By Kevin Vanhoozer
One of the key prophetic tasks of theology is to free the church, a holy nation, from idols. This includes false ideologies and metaphors and stories that guide and govern a people’s way of life. That’s the negative task of theology: to call out false beliefs and false practices and the false ways of imagining the world that fund them.
Pastor-theologians therefore need to have at least a basic understanding not only of the Scriptures but also of the context disciples inhabit. The cultural context deeply influences the way people experience, interpret, think about, and seek to live out the gospel. To Socrates’ adage “Know thyself ” we must add, “Know thy culture.”
People become secular not by taking classes in Secularity 101 but simply by participating in a society that no longer refers to God the way it used to.
The philosopher Charles Taylor, in his book A Secular Age, helpfully draws attention to the importance of the social imaginary for understanding our present cultural context. A social imaginary is the picture that frames our everyday beliefs and practices, in particular the “ways people imagine their social existence.”
The social imaginary is that nest of background assumptions, often implicit, that lead people to feel things as right or wrong, correct or incorrect. It is another name for the root metaphor (or root narrative) that shapes a person’s perception of the world, undergirds one’s worldview, and funds one’s plausibility structure. For example, the root metaphor of “world as machine” generates a very different picture than “world as organism.” To “know thy culture,” then, we have to become more specific: “Know thy worldview and the root metaphor that generates and governs it.”
Sociologist Peter Berger first called attention to how the modern and postmodern world pictures made religious traditions and the idea of the sacred seem less plausible. The emphasis here is on “social” rather than “intellectual”: a social imaginary is not a theory—the creation of intellectuals—but a storied way of thinking. It is the taken-for-granted story of the world assumed and passed on by a society’s characteristic language, pictures, and practices. A social imaginary is not taught in universities but by cultures, insofar as it is “carried in images, stories, and legends.” People become secular not by taking classes in Secularity 101 but simply by participating in a society that no longer refers to God the way it used to. “God” makes only rare appearances in contemporary literature, art, and television.
Social imaginaries, then, are the metaphors and stories by which we live, the images and narratives that indirectly indoctrinate us.
Yes, we have all been indoctrinated: filled with doctrine or teaching. The doctrines we hold, be they philosophical, political, or theological, feel right or wrong, plausible or implausible, based largely on how well they accord with the prevailing social imaginary or world picture.
What I have called above the “negative task” of theology is to critically reflect on the way in which the church embodies the prevailing social imaginaries of the day rather than the biblical imaginary—the true story of what the Triune God is doing in the world. Pastor-theologians do not fight against flesh and blood, but against social powers and ideological principalities.
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