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Religious Imaginations

Religious Imaginations


How Narratives of Faith are Shaping Today’s World

edited by James Walters

Format: Royal Hardback
Published: December 2018
Pages: 282
ISBN: 9781909942202

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As market globalisation, technology, climate change and post-colonial political forces are all forging a new world, religious narratives, once thought to be dying, are galvanising peoples and reimagining political and social order. Some are repressive, fundamentalist imaginations. Others could be described as post-religious, such as the evolution of universal human rights out of the European Christian tradition. But the question of the compatibility of these religious world views is perhaps the most pressing issue in global stability today. What scope for dialogue exists between the Jewish, Muslim and Christian ways of imagining the future? How can we engage with these multiple imaginations to create a shared peaceful future? This interdisciplinary volume, with contributions from both emerging and well-known scholars, explores how religious narratives interact with the contemporary geopolitical climate.

The Revd Canon Dr James Walters 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.

Table of Content



James Walters

Engaging the Religious Imagination

1  Religious Imaginations in a Changing World
Craig Calhoun

2  Imagination and the Ethics of Religious Narratives
Mona Siddiqui

3  Christian Imagination in an Age of Terror
Anba Angaelos

4  The Balfour Declaration: From Imagining a State to Re-imagining Majority-Minority Relations in Jewish Thought and the Jewish State
Ophir Yarden

5  Diplomacy and the Religious Imagination
John Casson

6  The Musical Imagination in Religious Worship
Mena Mark Hanna

Crossing Religious Imaginations

7  Muhammad abu Zahra’s Muslim Theology of Religions
Mohammed Gamal Abdelnour

8  The Field of Interfaith in the Middle East
John Fahy

Re-imagining Belief

9  Reimagining the Formative Moments of Islam: The Case of Pakistani Scholar, Javed Ahmad Ghamidi, and his New Narrative of Early Islam Kamran Bashir

10 Lived Belief in Cross-Cultural Comparison
Abby Day

11  New Religious Movements as Resources in a Changing World
Eileen Barker

12  Human Rights as a Narrative of Faith
Jenna Reinbold

13  Interpretation of Islamic Principles: Muslim Movements and Ethical
Social Imaginary in South India
Thahir Jamal

Religion and Sustainability

14  The Relationship of Ecological Science to the Christian Narrative
Caleb Gordon

15  Gurmat – The Art of Spiritual Wisdom: How Peace from Mind through Knowledge of the Soul can Help Overcoming the Challenges
of Humankind
Khushwant Singh

Understanding the Islamic Perspective on Environment: Doctrine and Ethics

Emmanuel Karagiannis

From Imagination to Religious Practice

17  Religious Leadership in Conflict Transformation: The Case of Christian Leadership in South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission
Megan Shore

18  Who Do You Trust? Enabling Cross-Religious Involvement in
Public Life for a Peaceful and Equitable Future
Catriona Robertson




James Walters

The imaginations we live by

None of us look at the world purely empirically. We all perceive and interpret the physical world around us through the various imaginative frameworks that we have inherited and which organise our thoughts and attitudes. One such framework may be that of nation state borders and of the social contract among those living within them. Through the course of history such concepts have shaped people’s sense of identity and their actions towards others, compelling them in extremis to fight fellow human beings and give their lives in wars. On this basis, the American theologian William Cavanaugh has argued that politics is fundamentally a practice of the imagination: ‘We are often fooled by the seeming solidity of the materials of politics, its armies and officers, into forgetting that these materials are marshalled by acts of the imagination.’1 Alternatively our thoughts and perceptions may be shaped by an over-optimistic imagination of social progress and of the ability of science and technology to eliminate human want and suffering on their own. These ideas have come to dominate the Western imagination since the Enlightenment and, in spite of the crises of our times, persist in hubristic accounts of humanist potential such as Steven Pinker’s 2018 book Enlightenment Now.2 None of these imaginative frameworks represent demonstrable or proven descriptions of the world as it actually is, but they are organising paradigms through which we make sense of everything. The philosopher Mary Midgley, whose work attends particularly to the imaginative frameworks of science, terms these structures ‘the myths we live by’ and argues that the way in which we imagine the world ‘deter- mines what we think important in it, what we select for our attention among the welter of facts that constantly flood in upon us’.3

For the vast majority of the world’s population, religion plays a major part in this organising imagination. Well over 80 percent of human beings follow one of the main religious traditions. This is not to say that religious beliefs are necessarily the only or even dominant motivating forces in their lives. However, religious traditions are powerful symbolic systems that shape both collective memory and our vision of the future. As such they form individuals and communities in their personal habits, social attitudes and political beliefs in multiple ways. Scriptural texts, practices of prayer and collective acts of worship build a picture of the world and the place and purposes of the believer within it. The fact that these narratives and practices are concerned with ultimate, transcendent realities elevate their significance beyond the merely pragmatic or utilitarian frameworks of much scientific or political thinking. The religious imagination engages life and death, material and metaphysical, earthly and heavenly.

Western theories of international relations and global order have tended to overlook this significance. They have grown out of the European tradition of the apparent relegation of religion to private life. When the early modern Wars of Religion were resolved in the Treaties of Westphalia, religious sectarianism was subordinated to a regulating nation state, which came to be seen as secular in nature. Religion was viewed as a matter of personal, private choice, largely inconsequential to citizenship and public life. This approach was combined with another unempirical imaginative assumption: the conviction that the spread of science, education and affluence would progressively erode religious affiliation. Theorists of global order and political economy who were informed by this enduring assumption could not conceive that religion was (let alone would remain) a major force in global movements, conflicts and alliances.

The realist and neorealist schools of international relations see violence and power as the principal drivers in foreign policy. They see nation states as the primary actors and religion as a mere epiphenomenon resulting from failure of states to control the inherent anarchy of the international system. Meanwhile, liberal and neoliberal schools see economics as the main driver. Working primarily from Max Weber’s secularisation thesis,4 they view religion as irrelevant to the motivations of states within a global system that evolves as a rational process, forging agreements on international law and trade. None of the dominant schools of thought have considered religion to be a serious force in international relations, in large part because they begin with the modern Western-European understanding of religion as an essentially private matter – personal rather than social, spiritual rather than political, supplementary rather than fundamental to everyday life.

1 William T Cavanaugh, Theopolitical Imagination: Discovering the Liturgy as a Political Act in an Age of Global Consumerism (London: T&T Clark, 2002), p. 1.
2 Steven Pinker,
Enlightenment Now: The Case for Science, Reason, Humanism and Progress (London: Allen Lane, 2018).

3 Mary Midgley, The Myths We Live By (London: Routledge, 2004). 4 See: Max Weber, Science as a Vocation (1917).


‘The intersection of religion and the dynamic affairs of our world is, rightly, receiving increasing attention from political scientists, politicians and theologians alike. This edition is a significant contribution to a necessary contemporary debate: thoughtful, incisive and thorough. I highly recommend it.’
— Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury

‘This book affirms the place of religion in human living: in public as in private life; in the 21st century as in any other. The notion of “religious imagination” helps us to understand this better – goals are envisioned alongside strategies to reach them. These are rich resources to use for good or ill. Either is possible, but I welcome the positive thinking discovered in these pages.’
— Grace Davie, Professor Emeritus, University of Exeter

‘Religion has become a resurgent critical dimension of international politics. This can challenge diplomats and politicians especially those from Western countries where religion has become less prominent in public life. However, those involved in international affairs globally cannot expect to engage effectively without skills, understanding and knowledge of religion. This book is timely and relevant. It provides both a general framework of how to navigate the religious dimensions of global affairs, and it includes excellent case studies that illustrate the challenges religion raises and the potential solutions religious perspectives can provide.’
— Francis Campbell, Vice Chancellor, St Mary’s University

‘As with all collection, some essays are stronger than others, and some break new grounds where others simply provide a space to help others gain a beginning level of knowledge relative to the topic. religious Imaginations contain many challenging essays that suggest how vital it is for the world’s religious and faith communities to involve themselves with the world in deep and abiding ways, while respecting diversity and humanity as key principles.’

–Daniel F. Pigg, The University of Tennessee at Martin, The Journal of Interreligious Studies 29 (March 2020)

‘Taken together, the chapters show how far the usage of the imagination can be stretched: from classic to contemporary imaginaries of a variety of religious traditions to the imagination or re- imagination of religion itself. Indeed, scholars might find it too much of a stretch. What exactly is the impact of religious imagination on national politics? What exactly is the impact of religious imagination on international politics? Or, put more provocatively, is there anything that is not “imagination”? Although correctly calling for more conceptual clarity, here scholars might be posing questions that the chapters neither aim to ask nor aim to answer. If the compilation is read as an invitation to a conversation—rather than a study that calls for analytical clarity and academic correctness—it is more convincing.’

–Ulrich Schmiedel, University of Edinburgh, Journal of Church and State