to a third difference: (iii) the social imaginary is that common understanding that makes possible common practices and a widely shared sense of legitimacy.[1]

Such imaginaries are not made-up, fictitious, or untrue.  Rather they are shared means of mediating meaning, and take shape through the practices of social life. Consider the example of remembrance: here we have a set of practices which are carried on across Britain; we learn to participate in its practices from a young age: from parents and teachers, and generally from the expectations we see enacted around us.  It becomes a definite act of will to choose to go against it, by, for example, wearing a white instead of a red poppy.  The acts of remembrance have their force because they are shared: they bring with them expected ways of behaving, and judgments of what is right and proper for British people.  They help to define a sense of nation.

Cohen looks at the way the self-understanding and conception of communities is built up through such symbols.  Truth here becomes slippery, because symbols need to be interpreted, and interpretation works in different ways for different people in different situations. “Sharing of symbol is not necessarily the same as the sharing of meaning” as he says.[2]  Cohen believes that a symbol is multivalent; that is, it can carry a range of meanings.   Even while different people from the same community may understand the symbol in different ways, that does not stop its effectiveness in constructing community—in fact Cohen argues that it is precisely that multivalence which allows symbols to do their work.

Back with remembrance, the red poppy of remembrance is a good example of a multivalent symbol.  It can stand for blood and for death, for pride, for sadness, for waste and pointlessness, for memory, for something good coming from something bad, for redemption, or for freedom even.  But the red poppy does not divide, even though different people may mean different things when wearing it.  Rather it brings together.  So different meanings, different truths, are aggregated though symbols.  For Cohen symbols do not ‘integrate’, they ‘aggregate’; allowing individual difference to subsist within a community; allowing individuality and communal sharing to exist alongside each other.

For Taylor social imaginaries constellate together into systems which hold Western secular culture together.  He identifies the three social imaginaries of the secular world as being : the economy, the public sphere (debate and discussion happening in media of all kinds), and democratic self-rule.

But such imaginaries are integral to Christian, ecclesial communities too; in fact they are vital: the life-blood of communal imagining, and powerful narratives which form our self-understanding, join us together, and shape our shared practices.  Such Christian imaginaries are present whenever we interpret scripture or preach or join in Bible study.  They are present in sacraments and practices of worship.  As we engage with any Biblical passage or shared Christian practice we can ask: what are the imaginaries which are evident here?  What meanings are mediated, and how are they multi-valent?  And how do they connect with our practices as contemporary people of faith?

[1] Charles Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries (London: Duke University Press, 2007), 23.

[2] Anthony P. Cohen, The Symbolic Construction of Community (London: Routledge, 1985), 16.

2 thoughts on “Contemporary Christian Imaginaries”

  1. Thank you Andrew. It would be very interesting to tease out what the cross means for various Christians and even what Holy Communion means for them and for us.


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